I could just as easily have called this "How to be Reasonable for Eleven Chapters so People will Hopefully Believe that Nonsense in the Pseduo-Science Chapter," but that seemed a bit long for a title. I'm reviewing this for Mike Morrell's Speakeasy, by the way.
Confessions of a Bible Thumper is a new ebook by Michael Camp, a former self-described "missionary, pro-life activist, and lay leader." He is not to be confused with Steve Camp, the man responsible for so many bad songs in the CCM world. I had literally never heard of the guy, but I am endlessly fascinated with spiritual narratives, as I've found most all of them, including my own, are redacted in layers over many years, and I try to understand the motivation to tell a story in such a way as to account for the present moment in terms of how anyone views the world and its relationship to god(s).
The book is unremarkable in many ways. I think his discussion of human sexuality, especially gay rights issues, is worth reading. I think the biographical portions could have been left out entirely. I found them tedious. The profanity is always appreciated, but it seems only to serve to show how "outside the box" this writer is vis-a-vis "traditional Christianity." Yes, I'm using tons of scare quotes because so many words and phrases in this book aren't defined. He also has a bad habit of setting conversations in a bar which allows him to nerd out about his favorite microbrews, a complete waste of time for an undertaking like this, and indicates the book needed more editing. Other than to earn some sort of beer culture cred, I have no idea why the references are in there. We get it; you like beer, microbrews especially. The other problem with the bar conversations is it all felt so New Kind of Christian Dan meets Neo, as if Camp took the idea from McLaren and has been drinking enough high end beer in a Portland dive to be able to tell just this story that never really seems to accomplish much.
I know; I'm being a little harsh, but there is absolutely nothing here that hasn't been said better elsewhere. If your claim to fame is that you used to be super conservative and now you're not, I find that unremarkable. Congratulations. We'll put this title in amidst all the other titles wherein someone has an epiphany and switches from Religion X to Religion Y or to No Religion. Personal narratives about metaphysics are sort of built on the idea that the writers somehow have experience or credibility based on a prior way of being in the world: I once was lost but now I'm found, or I once was found but now I'm happily lost. Both are pointless in one respect: if I don't know you well, trust your judgment, or give a shit about you, your story is not compelling. This is largely a function of the fundangelical idea that testimonies ought to be told so that someone might hear and believe, or disbelieve, or disbelieve certain things in the case of this book.
Camp does a good job of covering issues, and his tone is reasonable and full of conviction. He clearly cares about these issues, and he wants us to care. There's the rub. Who is us? Who is the audience here? Does he believe a current Bible Thumper will read and be moved? That current Bible Thumper will get to the first use of "fuck" (page 34) and close the book. Do we post Bible Thumpers need to read this, and if so, why? What good will come of me reading about someone else's abandonment of fundamentalism. Preaching to the choir would be an appropriate analogy here. Seriously, he has good chapters on hermeneutics, politics, and sex, but you're better off to read explications from Paul Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture, Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (New Forum Books) and Mark Driscoll, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together. Just kidding about that last one! That guy is a freak. Anyway, I don't know good theist sex books. Probably you should just practice having sex and maybe even ask your partnter what works and stop writing books about how God wants you to have sex.
Excursus: I'm pretty sure your GodConcept's rules can be enumerated very briefly: No kids. No animals. She cums first (and last if you're any good). Be respectful. Communicate. Have fun. Be safe. Turn off the television, unless the Thunder are playing, and then go reverse cowgirl or doggy so she can't see you watching, unless she likes the NBA also, and then you two work it out.
Finally, he does the one thing I wish he hadn't done. In the penultimate chapter Intelligent Debate, he tries to cash in on the reasonable tone he's used all along to sell us Intelligent Design. First, he's not a scientist. Christians who aren't scientists or even science savvy should not weigh in on this. You're just functioning from a place of confusion. If you really want some help, here's another book for you: Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul. Second, he uses an incredibly dubious source. And third, he has no idea what he's talking about. This chapter makes an unremarkable book remarkable for all the wrong reasons. Rather than break it down for you, I asked someone who actually knows what the hell he's talking about to review the chapter. I should have just done this in two parts, but I'm stubborn, and I realize, all of you won't be interested in the ID debate.
Leighton, known to many regular readers around here as a remarkably brilliant, patient, and reasonable atheist, happily sent me a thorough critique of the chapter. Perhaps Mr. Camp will find it useful. This is a review that Leighton recommends on Camp's dubious source. Everything from here on is Leighton, including right up front, his assessment of Camp's dubious source.
*Berlinski is a self-confessed crackpot who has not actually published
any original research in mathematics, and his histories of mathematics
have material inaccuracies both in the history and the mathematics. In
short, he fits right in with the Discovery Institute. I find him more
entertaining than enraging, though, and I agree with him about the
dry, pedagogically useless style of mathematics papers (not that he is
the first person ever to make that observation). More of substance to
come once I've read the chapter.
* It's deeply convenient that he doesn't name any names when
attributing ridiculous quotes to the scientists he supposedly
encountered in college. "'Biological evolution explains the origin of
life on earth without the need to appeal to a miraculous creator,' my
Botany teacher confidently asserted." (262) Well, no, evolution and
abiogenesis are two distinct things. It's true that abiogenesis would
explain the origins of life without the need of a creator, pushing the
mystery back to cosmology - how did the planets form, and whence came
the laws of physics? But claiming that evolution and creationism are
the only "suspects" (261) is the usual tactic for propagandists who
like to hand-pick quotes from Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens and
Dennett where they sound dickish, and juxtapose those with ID quotes
where the science-deniers come off as simple, honest folk wrestling
with difficult questions, head in hands, with no ulterior motives. "We
may not have all the answers - we probably don't - but isn't that
better than pretending to know everything and being angry all the
time? Come ask some simple, honest questions with us." Tone is more
important than substance in propaganda.
* "Intellectual honesty has the moral high ground, whatever one
believes about life's origins." (263) Well...it's hard to argue with
this, but note how he doesn't define honesty, so much as imply that it
entails "go[ing] where the evidence leads," as distinguished from
"axe-grind[ing]." Who gets to pick what evidence matters? Are we
talking the evidence of nature that the overwhelming majority of
evolutionary biologists use? Or are we talking the hand-picked and
largely fabricated rubbish that apologists build their edifices in?
"Gee, maybe there could be something to that" is a shitty way to
approach arguments you've already spent a lot of time studying, which
makes it a bad idea to use tone as a heuristic for evaluating the
opinions of experts. Is a political commentator intellectually
dishonest because she assumes a priori that a politician seeking
re-election is lying about his intentions, or is this the result of
decades of careful observation of the political process? Substance is
more important than tone in works that aim to discover things.
* His recitation of apologist quote-mining in 269-272 is extremely
suspicious. The Gould and Eldridge quotes he cites are very common to
find out of context like this, cf.
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/quotes/mine/part3.html And Lynn
Margulis was arguing for the autopoietic Gaia hypothesis (the entire
earth is a single organism), for fuck's sake. If he were doing his own
research (instead of quoting apologists), he would have used her as an
example of the diversity of views in biology. You could twist that
much easier into an argument for the lack of consensus among
evolution-studiers. Instead, he cites her credentials and her zinger
quote about Darwinian evolution, because he's so invested in using
evolution and creationism as thesis and antithesis so he can later
spontaneously discover ID as the synthesis. Oh, and she didn't "later"
formulate a theory to answer those questions, as he claims. That line
came AS she was arguing for her hypothesis. This is a really subtle
thing: he's using her as an example of someone who stood up to say,
"This doesn't work, period!" before later coming up with something
that does. Well, he's doing that too! Evolution doesn't work,
creationism doesn't work. This sets up the stage for him later to
independently decide that the Discovery Institute's answers work.
* "Mutations are generally destructive." (276) False. Mutations are
generally neutral, as they usually do not occur within a region of DNA
that actually codes for a protein.
* Berlinski's argument is flashy but irrelevant. Genes are
ridiculously flexible. In a nutshell: Nobody has used the metaphor of
DNA as a blueprint for 75 years (this is partly, though not
exclusively, why no scientist ever took Michael Crichton seriously).
Genes aren't specifications for a product, so much as a set of
contingent instructions. Every part of development is contingent on
having a certain kind of environment, whether in utero, or having eggs
a certain temperature, things like this. Changes in the environment
with zero changes in genetics lead to wildly different things
happening in development - this is why we don't like pregnant women
smoking crack. Not all the environmental changes lead to detrimental
effects, though; a lot are strongly adaptive. Carl Zimmer's "Endless
Forms Most Beautiful" is a good, slightly dense treatment of this. In
short, having ~100,000 minor morphological changes between forms does
not in any way imply that we would need ~100,000 transitional
generations; that's utter nonsense. But it's also the best way to
baffle scientists: ask them a question that shouldn't even occur to
someone who even faintly understands the material they claim expertise
about. There is not a sufficient description in the book for me to
decipher what specific claim Berlinski was making (which is exactly
the point when the objective is to insinuate rather than claim
outright that all these angry scientists are dishonest), but Talk
Origin's fossil record responses are CC200 and following, and may shed
some light on how actual paleontologists view the fossil record:
* "I was fascinated with David Berlinski more than any of the other
debaters because he seemed the most objective of all. He was neither
religiously nor academically motivated. ... He took nothing for
granted and questioned everything. It appeared that he just wanted to
go where the evidence led. The quintessential skeptic. He must be a
distant cousin of mine." (278) Note the similarity here between this
and how Lee Strobel described William Lane Craig in "The Case for
Christ"? Camp got conned (people who think they're skeptical of
everyone and everything are usually the softest targets), and like
Strobel, he is happy to perpetuate the con because it flatters his ego
to think that he too can be a brilliant investigator simply by being a
bit obnoxious toward people who annoy him and making a few clever
word-plays. Watch a few Berlinski videos on Youtube if you want to see
this effect first-hand - seriously, take some time to check him out.
He's a brilliant showman from whom every public speaker should learn,
particularly with respect to insinuation. (Not everyone can get
audiences to repeat their talking points verbatim while also believing
that they only arrived at those opinions after their own grueling
inquiry.) But he's not a biologist. And from Camp, now we finally know
what "go[ing] where the evidence lead[s]" means. Hint: the evidence in
question isn't found in nature.
* Note that when he's contrasting Berlinski's lucid brilliance with
Dawkins' blinkered crow-cawing on 279, he doesn't actually quote
Dawkins. This is a common approach of both con artists and con
victims; they tend to authoritatively dismiss competing views with
insinuations and vague, unspecific impressions that can't possibly be
* On 282, he uncritically cites Ben Stein's "Expelled" film, without
mentioning that this was the same film that compared evolutionary
biologists to Nazis setting up death camps.
I'd have to read the rest of the book (which I won't) and probably
meet him in person to decide whether he is an ID propagandist
sophisticated enough to conceal his ideology in a couple layers of
smokescreen, or just one of the least skeptical people in the world.
(Which is typical of people who go out of their way to volunteer,
repeatedly, how skeptical they are.)