Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Mrs McGinty's Dead. By Agatha Christie

Mrs McGinty's Dead

Agatha Christie

Harper Collins. First Published 1952.

A Hercule Poirot mystery.  A nice read, though I could guess the solution reasonably ahead. Maybe I have read this book before, but I could not recollect anything as I read the book now. So it's OK. The title is again a nursery rhyme, a favourite ploy of Christie. And again she uses the rhyme to approximately structure the book. On a scale of 1 (the Tommy and Tuppence books) to 10 (Murder on the Orient Express) this book would rate 7.0.

Doubt. By Jennifer Michael Hecht

Doubt: a history

Jennifer Micheal Hecht

Published in 2003 by Harper Collins

'Doubt' in this book is defined as doubt about the existence of God, for the most part focusing on ideas (and people) through the ages that doubted the existence of an anthropomorphic christian/jewish/islamic 'One' God. True to its subtitle, the book describes the subject chronologically, starting from ancient times, and ending up post September 11, 2001. It doesn't include Richard Dawkins  and his band of brothers, though. It's an interesting book, with tons of new information, but no overall message, except maybe the following: 'Doubt is good, and plenty of really great people have expressed it (including Jesus Christ! - 'O my God, why have you forsaken me?'). But even if we do not go to such extremes (i.e. including JC) to define doubt, there were several important and, to me, unlikely, people who were atheists - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine being among the most relevant in the background of contemporary American politics.

Many of the ancient Greek philosophers doubted the physical existence of a God or gods, and came up with several important theories to explain the Universe, such as Democritus and his atomism. Other philosophers like Socrates and Plato developed their own distinct and startling ideas about existence of the Universe, and about the human condition in particular, without finding the need to postulate an anthropomorphic God. There were the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, all largely atheists, but with different takes on how to live in a godless world. As Hecht says, the basic idea,whether among the Greeks, or with the rest of humanity, has always been to reconcile an obviously unjust world with the very human ideas of justice and fairness. 

After describing the Greeks, Hecht describes atheism among the ancient Jews, Indians and Chinese. Many of the prophets in the Old Testament were doubters, and frequently held personal conversations with God, where they doubted He actually existed - in the manner of several latter-day Indian 'bhaktas'. But while it may be a stretch to call this atheism, it is true that when Indian philosophy and religion talk about 'One God', it is done in strictly non-anthropomorphic terms using terms such as 'Brahman' or 'Parmatma', and not describing this as an entity that interests itself with the doings, good or bad, of you and me. There is then extensive description of the philosophy of the Buddha, who was, of course, the compleat atheist. The Carvaka philosophy of uncompromising and extreme empiricism is also described, as is Jainism, another atheist philosophy.

I use this opportunity to digress a bit and opine the following about Hinduism. One of the commonly quoted 'facts' about Hinduism is that it has 33 crore Gods - giving an impression of rampant and unmanageable polytheism. Actually, I think Hinduism, even without dwelling on Buddha, or even Sankara, is largely atheist. The Hindu world-view has several different classes of 'living' entities in the Universe - gods, humans, asuras, gandharavas, and so on. The population of each class is finite, and that of gods is estimated as 33 crore. There may have been similar estimates of the population of the other classes, I don't know. These gods are, of course, superior beings as compared to humans, and have supernatural powers. But men and women, and even asuras or individuals of the other classes, could obtain some of these supernatural powers by penance or some other heroic deed, usually as a gift from one of the powerful gods. These individuals would then be occasionally more powerful than most gods, and certainly more powerful than ordinary humans. Sometimes these powerful humans would themselves attain god-hood - or, if the promotion was too embarrassing, reveal their hitherto hidden God-hood. Really, the only Hindu God who would fit Hecht's description of the atheist's 'other' would be Brahman, but even here, there is no anthropomorphism. In fact the closest I can see of something similar in other religions is Allah. End of digression.

Hecht then deals with doubt in the first centuries of the Christian era, trying (but in my opinion failing) to establish Jesus as a doubter, and dissecting many later saints and prophets to show that they often expressed doubt about the nature and even existence of God. Doubt during medieval times, and later during the renaissance is next described, including  extensive condemnation of the Catholic church and its inquisition - Giordano Bruno is one of her heroes. The list of doubters then extends into the twenty-first century, all the way to 2001, and includes European philosophers, American politicians, Arab, Chinese, Japanese and Indian scholars and religious leaders, and of course a long series of scientists.

The book is very informative, and easy to read, but more like an encyclopedia (or a list) of doubters, than a treatise on doubt. Considered even as described by the subtitle ('a history') it is not a history in the sense of giving a fresh view of happenings (like, say Toynbee or even Thapar), but more of a list. But it is excellently researched, and very well written.