2.2.09

Religion and Richard Dawkins

I am an atheist. It wasn’t particularly easy to arrive where I am. It was a long process, stretching through most of my teenage years. Curiously for a family of atheists, I adopted a broadly Christian worldview, mainly due to the various children’s Bibles I found amongst the fantasy adventures and fairy tales on my bookshelves. Jesus provided a radical, deeply inspiring and seductive moral exemplar. The God as Allfather idea who looked after and cared for everyone infused my mortal frame with a nobility and purpose which proved a great comfort. The eschatological structure of the religion supplied a way out of the horror of death -- that nothingness of not-existing that had the power to keep me awake and quivering in my bed. It also supplied an assurance that those deserving punishment will get it in the end. From this (rather meagre, as religious indoctrinations go) starting point, the doubts began with a dislike of how religious authorities had distorted the original gospel. The church argued that things I had very little problem with were sinful. I didn’t really understand why sex was bad, for instance. They had got it wrong, I concluded, with the arrogance that comes with youth. Instead, I followed my own way, adapting Jesus’s elusive and malleable teachings on love to my own experience. Rejecting the particular God I had constructed for myself took longer. Even after the childish fear of death and desire for vengeance had subsided, I remained troubled by the lack of purpose in the universe when you removed some kind of guiding hand behind it. What if the earth was struck by a meteor tomorrow and all human life was wiped out? What would have been the point? I was convinced for a long time that we had to be here for a reason.

It took two years of philosophy a-level to finally banish this tenacious idea. Of all the arguments for and against God we went through, the attacks by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists proved the most convincing. More and more, I was becoming aware of how religions were molded by people -- that their eternal truths really expressed the opinions, ethical codes and ideas of different cultures. God did not create man in His image, but the other way around. With this thought reverberating in my skull, and my hasty introduction to Existentialism (thanks Joss) over the summer, I arrived at a most joyous, liberating thought. I didn’t need a God to provide a meaning/narrative for my life. Our gods only legitimize what we already think. Human beings have reason and ability enough to create a purpose for themselves.

It was then that I had my sort of semi-Existential experience. It wasn’t really as magnificent as those recorded in Sartre’s ‘Nausea’, but it was a striking sensation nonetheless. I had been rearranging the books on my increasingly overstuffed shelf, and when I had finished, I just sat back and stared at them for what must have been an hour or more. I was overcome by a real sense of the weight of history -- a tradition of great men and women who had recorded and defined the material world -- imbued it with a magnificence and wonder. I marveled at their talent and their achievements, the beauty they brought to life. Another strain of thought moved me to consider the awe-inspiring nature of man and what he was capable of. His capacity to imagine, to create and to love. I realised that the most important thing we could do in our lives was to achieve our potential, as they had done, and which they made appear limitless. I wanted to be better, to help the world in the way that the authors and thinkers in front of me did. I had a purpose.

All this I recount as an example of how complicated the nature of religion is. It caters for a multitude of human desires, some crude (like an escape from death) and others more refined (like providing life meaning). It also serves a variety of social roles: providing a sense of community, a set of rituals that communicate certain ideas and emotions (christenings, weddings, funerals), and most importantly a moral code for a group of people to live by. These social elements are less prominent in my particular case, as my faith was not shared by my family or friends.

Dawkins understands this complexity. For a while I didn’t think he did, but a conversation with a Dawkins disciple set me straight. Dawkins looks at it like this: just as genes carry the genetic information that makes us who we physically are, our mental selves are constructed by handed-down ‘memes’. These are little scraps of information (a catchphrase, a tune) that fill up our brains and form our experience of the world. Like genes, memes survive only if they are useful -- if they provide explanations of how the world works, ethical codes that make for a cohesive society, rituals that bind it together. Religion is just such another ‘meme’, composed of many others, which has been prominent throughout human history because of its remarkable utility. What Dawkins argues is that the religious, superstitious meme has outlived its usefulness. It has always been dangerous, in that it promotes irrational behaviour, even as it binds a community together. Today, we no longer need it. We have science to explain the world, and can use rational values to unite our community.

(By the way, secular ideologies are not necessarily harmless -- fascism, communism and capitalism have all had their victims. But they are at least based on a rational view of the way the world works, which in theory should minimize the *really* crackpot ideas religious cults come up with. Whether that theory is true or not is a question for another day. Sometimes I think that all ideologies are dangerous oversimplifications of reality, other times I deem them a necessary tool to inspire action. But anyway...)

My problem with Dawkins is not particularly with what he says. I have never found his genes/memes analogy particularly helpful, preferring to look closer at the ideas of the psychologists and anthropologists who have come up with the various explanations and purposes of religion. But I have met and talked to people (above disciple included) who have found it a useful way of looking at the progress of intellectual history. So no quarrels there. My problem lies with Dawkins’ approach.

In my journey towards atheism, what I invariably found most helpful were the theories that sought to explain my religious impulse -- why I was feeling that the religious answer was the right answer. Such psychological/anthropological theories, even those subsequently largely discarded (e.g. Freud), convinced me that religions were man made -- what Dawkins describes as memes. From there it was pretty easy to discard the remaining vestiges of a religious ideology. In contrast, Dawkins approaches the goal of promoting the secular worldview from the perspective of a scientist. He methodically demonstrates the irregularities and irrationalities of religion, and how they have lead to great moral evils. But he finds very little time to discuss in detail how religions are formed and spread. So instead of appearing to understand and empathize with the impulse towards religion, he appears arrogant, sanctimonious and condescending -- explaining to stupid people why they are wrong. I feel that the reputation he holds doesn’t always serve his cause. People who may have been receptive to his message are turned off by what they perceive as a hostile barrage rather than a reasonable argument. I long for Dawkins to make a television program where he explores the religious impulse in the detail it deserves, and analyses his own journey from believer to atheist. I think this will humanize him, remove the negative stereotype that plagues his message and hinders the achievement of his goals.

Because ultimately the goal is worth aiming for.

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