God, Dawkins, and the Cosmos

Richard Dawkins is an industry.

I guess I had thought of Dawkins as a biologist who wrote some books in his spare time. (Very good, very famous books). I stumbled upon a link to his website and was expecting the usual low key hacked-the-html-myself type scientist home page. Instead I found this vast complex extravaganza full of tour dates, forums, buy-the-book-here, etc. There is lots of work in this kind of dynamic site, and I doubt whether even a very clever and energetic biologist does all those Server Pages and databases (or whatever..) himself, so his book sales have to pay for this stuff. The site is not hosted at ox.ac.uk, but at richarddawkins.net. Its a business.

But I am cool with this. Its a good business, and he is Professor of Public Understanding at Oxford, so its even more or less part of his day job. And of course he is these days a man on a mission, trying to cure the world of the virus of religion. Many of us are right behind him; we are convinced of the power and the sanity of reason, and worried by the resurgence of the religious right and fundamentalist terrorism. This feels like the key struggle of the twenty first century. Our banners are unfurling in the wind as we stand ready to storm and liberate the city; our general Dawkins cries “Mark me and do the like !”

But some scientists are religious, and yet more are prone to quasi-mystical comments – like Hawking describing the COBE map of the cosmic microwave background as like seeing the Face of God. COBE map. When speaking to non-scientists, I find that people expect astronomers in particular to have some kind of insight into The True Nature of Things because of our daily exposure to the grandeur of the cosmos.

In one of my standard popular talks, I have a section where I step through the universe from Earth to Pluto to the Pleiades to the Andromeda Nebula to the Virgo Cluster to the Hubble Deep Field. This leaves one feeling awestruck but irrelevant. Then I flash up a picture of the Trifid Nebula and discuss the range of feelings it evokes.Trifid Nebula. Some people feel such awe and a sense of beauty that they think “This is an amazing universe. This is not here by accident. There has to be a God.” For others, it just amplifies the emptiness, the existentialist nausea, brought on by the endless sea of galaxies. But for myself, and I think for many other scientists, pictures of the cosmos are not especially important for the “God Question”. If you are inclined to mysticism, you will see God in a cupcake; if you are not, you won’t. When I stare at the galaxies, like any other human being I get the feelings of vastness and irrelevance, but its not depressing. Its a good feeling to accept that this, rather than some fairytale, is what the universe is really like. It is what it is.

Of course, just because you are liberated from believing in some bloke with a white beard in the sky, doesn’t mean you can’t get some kind of mystical groove from staring at cupcakes and galaxies, some suspicion of an underlying unity. We all read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I even read some Alan Watts once. Maybe you can feel connected to those cupcakes and galaxies, start seeing the jewel-net of Indra. Maybe. But if you start down this road, it is too easy to be suckered. The Vedanta, as interpreted for us Western sceptics by Watts et al, is fascinating; but Hinduism in practice seems to be ritual and superstition, and an excuse for a repressive social system.

All this talk of Eastern mysticism reminds me .. I loved the Dawkins TV programme, in which he demolishes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in equal measure. But err… from a world perspective, aren’t these pretty much the same religion ? Somebody said to me that he starts off by defining Buddhism as not really religion … Hmm. Perhaps I should get round to buying the book.

Another sale, Richard.

5 Responses to God, Dawkins, and the Cosmos

  1. Dave Pearson says:

    Somebody said to me that he starts off by defining Buddhism as not really religion
    I seem to recall reading that in TGD too. And, depending on which approach to which school you’ve got in mind, it’s probably not that far short of the truth either. Sure, plenty of people make a religion out of Buddhism, but the core of Buddhism does tend to stand apart from theistic and religious issues.

    BTW, good to see another astronomy blog. You can blame Stuart for me ending up here. 😉

  2. Ronen says:

    Found your blog by accident when searching for interesting astronomy sites online. Good deal.

    I heard Dawkins promote his latest book on the radio the other day. The man is one sharp cookie. It’s amazing they let him in to visit us here in the god fearing US of A. Why, it’s practically un-American to be a non-believer… thank god I live in California. People are nearly sane around these parts. 🙂

  3. andyxl says:

    California ? Sane ? Maybe more people in California believe in the healing power of crystals than believe in Revelations .. possibly this is progress of a kind ? Or maybe I have only met people from Berkeley and Pasadena, and in Fresno they are pretty much the same as the folk in Des Moines, and basically what they believe is that Bigger Boxes of Cheerios are cool.

    Thanks for dropping by !

  4. […] every third post seems to be about Science Versus Religion – for example here, and here, and even one from me. One of the best was “Thank You Richard Dawkins” over at Cosmic Variance, which […]

  5. Keith Osik says:

    OH crud! i just typed a nice comment and as soon as i submitted it it come up blank! Please tell me it worked properly? I do not want to sumit it again if i do not have to! Either the blog bugged out or i am just stuipd :), the latter doesnt surprise me lol.

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