Thursday, August 30, 2007

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

For some funny reason, the tone of this book reminded me of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. And lo and behold, whilst reading it, what book does Richard Dawkins make mention of but Singer’s Animal liberation.

As Peter Singer saw animal liberation as the next step in liberation movements after women’s lib and gay ‘pride’, so Richard Dawkins sees atheism as the next logical step in our human development.

Reading through The God Delusion I couldn’t stop thinking of those lines from J G Frazer’s study The Golden Bough. From memory, J G Frazer’s theory was that civilisation had passed through three stages, firstly there was magic, then there was religion, and now we have science. Who’s not to say in 500 years that science will not be looked upon as some kind of primitive voodoo?

The theme of this book struck me as somewhat mean: to try and talk poor deluded souls out of their beliefs. Even condescending. There are parts in the book where Dawkins quotes statistics that show the more uneducated you are, the more likely you are to be relgious. To try and talk billions of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists (and the many other religions there are) out of their beliefs seems a totally impossible, and therefore you could argue, foolish enterprise.

In my thirties I have tried to read the religious texts and take what I guess you could call a more liberal view of religion, different from the more dismissive attitiude of my younger years. I think the moral teachings of Jesus are without peer, the Koran a book of splendid beauty, and the Old Testament an extraordinary (violent, horrible and of incomparable literary merit) catalogue of writings.

Richard Dawkins himself is stuck in this aesthetic bind. While wanting to see an end to religion and belief, he still wants to retain the bible because of its literary merit. There are a few pages where he lists all the expressions we use from the Bible. He also admits that the teachings of Jesus have great moral value.

Um, so the question is, how do you teach the moral lessons of Jesus and then cut out Jesus's own messianic delusions? It reminds me of that poem by Emily Dickenson that goes something like, You want life, but without the living.

Despite my misgivings, by book’s end I was totally on Dawkins’s side. His case is well argued. The blind, ardent belief in religion is like that line by Goya, about how the imagination when left unchecked creates impossible monsters.

Actually, here’s a quote I just found from J G Frazer which perfectly encapsulates the above:

"The danger, however, is not less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid."

This is the situation we have today, over heated religious brains doing grotesque things because of fanciful beliefs. Like the suicide bombers who believe they are going straight to heaven once they blow themselves (and other people) up.

(Yes, I know there are also political considerations as to why people choose to be suicide bombers. But when you see how Iranians talk about their ‘martyrs’, and how they are even envious of those who died during the Iran/Iraq war because they went straight to heaven, then you have to shake your head in wonder - or awe.)

Religion is part of our imagination, and as Freud said, humans cannot live on reality alone. We need to live in a state of delusion in order to get through the day. It also helps fuel some terrific art. When Mahalia Jackson sings, I too thank the Lord for her glorious voice.

Nice try Richard Dawkins, but only the converted would read this book. It is more important for the world to grapple with the problems of American religious fundamentalism (a group that supported Bush and his Iraq war), and the Muslim fundamentalists who fight him.

(Re-reading this post, let me change the above. Relgious people would read this book, and Dawkins provides many insights about the current state of fundamentalist religion with regards to the war on terror. So it is quite relevant in that respect.)

Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book very much, and would be tempted to read some of his other books. He’s such a civilised, liberal Englishman, the type I find hard to resist.

Visit his website here:

http://richarddawkins.net/

One last note: I read the ABC's book club post for this book, and was amazed by Germaine Greer's comments . It seemed like she had only flicked through the book. And if you look through the comments by readers on that site, a lot of people were critical of Greer, saying she hadn't read the book at all. I'm amazed by Greer's effrontery having read this book, and think she's a bit of a charlatan.

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