Archive for November, 2008

Belief

I am departing from my usual themes of literature and language, because I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”. The very fact that I even opened this book will, no doubt, condemn me in the eyes of many – particularly, I suspect, those who have never read the book themselves. It is a knee-jerk reaction of the fervently religious to attack, blindly, anything which questions – or, still worse, threatens to undermine – their particular faith and beliefs.

Dawkins, of course, does not have it in for any one religion; he has it in for all religions. As a convinced Darwinian, he sees them as an aberrant phenomenon in the evolution of the human species – one that, hopefully, we will eventually discard; particularly if we can learn to stop indoctrinating our children before they are old enough to think for themselves.

I grew up in the Christian England of the 1930s – before mass immigration had changed ours into a ‘multi-cultural’ society. My parents were not particularly devout, but I was christened and went to Sunday school and, later, joined the Youth Fellowship. In due course I was confirmed and grew into a convinced Christian, taking my faith very seriously. For me, in that place and at that time, the word ‘religion’ meant Christianity. One knew, vaguely, that there were people in other parts of the world who had different beliefs; but one lumped them together under the general term ‘heathens’, and comforted oneself with the thought that there were missionaries who would eventually bring them to their senses.

Then, in my twenties, I started to travel. I went out to the Far East to work, and found myself confronted – and out-numbered – by people who had belief-systems totally alien to my own, and who, in each case, were clearly convinced that theirs was the only true religion. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsees, Taoists – these were not benighted heathens, but often highly cultured and intelligent people. A thought began to grow in my mind: “We can’t all be right; so maybe none of us is right!” I tried to persuade myself that perhaps the Ultimate Truth was only revealed partially, in different ways and at different times, and that there might be validity in all religions. But in the end this didn’t wash, and I became more and more certain – after many years of thought – that, far from God creating Man in his own image, it was actually the other way about.

One problem remained, though: how, I asked myself, does one explain the moral sense – the belief that certain behaviours are ‘good’ and others ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ – if there is no God? I am rather proud to say that, long before I read Dawkins, I came to the same conclusion as he does: that the source of the moral sense is, ultimately, genetic; that it can exist without the need for religious belief. It follows, it seems to me, that where a religion ‘lays down the law’ on what is good and evil, it is generally merely codifying something that is ‘built in’ to our collective psyche anyway.

This, then, explains briefly why I am a humanist and an atheist. I cannot do it with the elegance and thoroughness of a Richard Dawkins; but I am persuaded by him that I should have the courage of my convictions and declare my beliefs.

“But,” you may say, “you are an atheist. You have no beliefs.” On the contrary, I believe in many things: in the wondrous complexity of the world we have inherited; in the imponderable vastness of the universe; in the limitless potential of the human mind and imagination; and in the possibility that humankind will one day outgrow the need to do terrible things in the name of religion.

More can be read about Dawkins’ views on richarddawkins.net.