The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens

Notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens has written this short volume, subtitled “Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” as a critique of the enigmatic Catholic nun that everyone knows so well – or do they? My opinion of Mother Teresa, prior to reading this book, was stereotypically positive, informed only by the TV news. I don’t like Christianity, but regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof), it is possible to live a life of selfless devotion to others. Few of us choose that path, but if anyone shines brightly in this regard, it’s got to be Mother Teresa, right?

Wrong. Hitchens shows how Mother Teresa’s fame began with a documentary made about her Calcutta orphanage – the director insisting that he had captured the first ever miracle on camera. This miracle was the strange quality of the light within the building, which the director believed could not be explained naturally. The media ran with this, giving birth to a legend. The cameraman, who attributed the “miracle” to the quality of the new Kodak film, had no impact.

Hitchens, with painstaking research, unearths records of people who have visited Mother Teresa’s “House for the Dying.” We find a woman who, instead of attempting to improve the lives of “the poorest of the poor”, is interested first and foremost in the advancement of a religious view that makes a virtue out of suffering. While millions of dollars in donations lie dormant in accounts, she insists on maintaining strictly ascetic living conditions, not only for the nuns of her order, but for all her patients. Dying men are not allowed a simple comfort like watching TV or receiving visitors. People languish in pain without freely available painkillers. There was a particularly horrific case of a fifteen-year-old whose life could have been saved if he had been taken to hospital to receive proper medical care, but this was not permitted. “They would all want it,” was the excuse.

Meanwhile Mother Teresa is immune to criticism from a media that fails to inquire deeply enough. Her actions are judged by her reputation, rather than her reputation being judged by her actions. Instead of being a compassionate person, she is motivated first and foremost by the advancement of her religious order.

It’s hard to argue against Hitchens’ dark depiction. From now on, when I think of the word “humanitarian,” it won’t be Mother Teresa’s face that comes to mind.

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The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

The usual argument you hear from religionists about morality is that unless you derive your values from a higher power, then those values are objectively meaningless. What right has one man to say to another that his actions are morally wrong, when they are both merely men making personal judgements?

That said, Harris’s target readers in this book are not religionists, but scientists. He maintains that science has, for too long, steered clear of this issue, and in doing so has allowed religion far too much leeway. Harris’s premise is this: the consequences of our behaviours have an objective impact on the wellbeing of conscious creatures, therefore ethics is a matter of objective scientific inquiry. Measuring our actions against this basis is something that we do unconsciously anyway. Well, unless we are a psychopath, that is. (And the book does include a very eye-opening section on psychopathy that doesn’t pull its punches.)

Back when I was a Christian, I knew better than to use the moral argument for God’s existence. I understood that atheists had every right to refine their behaviour in light of the impact of their actions – for purely pragmatic reasons. But sadly, there are still Christians who will use this argument – totally blind to the fact that every other social species in the animal kingdom is able to get along just fine without a divine lawgiver.

My view of ethics differs somewhat from Harris’s, although he writes with such precision and clarity that his assertions had a profound effect on my perspective, helping me to refine it. Before reading this book, I understood that the primary function of ethics was the refinement of natural instinct in the interests of personal survival; ethics that included the wellbeing of others were ultimately for the benefit of the self. However, after reading The Moral Landscape, I gained a fresh perspective on altruism. I came to understand it as the flowering of the survival urge (not something that Harris explicitly asserts). When personal survival is established to the point where there is abundance, that same urge blossoms into an interest in the wellbeing of others less fortunate. To state that another way: we must be good to ourselves before we can be good to others.

I also disagree with Harris’s assertion that we should be able to come up with objective values – clearly defined “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” if you will. I don’t think it can be that simple; each unique situation merits individual consideration. For instance, in the interests of my survival, I know that I would not act in the same way in a post-apocalyptic world as I do in present-day Western civilisation. In the former, I might have to kill to survive, whereas in the latter, it’s likely I will get through my life without doing much harm to anyone.

The main downside to the book was Harris’s assertions about free will. He views it as an illusion. One of the main problems I have with atheists is that they tend to be materialists, and materialists make a pretense of understanding consciousness. Harris unfortunately makes this same error, turning human beings into little more than automatons, despite the fact that we feel our “selfness” very keenly. They key to understanding this lies in differentiating the mind (which is physical) from the pilot of the mind (which is metaphysical). A lengthly discussion of this is beyond the bounds of this review. Faults aside, The Moral Landscape is an insightful book that has the power to be transformative.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

I’m always interested in filling in gaps in my knowledge, and evolutionary biology is a big one. For many years I was a believer in creationism, but since abandoning Christianity, I am more open to the idea of evolution (since I’m no longer being simply told what to believe).

I approached this book believing in evolution but doubting the precise mechanism by which it is claimed to work (natural selection). My objection is based on the fact that evolution has never been simulated in a computer. It’s supposed to be an automatic, non-conscious process, and yet we can’t replicate it artificially. Why? Time to learn from the experts.

Well, I didn’t get an answer to my question. I was delighted to read that Dawkins had taken it upon himself to attempt to simulate evolution on his little 64K computer (this was the 1980s, remember). He claims to have created insect-like creatures that he terms “biomorphs.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain the argorithms that he used to achieve that. I am left to wonder how much of his results were more akin to faces in the cloud than to actual complexity that gives an organism a definite survival edge. Certainly, Dawkins’s program has never been superceded by a better one that shows the principle of natural selection operating on a bigger scale.

Nevertheless, evolution happens; no question about it. Dawkins provides brilliant and very engaging accounts of the development of the eye and echolocation in bats. He expertly debunks creationist objections, explaining how cumulative selection works – nothing like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and creating a Rolls Royce by random chance.

The book unfortunately begins to falter about halfway through and continues plunging to the finish (at least for the lay reader), as it tackles the finer points of evolutionary theory, delving into obscure areas with the titles punctuationism, Lamarckism and taxonomy. He can be long-winded at times, and needlessly arrogant. I could stand the arrogance if he really was as right as he thinks he is, but when he strays out of his field of expertise into metaphysics, he’s completely inept. He has no concept of time other than as a forward-moving arrow, and so, when he thinks of the idea of God, he can only describe him/it as a highly complex organism needing a creator of its own. You can’t tackle metaphysics without delving into philosophy. Dawkins’s unexamined assumption of “materialism” doesn’t cut it.

In the end, I gained some valuable knowledge about evolution, but my main contention was only reinforced. How can you say natural selection is an unconscious process when the organisms doing the the evolving are conscious?

And what is consciousness? The Blind Watchmaker would have benefitted from a chapter on consciousness, discussing the theories on what it is, specifically whether it is an emergent product of evolution, or a metaphysical precursor to the evolutionary process. For reasons that are too lengthy to go into here, I side with the latter. Unfortunately, one may specialise in evolutionary biology, while knowing little or nothing about psychology and metaphysics. This lays the basis for making hugely wrong conclusions, when diverse fields of enquiry overlap. Nevertheless, The Blind Watchmaker is recommended reading.