Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reading Log - Mark Haddon's Clash Of Fundamentalisms

I'm back. I may talk about the trip a little some other time. For now it's Sunday, and I've got a reading log entry with potential for spiritual implications, so away we go.

One of the books I read during my exile was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. It's the story of an unusual young man's investigation into the "murder" of his neighbour's poodle. The young man's name is Christopher, and he's autistic or has Asperger syndrome. The book is written in first person from Christopher's perspective, and he has no interest in any labels anyone else may place on him, so his exact diagnosis is never revealed.

From here in there may be spoilers for anyone who intends to read this book but hasn't yet. If you happen to be married to me, this means you.

The book is compelling and Christopher, although a bit odd by western social standards, is a well-drawn character. He is extremely literal-minded and uninterested in emotions. The other characters in the book are not fleshed out nearly as well, but this too rings true since everything is narrated by Christopher, who isn't particularly interested in or capable of understanding what's happening inside anyone else's head.

Christopher will ring true to anyone who is close to someone on the autism spectrum (or on it themselves). He is single-minded in his quest to determine who killed the dog, finding loopholes worthy of a high-priced attorney in his father's orders to leave the matter alone (and thereby ceasing to pester the neighbours with questions about it).

About halfway through the book, there is a sudden shift. It's not a Shymalan-level twist, but something is revealed that simultaneously makes perfect sense and alters the course of the narrative. The book is no longer about what it had been about. It gets much better, although it had been perfectly good to that point.

I won't reveal the twist, or even whether Christopher solves the crime. Instead I want to shift gears, using the book as a segue to my justification for posting this on a Sunday, the day I set aside for spiritual themes on this blog. Part of the book's structure is that the chapters (which are numbered in ascending prime numbers, one of Christopher's obsessions) alternate between moving the narrative forward and Christopher explaining his take on some subject, often mathematical.

In several of the "explanation" chapters, Christopher mentions that he is an atheist, and goes into more detail in a few. He rejects the Bible as having any divine origin, dismisses any talk of Jesus as fable, and accepts the theories of the Big Bang and evolution as perfect, comprehensive explanations for the origins of everything.

In our modern, "enlightened" world he is far from alone in these positions. Many people agree with his articles of faith. They cling to Science as fervently as any other fundamentalist clings to their dogma. They consider themselves different from, and even superior to, those other fundamentalists because their beliefs are based on Science, not on the unverifiable writings in an ancient tome.

Their logical error here is obvious. When it comes to matters like the origins of physical reality or the human species, the writings in any science book are speculative. The theories are no more testable, no more provable, than Genesis. Whenever a physicist begins expounding on how the universe was created, utterly certain, utterly unshakable in their faith, I'm always reminded of Job 38:1-4:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand."
No, I don't have all the answers to every question in life. I can't ultimately be 100% sure that my beliefs are correct. Neither can anyone else. The primary difference between a dogmatic materialist and any other believer is their choice of sacred text. I've chosen the Bible; others choose the writings of Darwin and their high school textbooks. I note that those schoolbooks invariably get revised. I've read several science books that had forewords explicitly stating that most of the book would eventually be supplanted by newer, more correct information. I've never seen a Bible with that sort of disclaimer, and don't expect to ever see a new edition with corrections. The Bible doesn't need it.

Here's another key difference between a hardcore materialist and other breeds of fundamentalists: the materialists tend to be much more certain that they're right, and much more smug and arrogant about the discrepancies in beliefs. If I didn't believe in the depravity of humankind, I'd probably be confused when more "enlightened" people almost invariably prove themselves less tolerant than supposedly backward believers.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the fourth shelf down, left side, on bookshelf # 1. I don't seem to have a picture of the third shelf, so we'll come back to it another time. This shelf is full of psychology and criminology textbooks. The black binders on the right are full of Sunday School materials that I've written over the years. Those binders contain a lot of plastic sheets for overhead transparencies, which gives an idea how old they are. Nowadays I usually don't even bother keeping a paper copy of the handouts, and just keep the OpenOffice files.