Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chuck Norris and the perfidious bookseller

Having touched on the subject of Darwin's dachshund previously, I thought I'd do some Dawkins-related research while in Cantabrigia today.

I went into two large bookshops and decided to look where The God Delusion was to be found.

In Waterstone's, it was in the Popular Science department, with Dawkins' other titles which were mainly on genetics - The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, etc.

In Border's, I found a whole display of Dawkins' books set under a poster which said "Feed Your Mind", including The God Delusion. Inside each copy of a special paperback issue of Delusion bearing the legend "The Alternative Christmas Gift" was a mock-Christmas card titled "O come all ye Faithless." It was in the science section.

One of Dawkins' publishers, Transworld, does indeed identify the tome as popular science. This allows Borders to display it along with his other works - including A Devil's Chaplain, which the author himself describes as a collection of "articles and lectures, reflections and polemics, book reviews and forewords, tributes and eulogies": a book by a scientist, perhaps, but this does not make it a scientific book.

I would rather trust the British Library classification of Delusion into four areas, which are: atheism; God - proof; God; religion. No mention of science.

The "O come all ye faithless" greetings card, moreover, is more than it seems. It caused a stir in the Christian community, certainly, which probably provided the double return of offending believers and generating publicity. But what it seems to be about is a snipe at a 2005 Spectator article of the same name which in fact mounted a robust defence of Christianity. The waspish nature of the card would undoubtedly make Delusion its natural home.

It's not just about arguments over where books belong in bookshops, though. It's about right and wrong and why we need to know the difference.

Of course, there's a sense in which we create God in our own image, just as we ascribe human feelings to battery-farmed chickens, just as the Victorians affected a crisis of faith over the reproductory methods of a wasp, whereas if they'd really wanted to see proof of evil all they needed to do was look in their own workhouses.

Sometimes people reputed to be good do bad things. If this were not the case many of the world's ethicists would find themselves out of a job, reality TV would be even more boring than it is now, and the Bible would be a far shorter compendium, if indeed its existence were required at all. But that doesn't mean that we need to postulate God to explain why we feel a nagging compulsion to want something better. It means that we miss the mark (the Greek meaning of "sin") because we constantly fall short in our lifelong struggle to raise ourselves and those around us to the level of the Creator. If we decide by infallible atheist fiat that God no longer exists...I don't need to labour the point; just look at the killing fields, read dispatches from the rehabs, consider the lives cut short before breath is drawn.

Better, read how Chuck Norris puts it:

"We teach our children they are nothing more than glorified apes, yet we don't expect them to act like monkeys. We place our value in things, yet expect our children to value people. We disrespect one another, but expect our children to respect others. We terminate children in the womb, but are surprised when children outside the womb terminate other children. We push God to the side, but expect our children to be godly. We've abandoned moral absolutes, yet expect our children to obey the universal commandment: 'Thou shall not murder.'"

The God Delusion opens with a quote from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Isn't it enough to believe that the garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" It's slightly confusing, as I don't believe in faries and haven't met anybody past puberty who does - and I may never know what it means, as Adams died five years before Delusion was published. But in Hitch-Hiker, Adams writes of a "Babel-fish" that can be put in the ear; it is so improbable unless one presumes the existence of God, Adams writes, that the certainty of God's existence thus implied negates faith and God vanishes "in a puff of logic."

It's a passage often quoted in sixth-form debating clubs - but nobody seems to take much notice of the sentence following straight on, in which Adams seems to warn us from the grave of the danger inherent in the moral relativism, outlined in Norris' quote above, that results when we relegate God to an also-ran and present ourselves as both the winner and the judge of the race:

"'Oh, that was easy,'" says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing."

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