Monday, December 24, 2012

The Helpful Strangeness of Religious Fundamentalism

How should the atheist respond to the religious fundamentalist? The atheist’s inclination is to flood the theist with arguments proving the manifest irrationality of that worldview. I’ve attempted to do this many times over the years, entering into long debates and dialogues especially with committed Christians. Moreover, I believe that all forms of exoteric (literalistic, inerrantist) theism are in fact irrational. The problem is that this irrationality is all too obvious; atheists miss the point when we prepare an exhaustive treatment of the theist’s fallacies and indeed when we pretend that philosophical naturalism or secular humanism is a matter purely of observation and logic. We forget that a rationalist too has certain epistemic values that mark even the secular worldview as partly a matter of choice and artistry. I’ll show what I mean by considering the rational and the existential responses to a particular Evangelical Christian’s sermon.

The True Believer Speaks!

Joel C. Rosenberg is an Evangelical Christian and author of several novels about how modern terrorism is prophesied in the Bible. In one of his recent blog posts, he offers his readers insight into why there’s so much gun violence in the US:

‘How is it possible,’ he asks, “that violent crime in the United States has surged by more than 460 percent since 1960?

‘The answer is as painful as it is simple: the further we turn away from God in our nation--the further we drive Him out of our society, out of our schools and courts, and out of our media, and out of our homes; or the more we give mere lip service to religion; the more men are ”holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2 Timothy 3:5)--the worse things are getting….

‘The Lord God Almighty is a gentleman. He won’t force us to accept His great love and many blessings. If a nation tells Him to leave, He will leave. But what are we reaping as a result of a society that increasingly ignores God and hates or dismisses Jesus Christ? We are witnessing a horrifying explosion of murder. We are witnessing a gruesome crime wave unprecedented in American history….

‘What is the future of America? Is America in a “Jonah” moment, or a “Nahum” moment? Will we hear the word of the Lord that we have strayed far from the teachings of the Bible and allowed our land to become polluted with abortions and pornography and violence and wickedness of all kinds? Will we admit how far we are from God’s plan and purpose for our lives? Will we confess that our hearts are far from Jesus Christ and plead with the Lord for His mercy and grace and forgiveness? Will we fast and pray and earnestly seek God’s face, and implore Christ to give us a Third Great Awakening? Or will we ignore the word of the Lord and continue in our sins and watch our nation continue to decline, or even implode?

‘There is a point of no return--a point at which God removes His hand of grace and mercy and turns to the judgment of America. If we don’t repent for our sins, we are going to face that judgment…perhaps sooner than we think….

‘Where are you today? Have you received Christ as your Savior and Lord? Are you absolutely certain that if you were to die today that you would spend eternity in heaven with the Lord? Are you leaning on Christ’s everlasting arms for complete forgiveness for your sins, for hope, for peace, for comfort, for wisdom and direction in this life, and in the life to come? If not, let this be the day of salvation for you.’

Fundamentalism’s Flagrant Irrationality

I trust that any atheist or even Christian with an insider’s grasp of the metaphorical nature of myths, who reads Rosenberg’s explanation will be able to think of a thousand reasons why it’s grossly, obviously, embarrassingly wrong. From a rational point of view, the faults of literalistic theism are endless; whenever a true-believing theist speaks about her religion, she commits a dozen fallacies, gets numerous facts wrong, and betrays her ignorance of one whopping irony after another. You could fill a library with texts demonstrating just a single religious fundamentalist’s errors, illogic, and characteristic vices.

I’ll just rattle off some examples before I turn to a more interesting question. Rosenberg feels--I won’t say “thinks”--that the cause of Americans’ troubles is secularism and that if only Americans were more authentically Christian, they wouldn’t now suffer so much. For example, they’d have less gun violence. Indeed, he says, the rise of gun violence is a sign that God is losing patience with the US and will eventually destroy that nation. How do you live as an authentic Christian? By following (parts of) the Bible and by paying heed to (some of) your inner voices, which are actually God’s voices.

Rosenberg thus oscillates between Jewish and Christian theologies, equivocating to suit the facts that authentic Christianity is untenable and compromised by its history, and that Americans can afford to adopt only what’s effectively secularized Judaism even while they blather on about Jesus. The New Testament sets out an antireligion of radical otherworldliness. To be sure, there probably was no historical Jesus or if there was, his exploits are irrelevant to the NT’s thorough mythologization of his life. In any case, the character Jesus was obviously opposed to natural life, because he had his eyes set on the spirit world, having likely hallucinated the holy shape of that world during his years in the desert as an ascetic. The forces of nature were thought to be those of what Paul calls “powers and principalities,” the fallen angels who have taken over the cosmos while--as every mystic and Platonist appreciates--the true, transcendent god can’t directly be found anywhere in nature. Thus, Jesus taught an ethical system so extreme as to be practically unworkable; that is, any society on Earth that would apply Jesus’ principles would collapse. This is because Jesus’ ethics were intended as means by which we could renounce the whole world and so save our immortal souls.

For example, in an authentically Christian “society,” there would be no biological families, since those depend on fallen instincts that distract us from the transcendent God. Also, there would be no capitalism since that form of business is premised on egoism. Oh, and politics, which reduces to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, would likewise fall by the wayside. Thus, such a society would boast the anarchy of the 1960s hippie movement. Everyone would live as if the present life were insignificant; they’d give away all their possessions, ignore their sexual instinct, be willing to sacrifice their personal welfare at every turn, and think about God more than anything else. That is, they’d live exactly as the character Jesus lived: they’d sacrifice their earthly life because they’d trust that another one is in store for them in the afterlife, that once their corporeal body gives way due to all of their anarchic, altruistic, and ascetic practices, they’d be reborn in the spirit world and live with God for eternity. Jesus was a Gnostic hippie, a radical anarchist, pacifist, and socialist who was opposed to everything that's natural. That’s Jesus’ message and that’s the New Testament; that’s authentic Christianity.

Of course, this mystical asceticism is quite counterproductive if you’re interested in establishing a religious institution in the here and now. The Church that pretended to represent Jesus naturally degenerated into a corrupt secular oligarchy. This is true of the Catholic Church and of the Protestant fiefdoms led by an assortment of megalomaniacs (televangelists, street preachers, cult gurus, and so forth). The Church literally merged with the secular Roman Empire and then with many more such empires, including the present American one. The upshot is that when Rosenberg speaks of authentic Christianity, he really means secularized Judaism. The Old Testament has much more balanced and realistic ethics than does the New, because the Jews were preoccupied with furthering the political lot of their particular tribe. God for them was their God, a God who favoured the Jews, who would commit genocide to make room for Jewish prosperity, who would punish the Egyptians for abusing God’s chosen people and promise the Jews earthly happiness if only they’d follow their covenant with the Lord and obey his practical, this-worldly laws. And indeed, Jews have followed that ancient regime, with its dietary and other social rules, and are still with us today. But the point is that Rosenberg is a closeted Jew, substituting Americans for Jews and the Old Testament for the New one, while throwing around the name “Jesus” every once in a while to make his readers think his savage tribalism has something to do with Jesus’ Gnostic asceticism. Indeed, Rosenberg happens literally to be a Jew for Jesus, but there are many evangelical Christians who likewise blend American nationalism with childish, literalistic theism, thus practicing a religion that has much more in common with Judaism than with Jesus’ mysticism.   

Rosenberg feels that God cares especially about Christians and thus about Americans. This requires that Rosenberg substitute an idol for the transcendent deity of monotheism, that he project an image onto the divine to flatter his ego. Rosenberg is the biased one with nationalistic pride, not the Creator of the universe. How can God choose favourites if choice requires a mind which in turn requires a brain? How could an omnipotent being limit itself to a brain that would exist in space and time? Even if Jesus represented God, the Christian gives a nod to the mystic by speaking of God the Father as transcending human categories (even while contradicting herself by calling that deity male). Why would God care more about Americans than about North Koreans? Because Americans worship God? Why would God need to be worshipped? Why would he want us to pray to him? Why would he care to save us from hell? God can have no desires, no character, and no personhood while also being the precondition of such particularities. Rosenberg feels that God can literally lose his patience, that God’s gracious only for so long before he turns to judgment and punishes the wicked. This is simply, obviously idolatry. God can’t literally be a person with such a thing as patience or an interest in morality or justice, without rendering theology absurd. If God has desires, he automatically has limitations, meaning that he has some desires but not others; thus, he becomes a contingent, particular thing rather than the source and precondition of all things. God becomes a created being rather than the ground of all beings. This is the point of mystical, esoteric theism which escapes the Evangelical Christian. When we try to understand something, we apply categories to it and so what we comprehend is always limited, meaning that it can fit into our conceptual boxes. Thus, we cannot understand that which is supposed to be unlimited, infinite, and eternal, which is God.  

So Rosenberg must be very proud of his insight into God’s nature and purpose. Perhaps he should be canonized. Sure, he attributes this understanding to God’s revelation, but many people have read the Bible and disagree with Rosenberg’s interpretation of it, just as many have claimed to speak directly with God through the inner promptings of their conscience, but have come away with an altogether different message than Rosenberg’s. Nevertheless, Rosenberg can write with a straight face that he effectively represents God, that his advice on how to fix American culture correctly interprets and applies God's revealed wisdom, as though the creator of the universe would also write books and would need a human interpreter. 

Rosenberg feels that if we don’t want God around, God will leave us since he’s a “gentleman.” God won’t force his love on those who don’t want it, like a Catholic priest; instead, God loves us from a distance like a dirty old man spying on children. God makes himself present only to those who invite him in, because the presence of God is identical with the fiction you imagine as soon as you begin to seal your mind within a self-reinforcing delusion, with that initial bizarre act of faith in an absurdity. The creator of black holes and dark matter, of quantum mechanics and a multiverse of universes also wants a loving relationship with some clever mammals who happened to evolve by natural selection? No, that tall tale isn’t fit even for children. And Americans don’t turn God away with their secularism; instead, they embrace a Jewish-Christian hybrid form of idolatry and equate God with the anthropomorphic fiction they create in their image. Instead of worshipping a supernatural source of every particular thing in the universe, American exoteric theists and all religious fundamentalists worship a mental projection of themselves. They prefer worldly freedom to sin and then they betray their prophets, debase mystical wisdom, and redefine God to suit their sinful lifestyles. Thus, they invent theological justifications of war, sex, family, business, and all manner of vices. Rosenberg merely uses his idol to condemn those sins to which he’s personally opposed, while some other fundamentalist will condemn the secular habits that Rosenberg cherishes.

Rosenberg implies that he’s “absolutely certain” that when he dies he’ll spend eternity with God. But perfect certainty is cheap. Plenty of insane people in mental institutions are absolutely certain that they’re Napoleon Bonaparte or an alien from another galaxy. If you bid farewell to the rules of evidence, to the standards of rational thought, you can cheaply build up invincible confidence in any outlandish proclamation. That’s unimpressive; on the contrary, the spectacle of an adult so belittling himself is grotesque. Rosenberg should reflect on the fact that critical thinking has been instrumental to billions of heroic acts, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our prehistory when our ancestors had to decipher environmental clues in their hunt for food, in their farming, and in their evasion of predators. How many billions of times have human children been saved by their parents’ rational thinking, by their commitment to think responsibly, to base their beliefs on the evidence and not to get caught up in foolish games? What’s the comparable track record of blind faith in some patent absurdity peddled by simpletons and charlatans? 

Of course, it goes without saying that the more religious society is hardly the more peaceful one. Organized religion is an expression of the tribal instinct to preserve one dominance hierarchy at the expense of another. No more proof of this is needed than the fact that the American religious right has replaced gentle Jesus’s message of extreme self-sacrifice with a xenophobic, warmongering cult of infinite consumption. Instead of denying themselves for the sake of helping others, rightwing Americans demonize all foreigners and worship an extension of themselves in the form of their tribal God who blesses social Darwinian capitalism and American military hegemony. They select an already-mutilated religion to rationalize their woeful predilections. And so rightwing Americans--who make up the bulk of evangelical Christians and who live in southern states that are by far the most violent--love guns, because they celebrate wild western individualism. That is, because the American religion is more Jewish than Christian, the most religious Americans are also the most nationalistic, and because guns were so instrumental in forging the American identity, through its War of Independence, its Civil War, and its experience of anarchy as a colonial society lacking a long monarchical history, the most religious Americans are also the most steadfast supporters of guns. Hence the egregious gun violence in the US. The problem is hardly American godlessness; rather, it’s that the most passionate American theists derive their absolute certainty from the childishness of their theology, and pretend to be interested in God at the very moment they reveal that they’re blatant narcissists. There’s far too much exoteric theism in the US for that to be a relatively peaceful country.

The Irrelevance of that Irrationality

I could go on and on and on, and I’m not just saying so. But notice that a rational take-down of some pitiful theistic assertions makes no difference. It solves nothing. Reason has no pride of place in religious fundamentalism. Moreover, most logical and empirical refutations of theism are hackneyed and so uninspiring. All of the crucial New Atheistic arguments were made by the old atheists a few centuries ago. Thus, I think the above sort of refutation is a distraction (as fun as it can be to formulate). Instead, we should ask ourselves what we can learn from religious fundamentalism. When I read Rosenberg’s nauseating sermon or when I see a self-righteous Christian or Muslim on TV or harassing bystanders on the street, I’m struck most of all by a feeling of alienation. Here, you see, we have a real sense of strangeness: between the minds of a philosophical naturalist/cosmicist and of, say, an Evangelical Christian, there’s an abyss that can’t be bridged. Rosenberg might as well literally be an alien from another world, or at least an alien pod that’s invaded a human body, and I’m sure the feeling’s mutual, which is to say that New Atheists, for example, must seem just as bizarre to born-again Christians or to militant Muslims.

This leads to the postmodern sense of vertigo, of inescapable relativism, as we come to view our way of thinking more objectively and to wonder whether we could likely be in the right when we atheists are also the bizarre, foolish aliens according to some opposing perspective. Every culture is preposterously arbitrary from an outsider’s viewpoint. However natural and thus caused our beliefs may be, we are also cursed with limited freedom to create our worldview, to assign meaning and to prefer some mental associations to others; we sculpt our memories, surrender to cognitive biases, and otherwise personalize our mindspace to feel at home in the cosmic wilderness. The result is that whereas our biological body is mostly forced on us, our mind is more artificial just to the extent that our philosophy is a matter of taste and subject, properly speaking, to aesthetic evaluation. Even the ultrarationality of a Sherlock Holmes, a Spock, or a Sheldon Cooper is a lifestyle, a work of art in which the rationalist lives.

Again, then, when I read Rosenberg, I don’t feel proud that I think I can eviscerate his toy religion. In the last section, I meant to present such a refutation only to set it aside, to show that someone who can think in that way also appreciates the futility of those criticisms. Instead, what interests me is the opportunity for self-knowledge afforded by the experience of such palpable strangeness. The religious fundamentalist is weirdly foolish to the secular humanist, and the feeling is mutual, and we’re all weirdly foolish next to the undead flow of natural processes. The universe continues to evolve and to complexify regardless of our awareness of what the universe is doing or of our ability to call processes by some names. There’s enough strangeness to go around, so we should be more impressed by displays of genuine humility.

The next time we come across some theistic prattle, maybe we should be less quick to attack and more prone to reflect on the existential significance of such a meeting. Read the deranged diatribe and astound yourself by reflecting on the fact that if a mighty human body can choose to be so wrongheaded, there is no hope for anyone’s perfect right-headedness. Our worldviews are largely works of art and we are all silly little artists, with our pretentious berets and oversized palettes, vainly preferring to live among our self-portraits. This is not to say, with the lazy postmodernist, that all worldviews are equally meritorious, but only that we need to appeal to aesthetic and ethical standards when we judge between them. As I argue elsewhere, Christianity is currently the most hideous major religion, so it badly fails a worldview’s existential test. Secular humanism is superior but still not to my taste, and I’m trying to create a more aesthetically appealing worldview, which is to say an emotionally moving and rationally powerful one, sharing the results in these rants within the undead god.

20 comments:

  1. You are my official new blog obsession. I hope to comment once I have taken all this in.

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  2. I don't quite understand - how he's obviously wrong in his conclusions rather than in the basic principle he derives those conclusions from? Ie, his sky fairie?

    Why would I find those conclusions and 'factual' wrong, at that point? Frankly at that point it's like reading about middle earth - actually I don't argue anymore - the trolls turn to stone in the sun, there's a ring that turns you invisible, etc.

    How's he flagrantly wrong, once you move past his sky fairie? All the rest of it seems as reasonable and valid as the trolls to stone or the one ring, to me?

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    1. Well, I take your point that logical inferences can be made from wacky premises, and maybe the fundamentalist does some of that. But there are also the many fallacies and biases to consider (projections of the ego, etc). Plus, the factual mistakes I had in mind have to do with the nature of Christianity, which I talk about in this rant and elsewhere.

      Anyway, don't you read something like Rosenberg's sermon and see multiple problems with every single sentence? Even were some of his statements to follow logically from others--and I don't actually grant that, since theological reasoning is hardly airtight--I don't think I accept even a single clause of any of those statements as they stand. They're irretrievably tainted by a warped, alien mindset. At least, that's how they seem to me.

      Asking how religious fundamentalism could be wrong once you remove God from that picture is a little odd, since in that case the picture would be blank! Do you see what I mean?

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    2. It'd be as blank as any fantasy novel!

      When I look at it, part of what gets me is the organicness, it seems - like he says at first that if a nation turns god away, he leaves. But then gods back! "a point at which God removes His hand of grace and mercy and turns to the judgment of America"

      Sorry, didn't we tell you to leave? Ah, but you don't actually do as told, you just sound reasonable at first, but then the fury rises and...I don't know if organic is the right word, but I get the impression of being inside a creature, just about. Thick with propriety one moment, a looming wave of righteous fury the next, like a bolt of adrenaline searing into the system!

      Other stuff is the hurdy girdy of no metric for passion "We are witnessing a horrifying explosion of murder.". What on earth do these words mean, in any emperical sense? How much murder is an 'explosion'? But they are so rich to the organic landscape, fair tingling with passion. Surely you can feel it? Of course I'm rather like a thief, engaging it as a work of fiction rather than the 'damn truth', I steal the feeling of passion and run off into the night with it for my own entertainment, rather than believe.

      Perhaps it's that the organicness is invoked by his words, yet his words are mostly madness, that bugs you? Like hearing someone laugh heartily that draws you in, then realising they laught about something that you just don't? It seems to hijack the emotion? Just a long draw of the bow hypothesis there :)

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    3. Yeah, because exoteric theists personalize God, they make a soap opera out of their dealings with God. You've got a point when you say that these religious people at least seem pretty happy and yet their happiness is annoying because it's based on a colossal misunderstanding. There are many studies showing that religious people tend to be happier than atheists and of course existential cosmicism can easily explain why that would be so: because of our capacity for self-deception, a fantasy world can be more comforting than the horrible reality.

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    4. I once talked with a man who approached me in a mall, about his religion (that he'd converted to a couple of years back, I think). It's another of those times I wish I had a recording device, because the nuances of the conversation just drop from memory. But anyway, I'd gotten to the point where I said they just seem irresponsible and why do they do all this. And I think I got past some BS with him, because he replied 'Death'. He'd had some brush with a life threatening desease - but such a 'brush' is just a mortal reminder.

      Have to say, when you whittle it down to that - it's a hell of a speed bump to get over. Who can say they've gotten over it, so as to know the right way over it?

      Yeah, because exoteric theists personalize God, they make a soap opera out of their dealings with God.
      Years back my family got a puppy and I don't know what they fed it to keep it quiet, but it farted at one point and really frightened itself in doing so, jumping from the spot, then looking around in fear.

      Now what if the fart happened in your skull? What happens when an animal first starts to detect it's own thoughts, like a sudden fart across a perception that is otherwise always set upon the outside world? Some far off voice suddenly enters the animals head, full of angers and passions - indeed, the more the animal listens, the louder and more complicated the voice gets! The animal is afraid and yet this voice is so intimate, so close! Like a really bad abusive relationship, which is to say a really good relationship when you're on the inside of it and the relationship becomes the measure of 'good'.

      Perhaps this Joel guy is actually only borderline what we call 'concious' - he has very little access to his own inner thinking. So what he senses of his own mind is a very quiet - almost as if very far away.

      Perhaps that partly explains the time delay in his description - ie, he says if you tell god to leave, he will - but as he rants on over time, he gets to the point where god will come back with a shotgun. It's actually his feeble conciousness, where he's just barely in contact with himself so it takes awhile for him to get it through his thick head that 'the bad stuff' is happening. Prior to that he reads his impassivness as god will leave if you say so, but then finally 'god' finally hears the distant drums and gets angry. So the verbalisation part of Joel commits the contradiction of a god who one minute will go if you tell him, while another he's coming back like the mafia.

      Okay, I rambled! But that's partly why it's so organic - you're being let right into the rich processes of the man, for how little he understands this is the inner, secret place of him.

      Sorry to run on - it's an interesting topic! :)

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    5. The fart in the mind metaphor made me laugh. :) But have you read Julian Jaynes' book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? His theory seems like the one you're after.

      They say that the most extreme religious folks, like Joan of Arc, for example, have mental disorders which cause them to interpret their own inner voices as belonging to someone else. They have split personalities, and this is also my point in "The Psychedelic Basis of Theism," which is that theistic religion is based ultimately on real experience (data).

      However, most religious people don't have such experiences; they merely follow social conventions which derive--if only thousands of years ago--from those experiences (from altered states of consciousness, etc). For example, conservative Christianity is currently a largely political and cultural phenomenon, not a spiritual one. That's why younger Americans are clearing out of the established churches and calling themselves seekers or nones, meaning that they're not members of any institutional religion.

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    6. Heh, how did we get from from multiple problem sentences and a warped alien mindset, to real experience? I'll have a look into that book, thanks! :)

      I'm not sure about just following social conventions - some of those experiences apparently, through languaged, can retrigger that experience (or one somewhat like it) (or to be more accurate, the ones which are repeatable through language were the ones that got to become religion)

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  3. Just found this blog, if I wire you $10-15 can you get your posts onto a PDF or something? I want to read them all. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks, William. As a matter of fact, I've been thinking of doing just that. I even have the chapter layout done, which puts all the blog entries into a more logical order. What's been holding me back is the editing I'd want to do, deleting the hyperlinks and references to certain blog entries within other ones. I could throw them all into a rough-and-ready pdf file, but it wouldn't read exactly as a book/anthology, since earlier chapters would refer to later ones. But I'll get to work on it. It would be over 1500 pages, by the way. I suppose I'd put a link to the pdf file at the upper right of my blog and then maybe a Paypal donate button.

      Also, stay tuned because I'm currently adapting my blog's philosophy to a series of novels I'm writing. If I have my way, they'll make up the mother of all zombie apocalypses. I'm aiming to have the first novel done in a few months.

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    2. My situation is that I work overnights at a security desk, if you could send me a PDF, even a rough draft of what you're doing later, I could read it on my Kindle and make a lot of progress very rapidly. I am really struggling to find materials that deal with the implications of the scientific and psychological undermining of anthropocentric meta-narratives as you are attempting to do here. Where are the resources to deal with life in the rabbithole reason has led us down? I'd imagine 50% of Americans you could pay not TO read this stuff, they're just plain not there yet. That "happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know" quote from Hemingway is coming to mind, but for those of us who are there we're suffocating for good material. I'm hoping to get Bryan Magee's work on Schopenhaeur soon and I'm re-reading Hugo Meynell's stuff on postmodernism. I'm finding I just have to read a bunch of stuff on my own, some unrelated to my main questions and synthesize the material in reflection.

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    3. A little overnight light reading, eh?

      I'm organizing the e-book as we speak. It should be up on my blog within one or two days. I'll make an announcement with a blog post.

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    4. I'm really enjoying your blog. I suppose this is an immature question, but are you really only 15 years old,as it says on your twitter account?

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    5. Ben's an old soul.

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    6. I don't have a twitter account. There are a lot of Ben Cains out there.

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  4. ...or maybe that's a different Ben Cain, who also happens to be into Comics.

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  5. Would the 1500 page anthology contain only what is written on this blog, or does that include other writings as well?

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    1. Actually, it's more like 700 pages (1.5 line spacing) and it includes all the writings so far on this blog and also my guest post at R. Scott Bakker's blog, plus the handy cover I whipped up. I just rearranged the blog entries in a more logical order, typed up a chapter of contents, and took out the links and references to the blog so that it reads more like a book.

      The novel I'm working on will be all exclusive material, except maybe a chapter that I'll use as a reading sample.

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  6. thanks for share.

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