Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: God Collar - Marcus Brigstocke

I enjoyed God Collar, and would recommend reading it, though I do have some quibbles which I'll get out of the way first.

There are some mistakes. The book is essentially 336 pages of Brigstocke's musing and rants on religion, with a few funny tangents thrown in. As such, I'm not sure how much research has gone into it. Books that he's read are mentioned but, for example, the myth that some orthodox Jew's have sex through a sheet with a hole in it is spread. There are a great many ridiculous notions and practices in religions without having to make them up, but make them up people have, and it is beholden on us criticisers of religion to at least verify these before passing them on. We will never be short of material after all.

There is also some inconsistency, I imagine to add to the comedy. It's also really trivial and pernickety, but hey, these are my thoughts on the book after all: The chapter "God Delusion - The Modern Atheist" details Brigstocke's problems with Dawkins' book, yet later he also writes "I was at the time doggedly atheist and very impressed with The God Delusion". Yet the chapter reads as if he had problems with book right off the bat. Maybe he did, and they just didn't initially bother him as much at the time (much like me really enjoying Man of Steel, but on reflection, not liking it as much), as, even with his complaints he agrees with what Dawkins writes, for the most part. However, it's a trivial, tiny inconsistency, which to me stuck out like a sore thumb, and I expect probably passed most people by.

However, I also take issue with those complaints of The God Delusion. He argues that the book is smug, which is not the impression I got when reading it (though my impressions are years old now, and perhaps I should visit the book again), fair enough, your mileage may vary. But, in explaining this smug tone Brigstocke writes: "...the tone is of a person who knows he has the right answer, and whether I agree with him or not, that insistence and certainty remind this reader of the unbudging and infuriating convictions of the religious zealot". Again, this isn't what I remember. Dawkins makes his case, and in every instance, backs up his statements with the reasons why he does or does not believe these things. This isn't zealotry - it's him laying down a logical argument against the existence of god(s), and arguing instead that they are delusions. I have yet to read any criticisms of The God Delusion that actually go after the arguments Dawkins made. On top of that, Dawkins also talks about the possibility of gods in the book, saying "...I am agnostic [about God] only to the extent that I am agnostic about the fairies at the bottom of the garden."

Any way, enough with the quibbles, here's what I did like...

The main reason I enjoyed God Collar is that Brigstocke has an entirely different worldview, which is always interesting to read - seeing things from a different perspective, and having a think about your own.

Brigstocke doesn't have much hope for humanity. This is quite different to me, who thinks that ultimately, we're on the way up as a species. There are plenty enough stories out their of kindness, love and hope; and I think that most people are essentially good. Granted, as a hobby I've spent literally days on streets, in tube stations and in shopping centres fundraising for various charity, so I've been exposed to lots of people's generosity. However, it's not just my personal experiences: as a species, we're getting less violent. People have balked at this idea. One possible reason is that humans estimate the probability of something happening with how easily they can recall examples of it. So, it's easy for us to think of atrocities, because they make the news. Likewise, it's easy for me to be optimistic because of my years of involvement in the charity sector. It's not going to be an easy road - there's a long way we've got to go yet, but I think we're on the right track.

It was also interesting to read the chapter "My god shaped hole". A criticism of us new atheists is that we're not nihilistic enough (eg Father Barron or Rabbi Sacks). Brigstocke is the first atheist I'm aware of who does seem to fit that bill. It was interesting to read.  "...I have the creeping feeling that nothing matters", he writes. These thoughts are entirely alien to me - my atheism leads me to think that this is the only life I will ever have - consequently, the only meaning this life has is that which I bring to it, and everything I do, now, matters, because there won't be any other time to do anything. True, give it three or four generations (if I'm lucky) and I'll be long forgotten, a name on a family tree, maybe with the odd bit of biographical information. But all I have, and will ever be aware of (as far as I know) is the hear and now - so I do my best to make the most of it, and hope I'll leave the world a little better than when I came into it.

I also really enjoyed how open and honest Brigstocke was. It made me warm to him immensely. I'd love to spend an afternoon drinking tea and putting the world to right with him. I bet it would be interesting.

So, if you get a chance, do read God Collar, hopefully it'll make you think, laugh and reflect too.

UPDATE: From the lovely Marcus Brigstocke himself:

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