I spent my Christmas weekend reading the book, Brief Candle in the Dark, by atheist extraordinaire Dr Richard Dawkins.
Now here's being candid, I am a Christian - for the last 30 years. Still am but I have grown over the years. The word "grown" is a subjective and loaded word. Loaded because I am one believer who enjoys the simple brilliance of atheist authors like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Some fundamentalists may describe me as sleeping with the enemy, playing with fire or traversing to the dark side. But I see it as keeping an open mind, always. While my faith is not the cherry-picking type to suit my convenience, my personal conviction is to travel always in pairs. That is, to walk in the shoes of others, to see things from their vantage point, and to understand sufficiently before I form my own opinion. And my journey in an atheist's sneaker is never unexciting.
My disclaimer is that I will never attain perfect knowledge for as long as I live. It is just impossible. And should the fundamentalist chant with vehemence that nothing is impossible with God, then they will have to admit with grit teeth no less that it is impossible to fully understand God's thoughts and ways lest we stand in parity with omnipotence. Dare us?
In fact, in the book, Dawkins mentioned a Jesuit Father by the name of George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, who once said matter-of-factly in an interview with the author this: "God is not an explanation. If I were seeking for a god of explanation...I'd probably be an atheist."
Now, I sense the ire of fundamentalists aroused by that statement, but let's keep the mind open, the soul cool and the heart tempered. The Jesuit Father has got a point - if not directly. Strictly from a secular, empirical angle (underscore "strictly"), God explains little and his role is at best to fill in the gap/void where science has yet to bridge. However, this is not a source of revelation, but is one borne out of desperation. For as science progresses rapidly in the last few decades, the gap on which the divine authorship occupies is shrinking fast. Here's just a foretaste of what I mean.
To the creationists, the earth is no more than 6000 years old - give or take a few hundred. This clashes head on with the time of dinosaurs roaming the earth 65 million years ago. Then the earth used to be flat until science set the record straight. And Galileo downgraded us or the earth from being at the center of the solar system and the universe to an insignificant blip hidden in one godforsaken corner of an immeasurably huge universe(s). This reality took the Catholic Church only recently to concede. But of course the sun is not going to wait until an ex cathedra or council decision is pronounced before it switch places with the earth.
I dare say that the Bible is just not a scientific book because God had never intended it to be one. And if it ever were a science book, it would be an extremely thin one with every subject on physics, chemistry, biology, geography and astronomy starting and ending with phrases similar to this: "God somehow created it" - full stop. And it is that "somehow" that science is currently trying to unravel with empiricial precision.
So as a firebrand atheist, Dawkins does have a point about there being no reason of any persuasive gravita for him to believe in God. That's just him I guess.
For a believer like me, the book comes alive when Dawkins talks about the many debates and encounters he had with Christians. And in the past 70 years, he had met the worst and the best of them.
In the former category, the name of the former preacher Ted Haggard was mentioned and not because he was caught with a man in a sexual act. It was however because of the brazen, ignorant and arrogant attitude shown by the preacher. Dawkins also met a so-called Reverend (Michael Bray) who "had been in jail for violent attacks on doctors who carried out abortions."
The weirdest one was a self-styled Pastor Keenan Roberts. He interviewed him because his main pastoral preoccupation was to scare children with self-made videos about how sadistic Satan was in hell. Dawkins wrote this about him, "He ran an institution called Hell House, devoted to performing short plays designed to scare children out of their wits with threats of being barbecued for all eternity. We filmed rehearsals of two of these playlets. The lead character of both was a sadistically roaring Satan, noisily gloating, in the "Ha-Haar" manner of a Victoria melodrama baronet, over the eternal torments prepared for various sinners - a woman having an abortion in one play, a pair of lesbian lovers in the other. Afterward, I interviewed Pastor Roberts. He told me his target audience was twelve-year-olds."
Nevertheless, the best of Dawkins' encounters were deeply encouraging. In this honors roll, he mentioned Rowan Williams (retired Archbishop of Canterbury) and this was the impression the Archbishop left on him:
"I have had four meetings with Rowan Williams...and found him to be one of the nicest men I have ever met: almost impossible to argue with, he is so agreeable. And so obligingly intelligent (in the literal sense of intellego = I understand) that he actually finishes your sentences for you, even when those sentences - in my understanding of them - should have been devastating for his position and he doesn't seem to have any comeback to them!" The other affable illuminaries were Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Jesuit Father George Coyne.
What I like about the book is that there is much to respect and to learn from those who profess to be godless. They can be an endearingly unpretentious lot of highly intelligent people. Dawkins once asked the co-founder of the double helix, Nobel laureate James Watson, this question "What are we for?" and his candid reply is this: "Well, I don't think we're for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, "Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose." But I'm looking forward to a good lunch."
Further, there is just a pervading and unperturbed sense of down-to-earth serenity about the atheists. Take the author of the Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy, the late Douglas Adams for example. Dawkins devored one of his books and they quickly became close friends. The respect is unsurprisingly mutual.
When Dawkins asked him this: "What is it about science that really gets your blood running?" the cosmic comedian said, impromptu: "The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity, and the richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably absolutely out of nothing, is the most fabulous, extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened - it's just wonderful. And...the opportunity to spend seventy or eighty years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned."
Now the book is quite a revelation into Dawkins' world and how he was "almost in tears" writing about his daughter, Juliet, who was only twelve when his second wife Eve was diagnosed with adrenal cancer and how she lovingly cared for her mother "through the ordeals of successive chemotherapy cycles, hiding her own foreboding and grief in a way that no child should be expected to do, keeping calm and sensible when the rest of us were not doing so well at that." Eve died thereafter.
In 2010, Julie qualified as a doctor and Dawkins wrote, "Eve would have been deeply proud of her, as I am."
In the end, the book is about what Dawkins holds dearly and that is a restless, daring and questioning mind. Never take things at face value - that's my takeaway. He urges his readers to probe between the cracks of religion, keep an open mind, challenge dubious authority, be courageous even when one is standing alone, and as best as is humanly possible, to keep your cool about it.
This is one man who lives his life on his own terms just like his fellow like-minded compatriot, the late Christopher Hitchens - whom the fanatic believers just love to hate. And there is no better end to this brief review about his memoir than to draw out extracts of a speech Dawkins gave to his friend Hitchens when the latter won the Richard Dawkins Award of the Atheist Alliance of America shortly before he died of oesophagus cancer.
"Today I am called upon to honor a man whose name will be joined, in the history of our movement, with those of Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Pain, David Hume
...Though not a scientist and with no pretensions in that direction, he understands the importance of science in the advancement of our species and the destruction of religion and superstition:
"One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody - not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms - had the smallest idea what was going on.
It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).
Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.
...And in the very way he is looking his illness in the eye, he is embodying one part of the case against religion. Leave it to the religious to mewl and whimper at the feet of an imaginary deity in their fear of death; leave it to them to spend their lives in denial of its reality.
...Every day he is demonstrating the falsehood of that most squalid Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to muster.
And in the process, he is showing himself to be even more deserving of our admiration, respect, and love." Cheerz.