Thursday, June 27, 2013

New Dawkins video mocks meme theory

(Via Friendly Atheist)

For those disinclined to watch videos, here's a condensed summary.  Richard Dawkins talks about genetic evolution, and analogizes it to memetic evolution.   Then he says internet memes have "hijacked" the original idea of memes, because internet memes are intentionally designed with human creativity.  Then the video takes a sudden turn into internet meme territory, with floating brains, rainbows, and auto-tuning.  Dawkins finishes off the piece with an electric clarinet solo as a loch ness monster eats a dolphin.

I initially thought that someone simply took a video of one of Dawkins' recent talks, and made some creative edits, but in fact the whole thing was staged with Dawkins' help to introduce The Saatchi & Saatchi New Director's Showcase, a film festival.  The theme this year was "Just for Hits".  It's a very clever performance piece.  If it was intended to get lots of hits as a way of fulfilling the theme, good show!  In fact, the main problem with the video seems to be that it might overshadow the rest of the festival.

On the substantive content of the video: I've said before that I dislike meme theory, because it's essentially a social pseudoscience invented by Richard Dawkins, who has no social science expertise.  Via Will in the Skepchick comments, it seems that anthropologists hate meme theory even more than I do.

Since the show was staged, that raises the question of whether Dawkins was being sincere in his comments about memes. In my post criticizing memes, I had dug up an interview with Dawkins which suggested that he doesn't take memes very seriously:
"My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," [Dawkins] said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene."
I'm not sure if this statement is entirely consistent with Dawkins' actions, since apparently he was on an advisory board for the now-discontinued Journal of Memetics.  But I accept that Dawkins may have gone back and forth on this issue.

Whether Dawkins' comments were sincere or not, I felt they were ridiculous (though maybe not as ridiculous as the second half of the video).  He seemed to be saying that internet memes weren't proper memes as he had originally intended them, because people were designing them intentionally.  How is this different from any other examples of memes?  Aren't all meme transformations designed?

This seems like another thing to add to the long list of problems with meme theory.  When ideas and culture transform, it is not random mutation followed by directed selection.  The mutation process itself appears to follow non-random trajectories influenced by historical events, trends, as well as individual creative agents.

My issues with meme theory did not cause me to dislike the video.  On the contrary, it was hilarious and thought-provoking.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In praise of non-deductive puzzles

It's a convention in many logic puzzles that there is only one solution, and you reach this solution by deductive steps.  But there are a few logic puzzles that are not entirely deductive.

I hope readers don't mind that I spoiled one of Nikoli's sample puzzles.

One of the classics is Numberlink.  In Numberlink, you're supposed to draw lines between each pair of identical numbers.  There is always a unique solution, and this solution just so happens to use every square.*  But even though there is a unique solution, you're not supposed to solve the puzzles by deduction.  You have to use a lot of guessing and intuition, or it would be too difficult.  MellowMelon has a guide on how to solve them.

*If you ever download a Numberlink app for a mobile device, they often require that every square must be used, rather than having a unique solution that just so happens to use every square.  I consider this a serious travesty, and do not recommend Numberlink apps.

I would like to contrast this with a lot of puzzle apps out there which do not have unique solutions (eg see this review).  Usually this isn't because they've been designed as non-deductive puzzles, but because the programmers couldn't be bothered to check for unique solutions.  This is the worst.

This was a randomly generated puzzle from Tatham's puzzle collection.

Moving away from pencil-and-paper puzzles, there is a game called Blackbox.  It can be played with two people, but it's really better to play against a computer.  In Blackbox, there are some balls in a box, and you're supposed to figure out their positions by shooting some lasers into the box.  You can't tell what the lasers do inside the box, but you can tell where they come out, if they come out.  There's a lot of room for deduction here, though solutions aren't unique.  But it's really more fun to try to figure it out based on the smallest number of laser beams.  Since you decide where to shoot the lasers, it tastes a bit like experimental science.

You can play Blackbox within Simon Tatham's puzzle collection, which has free mobile app versions.  I also recommend Eric Solomon's hexagonal variant.

Lastly, I'll mention a card game I just bought called Hanabi.  Have you ever seen those logic puzzles where people wear colored hats, and can only see the colors that other people are wearing?  Or perhaps the puzzle of the three foolish/wise men who wake up with marker on their faces?  Hanabi is sort of like that, because each player holds their hand backwards, so that only the other players can see.  Players cooperate by giving each other hints to play the right cards in the right order.

But while the colored hats puzzles are deductive, Hanabi is not because you can't be sure that everyone is playing perfectly (and no one knows what that would even look like).  Furthermore, there's never quite enough information to play deductively!  It's a lot of fun.

In conclusion, there is plenty of interesting puzzle-space to explore beyond deduction.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, which incorporates a few fictional elements.  In particular, if I were to write a real 101, it would be much shorter and to the point.  Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

Asexuality and Alien Abduction

If you hold skepticism as a virtue, then one of your first reactions to a new concept may be, "But is this actually true?"  After all, the profoundest truth is laid low by being false.  About asexuality, you may ask, "But does the asexual orientation exist?"  The very question may seem rude to asexuals, but I know you're not trying to be rude.  You're not trying to be in-your-face about it.  It's just the question that comes to mind.

I put forth that the answer should be a swift "Yes."  Asexuality is manifestly real.  Lots of people experience it.  For those who don't experience it, asking asexuals about their experience is a legitimate way to study the subject.  No, seriously, if you look at the small body of research on asexuality, the researchers basically consider it obvious that asexuality exists, and they study the subject by asking asexuals and non-asexuals about their experiences.

If you're unsatisfied with self-reported evidence, consider a comparison with alien abduction experiences.  We know today that most alien abduction experiences are caused by sleep paralysis hallucinations.  I once had such a hallucination, although I didn't think it was aliens, I believed a burglar was pinning me down.  The point is that these experiences are real.  Alien abductees are not liars.  They just misinterpreted their experiences.

Asexuals are not misinterpreting their experiences, because they are not interpreting them at all.  Asexuality is defined as the experience of not having sexual attraction.  It doesn't matter what the underlying cause of the experience is, we're still experiencing it.  I really don't know what the underlying cause is, but it's probably different for different people.

Often people propose that asexuals are really just sexually repressed.  Besides being a meaningless and unfalsifiable explanation, it doesn't even invalidate asexuality if it's true.  If it turns out people are asexual because some chemical interaction is blocking their sexual attraction, that still means they are not experiencing sexual attraction.  The main difference between calling it asexuality and calling it repression seems to be that if you call it repression, you're assuming something about the cause, and making a negative moral judgment about it.

People also propose many other causes for asexuality, like hormone problems, abuse, anxiety, autism, and schizoid personality disorder.  I'm afraid none of these really stand up, in that none of these characteristics are particularly dominant in the asexual community.  I would be open to good studies showing a connection, but my money's on a more complicated set of causes.  In any case, people are still asexual regardless of cause.

Stability, and Identity as a Tool

There's a difference between repression and asexuality that I overlooked. If it's a matter of repression, you might predict that it's something you can get over.  Can asexuals "get over" asexuality?  That's not really something I can answer without some serious research.  But you could draw parallels to conversion therapy, intended to convert gay and bisexual people to straight.  Not only is it pseudoscientific and harmful, the problem it tries to solve is not really a problem.  Likewise, asexuality does not really seem like a problem to be solved.  Even if it were, conversion therapy sounds like a very bad idea unless there's very strong evidence for it.

More generally, we could ask how stable the asexual orientation is.  Do most people who identify as asexual continue to identify as asexual years later?  I haven't seen any research on this question, so I don't know about the statistics.  I know lots of people who have identified as asexual for many years.  I know people who looked back on decades of their life, and realized they were asexual even if they didn't identify as such at the time.  I also know people who stopped identifying as asexual, either because they never were, or because something shifted in their life.  I know people (including myself) who changed to gray-A or demisexual identities, both of these being between asexual and non-asexual.  I know people who considered that they might be gray-A, and then decided they were just asexual.

And all of these identity trajectories sound fine and good to me!  Even though asexuality is attacked all the time for being an illegitimate orientation that will evaporate away upon the first sign of a hot stud, I'm still fine with people shifting their identities when necessary.  An asexual identity isn't a commitment.  It's a tool to understand who you are.  Sometimes people may get it wrong, but it's not some unmitigated disaster because people generally figure it out for themselves.

The asexual community generally tries to facilitate people figuring themselves out.  Introspection, and detailed analysis is fashionable.  There's active discussion about what it means to be between asexual and non-asexual.  People feel free to express their doubts.  There's a lot of uncertainty involved in asexuality, but asexuals deal with it in healthy ways.

What's unhealthy is the way that everyone else constantly questions the validity of asexuality upon first encountering it.  Somehow it fails to fit in their worldview, and people just deny deny deny.

What asexuality teaches us about reality

Once you get past the questions of existence and validity, the next question is what we can empirically observe about asexuality.  This is my favorite part!  The fact of the matter is that some things about asexuality are rather counterintuitive and surprising.  There are things that you simply could not know without asking asexuals.

For example, is sexual attraction a required component of romantic relationships?  The answer is no, because some asexuals want romantic relationships.  In fact, asexuals frequently speak of a "romantic orientation" such as heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, panromantic, and aromantic.  Romantic orientation specifies which genders you're interested in romantically, or if you're not interested at all.

Is there a difference between a strong friendship and a romantic relationship, besides the sex that is usually involved?  Yes there is, and it's quite clear to some people.  But there are also asexuals who have trouble distinguishing the two, and who don't identify by a romantic orientation for that reason.

Does a lack of romantic feelings impact other emotions as well?  No, clearly not.  Aromantic people can certainly feel connected to people, and don't lack emotion.

Is masturbation necessarily attached to sexual attraction?  No, it's not.  Some asexuals masturbate, and some don't.  This is one of those rare questions where I don't just have anecdotes, I have studies.  That means that instead of just talking about what experiences are out there, I can talk about the relative prevalence of the different experiences.  Studies show that asexuals masturbate at rates that are only slightly lower than non-asexuals.  (Yes, some non-asexuals also don't masturbate, and I don't like to joke about it.)

Does not having sexual attraction lead to repulsion to sex, or indifference?  Some asexuals feel repulsed, and some feel indifferent.  Some would be willing to have sex in a relationship, some would consider it a deal-breaker.  And a small number of asexuals enjoy sex (which is consistent with research showing that people have sex for lots of reasons besides sexual attraction).

How does asexuality interact with gender?  No one knows, but the information we have so far is intriguing!  Asexual women outnumber men in the community surveys and in the national probability-sample surveys.  In-community surveys also show relatively large numbers of people with non-binary genders (~25%).  It's unclear at this point whether this reflects any underlying reality or if it reflects the numerous sampling biases.

Are people really bothered by lack of sexual attraction?  Yes.  Most asexuals I have spoken to have experienced various levels of denial and prejudice.  It's hard to tell how much, since existing research is limited.

Asexuality teaches us many facts about reality, and also offers some intriguing clues to human sexuality.  Next time, we'll learn a bit about the structure and history of the asexual community.

A paper discussing what it means to call homosexuality a disorder, the thrust being that there's a subjective element.
My thoughts on asexual doubting
My bayesian analysis of asexuality, an example of the kind of detailed analysis I said was fashionable in the asexual community

The Fantastic Primer series:
1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists 
4.  A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause 
6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison  
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 

Monday, June 17, 2013

In which I buy video games

I mentioned earlier that I was enthusiastic about Anita Sarkeesian's "Tropes vs Women in Video Games" series.  It inspired me to read more video gaming news, which I hadn't done since high school or so.

My first impression is that gamers are rather defensive about their medium!  They're beset on all sides.  People skapegoat video games for gun violence.  News stories hype and exaggerate game addiction.  The public is weirdly censorious about sexual themes in video games even though movies have them beat a million times over.  Publishers insert DRM into games in a way that inconveniences legal customers.  Large game companies like EA and Zynga are also evil for various reasons.

In this context, it becomes easier to understand why Anita Sarkeesian has gotten a lot of backlash from gamers.  Many people are seeing her criticisms as an attack on the medium, and Sarkeesian as yet another anti-gaming crusader.  But this view is far from true.  If you watch her videos at all, it's obvious that Sarkeesian is a gamer herself.

And Sarkeesian's criticism, far from being attack on video gaming as a medium, actually made me more enthusiastic about games!  As I said earlier, I started paying attention to video gaming news for the first time in years.  Then I thought about how much time I was wasting on low-quality games, when I could be wasting it on high-quality games instead.  I played Bioshock Infinite, which had a great story, even though it was essentially a damsel-in-distress story.  I played indie game Antichamber, which is some sort of non-euclidean puzzle game.

Then I bought a Wii U (no, it is not a modified Wii, it is the next-gen console).  That's several hundred dollars of my disposable income!  I know the Wii U hasn't been doing too hot, but I wanted those Nintendo franchises.

At the beginning of every video, Anita Sarkeesian says, "Remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it's more problematic or pernicious aspects."  I would go further.  Being critical of the media we consume allows us to take a more active and enjoyable part in it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

2013 US Puzzle Championship

Every year I plug the US Puzzle Championship, which occurs on June 15th this year.  You print out a pdf full of logic puzzles, solve them, and input the solutions online.  Go register now!  I need more competition.

This marks the ninth time I've participated.  Persistence paid off, because last year was when I finally broke into the top 25.  I got some sort of prize, but through a real-life comedy of errors, I haven't actually seen the prize yet (but I will soon!).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Privilege and charity

I like the idea of translating social justice concepts into critical thinking concepts.  Once I wrote about "I" statements, and compared them to anecdotes.  And twice I wrote about the social justice concept of privilege as it relates to the skeptical concept of bias.  Today I'm going to talk more about privilege, but under a completely different lens.

A common contention is that "privilege" is just used to shut down arguments.  When you tell someone that they're speaking from a position of privilege, it seems like you're telling them that they should stop speaking.  For example, a few weeks ago, lots of blogs were talking about Ron Lindsay's welcome speech to the Women in Secularism Conference.  Instead of welcoming people, Ron decided to caution the audience against using "privilege" to shut people up.  True story.  But I won't focus on this example, because it's only the Nth iteration of a very common argument, where N is very large.

It seems clear to me that privilege is used to shut down arguments at least sometimes.  And sometimes certain arguments need to be shut down.  For example, I don't think it's appropriate to start an argument in a welcome speech.

However, it's unclear to me how often privilege is used to shut down arguments, and how often it is justified.  People argue about this issue a lot.  But I'm going to ignore the issue and move on.

I propose that when people say, "You're speaking from a position of privilege", what they mean is "I have reasons to be uncharitable to you."

Earlier I discussed the principle of charity, which says you should read your opponent's arguments as if they are reasonable people arguing in good faith.  But the principle of charity is not a perfect rule, because sometimes people are not being reasonable, or they really don't know what they're talking about.  For example, if a white person is talking about black experiences, there's a decent chance that they are just talking out of their ass.

Of course, there's also a chance that the white person actually has something useful to say.  How likely is it?  I have no idea!  Personally I would try to be charitable to a white person talking about race.  I would also be charitable to a man talking about women's experiences.  But I would begin to be less charitable if I hear the man using one of the standard terrible arguments against feminism.  I don't have any numbers to back me up, but it seems that when men make lots of standard terrible arguments against feminism, it usually doesn't get better from there.  So I'm not very charitable.  Depending on external factors of course.

As an example, whenever I see some random person arguing that "privilege" is a problematic concept, my suspicion levels rise up.  On a substantive level, I actually agree that privilege is a problematic concept, and I've seen feminist-minded people argue against it (eg). But most of the time, such discussions are not productive because they're driven by ignorance.  If you want to critique the concept of privilege, it's not that you should shut up.  It's that you should be careful, clear, and precise so I can distinguish you from people who just don't know what they're talking about.

But the principle of charity and uncharity doesn't quite cover the myriad ways in which "privilege" is used.  Much of the time, when you say someone is privileged, it's not a negative accusation!  Lots of us have privilege.  It's not necessarily a bad thing, and doesn't necessarily mean we should keep quiet.  The principle of charity is a decent lens to understand the ways in which "privilege" is used in arguments, but it will only get you so far.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why argue charitably?

The principle of charity says that you should read your opponent's arguments as if they are reasonable people arguing in good faith.  Why is the principle of charity a good thing?

Chris Hallquist asked this question many months ago, and proposed that the principle of charity isn't necessary if we're talking about someone who is dead.  (Also see the followup post.)  The dead don't care, and sometimes people really are being unreasonable or arguing in bad faith.  We should try to assess how reasonable an argument is rather than prejudging that they are probably reasonable.

I agree that it's great to be realistic about how reasonable or unreasonable people are, and not adopt the rose-colored glasses of charity.  However, I think there are lots of justifications for the principle of charity that might supersede this.

1. We seem to be biased to be uncharitable.  We tend to think of our own views as having such high coherence, and think other people are far less coherent.  But we can't all be right.  If we want to make the most accurate assessment of how reasonable other people are, we should apply a principle of charity in order to offset our prior biases.

2. It is easy to go from charitable to uncharitable, but not so easy to go back.  Once we've read a person uncharitably, it can sour the discussion, and hurt the relationship that was the basis for that discussion.  This is basically the reason that Chris Hallquist offered, and he is correct in saying that it does not apply to dead people.

3. If you act as if your opponents are making the best argument they could have been making, then you often make the most persuasive case.  If there are spectators to the argument, the spectators might not agree precisely with what your opponent says, but may agree with a stronger argument.  So you might as well argue in a way that persuades both your opponent and this hypothetical spectator.

4. The principle of charity encodes our prior belief that someone is being reasonable.  For example, I respect Chris Hallquist enough that it seems natural to presume that any post he writes is something reasonable.  You might say that this means I'm "charitable" to Hallquist.  Obviously, this would only apply to people I trust.

5. Some arguments are adversarial, but some are cooperative.  Sometimes it's about getting closer to truth, and not about any particular opinion your opponent holds.  Charity is appropriate here, because even if the other person really isn't reasonable, it may raise the discussion to a more advanced level.  This makes the discussion more useful to you (though if the other person is really unreasonable, maybe it won't be useful anyway).

Friday, June 7, 2013

Reasonably Faithless on Craig's infinite denial

Long-time readers may recall my extended series on the cosmological argument.  I recently discovered a post on Reasonably Faithless which deals with a few of the same points, but from more of a math perspective than a physics perspective.  We both agree that William Lane Craig really doesn't understand infinity.

For example, Craig argues that infinite numbers of real objects is impossible because if you take away an infinite number of objects, you could have a finite or infinite number remaining.  Here's an excerpt of Reasonably Faithless's response:
And I agree that you can’t stop someone from taking away a certain number of coins, no matter how big their coin collection is.  But there is no contradiction here at all.  To think otherwise is to grossly misunderstand what is going on.  The fact that ∞ - ∞ has no unambiguous meaning does not prohibit someone with an infinite coin collection from giving away infinitely many of their coins.  All it means is that the number of coins they have left after doing so will depend on which coins they gave away.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Everyday range voting

Negotiating preferences between multiple people is an everyday activity.  For example, there have been countless times where I've been with a group and we can't decide which restaurant to go to.  To negotiate, we each express preferences, and try to convey the strength of those preferences.  We weigh the decisions by the strength of people's preferences.  For example, if we have a vegetarian in the party, we might avoid steakhouses, even if that's what everyone else weakly prefers.

This is basically range voting, with some wrinkles.  In normal range voting, you give each choice a score between 0 and 1.  In deciding a restaurant, it's tough to say where the boundaries of your votes are.  If people's preferences are extremely strong, I suppose the vote breaks down and the group splits up.  It's also difficult to compare the strengths of different people's preferences, since some people just have more insistent personalities than others.

Although the funny thing about range voting is that the optimal strategy is to be dishonest about your preferences.  In the limit of large numbers of voters, it's best to rank each choice either 0 or 1, with nothing in-between.  This is not necessarily true in small elections where you're uncertain about other people's votes, but it seems like it still may be useful to exaggerate preferences.

But exaggerating preferences may hurt the group as a whole.  If everyone only voted 0 or 1 without being honest, then we may miss it when somebody truly does have a strong preference (like the vegetarian example).  It's a bit of a prisoner's dilemma.  Luckily, there are social costs incurred by exaggerating one's preferences.  People may figure it out (or they may simply believe you have an "insistent" personality), and start devaluing your expressed preferences.

I'm not really going anywhere with this, but voting theory is interesting.  A lot of practical ethics is about negotiating the preferences of multiple people, and these are the complications we immediately run into.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Faith in fiction is hard

My blogging rate has been suffering lately because I decided to watch most of the Extra Credits video series, mostly about video game design.  I found it quite interesting, even though I hardly play any video games anymore, and have no interest in joining the game industry.  Being a typical ungrateful blogger, I will reward the show by picking out the one video I disagreed with most so I can talk about how terrible it was.

Specifically, they try to explain why video games have thus far failed to deal with themes of faith (and not just dealing with the trappings of religion).  I do not agree with their explanation.

They got so many responses to the video that they posted another video defending themselves.

I did not read the responses, but I suspect that the main reason they got so many negative responses is that they repeated some pretty standard arguments in favor of faith.  They argue that science and math also require faith, bring up the early 20th century physics revolution, and patronizingly attribute hostility towards faith as a mere reaction against bad behavior from people of faith.  This is guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction, because lots of people have already heard these arguments, and have pre-prepared counter-arguments.

But I won't get into any of these arguments (unless any readers are interested).  Rather, I wish to discuss why video games have failed to deal with issues of faith.  Extra Credits believes that it's because the gaming community is hostile towards faith.  That's only half right.

The thing is, if the gaming community were just uniformly hostile towards faith, then it would be easy for video games to explore faith by putting faith in a negative light.  And arguably video games already do this to some extent.1  The problem is that gamers are not uniform.  If the gaming community is anything like the rest of society, there are radical atheists like me, conservatively religious people, and also the entire spectrum in-between.  Some people whole-heartedly value faith, others think faith has no value whatsoever, and still others (like the people in Extra Credits) think it's a wash.  It's really hard to make a work of fiction that deals with faith themes in a way that will satisfy people in a large range.

Usually when a writer tries to deal with faith or religion, it feels like they're beating you over the head.  If a writer makes a character who values faith, and portrays any consequences this has for the character, this already telegraphs the writer's position on the matter.  If the consumer disagrees with this position, they'll feel values dissonance2. And even if the consumer agrees with the position, they may feel uncomfortable with how heavy-handed it is.3  And it doesn't help to portray faith as partly good and partly bad, because lots of us really think it's mostly good or mostly bad.

One way to get around the problem is to only portray things that we mostly agree on.  Most people think violent religious zealotry is bad, so writers can portray that negatively without problems.  We can all agree that sometimes the ways that religious and non-religious people interact is problematic.  We can all agree that particular people who are religious or non-religious may have their personal strengths and flaws.

Another way to get around the problem is to avoid portraying positive or negative consequences.  This allows the consumers to judge it however they like.  For example, I think House did this on a regular basis.  Dr. House was very much anti-faith, but some of his doctors acted as religious foils.  Whenever an episode dealt with religious themes, viewers were free to agree with Dr. House, or to agree with any of the religious characters.  It's a difficult balance, and it's hard for me to tell if they pulled it off, since I have a one-sided perspective.

It may be particularly difficult to pull this off in video games.  Consequences are everywhere in video games.  Extra Credits suggested a faith-skepticism meter (much like the good-evil meters in many games), but this wouldn't work if the meter has any consequences with respect to achieving in-game goals.  If having a faithful or a skeptical character were both valid strategies, that would harm my suspension of disbelief.  I think the way to go is to offer the player choices that don't have in-game consequences (except perhaps who your allies are).  The consequences are simply how the player feels about playing a faithful or unfaithful character.  If I recall, Mass Effect was able to do this, but it's been years since I played it.

(Further complicating matters are the fantastical settings in many video games.  In some of these universes, it may be unreasonable to be an atheist, and faith may mean something entirely different.)


1. To judge for yourself, see this Gamespot video showing lots of examples of religion in video games.
2. See TV Tropes.
3. This is why I don't like the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Though I might agree with Philip Pullman's views on religion, it felt like he was just beating up on a concept that couldn't defend itself, because the only person who could provide a defense was Pullman.