Sunday, November 08, 2009

No Need of That Hypothesis

I was smitten with the flu on Wednesday and am currently at the tail end of it (Lord willing). I don't know if it is/was porcine or not, but then I don't care much about the variety for my own sake. The good that came out of it was that my entire family was able to find and receive swine flu vaccinations this week (not fully immunized for two weeks, but it's done). The school kids have all gotten the seasonal flu vaccinations at school, so they're as ready as possible for the rest of the season. We hope. I would still like Laura (who is expecting our seventh baby, if you don't already know - a boy, mid-March), Jack and Cate to get immunized against the seasonal flu, but maybe we can work something out this week. Though fever free all day yesterday, a low-grade fever popped up again last night, so I hope I'll be fever free all day today. I'm still tired and weak, but doing fine. The irony of it all is that of the entire family, I get out the least - I'm around the fewest people. On the other hand, my family is around hundreds of others every day and so I was easy pickings.

My parents rent the house across the street from us, though they are not there all the time - maybe one week per month. And so I quarantined myself over there. It was boring and miserable and I missed my family terribly, even though we were only apart for three days and only across the street and still got to talk to each other through storm doors. I had some books that I had requested from the library come in and so I spent most of my time reading - something I rarely get the chance to do. So on Friday I read - and you'll like this - God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens and on Saturday I read, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I had been wanting to read the two books eventually for a character in my book, though a sympathetic protagonist, lest you get the wrong idea. The books, if you haven't read them, are, well, interesting. Hitchens' book seems more hostile than Dawkins' book, but both are, as you can gather from the titles, not friendly to religion. Hitchens casts his net out broadly and blames all religions with fairly equal robust, while Dawkins turns more toward Christianity, as it is that with which he is most familiar. Both would be gladly rid of any kind of religion, but neither would fight, other than with words, for them to be expunged from the earth. Both seem like fairly friendly gentlemen, as a matter of fact, they just think the majority of evil in our world originates out of our religious impulse. They both often receive charitable Christian mail from charitable Christians who would like nothing better than to see them burn in hell - so perhaps you can understand some of their push back. Ah, the charity of Christians - it does the heart good, does it not?

I am not, after reading both books, an atheist. But I do think they each make excellent cases for atheism and point, in some places, painfully clearly at our sins as Christians. (Here we can only say, as we always say, "Lord, have mercy.") They each have a bevy of narratives that inform their views, just as you and me - though ours are often opposing stories. Both of them seem, at times, arrogant - though I suppose critics often do. I thought it a flaw in their books. Both of them seem, to me, to have missed the point of evil in it all: We are sinners, all of us, of which I am the chief, the first, the foremost, the greatest - the worst. And that it is not the problem of religion, but the problem of evil itself within the heart of all people. And because of religion's ubiquity in our world, and its power, religion is often the greater vehicle. And because of its teachings, its hypocrisy is certainly highlighted. So I think they need to go deeper for their problem - to see that heaven and hell are in every human heart. But overall, and other than their hostility, they seem like decent, well-meaning chaps, and I wouldn't mind sitting down and discussing with them further why they see no possible synthesis between science and faith.

Nevertheless, I had my moments of disagreements with both men. They both seem to - excuse my French - wear shit-colored glasses when it comes to Christianity - and fail to see the wheat for the tares. They pick and choose among denominations and faiths as it suits them - and invariably someone of some faith is erring somewhere in some manner. So while it sounds as if religion does indeed poison everything, they ignore that there are other people of faith (sometimes the same faith) working to stop the same evil. (Dawkins, who tends to be fairer, does point out several minor examples of this.) One of their shared "concerns" about religion was the possibility of faith education as abuse of children - not in a pedophiliac sense, though there is that - but in simply raising children as Christian or Muslim or Hindu or what-you-will. They both thought parents - being parents - rearing their children in their own faith egregious. That children are children and are not Catholic children or Muslim children, but children of parents of those faiths. Now there is something to what they say and it is not simply as crackpot as it sounds. For instance, who would disagree that it is abuse to raise your child to hate a group of people so much that you strap fake bombs to him, making him out to be a suicide bomber, and parade him around? Who would disagree that it is abuse to dress your little ones in white sheets and take them out to a gathering and burn a cross or two? And there are other examples - unfortunately, many other examples, some of which fall in our own laps. And yet, even when I hear, and know of, some of these crazy examples of environments in which children are being raised, I have to stop and wonder about it. No parent is perfect. Many times parents are not even good. Yet the people I know who are people of faith, do a fair job - their best - at raising their children - even while they teach them doctrines that I disagree with, or inadvertently teach them to be racist or elitist or scientifically ignorant. But none of us are perfectly functional; we all fail our children. I imagine that even Mr. Dawkins has failed his children. (Though I also imagine he would be the first to admit it.) I do not think, from the examples he gives in his book, he would have much to say about how I, or many like me, raise my children, if he really knew how we do so - nothing with which he could point a disapproving finger at faith, other than that they are being raised with faith. But it was an interesting charge to read about; a charge I've heard before from other Christians when converting to Catholicism as a matter of fact. But here are my children, even now, out my window, running and playing among golden leaves. Just children. Red-nosed. Laughing. Imagining. Enjoying one another. They do not cower behind closed bedroom doors when I am around. They write notes to me, when I am sick and absent, of how they cannot live without me. They bring me flowers. They share their stories. They love other people. They seem, for the most part, reasonably well children. They do all right. And when they are older, they will choose for themselves whether they will assent to share the faith of our Church, and I will give them the freedom to do so. Of course I hope they choose to share our faith, but even if they choose to become atheists - oh, how I will love them still. Can I do any less?


Dan said...

Great's clear that your "writing chops" are being regularly exercised.

I haven't read either book, though I spent quite a bit of time one afternoon reading excerpts from Dawkins' book. Arrogant is a good word for hi. I don't find him particularly cogent in his arguments all of the time. I found him to be more bluster than substance, though I agree with you that he does raise legitimate critiques.

Since you just read these two books, I highly recommend Ben Stein's film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It's a Michael Moore-esque film where people get surprised by Ben Stein, including Dawkins. The denouement of the film traps Dawkins in a way that I think you will find particularly enjoyable, now that you've read his book.

Hope all is well...and that you're over the worst of the flu.

BTW...your book sounds exciting!

kkollwitz said...

I've read Hawkins and Hitchens, as well as counter-arguing Theists such as Dean L. Overman and Edward Feser (all four from my public library). D & H come off to me as narrow-minded and crabby, while the theists seem broad-minded, reasonable and happy.

luke said...

I read Dawkins' Selfish Gene and I have to say his tone, at least from back then, sounded hopeful and optimistic. Where everything I read from him today just sounds bitter and hateful. I guess 25 years of Christian "charity" can wear on a guy! ;)

I also watched Maher's film "Religulous" which was a good critique of religion. I think all critics of religion do have some room for righteous indignation when we look at some of the horrible things done in the name of religion.

But religion is not special in this, and I think you hit the nail on the head. The real problem is the problem of evil, not the problem of religion. And ironically, it seems like a strong atheist has to make a moralistic case for enlightened humanism to even begin to call religion "bad" don't they? Do either of them do this in their books? Do they state how they establish their moral high ground from which they deride religion?

Scott Lyons said...

Luke, sorry it's taken me so long to respond - the authors don't state how they establish their moral high ground (to the best of my recollection - I certainly could have missed it, which is to say that it wasn't prominent within their writings); it seems to be a given for them. But, for the most part, the issues they see as evil and hypocritical are evils and hypocrisies.

luke said...

Yeah, that's the thing - when Dawkins or Maher point out hypocrisies and evils in religion, I agree with them. But at the same time, I never hear them define 'evil' from an areligious (i.e. humanistic) perspective, which itself is susceptible to the same kinds of hypocrisy and evil as religious systems. (I'm thinking of Stalin, Mao, etc.)

Marti said...

Hope you had a good Thanksgiving and are feeling better!

Marti said...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you!

Steven said...

Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family, but you pointed out that this has only been so since 1969. The feast of Joseph, Mary and Jesus only began to be celebrated on different dates after 1893. Do you question the validity of the Church's current exaltation of the family and its holiness as such?

I do not go as far as Terry Eagleton, who has written that "Jesus's attitude to the family is one of implacable hostility". Eagleton has supported this judgment (that surely sounds surprising to many devout Christian ears) with many scriptural quotations.

One set is made up of the occasions when Jesus says His coming into the world as a human being was destined to bring about hostility between family members.

Eagleton paraphrases this statement as follows: "He has come to break up these cosy little conservative settlements so beloved of American advertisers in the name of His mission, setting their members at each other's throat."

A second set consists of the statements in which Jesus does not show any particular favour towards his relatives, who indeed on at least one occasion declare him to be crazy. Some readers of the Gospels have even derived the impression that Jesus did not have all that much time even for His mother, although more careful readings of the paradoxical utterances in question show that in every case Jesus was suggesting that the real reason for honouring Mary was not her flesh-and-blood relationship to Him, but rather Her loving fulfillment of God's will.

Eagleton's allegation of a "cold-eyed" attitude on the part of Jesus to the family in general and to his own family in particular is concurred with by the famous scientist and propagandist for atheism, Richard Dawkins.

In his The God Delusion, he pictures the Christian attitude to the family as manifested in such practices of early admission to monastic both male and female communities as more or less equivalent to the kidnapping of young people by some contemporary religious cults of Far Eastern origins.

Since Dawkins himself seems to subscribe to the 19th century (or Hegelian) concept of the family, he regards what he takes to be the attitude of Jesus to the family as one of the stronger arguments against Christianity.

Eagleton, on the other hand, insists that the idea of justice that Jesus propagated leads Him to demand that it should cut across not only ethnic, social and national divisions, but also even the closest family relationships. "Justice is thicker than blood".

Excerpts from Fr Peter's Perspective Jesus against the family? on the Times of Malta, Sunday, 27th December 2009

Scott Lyons said...

Steven, I presume your comment is entirely excerpted from "Jesus Against the Family?" Interesting perspectives on the family and what Jesus had to say about it.

I would agree with Eagleton that "Justice is thicker than blood," depending on how one defines "justice." Yet at the same time, justice must begin with the family, and if it is absent there, then it cannot be present outside of it. Again, it largely depends on how you view justice. In my view justice is rooted in the love of God, but I know for some justice has more to do with, as they view it, God's holiness, which leads to his vindictiveness.

I think it is mistaken to deny Jesus' filial and human love for his mother, even though in the Gospels he praises her exclusively for her faithfulness to God's will. In fact I think the two are not in competition with one another. The physicality of their relationship is reinforced by Mary's faithfulness, as it is in my relationship with my family being reinforced by our similar beliefs, or "threatened" by our differing beliefs. This is even more true between Jesus and Mary, however, since her faithfulness to God's will is her faithfulness to her son - not because it is God's will she love her child, but because her child is God. To love Jesus, even as a mother loving her son, she must love God. And the greater she loves God, she loves her son. The more she loves her son, the more she loves God.

Christ, on the other hand, loves his mother as his mother, and loves his mother as his child, and his love for her is sufficient as love, but is also "justified" by her love for the Father. In Mary, his love is requited. (Though this is not why he loves her. He would love her regardless.)

Anyway - too many words, probably some error there. As it concerns family relationships and responsibilities as I speak about in my post, it would interest me to hear how Dawkins replies(d) to a son or daughter's question about God or heaven. Does he walk the talk (in Christianese)? Or does he tell her there is no heaven, no God? In other words, from my perspective, does he respond as an atheist or does he respond as an agnostic? Does his response allow his child to explore the possibilities, or does his response fortify his beliefs (or non-beliefs)? To reply as an agnostic about questions on which you are no agnostic, seems to be a disservice to one's child rather than a service - robotic and cold, and, at the end of the day, rather absurd. Does he answer the question about evolution with ambiguity or with certainty? Or does the question even need to be asked in his home? (Is the answer self-evident?)

We are who we are in our homes. And who I am is taught to my children not simply with words and not primarily with words, but by my life, by my participation in the life of the Church, in the sacraments, in the life of God. My children, then, see my life, see what I proclaim by my life, and then also see what I really proclaim by my life in how I treat my wife and how I treat them and how I talk about my neighbor behind closed doors. My family knows what Gospel I proclaim, no matter how well hidden I keep it from the public.

I suspect the same is true in Dawkins' home. And it is disingenuous to call this kind of teaching abuse. If it is abuse, then no one can raise a child - not me, not Dawkins. Even the absence of something in the home is shaping the child. Which reveals the assumptions of Dawkins: Religion is poison, therefore one who teaches a child religion is abusing his/her child. I know many homes that would turn it on its head and say: Atheism is poison, therefore one who teaches a child atheism is abusing his/her child.

In such a book and view as Dawkins's, our assumptions matter a great deal.