Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41)

Dawkins begins with the story of the boy who was to become his school Chaplain having a ‘quasi-mystical’ (32) experience while contemplating the grass in front of his face, overwhelmed by the complexity and interconnectedness of the world he saw there.

Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms…. (31)

Dawkins then describes his own similar experience when contemplating the stars (31-2), before saying:

Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer.

Three phrases leap out at me as I read these first paragraphs of The God Delusion. The first is ‘become one with the universe…’. I presume that it means something like this: that the boy saw not just grass in front of his nose, but a complex and vital ecology, in which each part was caught in webs of dependence and interaction with other parts, and the visible and tangible features floated on a sea thick with such connections and influences. And then, from being something he was looking at, relatively isolated in front of him, the boy began viscerally to imagine the way that these connections did not stop with the turf, but stretched to include every part of the cosmos: it was all one system, all one set of interdependencies – including him, the observer. In fact, he experienced the cosmos as a cosmos: as some kind of whole, himself included. That, or something like it, is what I take Dawkins to be describing.

The second and third phrases that strike me, then, are ‘He interpreted the experience in religious terms’ and ‘Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other…’. They both suggest that two distinct things are going on: an experience or emotion, followed by a distinct process of ‘interpretation’. And I’m not quite sure that’s right. It seems to me that the experience described is already an experience of interpretation: it is an experiece of ‘seeing-as’. The boy sees the grass in front of himself as a teeming microcosm; he then ‘sees’ the whole world, including himself as cosmos. And I presume that he sees himself and the world of which he is a part as a cosmos having some character. The experience could have been one of terror, for instance, or a feeling of utter insignificance; it could have been an experience of profound ‘at-home-ness’ in the universe, and so on.

If this is right (and I am going by other descriptions and discussions of such experiences, not simply by Dawkins’ brief description of this one) then two things follow. In the first place, we would need to know a good deal more before being able to say that Dawkins’ and the Chaplain’s experiences were the same (and we probably wouldn’t call them ’emotions’).

In the second place, it may be that the religiousness of the Chaplain’s response was not an interpretation susequent and secondary to the experience; it might have been, as it were, built in. It is possible, for instance, that the boy experienced this cosmos as welcoming, or as gift, or as sustaining him benevolently or lovingly – or something similar.

I am not going to suggest that this experience as I have (speculatively) redescribed it is any kind of proof of the existence of God, or that my redescription offers any reasons for thinking that the Chaplain’s religiousness is to be preferred over Dawkins’ atheism. And I certainly do not wish to pour any kind of scorn or scepticism on Dawkins’ description of his own experience. If the Chaplain’s experience did take the form that I have suggested, it might well be (in Dawkins’ terms) delusional in some way; I have said nothing to suggest that it is not – and have read far enough ahead to know that Dawkins is going to deal sharply with claims to prove the existence of God on the basis of ‘religious experience’.

All that I want to note at this stage is that, if the Chaplain did have an experience of this kind, and if it was a ‘religious’ experience in something like the way I have suggested (and if his was not, we have accounts of others that were), then the difference between his experience and Dawkins’ would not most naturally be described as a difference over a particular empirical matter of fact. It is, rather, a difference between two overarching ‘takes’ on the world: two ways of seeing, two different senses of the whole, two ways of reading the text of the world. And how one is to adjudicate between two such ways of seeing is, as Dawkins says, ‘not an easy question to answer’.

Where God fits (or does not fit) into this picture is a topic we’ll be coming back to.

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