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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

A whodunnit with a thousand suspects – Sue de Groot reviews Camilla Lackberg’s latest contribution to the Nordic noir sphere

Published in the Sunday Times

The Girl in the Woods *****
Camilla Lackberg, HarperCollins, R285

Camilla Lackberg has amassed millions of devoted followers with her series of crime novels set in the Swedish fishing village of Fjällbacka – which actually exists in the real world.

It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents and is deathly quiet in winter, but in summer turns into a playground for Scandinavian tourists.

The Girl in the Woods, Lackberg’s 10th novel featuring author Erica Falck and her police detective husband, Patrik Hedstrom, is set in summer, when the influx of holiday-makers creates a wider pool of suspects.

A four-year-old girl has been murdered, her body found in the same place as that of a similar victim 30 years previously.

The two teenage girls who were accused of the earlier crime are now adults and conveniently present.

One is a Hollywood film star who has returned to her home town for the first time since the incident. The other is married to a sociopathic UN soldier who is on home leave.

Then there are the Syrian refugees, whose safe asylum in Sweden does not come with a warm welcome from all its citizens.

And there are the local high-school kids with too much time on their hands and the usual adolescent problems.

And then – because Lackberg loves to weave ancient history into modern mystery – there is a woman who lived in these parts in the 17th century, when literal witch hunts were all the rage.

Lackberg cleverly connects multiple tales of violence and ostracism in a narrative that climbs to a terrifying crescendo, but there is much light relief in the lives of her extended family of regular characters.

Even police chief Bertil Mellberg displays flashes of charm between being his usual bumbling and graceless self.

He is also the recipient of the best put-down in the book: when he enquires whether refugee children eat cinnamon buns, detective Paula Morales replies tartly: “Of course they do. They’re from Syria, not outer space.” @deGrootS1

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Barbara Kingsolver evokes the anxiety of living through social turmoil, writes Michele Magwood

Unsheltered ****
Barbara Kingsolver, Faber & Faber, R295


Barbara Kingsolver rages against tyranny while writing about ordinary life.
Picture: David Wood

There is a marvellous tableau early on in Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Unsheltered.

It is 1871 in small-town New Jersey and a young science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, is visiting his next door neighbour. He thinks she is sitting demurely at her desk, prim and unmoving, until he realises she is patiently feeding her finger to a Venus flytrap.

The neighbour is a fictionalised Mary Treat, the American botanist and entomologist who studied carnivorous plants and who corresponded with Charles Darwin. She is the ideal Kingsolver heroine: a barricade-breaching, society-scorning, way ahead-of-her-time woman, and a scientist to boot.

The town, Vineland, exists to this day. It was built in the 1800s as a utopian experiment, a teetotal haven for free thinkers and spiritualists, but the idealism quickly eroded. Greenwood is close to being run out of town for teaching Darwinism to his pupils, and the community’s prissy and elaborate manners disguise a vicious bigotry.

Kingsolver divides the novel into two narratives 150 years apart and centres them in Thatcher’s house.

The book opens in 2016, when 50-something journalist Willa Knox inherits the collapsing homestead.

It’s evident from the get-go that Willa’s life is threatening to collapse too. She has been made redundant from her magazine editorship and must now try and scrape a living in the online world of listicles and gobbets, her deep dive investigations no longer in demand.

Her academic husband, Ianno, has lost tenure at the university where he was professor and has been forced to take a temporary teaching position at a second-rate college.

Upstairs in the house, Ianno’s emphysemic and uninsured father sucks on his oxygen tank, fuelling himself for racist and right-wing diatribes. Their bristly daughter Tig has returned home from a heartbreak in Cuba and is railing at the world, a shrill Cassandra warning of catastrophe ahead for humankind.

Personal catastrophe strikes faster: the wife of their Harvard-educated but unemployed son Zeke commits suicide and they have no choice but to take in his infant son.

Willa and Ianno have worked hard and made sacrifices all their lives but now as retirement looms they realise that it has counted for nothing.

“How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their fifties essentially destitute?” Willa thinks.

When she learns that their crumbling house might be of historical value, and therefore eligible for a grant, she heads for the town’s archives.

It is here that she unearths the characters of Mary Treat and Thatcher Greenwood. They were never lovers, only scholarly friends, but by alternating their story with Willa’s, Kingsolver is able to unfurl her themes.

Although he is never named, Donald Trump looms over the story and Kingsolver’s fury at him and all he stands for saturates her writing.

She has always been a campaigning writer but here she sails worryingly – and at times wearyingly – close to polemical lecturing, using her characters as vessels to rage at the state of the world.

Capitalism, globalism, wastefulness, failing healthcare, iniquitous student loans, white nationalism, stagnant wages and so on, all are aired.

“Today’s problems can’t be solved by today’s people,” Tig warns her mother, “we’re overdrawn at the bank, at the level of our species.”

But Kingsolver is too good a storyteller to lose us completely.

She powerfully evokes the anxiety of living through times of social turmoil, in the here and now, and in the 1880s. The alternating stories echo each other over the decades.

Mary Treat comments on the furore around Darwin’s theory: “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”

There are many ways in which we are unsheltered, physically and emotionally, but she reminds us to take comfort in one another. She reminds us, too, that we have adapted before and we will adapt again. @michelemagwood

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Rooney captures exactly what it’s like to be young and clever and just a little bit intoxicated with yourself, writes Rosa Lyster of Normal People

Published in the Sunday Times

Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a book for anyone who has ever looked at their family or their life or their relationship and gone “Is this how normal people behave?” Author pic supplied.

 
Normal People ****
Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, R300

Sally Rooney is unbeatable at arguments. Not big, theatrical, screaming ones, although she would probably be very good at those as well.

She is good at describing those arguments where no-one raises their voice or says anything dramatically spiteful, but serious hurt is inflicted all the same and it’s worse, in a way, because you only realise what’s happened when it’s way too late to do anything about it.

Normal people arguments, the kind that everyone has and hates.

She is so good at it that at first it’s hard to see what she’s doing – it seems more an act of transcription than of creative invention.

It’s only when you realise that almost no-one is as good at arguments as she is that you see what she has actually pulled off.

Here is the aftermath of an argument between Connell and Marianne, the couple around whom the book’s action turns: “His eyes were hurting and he closed them. He couldn’t understand how this had happened, how he had let the discussion slip away like this … It seemed to have happened almost immediately. He contemplated putting his face down on the table and just crying like a child. Instead, he opened his eyes again.”

This sounds normal, like something a normal person would think, but when I read it, I also had to close my eyes for a little bit. It’s just exactly how fights like that go.

Rooney is so good at anatomising the ways normal people misunderstand each other, even people who think they know each other incredibly well.

Her characters do more than just fight, obviously.

At bottom, Normal People is a love story, one which starts when the protagonists are at school together.

Marianne is rich and clever and weird in a way that most people do not find cool or interesting. She is not “quirky”, she is strange.

Connell is working class and clever and if he is weird, he knows enough to keep it to himself.

Most of the novel is set in Dublin, where both characters are attending university, and Rooney captures exactly what it’s like to be young and clever and just a little bit intoxicated with yourself.

She is fascinated by conversation (her first book was called Conversations with Friends), and has her characters talk and talk and talk to each other, not about anything in particular, necessarily.

Rather, the kinds of conversations that make up a relationship and a life.

I can’t think of another writer who can do this with such apparent effortlessness. Her sentences are so clear and light it almost seems as if she’s not doing anything at all.

She can be very funny (Marianne, on wanting to win a university scholarship: “She would like her superior intellect to be affirmed in public by the transfer of large amounts of money. That way she could affect modesty without having anyone actually believe her”), but it’s quiet funny, absent of showiness.

She has an evident aversion to drama and over-adornment and beauty for beauty’s sake.

She is not what one would describe as a “lyrical” writer, so maybe if you like that sort of thing you will come away from Normal People feeling a bit put out, but her sentences sing, in their own way.

The other thing about Rooney that will perhaps make you want to close your eyes for a short while, is that she is so young. She was 26 when Conversations with Friends came out, and she is 28 now. She is not quite the youngest person to be nominated for the Booker, but just about.

She writes about what it’s like to be young, specifically what it’s like to be young in Ireland after the financial crisis, but this isn’t necessarily a young person’s book, or not exclusively.

It’s a book for anyone who has ever looked at their family or their life or their relationship and gone “Is this how normal people behave?”

Most of the time, as Rooney is so good at showing, the answer is yes. @rosalyster


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“Fame went to my balls.” Eric Idle’s ‘sortabiography’ is funny, clever and moving – but watch out for earworms, writes Michele Magwood

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life ****
Eric Idle, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, R330

“I honestly think there are more hours of documentary about Python than there are hours of Python,” writes Eric Idle. “So, to the mass of mangled memories do I now add my own muddled, prejudiced, and deeply cynical account of what I think might have happened? Of course.”

In what he calls a “sortabiography”, Idle looks back over his 75 years, beginning with his dreadful childhood and ending with his comfortable life in California now, with a great many mad antics in between.

The book should come with a warning sticker: beware earworms.

If one of the best ways to appreciate life is to have had an unhappy childhood, he says, then he was very fortunate.

He was just three when his father was killed. Having survived the war as a rear gunner on a bomber, Ernest Idle was killed in a road accident hitching home for Christmas after being demobbed.

Idle’s mother sank into a depression and he was looked after by his grandparents. Then, when he was seven, he was sent away to a Dickensian school for orphans.

Beaten and bullied for 12 years, he developed a sharp tongue and an ever sharper sense of the ridiculous.

“Humour is a good defence against bullying. It’s hard to hit a smaller boy when you are laughing.”

It was a scholarship to Cambridge that saved Idle’s life. It was there he started writing comedy sketches and joined the famed Footlights Club. It was a springboard to what would eventually become Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“George Harrison once said to me, ‘If we’d known we were going to be the Beatles we would have tried harder.’ I think the same could be said of Monty Python. How on Earth could we possibly know we would become them?”

There is much about the early days of Python that will delight fans, such as the genesis of some of their best-loved sketches. Idle wrote the “Nudge nudge” routine when he was barely out of university and it is said that Elvis loved it so much he called everyone “squire”.

The character of Brian from The Life of Brian was originally going to be the 13th disciple.

“He was given the job of trying to book a table for the Last Supper: ‘No we can’t do a table for thirteen. I can give you one of six, and then another for seven over by the window.’”

The film would never have been made were it not for ex-Beatle Harrison footing the bill. Asked why he had mortgaged his baronial home to finance the film, he said: “Because I wanted to see the movie.”

Idle name-drops with a front-end loader in this memoir: partying with Paul Simon, Andy Warhol, Billy Connolly, Prince Charles, Keith Moon, but you forgive him for it because it’s always such a hoot. He had very close friendships with Harrison and Robin Williams, and his notes on their passing are deeply moving.

Idle might have scores to settle – he hints at a few of them – but he’s not doing it here. Instead this is an account of a life very well lived.

He fesses up to some pretty bad behaviour in the early years – “In my case, fame went to my balls” – and his chronic infidelity led to the collapse of his first marriage. He’s been married to his second wife, Tania, for 41 years now and is a devoted father.

What strikes the reader is how hard he has worked, and still does. Even now he is busy writing the film version of his hit musical Spamalot.

He comes across as a genial, still mischievous old cove, and this book is nothing like the “muddled, prejudiced, and deeply cynical account of what I think might have happened” he promises.

He may have written the immortal lines “Life’s a piece of shit/when you look at it”, but Eric Idle’s life has been anything but. @michelemagwood

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Holly Ringland’s debut novel is a carefully woven coming-of-age story, writes Jennifer Platt

Holly Ringland, whose debut novel is a carefully woven coming-of-age story. Picture: Supplied

 
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart *****
Holly Ringland, Pan Books, R175

“In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.”

This is the gripping first sentence of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. It’s Holly Ringland’s debut novel. The breathtaking cover of arresting native Australian flowers matches the carefully woven coming-of-age story. Every chapter features a drawing of a particular indigenous Australian plant with an explanation of the meaning of the flower. Black Fire Orchid means “desire to possess”, Flannel flowers mean “what is lost is found”, and Foxtails mean “blood of my blood”.

In turn these meanings become the foreshadowing of Alice’s mostly unhappy life. Young Alice lives in isolation with her mother and her abusive, obsessively jealous father whose “eyes turn black with rage”. She has seen no one besides her parents – they stay far from the madding crowd in a cottage near the sea and sugarcane fields. The only relief she has is her beach that she considers her refuge, her books and her dog Toby.

Then fire does come and consumes all that Alice knows. Injured and unable to talk, she has to go and live with June, a grandmother she never knew she had. June takes her to Thornfield, an indigenous flower farm that is inland, far away from Alice’s beloved sea.

Here Alice heals and learns about the meaning of flowers that surround her and who the dungareed Flowers are; the gentle women that her gran has taken in who happily spend days in the fields tending the precious blooms. But no matter how hard June tries and how many times Alice asks her, June can’t get herself to tell her the horrible truth about Clem, her father.

Alice, now 26 years old, learns sharply about betrayal. She flees the farm and ends up at Kililpitjara National Park where the sacred Sturt’s Desert Peas grow. This strange blood red plant’s meaning is “have courage, take heart”. Unprotected and raw, Alice finds herself in the same situation as her mother and has to find the fortitude to leave.

Ringland, who says she grew up wild and barefoot in her mother’s garden in northern Australia, not only delivers a modern fairytale with poignancy, sadness and most importantly hope, she gives a rare insight to the wondrous and different landscapes that Australia has to offer that is more than just dusty deserts, wild dingoes, nosy neighbours and surfer dudes. @Jenniferdplatt

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PEN SA to present the 2018 Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November

PEN South Africa, in collaboration with the Institute for Creative Arts, will present the 2018 Day of the Imprisoned Writer on Thursday, 15 November (5:30 PM) at Hiddingh Hall, Hiddingh Campus, University of Cape Town.

Writers will give readings and presentations in solidarity with jailed artists around the world on this notable day.

RSVP to ica@uct.ac.za.

Click here for more on authors featured on the programme and the cases of the five incarnated artists to be commemorated.


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Some people take Susan Lewis’s novels with them to the grave, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

The Secret Keeper is veteran author Susan Lewis’s 43rd novel.

 

The Secret Keeper ***
Susan Lewis, Century, R215

There are people who love Susan Lewis’s novels so much that they ask to be buried with them.

“I’ve never had this happen to me before. I don’t know how many writers this has happened to. But a reader told me recently that she just buried her sister-in-law and that her sister-in-law’s request was to take some of my books with her. Isn’t that amazing? I am so blown away by that – that you can touch someone with your books so much. It’s so extraordinary how readers do respond.”

No doubt people will respond to her latest book as well.

The Secret Keeper is Lewis’s 43rd book (including two memoirs). Set in Lewis’s fictional Kesterly-on-Sea, this time the focus is on Olivia, who is unwittingly drawn into intrigue. Her first love Sean is back on the scene, after she learnt to live without him for years. He is disrupting the life she has made with her husband, Richmond, and two children in the picturesque seaside town. Like Cabot Cove, there are quite a few murders in Kesterly-on-Sea but this book focuses more on how this tiny town gets dragged into the higher stakes of corruption and money laundering.

Lewis said she invented Kesterly-On-Sea when she started writing books about child abuse and social services.

“The best thing was to make it fictitious so I was never pointing a finger at any specific social services department. And then it moved on to writing something about the police, someone in the medical world, and I realised this was an extremely useful place to have as I didn’t offend people. And now I feel like I’m the mayor of Kersterly. The hilarious thing is that people write to me and say that they love Kesterly and want to know how to get to the city. People latch on to it.”

Lewis wanted this book to focus on how crime and corruption seep into our lives.

“Money laundering is a big issue. My book is a story of gullibility, and of how a man can get himself into a complete mess. I think it’s a warning to men.”

Lewis brings back one of her readers’ favourite characters, the ex-detective with a heart of gold, Andee Lawrence.

“When I introduced her in Behind Closed Doors, I never thought she would be a recurring character. Readers enjoy her and feel comfortable with her. Each time I bring her into a book it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.”

As for the title of the book, Lewis said she came up with it before she wrote it. “But having said that, I do think there is one person keeping a lot of secrets.”

Lewis is a prolific writer who releases two books a year. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I get into a rhythm. I have to deliver a book in June and one in December. I think the pace of that keeps me going. If I only did one book a year maybe things would collapse. Although maybe I’d have a life …” @Jenniferdplatt

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Anna Burns awarded Man Booker Prize for Milkman

Anna Burns has been announced as the winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her fourth novel, Milkman!

Booker chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, described Burns’ winning title as “incredibly original”, lauding the author’s ability to “challenge conventional thinking and form”.

Burns told the BBC that she was “stunned” to be awarded this coveted prize, presented to her at London’s Guildhall on 16 October.

Burns is the first author from Northern Ireland to win the Booker.

About the book

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous.

Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman.

But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

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La Bastarda: the Equatorial Guinean novel that defied the censor’s order to shut up

Published in the Sunday Times

By Tiah Beautement

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda has won universal acclaim for its commentary on the harmful nature of genderised societal norms.

 
La Bastarda ****
Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Modjaji, R220

Calling a novel brave has become a cliché; but La Bastarda truly is a work of courage. It’s written by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. Yet Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country banned the book.

“This novel was a scandal in my country,” Obono says, via her book’s translator, Lawrence Schimel. “It was forbidden to discuss its homosexual content in the media. It had a great success in Spain and reached Equatorial Guinea on the rebound. Its success was such that even though I have written four novels, nobody forgets La Bastarda. It’s the book of rebellion, they say.”

The story follows teenager Okomo. Defying her maternal grandmother, Okomo attempts to locate her biological father, not considered her dad in Fang tradition. During her search, she meets her gay uncle, who has been cast out of the community.

Through friends and acquaintances, Okomo finds herself questioning traditions in village society and Fang culture. This leads her to revelations about her own sexuality, taboo in her society.

In one of the story’s most heart-wrenching moments, Okomo discovers that while her culture has a word for gay men, there isn’t one for women. The teen laments: “If you don’t have a name, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you can’t claim any rights.”

Obono explains: “In Okomo’s tradition, women are not people but just property of men. A woman’s sexuality is in the service of her ethnicity, of reproduction. Okomo, who represents womanhood, vindicates the right to be visible, to be an activist, and to enjoy a fundamental right: sexuality.”

The story came at huge personal cost to the writer. “I already lived openly,” Obono says. “But a book like La Bastarda in a closed society pulls you out of the closet on an institutional level. Relatives and friends called my mother to tell them her daughter disobeyed tradition and her place as a woman inside it, writing this filth.”

She continues, “I feel alone as a woman who writes about a marginalised group. I feel alone for not being heteronormative. I feel alone because I have lightish skin and don’t fit into the racial categories of my country: black, white, mulatta. I feel alone for not lightening my skin. I feel alone for not putting on make-up or wearing high heels. I feel alone for not belonging to the masculine gender nor the female: I’m a mix of both.

“The moment comes when you decide to be yourself, without complexes or categories. And you’re happy. I have friendships that don’t abandon me, books, writing – by loving them so much I keep myself sane.” @ms_tiahmarie

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Which turn will the 21st century take? Michele Magwood talks to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari about the challenges facing humankind

Published in the Sunday Times

21 Lessons for the 21st Century *****
Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape, R320


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, “clarity is power.”

The slight, unassuming Israeli historian shot to fame with his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind which was originally published in Hebrew. He followed it up with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Together they have sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into 45 languages.

Harari is a boldly original thinker and credits the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation for his focus and insight. He meditates for two hours a day and for one or two months of the year takes a silent retreat with no books or social media. He is a vegan and chooses not to use a smartphone.

Now, having scrutinised the course of human history and forecast the future of the species, Harari presents 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which drills into the here and now and the immediate future of human societies. What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? he asks. Where are we heading and what should we pay attention to? Divided into sections like “The Technological Challenge”, “Despair and Hope” and “Resilience” the book presents a deeply disquieting view. “As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try and offer some clarity.”

Yuval Noah Harari. Picture: Olivier Middendorp.

 

Here he answers questions for the Sunday Times:

What do you believe are the high-road and low-road scenarios in the 21st century? What is the best we can aspire to and what is the worst to fear?

The twin revolutions in biotechnology and information technology will give us godlike powers of creation and destruction. But technology doesn’t tell us how to use it. In the 20th century, some societies used the powers of electricity, trains and radio to create totalitarian dictatorships while other societies used exactly the same powers to create liberal democracies. Biotech and infotech can also be used to create very different kinds of societies.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that humankind will split into different biological castes, resulting in a situation far worse than apartheid. Artificial intelligence will push hundreds of millions of people out of the job market and into a new “useless class”. People will lose their economic worth and their political power. At the same time, bioengineering will make it possible to upgrade a small elite into super-humans. Revolt and resistance will be almost impossible due to a total surveillance regime that constantly monitors not just what every individual does and says, but even what every individual feels and thinks.

The best-case scenario is that the new technologies will liberate all humans from the burden of disease and hard labour and enable everyone to explore and develop their full potential. Bioengineering will focus on curing the needy rather than on upgrading the rich. Artificial intelligence will indeed eliminate many jobs, but the resulting profits will be used to provide everyone with free basic services, and to allow everyone the opportunity to pursue their dreams, in the field of art, sports, religion or community-building. State-of-the-art surveillance will be used to spy not on the citizens, but on the government, to make sure there is no corruption.

Which of these scenarios will come true?

At present, we seem to be heading towards the dystopian scenario, mainly due to growing global tensions. You cannot regulate bioengineering and artificial intelligence on the national level. For example, if most countries ban genetic-engineering of human babies, but China allows it, very soon everybody will copy the Chinese, because nobody would like to stay behind. The only way to effectively regulate such disruptive technologies is through global co-operation.

What role will religion, ethics and morality play in the 21st century? Are we “playing God”, for example, with bioengineering?

Ethics will be more important than ever, because humankind will be more powerful than ever. When you have the power to re-engineer life, your views on “right” and “wrong” acquire cosmic importance. But you don’t need religion in order to have a good moral compass. For morality doesn’t mean “obeying God” – morality means “reducing suffering”. In order to act morally, you just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.

Secular people abstain from murder not because some god forbids it, but because killing inflicts suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so”. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches or gays?

And it is noteworthy that secular morality really works. The most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world such as Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands are secular. In contrast, deeply religious countries such as Iraq and Pakistan tend to be violent and poor. @michelemagwood

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