I’ve just finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. My word. What an incredible book! He is extremely readable, and his passion for science really shines through – as does his humanity and his deep and abiding respect for all life, everywhere.
I was an atheist long before I encountered Dawkins, but The God Delusion made me really think about why I’m an atheist, and what my beliefs really mean to me. I wonder, very much, how many religious people really think deeply about what their beliefs mean. To them, and to the wider world. This was brought home to me at the weekend when I attended a first holy communion for Joe’s nieces. Unlike, I suspect, a fair chunk of the congregation I was listening very carefully and thinking very carefully about what was being said.
(Let’s skip past the fact that the priest, lovely though I’m sure he was, had a voice calculated to crack me up. And I’m prone to inappropriate giggles anyway. I was just waiting for him to say, “He has a wife, you know…” Plus, he really reminded me of Uncle Monty from Withnail & I. Which obviously didn’t help.)
At various points in the proceedings, the congregation was described as “sheep” or “the flock”. This in itself was very telling: people are encouraged to simply go along with everything they’re told. They’re encouraged not to think – to be like sheep! This is, to me, unthinkable! There were so many contradictions I wouldn’t know where to start. And finally – and this made me feel a little sad on a human level – the level of participation was limited to the congregation droningly repeating the words of the priest. It didn’t feel, to me, like the words or the sentiments meant anything. I may be wrong; I probably am about this. But that was the feeling I got, and for some reason it saddened me a little.
I wanted to jump up and shout from the rafters that they should all THINK! Think for themselves, about what they’re doing there and why, and what it means for them. Not because I want to convert everyone to atheism (although that would be fantastic) but because I want people to think for themselves, to be curious about the world and the universe they inhabit. Again, I’m aware that this was an hour-long window into the lives of people who are (hopefully) not restricted to the inside of a church and the inside of the Bible, but still. This is what I felt at the time.
Dawkins also points out that religion is given special dispensation, a sort of automatic respect. We must all automatically respect religion, and religious beliefs, no matter how ludicrous, prejudiced or downright cruel. Why? Why is this? There is no reason for it, and no reason why it should be so. This is not the same as going out of one’s way to offend; but voicing an opinion contrary to that of a religious person is often perceived as being “disrespectful”. From now on, that’s their problem, I’m afraid. Not mine. My difference of opinion doesn’t constitute an attack on their beliefs.
As far as the existence of gods goes I, like Dawkins, am a de facto atheist. I’m not arrogant enough to say that I am 100 per cent certain; but my level of certainty is stable at around 99.9 per cent. If irrefutable evidence for the existence of a god or gods was presented, I would change my mind immediately. That is what being a scientist is about. And that is where I differ from the religious, and where I will never understand where they are coming from.
But the thing that really baffles me, that just stops me in my tracks, is not the fact that so many people unquestioningly accept nonsense that cannot possibly be true, it is the fact that there are not enough natural wonders in this universe of ours to keep people happy. They have to invent a god. Just go out on a clear night, to somewhere dark, and look up. Look at the majesty of the heavens, and wonder at where they came from. Where they really came from. And wonder at the fact of our being here and able to wonder at it!
Religion was the science of its time; it sought to explain natural phenomena in the only way that the people of the time knew. We know better now; isn’t it time that humanity grew up? I look forward to that day immensely.
The God Delusion looked at the evolutionary origins of religion. The fact that it persists today indicates that it must once have been evolutionarily useful, and one interesting theory is that it comes from children’s tendency to believe everything they are told by their parents and guardians. Telling a child that railway lines are dangerous and should be avoided may one day save their lives; similarly with fire: “it’s hot, don’t touch it.” You can see how belief systems grow and evolve.
It’s an enormous book, looking at many aspects of religion, religious evolution and the religious mind, and it’s fascinating. There is so much to say about it, and so much more to learn. I can only recommend that you go and read it. And then read some more, and some more and some more! Include the Bible in your reading list. It’s a bit of an eye-opener in terms of some truly nasty moralising (don’t ever let a religious person accuse you, if you’re an atheist, of therefore having no morals. Because I’m damn sure they don’t get their morals from the Bible, or any religion I know). It’s also a fabulous work of fiction, and some of it is downright beautiful and inspirational.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotations. It’s from the Bible, from 2 Tim 1:7, and it’s a great message to carry with you. I’ve found it inspirational over the past few months.
I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.