More Richard Dawkins. Selected chapters and thoughts of his from his best selling book 'The God Delusion.'
A deeply religious non-believer
I don't try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe to at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.
The boy lies prone in the grass , his chin resting on his hands. He suddenly found himself overwhelmed by a heightened awareness of the tangled stems and roots, a forest in microcosm, a transfigured world of ants and beetles and even - though he wouldn't have known the details at the time - of soil bacteria by the billions, silently and invisibly shoring up the economy of the micro-world. Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms and it led him eventually to the priesthood. He was ordained an Anglican priest and became a chaplain at my school, a teacher of whom I was fond. It is thanks to decent liberal clergymen like him that nobody could ever claim that religion that I had religion forced down my throat.
In another time and place, that boy could have been me under the stars, dazzled with Orion, Cassiopeia a Ursa Major, tearful at the unheard music of the Milky Way, heady with the night scents of frangipani and trumpet flowers in an African garden. Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer. A quasi-mystical response to nature is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief. In his boyhood at least, my chaplain was presumably not aware (nor was I) of the closing lines of The Origin of the Species - the famous 'entangled bank' passage, 'with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth.' Had he been, he certainly would have identified with it and, instead of the priesthood, might have been led to Darwin's view that all was 'produced by laws acting around us':
Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with it's several powers, having been breathed into few forms or one; and that, whilst the planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been made.
Carl Sagan, in Blue Dot, wrote:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better then we thought! The Universe is much bigger then our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
All Sagan's books touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder that religion monopolized in past centuries. Consequently I hear myself often described as a deeply religious man. An American student wrote to me that she had asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure," He replied "He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about the nature of the universe To me, that is religion!' But is 'religion' the right word? I don't think so. The Nobel Prize winning Physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:
Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that "God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or that ' God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word "God" can be given and meaning we wlike. If you want to say "God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal.
Wienberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is 'appropriate for us to worship.'
Much unfortunate confusion is caused by the failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. Einstein sometimes invoked the name of god (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so), inviting misunderstanding by super-naturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own. The dramatic (or was it mischievous?) ending of Stephan Hawking's A Brief History of Time, ''For then we should know the mind of God', is notoriously misconstrued. It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that Hawking is a religious man. The cell biologist, Ursula Goodenough, in The Sacred Depths of Nature, sounds more religious then Hawking or Einstein. She loves churches, mosques and temples, and numerous passages in her book fairly beg to be taken out of context and used as ammunition for supernatural religion. She goes so far as to call herself a 'Religious Naturist.' Yet a careful reading of her book shows that she is as staunch an atheist as I am.
'Naturalist' is an ambiguous word. For me it conjures up my childhood hero, Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle (who by the way had more than a touch of the 'philosopher' naturalist of the HMS Beagle about him). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, naturalist meant what it still means for most of us today, a student of the natural world. Naturalists in this sense, from Gilbert White on, have often been clergymen. Darwin himself was destined for the Church as a young man, hoping that the leisurely life of a country parson would enable him to pursue his passion for beetles. But philosophers use 'naturalist' in a very different sense, as the opposite of super-naturalist. Julian Baggini explains in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction the meaning of an atheist's commitment to naturalism: 'What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values - in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.'
Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities in the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is someone who believes that there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles - except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don't yet understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it now imperfectly understood, we hope to eventually understand it and embrace it within the natural. As ever, when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful.
Richard Dawkins. First part of chapter one, first four and a half pages of his book 'The God Delusion'
I have published this part now as it has occurred to me that there will be many people who will not understand other parts of chapters or thoughts of his without understanding him as an atheist more closely. And that this is a very serious subject, not given to easy cliches.