Douglas Adams and God

What is especially striking about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to eth Galaxy is how insightful it can be on matters of religion, given that DNA was(inhis own words) a militant atheist.

I had the privelege of asking Douglas Adams a question about religion directly, at his own blog some years ago. The full exchange went:

Mr. Adams,

I’ve noticed many religious elements in your books – Electric Monks, the Last Message, Zarquon, Oolon Colluphid, etc. You treat the sensitive topic of religion with respect, while poking fun at its foibles in a refreshing way. Have you ever given thought to making religion the focus of one of your projects?

IMHO the cool thing about faith is that it open up philosophical realms of debate and analysis (and comedy!) that science alone can’t. Science, as an approximation to observed reality, seems limited to how things are, whereas religion (freed from the burden of logical proof) is more free to speculate about the underlying why.

DNA replied,

I am, as you guessed, fascinated by religion. But I am by conviction an atheist, and a fairly radical one at that. Have a look at this.

The fact that you can pose a question doesn’t mean to say that it has an answer, at least, not the sort of answer that the question implies. So saying that religion has the job of asking the underlying “Why?”, as you suggest, seems to me to mean as much as asking “What colour is opera?” or “Where is indecision?” or “When is osteopathy?” or “How is blue?”. By the time you’ve done enough clarification of the question to render it meaningful you’re effectively got yourself another question. Like “How come things are as they are?”

Now, the philosophical disagreement about what Ultimate Question religion is supposed to answer (How many prophets must a wise man follow, anyway? hmmm) aside, it’s clear that DNA’s primary critique of religion was the essence of faith. It’s quite clear he understood faith well – he just disagreed with it as being a valid mode for intellectual inquiry. After all, consider the following infamous excerpt from the Guide entry on the Babel Fish:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything that mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God. The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But,” says man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn´t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don´t. QED.”

“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn´t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh, that was easy,” says man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo´s kidneys, but that didn´t stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book, Well That about Wraps It Up for God.

The Babel Fish is a kind of anti-deus ex-machina. It can only have been created by God, and thus serves as the logical nail in God’s coffin. Of course any person with faith would argue that since God exists outside the confines of logic, then direct evidence of God’s creation is not tantamount to rejection of faith. After all, proof denies faith only in the human heart, but God is greater.

Note that DNA couldn’t resist getting his licks in on Man, of course. And the closer to the Babel Fish entry is quite apt:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

If I may be permitted some exegesis of DNA’s revealed texts, it seems that religion is less a root cause of civilization’s severe dysfunction that the failings of our own limited capacity for enlightenment. DNA, like many intellectuals, was ultimately a human pessimist.

But I have an answer to the rationalist approach that DNA favors on its own merits as well. Sadly, DNA never responded to my follow-up:

For someone of the atheistic persuasion, you certainly have some penetrating (intended, as opposed to accidental, I assume) insights. That quote by the Guide about proof denying faith is an important one which even theists fail to grasp sometimes.

I don’t agree with your assertion that a burden of proof rests on God, or his believers. Most theists that I know of (including myself) are perfectly happy to believe in God without feeling a compulsion (unfortunately suffered by a minority) to prosletyze. For me, as a practising muslim, my faith in God is something that enhances my appreciation of the universe, not detract from it. I too (strongly!) prefer the “awe of understanding to the awe of ignorance” but as a physics/math/astronomy major in college I found several limitations in how far science can drive that understanding.

all the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind, the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, are still in the end only approximations to reality. What we call laws are actually intricate, complex, and internally consistent models that serve to extend our understanding, but by no means do they fully describe the reality that underlies our perception.

Have you heard of Godel’s Theorem?

4 thoughts on “Douglas Adams and God”

  1. While I wouldn’t take a position on the non/existence of a deity, I once had a discussion with a delightful (truly) Jehovah’s Witness that ran along similar lines. Her assertion was that because there is a lot of suffering and general badness in the world we should strengthen our faith in (her version of) god and believe that god would ameliorate the suffering, or to live in such a way that god would choose not to inflict the suffering. My assertion was that a god is essentially irrelevant since we can only control our own actions. If suffering/badness exist then we need to work harder to fix the problems. The preoccupation with “faith” IMHO detracts from time spent in active participation in the world and takes time, energy, and resources away from those activities which might result in progressive change. Essentially “why bother?” That seems also compatible with those versions of religious faith that take some form of “god helps those who help themselves.” By serving each other, we serve any deity worth its salt. Why spend time on the deity part of the equation and take that time from the useful end? If we drive through life passionately doing everything in our power to be useful and diligent, then the end result will be good regardless of the existence or non of a deity.

    If most people agree that a god is intentionally unprovable, then faith is a matter of early socialization and perhaps of mental health for those who need to believe in a strength outside of themselves in order to cope with life. I appreciate DNA’s writing largely because he could see the absurd in life and make it vivid. His writing about religion was most funny because if it didn’t cause laughter it’s truth would be unbearable. Unfortunately, the ludicrous which is funny in DNA’s writing is tragic in real life, where people commit atrocities for what amounts to no reason at all.

    To the extent that many people substitute the “magical thinking” causation for simple natural processes, or use “faith” as an excuse for lazy thinking (i.e. “intelligent design”) the intrusion of faith into rational inquiry is clearly a harmful thing. It seems to offer no particular benefits, no improvement to the understanding of the universe, just a simple placeholder for those things we do not yet understand and an excuse to not attempt to understand them. I suspect that DNA’s militant atheism, like that of many of his contemporaries, stemmed from deep frustration at seeing bad thinkers waste their little reason stuck in religious mumbo jumbo and good thinkers waste CPU cycles worried about the irrelevancy of an unproveable assertion.

    To the extent that superb thinkers, the Ensteins of the world, can cleanly differentiate their instinctual or socialized belief in a higher power from their passion for scientific inquiry, faith is at least not apparently harmful. Would their inquiry be any less effective absent that socialized belief in “something else out there?” Clearly many gifted scientists have been out-and-out atheists (or, more often, simply people with no patience for something with no possible impact on their lives or work). There’s no way to do a side-by-side comparison between unique geniuses.

    My own answer to your final inquiry would be “life is short, surely that time could be best spent driving scientific inquiry to the very limits of its potential. Worrying about whether it fails at the fringes takes time away from filling in the immense spaces that it is well able to describe.”

    Someone with a mind far outstripping any of ours said: “The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” -Carl Sagan

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