Monday, May 28, 2007

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I suspect—well I am sure—that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness—raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. That is the first of my consciousness-raising messages.
This is from the preface of biologist Richard Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, a book that would, in fact, be good for all of us to read, theist, atheist, and whatever lies between. I first read Dawkins years ago when I stumbled on his interesting attempt to inform us lay folk about evolution (or his view of it) in The Selfish Gene. More recently, I read an article in the periodical Wired about what the journalist called a new group of evangelical atheists—three willing spokesmen for the virtues of a scientifically based atheism. The three authors were Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and neuroscientist Sam Harris. My interest in that article and suggestions from a student in my Philosophy of Religion course led me to the Dawkins book I am recommending to you today.

In truth, Dawkins has in mind not only those of us wanting out of our childhood religions, but lots of other folks who think it best, both morally and rationally, to remain agnostics, to maintain a tolerant attitude towards any and all religious beliefs. That stance, Dawkins (and others) insist, simply plays into the hands of the religious right and of religious dogmatism in general. That we cannot know that some position is false, is hardly a reason simply to suspend judgment, or to suppose that the odds of its being true are equal to those of its being false. To suppose otherwise, insists Dawkins, is to simply make manifest the poverty of agnosticism. “Nevertheless, it is a common error, which we shall meet again, to leap form the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and his non-existence are eqiprobable.” I have tried for years to make the same point to my philosophy of religion students. To say that I cannot know for sure that not-X (that X is false), is not to say that I have good reason for affirming X, nor to say that I do not have perhaps very good reason for denying X. Bertrand Russell gives the example of a celestial tea-pot orbiting the earth, but too small to be detected by any telescope we now have. We cannot rightfully claim to know that there is no such teapot, but that hardly means that the thesis that there is such a thing is on equal footing with its denial. I used to give a similar example of a genie that I had in my pocket but one such that none of our senses could apprehend it. When I would then ask how many in the class were geniests, only a jokester or two would raise their hands; when I asked for a-geniests, perhaps a few more, but when I asked who were agnostic with respect to my genie, almost all hands shot up, proud of their intellectual humility and fairness. “Why then you’re fools,” was my reply. Having no evidence at all for a hypothesis is very good reason for supposing it false, and certainly not being able to prove it false is next to no reason for supposing it to be true. The burden of proof for all of the many religious hypotheses (and there are so many candidates to the throne) rests squarely on those advancing their hypothesis, and reason does not demand that we suspend judgment until we can know definitely one way or the other. Indeed, I tried to convince my classes that almost all were either atheists or theists, though some of the theists and most of the atheists remained in the closet. Genuine suspension of belief or equally balanced evidence is the rare condition.

But while Dawkins does spend considerable time distinguishing between types of agnosticism, pointing out that we have very good reason for not accepting supernatural stories, and also some time criticizing the traditional so-called proofs for a god or god’s existence, his main concern really is to defend the reasonableness and grandeur of scientific theory and the paucity of religious explanations of the world. He also understands, both personally and from his extensive reading, how atheism has been demonized, especially in America, and how religious intolerance has been canonized, with the current Administration as a startling example. Americans ought to read Dawkins’ book in order to see why so many non-Americans view the U.S. as a dangerous religious backwater, one that applauds dogmatism and religious intolerance. He does an excellent job of showing how current beliefs and attitudes stray from the secularist roots of the founders of the constitution. Especially since he is a biologist rather than an intellectual historian, I find myself humbled by the incredible reading in political theory, sociology, philosophy, and history he has done, perhaps not specifically for this book, then certainly providing and impressive background for it.

The content of the book is far too rich and complex for me even to summarize here; it is not difficult reading, but its content is far-reaching. I usually argue that in order to do a novel justice, one needs to read it quite quickly, give over to the story rather than reading it snippets. Almost the reverse is true of Dawkins’ book; although he writes in plain language that we can all understand, he covers so much ground that he needs (and deserves) to be read in bites, rereading sections of particular importance. A journalist friend of mine tells me that there are newer books on the market making cases for atheism that are less ‘mean’ than Dawkins, and that his book is viewed by many to be sarcastic about religion and believers, and just plain mean. I don’t find Dawkins to be mean, although he is offended by the harsh treatment afforded atheists in this country, nor do I think he is flippant or sarcastic. He does see religious stories about creation, what might me called religious science, to be just silly and even dangerously false. And he sees the so-called moral history of religion to be frightening and bloody and cruel, repressive not just to science but to reason itself. But what I find especially good about the book is his insistence on just how full of wonder and complexity the scientific story about the universe is.

To accentuate this last point a bit, Dawkins is quick to explain that his crusade is against supernaturalist religions, especially what he calls the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He distinguishes these from positions sometimes seen as or called religious that are naturalistic. Indeed, chapter 1 begins with a quote from Einstein: “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” Einstein called himself a deeply religious non-believer, and Dawkins wants to make it clear that it is not such Einsteinean forms of religion that he is attacking. He, too, is in awe at the structure of the world insofar as we have understood it. He does see it as a real error to call such views religious, or to use the word ‘god’ to stand for this awe-inspiring complexity. Such talk simply confuses folks and does violence to the historical meaning of religious terms. I recall a time when I was younger and wanted to preserve some form of religious belief when I claimed to believe in a ‘whirling ball of energy,’ and on the basis of that called myself a theist. Friends finally convinced me that I was at worst lying, and at best unintentionally deceiving by attempting to co-opt the language for my purposes. Dawkins makes this point well and forcefully.

I thought of trying to do this review simply by putting together some of the marvelous quotes Dawkins uses in this book from scientists, philosophers, political theorists, etc. I decided against that approach, but let me include a line he quotes from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought. The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant.’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no? My god is a little god, and I want it to stay that way.’
Like Dawkins, I find the world to be ever grander and more complex and wonderful as I look and question and ask questions. The religious stories do seem too simple, too small, to silly. And I will end with a final point of agreement with Dawkins. We human beings can think and talk and conceptualize and ask questions precisely because we are the beings we are, because we have eyes and ears and a tongue, a brain and liver and heart. It is because of our amazing complexity that we can do these things. So the religious claims that the death of the body, this body that is myself, is insignificant, that the real me will survive death, is not just false and silly, it shows contempt for the wonderful complexity of the body that makes us who we are. Dawkins, the biologist, has much more reverence for the body than most religious stories, so much that he thinks all the evidence suggests that we die along with our bodies, and that to say otherwise is to demean who and what we are. It is the religious who are truly irreverent, not he.

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