Eichmann in Jerusalem

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of EvilEichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hannah Arendt’s controversial report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann is one that refuses to view the event in black and white terms meaning that Eichmann is to be seen as a diabolical villain and the Israeli court as a righteous executor of justice. Although she judges Eichmann to be evil, it is through a moral vision that only sees shades of gray. It is easy to see why so many were (and still are) upset with her writing. Nonetheless, I found myself resonating with the following quotes:

“Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain.” (p. 109).

“Let us assume for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politic obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations–as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world–we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.” (p. 279)

“Eichmann was not Iago or Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove the villain.” Except for extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was not criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he has doing. […] It was sheer thoughtlessness–something by no means identical with stupidity–that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling commonplace.” (p, 287, 289)

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Causing Death and Saving Lives


In Causing Deaths and Saving Lives Jonathan Glover offers a broadly utilitarian analysis of killing. It is, however, not purely utilitarian; Glover makes room for respecting the autonomy of those who wish to go on living even if we cannot determine what it is that makes their lives worth living (perhaps, though, this grounded in some kind of rule utilitarianism). Indeed, Glover thinks that the wrongness of killing (considered apart from its side-effects on others) is explained by either the overriding of another’s autonomy or by reducing the total amount of worthwhile life that would otherwise exist if no life-thwarting action were taken. While this classic volume is easy to read, non-technical, honest, and fair, the foundational assumptions seem to me to be drastically flawed.

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Notable Books Read in 2013

Here are some raves and rants pertaining to some of the books I read in 2013 (they may have been published some other year). Enjoy ~

Must Reads:

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King. It is a shame that the only thing I knew about Thurgood Marshall before I read this book was that he was the first African-American Justice on the SCOTUS and that he argued Brown v. Board of Eduation. His work on behalf of the civil rights movement is truly heroic. Nor had I any idea that Florida was second only to Mississippi in lynching. While good history rarely involves a plot framed in terms of good guys versus bad guys, this one truly does. My favorite book of the year. Kept me up late turning the proverbial digital pages.

Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction by Allen C. Guelzo. Anyone who can tell the story of the how the Civil War began, how it progressed, and how it ended, including the nightmare of Reconstruction, under 600 pages is to be commended. By one of my favorite historians to boot.

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The Making of an Atheist

James Spiegel’s The Making of an Atheist is a curious book in that it seeks to articulate a Christian view of atheism, that is, an explanation of atheism according to Christian theology. While plenty of Christian thinkers have offered up assessments of atheism so as to defend the rationality of Christian belief, not many spell out a cogent theology of atheism in systematic terms. The burden of any theology of atheism will be to explain why, assuming their is  overwhelming evidence for God’s existence, there is obstinate disbelief in God. Basing his case on Romans 1:18-24, Ephesians 4:17-19, and Psalm 14:1, Speigel argues that atheism is not the result of a lack of evidence for God, but a lack of obedience to God. Along the way, he argues that the atheist has no evidence for the nonexistence of God from the argument from evil, and that disbelief in God is caused by emotional problems with a cosmic authority figure, which stem from an absent or abusive father and the desire for sexual liberation. In short, atheists are atheists because they are bad people. While they may be very smart, it is their defective will, not their rationality, that leads them to their self-deceived conclusions.

I came to this book with some interest, because I am convinced that our attitudes towards obeying God (if he exists) deeply influence whether or not we do in fact believe in God. I’ve explored some of these things in my review of Paul Moser’s work, namely how a cosmic authority problem functions as a non-rational factor in religious belief formation. That authority problem is best articulated by Thomas Nagel (who Spiegel also quotes):

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

It seems safe to assume that there is a kind of “cognitive rebellion” or at least an intellectual vice, which refuses to entertain any search for God’s existence or an honest evaluation for theistic evidences, that must be overcome before there can be any genuine belief in God. This is because God is identical with the greatest possible being who is utterly worthy of worship. Belief in God entails a duty to worship and obey God, and that is something we may not want to deal with if we are honest with ourselves.

I was expecting Spiegel’s book to explore this fascinating tension between the authority of God and the autonomy of human beings in greater detail, but I was disappointed. To be sure, some of that was there and this is the better part of the book. But most of its pages are dedicated to a heavy-handed psychological analysis of adherence to Kuhnian “paradigms” buttressed by clumsy apologetic arguments . Here is one example:

The objection from evil does pack some punch, and it is a genuine problem for theists. But it could never count as grounds for atheism. Even if successful, it only undermines certain beliefs about the nature of God. It does not—nor could any argument—disprove the existence of a world creator and designer.

At most, evil should prompt us to reconsider what kind of God exists, not whether God exists.

Suppose he is right about this and the problem of evil provides evidence not for the non-existence of a creator-God, but only a not-so-good God. Would such a God be worthy of worship? Of course not, and it would be perfectly within our rights (or perhaps our duty?) to rebel against such a God. Anyone who fails to be good is not worthy of worship, and if the argument from evil provides evidence for the badness of God, then Spiegel shouldn’t be so hard on atheists for failing to obey God.

Another odd feature is that the Spiegel often vacillates between giving a Christian account of atheism and defending the obviousness of theism. But these projects are quite different as he presupposes the truth of Scripture for one and appeals to natural theology for the other. Conspicuously absent from the “clear” and “obvious” evidence for God’s existence is any appeal to evidence for Christ’s resurrection, which would make his account more distinctively Christian. The fact that Spiegel doesn’t include this shows that the paradigm of “theism” is quite different from the paradigm of “Christianity.” It would then seem that the “immorality leads to unbelief” thesis would be true in Jewish and Islamic thought as well. Perhaps this is enough to satisfy Spiegel, but if he was trying to give a Christian account of atheism, there is nothing distinctively Christian about it.

I’ve been looking for a helpful introduction to non-rational factors like the cosmic authority problem and the will to believe so as to recommend it to lay people who might interested, because Moser’s work can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated (as I was told by my poor father). Sadly, Spiegel’s work is not it.

My Favorite Excerpt from Are Women Human?

From Dorothy Sayers essay The Human-Not-Quite-Human

God, of course, may have His own opinion, but the Church is reluctant to endorse it. I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt, somehow, somewhere, to explain away its text. Mary’s, of course, was the better part-the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him. But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, He approved of her too. We could not get on without her, and indeed (having paid lip-service to God’s opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her. For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man–there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God helpus!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature. But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe it, though One rose from the dead.

Answers for The Swedish Atheist

The first time the rationality of my Christian belief was challenged was in high school; I was ill-equipped to handle the objections. Flustered by being unable to answer the hard questions posed by my exceedingly clever friends, my dad took me to the local Christian bookstore to buy an apologetics book. “Apologetics” was a new word in my limited vocabulary, and all I really knew about it was an ostensive definition–CS Lewis did something like that. I don’t remember why, but I didn’t buy Mere Christianity, a book that had a profound effect on my father and my grandfather before him. Instead, I bought Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics by E. Calvin Beisner. The big red-lettered words ANSWERS grabbed my attention: “Hey! That’s just what I’m looking for,” I thought!

I was not a savvy book buyer then (why didn’t I read the first chapter before buying it, I don’t know), but when I got it home, I was sorely disappointed (you can read the Amazon reviews to get a sense of why). The book was written as an imaginary dialogue between two friends, one a believer, the other a “skeptic”–if you could call him that–which was supposed to model how certain knock-down, drag-out arguments for the Christian faith were supposed to go. It was awful. First, the sorts of answers I was looking for weren’t there; second, I felt as though I had to learn how to manipulate a conversation to go the way the author did and then remember how to deploy a form of reasoning I did not fully understand; third, I realized that if I was ever going to learn how to talk confidently with smart friends, I would have to learn some philosophy, something I thought would be impossible.

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God or Godless?

Many thanks to Baker Books for supplying a copy to review!

As the subtitle explains, God or Godless? is the product of one atheist, John W. Loftus, and one Christian, Randal Rauser, taking on “twenty controversial questions.” Both Loftus and Rauser are popular bloggers who inspire vigorous disagreement among their respective readers, and it appears their book is the result of a friendship that was formed through occasionally sparring with one another. While both have published book-length arguments in the past, this volume exhibits a pattern only bloggers can appreciate. Each author submits ten theses, which they either affirm or deny with 800 words of prose. They are then allowed 150 words of rebuttal, which is then followed by another 50 words of closing statements. Every exchange reads like a blog post with two follow-up comments. The skill of each author is on display as they both jam a lot of content into a short space, and for that I can appreciate how much I have to learn about the art of dialoguing with few words to spare (sadly, this introduction is already over 200 words).

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of each argument, I want to make a few observations about the general strategy of the contenders along with some commendations and criticisms of what I took be the heart of their main arguments.

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