Monday, May 28, 2007

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I suspect—well I am sure—that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness—raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. That is the first of my consciousness-raising messages.
This is from the preface of biologist Richard Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, a book that would, in fact, be good for all of us to read, theist, atheist, and whatever lies between. I first read Dawkins years ago when I stumbled on his interesting attempt to inform us lay folk about evolution (or his view of it) in The Selfish Gene. More recently, I read an article in the periodical Wired about what the journalist called a new group of evangelical atheists—three willing spokesmen for the virtues of a scientifically based atheism. The three authors were Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and neuroscientist Sam Harris. My interest in that article and suggestions from a student in my Philosophy of Religion course led me to the Dawkins book I am recommending to you today.

In truth, Dawkins has in mind not only those of us wanting out of our childhood religions, but lots of other folks who think it best, both morally and rationally, to remain agnostics, to maintain a tolerant attitude towards any and all religious beliefs. That stance, Dawkins (and others) insist, simply plays into the hands of the religious right and of religious dogmatism in general. That we cannot know that some position is false, is hardly a reason simply to suspend judgment, or to suppose that the odds of its being true are equal to those of its being false. To suppose otherwise, insists Dawkins, is to simply make manifest the poverty of agnosticism. “Nevertheless, it is a common error, which we shall meet again, to leap form the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and his non-existence are eqiprobable.” I have tried for years to make the same point to my philosophy of religion students. To say that I cannot know for sure that not-X (that X is false), is not to say that I have good reason for affirming X, nor to say that I do not have perhaps very good reason for denying X. Bertrand Russell gives the example of a celestial tea-pot orbiting the earth, but too small to be detected by any telescope we now have. We cannot rightfully claim to know that there is no such teapot, but that hardly means that the thesis that there is such a thing is on equal footing with its denial. I used to give a similar example of a genie that I had in my pocket but one such that none of our senses could apprehend it. When I would then ask how many in the class were geniests, only a jokester or two would raise their hands; when I asked for a-geniests, perhaps a few more, but when I asked who were agnostic with respect to my genie, almost all hands shot up, proud of their intellectual humility and fairness. “Why then you’re fools,” was my reply. Having no evidence at all for a hypothesis is very good reason for supposing it false, and certainly not being able to prove it false is next to no reason for supposing it to be true. The burden of proof for all of the many religious hypotheses (and there are so many candidates to the throne) rests squarely on those advancing their hypothesis, and reason does not demand that we suspend judgment until we can know definitely one way or the other. Indeed, I tried to convince my classes that almost all were either atheists or theists, though some of the theists and most of the atheists remained in the closet. Genuine suspension of belief or equally balanced evidence is the rare condition.

But while Dawkins does spend considerable time distinguishing between types of agnosticism, pointing out that we have very good reason for not accepting supernatural stories, and also some time criticizing the traditional so-called proofs for a god or god’s existence, his main concern really is to defend the reasonableness and grandeur of scientific theory and the paucity of religious explanations of the world. He also understands, both personally and from his extensive reading, how atheism has been demonized, especially in America, and how religious intolerance has been canonized, with the current Administration as a startling example. Americans ought to read Dawkins’ book in order to see why so many non-Americans view the U.S. as a dangerous religious backwater, one that applauds dogmatism and religious intolerance. He does an excellent job of showing how current beliefs and attitudes stray from the secularist roots of the founders of the constitution. Especially since he is a biologist rather than an intellectual historian, I find myself humbled by the incredible reading in political theory, sociology, philosophy, and history he has done, perhaps not specifically for this book, then certainly providing and impressive background for it.

The content of the book is far too rich and complex for me even to summarize here; it is not difficult reading, but its content is far-reaching. I usually argue that in order to do a novel justice, one needs to read it quite quickly, give over to the story rather than reading it snippets. Almost the reverse is true of Dawkins’ book; although he writes in plain language that we can all understand, he covers so much ground that he needs (and deserves) to be read in bites, rereading sections of particular importance. A journalist friend of mine tells me that there are newer books on the market making cases for atheism that are less ‘mean’ than Dawkins, and that his book is viewed by many to be sarcastic about religion and believers, and just plain mean. I don’t find Dawkins to be mean, although he is offended by the harsh treatment afforded atheists in this country, nor do I think he is flippant or sarcastic. He does see religious stories about creation, what might me called religious science, to be just silly and even dangerously false. And he sees the so-called moral history of religion to be frightening and bloody and cruel, repressive not just to science but to reason itself. But what I find especially good about the book is his insistence on just how full of wonder and complexity the scientific story about the universe is.

To accentuate this last point a bit, Dawkins is quick to explain that his crusade is against supernaturalist religions, especially what he calls the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He distinguishes these from positions sometimes seen as or called religious that are naturalistic. Indeed, chapter 1 begins with a quote from Einstein: “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” Einstein called himself a deeply religious non-believer, and Dawkins wants to make it clear that it is not such Einsteinean forms of religion that he is attacking. He, too, is in awe at the structure of the world insofar as we have understood it. He does see it as a real error to call such views religious, or to use the word ‘god’ to stand for this awe-inspiring complexity. Such talk simply confuses folks and does violence to the historical meaning of religious terms. I recall a time when I was younger and wanted to preserve some form of religious belief when I claimed to believe in a ‘whirling ball of energy,’ and on the basis of that called myself a theist. Friends finally convinced me that I was at worst lying, and at best unintentionally deceiving by attempting to co-opt the language for my purposes. Dawkins makes this point well and forcefully.

I thought of trying to do this review simply by putting together some of the marvelous quotes Dawkins uses in this book from scientists, philosophers, political theorists, etc. I decided against that approach, but let me include a line he quotes from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought. The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant.’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no? My god is a little god, and I want it to stay that way.’
Like Dawkins, I find the world to be ever grander and more complex and wonderful as I look and question and ask questions. The religious stories do seem too simple, too small, to silly. And I will end with a final point of agreement with Dawkins. We human beings can think and talk and conceptualize and ask questions precisely because we are the beings we are, because we have eyes and ears and a tongue, a brain and liver and heart. It is because of our amazing complexity that we can do these things. So the religious claims that the death of the body, this body that is myself, is insignificant, that the real me will survive death, is not just false and silly, it shows contempt for the wonderful complexity of the body that makes us who we are. Dawkins, the biologist, has much more reverence for the body than most religious stories, so much that he thinks all the evidence suggests that we die along with our bodies, and that to say otherwise is to demean who and what we are. It is the religious who are truly irreverent, not he.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Man Who Wasn't There by Pat Barker

Colin Harper leads a dual life: He is, most importantly, a fearless fighter in the French Resistance movement, smuggling messages under the noses of the ruthless security of the Nazis, sometimes dressed as a woman to facilitate his brazen, death-defying tasks. At more mundane times, he is simply a twelve year old British boy, born during the Second World War and now raised by his mother who works nights as a cocktail waitress in a not very reputable working class bar. Colin, left on his own every night with only token overseeing by another single mother in the same boarding house, wanders the streets of a war-ravaged British town scarred by the air-raids of the recent war, one part of himself constantly on the lookout for his unknown father, the man who wasn’t there, and the other on the alert as he transforms into the famous Gaston, freedom fighter par excellence, risking his life daily in his struggles to overcome the evil Nazis.

This is the minimalist skeleton of Pat Barker’s superb little novel entitled, The Man Who Wasn’t There. I initially picked up this book simply because Barker seemed to have stolen my title for a novel, and I wanted to see if she had done the title justice. Perhaps I also vaguely recalled the enthusiastic recommendation of a few students and reader friends who were shocked that I had not yet read any of Barker’s work. You readers will already know of her work via her Regeneration trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road, the latter of which won the Booker prize.

She is a writer of incredible talent. Without once breaking out of character or showing herself as the omniscient author in the background, Barker manages, simply by telling the tale of this boy and his wonderfully imaginative life, to say so much about childhood, about the thin line between fantasy and reality, about the tough blue collar standards of what it is to be a man, the difficulty of being a low income single mother, and about the search for a parent never known. It is a sweet tale, but not sentimental. The men Colin and his young street-smart boyfriends look up to are themselves boys of seventeen and eighteen, often in trouble with the law, some having already been to prison, and destined to lives of semi-poverty and small-time crimes.

What caught me immediately about this story is the crystalline accuracy of Barker’s portrayal of how a young boy perceives the world. I was instantly reminded of my own boyhood in which many plays worked themselves out simultaneously as, from outward appearances, I simply lived out the life of a school-boy in a blue-collar neighborhood. Whether walking to school, walking the mile or so to the bakery where I got the pies I then sold door to door after school, walking to Sunday school or to a friend’s house, my inner life was rife with adventure. I rarely actually walked anywhere, preferring to lope or run outright, and needing to do so in order to function as the inner hero that I was. There were enemies lurking in every ally, spies looking through slits in curtains, while I was always on some dangerous mission with the salvation of many hinging on the success of my ventures. I recall the sense of offense, near outrage, at being called back from my important reverie life by some mundane errand, or worse, reminded to wash my hands before dinner, to go back outside to clean my muddy shoes. The adults around me so pitifully unaware of my dual life and so caught up in the ordinary, the banal.

Often when I read an author, I can see how he or she does what they do, even if I haven’t the talent to duplicate their efforts. But I cannot understand how Barker was able to envision just how much she could tell us readers simply by letting us in on the fantasy life of one small boy. How did she come up with the idea, and how can she speak through the eyes of a twelve year old boy so convincingly and with such veracity. I am still shocked that she brought it off, and that she was able to catch me so completely, absolutely absorbed for a few hours by this simple story.
Colin plodded up the hill, half moons of sweat in the armpits of his grey shirt. In the distance, lampposts and parked cars shimmered in the heat. All around him was the smell of tar.

Gaston jerks himself awake. A sniper is crawling across Blenkinsop’s roof, but Gaston has seen him. He spins round, levels the gun, and fires.

The sniper—slow motion now—clutches his chest, buckles at the knee, crashes in an endlessly unfurling fountain of glass through the roof of Mr Blenkinsop’s greenhouse, where he lands face down, his fingers clutching the damp earth—and his chest squashing Mr Blenkinsop’s prize tomatoes.

Gaston blows nonchalantly across the smoking metal of his gun, and, with never a backward glance, strides up the garden path and into the house.

As he passes through the hall, Gaston taps the face of a brass barometer, as if to persuade it to change its mind. No use. The needle points, as it does unswervingly, in all weathers, to Rain. Madame Hennigan, the landlady, believes in being realistic, and no mere barometer is permitted to disagree.

Gaston clatters up the uncarpeted stairs to the top-floor flat.

Where he becomes, abruptly, Colin again.
And so throughout the book, we move from Colin to Gaston, from lonely, father-seeking, daydreaming and late-for-school Colin to Gaston the great. Just as I remember being amazed that so few adults saw me as who I really was, taken in by the ordinariness of my appearance and apparent life, Colin is half ashamed, half proud of the duplicity that has him scolded and reprimanded by dull school masters, coddled and sent to bed by a loving but harried and overworked mother, and an inner life so full of adventure, so important, so vital.

Barker is the master of understatement. This little novel is only one hundred and fifty pages long, an easy afternoon read, and yet it covers so much. Simply by telling her story, the reader comes to see how and why tough, poor boys, lured by all the superfluous riches of market economies, turn away from the drudgery and meaningless occupations offered them to a life of petty crime, despite knowing on some level that they will likely end up in a shuffle between prison and street life. We see through Colin’s school experiences the cruelty of boys to one another, often enough abetted by equally cruel teachers. We see a boy embarrassed by his own sexual longings alternately attracted and repulsed by the crass sexuality of the older children and adults around him. And we see the deep longing for a father to admire, a man to teach him how to be a man, a lonely search for the man who wasn’t there.

This is a story of loneliness and longing and hope. If it is a sad story, it is also strangely uplifting. And it captures the wonderful imagination of childhood (so often crushed or forsaken in adulthood) in a manner as rare as it is wonderful. Give your self a treat; read this book.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

There was a time when I read disturbing authors only if I knew beforehand that I would learn something important from being disturbed. Mary Gaitskill may well have failed to measure up to my strict criterion, but it is I who would have been the loser for not reading her. I have talked to you before about two of her collections of short stories, each a photograph or still life that suggested a whole world outside the margins of the frozen scene. Today I want to talk to you about her latest novel, Veronica, which is, I think, the fleshing out of the world glimpsed in the short stories.

The brutal truth is that beauty can be a curse for a woman in a way that it rarely or never is for a man. Alison is only seventeen when she is discovered by a guy who runs a sleazy modeling agency in San Francisco. A runaway at fifteen who returns to her family only long enough to run away again at sixteen, Alison is as street smart and wild as any of the young girls depicted in Gaitskill’s earlier short stories, so although Gregory Carlson does lure her to his studio to take pictures and then to sample the flesh of this young beauty he spied selling flowers on the street, she at least half knows that will be the outcome before she accepts his invitation. She watches what happens to her with the eye of a painter or researcher. Perhaps had he been only a trickster or Allison less beautiful, that would have been the whole of the story, but he does send off the pictures he takes, and Allison is contacted by a modeling agency in New York. Returning home again only long enough to get the reluctant blessing of her parents, Allison soon finds herself in Paris living around a group of young, beautiful girls who are alternately coddled and abused, kept in fancy apartments where there are literally bowls of cocaine and pantries full of fancy party foods.

It is this period of a few months that provides the backdrop for the rest of the story. Alison becomes famous in a minor way quite quickly, but when she publicly shames the head of the modeling agency who owns the apartment she lives in and whose mistress she has become, she is quite literally dumped on the streets of Paris, blacklisted and more-or-less broke.

I have been talking as if Gaitskill tells her story in a chronological fashion, but in fact, she is a master of time-change, of moving from present to past not simply chapter by chapter, but often from one sentence to the next. Indeed, the bulk of the story centers around a period of time when Alison is a proofreader in New York, and even that story is told from a present that occurs many years later in which Allison, now living again in San Francisco and a lifetime removed from the nubile youth required for her earlier years of modeling, is very ill with hepatitis, her past swimming before her in a fevered haze of memory.

Having filled you in on this much of the story, I still have not even mentioned the title character, Veronica. Unlike the often pathetically thin, underfed girls Alison has known in the world of models, Veronica is an overweight, middle-aged woman whose sense of style is outlandish and whose cynicism is finally polished and directed shotgun style at almost all who fall under her gaze. I have no idea how Gaitskill landed on this unlikely duo as the lynchpins for her story, and yet the attachment, even love, that develops over time between these two is quite extraordinary, and for a novel as tough and unsentimental as this one, almost tender. Their relationship blossoms in the troubled New York of the 80s when AIDS is new and when New York comes to be known as the city of death. The chain-smoking, tough-talking Veronica is a loner and fellow worker who proofreads “like a cop with a nightstick; ” she dates a bisexual man who is away with his young boys much more often than he is with Veronica, and the stories she tells of their strange dates in Central Park are bleak and alarming.

Although the reader is introduced to Veronica early in the novel, it is only in the helter-skelter jumping from past to present, Paris to New York to San Francisco that the story of their relationship slowly unfolds. Indeed, Veronica is already long dead from AIDS and Alison super sick with hepatitis C when Gaitskill now and then returns the reader to the present.

I have perhaps told you more of the story already than I need to, and you may well be wondering why, given the gloomy list of events, one would want to read such a novel. The answer is in the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth achieved by the author. Gaitskill knows these characters, and she knows them with the certainty of having lived these lives rather than merely viewing them. Her metaphors are wild, sometimes even twisted and alarming, and yet seem utterly appropriate the moment one reads them. At least this reader wonders why he has not seen the world in just such metaphors as soon as they leap off the page. Gaitskill says of one of her characters that “His opinions were frivolous, fierce, and exact,” and I am tempted to use just that language to describe her writing. There is such a fierce beauty in the ugly scenes she depicts, in the deep, inner agony she describes.

I know that I cannot do justice to the writing by quoting a line or two, and there is certainly no way I can capture Gaitskill’s incredible ease in moving from time to time, place to place, in slowly allowing this story to take form by weaving present to past, na├»ve childhood to stormy young adulthood to fevered present. But let me leave you with a longish passage describing a bus-ride Alison is taking in San Francisco, nearly delirious from the fever engendered by hepatitis C, and yet still observing the details of events around her.
The bus humps and huffs as it makes a labored circle around a block of discount stores and a deserted grocery. As the bus leans hard to one side, its gears make a high whining sound, like we’re streaking through space. Looking beyond the stores, I glimpse green hills and a cross section of sidewalks with little figures toiling on them. Pieces of life packed in hard skulls with soft eyes looking out, toiling up and down, around and around. More distant green, the side of a building. The bus comes out of the turn and stops at the transfer point. It sags down with a gassy sigh. Every passenger’s ass feels its churning, bumping motor. Every ass thus connected, and moving forward with the bus. The old white lady across the aisle from me sits on her stiff haunches, eating wet green grapes from a plastic bag and peering out to see who’s getting on. The crabbed door suctions open. Teenagers stomp up through it, big kids in flapping clothes with big voices in flapping words. ‘Cuz like—whatcho look—you was just a—ain’t lookin’ at you!’ The old lady does not look. But I can feel her taking them in. Their energy pours over her skin, into her blood, heart, spine, and brain. Watering the flowers of her brain. The bag of green grapes sits ignored on her lap. Private snack suspended for public feast of youth. She would never be so close to them except on the bus. Neither would I. For a minute, I feel sorry for rich people alone in their cars. I look down on one now, just visible through her windshield, sparkling bracelets on hard forearm, clutching the wheel, a fancy-pant thigh, a pulled-down mouth, a hairdo. Bits of light fly across her windshield. I can see her mind beating around the closed car like a bird. Locked in with privileges and pleasures, but also with pain.
If you read this book, I promise you will see and hear and smell the world Gaitskill is describing for you, and you will come away somehow with a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of these strange beings that we are.