Thursday, 19 April 2007

The God Delusion

For a while now I've been wanting to read Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, which has been a best seller throughout this year. I've discovered, however, that it is coming out in paperback next month, so I figured I might as well wait and get it a bit cheaper (£20 is a bit steep). In the meantime, I bought Alister McGrath's response, The Dawkins Delusion (only £7.99, but 'tis a rather slender tome), but I've been resisting reading it so that I can be a little more objective when I tackle TGD.

Anyway, I discovered that the first chapter of TGD is on Dawkins' website (see here), so I had a wee read at that.

To fill you in on this, if you've managed to not hear about it, Dawkins is a biologist and very very clever - he is currently the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford and has been for over 10 years (I don't actually know exactly what that is, but it said it on his website). He is also a renowned atheist (or agnostic, depending on which bit of the site you read), and this is the focus of the book. Basically (very basically) he is attempting to show the logical foundations of atheism (or agnosticism) and to demonstrate the delusion which lies behind religious ideas.

Now, some of you will know that I have an interest in science and faith issues, and have done some thinking in the area. I have a PhD in Theoretical Physics, and studied maths for 4 years before that. This does not qualify me as an expert in the field, but hopefully it means I have some kind of understanding of the process of scientific methods and rational thought. I have to admit that I waded (Dawkins' books are never a straightforward easy read) through the first third or so of 'The Blind Watchmaker' and then, for reasons which I now forget, gave up (it may have been that I lost the book under the bed or something; it is back on my bookshelf now, so I'll re-read it at some point); I have also been reading some of the articles on his website (quite amusingly, lots of them are accompanied by comments from his fans/supporters, sneering at Christianity/religion in a manner which makes even big Ian seem like a moderate man... but I digress), just to try to get a feel for where he's coming from.

So, back to chapter 1 of TGD. It's not particularly long, and a fair bit of it is devoted to examining the 'religious' beliefs of Einstein, including letters from various religious types (some quite nasty) admonishing him for saying he didn't believe in God. Other than providing a platform for explaining the difference between theism, deism and pantheism, I'm not quite sure what the point of this particular section is (other than to demonstrate that Einstein was an atheist), but maybe it makes more sense in the context of the rest of the book. Anyway, the chapter sets out to introduce something of the interplay (or lack of) between science and religion, which (I think) will be the theme for the rest of the book.

But there is a fabulously challenging quote from Carl Sagan (from The Pale Blue Dot):
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

How often this is true! And yet, this marvel is all around us - when we read the Psalms, they speak of the wonders of the earth; when we take a walk, we're face to face with creation - we should marvel at it, and our concept of God should grow accordingly. It is sad that it often happens that Christians get an idea of God stuck in their heads and then see life through that lens, as though there is no more wonder to be seen. Science should be seen, not as a threat, but as an opportunity to expand our minds and our understanding and even our concept of God. Of course there will be things that we don't understand, and things which seem paradoxical or contradictory... but we must wrestle with those things and expect to find answers. We should never content ourselves with what we know now, for there is always more to learn and new things to wonder at, new subtleties, new elegance.

So, the book is out in paperback on 21st May or thereabouts, and I shall update you on my musings as I read.

1 comment:

Sam said...

welcome to the blogosphere. just back from the christians in science day in maynooth which was great - think the talks will be going up online soon.
looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the rest of Dawkins....