Caracotsios: Revisiting my God delusion

Julian Caracotsios, Assistant Opinion Editor

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For those of you who missed it, Richard Dawkins – author of “The God Delusion” and the man who is perhaps the public face of atheism – came to campus Thursday to discuss his recently released memoir, “An Appetite for Wonder.” I’ve read a number of his books, “The God Delusion” among them, and the man has had quite a bit of influence over me. Going to see him was something I couldn’t say no to.

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I believed in God as a child and attended church services on Easter and Christmas, but lost what semblance of faith I had once I entered high school. My predisposition toward science and mathematics led me, as well as many of my peers, to what seemed like the inevitable conclusion of rational thought: that the existence of God was scientifically implausible. Faith, belief and religion became, as Dawkins says in his eponymous book, a “God delusion.” With the zeal of a hyperactive 16-year-old, I became a crusader for rationality, fighting against the superstitious, ossified anachronisms of the past.

It took me years to realize that I suffered from a delusion of my own. Along the way, I know I offended and insulted a lot of people whose faith supposedly made them inferior to me. If you’re one of those people, I hope you keep reading, because I’ve come to have a lot of respect for the things which were once the butt end of my jokes.

As I sat in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Thursday night – that unmistakable British accent emanating just a few meters from me – I saw for the first time in person a man whom I had once so greatly admired but now with whom I so vehemently disagreed. I was on the balcony, a ways away from the action. At times, it was difficult to hear everything being said, so my wandering mind naturally took over and led me down the long, winding path my beliefs traveled as they developed.

It’s been a while since I felt so ardently anti-religious. I began to grow out of it as I read more and replaced the know-it-all overconfidence of a teenager with the slightly less naive overconfidence of a 20-something-year-old. However, there’s more to that story. Although my beliefs shifted gradually at first, they were suddenly and drastically altered by a class I took last Spring Quarter. Philosophy of Religion – taught by philosophy Prof. Ken Seeskin – was perhaps the most influential class I’ve taken in my entire time at Northwestern. Yes, even more than Russian Lit.

We read excerpts from a smattering of philosophers from Kant to Kierkegaard, but it was Seeskin who was able to tie it all together and help me understand something which was at the heart of my own blindness. Religion wasn’t just about logic. It wasn’t science, and it wasn’t supposed to be. And I’d never understand it if I insisted that it be understood scientifically. Once I began thinking of religion as something in its own right, rather than a poorly formed set of scientific hypotheses, the wealth of wisdom it contained became available – albeit in small drops – to me, even though I remained as skeptical of the existence of God as ever.

Though it seems obvious in retrospect, I was just not able to appreciate just how many conceptions of God existed, many of which have little to do with scientific conjecture, until I listened to Seeskin’s lectures. Those conceptions have lived and died throughout the centuries – various forms of atheism among them – but what has stayed with humanity the entire time is religion, in some form or another. The critical mistake I made was in thinking that once the idea of the divine had been discredited as a scientific hypothesis, it brought down the entire edifice of religion with it. This is what, I feel, the “New Atheism” movement, of which Dawkins is considered a central figure, has directed much of its energy toward. Unlike science, religious beliefs are not just conjectures about the nature of reality. Sometimes they have such conjectures, but they always encompass much more. Focusing solely on those conjectures is missing the forest for the trees.

Therefore, religion is worthy of the time and attention to understand it, even for non-believers. And if you’re like me, especially for non-believers, viewing the world solely through the lens of scientific conjecture is constraining and, paradoxically, can lead to precisely the kind of dogmatism that it is intended to vanquish.

That was my own God delusion, and I’m glad to have seen beyond it.

Julian Caracotsios is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at juliancaracotsios2014@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.edu. 

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