Monday, 3 March 2008

Why Modern Religion Deserves Richard Dawkins, Part 1: Parameters

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. Background for the next essay. The next essay.

Soundtrack: hit play and start reading.

(King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3, by Neutral Milk Hotel.)

What the hell are you doing, Roboseyo? Why do you zero in on the most controversial topic you can? I mean, everybody knows that religion, politics and money are poor form and bad manners at the dinner table.

True, true, it is bad manners. (Why do you have your computer at the dinner table, anyway?) But, you see, this guy named Richard Dawkins, a respected scientist, has written a book, and gained fame and notoriety by suggesting that, GASP! religion is not only wrong, but, to wit, the world would be better off if it disappeared entirely! (He even makes a case for why religion should not be privileged above other topics, and made "off limits" for any critical talk, thus, according to him, it's open season already, anyway.)

While my faith does not follow the exact pattern of my dad, Pastor Poposeyo, who sent me to Christian schools and everything (I chose the Christian university myself, though), my spiritual life is very important to me, and it enriches my life a lot (even if I don't talk about it often, and then only obtusely). Yeah, I've unorthodox'd the hell out of what I believed back in high school, but when old Dr. Dawkins publicly, articulately and unequivocally says the world would be better off if religion vanished completely, regardless of my mixed opinions and oddball postures, I stand up and take notice.

As humans often do when faced with a sustained and emphatic attack, many religious folks find it comfortable to write Richard Dawkins and his polemic off completely, either disregarding his rhetoric, or counterattacking.

However, I don't think either of those responses quite washes. If my colleague comes to me and says, "Hey, can we talk about the way you sing loudly to yourself and laugh randomly and suddenly at your inner monologue's jokes during office hours?" and I plug my ears and shout, "NANANANANANA" until she goes away, or call her a dum-dum-head and slap her with my brown-bag lunch, I'm not exactly winning friends, OR influencing people. Faced with a harsh criticism, I ultimately help my office-cred more when I try to look for the valid points beneath mean Sharon's* brutal honesty (even if she IS a shrew).

(Names have been changed to protect the privacy of shrew coworkers. Danielle.)

The hardest times in my life are the ones that taught me the most. . . might it not be the same with criticisms, that the harshest appraisal can teach me the most? Moreover, why WOULDN'T a group being roundly attacked listen carefully to those attacks. . . and rather than listening only to gather ammo for the counterattack, why not listen, and then root out the cause for those criticisms, and do away with them, pulling the rug right out from under such strident opponents? Scratch any criticism, however aggressive, however rude, and there's a teachable moment. . . if we listen. (Yes, I'm using first person plural to refer to the huddled hordes of spiritual people; hope you don't mind.)

Iron sharpens iron. Accountability helps me become a better person, and by the same token, I believe organized religions would be better served by listening humbly to Richard Dawkins' intelligent and not ungrounded attacks, than by simply ignoring or condemning him. Personally, I think Dawkins' book (and Christopher Hitchens' book, etc,) is a wake-up call of the highest order, friends, and urgent as indigestion! Whether he's right about everything or not, whether his information is all accurate and fair might be debatable, but what cannot be argued is that THIS is what modern religious practice and culture looks like to an outside observer, and THAT, dear readers, is a sobering thought.

My discussion of Richard Dawkins' attack upon Christendom and religiondom in all its stripes and shades, will come in four parts. This, the first one, will basically only outline the reason I'm writing, and what I am and am not trying to do with this series. The next one will deal with what Dawkins says about origins, and the way religions have responded to scientific claims about origin. The third one will deal with Dawkins' direct attacks on organized religion and practice in the second half of his book, and how I think religious leaders ought to respond to them. The final one will discuss, "what next" -- what is the outlook for the future of organized religion, in light of the attacks and criticisms discussed in the first three parts of the essay.

Parameters and Disclaimers:

So I read Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion"; I read it with an open mind, because if you've made up your mind what you plan to think about a book before even reading it, why waste your time? I headed in ready to be convinced (if he presented a convincing case), but also carefully attuned for bullocks (if he misstepped). If you're not willing to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt, you probably won't agree with most of the rest of what I say here, so kindly move on. (Here is as good a place as any.)

In this series,

1. I AM discussing organized religion at large. To do this, I will paint with a broad brush. These are generalizations, and OF COURSE I know that not all religious people act in the way I describe; however, when a critic like Mr. Dawkins sees what he sees when he looks in from the outside, it means that TOO MANY religious people ARE acting in the way I describe (if they weren't, Dawkins would have no reason to aim his big guns at religion, and would have picked on somebody else, like maybe nationalists, or capitalists, cheese-eaters, or SUV drivers).

2. I AM dealing with material Richard Dawkins discusses in his book "The God Delusion" -- I may refer to a few other books. I strongly recommend you read this book, if you are not sure what you think about this topic, or if you are VERY sure what you think: an unchallenged victory is without honour, and an unchallenged belief is vulnerable both to attack AND manipulation. If somebody can recommend an intelligent, well-written and persuasive defense of God and religiousity, please cite it in the comment board! There are other books both for and against Christianity, faith in general, and God, but I haven't read them, so we'll just have to keep the focus narrow, to indulge my ignorance and laziness. (I do recommend "Finding Darwin's God" by Kenneth Miller, a defence of Darwinism written by a scientist who is also a devout Christian.)

3. I AM discussing religion as it is practiced in modern society; this won't be a philosophical or theological discussion; it will be a discussion of current practice and attitudes toward religion, as seen by a careful and interested observer (your friendly neighbourhood Roboseyo). The practice is the interpretation and embodiment of a religion's beliefs; the texts might show what we want to be, but the actions show what we are. As such, I am not here to discuss what Paul, or Jesus, or Mohammed said about religion, nor how I personally am spiritually fed; I am here to discuss how religion is practiced by its followers today, and how it appears to outsiders.

As THIS GUY says (about Islam, this time) here, "People say 'you can't judge islam by its followers' but that's like saying you can't judge a football team by its results. Islam is its followers" -- nobody cares what the playbook looks like if the team can't win on the field. Or as one might say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not the recipe.

4. I AM trying to offer a look at current religious controversies that will be interesting to non-religious outsiders, and challenging to religious readers.

5. I AM trying to discuss the organized religions in general (because Dawkins' attack is a general attack on organized religions); however, like him, I was raised in a Christian family, so that's what I know. Some of my comments may be a little Church-0-centric, out of ignorance of the finer details of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., not because I think that they are irrelevant. Hopefully the principles I discuss are broad enough that they can be applied to other groups as well. Also: I live in Korea, and come from North America, so a lot of my examples discuss the North American and Korean church; this is not meant as a snub to Europe, South Asia, or anywhere else, but a simple concession that I don't know as much about them.

Also, in this series,

I am NOT trying to definitively prove God exists.

I am NOT trying to definitively prove God does not exist.

I am NOT trying to establish the primacy of one religion over another.

I am NOT trying to establish the primacy of science over religion, or vice versa.

I am NOT attacking you, personally, or your beliefs (really, I swear).

I am NOT ignoring the great variety of different ways people practice religion, and saying every religious person is the same.

I am NOT saying I approve of the strident, and some say shrill way Dawkins attacks religion.

As I said before, and as King Solomon (may have) said long before me, "Iron sharpens iron" -- clear, focused, intellectually vigorous thought begets more clear, focussed, intellectually vigorous thought, and right or wrong, Dawkins has given me a great deal of intelligently and vigorously argued thoughts about God and religion. This WILL sharpen my own thinking, trimming the fat of superstition away, and leaving only the muscular integrity of tested belief, and that, dear readers, is a good thing, no matter how you slice it.

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. Background for the next essay. The next essay.


tamie said...

You should check this out. It's called "The Atheist Delusion" and it is good.

Roboseyo said...

Sorry: I had to add word verification. Somebody was spamming my comment board.