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Friday, September 17, 2010

For God's sake

So I am currently reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, only about six years after the rest of the population. And my word, it's made me all shouty. But shouty in a really, really good way. He articulates so simply things that have felt like truths for a long time... Here are my key takeaways so far (with apologies for inelegant paraphrasing):

  1. Why is it "disrespectful" to question someone's religion? It's not something they were born with - it's a choice they have made to follow a faith. Yet if you openly disagree or call into question their beliefs, you are being rude. How can we on one hand encourage children to be scientifically rigorous and logical in their approach to problem solving, and yet when someone wants to answer, "I have to leave school early today because it's dark and it's a holy day," or "I need to find a prayer room before 3 p.m." we all say, "oh, right, OK. Off you pop"?
  2. Tolerance. Why should I be tolerant of someone else's beliefs? Of course, I'm not the type of person to commit a hate crime - what would that achieve? But why should I accept that other people hold illogical beliefs without trying to understand and challenge the assumptions they're living their lives by?
  3. Faith. The old fall-back by the religious. "I don't need to know because I believe and that is enough for me." Well, it isn't enough for me. If I told you that my god was a pink sandcastle who insisted I only ate lobster on Wednesdays, you'd think I was a nutter. But because there are lots and lots of you who think that Jesus wanted you to chow down on his body and blood on Sundays, this belief is sanctioned, whereas I am likely to be sectioned.

I cannot recommend the book highly enough. I nearly said, "Unless you're religious and would like to hold onto that faith" (for the reason that I think anyone of even moderate intelligence who reads the book cannot possibly continue with their belief system as is). So why didn't I say that? Because actually I can't condone people holding onto their faith. So I think everyone should read it. It should be mandatory for all A-level students, regardless of their areas of study. I cannot believe we had seven years at high school of religious education and never studied Atheism.

I have many friends who are religious. Whilst in every single case, they are happy, lovely, otherwise intelligent people - I find it incredibly difficult to reconcile that against the fact they believe a magic man (or woman) created the world, is sitting and judging them and listening to loads of prayers at the same time. Oh, and that this amazing, amazing omniscient being loves nothing more than to be praised by his creations. Preferably on a weekly basis. What an egocentric tosser.

A group of Americans were polled recently and only 49% would vote for an atheist (whereas over 75% would vote for a woman, a black person, a Jewish person etc.). The Scouting organisation will not allow you to become a leader if you are an avowed atheist - although they welcome people from any other faith. I lead a moral life (because I believe we owe it to ourselves to make our short time on this planet as pleasant as possible), I mentor young people, I take part in community activities, I recycle... basically, I'm not perfect but I'm at least as good as your average Muslim and a whole lot better than your average Fundamentalist Christian. But I am not allowed to volunteer my time to the Scouting Association because I refuse to swear allegiance to an imaginary friend. Brilliant.

I'm Laura, and I'm an atheist. As I now appear to be part of a heavily-discriminated against sector of society, I've got one thing to say: bring it.


Anonymous said...

Can I borrow it after you!!??

Laura said...

I think it might be your book - I borrowed it from your house!

L x

PS So the answer is no.

Jack said...

I picked up that book in the bookshop and randomly opened it on a page that said 'here are my own ten commandments'

I swiftly shut it decided I didn't need to read a book telling me what to think about what to think about people who get told what to think from books.

Dawkins gives Atheism a bad name, and agnosticism gets no coverage at all, where I think most people are much more happy to say 'Dunno'and just get on with their life - rather than get bogged down in petit and pointless moralizing debates.

His books on genetics are much more interesting than his half baked opinions on religion.I want to read 'The greatest show on earth'not this book.

Interesting subject though - but for me more a late evening whiskey subject than a blog entry.

Jon Pither said...

I disagree with no 2. You don't have to like other peoples views, and you should be able to debate and express your views to the contrary. But tolerance is the bedrock of our society.

If someone wants to believe some crazy-ass shit about the world let them. It's only when they start to assert those beliefs on the rest of us that they cross the line.

Having read Dawkins books, I get angered when he's referred to as 'militant' or 'strident', because I find him to be very tolerant indeed.

Tolerance is one of the key differentiators between us 'new atheists' and the religious infected.

Sarah said...

Well... I haven't read the book but here are my thoughts on your points.

1. It's not disrespectful to question someone's religion. If my memory serves me correctly we spent many of our GCSE chemistry and physics lessons having heated discussions about religion including you questioning my beliefs and I don't remember ever wanting to hit you on the head with a bunsen burner for being rude. I would personally always rather someone had an intelligent debate with me about my religion than smiled patronisingly at me whilst smugly congratulating themselves on being so much more intelligent than me.
2. Tolerance- of course we all have to tolerate others' views on lots of things in life. If you really think we shouldn't tolerate any views other than our own then you're really saying we should all think the same about everything which would be incredibly boring.
3. Faith- "Well, it isn't enough for me". Fine- but it is enough for me. What's the issue?

I do find your link between religious belief and intelligence both tenuous and fairly offensive but hey- I will tolerate it and even continue to be your friend (lucky old you!) because we are all different and I would hate to have a bland collection of friends who thought the same as me about everything because that would be dull.

Here endeth the first lesson.

Jon Pither said...

Re-reading my somewhat 'strident' post, maybe I should mention that by 'intolerent infected' I would be mainly referring to the type of crackpots you get in places like Afgan and Iran, and maybe in the US.. (well I guess they're everywhere but you get the idea).

Laura said...


Jack - maybe if you drank less whiskey, your head would be clearer to stop sitting on the fence and make up your mind. Even if there is a God, I bet he fucking hates ditherers. And agnosticism is covered in Dawkins' book, so nur nur ni nur nur.

Jon - fair point, and perhaps I need to better define "tolerance". I'm not talking about going round shouting, "you're stupid" at anyone who doesn't believe what I do about absolutely everything, because as Sarah says - the world would be a boring place if we all had the same opinion about everything. I guess what I'm talking about is the unspoken reverence with which we treat each other's religious beliefs. It's fair game to have a heated debate about a political party allegiance, whether or not global warming exists, or whether excellent punctuation matters (it does), but for some reason if someone says, "I need to face East for a bit, about five times a day", "I'm off to drink some Jesus blood now" or "I'm going to chop the tip of my baby son's penis tomorrow", we're supposed to tolerate and accept that without being allowed to say, "I find that offensive, bizarre and / or inappropriate."

So yes - tolerance in being constructive in the way we feed back views (and as you say, potentially tolerant of what someone believes - but the minute they start inflicting those beliefs on others - including their own children - that's a no-no for me). Did you know in the UK, prayer / religious reflection is a mandatory part of the school curriculum?

Sarah - I know you're always well up for religious debate, and that's always been appreciated - I think we've managed it in a civilised way over the years! I agree we all need to hold different opinions about many aspects of our lives, but it honestly worries me how something so improbable can be accepted by so many. And bearing in mind too, that wherever you're born, whatever your parents' faith is likely to be yours too.

I would recommend the book - I know you'd violently disagree with a lot of it - and probably because you're coming from a different viewpoint, you'd probably see more of Dawkins' arguments' flaws than I do. To use an entirely inappropriate metaphor - with me, he's preaching to the converted! My concern is that some (but by no means all) people for whom religion is central in their lives will actively avoid engaging with material that questions faith, and therefore cocoon themselves away from the more difficult questions.

And I'm glad we're still friends... and I look forward to continuing the debate when I see you next!

L x

Lyal said...

Was this Dawkins fellow a batsman or a bowler?

Laura said...

Lyal - I'd say he's more of an umpire.

L x

Lyal said...

Well, if he is an umpire, then he is wrong by default.

Anonymous said...

I does not matter what you believe so long as you care about other people and try to make your life and others' lives a positive experience. Selfishness is an inherent part of human nature- primitive survival urge I guess?- but humanism or Christianity or Buddhism or whatever tries to lead us into a larger universe of thought and thoughtfulness.