Friday, December 29, 2006

God and all his angels and saints

Wow, cop the hubris of that title. Never let it be said that Pavlov's Cat concerns herself only with trivia.

And I suppose it needs to be said at the outset that while not a Christian I am open to suggestion about all sorts of more or less batty phenomena that are usually lumped (to my mind often quite wrongly) under the omnibus banner of 'spiritual', and that I have great respect for other people's religious beliefs and practices right up to the point where they begin to impinge on me but not, however, a nanometre further. If other people wish to be Christians then I am not going to lift a finger to stop them and I am happy to admire newborns in mangers and sing any carol you put the sheet music for under my nose. Just don't ask me to kneel down.

The religious hatreds currently circulating the globe, as they have of course always done, are utterly foreign to my own experience of personal feeling. I have no idea where this intensity and density of religious fervour comes from, although a year's blog-reading has given me some sad-making notions about how it too often manifests itself: a desperate, unvoiced, driven desire to signal one's allegiance to a tribe, and to give one a conduit for the venting of unformed, unacknowledged hatred and rage.

Anyway, there I was in the car last week, driving around as I usually do an awful lot this time of year and listening to the radio, which is something I almost never do unless I'm in the car, and there was Robyn Williams interviewing Richard Dawkins about his recent book The God Delusion.

Williams is a sublime interviewer of his peers, and his peers are relatively few. Unlike interviewers who have no particular store of knowledge and experience other than that of journalism itself, Williams is not a shark; he is not a thinker-up of headlines; he is not someone who gets a bunch of lowly, unsung slaves research assistants to do the hard yards for him and write his questions. What this means is that his interviews are genuine conversations, in which his questions and prompts are designed not for self-display but for the eliciting of the very best thinking and speaking that his interviewees are capable of.

Like, I think, most other people, I have a couple of friends in whose company you somehow find yourself rising above your usual conversational standard: saying more interesting things, and saying them better, than you thought you were capable of. Which of course makes you very enthusiastic about the conversation. This seemed to be happening in the Williams/Dawkins conversation. Dawkins kept saying in a surprised sort of way 'Oh, that's a very good question, isn't it, I'll have to think some more about that.'

But even more than this lovely dynamic, which is what makes any live interview really take off no matter what the situation -- I speak as a veteran of many writers' festivals -- what surprised me about the interview was something I hadn't really realised until I heard Dawkins speak.

For radio is a medium through which great intimacy is possible. The only thing available to you about the person speaking is her or his voice, and the voice thereby takes on great importance. As one knows from phone calls, you can often identify and conjure up the entire physical presence of a person the minute s/he speaks, even if it's just some kind of pre-verbal vocalisation, an indrawn breath or an 'um' or 'ah'. Voices are as potent as perfume in this regard.

Voice is also the thing that always alerts me, in the absence of any other obvious sign, to someone's mental state. When a voice sounds odd to me -- a buzz, a drone, a monotone -- then what one beloved ex-boss of mine used to call the 'maddie antenna' quivers like that retriever's tail in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. And as soon as Dawkins began to speak I thought Oh my God, he sounds like a Dalek. I mentally plotted him somewhere along the Asperger's spectrum. The phrase 'lack of affect' came to mind.

His voice has a sort of metallic, sawing, plangent edge, its effect reminiscent of paper cuts and fingernails on blackboards. Yet is not in itself an ugly voice, that isn't what I mean; its timbre, in fact, is rather unusually pure and clear. It's the voice of a brilliantly played brass instrument. A trumpet, say. A trumpet of an evangelical, military and/or annunciatory kind, of the kind that summons souls on the Day of Judgement, orders Adam and Eve out of Paradise, or announces sternly to the Virgin Mary that she's pregnant with the son of God and there's not a damn thing she can do about it.

And it was deeply ironic, I thought, that a man so loudly, insistently and unreservedly determined to pour scorn on any manner of theist, on spirituality of any kind, should adopt so successfully the Biblical modes of denunciation and command: the mode of evangelists and angels, or vengeful gods of any stamp. The mode of a bossy, overbearing, single-minded bully.


Jennifer said...

I'm half way through his book the God Delusion. The evangelistic tone does seem to come through there, too.

TimT said...

It sometimes seems to me that religious fervour has in some cases been replaced, in the last century, by political fervour. People who are ordinarily quite reasonable will become quite nutty when a political subject is raised. (I'd lump myself in that category, only I'm not sure if I'm reasonable at the best of times).

Mikhela said...

I've just started the God Delusion (for book group) and was slightly put off by the introduction which says something along the lines of 'By the time you finish this book I want you to agree with me' - no subtle laying out of arguments & allowing my own decisions here.

I'm bemused that it's so popular (especially at Christmas) and wonder if it's an example of what is mistakenly labelled 'good leadership' - we like people with firm convictions. I think it makes us feel safe.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I should stress that I haven't read it yet, and that when I do I am more likely to agree with Dawkins than not, but listening to him talking to Robyn Williams I was reminded of the way Philip Adams goes ON and ON and ON about Christianity in a way that makes it blindingly clear (not that he's ever tried to hide it) that he has big personal problems with it, and that his own psychology about it is actually more interesting, to the non-Christian, than anything he's got to say about Christianity as such.

I also take his point about the harm that Christianity and other religions have done the world; one has only to turn on the TV news to see it. (That Wikipedia article is very good.) But I'm deeply suspicious of the evangelical mode no matter how it manifests itself.

Perry Middlemiss said...

I suspect he'd be using the same tone if he was railing against astrology or excessive carbon use, or if anyone else was doing it for that matter.

Organised religions have been using the tone for two thousand years and more, so I guess they figured out its effectiveness in getting a definitive message across: one that would brook no argument.

What was the name of the radio program you mentioned? Must see if its available for download.

Bernice said...

Well yes though I suspect he's not helped by the sound recording. Not the best I've ever heard. I got half through the book & ran out of steam. His political points about religion being beyond critique are good ones, but Sam Harris does the same with a savage wit in his Letter to a Christian Nation.
Dawkins was also interviewed on the Religion Report where the point was made that he makes the mistake of ignoring that it is ultimately about belief, about faith. It cannot be proven. Dawkins mumbled. Ah yes that old fail-safe argument.
The ultimate test of one's faith is that you must believe in something that cannot be proven in order to prove your faith. My problem with that is that you are constructing a deity who is not just the Clockmaker but one who requires your individual devotion. Suggesting an ongoing engagement with human affairs. If this is the case, God is not a bloke I'd want to sit & have a couple of beers & a ciggie with. A few too many plagues, wars and stonings for me.
& it is deliciously ironic that God Delusion has been one of the best non-fiction sellers over Xmas.
& for a fab interview, try Koval with Sontag from 2004. Fabulous fabulous radio.

Colin said...

Thanks for your post. I appreciated your reflection on Dawkins, particularly as I had also heard him on radio - but not the Robyn Williams interview. My problem was not so much his strident evangelical tone as the use of sarcasm to belittle the beliefs of others without any apparent attempt at dialogue. It was also interesting to note how easily the audience joined in, chuckling at snide asides and laughing unreservedly as Dawkins scorned anything other than the cold hard rationalism of his own beliefs.

As for agreeing with some of his arguments, I am reminded of "Catch 22", where Yossarian and Nurse Duckett argue over the nature of the God neither of them believe in. I'm quite comfortable agreeing with Dawkins in not believing in the Divine, omnipotent megalomaniac. I just wonder, however, whether Dawkins is open to any positive experience of the Divine. I note with interest that, in the index of "The God Delusion", there is no entry for "Grace".

Dean said...

Rather than on 'purely rational' grounds my main objection to the idea of god or gods is largely aesthetic. I believe that the only way to counter force is with force. I totally agree with Dawkins' 'strident' tone, and there is no doubt in my mind that, having inherited a whopping great legacy of science plus effective forms of art to go with it, we no longer have any need for a big daddy up in the sky with an attendant army of angels to carry out his whims.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Hm ... nobody here has been arguing for a big daddy, have they?

Actually, I find arguments about the existence of God per se unutterably dreary no matter who's having them. What interested me was the mode of delivery. Dean, your point about not being able to fight force except with more force I disagree with absolutely; in fact, that's partly what I was saying. If Dawkins' tone and timbre were less repellent, he might make more converts.

Perry, can't remember the name of the program (I catch the middles of things when I'm driving, usually) but it might have just been the Science Show.

TimT said...

The transcript is here.

The Dawkins book would be interesting to read; almost every reviewer seems to react against the perceived hostile tone. Then again, almost every reviewer of Creme de la Phlegm said much the same thing, and I enjoyed that book immensely. There's something to be said for people who have a pugnacious, seemingly arrogant, debating style, like Dawkins; at the very least, they inspire the competitive spirit in those they wish to argue against. Dawkins is certainly not the only scientist to adopt this rhetorical mode.

Perry Middlemiss said...

The interview with Dawkins was on the Science Show - it's a summer repeat of the November 4th show.

It is still available for downloading as a podcast.

Genevieve said...

PC, I saw this a while back - then printed it and read it - then lost it - and here it is again, Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins' book. It is pretty scathing. ( I hope the link works okay.)