Friday, November 24, 2006

"The God Delusion" - musings

I just finished reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I liked it pretty well. I find Dawkins mostly fun to read, and quite talented (usually) at making things like the science of evolution make a little more sense to me than they did before. I also find him sort of annoying and condescending. Though I tend to agree with him on many things, I find that his presentation comes off as a bit too self-satisfied. In that past I have thought he spent a bit too much time harping on how stupid one would have to be to accept biblical creation as the true story. This book seems much the same to me.

The biggest point that I'm left with this time is that he is arguing that we should do away with God and religion. I don't so much mind this proposition (as I understand it) but see no practical way to implement it. Also, he makes a very clear point that people who are "religious" in a fundamentalist sense are often poorly educated, and that fundamentalism is dangerous. He seems to think that we can get rid of fundamentalism by getting rid of religion (by......?) but doesnt' go into what those poorly educated people will do with whatever longing led them to fundamentalism in the first place.

In any case, my real point was more about the personal effect it had on me. Early on he makes a distinction between 'supernatural religion' and 'Einsteinian religion'

The latter being pretty well summed up by this quote from Einstein,

"I am a deeply religious nonbeliever... I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism. The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive."

This actually does a really good job of summing up part of my spirituality. Except for the use of the words "religion" and "mysticism" I myself interpret religion to mean unthinking acceptance of doctrinal or scriptural "rules" or "truth" that stand without evidence to support them. This is clearly (well, I think clearly) not what he meant.

Mysticism, on the other hand, for me, has something to do with transcending the "usual" - feelings of exceptional connectedness, and/or awe, which to me seem completely compatible with nature as God (or any non-supernatural interpretation of "God") Perhaps the meanings of the words have subtlely shifted over time, or simply between the minds of Einstein and me.

I am left, however, sort of high and dry, as usual. I tried to discuss this experience with each of my two exes. One seemed not to want to hear about it because atheism is a big turn off, the other because spirituality is completely uninteresting. Where does a spiritual atheist find a spiritual home?

Dawkins himself does little to address this for me. He himself seems quite ready to find a sort of spiritual wonder in the unravelling of quarks and other scientific ideas that are beyond my understanding, and what's more, mostly beyond my interest.

I find spiritual renewal and excitement in nature - swimming in isolated, clear, beautiful lakes, watching and hearing (and sometimes feeling) a thunderstorm, just being aware of the ocean. These can by mystical (but not religious) experiences for me.

Understanding these things can be kinda cool (why thunder happens, the amazing vastness of the ocean and all the life within it that we don't understand) - but that is not a spiritual experience. Science is no substitute for this God, this wonder, but then the God in the Bible most certainly isn't. I am amazed at how few people I have encountered who share this experience.

I said once, when I was discussing this stuff with Liz, that it's like a baby being born is a miracle. It's not supernatural, we know how to get it to happen, and we know a lot about how it happens (zygotes and embryos and genes and all)- and that doesn't affect the miraculousness of it at all.

At the same time, knowing all that stuff, being a genius to embryology, or unlocking some new key to conception, is not anything like birth.

I don't believe "God" (in the sense of a being with intent) makes miracles happen, and I do believe that given infinite time and resources, science could explain them all (meaning that they are theoretically explicable without "God", but probably won't ever all be so) - but neither has any bearing on the miraculousness of the miracles themselves. To me there's an immense amount of power of spirit there, but sometimes I feel almost entirely alone in witnessing it.


Bowen said...

"Where does a spiritual atheist find a spiritual home?"

There is a fairly active group of nontheist Quakers ( that might serve. The anthology "Godless for Gods Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism" is available from Quakerbooks at FGC (_

Good luck in your search.

much love,


RichardM said...

You write: "I am left, however, sort of high and dry, as usual. I tried to discuss this experience with each of my two exes. One seemed not to want to hear about it because atheism is a big turn off, the other because spirituality is completely uninteresting. Where does a spiritual atheist find a spiritual home?"

I would recommend you try again. When it comes to serious conversation many people are resistant. When they resist we all feel a temptation to quit on them as we feel they are quitting on us. But I think it is worth it to try at least three times with each person--though Jesus would recommend 70 x 7.

One thing that makes real communication hard is each person's insistence on their own personal version of the truth. One step beyond this is to be willing to listen to the other person's version, but that is really only a baby step. The big step is to love the truth enough to be willing to consider the possibility that our own version of the truth is partly wrong and in need of correction. When both parties to a conversation are willing to do that then growth happens.

Best of luck to you and both your exes!

Timothy Travis said...

I really like this piece although it speaks not to my condition or my experience.

"Believe in" has at least two meanings to me, in reference to the God of your inference (or, I suppose, of any God). One means to accept that such an intentional being exists and the other is to have faith that such a being will come through for me.

I do not in either sense believe in the very common idea of God that, reading between the lines of your piece, you reject, although I know that you also reject the God (or the Spirit or the Light or the Christ or the Transcendent Reality) that daily teaches me, directs my life and, yes, provides for me.

I just want to point out that the God you are writing about, here, is not the God that Friends have experienced over the centuries. In fact, now that I think about it, I don't think that anyone has ever experienced that God--although I know that many have thought about such a God and even, in one of the senses I describe, above, believed in such a God.

Oh, well. It's an experience, not a thought product. Like birth. One can talk about birth and read books about birth and hear about birth experiences but I suppose until one actually gives birth then birth is just a something one thinks one "gets" but doesn't, really.

I am interested in the idea that the (theoretical) ability of science to explain every miracle means, to you, that there is no God behind them.

The transformation of human nature that Friends built their spirituality around, originally, is empirical, can be predicted from defined inputs and reproduced. It's difficult--if simple--and most people don't seem termpermentally suited to do it (perhaps it's that human condition that turns most away--well, duh, Timothy) but it has happened and continues to happen over and over again, to people in different times and places--even to those who do not orient their spirituality around Christian symbols or express it in Christian doctrine.

I suggest that defining God as merely the explanation for everything people don't understand might just be just a caricature of The Light that is available to and edifying of all people (including those who do not believe in some notion of God) who will turn toward it and obey it.

Blessed be.


"The sum and substance of true religion does not stand in getting a notion of Christ's righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is there is his righteousness."

Isaac Penington

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dawkins is the living guru of evolutionism, and quite a hero for believers in atheistic scientism. Outside that subculture, though, he is controversial. It's not just that the traditionally theistic object to his atheism; it's also that many scientists object to his scientism. ("Scientism": the practice of invoking science to advocate conclusions that rigorous science cannot prove.)

Mary Midgley has written some fairly thorough critiques of Dawkins's scientism -- most notably in her book Evolution as a Religion: Strange hopes and stranger fears (Methuen, 1985), but also in her book Science As Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning (Routledge, 1992). I'm curious to know if you've read Midgley, and if so, what you thought.

earthfreak said...

Marshall -

A bit late to be answering, but I haven't read Midgley, and I just requested three books of hers from the library on your suggestion.

So hopefully I'll have something to say about that soon.

I often wonder though, if we simply have crossed wires. There is a debate going on on Quaker-L about whether there simply has to be a god because we are capable of wondering if there is, or whether that trait might simply have evolved.

For me it is clear that there is not a paternal god figure who made us in his image and all that, but once you move beyond that to spirit, I am left not understanding why it matter whether it is natural or supernatural - Did we evolve a sense of right and wrong, or did god give it to us, did we evolve compassion, or did god give it to us? I guess in the end I'm not too worried about that question (though it seems to me more likely that we evolved it, it's true) but it's now a question of whether we live into the light that is granted us - whoever or whatever did the granting.