It took many long thoughts before I was ready to write a response to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I have tossed a lot of things in my religion closet over the years and was overdue for the cleaning this book provided. I still feel a bit raw.
I will give you my personal context as briefly as possible. I grew up in a fundamentalist church, believing the literal heaven and hell story as a child, rejecting it as a teen, and settling with agnosticism as an adult. I look back at the childhood experience as a positive one. I read the bible multiple times and can speak knowledgeably about it. It fashioned me into a reader and a philosophical thinker. Like any teen I decried hypocrisy. In truth most Christians were better people than their principles. My main contention was the general unwillingness to admit the religious story might be wrong. I still root out the occasional blind spot caused by fundamentalism but today I feel easily clear of its influence. I had settled into a cozy agnosticism when Dawkins’ book came along. I am not a new atheist and will not begin deriding theists. In fact, I am clearer on the role of religion though uncritical theists will not find in me an easy ally.
I am religious, just like Dawkins. In the opening chapter Dawkins describes a feeling, a profound sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe. The same feeling has been shared in religious terms by Sagan, Einstein, Hawking and other scientists. When these scientists talk about God they are doing so in a poetic sense. The God Delusion, says Dawkins, is not an attack on their God. No, his attack is not on the poetic thinkers but on the literalists. Put crudely, those who believe the fairy tale of a guy in the sky, waiting for you with pie when you die. Creation, heaven and hell, Jesus dying to save your immortal soul then coming back to life, miracles, the stuff you learn in Sunday school. Dawkins is using a rhetorical strategy. You can make a bold claim — God is a delusion — if you exclude all good thinking on the subject and only focus on a straw man. Like Dawkins, I reject the fairy tale and instead use religion poetically. Thing is, we are not all eloquent poets. Many theists use the language of religious tradition but the essence of their belief is the same awe at the grandness of nature. I dusted off my old Psalter Hymnal and its Confession of Faith begins by saying that we know God by the “creation, preservation, and governance of the universe”. Argue if you must, the religion begins with a naturalist testament, just like Dawkins.
God is not a empirical question. Either he exists or he doesn’t, says Dawkins. Who is being simple-minded? Tackling the origins of the universe Dawkins considers the two hypotheses of creation and evolution. Intelligence, he argues, occurs at the end of a process, i.e., evolution, not at the start, i.e., creation. In fact, that is only true in a local context. According to physics, the universe was highly ordered matter, a singularity, and history has been the unfolding of the big bang. This is entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. The order or intelligence is found at the start of the process. My point is that big questions do not have simple true or false answers. There is the middle value, “mu”, often excluded, which rejects the context of the question as too small. Agnosticism seems a sensible response, but like the religion of the scientists, Dawkins argues away the agnosticism of great thinkers like Huxley.
Religion is poetry and we cannot live without it. Whenever one talks about God and the singularity the inevitable retort is that we are placing God in the “gaps”, the unknown things science hasn’t figured out yet. Yes, I say. That’s right. God is a poetic or mythological concept for mystery, the things we do not understand. Religion is false in the same way that Shakespeare is false. The events of his stories probably did not happen, but this does not stop us from retelling the stories, enacting them for audiences again and again. We quote his lines. It affects our decisions and changes our lives. Poetry, mythology, fiction, we constantly underestimate the vital role of these things in our lives.
Genuine religious belief is not consoling. New atheists explain religion as a comfort factor. Genuine religious belief is not consoling. Believers are challenged to reflect carefully on their thoughts and actions, live up to a rigourous moral code, and sacrifice their wants for the needs of others. It is a wonder that anyone would want to be religious. Dawkins provides a better explanation. A meme functions like a gene, but causing ideas to reproduce instead of DNA. Religious ideas are memetic because they require acceptance without question. It is a brilliant explanation. Modern theists accept the value of doubt but only as a step to greater faith. Not good enough. Genuine faith must be subject to constant critical examination. Not comfortable at all.
Atheism abets the ascendant religion of consumerism. I sometimes forget how powerful the pro-religious, anti-science lobby is in the United States. It explains some of the militancy of the new atheist movement. Even in Canada, the pro-religious lobby is currently rising along with conservative politics and I oppose it. Still, on a larger scale, I observe the waning of Christianity and other religions as consumerism rises to replace them as the new religion. Atheism abets consumerism by overstating its rejection of religion. Dawkins, like me, is religious in a poetic sense, but unfortunately he reserves it as a special case. Without some poetry or mythology to imagine the unknown, we are reduced to creatures of physical matter alone, admitting only the things we can touch and taste, serving the economics of our want.