The trouble with Dawkins

The problem, if there is one, is about Death. Please excuse the significant capital letters, I'll try not to litter the piece with them. I think it traces back to conversations I had with my father when I was a child. I think when he explained that he was going to die, and that one day I would die too, I had a major shock from which I've never recovered.

So when I saw some of Woody Allen's films and discovered that he (as a young man) was also obsessed with death and dying, I realised I was not alone (to say the least). These days, I feel I'm rather troubled by the spirit of Dawkins - Richard Dawkins, that is.

My father was, I think, a lifelong atheist. He did not believe in God, though he did like to identify with secular Jews (my mother was Jewish). Having said that, he was not at all keen on Richard Dawkins. From a Darwinian point of view, he always preferred Steve Jones, the author of books such as 'Very like a whale' which is a reflection on Darwin's 'Origin of Species'. We often used to talk about religion - we talked about everything. In fact, it's those sort of conversations that I particularly miss.

My mother was Jewish, and never stopped believing in her faith. She just didn't discuss it. Dad was an engineer, a naval architect in fact, and he had a scientific and rational approach to such things, while loving poetry and plays. It was his belief that when someone died, that was the end of their life - they were snuffed out like a candle.

When I was young, I used to share this belief without much difficulty. But later in life, after I encountered some major setbacks, I started to find it less easy to tolerate. I have started to oscillate, if that is the word, between believing that what you see is what you get, death is the end, and there is no God - and wishing rather powerfully that the reverse was true.

The trouble with Richard Dawkins, as he prates on about the wonders of science - which is wonderful indeed - is that he can probably face the possibility of personal extinction with some equanimity, because he has achieved a lot in his lifetime. It's less easy to do when your life has been rather rocky and you have done things that you seriously regret.

I know that Dawkins is prone to crossing swords with fundamentalists of various stripes. I'm not really talking about them. That's almost a different issue, and conversation becomes impossible. The difficulty for me is reconciling how I feel about the death of people I love - such as my parents - with a confident atheism. I don't think Dawkins can appreciate how extraordinarily difficult it is to imagine all the people who have simply disappeared - the citizens of Pompeii, the faces of the Fayum Mummy portraits, millions of small unrecorded deaths here and there.

What stops me from seizing a religious belief is that I can't let go of my scepticism. I watch a lot of Horizon programmes on the BBC, and when they show the workings of the human brain, it seems a very material thing. Not being a Cartesian Dualist (?!) I'm not sure whether I can envisage something, some irreducible essence, leaving the body at the moment of death and going somewhere else.

On the other hand, after my father died, a few odd things happened. I suspect that we were deluding or consoling ourselves and that the things were not significant, but the events were pronounced enough for my husband to joke about it. He is more sanguine than I am and says that we haven't plumbed the depths of the universe by a long way. That there is much more that we don't understand yet.

I feel I should support Richard Dawkins and Professor Brian Cox, but they make me cross. There seems to be something a bit smug about the way they promote science and atheism, as if they are certain that everyone else has got it wrong and only they know the truth.

I want there to be more. I know that I am an animal, and finite. But I also find it difficult to tolerate the 'thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to'. It's an argument that seems to cut both ways - Hamlet was thinking about suicide, but the soliloquy raised lots of other questions, such as how one can live, believing that extinction will be the fate of all mankind.

(cross-posted from LJ)


  1. Oh dear me, yes, the smugness of Richard Dawkins grates so much. That and his self-righteousness.

    I dunno. It's a pity that we use the same word for belief in scientific theories and belief in a faith, as if they're opposites. I'll take both, please!!

    love Maggie B x

  2. Well yes - I'm not sure they're inherently incompatible!

    I think problems only arise with things like Creationism, whose adherents insist on the literal truth of the Bible. But Dawkins seems to display much the same rigidity.

    Jessie x


Post a Comment

Popular Posts