Godly Delusions

On a number of train journeys recently I found myself reading a book, On God by Norman Mailer. For a bookmark, as is my wont, I was using a card from a deck provided for those of us who belong to the Rationalist Association, called God Trumps. They were sent out to us gratis alongside the Association’s magazine, New Humanist. On one side of the card-cum-bookmark a representative of one of the world’s many religions is being caricatured. The flip side was simply stencilled with the words 'God Trumps'. 

During my reading I found myself allowing only the back dust cover to be exposed and was quick to slot the bookmark firmly into the pages so that it would not fall out. The reason for my attention to detail – none other than the fact that I felt mildly embarrassed that my fellow passengers might think I was a religious type reading theology while others browsed their way through magazines and Stieg Larsson. I read many types of books, but only with this one have I felt self conscious; probably due to an awareness that overt displays of religion - not that what I was doing was remotely associated with that – invite and duly get ridicule. 

When I sat down last evening to watch God Delusion presented by Richard Dawkins that sense of why I might be embarrassed was easily evident. People stepping up to the plate to defend bunkum actually causes me to feel embarrassed for them. Not unnaturally, therefore, I would loathe the thought that people on the train were feeling likewise toward me because of my book, snickering behind the shield of their own reading material. It is not just a question of whether god exists or does not. What lies at the heart of matter is a question science has not yet been able to answer. But it surely is bunkum that causes people to wager on the earth being less than ten thousand years old. Dawkins, concerned that science is still faced by religion and worried that a deluge of unreason is about to swamp the academies, seeks not merely to push it back into its place, the private sphere, he wants its eradication. A serious bugbear for him is the phenomenon of faith schools. He sees it as an abuse of children. 

 I liked God Delusion but in general I think Dawkins tended not to press home his advantage in exchanges with his opponents, hoping that the implausibility of their answers will be self-explanatory. He seems to lose composure a bit when confronted with somebody stating what is obviously not obvious. They at times appear more confident than he. The Dawkins strategy is a bit like that attributed to Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch writer murdered in Amsterdam by a clerical fascist a number of years ago. Van Gogh would make a habit of picking the coarsest thicko from the world of Islam to debate with on his Dutch television shows where he would proceed to wind them up and call them such things as goat-fuckers. Easily riled, they would, writhing with fury, soon succumb to his baiting and respond with spitting venom. Victory to Theo. Game over. Dawkins is much more sophisticated in his approach but the opponents he chooses are on a par with those Van Gogh used to goad. 

If you pick a person who was once a secular New York Jew and who then travelled to Israel where he found Allah, and rants about whores who should be covered up by their men folk, you know you are clearly onto somebody of huge entertainment value. The same with money grabbing evangelists like the oleaginous Ted Haggard. Ted, fond of the men while ranting against gay marriage, may truthfully state in his own defence that he needs the cash for hush money to keep silent those males he paid lust money to. To top it off there was the ridiculous Hell House which zealots use to terrify people into submitting to the zealots’ interpretation of biblical scripture. 

 The more intellectual the religious opposition, the more Dawkins depicts them as being closer to his position and not really addicted to the bible, virtue of their having displayed more reason. Catholics parading around Lourdes, Protestants dancing for Pastor Ted, Jews doing obeisance to their holy wall, Muslims not doing a whole lot different, were introduced to the Dawkins stocks for viewers to have a throw at. Those who make the atheist case in this documentary were the voice of reason. They appeared calm and rational making eminently sensible points that any one given to critical thinking could agree with. It might all make for good television, a circus where the clowns are brought on in the sure knowledge that they will not disappoint an audience eager for laughs. 

While it is relatively easy to accept the logic of the case made by Dawkins, how rigorously was it tested by the cast of God Delusion? Not much I imagine. Science needs more formidable adversaries to demonstrate the strength of its own case.


  1. Well now. First up, I have a special hatred of Dawkins, and his smug, middleclass, shake-of-the-head-I-know-better-than-you attitude. He could spout Gospel Truth (ha!) and I would still despise him. Anyhow.

    It isn't a big leap to realise that the 'little people' have never understood their religion, nor had it explained to them.

    Can't say I have seen the show, nor do I intend to, but it sounds, as you seem to imply, quite soft and hardly pushing any boundries anywhere.

    What I really want to say, is that you need to weed out the (late 18th century, very Western European narrow Christianity) from the whole sweep of theology. (And American Christianity, as a friend once said to me, is a whole petri dish of its own.)

  2. Having recently read Spengler, coupled with other books, my conclusion is that we only see things though our own cultural context. For example, the Greeks never got round to inventing zero. It just wasn't in their philosophy. They certainly had the math, and their mathematicians could have worked with it easily, but they didn't. The Arabs took their work, filtered it through their culture, and got different, not further. Then we have the Egyptians, who could do all that, but never developed higher math, as they were all bureaucrats.

    The point? What we think here and now is only thought here and now. There is no 'progression' of science. We have a mathematic (singular) and a physic (singular) to suit our philosophy and our time. No standing on the shoulders of giants, just seeing more in the way we want to see it.

    And I find religion/atheism is the same. It suits our philosophy right here and right now. The same with logic. The logic of Dawkins makes sense to you, but it wouldn't to (say) someone in Constantinople in the 11th century CE. They could follow the argument, but it wouldn't make sense.

    Does that make sense? I have been mulling this over for a while, and a small comment box can't contain it all (and neither has weeks of pub discussions. Maybe I should write a book...)

    Oh, and I read lots of theology on the daily commute, and never feel bothered. I do tend to judge those reading the Guardian, all the same...

  3. Done in two goes, as there is a limit! I never realised I wrote that much...

  4. there are catholic idiots mouthing
    of about religion,
    there are protestant idiots who shout about religion,
    there are jews and muslim idiots
    and others who try and ram there
    version of religion down our throats, all this has got nothing
    to do with the god above,
    what we do in this life is our own business,
    good luck to richard dawkins but he
    is going against religion on human
    terms, god is not human,
    its like those who opposed the catholic faith when the never ending storys came out about the perverted priests, again this had nothing to do with the lord,
    human frailty is for humans only.

  5. On the train, I hid "God Delusion" for the same reasons you did "On God." That is, I feared some (semi-literate at least) crackpot seeing the cover and cornering me or assaulting me. I tend with both my religious and skeptical titles to keep the covers hidden from the public gaze. And, even at work, where a book subtitled "sexuality in paganism and Wicca" (too snarky and smug a treatment alas) I kept concealed for my reputation!

    Curious about the "film" version of Dawkins's bestseller. I was let down by "Religulous" by Bill Maher for its Michael Moore-type of stunts rather than what could have been a bold documentary. BTW, I have a review forthcoming on one of the few decent accounts from a contemporary, committed agnostic, "Spiritual Envy" by Michael Krasny (to be published in October) so I'll keep you posted.

    Like yourself, I find myself wandering the spectrum of reactions to faith in my books, and it's refreshing to keep myself alert to the gamut or gauntlet of reactions to whatever I dare open up behind concealed covers. Julian Baggini's Oxford UP "Atheism: A Short Introduction," issued a few years before the Dennett-Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris books came on the scene, I particularly recommend for its calmly stoic philosophy.

  6. Mickey boy! I thought your bible said that god made man in his own image? so your now telling us god is a wee green git,or maybe a bearded one who just happens to pass as psf president for life wanna be Irish president, anyway I,m reading cardinal Brady,s new book From Bumming To Bombing -A History of Catholic Church in Ireland.

  7. Marty,

    Your timing sucks! I was going to use that gag.

  8. I have this book am I,m heading up the hills sheep shaggin!so I,ll have a good few days reading, I like Dawkin,s and I think what he says more than makes sense, and with a few glasses of plum poteen in me maybe even Mickeyboy will sound sensible,NAH!!!

  9. Marty, maybe I should have drank the plum poteen before I watched Dawkins on Wednesday, really found him very condesending with people.

    Plus, for some unexplainable reason our dog kept running over to the TV and growling at him which only added to the annoyance.

    The dogs a Westie, could that be the explanation? (Are they Catholic fundamentalists in the West Highlands?)
    The dogs predecessor a cocker-spaniel (who originated from Armagh) hated priests and occassionally growled and barked at the Sacred Heart picture, which was a bit unnerving.

  10. Stray Taoist

    This special hatred of Dawkins’ will have to be categorised as hate crime!!
    I think he makes a considerable contribution to public understanding.

    The show did not push the boundaries. In terms of potency it did not carry anything like we might see in a History Channel programme about the origins of the universe. It was evolution popularised, married to religious thought being invited to hold itself up for ridicule. It had good entertainment value, would have reached many people but was not all that deep.

    What would be achieved by weeding out the late 18th century, very Western European narrow Christianity from the whole sweep of theology? For atheists no theology can explain the world we live in.

    There is cultural context but to say we ‘only see’ the world through it is very reductionist. Culture shapes the way in which we see the world but only to an extent.


    the god above was put above by humans. Out of reach, hiding behind bushes or up mountains. If there is a god we know absolutely nothing about it

  11. antony- its called believe,

    the first shall be last,
    are we gods only planet, gods only celestial body,
    are we the fist or last attempt at perfect life, or just some-where in
    the middle,
    i could see past the imperfections
    if we are the first,

    god is catholic, no he is a prod, or a jew, or any human label,
    we know little of the truth, what we are told is by humans like us who wrote the bibles,

    we are made in gods image,
    every 50 years or so there are a few more billion of us, a lot of love in a world of hate,
    another batch to question,
    does every-one wonder why god does not talk to them, or i need a sign,
    billions believe, billions do not,
    and billions do not care,
    i believe, does not mean i am right, but i think i am.

  12. Michaelhenry,

    ‘its called believe … we know little of the truth, what we are told is by humans like us who wrote the bibles’

    An honest summary

    ‘we are made in god’s image’

    What image would that be?

  13. Fionnchú

    It is funny how we conceal what we are reading. I suppose it is the combination of a God Trump bookmark and the title On God. I suppose I should be indifferent but I it discomfits me that people might think I am a believer!!

    I think Hitchens makes a good point when he aggress with Amis about never ruling out the existence of a higher being but up until now none has been shown to exist. Fair point. It sort of makes the distinction between atheism thus expressed and agnosticism redundant.

    Have yet to see "Religulous" by Bill Maher. Stunts may have entertainment value but their effectiveness in enhancing understanding is dubious.

    I look forward o the Krasny review. Found Mailer so disappointing. Some great insights but as a coherent system – very poor. A lot of it I had worked out for myself at 21 without the aid of books during the blanket protest.

    Harris ‘Letter to A Christian Nation’ is a good book but as I said before I have serious reservations about his ideas expressed elsewhere.

  14. what image would that be-

    a very good question, which i have
    no answer, how could i,
    if gods image was female would i still believe,
    if god was black or even if he came here as a brit would i still believe, does it matter that he came as a white male,
    was it accidental that jesus was born, lived and died in a country
    that was ruled by an out-side empire,

    does marty not post on a sunday,
    to busy on his knees.

  15. Michaelhenry,

    I asked the question in respone to your claim that 'we are made in god's image.'

    If you have no answer - a very honest response - it makes it difficult for you stand over the claim of us being made in god's image. This is why I think at times this type of claim is put forward without it having been thought about a great lot. And it is a claim we hear made on many occasions. I like to try to get beyond it and look at the god we are said to resemble

  16. Cultural context as reductionism? Not entirely convinced. From a mathematical point of view, it is easy seen in the way that developed under different cultures.

    As for removing the 18th century theology, well, actually, I would go back further to the Schism. Given that there were numerous (Roman) Catholic doctrines built on top of ropey Latin translations from the original Greek, you need to remove that.

    Anyhow, I amn't advocating we all believe. I use theology in the same way I do philosophy, it has something to tell us of where we came from, and for some, where we are going.

    As for aethiests ignoring it, I always find that very short-sighted. (In much the same way Dawkins doesn't know much beyond his narrow culturally contextual CoE theology.) Whatever happened to know your enemy?

    But going back to cultural context. I am coming to the conclusion is most certainly does shape everything around us. There are a few that break out, but not many. Why this happens, well, I am still reading around that, but it very definitely does.

  17. Stray Taoist,
    I can see how things develop differently in different cultures. But once development kicks in I think there is a merger of conclusions. What culture has managed to resist zero? And maths is one of the many things I am useless at. I am quite familiar with zero having got it often enough in school!! And one scientific experiment cab be conducted and verified as readily in one culture as the next. Cultural taboos have certainly impeded science but that is something different. Moreover I dislike the notion that cultural relativism could become hegemonic. It would allow the triumph of postmodernism. While great as a method of critique, and laying bare the arrogance of metanarrative postmodernism is not a good guide through the challenges of life.

    I am of the view that theology has nothing to tell us where we came from. It has told us nothing yet and I don’t see how it will. And I have read quite a bit of it for my sins. In fact if I was to pick out two theologians who cut the mustard in terms of being interesting it would be the Protestant Harvey Cox and the Catholic Hans Kung. As for Karl Rahner and Benny the Bad, I gained little from them.
    Even if we went back to the Schism what difference would it make to our origins?
    I suppose in ignoring theology to the extent that they do, atheists very simply take the view why not study the theology of Thor? They view it as they would the female penis. The arguments about where the penile capillaries are, its biological constitution, its function and many other things could be brilliantly described – but at the end the female penis does not exist. Knowledge of god (theology) is viewed in like manner. If a scientific argument is put up against atheism then it will respond.
    I agree with the ‘know your enemy theory’ but in the case of theology I don’t think it applies to the same extent. We know the enemy practices voodoo – do we need to know all that constitutes voodoo? I suppose we would if there were to be any nasty surprises in store but what new proof of the existence of god does theology come up with? I suppose as I reflect while writing this it would be better if atheists were more familiar with theology but there is so much else to look at. I tend to feel that the criticism of atheists on this one is not as potent as the critics think.

    I know you are not advocating that we all believe. That would only convince us not to being the contrarians that we are!
    Was offered to go over to your neck of the woods in two weeks but declined. No time and the invitation came late in the day. Could have gone on the drink with you!! Haven’t touched a drop in weeks and have now lost the taste for it. Go off theology for four weeks and see if it works!
    No sign of you coming over near us?

  18. Fionnchu,
    Bill Maher is just a comedian. Religulous was meant first and foremost to be a amusing comedy, not an in depth exploration of religion and atheism. You have to leave it to the Dawkins types to provide that. I thought it was pretty good- a little mean spirited but funny. AM, I would recommend it. If you enjoyed that priest off skit, it might be right up your alley.

  19. Ryan,

    on your recommendation I will check it out. But yes I did love Priest Off so I guess if it is in that vein I will like it a lot

  20. Interesting, but I think we are somewhat orthogonal here. Not totally disagreeing...but...

    Zero. Didn't exist in Greek culture. At all. (or in there maths, I am sure a Greek farmer could tell the difference between some sheep and none. But none isn't zero...) And considering most of our maths comes from them, at least in the pejorative sense, it is rather suprising. People were killed over trying to bring it in, the mathematical mystics kept it well underground. Neither zero nor transcendentals, but if you don't like maths, ignore that. It is just if they *had* the cultural nouse for it, they would have probably bypassed our maths before 6BC.

    Good grief, if I ever am seens as presenting a decent case for postmodernism, I shall hand in whatever badges I currently have.

    As for Thor, that is an interesting point, as Norse theology is awesome, in that it is (probably, as far as I know) the only one in the world/history where the gods could care less about mortals/humans. They just want to fight and shag. Bit like the humans then. Not quite sure that reinforces or disproves the horse-god is a horse quip.

    Is theology the proof of God? I don't take it ask such, but I am probably not a good role model.

    About this time, I think a pub is needed :)

    And it would have been nice to see you here. Alas, I try to avoid the oul sod as much as possible, it kinda depresses me, but next time I am over, I'll come down. Which might be Christmas, discussions are still ongoing.

  21. @ Marty - laughin me guts out RE 'anyway I,m reading cardinal Brady,s new book From Bumming To Bombing -A History of Catholic Church in Ireland' I can never hear enough of books with titles like that - the childlike revenge in me cackles heartily. 500 Our Fathers 200 Hail Marys and 10 laps of the stations of the cross for you Marty :-)Know it would not touch the sides the old penance Ur good value Marty - u/neath that prolific humour u r a clever one - no fool...

    Great read Anthony - got me synapses firing left right but never centre. I think Dawkins is credited with too much insight or else too much of nothing by the general public. I watched some of his interviews and such ages ago. He is as mentioned by Stray taoist 'smug middleclass' imo too but at least he demands critical thinking be employed by those lost, immeshed, cowering inside man made constructs of religiosity.
    It all really is a send in the clowns floorshow with religious views worldwide. Cringe material - after awhile there is no laughter left - it is all just a hideous dragshow of burnt out religious trannies posturing, roaring and ranting. Religion is one thing and spiritual conviction lived out in daily life are two seperate realities. One is a pain in the arse and the other is a solitary angsty journey. I have times of enormous doubt but they are shafted as i have times of enormous conviction. If in death i find out i was duped then so be it but for me God is real and Religion is not. I have an aversion to anyone telling me how to live who has a title of Master, priest, bishop, Pope, imman, vicar, guru. They all shit me bigtime. God doesnt tho.

    U shouldnt feel shame at what u read Anthony... wee bit telling U cannot save your face and arse at the same time u know. I quite delight in piteous looks from individuals if i is spied reading the bible or a religious book. The only time i ever felt deep shame re a book was when i ordered a book titled recovering from sexual abuse as a child or some such title. I was 28 yrs old, just gotten clean and mortified by response of the bookshop assistant taking order. Me face went crimson as she spoke all piteous to me and sympathy oozed from her pores. God it was humiliating. My blame for that experience all goes yet again on the catholic church - the reason i needed the frigging book...

  22. Saint?MaryHedgehog

    Its title made me feel uncomfortable – On God! I suppose with so much ridicule of the religious I was not venturing out for some!!! The book was not even that good. It was dealing with ideas I had thought about myself when 21, on the blanket and plenty of time to think about these issues!

    I like Dawkins for the reasons you point out. I have never been an uncritical fan. Atheists always make more sense to me than the theists. But I think he could be stronger on some areas. I think one of his vulnerable spots is cosmology but he admits to this. He is a biologist. Unlike the pope he makes no claim to be infallible.

  23. To Mr. Dawkins
    It is ones spirit
    That lies at the basis
    Of ones intellect
    Otherwise the latter
    Has no foundation
    The atheistic mentality
    Ignoring the spiritual
    Is the greatest folly
    Of all time by mankind
    At least being agnostic
    The door is left open
    To embrace what is truth
    A truth which is eternal
    But as now and in the past
    Various members of our race
    Because of ego undermining
    Reason will deny that they exist

    Liam Ó Comáin