Friday, March 24, 2006

The Dog at Midnight -- post two

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been reading through The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime. Though I thought it was a fine case for the innate dignity of all human beings, regardless of disability, there is one aspect that sullied my enjoyment of the book.

The author takes great pains to have the narrator, Christopher, debunk religion. For instance, when talking about his mother’s supposed death, Christopher says “…when Mother died she didn’t’ go to heaven because heaven doesn’t exist.” (32) – and the author shows an exchange between Christopher and Rev. Peters – in which Peters comes off as something of a dunce.

This scene is a little jarring, and it gives us a bit of a taste of Christopher’s character: his bluntness and his inability to accept mystery. In many ways, this is good character development and shouldn’t be too offensive to Christians.

Then Christopher takes a potshot at the supernatural – talking about the Cottingly Fairies hoax. He brings up Occam’s Razor – the principle of reasoning that says “No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.” At this point, he’s using this principle to debunk weird Victorian spiritualism – however, Occam’s Razor is sometimes used by atheists to dismiss Christianity as wishful thinking. (parenthetically, the problem with Occam’s razor is that the definition is so wide you could drive a division of Panzers through it and still have room for Hannibals pachyderms. “absolutely necessary” is way subjective. And, as the narrator points out earlier in the book, science keeps discovering new species and creatures that they never realized could exist – things that are not absolutely necessary, but exist nonetheless. Even so, the narrator holds to Occam’s razor as irrefutably true. )

And then there’s Christopher’s explanation of how the mind works: “….Also people think they’re not computers because they have feelings and computers don’t have feelings. But feelings are just having a picture on the screen in your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen, and if it is a happy picture they smile and if it is a sad picture they cry.”(119) Christopher posits that people are basically complicated machines. Another jab at theism – one that’s not entirely necessary to the story, but again helpful for character development.

Then, there’s this random chapter that has absolutely no connetion to any of the surrounding narrative – it is Christopher’s excursis on why people are silly to believe that God created humans. He ends by saying “….people who believe in God think God has put human beings on earth because they think human beings are the best animal, but human beings are just an animal and they will evolve into another animal, and that animal will be cleverer and it will put human beings into a zoo, like we put chimpanzees and gorillas into a zoo. Or human beings will all catch a disease and die out or they will make too much pollution and kill themselves, and then there will only be insects in the world and they will be the best animal.” (165). Here, the author has gone past character development – this seems just to be a potshot. By this point, it feels like the author is pushing a point.

This may seem like quibbling until we understand that author Mark Haddon is an avowed atheist. In an April 11, 2004 Interview with the Guardian on Writing Haddon says this:

I've recently returned from a publicity tour of Italy. You get asked different questions in Italy. One which cropped up several times was: 'Christopher is an atheist. Are you?'
I am. But I am atheist in a very religious mould. I'm always asking myself the big questions. Where did we come from? Is there a meaning to all of this? I read the King James Bible, as all English writers should. And when I find myself in church, I edit the hymns as I sing them, like President Clinton giving evidence to Kenneth Starr about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, just to make sure I'm not technically lying - 'All things bright and beautiful, the hmmm hmmm made them all.'

Religion provides believers with two contradictory things. It gives them answers. And it celebrates mystery. It reminds them that they are a vanishingly small part of a vast cosmos. And it shows them how they are intimately connected to every part of it.
Science and literature do this for me. They give me answers. And they ask me questions I will never be able to answer.

This is the nearest I come to what other people might call a religious experience.
First, when I'm trying to get my head round string theory or the evolution of the human eye. Second, when I open a book and find myself sliding effortlessly into the mind of someone who lived on the far side of the world and died long before I was born.”

So Haddon is an atheist, but an atheist who is alive to mystery and transcendence. This explains why after going a little over the top trying to have Christopher debunk religion, Haddon undermines Christopher’s perception of reality in a serious way. Christopher’s favorite dream is one in which most everyone in the world dies and he’s left mostly alone to go to the store and get his favorite foods and enjoy the ocean – he goes into stores and takes what he wants – and he’s left alone and he’s happy. He has no conception of how all the things he wants are produced for him by all these people who bother him. He has no idea about how much trouble his father goes through to create a stable environment for him. He has no clue about the price his mother pays for leaving everything in London to return with him to Swindon and live. Haddon makes it clear that this boy is very difficult to live with and has no concept of consideration for others. His ideal world cannot sustain itself.

So Haddon is no propagandist here – but he does let his worldview shape the narrative in a way that some Christians might wince. I encourage them to work with the discomfort. Consider it a small taste of identifying with the struggles of the caregivers. Realize that by a purely naturalistic worldview, people like Christopher should be eugenically eliminated from humanity – however the Christian worldview that posits that all human beings have dignity shows that there is value in the energy that we put into care and concern and growth and development of people like Christopher, even when they cant appreciate or understand it.

Soli Deo Gloria