Monday, December 25, 2006

missionary manouvrings

too good for religion

Christmas these days I associate with charming and sometimes not so charming children, and with overindulgence, mad rushing, sitting around with a stupid smile on your face, inane banter, frayed nerves, wanting to be elsewhere, and of course moments of delight.

A few days ago I bought a copy of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which I thought might be a suitable gift for my youngest stepdaughter. She's had drug and social adjustment problems for years, and in recent times her older sister, who long ago converted to Christianity after her own years of quite extreme teen rebellion, has sought to exert an influence, through invitations to her church and the passing on of Christian literature. As a proselytizing atheist, I've looked on at this with some agitation, especially on observing that Christian-inspired kiddy videos have been turning up at Sarah's place, intended for the brilliant four-year-old Courtney, daughter of the afore-mentioned troubled step-daughter. Now, everybody agrees that Courtney's a star, and, while I may reluctantly concede that belief in a supernatural, vaguely benevolent deity, and joining a mutually supportive group that shares this belief, might benefit a profoundly under-confident young woman with substance abuse problems, I can't for a moment accept that a precocious, articulate kid like Courtney has any need for this sort of pap. I feel quite aggrieved about it.

So I thought it wouldn't be amiss to put some alternative literature in my stepdaughter's way, since she has occasionally professed an interest in science, though she also, unfathomably, has a wide anti-intellectual streak …..

I started reading the Dawkins book. Of course I'm loving it. I knew that, with all the social engagements pending, I'd never get it finished before having to hand it over to my stepdaughter. I also had qualms about forcing views upon her, however gently, even though others appeared to be doing so. I've always had this anxiety about imposing my views on others, which is probably why I reserve my greatest contempt for missionaries. And yet I call myself a proselytizing atheist, and wish sometimes I really were.

I tried to overcome my qualms. I told Sarah that, though it was unlikely that her daughter would read my gift of the Dawkins book, I felt it important to give her the opportunity, to treat her as a responsible intelligent adult, to appeal to the more open and intellectually ambitious aspect of her nature. Sarah was all for it.

In the end, though, I couldn't go through with it. Maybe I was worried that the whole family might find my gift presumptious if not pretentious – for the fact is that Sarah's youngest stepdaughter isn't the only family member with an anti-intellectual streak, and I've always been peculiarly sensitive to this kind of disparagement, having suffered from it so much in my youth.

Another problem was that the Dawkins book was relatively expensive, and, because I wouldn't be able to spend the same amount on the rest of the family, it might be thought that I was giving this particular step-daughter special consideration.

Maybe these were all just excuses, and I wanted to keep the book for myself. In any case, I opted instead for hand cream.

So this morning we opened the presents. My youngest step-daughter received, among many other things, a book. Naturally I expressed interest. ''She's a really good author,'' she replied expertly. I was bemused, as I rarely found her with a book in her hand, let alone blithely categorising writers. I looked at the hefty volume, and found that it was a modern retelling of one of the books of the Bible, a gift from her Christian elder sister (whose gift to me was a copy of Augustine's Confessions).

I vaguely felt I'd been outmanoeuvred, though I have to admit that I was more bothered by the fact that I wasn't particularly bothered than I was by these sisterly shenanigans. Should I be more worried? One of the titles Dawkins recommends is something like Why nonbelievers should take religion seriously. I understood the global concern, and I also understood that seriousness begins at home, but was there really any chance that I could score a victory for atheism within a family that had never shown much interest in anything I had to say?

Much better I think to post my beliefs and arguments to a waiting world here on my blog.

So far [I'm about halfway through The God Delusion] Dawkins hasn't dealt with the what's-the-point-of life issue, the one I mentioned here as atheism's big drawback for many, or so I suspect. However, he has dealt with another issue of interest to me, that of the mystery of life, the apparent improbability of the animate springing from the inanimate.

Firstly, Dawkins' response to all attempts to argue that so-called irreducible complexity can only be accounted for by a designer is to point out that, even if irreducible complexity could be found, any putative designer would itself have to be irreducibly complex and so would have to be accounted for by a designer, and so on in infinite regression. I think this is a sound response, but he also, of course, argues that every instance of irreducible complexity put forward by the opponents of evolutionary development has turned out, on analysis, to be nothing more than a chimera.

Dawkins' rebuttal of these claims are largely taken from his earlier book The view from Mount Improbable, in which he ingeniously details the modifications involved in the development of eyesight, among other things, gradually reducing its supposedly irreducible complexity. I'm not sure that he made much mention of the origin of life in that book though, and I know that this particular conundrum has been leapt upon by many godbotherers.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins deals with this conundrum in two parts, which he calls ''The Anthropic Principle – Planetary Version", and "The Anthropic Principle – Cosmological Version". As this is quite complicated stuff, and as I'm getting tired, I'll write about it tomorrow, and hopefully get clearer about it myself.



At 10:17 pm , Anonymous Tony F said...

Just a couple of comments: You bought the right book for your daughter; what a dysfunctional family you have inherited (makes me very glad that my wife an I never had kids. Your wife must take the blame for turning one of her daughters onto religion and the supernatural. But my real concern is your Blog's charter - you need to edit your smart-ass wording as it only makes you sound like a fuckhead. Long live Dawkins.

At 9:45 am , Blogger Stewart said...

At least you left a comment, but sadly not one worthy of a response.


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