"The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins
Although written by an evolutionary biologist, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ not only covers natural selection, i.e. “Cumulative non random survival of randomly varying self replicating information”, but it touches on the chemist Cairns-Smith’s hypothesis that the origin of life on the planet was inorganic and may have evolved from compounds in clays; an extremely difficult concept to even imagine, but one which in the hands of Richard Dawkins is set out clearly enough to grasp in essence, if only dimly.
Nothing in the book concerning evolution is speculative, since it is known to be true, but the question of how life got started, or how the first self replicating organisms came into being is still not known, but the sections on that burning question are fascinating, even if, at present, seemingly very weird indeed.
Chemical experiments have been carried out and no doubt continue to be; I’d be interested to hear from Peter Atkins on this subject. Anyway, I think it’s worth holding ones breath!
Incidentally, the book’s title stems from pre evolutionary notions about life on Earth and how they relate to what is now known to be true.
SG - Posted April 2012
I thoroughly recommend this book, and my only criticism is that it does stretch the definition of portability, although I did succeed in getting it on to BA and Qantas flights as cabin baggage.
The book consists of essential readings for the non-believer, selected and introduced by Christopher Hitchens. It covers the writings of a large range of non-believers from Lucretious to several present day examples. Readability inevitably varied with different authors, and in general I found the more modern ones easier to digest. An exception was the poem by Omar Khayyam, which created the impression of a very endearing human who liked his wine and women whilst maintaining a clear vision of a godless world.
There was also some good humour, and I found the poem by John Betjeman, which underlined the ludicrous concept of personal prayer, to be totally hilarious. Several stalwarts such as Russell and Dawkins covered familiar well trodden ground, and I have to confess to being completely taken in by the chapter on Gerin Oil by the latter. In my naivety I assumed this to be some new and powerful drug that I had not previously encountered. Margaret, my better half, who is very much into various types of mind game, pointed out that it is a fairly simple anagram which, having regard to Dawkins’ track record, does not take long to work out.
But for me the most disturbing chapters were the accounts by Carl Sagan, Ibn Warraq and Sam Harris of the incredible amount of cruelty inflicted on humans in the name of religion over the ages. This dark side of human history is something which we are all aware of, but the detailed graphic descriptions given by these authors of the scale and sheer barbarity of this behaviour were almost beyond belief. As Steven Weinberg has indicated, to get otherwise normal decent humans to commit such acts, takes religion. This is undoubtedly the essential factor that enables otherwise reasonable humans to commit the most hideous atrocities against their neighbours.
Finally, the last chapter was by Ayaam Hirsi Ali, a Muslim woman who, over a long and painful process, renounced her religion to become an Atheist. This was particularly moving.
RWMJ - Posted August 2011
Some readers will certainly have heard of Jodi Picoult and may even be among her huge world wide following of fans. It is perhaps evidence of the poverty of my literary knowledge, therefore, that I had not come across her until very recently when my eye caught the blurb on the cover of “Keeping Faith” in my local library which read “You do not believe in God, but your daughter is talking to angels – what do you do?"
Intrigued I took the 474 page volume home and found that once I had begun it, I could hardly put it down.
Jodi Picoult has some 20 books and stories to her name, many of them acclaimed. The film of “My sister’s keeper” was released in June 2009 starring Cameron Diaz. The vast numbers of reviews of her work on the Internet are all positive to ecstatic. She has enjoyed and continues to enjoy huge commercial success, although she is the first to say that the kind of novel she writes is not likely to win her any of the coveted international book prizes.
She writes about families, and the huge stresses that occur within them. In Picoult’s fiction we rarely encounter parents who are bad. Instead, we meet mothers and fathers who try to meet the current standards of caring for children and can get it wrong. Parental inadequacy and elaborate misfortune repeatedly conspire in her books to produce altogether new horrors. So why am I telling a group of Humanists this? Well, Picoult's novels usually deal with ethical issues and are told from a variety of viewpoints, generating huge drama and tension. What better arena for her to venture into, then, than the belief divide. “Keeping Faith” is a must read for anyone interested in and concerned about the clash in the USA between the atheist standpoint and the view taken by those who believe one way or another in the supernatural.
Keeping Faith is about a young girl called Faith who begins confiding with an imaginary friend in the aftermath of witnessing her father Colin in a deeply compromising situation with his lover in her mother's bedroom. Colin leaves; Mariah, her mother, falls into a fit of depression, and Faith begins talking to her "guard". After Mariah takes Faith to a psychologist, it becomes clear that Faith is communicating with God. As many of the religious consultants in the book explain, communication with God is one thing, but Faith also appears to be performing miracles as well as exhibiting stigmata on her palms. Not only does this complicate little Faith's life in making her different from the other children that she knows from school, but the Press begins to have a field-day with the strange events. And if that isn't bad enough, her father also sues Mariah for full-custody of Faith believing that she is being harmed. Enter a leading celebrity teleatheist, modelled one suspects on Sam Harris, who is intent on exposing Faith’s visions as fraudulent, possibly engineered and encouraged by her mother.
Over many chapters we are given insights into the reactions of religionists and their organisations and the questions that arise in agonising form between them and those who do not share their stance. The court room drama which concludes the story is as good as anything written by Grisham. The belief issues, the medical twists which include detailed arguments over Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, and the presentation of the legal scene in the USA, are superbly documented and thus a tribute to the huge research undertaken by the author on which the credibility of this fictional tale is based.
I agree with the reviewer who wrote that what is really impressive about this book is the grace with which Picoult handles the subject matter of religion and atheism. What becomes really interesting throughout the book is that Faith is not Catholic as the stigmata would suggest, nor does she have a strong background in religion as her visions would suggest. Instead, she is a child from a mixed-faith marriage (Jewish and Christian) with very little religious instruction, and one in which her mother is to all intents and purposes a passive Humanist.
As in all her books, however, Jodi Picoult leaves the reader to make up his or her mind where truth lies. Readers publishing their views on cyberspace have anguished over this, suggesting it would be preferable to be told who are the good and who are the bad guys. Picoult’s philosophy does not allow her to do that. Although she admits (in an interview on You-Tube) to believing in a God, she maintains the view that it is for each individual to make up their own mind about where they stand in regard to the belief divide.
I recommend reading this book. Even if the divide issue is not why you read novels, you will, I think, find the taut story telling in “Keeping Faith” irresistible, entertaining and quite possibly educational.
T B-P - Posted November 2009