Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) 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.
     --John Donne*

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!

Delightful.

*
Professor Richard Dawkins:
There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?

Marly:
One reason why fairies and magic are so very popular these days is precisely the decline of religion. That is, magic whispers to us a simple thought, that there is more to the universe than meets the eye—perhaps in particular, more than meets the science professor’s eye.

Professor Richard Dawkins:
It has become almost a cliché to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science and proudly claim incompetence in mathematics.

Marly:
That’s an amusing remark.

It’s human nature; people always think that their own field hogs more than its share of public ignorance. All you have to do is look at many blogs and at people’s choice lists for book of the year and so on to find out that, yes, people do freely and openly and even happily and with gusto confess their ignorance of literature.

A perennial favorite in the world of social media and blogs is the confession of “great books I should have read but haven’t read,” which people find amusing. Long threads invariably ensue. (Here, I go on record as confessing that I doubt that I will ever read Frank Norris’s trilogy, though I have read excerpts, and I have read McTeague several times. And I liked it, so you would think that I might at least work my way through the first book of the trilogy. See? We like confession.)

Furthermore, all you have to do is look at what people buy in the way of books to discover that many of them are not actually acquainted with or interested in literature.

Professor Dawkins:
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.

Marly:
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.

Professor Richard Dawkins:
Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.

Marly:
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?

Ah.

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!

Professor Richard Dawkins:
What has 'theology' ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has 'theology' ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? What makes you think that 'theology' is a subject at all?

Marly:
Spoken like a proper professor! 

Why is it that knowing much about one subject makes people think they are capable of pronouncing on any subject—or makes them assume other traditionally-studied subjects are lesser? (I say “traditionally-studied” because such odd things have crept in. Education majors. P. E. majors. Recreation majors. And so on.)

I do think it is a subject and that there are many interesting books in the library under that rubric, although I gather you fought against a named chair in Theology (after you secured your own named chair, of course, in your own area. Entirely wise and very understandable and 100% grade-A human.)

Most people who choose to have the experience of worship—and here I’m talking about Christians, because the village where I live is composed of Christians, agnostics, atheists, and a sprinkling of foreign students, some of whom are Buddhist or Hindu--don’t know a huge amount about Theology. They know about the Bible and study it; they do read a certain number of secondary-source books, mostly written for a lay audience; they seek after God; and they are involved in outreach and service to others.

A few can read Hebrew or Greek and are more scholarly. One studied medieval Latin but has moved away, alas. I find the presence of these students in such a tiny place to be surprising. Oddly enough, they have things to say that make me think that your ‘theology’ (note scare quotes) is a subject after all.

Perhaps you could attend a reputable Divinity School in your retirement and find out whether it is a subject or not—find out exactly what it is.

Professor Richard Dawkins:

The fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing, is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice.

Marly:
Thank you.
 
  
*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.

4 comments:

  1. I don't find this as convincing as your previous blog because I don't really think you have crafted an interaction between the two of you. In truth, there is no possibility that either would hear the other or be able to interact, as your assumptions are just so entirely different. This is not necessarily the case with every atheist, but with this one, I think such a discussion would be unlikely.

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  2. No doubt I have been rather silly with him!

    Fairies in the garden...

    It's the ones whose assumptions are different who are fun to tweak, though!

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  3. Tweak me, then!
    Although, I do not 'believe' in atheism. I just wait for truths and in the absence of them, cannot justify some things : )

    This was highly entertaining.
    And thoroughly reprehensible.

    Perfect, Marly : D

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  4. Paul,

    Hello, Mr. Composer-Videographer-Etc.-Free-est Thinker-of-Them-All:

    I'm glad it met with your (ambiguous) approval! I do think Militant Anythings miss out on a good deal of fun because militancy and fun with laughter find it hard to co-exist. But the better to tweak!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.