Beyond Belief

Well, this month took a heretical turn, as I read both Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, and for kicks, my wife and I took in the eye-opening documentary, Jesus Camp.

As someone who has people close to me that identify themselves as Christians, I'll stay my hand on any potentially perceived rants so as not to offend those I love. However, let's be honest, the idea, the mere mention of atheism is the highest sort of insult to folks who believe in a supernatural and personal deity.

So in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or converted Jew. There are a whole bunch of other religions that I am not as well. For instance, I don't believe in Zeus or Quetelcoatl either. (You think I mock, but a considerable number of people believed in these gods) Also, I don't fancy astrology, or any of that mushy "New Age" stuff either. (astrology might be even more popular now than it was with the Ancients, and shamans still practice Animism all over the world.)

From an early age, I have found the whole notion of God dubious at best.

No doubt I have offended someone already, and yes, in a less modern society or a different time I would be put to death or tortured for saying such things. Still, I find myself in pretty good company.

Few self-proclaimed atheists are as reviled by organized religion as evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins.

Before a debate with a minister, Dawkins notoriously snubbed the minister's outstretched hand, quipping, "You sir, are an ignorant bigot." This is not exactly civil discourse, but it should be noted that religious leaders and allegedly Christian political pundits haven't exactly cleaved to the sermon on the mount as of late.

In the God Delusion, Christianity in particular, as the west's dominant religion, comes under Dawkins' withering, clinical gaze. Making quick work of "proofs" and rationale's for belief in God, from St. Thomas Aquinas to Pascal's Wager, Dawkins lays out an eloquent, unflappable logic.

My Christian friends and family would quickly point out that logic is hardly a prerequisite to having faith in God. In fact, in my experience, most Christians take comfort that God is "beyond" rationality. Of course this mindset absolutely horrifies Dawkins.

Most of Dawkins' secular wrath is reserved for the latest in evangelical chic, "Intelligent Design." The "theory" posits that the universe is best explained by an "intelligent cause" not an "undirected process like natural selection." (I love these little nonsensical, oxymoronic gems like 'undirected process.')

The proponents of 'ID' successfully lobbied to get their theory taught in the science classrooms of Dover, Pennsylvania with this little piece of chicanery:

"Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is
discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there
is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a
broad range of observations."

This deceitfully plays on the word "theory" in it's common use, meaning speculation or conjecture. However, anyone who has taken high school science, knows that scientific theory is an entirely different animal that requires a hypothesis, an experiment, and a high level of predictability. Facts are not inconsistent with theory, as many theories have a factual basis. For instance, the "Theory" of Gravity is a fact.*

Evolution, just as rigorously tested as gravity is also a theory and a fact; a fact that creationist forces have worked overtime to distort. Fortunately, they have failed. In the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, Judge John E. Jones set precedent by rebuking 'ID' as science, calling the defense's case "breathtaking in its inanity."

"The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a
mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

"A significant aspect of the IDM [intelligent design movement] is that despite
Defendants’ protestations to the contrary, it describes ID as a religious
argument. In that vein, the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the
designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity."

This last line from Judge Jones stems from when the defense was forced to admit that astrology was consistent with the teachings of Intelligent Design. In fact, any belief could be thrown into the mix.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

While The God Delusion points out such deceptions with equal the contempt of Judge Jones, it is Dawkins' virtual catechism on Charles Darwin and natural selection, that makes any attempt to find a divine hand in life a seemingly needless and futile enterprise. The slow and persistent process of natural selection has direction indeed, and Dawkins doesn't hesitate in trotting out the physical proof. 'ID' on the other hand while posing as a science relies on innuendo and the lazy human propensity to make up answers when none are apparent.

As a scientist, Dawkins doesn't claim to know the answer of how the universe sprung into existence. However, he insists that just because we don't know the answer to something, that doesn't justify a baseless assumption of an omniscient, all-powerful being.

For me, that is the rub. While science seems comfortable with the mysteries of the universe and practically prides itself on what it doesn't know, religion exhausts itself with contradictory and seemingly arbitrary explanations as to what it unequivocally does know, regardless of all evidence to the contrary and just plain common sense.

To be a Christian I would be required to believe that Jesus was the product of a virgin, and that he rose from the dead...at a minimum. To be a Jew, I would have to believe that the Jews are the chosen people, and to be a Muslim I would have to believe that the angel Gabriel visited Mohammed proclaiming him God's "final prophet." And that's just the Abrahamic religions. I won't get into the beliefs of Zoroasters, Mormons, Scientologists, Hindus, Jainists, Shintoists, Buddhists, Pagans and Sikhs. (I'll confess here a some affinity with the Buddhist philosophy, but not the religion, and I'm happy to report, the Buddhists seem cool with that.)

I was disappointed that Dawkins barely addresses the role of religion in giving comfort and solace. Churches, synagogues and mosques provide a support community that is crucial for some people to cope with loss. Atheists have no equivalent that I can think of, and apparently, neither can Dawkins.

Ah, the lonely life of the atheist...

Still, just because we are unable to cope with life's inevitable cruel twists and turns does that suddenly justify the belief in an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient super being? I know that when I am in pain it is real human compassion ("humanity") that I value, not the far-flung, ersatz abstraction of God's mercy.

I suppose with people like me, Dawkins is preaching to the converted (so to speak), but this book did open my eyes to other issues I hadn't considered before.

For instance, is it proper for children who have not yet even developed a sense of individuality, much less a sophisticated moral code, to be indoctrinated into the church/mosque/synagogue? Dawkins believes it unfair to label a child Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or even atheist as it doesn't foster a critical sense of self and the surrounding world. Religion defines the child before the child has a chance to define himself.

The religious argument is that it is religion that provides the child a moral code. Dawkins skillfully demolishes this reasoning as well. Also, it should be noted, that this is the special focus of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. I won't be reviewing it, as that would be atheist overkill, but Harris effectively uses passages from the Bible itself to refute claims of Christian moral superiority.

On a personal level, I hardly feel harmed by my brief period as a Presbyterian. Hey, I actually enjoyed Sunday School, but I'll admit, it took years before I was able to be openly skeptical of Christianity. My turn toward atheism felt like a betrayal of my Christian friends and family, but ultimately for me to pretend to faith would be shameless, dishonest and intolerable.

And on this point, I'm sure my Christian friends and I are on common ground.

I highly recommend this book, and include a shout out to the Denver Public Library who loaned it to me.

CORRECTION: Gravity is not a theory, it is a law. A better comparison would have been the "theory" of Continent Drift, or the "theory" probability, or game theory, or atomic theory...all have a basis in fact.


The God Delusion

On the Nightstand:

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins; (Houghton Mifflin 2006)


Evolution, Atheism, Religious Studies, "Intelligent Design."

Book Blurb:
From Publishers Weekly: The antireligion wars started by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris will heat up even more with this salvo from celebrated Oxford biologist Dawkins. For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe. But Dawkins, who gave us the selfish gene, anticipates this criticism. He says it's the scientist and humanist in him that makes him hostile to religions—fundamentalist Christianity and Islam come in for the most opprobrium—that close people's minds to scientific truth, oppress women and abuse children psychologically with the notion of eternal damnation. While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense." The most effective chapters are those in which Dawkins calms down, for instance, drawing on evolution to disprove the ideas behind intelligent design. In other chapters, he attempts to construct a scientific scaffolding for atheism, such as using evolution again to rebut the notion that without God there can be no morality. He insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force, but he is less convincing in arguing that the world would be better and more peaceful without it.


I saw an interview on YouTube between Dawkins and Ted Haggard. While the interview itself revealed nothing groundbreaking, it was fascinating to watch the keen and supremely arrogant Dawkins joust with the slick and equally arrogant, mega-church "deceiver" Ted Haggard. I also found the above review from Publisher's Weekly amusing, as I can't imagine Dawkin's rhetoric equalling that of notorious fundamentalists like Dobson, Robertson, Falwell and company.


Annual Eclectic

On the Nightstand:
Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006, ed., Dave Eggers with introduction by Matt Groening, (Hougton Mifflin 2006).

Chuck Norris, Hobo Names, Atheism, Soldier's Blog Entries, Short-lived Constitutions, Short Stories, Humor.

Book Blurb:
From Dave Eggers: For this year's edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading, we wanted to expand the scope of the book to include shorter pieces, and fragments of stories, and transcripts, screenplays, television scripts — lots of things that we hadn't included before. Our publisher readily agreed, and so you'll see that this year's edition is far more eclectic in form than previous editions. Along the way to making the book, we also came across a variety of things that didnt fit neatly anywhere, but which we felt should be included, so we conceived the front section, which is a loose Best American roundup of notable words and sentences from 2005. It is, like this book in general, obviously and completely incomplete, but might be interesting nevertheless.

I received this as a Christmas gift from my wife. I've always wanted to read one of these "Best American" books. So now I get my chance. Naturally, I'm intrigued by the Chuck Norris piece...


Agricultural Anthropology.

I admit, not a really sexy headline, but that sums up Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The book lays out like an anthropological study of three types of meals: the modern meal, brought to us by big agri-business; the ubiquitous, post-industrial "organic" meal; and finally the paleolithic meal where the author eats from his own labors, i.e. -- growing the vegetables, foraging fruits, berries and wild mushrooms, and finally hunting and killing a wild animal.

The first third of the book is more or less the horror show that I expected, revealing "Big Ag" in all its twisted man-made glory. America more or less subsists on one vegetable, corn. It's in all of our food, binding the mystery meat in our Chicken McNuggets and drenching nearly every processed meal that lines our supermarket aisles with high fructose corn syrup. Pollan doesn't diguise his disgust with modern agriculture, but his expose is far from a dogmatic, knee-jerk rant. Pollan scrupulously researches how Americans veered so far away from Jeffersonian ideals into the vast soul-less wasteland driven by Cargill, Monsanto and ADM.

Although all is not lost, as Pollan turns to Joel Salatin, a Shenendoah Valley "grass farmer." Pollan's portrait is at times fawning, but nevertheless fascinating. Salatin shows us essentially the opposite of the monocultural farms that have taken up nearly all of the midwest, bringing into focus a delicate balance between mountain and valley ecosystems and the ongoing dance between the animals of the farm and the grasses that feed them. I never thought that agriculture could be interesting on any level, but here, Pollan articulately draws us into the farm's symbiotic nature, and it's waste-not-want-not ethic. I never thought agriculture could be interesting on any level, however here, I finally understand why Thomas Jefferson said we should all aspire to be farmers, that it was in fact a high calling.

Finally, Pollan plays the paleolithic hunter-gatherer foraging for mushrooms, picking berries, and hunting for wild pig. Although Pollan complains that industrial and even "organic" farming floats on a sea of petroleum, Pollan's caveman quests still rely heavily on fossil fuels, with multiple trips in SUVs and ATVs. Still, watching Pollan wrestle with his modern instincts while he mulls over killing a living animal versus becoming a vegetarian make for a fascinating read, and Pollan sees and confronts (when he can) the paradoxes inherent in his quest.

Honestly, I didn't expect this book to be such a page-turner. Part expose, part cold-eyed study, part ruthless introspection, Pollan leaves little unturned here.

An engrossing read.