Working through the book pile

Six weeks ago I started reading a number of books, possibly a bit ambitiously I kicked all four off at once. This is no more than checking in as I haven’t yet finished them – but I am over half way. So far I have completed:

Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion. Clearly in places a rant and not as well argued as expected in places, but a very enjoyable book and necessary reading for anyone who takes the topic of religion seriously, on either side of the divide.

I felt Mr Dawkins was like the man who finally had had enough of the sniping and negative speak, and in the end felt he had no choice but to say things as he really felt. As such, he made a few cutting remarks of his own – but having got these off his chest, presented the arguments against organised religion pretty well. There were a number of weaknesses – the Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Abrahamic religions got off pretty scot free, and the presentation of religiousness as 2-dimensional, i.e. there was a straight line between atheists and zealots depending on level of belief was, I thought, a bit simplistic.

Perhaps weakest of all was the explanation of the fact that there is no God primarily on the basis of probability. Of course God is highly improbable, but then so is the human race, the latter fact one which Mr Dawkins felt proved itself by the presence of thee and me. The fly in the ointment is perhaps the assumption that we can only judge by what we can measure, when of course at the same time we are woefully inadequate to to such a thing, both from our ill-equipped position at the periphery of some far-flung galaxy and also our fundamental, stupid humanity.

None of which proves there is a God either, but as spake the humanist prophet Douglas Adams, with proof, there is no need for faith. I do wonder about this one – specifically (and I would love Mr Dawkins’ feedback) that perhaps we have a genetic propensity towards such socio-psychological constructs. More specifically still, perhaps it is our drive towards higher planes of thinking that have in some way enabled us to evolve, to the point where we are now. Organised religion may have been the cause of much that is wrong, but what if it is a prime factor in our development as a race?

I don’t know the answer to this, but it is certainly worthy of investigation. Food for thought: would the Buddhists in Burma have taken on the government there, if they had no faith in their own higher powers? Does religion come from community, or community from religion? And indeed, have we really advanced so far in the past 10,000 years that we no longer need such a crutch? As I was walking the dog earlier I was considering the existence of “psychogenes” – perhaps these are as selfish as those concerned with our more physiological aspects (and if these are already well-established and under the scope, clearly I need to read more).

M. Scott PeckThe Road Less Travelled and Beyond. I was really looking forward to this as I got a great deal out of the original The Road Less Travelled, and to be sure there were some moments of clear insight in this book. Indeed, there was a point about a third of the way in where I thought how great it might be if Mr Peck and Mr Dawkins were in conversation together: one, whose science had proven there was no God, and the other, whose experiences in psychology had proven that there was.

Unfortunately, Mr Peck’s book was like a mirror on his own, fragile humanity. To say he had “lost it” towards the end is a bit strong but his arguments were blunted by his own desire to get closer to the higher truth, and to present it from a Christian standpoint (though he did bring in some teachings from other doctrines). It didn’t help either that I was well aware by the time I got half way about his own weaknesses, and while I was happy to reconcile that he could talk about his experiences as a psychotherapist without considering his own shortfalls, I wasn’t prepared to put up with him being too preachy.

In some ways Mr Peck came across like Icarus, having flown too close to the sun, or perhaps one of the architects of Babel, returning from the top but ill-equipped to articulate all he found there. Not long afterwards of course he was to die, all too young, of Parkinson’s disease, proving beyond doubt his thesis of death being the great leveller.

In conclusion, what both books  taught me was that we are all only human, and that there are some things that we can never prove for sure, one way or the other. This is perhaps less about God, and more about us… but still, it may just be the way things are supposed to be.

I’m now tackling Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown, and it is with no small sense of irony that I find myself drawn more towards this illusionist and iconoclast. You see, here’s the rub – I do happen to believe that we can be convinced of all sorts of things, good or bad, its one of the things that makes us human (and its a reason I could never subscribe to the Wisdom of Crowds).  We also love stories (as described in my other book on the go, The Seven Basic Plots) –  these are things that make us who we are. Equally no doubt, is the fact that we love to constantly revisit these arguments. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, with proof there could be no debate. And where would that leave us.

Working through the book pile

2 thoughts on “Working through the book pile

  1. BaldySlaphead says:

    With your remarks on the Dawkins book, you’re undoubtedly right that it’s occasionally too polemic, but I would make a couple of comments on some of the other things you’ve said.

    You remark, “Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Abrahamic religions got off pretty scot free”. I think that although this is correct and there is an overwhelming bias against the Abrahamic religions, Dawkins is careful to be explicit that the sort of God he is debunking is “a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them)”. He is also explicit in excluding a deist, non-interventionalist God and Spinoza’s God.

    That, however, doesn’t explain why he concentrates on the Abrahamic religions so much. That bais is a direct result of the fact that it’s followers of Abrahamic religions, and specifically Christianity, that are attacking the scientific method, and the book explicitly hopes to deconvert them.

    You then say, “Of course God is highly improbable, but then so is the human race, but then so is the human race, the latter fact one which Mr Dawkins felt proved itself by the presence of thee and me. The fly in the ointment is perhaps the assumption that we can only judge by what we can measure […]”.

    You’re right, but of course not only do we have tools that allow us to examine much more of the universe than we ourselves can experience, but also Theists are constantly insisting that God is interacting with the physical world that we can see. There is no evidence to prove this, and moreover, we do have falsifiable theories that consistantly do what is predicted upon testing that preclude their being a God of the nature proscribed by Theists. The fact is that we’re inprobable, but provably, testably in existance. God is improbable, undetectable and worst of all (for theists), unnecessary.
    On a scale of 1-7 where 7 is total atheism, Dawkins describes himself as a strong 6; show him evidence and he’ll reconsider. On the basis of what we have now, God doesn’t do the business, and he’s getting more improbable all the time…

    Bloody atheists, eh? Douglas Adams was one, of course, converted from agnosticism by his mate, Richard Dawkins.

  2. Yup, agree with all of that! Apart from the word “unnecessary” in the following: “The fact is that we’re inprobable, but provably, testably in existance. God is improbable, undetectable and worst of all (for theists), unnecessary.”

    I am totally agnostic on this one – but as I say – what if, without belief systems (or indeed the ability to dispute them) we would be less of a race? This doesn’t prove the existence of God, but perhaps it could explain the need of many to believe in something, without knowing why.

    Thinking about it, it should be provable – do there exist atheistic cultures that thrive without any additional/spiritual support? I maybe need to do some research 😉

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