Friday, November 6, 2015

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

This book so weighed on me that I couldn’t finish it the first time, so began again recently, to refresh his points in my mind. One might think I was depressed to hear his hypothesis, that there can be no God, but frankly, it was not that. I have tended to think in his direction for many years now. More, it was his description of the profound hatred those who profess religion exhibit towards others outside their sect. It is stomach-churning to hear the vitriol harbored by folks who believe themselves “chosen,” no matter which religion it is that believes itself the one, true religion. It is enough to make one despair of humans.

Humans should challenge their beliefs frequently to make sure they are not just spouting rote learning. We have brains capable of thought, so we should at least try to work it out. Why say, "these are things I cannot understand?" In that case, we would have more humility and doubt about our beliefs than the certainty too many exhibit. When one does the “homework,” one will turn in one’s mind many of Dawkins’ arguments, and his work will feel familiar, simple, and clear at first. The thing Dawkins does for which I am grateful is that he takes all baby steps that a questing individual must take, buttressing his points with work from those who have walked this questing path before as well as giving us sometimes amusing, sometimes heartbreaking examples of those who have not challenged received wisdom and who adhere violently to things they admit they do not understand but merely believe.

Years ago I read the Bible. A couple of things hit me: the source of much that is memorable in our literature is referenced from the Bible; The Old Testament documents revoltingly violent and cruel behaviors; both testaments are filled with superstitions and magic (call them miracles if you prefer) and stress the importance of faith over the evidence of our own experience. That’s why Dawkins’ examples roll off the backs of Christians. They were taught to distrust evidence and believe. The kindness and magnanimity taught in the New Testament did not take as well, clearly. Why? That is much harder to pull off than “not thinking.” Yes, I think many self-professed Christians are lazy. They are “saved” by virtue of “accepting God.” Why bother with goodness? But all they need to do is “confess” and they are forgiven. Again, why bother with goodness? You can say that is not what God intended, but what does that matter? it is how he is practiced.

How can we evolve (read: improve, for those who rankle at the thought of evolution) if we do not challenge accepted wisdom? Many of us learned religion as children, when we were accepting the teachings given us by adults, presumably wiser. By the time we reach our teens most of us have discovered wide disparities between the reality we experience and what we were told by adults. We begin to question. It is only much later that we can piece together our own beliefs. This should include religion since it is one of the more mysterious and irrational of our belief systems. It is always wise to check now and again what we believe when it comes to religion, especially now, in a time when the religious beliefs of others are once again threatening all we hold dear.

For a long time I thought the teaching of morality might be an important role of religion. My own experience has taught me, however, that self-professed Christians are among the least tolerant and accepting of those outside their religion (outside of ISIS now) of all religious folk. (There is no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility.”—Montaigne)
Surely this hostility is amoral. While I myself learned the beginnings of moral thought in a Catholic environment, I also learned many other questionable behaviors from the nuns, amongst them that creativity is not prized. Dawkins points out that morality and goodness can be taught outside of the constraints of religion. But somehow this seemed the least strong of his arguments: that “do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you” is good evolutionary behavior that will succeed where other behaviors will not. It seems amply clear to me that religious folk have a tendency to kill those who do not believe their brand of God, surely ending evolutionary advancement along those routes.

It matters, I suppose, whether or not there is a God, though I still haven’t figured out why. Truthfully, the first time I read Dawkins I put aside his book aside thinking, who cares whether or not there is a God? What difference does it make? God does not act in the world, or if He does, He is not orchestrating. That seems clear to me. So, if He exists, so what? We still have to get on with doing the best we can with what we have. Be moderate in all things but strive for goodness, kindness, generosity, creativity. It makes you live longer and feel better, and just in case, it may also be good evolutionary behavior.

I listened to the AudioFile audio production of this title, for which AudioFile won its coveted Earphones Award when it came out in 2007. What makes this such a rewarding listening experience is that the two readers, Dawkins himself and his wife, the actress Lalla Ward, take turns with the reading. The two voices break the text into digestible bits and refresh our listening every couple sentences so that we concentrate on what is being said. This is difficult material which might evoke strong reactions or may tend to make the mind wander off in different directions. The two voices help to keep our mind on what is being said. That must demonstrate a bit of evolutionary learning right there.

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