Thursday, January 31, 2008

Perhaps inspired by my recent encounters with the representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (whose leader and prophet died last week at the age of 97 – presumably they now have to somehow appoint another prophet), as the Mormons prefer to call themselves, I recently borrowed a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion from the local British Council library (still tolerated by the regime here, unlike its Russian counterpart). I’m only about half way through it so far, but up to this point I have to say I find it curiously unsatisfying, and I’m trying to put my finger on exactly why this is. Compared to the little I’ve read from Book of Mormon I certainly find it a great deal more credible, in fact I agree so far with the vast majority of what Dawkins has to say, but… something’s not quite right here.

Maybe its because essentially the book seems rather pointless. Granted, atheists are discriminated against worldwide as ungodly heathens or whatever preposterous insults certain ignorant and distressingly unimaginative swine might grunt at us, so there is at least in theory good reason, both intellectually and morally, to defend the atheist position, but realistically what is this book going to change? The case for atheism, as I see it, is very strong if not overwhelming, but religion, delusion as it most probably is, remains a major force to be reckoned with. And by the look of things Dawkins is going to do a fat lot of good about that.

One problem is that I find it hard to believe anyone will be converted by this book. One of the great strengths of religion is its gargantuan ability to make excuses for itself in the face of devastating evidence and vastly superior arguments to the contrary. Its devotees proudly, in most cases smugly, declare that it requires a “leap of faith”, which therefore makes it virtually impossible to argue against with recourse to any kind of reason. Religious people frequently pride themselves on their disdain for mere earthbound, prosaic intellectual rigour. They are automatically on a higher plane from the start, since they can do something we can’t, i.e. believe what to us is unbelievable. How do you win a rational argument against that? How do you even begin one? Add to that the probability that very few religious people are going to even open Dawkins’ book, and what have you got? A fairly superfluous piece of work.

You might protest that I ought to rather applaud his courage, given the magnitude of the odds against him. This might be easier to do however if he didn’t spend so much time sniping at soft targets. For example:

· In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.

· The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.

· The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days

· Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.

· If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.

· If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.

· The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but was ‘assumed’ bodily into heaven.

· Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘becomes’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Yes Richard, all bloody right, I think I get the point, my brain is now suitably overflowing with images of sledgehammers and nuts. To me this all seems drearily obvious, whilst to Christians also it’s no more than a confirmation of what they already knew, that to non-believers their faith must seem absurd, which in turn makes their stance all the more heroic. The overall tone is a mirror image of the self-righteous complacency of those who are able to perform the leap of faith; in his tiresomely mocking repetition of “the fatherless man” (you mean a bastard? tee-hee!), to use one example, he is saying little more than “look how wrong you are and how right I am, look how much better I am than you”, and the feeling I come away with is that this is the real reason he wrote it.

There’s also the problem of Dawkins’ desperation to pounce on religion at every opportunity, such as his evaluation of the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and former Yugoslavia as basically attributable to religion, which is not only lazily reductionist but simply inaccurate. In combination with Dawkins’ by turns facetious and petulant tone, the whole thing starts to stink of a rather puerile obsession. Naturally, he’s got to get a whole book out of the thing, so it may be a bit unfair to criticise him for being so comprehensive in his demolition, and additionally if I accuse him of merely stating the obvious whenever I agree with him whilst taking offence at what I perceive as his inaccuracy when I don’t, it could be said that, to use religious terminology, he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. So far, from what I’ve read, I couldn’t say that the book is entirely without redeeming features, it contains a few interesting facts and by pointing out certain inconsistencies in the scriptures at least saves me from having to trawl all the way through the bloody bible, which would no doubt be infinitely more tedious. But the impression I have at this stage is that Dawkins on the whole is pretty boring himself, and this is perhaps his greatest failing – he’s just a bad writer. Whereas Hitchens, who now and then erupts with opinions I strongly disagree with, does at least for the greater part seem able to do so with a fair degree of panache, with Dawkins this is sadly lacking.

If it improves miraculously in the second half I promise to repent publicly. Don’t hold your breath though.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, whos this Hichens guy, you mentioned him before? I would actually like to read something comprehensive....Dawkins sounds like some kind of atheist seckt, if sucha thing is possible, which is even more miserable thing than a religious sect. In the land of beautiful ortodox lithurgy,(that one has to admire, even from aesthetical point of view), one has to do a whole lot better- even for an absoulute atheist like me.

9:25 AM  
Blogger ASHDAV said...

Christopher Hitchens (not to be confused with his idiot brother Peter) is a British writer and journalist who now lives in the US. He's quite a maverick, most of his life he's been a socialist and is still probably on the left on most issues, but he was strongly in favour of the war in Iraq and has been quite pro Bush and pro Wolfowitz. Recently he's published a book "God is not great - how religion poisons everything". I personally have a lot of reservations about him, but unlike Dawkins he usually manages to be quite entertaining. He likes a drink too. Maybe you could get hold of some of his stuff for the bookshop, I'd be interested to hear what you think of his views on the Balkan conflicts - I suspect you'd be under-impressed.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmm this has been one lazy and
somewhat pleasently hungover saturday so i actually read some articles by Mr. Hitchens. He is very entertaining, and i also like his views on couple of things - religion and Michael Moore, to name the two. He, of course, doesnt have a clue on the balkans but hey, the same goes for the people who live here, so ...
thanx for the tip,
best from down and under

8:10 PM  

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