Book Love: Potential controversy approaching…

Warning for religion talk and length – sorry!  (For the length)

One factor in me becoming a suddenly useless blogger was that I finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Now, I know the mere mention of the name Dawkins is enough to have some people huffing and puffing and ranting away to themselves – hence the title of this post.  If you do plan to be offended by my views on the book, please look away now.  If you plan to disagree with me in a thoughtful and civil way, that’s absolutely fine and I can’t wait to read the comments!

Boring disclaimer over, let’s get on with it.  The reason this book stalled my blogging was because it was a lot to take in and I couldn’t quite decide what I thought of it.

Generally, I loved it.

I’ve been an atheist for a while now, and it was entirely my idea.  I decided on this before I’d ever heard of Mr Dawkins, and had decided 100% on my beliefs before I even discussed it with another person.  I spent a good few years genuinely trying to understand religious beliefs and how they came together into a valid argument, and couldn’t quite get there.  I couldn’t work out why I didn’t understand the arguments for the existence of God that I learned for my Religious Studies GCSE.  I just couldn’t get my head around them.  Then it dawned on me.  It wasn’t be being stupid or not studying hard enough – the arguments just didn’t make sense.  God doesn’t exist, so these arguments had no logical basis.

For years, I was convinced that God doesn’t exist, but I couldn’t manage to put my reasoning into words.  For the most part, this book spelled out exactly what I was thinking.  It was like someone had unscrambled my brain and laid out my thoughts in a logical and convincing way.  I felt so relieved that what I was thinking really did make sense.  I am now even more convinced of what I think, not because I’m taking everything Dawkins says as gospel (pun intended, sorry), but because I came up with these ideas on my own simply by thinking rationally about religion.

Overall, it was a very well written book, unsurprisingly given how much practice the author gets airing his views.  All the arguments were put across in a very readable and accessible way and I didn’t find it hard going at all.  Most of the arguments made complete sense to me, probably because they clarified what I already thought.  I reckon most people would be able to read the book easily, though I would recommend having at least a basic knowledge of the theories of evolution and natural selection, and possibly some understanding of (very) basic genetics.  These are referred to quite a bit without much explanation of the background and I think you would miss a lot by skipping over them.  They should probably form part of everyone’s education as well, if you want to start thinking broader.

For my part, I dredged up my rusty A-level biology (yes, I only took the final exam three years ago, but that doesn’t help my terrible memory!) and realised that I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.  I’ve never been able to get into the physics-y bits of science, even with Brian Cox now on the scene, but I am completely fascinated by Biology and life and how we work.  I gathered that Richard Dawkins has written some more “sciency” books – they’ve been added to my list!  Maybe that’s why I’m not religious – I’ve never been able to accept the explanation “this happens because God makes it happen”.  That’s far too boring!

Something else that really resonated with me was the idea that religion does not deserve it’s current status, where it’s almost taboo to criticise religion, and everyone is walking on eggshells, afraid of causing offence.  If religious belief is so strong, surely it shouldn’t matter that some people object to it?  I almost added to my mini-disclaimer at the top of this post, apologising for if I offend anyone, but then realised that this is exactly what Dawkins is talking about!  It’s my blog, I’m not setting out to upset anyone, and my beliefs are just as valid as anyone else!  I shouldn’t feel ashamed of being an atheist, I do avoid talking about it with people I don’t know that well, muttering that “I’m not anything really” when people ask about my religion.  Silly…

There were a few things I didn’t like, though.  Dawkins is quite aggressive in some parts, and I understand why he rubs plenty of people up the wrong way.  I didn’t like at all his statement that he is out to convert people with this book.  I don’t think it is any more possible to force a believer to become an atheist than it would be to force me to believe in God.  The best way to change people’s beliefs is explaining reasoned arguments and fairly weighing up all the evidence, something Dawkins does extremely well.  The God Delusion contains more than enough of this reasoning to get his point across, and telling people they are naive and wrong is surely only going to put them on the defensive and make them determined to stick to their guns.  That’s what I do, anyway.

I also thought that some of his arguments were weaker than others.  I take the view that when your opponent makes a strong point, it is far better to acknowledge that before coming back with some equally strong arguments of your own, rather than making up a weak fight against it.  Dawkins doesn’t seem to share this view, refusing to accept that there might well be some strong arguments in favour of the existence of God or the benefits of religion.  His determination that religion is not necessary for some people to get through difficult times, for example, doesn’t sit well with me.  He thinks that they are pointlessly deluding themselves, but I (and I reckon most other people) see it as a good side effect of religion.  While I certainly think that the bad effects of organised religion outweigh the good, I don’t deny that these good aspects exist.

Religion definitely gives many, many people a sense of purpose, something that I really envy.  When I start thinking too hard about there not really being a point to us being here, having evolved in a very clever way but without any end game etc etc, I do start depressing myself a tad.  Dawkins seems to have found some other meaning for life, but for some reason this was one logic he didn’t explain very well.  I think he may have made an attempt in the final chapter, but for me this didn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the book.  It was a (very interesting) discussion of lots of different science-y things, but they didn’t really seem to have a point to them in this context.  For me, for now, the best strategy seems to be just to not think about it too hard and get on with what makes me happy!

PS  I can only apologise for the essay-style length of this post.  I know it goes against all advice for beginner bloggers, ever, but I got a bit carried away.  Thanks and congratulations if you made it this far!

Book Love: I get surprisingly attached to some easy reads

Next stop on my reading mission was a quick and easy read – Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida by Catherine Ryan Howard.  I actually read the sequel to this book (Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America) about a month ago after discovering it on an aimless browse through the Kindle store, where I always lack the self control to resist buying anything with decent reviews and priced under £2.  I don’t actually have a Kindle, but the free PC software has come in useful for passing the time with free or cheap reads, especially since being in Italy.

Now, I do love the chance to be a bit nosey and get a look at other people’s lives, so I did enjoy a couple of fun memoirs.  If you don’t like either a) people talking about themselves or b) light reading, I’d advise you to skip these books.

Backpacked caught my eye because I’m planning a trip to Central America at the moment, backpacking from Mexico City to Costa Rica with one of my best friends for 2 and a half months.  I thought that reading someone else’s (very similar) experience would get me in the right frame of mind, and it did.  The actual experience of travelling is obviously different to the one you read about in guidebooks, and Catherine sounds about as different to your typical Lonely Planet writer as it is possible to get.  Right from the start, she makes clear that her only reason for backpacking in Central America is that it’s a good chance to spend time with her best friend instead of going home to Ireland after working at Disney World for a year and a half.  She loves chain stores, Starbucks coffee and expensive hotels, so is understandably not thrilled at the prospect of less-than-clean hostels and stomach bugs.

Now, while I wouldn’t say I’m quite as attached to the luxury lifestyle as Catherine paints herself to be, I’m not exactly a seasoned traveller.  As such, the vast majority of my worries for next summer involve dirty accommodation, food poisoning and having things nicked.  I also tend to worry, especially when doing things for the first time, that “I’m not doing this right” and that other people who are doing it right are judging me.  For me, it was a relief to read the travel experience of someone travelling with an 80 litre backpack instead of a 30 litre one, who isn’t always determined that everything should be done “like the locals” and that taking more than two t-shirts is a waste of space.  After reading too much advice from expert travellers on the internet, I was starting to think I was mad for wanting to take hair conditioner and more than 2 days worth of clothes!  There are a fair few moments in the book when things don’t go as planned (the most notable being when they try to do things exactly like the locals) and I found it reassuring to read that everyone was fine and unscathed coming out of the other side, and that you really do always cope somehow.

I read Mousetrapped because I quite liked the preview at the end of Backpacked, and it was also cheap in the Kindle store.  It is the prequel to her Central America trip, where she works at a Disney World hotel in Florida and builds a life in Orlando.  I really wasn’t expecting to relate to it in the same way.  I have no desire whatsoever to stay in the US for any extended period of time (although I did love my holiday in New York) and really dislike most of the things Catherine seems to love about Orlando.  Shopping malls and coffee, to name just two.

But Mousetrapped turned out to be completely different to what I was expecting.  Rather than filling a book with great stories and bragging about her Mickey Mouse life, Catherine deals with some real problems while living abroad.  She gets genuinely homesick and says that she’s looking forward to leaving the US for almost the whole book.  She also picks herself up and stays determined to make the best of it while she’s there.

Personally, I could completely relate to this.  Since living in Milan, I’ve been having a lot of very similar feelings and it’s great to hear that other people feel this way too – sometimes it seems like everyone that’s moved abroad is having the time of their lives.  It’s also good for me to see her dust herself up and get on with it.

However, I’m not convinced that I would have enjoyed this book so much if I wasn’t in the situation I am.  Catherine’s writing didn’t really make me understand how she was feeling; it just so happens that our feelings match up.  If you’ve never experienced living or travelling abroad, I don’t think you’d find the writing particularly emotional, or even necessarily interesting.  But if, like I am

Both Mousetrapped and Backpacked turned out to be exactly what I’ve been missing since my obsessive years of reading sugary-sweet teen fiction: well written, easy reads that I can lose myself in for a couple of hours when I fancy relaxing and not thinking too hard.  They’re both fun memoirs with enough problems to be interesting, with situations and feelings I can relate to without turning into a complete emotional wreck.

Overall verdict so far:  success!