A Word in Your ear, Richard, if you are listening?
A response to an interview with Richard Dawkins in The Irish Times, Tuesday, October 10, 2006, page 15)
Richard Dawkins has once again produced another, undoubtedly marvellous and eruditely and logically argued, book. Its title is both provocative and strident - The God Delusion (Bantam Press, £20 in the UK). It is hardly necessary to state that Dawkins is a strong Darwinian atheist. It is also equally as unnecessary to question the stridency of the title of his new book. These thoughts are occasioned by my reading an interview with Dawkins in The Irish Times (Tuesday, October 10th, page 15). I have only read one of Dawkins’s books, namely The Selfish Gene and found it riveting when I read it many years ago. It is hard to believe that this latter book was written way back in 1976, in my Leaving Certificate year. However, I was not then sufficiently educated or wise or old enough to have read it with any appreciation. I was to read it many years later, probably in the early eighties when I was doing some post-graduate studies. However, that book, The Selfish Gene, convinced me that Dawkins was a great mind and a marvellous writer. Of this I had no doubt and continue with my opinion. However, he did not convince me to become an atheist. At the time I was a practising believer in the RCC. Now I am an agnostic Buddhist open to arguments from all sides of the debate, while being ever cautious in not backing any one position over another.
However, my real enemy is time. I keep stockpiling books and somehow just manage to nibble away at some of them. I should like, of course, to reread The Selfish Gene to be fair to Richard, and then to purchase his new book, fittingly and provocatively called The God Delusion. The article from The Irish Times is called “Evolution of a Delusion” and is written by Aengus Collins. This article is well worth reading for its simplicity of exposition of what is a rather dry and cerebral debate, called in my student days by such titles as “The God Question”, “The God Debate,” “God Talk,” etc.
I should like to return to Richard Dawkins in some later posts as I find his writing crisp, clear, logical and direct, and his arguments logically and convincingly laid out. Dawkins appeals to the “head” or intellect in me, but almost never to my “heart”. Perhaps if I get the time to read again some of Dawkins old books and his new one I may be fairer in my assessment of the learned professor – all praise here being sincerely meant!
However, the following points come from my heart or my intuition or my gut feelings. Having studied philosophy and theology for years and having worked my way to a certain agnostic position, I have equal suspicion and a certain antipathy towards either strident believers or strident atheists. Why? Well, be they well educated or not, be they professors or not, I, like so many others, take exception to people attempting to convince us of the error of our ways. Let’s call strident believers evangelical in the Bible thumping mould or simple fundamentalists. Let’s call strident atheists militant unbelievers, or even evangelical unbelievers to use a purposely loaded oxymoron, or more simply still fundamentalist scientists.
Here is where philosophy to my mind comes into its own. It never tires asking those questions, pushing us further and further into expanding our horizons. Philosophy again to my mind in the very Queen of The Sciences. I hope the followers of the late great Victorian Anglican and later Roman Catholic theologian John Henry Newman will forgive me for robbing his laudatory title for theology and appropriating it for philosophy. Philosophy will ask the question as I do, “Why do you, Mr Believer, or Mr Unbeliever, or Mr Theist, or Mr Atheist feel the need not alone to convince the neutral others out there, never mind your diametrically opposed debater, of the necessity of your belief position anyway?” “Why also this stridency of argument?” “Okay, I realise the purpose of debating, but are you really open to hearing the opinions or indeed the strongly held beliefs of the opposition?” “Are you an open-minded or a closed-minded person?” “Do you value thought over feeling?” “Are you an intellectual snob?” Do you admire anything at all in their position? Please notice that I’m asking these question of both sides of the debate.
In my life I have always found that those stridently against something have oftentimes been equally strident supporters of it in a former incarnation – if I may be permitted to use a religious metaphor. Witness that many former smokers are stridently opposed to smoking etc. Are militant atheists people who come from very autocratic and fundamentalist religious homes? Have they formerly had religion stuffed down their throats? Is their present stance an equal an opposite reaction to this forced feeding if I may now be permitted a scientific metaphor?
Language is important. Perhaps a good way of analysing a work of theology or indeed of science (especially popular science like those of Richard Dawkins or of the milder Daniel Dennett) would be to examine their use of language. As a philosopher or former theologian I would argue that we might find that writers from both positions use metaphors to further their respective cases. Undoubtedly I might even agree with Richard that the fundamentalist believer uses metaphors in a literal sense and ends up being a literalist or fundamentalist. I might also be able to find similarly fundamentalist examples in Dawkins’s work namely places where he accepts literally the metaphors he uses as regards science. To comb his books with this in mind would be an interesting pursuit. Again time is not on my side here.
As an agnostic Buddhist open to beliefs from all quarters I highly recommend openness to all beliefs or positions, no matter where they come from and say in a rather pragmatic fashion, if such a belief makes a person’s life more easily lived and crises more easily coped with, then to attempt to disabuse that person’s mind of their beliefs may be downright immoral and unethical insofar as it removes a necessary support from them. We can’t all have the strength of intellect or character of a Richard Dawkins.
The two photos I have placed above are ones that I took in August in Siracusa, Sicilia and show 1. L'orecchio di Dionigi - the Ear of Dionysus and 2. La Fonte Aretusa. Ears were made for hearing and papyrus traditionally for writing material!