Saturday, May 3, 2014

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Five years ago, I was absolutely honoured to be asked to do a reading at my cousin Danny’s wedding (okay, so most people call him Daniel at this point, but as I’m older than him by three days, I feel the need to remind him that he’s the younger one with his childhood nickname).  I think I had met Danny’s finance, Michelle, once before that, but we had Facebook stalked each other enough at that point that, while the invite to do the reading was a delightful surprise, I felt comfortable in doing it.  When I met Michelle during the wedding prep, she was lovely and open, and I knew she was a great foil for the shyer Danny.  The wedding was great, and I know it was Michelle’s goal to start a family as soon as possible, so I was thrilled when I found out that she would be a mother.  Drake came along, and Michelle fell into the Mommy Role like it was made for her; after spending some time with her on a trip to visit family, I learnt that she was really hoping to grow her little family, so was thrilled to learn that she was expecting when she let us know late last year.

Then, one morning, I was logging onto Facebook, and found out that Michelle had lost the baby.  She had commented several times about how active he was in the womb, and in being that way, he had done something to his umbilical chord, cutting him off from his loving mother.  When Michelle went for a routine check-up, she found out that the baby had passed away.  Michelle, Danny and Drake are such an engaging little family, that I think when the news got out, hearts broke for them all over the country.  If you know Michelle, you know how important this second pregnancy was to her.  In order to cope, Michelle started a blog about her experiences, and I strongly encourage you all to read it (you can do so here).

It was Michelle’s post about her challenges with her faith that encouraged me to read my latest book, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.  Michelle is (was?) a religious person, and she’s now having a hard time reconciling her experiences in loosing a long wished-for child with her faith (and who can blame her?).  I lost my own belief years ago, but I respect those that still have it.  When Michelle wrote about her own struggles with faith, I wanted to see what one of the publishing world’s foremost atheists had to say about the matter.  

The God Delusion is Dawkins’ well-laid out thesis against the existence of a deity.  He walks his reader through the biological and sociological conditions that created the belief in deities, the theological arguments for a god, and the counter-arguments he often faces when talking about his own beliefs in public (mainly that we need ‘god’ to have rules about how to be good people).  The book is peppered with examples of people who believe in a higher-power, and the damage they can do to society.

Dawkins is very unapologetic about his stance.  And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion and standing by it.  What I do have a problem with, though, was that he was sometimes petulant about it.  Frequently, he’ll write a passage countering a person of faith’s comments with a glib bon mot, or an insult, as if that person was dumb.  You don’t have to agree with someone, but you don’t have to be dismissive of their beliefs, either.  But I understand what has driving Dawkins’ to this attitude.  We’re living in a world where religious faith is the last bastion of political incorrectness;  a person’s religious beliefs are held to be infallible and untouchable, but a person without religion or faith is derided for that same sense of belief.  I get the impression that The God Delusion was written after Dawkins’ long career of being called dumb by a lot of these religious leaders.  It seems like Dawkins was no longer able to rise above (or turn the other cheek, hoy-oh!) to these religious extremists who hide behind their belief, but feel non-pulsed about criticizing Dawkins’ own lack of belief.

Another flaw I found in this work is that Dawkins seems to understand faith and religion as interchangeable.  I was heading down the path of becoming a lapsed Catholic throughout my undergrad, and one of the big nails in the coffin was an interview between Jon Stewart and the Bishop Desmond Tutu.  Tutu pointed out to Stewart that faith and religion shouldn’t be confused; faith is a pure belief that requires nothing but a person and a higher power.  When faith becomes religion, faith begins to breakdown, because a person’s energy goes into perpetrating the religion (i.e. maintaining a holy book, or a building to house that holy book).  Tutu’s comment made sense to me, and since then, I’ve always separated faith and religion in my mind, something Dawkins doesn’t seem able to do, and I think this is, once again, a knee jerk reaction to a career’s worth of going head to head with those responsible for perpetrating religion above faith.

I’ve talked a lot about what I didn’t like about this book, but I think there are a lot of good points too.  I liked Dawkins’ scientific approach (he’s a biologist by training) to explaining the human mind’s creation of deities; I liked his constant reminder that children should never be forced to adopt their parents’ religious morals; and I liked the way he calls out creationists and other pseudo-scientists who try to mingle religion and science.  Because of my current situation, I think a lot of what he was writing was going over my head, but I got the gist, and I look forward to reading The God Delusion again when I’ve got a clearer head.

So, final verdict?  This book isn’t for everyone.  If you’re a die-hard religious/faith fanatic, you’ll read it in a spirit of finding flaws.  If you’re questioning your religion and/or faith, this might shed some light on the dark corners of the question.  And if you’ve left your religion or faith behind, this book provides a justification for what that’s okay.  As for Michelle, I think (and this is just my opinion) what happened was that her god broke their social contract.  She promised her god to be as good a person as she could be, and in return he would look after her and the ones she loved.  She held up her part of the bargain, but her god fell short.  And in her “Rant” posting, it’s heartbreaking to read her anger, but perfectly understandable; her God Hypothesis (the opposite of Dawkins’ God Delusion) has been tested, and it’s up to Michelle where she’ll go from here.  Regardless of where she ends up on the question of a higher power, I know we’ll all stand beside her – she’s too good and lovely of a person for anyone to do anything else.

(Michelle’s blog, Griffin’s Flight, is a well-written explanation of the medical and mental process of what happened.  I commend her for being brave enough to educate the rest of us on her experiences, and encourage everyone to read her account, if for no other reason that to learn how to be more compassionate for mothers who have had similar experiences.)

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