Monday, January 14, 2008

collateral damage

I recently finished reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006) and found it largely entertaining and even, in places, informative. I support his forthright stance against literalist understandings of religious motifs but for me, as for others, he does go a wee bit too far in places. His atheism is asserted a little too stridently. Because I'm on his side in the cultural war he is waging, I feel I can bear the "collateral damage" inflicted by his failure to pick up on the worthwhile nuances to be found in the religious arena.

Because Jung and gnosticism are dear to me, the main collateral damage occurred on pages 50/51 in the following passage:

Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way.

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C. G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’

  2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’

  3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. ‘I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.’

  4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. ‘God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.’

  5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. ‘I don't know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.’

  6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’

  7. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’

I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so (Jung also believed that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang). Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 — I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.

As I understand Dawkins to mean by "atheism" (category 7) and as I understand Jung to mean by "know" (category 1), I would place myself in both categories. I would happily describe myself as a gnostic atheist (or atheist gnostic) and I cannot imagine how to explain all that to Dawkins. He comes across as a very intelligent man on some things and very stupid on others. Maybe we are all like that?

Anyway, I'll leave the last word to Rumi:
To the Prophet, this world is plunged in glorification of God,

while to us it is heedless.

To his eye this world is filled with abundant love;

to the eyes of others it is inert and lifeless.

To his eye, valley and hill are in fluid motion:

he hears subtle discourses from sod and bricks.

To the vulgar, this whole world is a dead thing in chains.

I have never seen a veil of blindness more amazing than this.

Mathnawi IV: 3532-3535,
version by Camille and Kabir Helminski via sunlight

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