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« On Dawkins, Delusions and All That | Main | 12 August Talk at the UU, Hawaii »

10 August 2007

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tinythinker

I would hope the same thing (that people would get bored with it), but I am not as confused about why these kinds of books are selling so well. I don't claim to have *the* answer, or that what I do have is unimpeachable, but I think there are a few factors to consider.

One is that the tone of dialog in American politics has become one of slogan-screaming demagogues, so that such poorly constructed and weakly supported rhetoric does not seem as absurdly out of place as it should be for a book purporting to be a serious challenge to concepts and practices surrounding God and religion. The fact that it is so controversial and about a popular issue makes it a near automatic bestseller given the name-recognition of the author.

Along those same lines, to do a more thorough job critiquing God and religion one has to accept that religious philosophy is more complex than many want to give credit, and besides, when a complex issue is reduced to a few manageable bullet points it makes us feel good because we think we have mastered a difficult topic. You know - it's that old line about how if you make people believe they are thinking they will love you, but if you actually make them think you will be scorned. Moreover, this kind of antagonistic oversimplification is great for arguing, and we don't want to get too lost actually considering serious issues while we are rooting for "our side" to clobber the stuffing out of the other.

In summary of the first point, I think this all makes more sense if thought of from a marketing/entertainment/sales standpoint rather than from an academic point of view.

Then there is the audience amongst whom the message itself is resonating. I don't claim it is a homogeneous group, but I suspect that many have a few things in common, the most important of which is that they were exposed to religion being taught by Biblical literalists trying to make their religion into something that can "compete" with science because of the aforementioned rivalry for epistemological supremacy in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Between the ages of 10 and 14, sometimes earlier or later, many children raised in such a religious background begin to seriously wonder about taking some stories of their faith literally and historically, or about why some teachings don't seem to mesh with others. In some denominations/schools or individual congregations, this is an opportunity to encourage children to take a more sophisticated and subtler look at the concepts and values embedded in these teachings, to start a more mature understanding of their faith. In other groups, they are instead told faith means continuing to cling to the same understanding, especially the historical inerrancy, of these teachings, rather than emphasizing keeping true to the spirit of the teachings. This can lead to a crisis of faith and in some cases to a rejection not only of that religion but of any and all sacred traditions.

It is interesting that often this is because the frame of their religion (religion=supernatural, religion=sin/hell, religion=having to take far-flung stories to be literally and historically true) is used to judge all others. In this hypercritical light, even if one is exposed to more sophisticated theology or other variations in spiritual and religious traditions, these are all written off as irrelevant because they have not yet full embodied the new assumption of what is certainly true (hence the irony again of thinking, even subconsciously, about finding and keeping the "one truth") - which is that all that religious stuff is nonsense and wishful thinking. There is no room for nuance - other ways of thinking about faith are just cop-outs or attempts to rationalize the irrational and justify the unnecessary.

That is why I was unsurprised to hear another New Atheist author say that in effect he realized religion was bunk around the age of 12. Well, yes, if you aren't exposed to the deeper and more mature forms of spirituality at that age as you begin to question and explore and challenge, then you will start to have serious doubts about many of the simplistic accounts you have been taught to believe. In other words, as has been pointed out, the views of God and religion being assailed are the least charitable and most intellectually immature aspects of the supernatural salvationism to which these critics have been exposed.

We can't leave out the negative religious images in the news. Between faith healing, which includes modern day snake oil televangelists as well as parents who let young children die rather than getting a simple shot at the doctor's office, and the bizarre claims of Young Earth Creationism, there is much to be questioned and criticized in modern religion. And that was before 9/11 or the rise to power of the far Christian right through the Republican domination of the first term and a half of George W. Bush in the United States. Of course there is more politics than religion in many of these stories, but they do serve to promote and reinforce a kind of soft bigotry against religion in general and Abrahamic monotheism in particular. This can then be tapped with a good bit of righteous indignation and some ego-stoking into a not-so-soft open intolerance of religious concepts and practices.

The result is that religion is readily seen an outmoded and primitive form of science and psychology, a failed cosmology, to be swept away and replaced by the more accurate and useful cosmology of modernism. There may be some useful bits of insight into the human condition or nice inspirational quotes to be found here and there among the sacred texts, but that's about it. The fact that these are frozen versions of living oral traditions full of poetry and metaphor isn't particularly relevant or interesting.

There is a bit of cause for hope, I think. If I had bothered to publish my ranting and complaints and arguments in a book rather than as various posts spread across different message boards from roughly 1997 to 2002, I would have sounded exactly like the New Atheists. From what I gather from extended excerpts and reviews of the books as well as transcripts of interviews with the authors, they make many of the same arguments (and I am almost vain enough to read some of these books in detail just to see if mine were better or more poorly worded and strung together). Although it is absurd to predict it, if the movement or whatever it is (or at least a good number of those within it) follow roughly the same trajectory as I and many others have, perhaps this is a prelude to a period of greater spiritual and religious revitalization that moves away from extreme religious fundamentalism and extreme secular anti-religionism toward something more open, liberating, and challenging.

dwaraka

Everybody has a kind of armor against fear.

There are reasons for it. First, the child is born so utterly helpless into a world he knows nothing of. Naturally he is afraid of the unknown that faces him. He has not yet forgotten those nine months of absolute security, safety, when there was no problem, no responsibility, no worry about tomorrow.

To us those are nine months but to the child it is eternity. He knows nothing of the calendar; he knows nothing of minutes, hours, days, months. He has lived an eternity in absolute safety and security, without any responsibility, and then suddenly he is thrown into a world unknown, where he is dependent for everything on others. It is natural that he will feel afraid. Everybody is bigger and more powerful, and he cannot live without the help of others. He knows he is dependent; he has lost his independence, his freedom. Small incidents may give him some taste of the reality he is going to face in the future.

Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by Nelson, but in fact the credit should not go to Nelson. Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by a small incident in his childhood. Now history does not look at things in this way, but to me it is absolutely clear.

When he was just six months old, a wild cat jumped on him. The maidservant who was looking after him had gone for something in the house; he was in the garden in the early morning sun and the fresh air, lying down, and the wild cat jumped on him. It didn’t harm him — perhaps it was just being playful — but to the child’s mind it was almost death. Since then, he was not afraid of tigers or lions; he could have fought a lion without any arms, with no fear. But a cat? That was a different affair. He was absolutely helpless. Seeing a cat he was almost frozen; he became again a six-month-old small child, with no defense, with no capacities to fight. In those small child’s eyes that cat must have looked very big; it was a wild cat. The cat may have looked into the eyes of the child.

Something in his psyche became so impressed by the incident that Nelson exploited it. Nelson was no comparison to Napoleon, and Napoleon was never defeated in his life; this was his first and last defeat. He would not have been defeated, but Nelson had brought seventy cats at the front of the army.

The moment Napoleon saw those seventy wild cats his mind stopped functioning. His generals could not understand what had happened. He was no longer the same great warrior; he was almost frozen with fear, trembling. He had never allowed any of his generals to arrange the army, but that day he said, with tears in his eyes, “I am incapable of thinking — you organize the army. I will be here but I am incapable of fighting. Something has gone wrong for me.”

He was removed, but without Napoleon his army was not capable of fighting Nelson, and seeing the situation of Napoleon, everybody in his army became a little afraid: something very strange was happening.

A child is weak, vulnerable, insecure. Autonomously he starts creating an armor, a protection, in different ways. For example, he has to sleep alone. It is dark and he is afraid, but he has his teddy bear, and he believes that he is not alone; his friend is with him. We will see children dragging their teddy bears at airports, at railway stations. Do you think it is just a toy? To us it is, but to the child it is a friend. And a friend when nobody else is helpful — in the darkness of the night, alone in the bed, still he is with him. He will create psychological teddy bears.

It is to be reminded to us that although a grown-up man may think that he has no teddy bears, he is wrong. What is our God? Just a teddy bear. Out of our childhood fear, we have created a father figure who knows all, who is all-powerful, who is everywhere present; if we have enough faith in him he will protect us. But the very idea of protection, the very idea that a protector is needed, is childish. Then we learn prayer; these are just parts of our psychological armor. Prayer is to remind God that we are here, alone in the night.

Our prayers, our chantings, our mantras, our scriptures, our gods, our priests, are all part of our psychological armor. It is very subtle. A Christian believes that he will be saved — nobody else. Now that is his defense arrangement. Everybody is going to fall into hell except him, because he is a Christian. But every religion believes in the same way that only they will be saved.

It is not a question of religion. It is a question of fear and being saved from fear, so it is natural in a way. But at a certain point of our maturity, intelligence demands that it should be dropped. It was good when we were a child, but one day we have to leave our teddy bear, just the same as one day we have to leave our God, just the same as one day we have to leave our Christianity, our Hinduism. Finally, the day we drop all our armor means we have dropped living out of fear.

And what kind of living can be out of fear? Once the armor is dropped we can live out of love, we can live in a mature way. The fully matured man has no fear, no defense; he is psychologically completely open and vulnerable.

At one point the armor may be a necessity...perhaps it is. But as we grow, if we are not only growing old but also growing up, growing in maturity, then we will start seeing what we are carrying with us. Why do we believe in God? One day we have to see for ourself that we have not seen God, we haven’t had any contact with God, and to believe in God is to live a lie: we are not being sincere.

What kind of religion can there be when there is no sincerity, no authenticity? We cannot even give reasons for our beliefs, and still we go on clinging to them.

We should look closely and we will find fear behind them.

A mature person should disconnect himself from anything that is connected with fear. That’s how maturity comes.

Just to watch all our acts, all our beliefs, and find out whether they are based in reality, in experience, or based in fear. And anything based in fear has to be dropped immediately, without a second thought. It is our armor.

We go on living out of fear — that’s why we go on poisoning every other experience. We love somebody, but out of fear: it spoils, it poisons. We seek truth, but if the search is out of fear then we are not going to find it.

Whatever we do, we should remember one thing: Out of fear we are not going to grow. We will only shrink and die. Fear is in the service of death.

A fearless person has everything that life wants to give to us as a gift. Now there is no barrier. We will be showered with gifts, and whatever we do we will have a strength, a power, a certainty, a tremendous feeling of authority.

A man living out of fear is always trembling inside. He is continuously on the point of going insane, because life is big, and if we are continuously in fear.... And there is every kind of fear. We can make a big list, and we will be surprised how many fears are there — and we are still alive! There are infections all around, diseases, dangers, kidnapping, terrorists...and such a small life. And finally there is death, which we cannot avoid. Our whole life will become dark.

We should drop the fear! The fear was taken up by us in our childhood unconsciously; now consciously we should drop it and be mature. And then life can be a light which goes on deepening as we go on growing.

Chris Schoen

Darn, how do I get Mary Midgley to comment on my blog?

I think books like TGD are tapping into a zeitgeist of frustration--it does seem like the world is far more insane than it should be, and religion is an easy scapegoat for this phenomenon, much like Iraq was an easy target after 9-11, though hardly a productive one.

That was an excellent review of TGD, by the way. Too few reviews have observed that where Dawkins' main critique of the "God Hypothesis" is that it offers no empirical underpinnings, he fails to offer any like underpinnings for the "Science Hypothesis." Science is only self-evident as a crucible of truth if you neglect to think it through, and however annoying it may be to admit this, one cannot subject one's core beliefs to confirmation by experiment.

But this is a fairly advanced level of analysis, and few cultures are prepared to endure this kind of reflective gaze. Hopefully it will soon become apparent that books like the God Delusion have very little to offer once the emotional rush of indignation wears off, and we can then move on to more substantial reponses to the challenges of our time.

Gene Callahan

dwaraka, do you realize that in criticizing people for believing things they shouldn't, you used a story so obviously false that the fact you believe it is incredible. Nelson defeated the French in a NAVAL BATTLE, one which Napoleon was not even at!

Pete Owen

Gene, what can we say? Those cats were good swimmers... ;)

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