Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Losing God in Stockholm

Well hello, blogsters. Yes, I know it’s been a while. How have you been keeping? I’ve been meaning to write for the longest time, but with one thing and another…

It’s always fatal of course to pronounce – as I did in June – that I was looking forward to getting some writing done. No sooner had I written up my Argentine notebooks than the first draft of my new book in Japanese (Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature) arrived from Tokyo. Now I had in mind that this time – unlike my previous book excursions – the whole process would be rather easy. After all I had written the book in English and it was being translated into Japanese so there would be no excruciating ponderings of Japanese syntax. But how wrong I was! It was of course incumbent upon me to check the veracity of the translation and to generally answer editing queries, but gosh, what a long and drawn-out process it has been. As the weeks of summer have rolled on, the proposed date of publication has gently rolled back, and still there is more fact-checking and fine tuning to be done. I can as ever only be enormously grateful to my editor and translator for their ceaseless efforts to make this long-delayed book something special.

Meanwhile I was also busy on a variety of other fronts. I gave a couple of talks, one in Japan to group mainly consisting of professional translators, and one at Manchester Art Gallery, to a group who were an eclectic mixture of people with Japan interests plus a variety of friends. I was quite worried on both occasions that no one would actually show up, but the first event attracted about thirty people and the second event about fifty, pretty much filling the lecture theatre, so both may be said to have gone well. I’m starting to get on a roll with these talks, supplementing my ramblings with power point presentations and amusing images which my girlfriend supplies. I’ve been invited to give a couple more in the autumn so I’m beginning to feel like a seasoned performer with a list of tour dates.

Anyway, as well as embroiling myself in the usual editing hell, giving the odd talk and embarking on a building project on my house in England, I have also made a few excursions. For five nights I stayed on a wonderful Croatian island called Sipan. It being August, the weather was a little too hot, but the island really was paradisaical – what I imagine the Greek islands were like back in the 1960’s before all the concrete arrived. On Sipan, there is just one hotel by the port and a genuine village atmosphere and nothing else to do all day but potter by sea through the olive groves or sit in the shade and read.

For the past ten days however, I have been in Sweden – somewhere I have long wanted to come and am writing this from the poolside of the Sturebadet spa in Stockholm, having just enjoyed a full Swedish massage. My reading material in Sweden has not been what you might expect. I should have really perused the plays of Strindberg (to my shame I have never read any of them, nor could I be bothered to visit inside his house, though I walked past it). Instead, about a year after everyone else, I have been ravenously reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

What a marvellous book this is. I find it bizarre that it has taken me so long to get round to reading anything by Dawkins, but I think what initially put me off reading The God Delusion was that I already didn’t believe in God so it seemed like ‘What was the point? I don’t need convincing, I’m convinced already.’ Indeed, I inwardly groaned when I heard of staunch, committed and confirmed atheists reading it. It was too soft a target, I thought.

The important thing about The God Delusion however is that Dawkins not only convincingly points out all the reasons why a belief in God is irrational, but also that he then goes on to highlight all the ways in which religion has a pernicious influence. He targets the unquestioning respect which is afforded to religious faith and the absurd way in which religious leaders (surely the most deluded of the deluded) are wheeled out to pontificate on the problems of society as if they have a particular (god-given?) right to do so.

I am 95% in agreement with everything Dawkins writes and heartily recommend the book to everyone, but I must say there are a couple of areas where Dawkins and I part company. For one thing, although I admire the whole scientific enterprise and find lots of fascination in the latest scientific discoveries and theories, I’m not convinced that science is somehow going to give us ultimate enlightenment about the universe. It seems to me that while science is incredibly valuable in changing our perception of the world, it has a tendency to keep on raising as many questions as it answers. (Which is of course a good thing).

Some people seem to think that the gap between scientific understanding and ultimate enlightenment is where God comes in. Dawkins rightly points out that this is a nonsense. However what I don’t agree with is that science itself is going to bridge this gap. I’m all for getting rid of God and religion, but that doesn’t mean that science should attempt to take their place. It would be smarter – and a lot more realistic in my opinion – to realise that ultimate enlightenment is just not going to happen. And frankly we don’t need it anyway.

Dawkins starts off The God Delusion by quoting Douglas Adams who asks whether it isn’t enough to wonder at the beauty of a garden without believing that there are fairies at the bottom of it. But I would respond that we don’t need to ‘wonder’ at all. Frankly I don’t go into my garden and ‘wonder’; nor do I believe there are fairies at the bottom of it.

It’s curious in the ‘science versus religion’ debate that science has the tendency to come over all religious itself. We should ‘wonder’ at the miracle of evolution and all the billions and billions of stars in the sky. How wondrous is the cosmos that we live in! How precious our human consciousness within that cosmos! Carl Sagan – the archbishop of ‘wondrous’ science – wrote at the beginning of Cosmos how thrilled he was in the vastness of space and the countless aeons to share a lifetime with so-and-so. But it’s all such terrible schmaltz. Can’t we dump God and religion in the dustbin where they belong without science feeling it has to get all doe-eyed, ‘wondrous’ and full of religiosity in its place?

That’s where I slightly disagree with Dawkins – that somehow science is a replacement for religion, and that science and religion are the only games in town. You can, I think, have freed yourself from the evils of God and religion without giving yourself over totally to ‘science’ and ‘rationalism’ (important and valuable though they are).

For me, there will always be a place in my heart for godless irrationality, for holding two thoughts and two conflicting instincts at the same time. I’m with Nietzsche. God is dead. But science is not the new God. There is no new God. And thank heaven for that.

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