Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, January 15, 2007

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion left me with mixed feelings. He makes some great points, but he can be awfully smug at times and his reasoning is sloppy in places. That said though, it's a worthwhile read.

The first thing to realize is that, when Dawkins' espouses atheism, he is not denying that there is a spiritual dimension to life. That's an important point, and one that believers often overlook or refuse to accept. In the beginning of The God Delusion, Dawkins makes this clear and, when he denies the existence of a God, he's referring to the personal God that intervenes in the world, the sort of God envisioned in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. He doesn't even believe that Buddhism is a religion. He thinks that it is a code of behavior. To his mind, pantheism is "sex-up" atheism, and deism is atheism for those who are not willing to take that last step and abandon God. I have no quarrel with any of this. It makes eminent good sense to me.

I also have to agree with Dawkins when he wonders about why we tend to give religious beliefs such respect. People are perfectly willing to argue and debate the most sensitive of political topics, but a person's religious beliefs are considered out of bounds, even when they are utterly ridiculous. Come on, why are Christians given a pass when they claim that Jesus rose after three days in the grave? That is such utter nonsense, and there is no evidence for it whatsoever. Not only that, the whole notion of accepting things on faith is ridiculous. Here's an example inllustrating the point. Suppose I believed that we are living in an elaborate simulation being run on some supercomputer. The big bang was the moment that the program was started. Evolution is just a reflection of the genetic algorithms that underlie the computer's program. Let's say that I even agree that Christ rose after three days in the grave, but I claim that the reason for that was that the programmers didn't like the way the simulation was going so they intervened. Now suppose I clung to this belief with great fervency, and suppose that I was positively evangelical about spreading my opinions. The fact is that most people would consider me deluded and in need of psychiatric treatment. However, if I held Christian beliefs with equal fervency, there would be no problem, even though there is no more evidence for those beliefs.

One of the most important points that Dawkins makes is that religion is not necessary for morality. Nietzsche said that God is dead so all things are permitted. That's true in a strictly logical sense, and it drives some to hysteria. If people didn't have religion they would rob, rape and kill. The result would be total chaos. Dawkins makes a couple of good points here. In the first place, the evidence is that atheists are no more or less moral than believers. The human race evolved to live in small groupings of a hundred or so. A person who was born into such a community could expect to know and live with those same people for the rest of his life. He couldn't afford to get into their bad graces. A golden-rule ethic naturally evolved. Those who did not live by it would be shunned or even killed.

Nietzsche's comment still needs to be addressed though. When he said that all things are permitted, he didn't mean that they were permitted in fact, but only in the strictly logical sense. The deeper meaning of that statement is that there is no God who can put his imprimatur on our code of behavior. We, as a human community, have to accept full and complete responsibility for our behavior. God, or the Devil, or the Bible told me to do it is not acceptable.

Dawkins makes many other good points that I won't go into. However, there's one thing I'd never thought of. At one point, he wonders why monotheism is preferable to polytheism. In Western cultures, it's simply accepted as fact. The more advanced societies believe in the existence of only one God. The question becomes, why? Polytheism certainly seems to come to us more naturally. Catholicism, which is perhaps the most dominant Christian sect, embraces a de facto polytheism with its devotions to the Virgin Mary and various saints. So why the monotheism? The answer isn't simple and I won't go into it here, but it's something to think about.

One of the big weaknesses of Dawkins' book is his failure to understand the historical, political and sociological dimensions of belief systems. It is his contention that religions have been responsible for most of the great cruelties of the past. There were the Crusades, the Inquisition, Joshua's slaughter of the native inhabitants of Israel, and Islam's depredations during the Middle Ages. Absent religion, Dawkins doesn't believe that these things would have happened. I think that's naive. Political leaders often exploit religion to garner popular support for bloodthirsty projects, and religion should be held culpable for that, but it's naive to think that these projects would disappear if there were no religion. Ambitious political leaders would simply encourage other secular belief systems as Hitler did in Germany and Stalin in Russia. Those two examples pose a problem for Dawkins and he attempts to explain it away by claiming that Hitler and Stalin were actually believers. His arguments don't wash.

Dawkins can also be sloppy when it comes to the philosophical. In my opinion, he bungles his explanations of the flaws in the arguments for the existence of God. Take the ontological argument. In essence, it says that if God is the perfect being, then he must exist because it is more perfect to exist than not to exist. Dawkins says that the flaw in the argument is that there's no reason to believe that it's more perfect to exist, than not to exist. That's off the mark and, if you accept Dawkins' argument, you'll just get caught up in all kinds of word play. The flaw lies in the very conception of existence. As the logicians would say, existence isn't a predicate. In less technical terms, existence isn't a description. You can say that according to your understanding of God, he is all-knowing and all-powerful. Those are descriptions of your God. Existence isn't such a description. It's an assertion and it neither adds to nor subtracts from the concept.

Dawkins can also be smug, and it is irritating. For example, he makes a lot of use of his notion of the meme, and when someone holds a belief that he disagrees with, he often refers to them as infected with the meme. However, he never uses such pejorative terms when referring to beliefs with which he agrees. It is only those who disagree with him who are infected. This smugness doesn't just extend to his criticism of religion. He is also dismissive of those who don't accept his opinion on other scientific matters, like the multiverse and anthropic priniciple of physics. Those two concepts are not universally accepted among physicists and many regard them as nonsense, but Dawkins seems to be of the opinion that only the benighted could disagree.

There is one very controversial statement that Dawkins makes that I wholeheartedly agree with. He says that it is tantamount to abuse to raise a child in a religion. I was brought up as a strict Catholic and, after that experience, I couldn't agree more. I'm not talking about bringing up children with an awareness of religion. Parents could tell their children something like the following. This is what we believe, and here's why. They could go on to explain, but tell the child that he should use his own mind and decide for himself. That's not what Dawkins means about bringing up a child in religion. He is referring to something more like what I went through, where you were required to adopt the religion of your parents, required to participate in services, and required to receive indoctrination into the religion. When it comes to that, I endorse Dawkins' position. It is tantamount to abuse.

Dawkins has come under a lot of criticism, from the expected sources, of course, but also from publications like The New York Review of Books. In the January 11 issue, H. Allen Orr slams the book. Some of the criticisms are deserved, but what really irks Orr is that Dawkins refuses to take religion seriously. Here are a few of his comments. "The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way....You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book...no attempt to follow the philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions..." My response to that is, so what? If one is denying the existence of God, what else is there to discuss? All of those sophisticated theological arguments and speculations are only so much nonsense. Orr seems to believe that there are rational reasons to believe. Bullshit. Faith is a variety of superstition and I challenge anyone to show me any significant difference between the two.

Dawkins' book may not be the best one on the subject of atheism versus theism. I've read that Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism is better, and I intend to check it out, but I do think that Dawkins' book is worth the read.


Blogger David Matthews said...

Another good essay on The God Delusion and issues it raises comes from physicist Steven Weinberg in The Times Literary Supplement.

Weinberg provides nice, thumbnail summary and critique of the ontological, cosmological (God as first cause), and argument from design proofs of God's existence.
Also interesting comments about Christianity and Islam, arguing that in contemporary Islam, speaking generally, there is a far greater measure of certitude than in Christianity, even in America, that most Christian of nations. He criticizes the argument that Islam is a religion of peace, terrorism a distortion of the religion, on the grounds that it is impossible to say what Islam "is," noting that "Islam, like all other religions, was created by people, and there are potentially as many different versions of Islam as there are people who profess to be Muslims." However, he subsequently engages in precisely this kind of generalization when he warns against the harm done by the certitude that lingers in contemporary Islam, concluding that he shares Dawkins's "lack of respect for all religions, but in our times it is folly to disrespect them all equally." Not that he is necessarily mistaken on this point, but it could do with a bit more explication in light of his previous observation about the folly of speaking of Islam (or Christianity) as a monolithic system. Be that as it may, much here merits further consideration.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Chuck Oliveros said...

It sounds like to me that Weinberg, like Dawkins, fails to understand the sociological and political dimensions of religions. At this particular historical moment, radical Islam is the ideology around which opposition to US and Israeli imperialism has coalesced. Given recent events in the Middle East, it should come as no surprise that the moderate voices of Islam have been overwhelmed. It is also the case that, at times like this, rational critiques of Islamist beliefs will be most ineffective since they will be perceived as justifications for the imperial adventures of the Western nations.

8:03 PM  
Blogger julianza said...

This is incredible. On a wild hair, not knowing I was on a mission to hawk up any balls, I looked up to see what was up with Chuck Oliveros. Which took me to David Matthews, both old friends of mine. I have not yet read The God Delusion. It's next on my list. I did, however, read "The God Part of the Brain," which I think is a doctoral dissertation by Matthew Alpert. I need to see if this is mentioned in Chuck's review. Basically, it is an overview of how genetic mapping can include even the "existence" of God, which basically we "must" create, given that 1) we are mortal and b) we are aware of it; c) the overwhelming anxiety this creates and which would make all of us mad unless we had a solution. God is that luxury...um, I hope it's okay for now just to say hello to these old (oh so much older than I) friends and I'll be posting my own blog. Julie Shavin-Katz (Colorado)

11:59 PM  
Blogger julianza said...

All right. I didn't know that comment went through, thanks to Google googling me. However,now I've read some more and one of the most interesting things that Chuck said was that bringing up a child in a religion is tantamount to abuse. Interesting and will feel abusive to many parents. Not to me. I am a member of the local freethinkers. My third child is now in Sunday School out of an indulgence to a spouse, but I like the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs (a nice antidote, if puny, to Dr. the son of Dob over at Focus), where on the table you find a paper that says make a wish and blow here; it will come to pass. It is embarrassing to admit that I lost my faith due to pure living, the hell involved therein, for wasn't there joy as well? Haven't I just said I have three children? (Ok, you might see that as the pure hell part). It really does seem adolescent as to why I threw the Omnipotent Baby out with the Omnipotent Bathwater (speak of abuse). But honestly, I don't see how anyone can see any of the religions as touting that -- well, look at Christianity, and taking up the cross and all that. Jesus! I would gladly suffer for 3 days instead of the 20 I've suffered sick since 1987. Especially if I ended up on whatever hand of God, maybe eating Rocky Road with syrup. Christianity is such a bribe/death-oriented religion. The others have their own faults. But the main point is that I agree: why do we keep bringing up our progeny with fairy tales they'll eventually doff if they've got half a brain? Think of all the natural resources we pour into our institutions, our music, our everything assoc with religion. But I stray, I digress, I was always a lateral thinker which is NOT the same as ADD, by the way. I'm the baddest atheist this side of the Chuckassippi. But I do have one teensy tinsy problem, which a local freethnker handled beautifully for me: I said, I just ---- I just want to know where that very first particle came from! It had to come from somewhere, some creator, of some kind. And he said to me, you're saying that something can't come from nothing. I said yes. And he said, what makes you think that nothing came FIRST? Julianza Shavin Katz

12:18 AM  
Blogger julianza said...

As you see, I am not mentioning sociology, politics and the rest. Not that it's not in my ever-fertile brilliant mind. But I want to tell an anecdote based on "can we be moral in the absence of a God?" Well, I found myself in quite an unkosher pickle some years ago. I adopted an older boy who had been abused in every way possible (and not just by going to church either) and I would try and explain day in and day out why we treated people nicely. He had not been treated nicely. He is not able to love. He can't love himself, where it starts. (most religions will not admit that self-love is tHE bedrock, but remember, it's love thy neighbor as THYSELF. The self comes FIRST!) Anyway, I couldn't get through; after all, his self had been chronically mistreated but he couldn't make the connection and it's hard to explain; basically it was well, no I wouldn't want things done to my self, but it wasn't, at the same time, because of the lack of even self-love, and the ego, no matter how damaging the circumstances, will hold onto a life-script just for security, just like others hold onto God. At a loss, after all the "why's?" I finally just said, "we don't do it because God says we don't, period!" I found myself wondering, well, how DO you explain this concept to someone who his immune to his own pain? I think the answer lies in Chuck's rumination about the small communities in which humans used to live. To harm others just always ended in self-harm, ostracizing, etc. It really all comes down to that instinct we all as humans (unless severely damaged/disconnected/shortcircuited) have: which is self-preservation. Morality is not a code or a gift from an ethereal being. It is simply a way to survive. however, with out megatropolises and ingenius ways of getting away with murder and the like, it is often the case that one can be completely immoral and flourish. But that becomes another discussion, though related. My take is this: morality comes not from religion, it comes from bonding -- with anyone, a mother, a sibling, even a n animal, one person told me he'd be happy if someone in his caseload bonded with a cactus. These entities become your God. What they do is impart empathy. You feel for him/her/it; him/her/it feels for you (although I'm not aware of the cactus as having much of an emotional life. Morality is not about tablets of stone, although some of the thoughts are good. But try telling a completely a-moral, damaged human, that it is wrong to take candy from the store. It's like "why?" It's not yours. "so?" The person has to make money to support a family. "so?" Without empathy, without any feeling/awareness of one's own needs and wants, there can be none for anyone else either.

12:37 AM  

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