Review of What Should I Believe? Church Times (May 09)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 16:05

Linda Hurcombe reads a study applicable to believers and atheists

What Should I Believe? Why our beliefs about the nature of death and the purpose of life dominate our lives

Dorothy Rowe
Church Times Bookshop £9

DOROTHY ROWE intends her latest book to act as a sequel to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. Dawkins asked why intelligent people believed such "garbage" as religion. What Should I Believe? gives a non-judgmental answer, with fewer utterances about the trashiness or otherwise of the religious outlook. Her explanation is applicable to any form of belief, Dawkins's included.

On account of this, Rowe has been mistaken for a Dawkins acolyte, whereas she is in fact equally critical of Dawkins and his sort. All of us, people of faith or not, create our meanings from what Dorothy Rowe calls "fantasy".

(I would call these meanings "inventions", if only because the word "invention" implies a pro­ductive discovery, whereas "fantasy" often connotes the chimerical and capricious.)

Dorothy Rowe describes with great lucidity how deep-seated emotions shape our ideas about life, and how these, in turn, map our experience. We live in a mad world where most frequently chaos appears to be king. In the 21st century, religion has become a political power. Terrorism based on religious belief threatens us, while a battle rages between dogmatic believers and militant atheists.

Everyone has to face the fact that all die, but no one knows what death actually is. Is it the end of our identity, or a doorway to another life? If death is the end of our identity, we must strive to make this life satisfactory. If it is a doorway to another life, what standards must we reach to go to that life? For many of us, what we were taught about a religion diminished our self-confidence and left us with a constant debilitating feeling of guilt and shame.

Our greatest fear is annihilation — not physical death, necessarily, but annihilation as a person. It is the desire to avoid this that motivates us throughout our lives. For some, religion is the answer, not least because it tends to suggest quite straightforwardly that life carries on after death. Continuation of our existence is what we all desire, religious or not: parents hope their world-view will shape the lives of their children; some take comfort from the fact that their "blood" or "genes" will be around after they have gone. Artists imagine their work will stand as an enduring monument. Ordinary mortals hope they will live on at least in their friends' memories, or in the effects of the good things they have done.

Into this cocktail goes the caste of each person's personality — introvert or extrovert. The author's explanation for religious belief is a question of individual psychology, and cannot be "educated" away.

The questions addressed in this book remind me of Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize-winning play J.B., written in 1958 in a xenophobic post-Second World War America, and based on the book of Job. The book is set in a circus: a clown, Zuss, takes the part of God; Satan, called Nickles, famously remarks on the fact that terrible things can happen to good people:

If God is God He is not good,

If God is good He is not God.

Take the even, take the odd,

I would not sleep here if I could,

Except for the little green leaves

 in the wood 

And the wind on the water.

The drama's expressions of frustration, jealousy, and rage were made to fit into a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethic. It is clear, however, that the evils of religious bigotry can flourish without any belief in the supernatural. Such behaviour-patterns antedate and outlive the beliefs that prompt them.

Someone once said, and I para­phrase, that atheism is the normal outcome of a happy childhood. Not so for Dorothy Rowe, who transcended an unhappy childhood to produce books that lead readers to fearlessness, enlightenment, and courage. What Should I Believe? is excellent. Do read it, especially if some of your best friends are atheists.

 Hurcombe is the author of Depression: Healing emotional distress (Sheldon Press, 2007).

Published in the Church Times, Issue 7624, 1st May 2009