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- Marly Youmans
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Marly talks to Richard Dawkins
Faux-talk no. 2
BATTER my heart, three, person’d God; for you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
My first talk of this peculiar sort was with Seth Godin. I enjoyed it so much that I have decided to seize Richard Dawkins for my next! (I'm pondering Benjamin Franklin for faux-talk no. 3.) Blogging being what it is, a quick-and-dirty activity, I have pilfered my Dawkins-quotes from a real-Richard-Dawkins interview and from brainyquote.com. I hope that my e-Richard will not mind if I tease him a bit, though I am a little frightened when I remember that militant atheists often appear deficient in the small matter of having a sense of humor.
Disclaimer: I have read numerous articles about Richard Dawkins and interviews with him, but I have never read his books. Second disclaimer: I believe I am safe in asserting that he has never read any of my books either—or, indeed, any stray poem or story of mine.
As in the conversation with Seth Godin, I have the good luck of being the blogger, and so I get to have the last word!
I think my ultimate goal would be to convert people away from particular religions toward a rationalist skepticism, tinged with . . . no, that’s too weak . . . glorying in the universe and in life. Yes, I would like people to be converted away from religion to skepticism.
A strange thing I observe is that every believer has often experienced doubt, but not every doubter has experienced belief. So believers are quite acquainted with skepticism, and doubters are by necessity in a parlous state of ignorance about faith. I suspect that leaves the believers with a pronounced advantage in the area of understanding.
Let’s look at a particular person in our time instead of institutions and great masses of time. Most of us have trouble compassing many institutions and great expanses of time.
I am thinking of a certain man who has been both an unbeliever and a believer. He is perfectly ordinary, of above-average intelligence, although he has once heard an unearthly voice (I expect you think that makes him stupid or mad, and I don’t suppose he would care if you said so) and often felt transfigured by an influx of what he calls spirit—the Holy Spirit, to be precise. He does attend church because he thinks worship and being part of a community are important. He strives after discipline, devotion, study, and communion with God.
Now, since you don’t have faith, it’s very hard to convey to you what he might possibly mean by communion with God—by the great rushing flood of consciousness that pours through him like a greeting from another world.
But it seems, Richard Dawkins, that this experience is the sort that one desires more and more after the first encounter. Good adjectives for his state in communion: over-powering; bright; sweeping; ecstatic.
Now if you could have an overpowering experience of ecstasy, bright and sweeping, would you object? And if you, Richard Dawkins, tried to explain it away, would all that explaining make such an experience less vital and powerful? And if, as you say, there is no good or evil and so on, why would you want him to stop having this experience of communion, which is a big, potent, and exciting thing in his life and transforms him for the better?
According to your lights, there is no good or evil, and so this can’t actually be a good experience, can it? It’s just an experience, however thrilling.
So stick a neurological explanation on the experience, as though having a description of bodily responses explained them away, and get on with your campaign, Richard Dawkins!
*John Donne, metaphysical poet and writer of masterful devotions and sermons (as Dean of St. Paul’s), whose words are still worth reading all these centuries later.