Thursday, April 3, 2008

Barker, Hitchens, Dawkins

I've read a few books on atheism over the years. The first one I read was Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith. Barker was an evangelical, born-again Christian preacher who slowly began to lose his faith. It's an interesting read because his loss of faith was rather gradual, and there was a time when he stopped believing but kept on preaching - he didn't know what else to do! Eventually, he couldn't keep living the lie, and he's been an outspoken atheist ever since. His book was fascinating because he really did a complete 180. He actually wrote some Christian songs that he continued to get royalties from after he had quit being a Christian.

The funny thing is, I remember seeing him on TV when I was a kid. He was on Oprah or Donahue or something like that. They had a number of people on from different faiths, and he was the guy to represent the lack of faith. It was the first time I had ever heard somebody talk about all the cruelties and inconsistencies in The Bible. I dismissed what he was saying at the time, but I never forgot it.

Anyway, when I read his book was around the time when I first started to admit my own lack of faith to myself. While I wasn't a preacher, there really was a long period of time when I didn't believe but wasn't quite ready to admit that I didn't believe. It's a difficult thing to explain unless you've experienced it yourself. Honestly, the only other moment in my life that I can compare it to is when I stopped believing in Santa Claus. I knew that he wasn't real for some time before I was willing to say it out loud.

Around that time, I also would frequent message boards on atheism and read articles on the subject with some regularity. I eventually grew bored with it though, as I was pretty much reading the same thing over and over again. As for the message boards, what good is it to keep reading stuff from people whom I agree with? (Although, it made me thankful that I live in a more open-minded part of the country - some atheists have to deal with quite a bit of grief over their lack of faith.)

Recently, there have been a lot of atheists in the news, and some of the best selling books have been on atheism. I believe that it's due to the fact that there probably are a lot more people out there who don't believe than people who are willing to admit it. At the very least, I think that there are a lot of people who have some pretty serious doubts about the notion of an all-powerful creator.

I wasn't too interested in reading these new books, because I figured that there wouldn't be much for me. A friend of mine lent me Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great a while back. I've seen Hitchens on TV before, and I think he's somebody who (forgive the ironic metaphor) preaches to the choir. He's a bit caustic, and he appears to have indulged in a cocktail or two before every interview that I see. Check him out on Hannity's Hour of Yellow Journalism - ahem - Hannity's America:

He does a pretty good job on that, especially considering that it's amazingly clear that one of his responses was partially edited out. (The response to the whole, "You're saying that energy created itself!") Still, I don't think that he's going to appeal to anybody who's not already having a serious crisis in faith.

What I did like about him is how he points out that it's one thing to say that there's a God, but it's another thing to claim that you know what this being wants. Also, he rightfully points out that you can get away with all sorts of evil so long as you have a religious title. And if you don't believe that, just read up on what's going on in the Catholic church! How many of these pedophiles got away with it because their followers couldn't believe that a priest would do such a thing? You'll never hear somebody say, "Oh, he couldn't be bad! He's an atheist!" (I hope that day never comes either.)

So, Hitchens book was a solid read, but it didn't offer too much new insight for me. I was looking forward to reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion though, and I picked up the paperback and devoured it within a few days.

Dawkins is a scientist and an unarguably intelligent man. In the following video, Dawkins is interviewing Ted "100% Heterosexual" Haggard. Haggard uses the usual strawman arguments against evolution and the scientific method, clearly demonstrating that he knows little about either. Dawkins is clearly dumbfounded at what he's saying. I don't really think that he handles himself spectacularly, but that's because he's clearly overwhelmed as to just how ignorant Haggard is. He's like an auto mechanic who's listening to a guy tell him that a little hamster on a wheel is what powers the motor.

It's also funny when Haggard is trying to tell Dawkins about what scientists say, and Dawkins flat-out tells him that he doesn't know any scientists who are saying that. Oh well - why argue with what's actually being said when you can make up something that's easy to knock down?

The God Delusion gave me a bit more to think about. Dawkins is quite unapologetic, and he even states that religious moderates indirectly encourage the fundamentalists. He also makes a pretty good point against agnosticism. What I found really interesting is his assertion that the question of whether there is a God or not IS a scientific question, and that the universe would be a very different sort of a place if there was one. It's definitely food for thought, and I haven't made up my mind yet about these things, but it's definitely enough to give any thinking person pause.

What I also like about him is that it's clear that he's a man who definitely has a sense of what an amazing place this universe is. He quotes Shakespeare, he makes references to art and literature. He's endlessly curious and amazed by life and all its forms. In short, he's not a bitter, cranky guy as many theists seem to think that atheists must be.

O'Reilly interviewed him when the hardcover was out. O'Reilly made an ass of himself, as usual and demonstrated his tenuous grasp on the facts (Hitler was not a "confirmed" atheist - sorry). He also completely dodged Dawkins point that while it's true that you can't prove that Jesus isn't real, you also can't prove that Zeus and Apollo aren't real.

It's too bad that he didn't give Dawkins more time to talk, as he has a pretty good answer to the whole, "I can't believe that everything just somehow got here!" argument for God. While that's completely understandable, it brings up a whole new set of problems when you then say, "therefore, some all-powerful, all-knowing creator made everything!" After all, where did this creator come from? Not to mention the old chestnut of, "Can God create a rock that's so heavy that even he can't lift it?" So, you basically answer one question with something that demands even more questions! After all, if God can be the alpha and omega, why can't the universe itself have always existed in some form or another?

Dawkins also has some pretty good answers to the typical questions that we atheists get. Here's my favorite, the answer to "What if you're wrong?"

Ultimately, if you're somebody who's undergoing a crisis of faith, and you feel bad that you might no longer believe what you were taught to believe, I recommend Dawkins' book. I also recommend it to all believers. You'll get a better sense of where we're coming from at the very least.

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