Yesterday I went for dinner with my sister, dad, a friend of dad’s and the friend’s daughter. The girl is four or five years younger than I. The last I’d seen her was probably when she was in sixth or seventh grade. She is now in junior college, and is an interesting and intelligent girl to talk to. Obviously, she was a little awkward with me because, well, you can’t meet someone after a gap of five years and pick up a conversation. So, to lighten things up I was asking her the ‘usual’ questions you ask a 11th grade girl.“Which college?”
“Shivaji.” “What stream?”
“Electronics.” “Tenth grade percentage?”*
“97. Actually 95.91 and then one percent added for attending NCC camps.” “So, where do want to go from here?”
“I am really interested in mass media and communication.” (Now I had my ears cocked.) And so the conversation started rolling as she loosened up and we all got chatty over dinner. We spoke of media as an industry, alternatives, the importance of food and of childhood habits. Then we came to the subject of fasting. She said she had recently fasted for some religious reason, some ‘Godman’ (oxymoron!) who’s now dead. And I mentioned how I wasn’t for that kind of fasting and that I was an atheist. At that point my dad pointed out to his friend how I was very militant about my atheism and how I love to take on people with faith (of a reasonable intelligence) in an argument over God. That isn’t wholly true. But the moment dad said that, maybe even a while he was saying it, the girl’s father interjected with some haste, “What are your ideas are your ideas, son” – which is the restaurant dinner table equivalent of – “Stay away from my daughter and keep your atheism to yourself.” I politely obliged and steered the conversation away from God and religion towards the subtleties between milk shakes, thick shakes, mousse and whatever it is that you get at Cad-B. But it reminded me of a portion from the book I’m now reading – The God Delusion. As a book it is pathetic when you see it for its philosophy. There is little or no original philosophy and some of it it shallow. But maybe Dawkin’s intention was to write a book that was a compilation of all arguments against the existence of God – from Thomas Jefferson and David Hume till Dan Dennett. The book’s back cover or spine doesn’t mention what label it is intended to be sold under: ‘Philosophy/Religion/Popular Science’… Isn’t that interesting? Anyway, I digress. You know a speech is wonderful when it has lines like: ‘Without God, life is only a matter of opinion.’ or something like the quote below. This is from a short speech Douglas Adams gave at Cambridge shortly before his death.
I can imagine Newton sitting down and working out his laws of motion and figuring out the way the Universe works and with him, a cat wandering around. The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat.
The portion I was reminded of at dinner was something Dawkins quotes in his book:
Religion… has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.Why should it be perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe… no, that’s holy?… We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
That perfectly sums up what happened at dinner yesterday. I knew what I was flirting with when I led the conversation into fasting and religion, and that was tolerable. But as soon as I shifted gears to the central tenet of religion – God – I had breached the ‘holy’ line. Nonetheless, the moment passed and the rest of the dinner was uneventful. Well, cheers to the amusement in irking theists!* I still hate that this is a ‘usual’ question, but I was pressed for conversation.