Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Going to the Atheist Church

If evolutionary biology ever gets tiresome to Richard Dawkins, he can always try standup comedy. That's what I found out this evening hearing him speak about his book The God Delusion at my neighborhood bookstore.

An Oxford University professor specializing in the public understanding of science, Dawkins coined the term meme, which gained currency in intellectual circles after his 1976 work The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit of cultural evolution that Dawkins theorized propagates itself like a gene; it is a unit of information transferable from one mind to another, such as tunes, catch-phrases, fashions.

The meme became itself a meme.

In The Extended Phenotype Dawkins has also recently contributed to evolutionary theory the notion that phenotypic effects, or the effects of the characteristics or an organism, are not limited to an organism's body but can stretch far into the environment, including into the bodies of other organisms.

Why this is a great contribution far exceeds my knowledge of science. Sorry. That is not why I went to see this grand personage speaking half a block from my abode.

Dawkins is also an ardent defender of atheism and critic of religion. The New York Times review I read Sunday said of his book that "There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy."

Tonight I heard mostly the imbecilities and the humor it prompts was quite amusing.

John Paul II, for example, became convinced that Our Lady of Fatima saved him from dying in the 1981 attempted assassination. "One might wonder why she didn't stop the bullet from hitting him at all," Dawkins remarked, "or whether the surgeons who worked on him for hours might deserve just a little credit. But most of all one might wonder what was happening with Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady Of Medjugorje or Our Lady of Knock; they must have been occupied with other errands."

Or, not to be shy, criticism does not elude Abraham the patriarch, the man Dawkins describes as fanatical to the point of murder of his own son, "Except, we learn, God was just joking that day."

He spoke also of the ethnic cleansing in the the biblical book of Joshua. Ethnic cleansing? Here it is:

And when in the seventh day going about, the priests sounded with the trumpets, Joshua said to all Israel: Shout: for the Lord hath delivered the city to you [...]
So all the people making a shout, and the trumpets sounding, when the voice and the sound thundered in the ears of the multitude, the walls forthwith fell down: and every man went up by the place that was over against him: and they took the city, and killed all that were in it, man and woman, young and old. The oxen also and the sheep, and the asses, they slew with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:16,20-21)

Dawkins recounted that the text was given to Israeli schoolchildren and they were asked to say whether they agreed with what happened and two-thirds did, saying that God had, after all, promised the land to the Jews. Then the text was modified and instead of Joshua and Hebrews, it contained the name of General Lin and the Chinese. Three-fourths of a different set of Israeli children disapproved and said the killing was immoral.

Dawkins' point was that the morality of the Bible is not the natural ethics that springs to most of us -- believers have to pick and choose the moral parts and ignore the immoral.

As I saw myself laugh and assent with so many others; however, I was reminded of being in church. Here was an atheist sermon, given by a popular preacher. The bookstore was standing room only barely minutes after the scheduled start time.

The people were a little peculiar, just as in church. Not necessarily people one would choose as friends -- although I was later told by my companion that I am a little peculiar myself, a little geeky with the odd button missing from a shirt and the odd stain on another.

Even the preacher had to admit that atheism required a little faith.

Technically, Dawkins said, he is an agnostic, as no one can prove the nonexistence of God. "We are all agnostics about everything from fairies to Zeus to Yahweh," he said. "We go about life as if they did not exist, quite confident they don't, even though of course we can't prove it."

Amen.
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