Splashing around in theology.

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Location: Ottawa, Canada

I read lots. I have a cat. I drink coffee. Therefore, I am.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The God Delusion

So far, two friends of mine [I only have four, so this constitutes a full 50% of my entire social network…] have asked me, on separate occassions, about the shiny new Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion.
Basically, I’ve been asked, “Should we, [the Believers in Exile], read this thing?”
And both times my answer has been, “I have no idea.”
I’ve never read anything by Richard Dawkins, and I know next to nothing of him. There are so many authors writing nowadays about the ideological war between Science and Religion that it is impossible for me to keep up to what is being set out on the bookstore shelves.
However, I am at a bookstore right now, as I write this. So I am taking a look at the book.
It is very shiny. Wonderfully matches my Mac Powerbook G4!

Just leafing through the thing, and reading here and there, I guess I will take the jacket blurb’s description of Dawkins at face value. It claims that he is “the world’s most prominent atheist.”
And a scientist. This book seems to be quite forcefully arguing that a belief in God is not just wrong but potentially deadly. Dawkins argues for the abolition of religion as the only hope for the healthy maintenance of mankind. In the preface, we read, “Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no Gunpowder Plot…” etc.
As readers of this blog will know, I am no stranger to this argument, because it is similar to the writings and ideas of Sam Harris, an author I have come to greatly appreciate. I think it must be admitted by all rational-thinking people that religious zeal can cause a multitude of “sins.” At one point, Dawkins even quotes Blaise Pascal [yes, he of the wager] as saying, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Yes, yes, assuredly, and verily verily…. yes.
So I am paging through the book, browsing, as it were.

Then, a neat thing happened as I walked over to the Starbucks section of the store, to get another coffee. I glanced down at a table where someone had left a copy of New Scientist, the magazine. Picking it up, I opened directly to a review of The God Delusion, written by moral philosopher and author, Mary Midgley.
Fascinating stuff.
The general tone is a bit critical [of Dawkins] and I will get to that part, soon.
But first, Midgley points out that in the three evilist [← my word] regimes of the 20th Century [Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Stalinist Russia], the removal of religion had not helped at all. She says, “The roots of great crimes plainly lie far deeper than the doctrines people use to justify them.”

I keep reading…. walk back to my own table with a new coffee, and this magazine….

I will greatly summarize here by saying that she…. hmmm, how can I say it…. she points out that Dawkins has a very difficult time with the type of “believer” who may say they do not care much for the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels. ← I myself am this type of mysterious quasi-believer, so my antennae go up here…! Dawkins declares flatly that people like me [who would say the above, and much more] cannot possibly mean what they say. We cannot be “believers”. As scientists, we must be atheists. Midgley says, “It seems not to have struck Dawkins that academic science is only a small, specialised, dependent part of what anybody knows.”
See, she goes on to point out that when we use the term “fundamentalist” to describe the sold-out, nutso-believer/fanatic out there, we ought to realize that there is also another type of “fundamentalist” running amok! This would be the atheistic “fundamentalist.” [By the way, Midgley does not use this terminology, I am wildly paraphrasing at this point, utilizing a combination of rabid eisegesis and possibly illegal bloggistic license!]
In other words, we [including Dawkins himself] can err just as badly on the opposite end of whatever spectrum we are dealing with here.
The spectrum of “belief ← → non-belief” I will call it.
And to elucidate her reasons for saying this, please allow me to quote directly from the latter part of her review itself. It is, in my opinion, such good stuff that it merits regurgitation in its fullness, here:

“Most human knowledge is tacit knowledge – habitual assumptions, constantly updated and checked by experience, but far too general and informal ever to be fully tested. We assume, for instance, that nature will go on being regular, that other people are conscious and that their testimony can generally be trusted. Without such assumptions neither science nor any other study could ever get off the ground, and nor could everyday life.
When we build on these foundations we necessarily use imaginative structures – powerful ideas which can be called myths, which are not lies, but graphic thought-patterns that shape and guide our thinking. This is not irrational: the process of using these structures is a necessary preparation for reasoning. Thus the selfish gene is a powerful idea, so are the Science-Religion war, Gaia, natural selection, progress, and the hidden hand of the market.
With the largest, most puzzling questions, we have no choice but to proceed in mythical language which cannot be explained in detail at all, but which serves to indicate what sort of spiritual universe we percieve ourselves to be living in. This is the province of religion. Adding God is not, as Dawkins thinks, adding an illicit extra item to the cosmos, it is perceiving the whole thing differently.
For a long time, this kind of language was reasonably well understood. Since the mid-19th century, however, there has been a disastrous attempt to get rid of it, keeping only literal statements of fact. This is, of course, the root of religious fundamentalism, which tries, absurdly, to treat the whole of that strange compilation, the Bible, as literal fact. Yet in so doing it is only responding to a less obvious fundamentalism on the scientistic side, which claims that our knowledge reduces to one fundamental form – the literal statements of science. Both extremes show a similarly crass refusal to admit the complexity of life.
Dawkins is, of course, quite right to express horror at Biblical fundamentalism, especially in the neocon form that centres on the book of Revelation. But it is not possible to attack this target properly while also conducting a wider, cluster-bomb onslaught on everything that can be called religion. Since this particular bad form of religion is spreading rapidly in the world, we urgently need to understand it: not just to denounce it but to grasp much better than we do now why people find it attractive. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins does, that they are being childish.
We also need to ask why they have found the other attitudes that are open to them inadequate. As I have suggested, this means becoming more aware of the inadequacies of our own way of life, which are obvious to them and which put them off the opinions that we profess. What we need, in fact, is a bit more self-knowledge.” **

Amen to that!

Having said all this, and having read all of this… does it make me, as a reader, want to read the Dawkins book MORE, or LESS?
Like a cat, I am drawn to shiny things.

** From Imagine There’s No Heaven, by Mary Midgley. -- A review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. New Scientist Magazine, Oct.7-13, 2006. pp.50-51.



Blogger Cold Molasses said...

Wow! Fascinating. Cool how the book is shiny like your Mac! No, just kidding...it's cool how you happened onto that article.

She is saying exactly what I have tried to say about scientists / athiests, but without the good grammer and wording she used. They are too certain themselves...they need to recognize that even (and maybe especially) science is only aware of the tip of the iceberg at this point. Now science may very well go on to prove that there is no God and we are all living inside a great big bubble gum machine owned by giant hippos from the planet Hippogum or something. But right now, science shouldn't profess so much certainty about all things, in my opinion of course.

Having said that, I'm not suggesting we ignore what science does know and go on professing to believe things that are obviously in contradiction with what we do know. But we shouldn't just assume that science knows all...or, that if science can't prove something, it can't be true.

So for me, based on your synopsis Cip, I doubt I'll read that book. It strikes me as the kind of book that I'd just get annoyed with (for all the above reasons) and just stop reading. Alas, if you do read it, I'd be interested in further blogs that summarize its key points.

10/08/2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger cipriano said...

Good points Col Mol.
I was just reading an online interview with Sam Harris, and the writer [from Truthdig: www.truthdig.com] introduced Harris as "the world's most prominent atheist."
I laughed, because this is what the jacket blurb of The God Delusion said about Dawkins.
Overall, and I was going to put this in my blog-article but was trying to stay half-decently succinct, it often seems to me that in these matters of Science <--> Religion, we are looking for Either/Or answers when the best that is available to us falls along the lines of Both/And.
And sometimes we don't even have this. We only have the questions.

10/08/2006 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting story (yours that is), some would call it a miracle, while others a coincidence.

All comes back to certainty doesn't it. The atheist/scientist believes that the facts alone stand to say "there is no god". However, these facts are minute in comparison to what we don't know about ourselves, the universe and "the unknowable".

It is the certainty of fundamentalism of any beleif (religious or scientific), to the exclusion of all others that drives me around the bend.

Book sounds good enough to read however. Like Harper's The Pagan Christ, worth the read if you can take something from it to mold your world view and reject what doesn't make sense. This is expanding knowledge at its best!!!


10/09/2006 10:55 AM  
Blogger cipriano said...

Great comments r.m.d':
It's the certainty that breeds the fundaMENTALism, for sure.
Harpur's book, as you may know, played an influential part in my own spiritual renaissance. But the way you described the thing is exactly it, and is the case with many many books on these subjects.... in fact, maybe it applies to ALL books that deal with these subjects of spirituality. They must be read as though they were being poured into a sieve. We [the readers] sift through the thing, and some elements will fall through and be lost to us, perhaps not so much that the information is wrong, even, but that the timing is wrong. Later, we may be able to absorb such information, but not yet. Not now.
Then again, the more we continue to pour stuff onto that sieve [which is the mesh or the grid of our current understanding] there will almost always be nuggets of really transformative stuff, right there, left on top, at the surface, that we can easily pick off, and use. Add it to what we've already got.
Exactly as you said, "This is expanding knowledge at its best!"
The whole encounter is a process. May it never end. And may we never tire, of the sifting.

10/09/2006 11:49 AM  
Blogger Ronald E. Gollner said...

All right...you just had to go and mention that you had a Mac powerbook G4, didn't you????

Well, I used to have one.

Don't ask.

Anyway, I love your stuff.

Just stopping by, but I'll be back.

The blog address is: http://snapshotsatstarbucks.vox.com

10/23/2006 11:29 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

Wonderful post..Midgley spoke for me almost perfectly, though I'd want to change:

'What we need, in fact, is a bit more self-knowledge' into a lot more self-knowledge.

Are you aware of www.darkage.ca by the way? Longsword may say things of interest to you.

The thing, I think about all fundamentalisms is that they reveal the shrunken, tunnel visioned, over- intellectual nature of our mental processes.

And I believe the popular anti-dote to fundamentalism, scepticism, I think can be also fraught with shortcomings, principally soul disengagement and spiralling, deconstructive cynicism. Scepticism itselk can be a type of fundamentalism.

There are no easy answers but the fault lies I think in the nature of our consciousness itself.

'There is something wrong with the world'..as Morpheus from the Matrix would say.

Happy New Year

12/28/2006 1:17 AM  
Blogger Amelia said...

Cold Molasses has said everything I wished to and more.

Have you heard about "The Language of God: A Scientitist Presents Evidence for Belief" by Francis S. Collins. From what I understand, the author is a well-known scientist and also a believer who wants to show that you can love and enjoy science and still have faith. I'm waiting for it to come out in trade paperback. I've heard nothing but good things about it and thought you might be interested.

3/30/2007 7:07 PM  
Blogger cipriano said...

Thank you for visiting godpuddle Amelia.
I have not read Collins, no.
But you inspire me to do so.
All the best to you.

4/01/2007 3:01 PM  
Blogger Trekin4JC said...

I would recommend "The End of Faith" by Ravi Zacharias as it is a Christian response to Sam Harris's "End of Reason" and the new atheist in general. Dawkins and Harris only look at extremism and site examples that are false to try and lay the foundations for their philosophy. It is more an angry attack on Christianity than it is scholarly philosophy. What they have failed to do is to look into authentic Christianity. Those who truly show the love of Christ. The Bible has to be taken as literal and as a whole story--a story which reveals Christ to the world.

Science is not the totality of knowledge. It can only study the physical world as it is. It cannot make metaphysical claims. Dawkins claims that evolution excellently explains our existence. But even evolution has failed to be proven. Any honest scientist will admit this. So the atheist uses more faith than the Christian because it is far less possible for the explanation of our existence to come from evolution than from a Creator.

5/15/2008 8:25 AM  
Blogger cipriano said...

Thank you for reading me, Trekin4JC.
If you read former incarnations of godpuddle, you may see that this is an especially buzzy bee in my bonnet, this stuff about “literalism.”
You had said: The Bible has to be taken as literal and as a whole story--a story which reveals Christ to the world.
I really should not do this, for it is cruel and unusual, but whenever the topic of literalism comes up, I ask people to re-read a passage in 2 Kings 2:23-24.
It goes like this: From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!"
He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.

Then I say, “If I interpret this in any sort of literal way, and you are able to show me even the slightest bit of spiritual nourishment I am supposed to receive from this vignette, you should go on tour with David Copperfield.”
Not the Charles Dickens character.
I mean the magician guy!
Much like the story of the Red Sea parting and all of the Israelites getting on through.
Great story.

5/16/2008 2:30 PM  
Blogger Trekin4JC said...

First of all the things that happened in Scripture really historically happened. But not everything was condoned by God that happened. We can learn from the lessons of the past. I am familar with the passage you quote. I believe it happened as did the parting of the red sea. Or Samson killing 1000 Philistines with a donkey's jaw bone. Or Daniel surviving the Lions Den. Or Moses commanding the plagues that freed the Israelites. Or Jesus being born of a virgin, preforming many miralces, and raising from the dead. How is any of this difficult for God? If you believe Genesis 1:1 all the rest is easy. If God exist and if He is who He says He is then all the supernatural biblical stories can easily be seen as historical events.

You believe in God, but not in the things He has done or is doing? Are you a Deist?

5/16/2008 3:30 PM  

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