At the invitation of m’colleague Tim (who lent it to me) I’ve started reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. I suspect I will have a lot to say ...
I won’t do one big review as it would take too long and life is too short. I’ll just drop in comments here when and as I feel, as I go. Like now.
First impressions. Like all his books, it’s a joy to read. It’s witty, lucid, very well written, and invaluably informative in those areas where Dawkins is well informed. (He’s not always as well informed as he thinks he is but I’ll probably come back to that in another post.) His one page analysis of the excesses of Catholicism shows exactly why the Reformation was such a good, and long overdue, idea. His dissection of Creationism and Intelligent Design (amusingly described as ‘Creationism in a cheap tuxedo’) are all I need to point at if anyone ever asks me why I’m not a Creationist. And as for the prayer experiment ...
This, too, rightly gets the Dawkins treatment. This was an experiment set up to test via scientific means whether praying specific things for a specific group of people had the slightest effect. It was all done with the proper system of double blinds – the prayees (all hospital patients) didn’t know they were being prayed for, the prayerers didn’t know exactly who they were praying for (they knew first name and initial of surname, but had never met the people in question) and so on. Rather unsurprisingly, the experiment revealed that prayer had exactly no effect at all.
I take this with a pinch of caveats because I’ve heard a similar story in which prayer did work. I have no direct way of knowing which account is correct, but I strongly suspect it’s Dawkins. I won’t lean over backwards to give Deep Faith reasons for why it didn’t work, like some theologians he gleefully goes on to quote – I’ll just say that if you want to prove the existence of a thinking, reasoning intelligence then you don’t reduce it to the status of a lab rat; and if that intelligence is in the habit of handing out favours when and as he feels like, you don't treat them as a mechanical process that is there on demand. That’s the logical flaw of the experiment, never mind the moral and ethical ones.
Here is Ben’s take on prayer.
I was running low on petrol so I decided to divert from my ordinary route home from work, and go via Tesco to fill up. This means coming off the A34, driving up to the Tesco roundabout and turning right. With no traffic around, you can do this in 30 seconds. When Abingdon is having a Bad Traffic Day, like this day in question, it can take 40 minutes.
Forty minutes later, having finally crawled up to the Tesco roundabout, my schedule for the evening was already way off. So I just did a full 180 (UPDATE: I meant 360, gaah!) round the roundabout, back to the A34 in 30 seconds, and took an alternative route home that took a further 10 minutes. Then I had my dinner, went out to a meeting scheduled for later that evening, and filled up en route to that instead. At the garage, I met a lady from out of town who was badly lost and wanted directions to a particular road. Which I was able to give her.
I don’t know if she was religious; I don’t know if she had prayed for help in finding her way about town. It’s still entirely possible that as she drove away she sent up a quick thanks for meeting someone who could help her. I certainly sent up a quick thanks that I was able to help. Neither of us would imagine for a second that God had inflicted a Bad Traffic Day on Abingdon, inconveniencing hundreds of drivers with a knock on to thousands if you include family members, just so I could help the lady find Appleford Drive. (It's hard to imagine a loving God inflicting one of Abingdon’s Bad Traffic Days on anyone. Sodom and Gomorrah got off more lightly.)
My mental image is of a grid stretching out ahead of me. A grid of events, or non events, that affect everyone. My life, and the lives of everyone else, rattle through the grid randomly like pinballs. We bump into the events, we bump into each other. It's a chaotic, non-predictable process. Prayer is a way of bringing a bit more order into it. It puts you in a state of mind and being that gravitates more towards, or away from, certain events and lives than others. It makes you able to find some good wherever you find yourself. It puts yourself second and others first. It helps good spread out to encompass other people, not just yourself. And quite possibly – a bit like Dawkins’s Climbing Mount Improbable – it will bring you via a series of smaller events to a big event that, had you jumped straight there, would have seemed to be in violation of the laws of the universe.
Drat. I feel the need to give a particular key testimony in my life coming on. But not here. Maybe tomorrow.
[I thought of heading this post with another anagram, but "Richard Dawkins The God Delusion" is an anagram of "Swindled and rigorous thickhead". Which would be unkind, so I went with the Mamas & the Papas instead.]