Saturday, September 01, 2007


Those of you familiar with my website beyond this blog know that when I find a book to be well written and provocative, I often post a review of it on The book I’m currently reading certainly falls into that category. And yet, no matter how well written and provocative it may be, it is also driving me crazy enough that I must blog about it. In other words, it’s making me need to vent.

The book I’m talking about is a best seller. While The Creed Room currently ranks at something like 148,000 on Amazon (trust me, it’s been a lot worse), the book I’m reading is at #77. Last year when it came out, it was in the top 10. For a book about God that isn’t the Bible, that’s pretty impressive.

The God Delusion was written by Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. I bought it because I’m doing some research for a book of my own about divinity, but the one I have in mind will look at God as a concept we might want to embrace, at least in a form that we as individuals can select for ourselves. By contrast, Dawkins would like the concept of divinity to enter our species scrapheap. In 374 pages, he gives one reason after another why the “God hypothesis” is anything but true, religion is anything but good, and religious people are downright ugly.

By rights, I ought to praise Dawkins’ book, not simply for the quality of his writing but also for his generosity in including me within his club. After all, the first chapter of The God Delusion praises my beloved Spinozistic Pantheism as “sexed-up atheism.” So there! Dawkins has made me an honorary atheist. When, in a few weeks, I spend the entire Yom Kippur day engaged in prayer, I’ll try to keep in mind that I’m really just fooling myself; deep down, I’m really just a horny atheist. (Then again, aren’t we all?)

Seriously, though, what bothers me about Dawkins book is that it’s so darned popular. So are a number of other atheist rants that have been published in recent years, including Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation. I can now picture an entire army of readers hatin’ religion with the same passion that was formerly the exclusive province of religion itself. Why criticize religion in a hundred words, they presumably think, when you can criticize it in 100,000? And why admit that there might possibly be something, anything valid to the religious impulse other than as an opiate to the masses, as Karl Marx – not exactly the baron of balance – once said.

I like to call Nietzsche the “great antithesizer” because his philosophy seemed primarily to be a powerful reaction against the metaphysical and ethical views that dominated mainstream thought for thousands of years. But I love Nietzsche nevertheless because he was not interested in scrapping religiosity altogether. He simply wanted to explain how it had been led astray.

Dawkins and his minions are different. They seem truly to want to oppose, oppose and oppose some more. The impression I get is that Dawkins is someone with a mind of an adult writing to a legion of fans who have the minds – and the hearts – of an adolescent. Adolescents tend not to live in a world of subtlety. They want to know which bands “rock,” and which bands “suck.” They want to know which girls are “hot” and which girls are … well, you remember all the words they have for “not hot” in that context. I suspect that Dawkins’ fans have similar black and white concepts when they think about religion. Atheism, they believe, is cool, and by “atheism” I don’t just mean non-belief, but macho, broad-shouldered, in-your-face atheism. “God,” on the other hand, is lampooned as a concept for idiots and fools.

Dawkins might see himself as a scientist and an intellectual but, to me he comes across as a preacher espousing just another organized religion. His religion, like most American faiths, is based on dogma. “God” for example, is given the dogmatic meaning of being a supernatural, anthropomorphic, personal deity, and anyone who employs another definition of God is accused of “misleading” the world by employing terminology that has lawfully been appropriated by troglodytes. (It’s funny, but I suspect he is a supporter of gay marriage who, like me, has no trouble re-defining “marriage” to suggest that it doesn’t have to involve a man and a woman; it’s not the re-defining of words that bothers Dawkins, it’s religion in all its manifestations.) While it is true that Dawkins’ disciples don’t build churches to support their views, they do get together in an increasing number of clubs all over America. And in those clubs, the mantra is very clear: our job isn’t to reform or modernize the idea of God. Our job is to kill God, over and over and over again. That, they claim, is the only way in which our species can regain hegemony over our planet.

Empathic Rationalism as a philosophy doesn’t shy away from expressing opinions, whether they’re popular or not. Empathic Rationalism also affirms the atheist’s agenda in exposing those aspects of traditional religious thought that are not only antiquated but are in fact dangerous. But must we merely attack? Isn’t there anything to preserve about religion? Indeed, isn’t there anything to revere?

My problem with modern atheism is the same as my problem with theism as it is conventionally practiced – it takes a domain that is wondrously complex and turns it into something that is stupidly simple. “Simple” sells. But “complex” enlightens. Complex elevates. Complex inspires. And one of the things it inspires is true religiosity.

As I read The God Delusion, I can’t help feeling the heartbeats of 19 year olds all over the country who are voicing the word “Amen, brother” after every anecdote about moronic Muslims, or every counter-argument against a Christian theologian. It’s the same “Amen,” that you hear in Fundamentalist churches whenever someone points out the “sins” of secular society or the poverty of a life without faith in Christ.

Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, regardless of its particular manifestation. You can be a fundamentalist who believes in God, but just as easily, you can be a fundamentalist who wants to throw out the baby (the concept of God, in all its potential variety) with the bathwater (religious orthodoxy).

Dawkins is surely correct in arguing that if America is to wake out of its slumber, we need to fight fundamentalism. But the fight needs to be joined in earnest. The Pat Robertsons of the world have thrown away the colors of the rainbow and replaced them with but a silly binary system of Biblical literalism (white) versus secular amorality (black). Dawkins has done more or less the same thing by pitting science (white) versus religion (black).

What do you say we find a third path, one born of the acceptance of subtlety and the ability to see multiple sides of an issue? It might not sell as many books, but there’s something to be said for following the truth wherever it leads, even if it leads us to sex-down our books. Publishers may want readers to turn the pages, not to cogitate, but cogitation is what’s needed if we hope to confront our world’s deepest problems as honest-to-God adults.

No comments: