Something a little different for this week’s Bible-related post: some thoughts about Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion which I bought and devoured last week, and which has provoked mightily mixed feelings in chez Alexandria.
Let me begin by saying that I find Richard Dawkins a highly entertaining personage; a veritable delight to watch or read. There is just something about his smug, holier-than-thou atheism that fills me with special glee. It turns me giddy with conflict. Should I revel in the pure schadenfreude of young-earth Creationists and literalists being beaten with the biological-sense stick, or do I give in to my adult indignation at Dawkins’ many (and often insultingly) flawed statements? Go to his delightfully named website A Clear Thinking Oasis, or visit the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and you’ll see what I mean. Marvel at his self-righteousness; his self-satisfaction; his conceit. Contemplate for a moment his official title: Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Watch this ‘mission statement’ for the RDF and tell me if it doesn’t remind you a little (a lot?), in principle, of this one. Or, read this snippet from the introduction to The God Delusion:
‘If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism! [Yes, indeed!] Of course, dyed in the wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature… But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.’ (my emphasis)
Put simply, Richard Dawkin’s envisions himself as a crusader; a preacher; even an ideological martyr. Arguably The God Delusion is his gloss on a ‘Holy Book’ - Darwin is God, of course; The Origin of Species is His ‘Word’. And Dawkins is, ironically, all the things that he says he despises: a fundamentalist whose ideological position constitutes ‘truth’, who allows no compromise and will admit no reasonable opposition. Far too often he makes his points like Ted Haggard, or Pat Robertson, or any other fundamentalist rabble-rouser might – he derides those who disagree with him; questions their morality and values; denies their rights to freedom of speech and action; and shouts longest and loudest about protecting ‘children’ from the ‘enemy’s’ nefarious clutches. Worse than that he repeatedly, and viciously, questions the intelligence of people who don’t agree with him (this despite lauding atheism as the spirit of independent enquiry). And he does it all so well. He does it with panache and humour, with earnestness and hope. I can almost see the evangelist’s fire in his eyes, hear the impassioned edge to his voice. By God, Richard Dawkins is a believer, and I believe in him!
Somewhat. Almost. Very nearly.
But I should backtrack. The God Delusion is a book about why believing in God is the epitome of silliness, argued from a relentlessly rationalist and scientific position and designed to ‘convert’ believers into unbelievers. It sets about demolishing 'God' in a number of different ways – first it refutes the traditional arguments for God’s existence (Aquinas’ proofs; a priori arguments, the beauty hypothesis, Pascal’s Wager, etc), then lays down the law in a statistically based argument for the non-existence of God, before moving on to hypothesise about the evolutionary ‘causes’ of religious feeling and impulse. It goes on to argue for a positive, non-religious morality and spends a whole chapter discussing the conservative stances of Judeo-Christianity as regards homosexuality and abortion. It finishes with an impassioned manifesto for the atheistic education of children. (See this petition to stop the ‘religious labelling’ of children.)
For the most part I agree with Dawkins. Traditional monotheism is beyond my comprehension and I’m as puzzled as he is by intelligent, independently minded individuals who choose to deny scientific evidence and persecute their fellow human beings in the name of God. The God Delusion does an excellent job of elucidating the logic behind atheism and of arguing against the need for religious morality. Not surprisingly, it also acts as a superb introductory primer to evolution, natural selection and meme theory. All this is to the great good and worth the time and effort of reading it.
But often Dawkins frustrates me too. First, there is his title: The God Delusion. But his book isn’t really about ‘God’ at all, not as an abstract idea/ideal. It’s about organised monotheism and directs itself specifically at the beliefs of the ‘Big Three’ – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. When it addresses theology, it grounds itself here, and embroils itself in issues – like homosexuality and abortion – which are topical, yes, but not universal. Dawkins sets out to give religion the knock-down, but ends up ignoring the bigger picture. For example, he summarily dismisses polytheistic faiths, like Hinduism and Paganism, which are often far more fluid and adaptable than monotheisms. Awarding them all of three pages argument (most of which he spends rabbiting on about Catholicism and the Angelic Hosts - *not* polytheism in most senses of the word), he ends thus:
‘How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Who cares? Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it. For brevity I shall refer to all deities as simply ‘God’.’
Not only is this wrong-headed – not all ‘deities’ work on the same principle as the Judaic God; not all beliefs are incompatible with evolutionary science– but its downright sloppy to brush aside thousands of years of subtle philosophy in so brusque a manner. If you want me to become an atheist Professor Dawkins, you have to try harder than that!
Then again, Dawkins already thinks he has me covered :
‘Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist’s metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is just sexed-up atheism.”
Which has me told. But what precisely is wrong with pantheism? With tapping into our spiritual impulses in order to express our wonder of the natural world? Dawkins’ himself seems to quite like the idea, calling this particular chapter ‘A Deeply Religious Non-Believer’, and quoting Einstein with abandon throughout:
‘”To sense that behind anything that can be experience there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and who beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”’
Dawkins also, and rightfully, points out that:
‘The metaphorical or pantheistic ‘God’…is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language.’
Which has me nodding my little liberal head vigorously and enthusiastically. But then, alas, all is lost:
‘But to deliberately confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.’
Our mistake, then, is our desire to express our wonder in the language of the spiritual; use the semantics and symbols of religion and you may as well be cosying up to the fundamentalists!
I find this a little hard to swallow: if Dawkins can grasp the distinction, and I can grasp the distinction, and since the distinction is made quite plain by the fact that pantheists and Pagans, and anyone else who uses the word ‘God’ metaphorically, don’t believe in the doctrines of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, I don’t think the confusion is at all deliberate. In fact, I don’t even think 'the confusion' is in the least confusing.
The reason Dawkins thinks its stumper is quite clear though: he has a rather low opinion of people’s capacity to understand concepts more generally. His philosophy seems to be that most readers, religious or otherwise, are quite incapable of subtlety, so best not to introduce subtle argument at all. He makes an astonishing number of references to the correlations between IQ and atheism, and spends too much time laughing at the credulous. Is there a worse tactic for a man aspiring to be an educator?
Which brings me back to Dawkins being self-satisfied and smug. The real problem with The God Delusion is not specific but general: it is never doing anything but preaching to the converted. It’s hostile tone, designed to make religious people feel stupid, and its over-weaning sense of superiority, designed to make thoughtful readers feel small, combine to make an exclusionist diatribe. Ultimately this is a shame, because Dawkins is a fine writer and an eloquent atheist. He’d make a fine advocate too, if he yielded the pulpit and mixed with the masses.
Still... I can't help but like him.