Sunday, March 18, 2007

Dawkins vs Jacob

I’ve not blogged on Brother Dawkins for a while so here’s the next instalment. Sorry, it’s a long one.

The God Delusion continues to be a fun read, if only because his tone is much lighter than in the other works I’ve read (The Selfish Gene; The Blind Watchmaker; Climbing Mount Improbable). He even cracks the odd joke.

I think I’m coming to see his weakness, though. Well, two weaknesses. One is that occasionally, as previously said, he’s just not as well informed as he thinks he is. His take on the accuracy of the Bible, given the antiquity of the manuscripts, alleged unreliability of copying etc. is old, old, old. They’re reasonable questions to ask, and they have reasonable answers which no one ever told him. Thus what he’s sure is firm ground in fact stands up to informed critique like grass in a gale and I won’t go further into it here. Nowadays we teach this stuff in Sunday School. They probably didn’t in his day, and should have.

The other is his reliance on Darwinian evolution for everything. Fine as far as it goes – if you’re talking scientifically about how life has developed on planet Earth, at present Darwinian evolution is the only meaningful model. Just like for 250 years, Newtonian physics were the only meaningful way of talking about how the solar system worked ... until Einstein came along and showed that Newton was in fact completely wrong, he just accidentally used words that accurately described the situation in most observable cases.

(If you just heard a loud OW, that’s because my colleague Tim who sits five feet away from me has a degree in space science, has just read this and has thrown something at me for making uninformed generalisations. I sit with my back to him so I’ll have to hope I catch his reflection in the monitor.)

So, Darwinian evolution is now but may not always be the sacred mantra of life scientists ... which Dawkins should realise. And he goes even further than the origins of life – he goes on to seek Darwinian reasons for why religion should exist at all. And morality. And a passel of other stuff too. That is when you want to say, come on Richard, give it a break already.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s testimony time.

Dawkins graciously accepts the existence of otherwise sane individuals, reputable scientists even, who are still inexplicably religious. He has skilfully dissected the roots of religion and shown it all to be a load of hooey, so he is patently baffled why such a thing should happen.

It doesn’t occur to him that his premises are incorrect. He took a wrong turn early on. Dawkins assumes believers believe because they are told to. In the Dawkinsian model of religious belief, children are indoctrinated and either continue to believe, growing up into credulous adults, or be clever like him and drop it. It’s a simple little model which totally fails to explain, say, the Alister McGraths of this world who start atheist and go the other way ... via the medium of science.

Nor does it occur to him that people can , yes, be taught religion as children ... and then discard it, and then rebuild it piece by piece, bit by bit, hanging on to those bits that make sense, discarding those that don’t. Religion to Dawkins is a homogenous mass of credulity. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, I was brought up as a Christian believer but in such a way that if I hadn’t gone through the reconstruction process myself I would have given it all up long ago. I will also admit that I might have done likewise if raised a Muslim or a Hindu. It’s unknowable, what I would have done. I can only say what I did.

Now, that testimony thing.

In December 1991 I moved into my flat. I was in a brand new town, I knew no one, the job wasn’t half as good as I had hoped, I was flat broke ... life was not good. In the midst of all that I prayed. A lot. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

I awoke the next morning to find that my incompetent boss had died, an anonymous philanthropist had deposited £100,000 in my bank account and ...

Actually, absolutely nothing noticeable happened, except that a word popped into my forebrain. Jacob.

But it was more than just the word – it came with a parcel of meaning attached. I’m not sure what you could call it. A meme? An engram? Whatever. The meaning attached it to was the Old Testament patriarch of that name, who – as I knew from my David Kossof Bible Stories many years earlier – laboured hard for seven years, married the wrong girl, laboured for seven more, married the right one.

I’m not the kind of person who regularly gets visions, or messages, or images, or apposite Bible verses to quote. I write science fiction, for goodness sake, and weird stuff pops into my head all the time. Yet, for some reason, this seemed different. How? No idea. You might as well ask, how is the woman I married any different to any other woman that I didn’t? Biologically they’re the same. But she is different and I can see it. So there. Same thing here.

Mind you, I wasn’t particularly interested in anything happening in seven years time, let alone fourteen. I wanted it now. And if it was some kind of prophecy, I doubted it was a literal one, if only because the two women Jacob married were sisters and he ended up married to both of them at once. So, encoded in the word that I received was [in seven years time you’ll think you’ve got it made but won’t and in another seven years you really will have].

And there was of course the implication that I would still be there in seven, or fourteen, years time, so therefore I would get through my current difficulties. Which I did. Wasn’t easy, but got easier. Job improved, incompetent boss left + got a much better one, made friends. Occasionally I thought a little about Jacob over the following years, but not often. Certainly not often enough to have the effect that I’m sure someone will suggest to me, that this was all subconscious positive thinking. I certainly didn’t tell it to my publisher, yet seven years later, December 1998, my first book was published. And I thought I had it made.

Except that I didn’t. Yes, I was a published author. No, I wasn’t rich enough to retire. His Majesty’s Starship got reasonable reviews, did reasonably well, but it certainly didn’t take the world by storm. In short, it was a bog standard first time novelist experience. So, back to the grind stone.

Jobs and solvency came and went; another seven years passed quite quickly. I met Best Beloved and knew before too long that I wanted to marry her. Couldn’t see how, given various circumstances that I won’t go into. Jacob began to loom in my mind as the fourteenth anniversary approached, and it did occur to me that maybe this was what God had in mind – but I couldn’t see how. And I never told her about Jacob, yet she was the one who finally came out with the breakthrough suggestion that let us go ahead. We got engaged in December 2005. Do the maths.

This kind of thing shouldn’t happen, according to Dawkins. Yet it does. How strange.

I’m now moving on to the chapters where he talks about morality. Expect more soon.


  1. Heathen Tim6:35 pm

    Hi Ben,

    You are lucky indeed that I didn't read this at work. I certainly would have lofted something heavy in your direction, and handily you could have exactly predicted the trajectory of said object due to our friend Newton.

    So Newton wasn't 100% right - well neither is Einstein and he would have never claimed to be. Newton may well have claimed to be absolutely right, but this is only because I'm told personality wise he was a bit of a jerk.

    I'm grinning at the fact that you've found your well deserved happiness. I can hear the love in your words and long may it last.

    I'm not going to comment on the Jacob part because you know what I'm going to say and I don't think you want me to turn your blog into an atheist debate. I hope for your sake that Dawkins doesn't choose to comment either ;-) .

    Keep enjoying the book.

    Heathen Tim

  2. Ah, the joys of polemic that bright people can recognise as such! And you'll be glad to know I don't expect that little testimony to convince anyone. See you tomorrow ...


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.