Monday, March 05, 2007

In love with Richard Dawkins

My sister lent me The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I read on various planes and in various hotels while out of the country this last 2 weeks. It's rare that you come across a book which gets you really thinking, and I've bought The Selfish Gene to see what else he has to say.

Dawkins' aethism is refreshing, brave, intelligent, funny and thoughtful. I puzzled over a couple of things, such as his chapter on intelligent design - there didn't seem to be much on where the universe came from - what caused the "the big bang" for example? At times he descends into polemic (which is always amusing - but perhaps not the most level-headed argumentation strategy)- it is really necessary to call the Bush government the American Taliban? But on the whole, I agreed with a lot of his arguments.

I don't believe in God anyway. I don't even believe in "a higher power" who created everything. My only religious experience was at 16, when a friend harrangued me into going to a fundamentalist church with him (fashioned on American revival movements - our cultural cringe takes many forms). After two hours of singing, hugging, clapping and chanting, I was called to the front to "receive the spirit of the Lord". I refused to move from my spot at the back. So kindly, the congregation decided to come to me. I found myself surrounded by them all, praying and speaking in tongues. Actually, I did feel something - my hands and feet went red and numb, and I experienced this weird, joyful pleasurable feeling (I've never taken heroin or E, but I imagine it was probably a bit like that). Was it the Spirit of the Lord though? I don't think so. I was an impressionable 16 year old, easily swayed by peer pressure, having just received my GCSE results that week (so in an emotional state anyway). After two hours of clapping and jumping up and down, I suspect many people would feel their hands and feet were a bit odd. The chanting, swaying music was clearly designed to lull people into some kind of hypnotic trance. I could see how it could be mistaken for a religious experience though.

I don't encounter religious people very much. On the overseas course I was recently teaching, my students took me out for a meal and it transpired that all of them were religious. They asked me if I was, and I said no. They were still nice to me, but I was reminded of that line in Catcher in the Rye when Holden Caulfield says his Catholic friend would have enjoyed their conversation more if he had also been Catholic. Also, to my shame, I didn't "come out" as gay to any of them. There was quite a bit of talk about my marital status along with comments on my physical appearance. And I told them I wasn't married (true), but didn't mention my male partner. I guess if they'd checked out my staff website and seen that I've written four books with the word "gay" in the title, then they'd probably be able to work it out (and I suspect a few of them had done this). I guess I could make excuses all I want, but ultimately I simply couldn't be bothered to deal with the questions and possible problems that my sexuality sometimes brings. I've found that my sexuality has caused other students issues in the past - in particular, gay male students who are still closeted have a problem with me. And who knows what stuff these students were hearing at church? I just wish I lived in a world where I could mention my partner and it didn't ever have to be an issue.


jetpack said...

Richard Dawkins is a fine biologist. Unfortunately he seems to have an axe to grind and has no understanding of the complex (and reasonable) reasons that people have religious beliefs. He'd like us all to abandon it completely and live in a purely reductionist world where nothing has any real meaning, only the (ultimately illusory) sensation of meaning. If he had actually studied philosophy or theology he'd realise that if we did abandon all belief in the supernatural/religion or whatever, we'd only end up having to reinvent it again or else become some very strange kind of creature quite unlike human beings. And like you say there are many many big questions to which people want answers, that are completely out of the scope of his field of expertise and of science generally. There's a great science book called "the mind of God" by Paul Davies which uses established physics and pure reason to try and answer those big questions and it's pretty mind-boggling!

Lubin said...

I agree that he does have an axe to ground. Although in the book he does give a good account of why people have religious beliefs and also tries to address what would happen if everyone did give u religion and what that would have for losing a form of meaning in our lives. I actually found his section on death to be incredibly consoling - it gave me a way of thinking about death that isn't religious, but works for me.

Tom SF said...

Dawkins has such a following he occupies near-God like status. His arguments could be seen as being an apologia for his own brand rather than a polemic against religion.

Fin De Fichier said...

Jetpack, your arguments are fallacious. I've listened to some of Dawkin's talks. He does have "understanding" (ouch, had to avoid a double negative) of the reasons people have religious belief. He just doesn't subscribe to those reasons himself because they are illogical and based on irrational, animalistic fears. I've abandoned all belief in the supernatural several years ago. And here I still am, still human, still not having to reinvent it again, and I have not degenerated into "some very strange kind of creature quite unlike human beings." I find that statement quite insulting. The human race has primarily been advanced by those of us capable of reasoning and I am far more justified in calling myself a human than the masses of sheeple who attend fundie megachurches in middle America. It's time the REAL reasonable people like me start to stand up to simpering apologia like this, call a spade a spade, and inform the rest of you that the human race has no real chance of survival if people can't advance beyond the primitive origins of their awareness. Now that our technology for warfare has advanced beyond those origins, we must, or we will destroy ourselves. A president who gets messages from God? Look where that got us in Iraq. Tom SF, Dawkins has a God-like status? WTF? Are you implying I have a little Dawkins shrine in my house? With candles and pictures of him? Bizarre, I can't even see what point you are trying to make. I haven't even bought his book because it would largely be telling me things I already know.
Where do I find the "joy" that other people find in spirituality? In exploring the depths of my own awareness, and my mind, and marveling that such a thing has evolved. It's fine to have respect for religion, for all of what has gone before, in fact, considering 1/2 of Americans can't even name the books of the Gospels (yet > 90% consider themselves Christian!) there should be more religious education in terms of teaching the histories of all major religions. We should also study the works of the Greek philosophers, the thoughts of Ramon Llull, the speciation of Ericas in southern Africa, the life of Antarctic penguins, the architectural history of Imperial China and everything else that enriches the life of the mind.

Fin De Fichier said...

Sorry must add to my post - this is required reading:

Some of these ideas about the evolutionary nature of belief were becoming prevalent when I took a course on sociobiology at university in the mid 1990s. I kept a lot of the prof's handouts and have re-read them over the past years - I think sociobiology can be a difficult subject for one's mind to digest because our minds are unused to their own operations and mechanisms being self-investigated. It took me years to be comfortable with the process.

Tom SF said...

Fin - my point was that some people eulogise Dawkins to the extent he attains almost God-like respect from his followers.

You may well not have a shrine but then you don't represent every Dawkins fan.