Thursday, August 9, 2007

Doubting Thomases

A longer post this time, a joint review of two books, which appeared in the August 10 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

GOD IS NOT GREAT Christopher Hitchens
THE GOD DELUSION Richard Dawkins

In the beginning was the Word. And many faiths lay claim to it, referring to a Divine Being and the scriptures revealed by Him to the devout. And lo, after centuries of prayers and bloodshed, there appeared many works that claimed God never existed in the first place and religion was not divine but man-made and foolish.

Of these, Sam Harris’ 2004 The End of Faith attained notoriety for its uncompromising stance and savaging of Islamic moderates. Philosopher Daniel Dennett joined the fray with Breaking the Spell and now, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and incendiary journalist Christopher Hitchens throw their hats into the atheist ring with The God Delusion and God is Not Great, respectively.

It’s not that doubt hasn’t come to the fore earlier: Nietzsche famously announced the Almighty’s demise in the 19th century, Bertrand Russell told us why he was not a Christian in 1927 and one of Time magazine’s most controversial cover stories, questioning if God was dead, appeared in 1966. More recently, Woody Allen claimed that not only was Nietzsche correct, it was also hard to get a plumber on weekends.

The recent spate of books on the subject can, however, be put down to the calamitous events of 9/11 and the continuing aftershocks, making people reflect more cogently on faith, fundamentalism and fanaticism. Given the zeitgeist, a healthy dose of cold water is certainly called for.

Hitchens is, as always, entertaining and provocative. He minces no words: the sentence “religion poisons everything” tolls throughout his book like a warning bell. God is Not Great is informed by his own experiences as a reporter, specifically addressing at one point the violence that religion has wrought in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Bethlehem, Baghdad and Belgrade.

With finely-calibrated indignation that’s often mordantly funny and sometimes slips into rage, he details organised religion’s abnormal attitudes to diet, medicine, women and childbirth. He takes on other sitting ducks, specifically the “intelligent design” argument as well as the composition of the Old and New Testaments as well as the Koran. (Dawkins, too, trains his sights on such low-hanging fruit: “The only difference between The DaVinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The DaVinci Code is modern fiction.”)

Those inspired by religion fare no better at Hitchens’ hands: he revisits his anti-beatification arguments against Mother Teresa and is rude about Mahatma Gandhi as well as the Dalai Lama, mocking the latter’s habit of hobnobbing with movie stars. (Though he makes no mention of the Dalai Lama’s willingness to engage in debate with scientists and rationalists.)

This is also a deeply personal book: he chooses, for example, to answer the question of whether religion makes you a better human being by citing instances from the life of one of his favourite authors (Waugh), by recounting a debate he witnessed between A.J. Ayer and a man of the cloth, and by recalling the atrocities in Uganda, which he visited in 2005.

Overall, though, Hitchens focuses more on the effects and practice of religion than its roots or necessity. “What hath Man wrought?” he seems to ask, without going into the journalist’s “Why?”

Dawkins is no less aggressive or exasperated. His stated aim is to champion the cause of atheism because it indicates a “healthy mind”. (He even proposes that atheists ought to be known as “the brights” – a proposal Hitchens finds annoying.)

While Hitchens pooh-poohs Buddhism by pointing out the role of the clergy in fomenting violence in Sri Lanka and quoting esoteric Zen passages, Dawkins refuses to engage with it, stating that Buddhism, along with Confucianism, is more of an ethical system and philosophy than a religion.

His efforts are, however, more systematic than Hitchens, rebutting arguments for the existence of God, starting from Aquinas’ five proofs, and rubbishing others, be they ontological, scriptural or personal.

Dawkins’ God is the principle of Darwinism, which he refers to time and again, specifically to invalidate the “intelligent design” argument: “…organised complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.”

Why, then, has religious belief persisted though the ages? Dawkins suggests that religion is no more than a ‘meme’, the cultural equivalent of a gene, replicating itself by transfer from mind to mind. As for feelings of morality and altruism that religion is supposed to provoke, it’s Darwin to the rescue again: these are, says Dawkins, no more than the advantages of kinship and reciprocation in propagating the species.

Both Dawkins and Hitchens are particularly harsh on the ill-effects of organised religion when it comes to children. Such indoctrination and brainwashing, according to them, are alarmingly pernicious, and there’s certainly much food for thought in that.

In closing, Hitchens calls for a new Enlightenment, a celebration of the arts and scientific enquiry where there is no need for God. For Dawkins, it’s the lighthouse of science, above all, that should guide us.

Given mankind’s compulsive need to hug a creed – be it the ancient faiths, Osho, Scientology or merely the Art of Living – will such an age ever arrive?

God knows.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Haven't read Hitchens. But Dawkins made me purple with rage. AND I'm an atheist.