Tonight, Richard Dawkins will speak at KU’s Lied Center from 7:30 to 9, followed the next morning with a less formal Q&A. In preparation for that, here are some thoughts on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
In responding to Atrios’ comment that “When people start invoking religion in discussing issues …it’s utterly meaningless to me personally,” slacktivist points out that “Sectarian language isn’t much use when trying to communicate with people outside of the sect.” Fred continues:
This is why it’s necessary for religious believers to adopt the common language of others when speaking to those outside of our particular communities. Religious language needs to be translated into intermediary terms and principles that others can understand, appreciate and engage.
This is where most works of evangelism fail, and why evangelism can be so annoying. While Dawkins’ book is less obnoxiously self-important than works of Christian apologetics can be, it still doesn’t quite seem interested in understanding the beliefs of people who aren’t Richard Dawkins. Like other works of apologetics, I expect it will serve best in appealing to those inclined to agree with it to begin with.
Alas, I am doomed not to join that elect group. Scientists like me, who do not believe it’s necessary to wage war on supernatural beliefs, come in for nearly as much opprobrium as do people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old. Of a passage from Gould’s Rocks of Ages in which Gould makes what I feel is a standard view that science and religion address non-overlapping sets of questions, Dawkins writes “this sounds terrific – right up until you give it a moment’s thought.” Throughout the book, any attempt at accommodation is dismissed as political posturing, “bending over backwards to be nice to an unworthy but powerful opponent.” It’s hard to be kind in reviewing a work that compares you to Neville Chamberlain.
Agnostics come in for similar criticism. The problem again is that Dawkins is unable to engage with the actual beliefs that other people have. Because he disagrees with Gould’s, Dawkins “simply do[es] not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rock of Ages.” Dawkins rejects attempts at labeling him a “fundamentalist,” but this inability to recognize that other people think differently about the matter seems to define fundamentalist belief.
At times, the problem seems less like the accidental inability to appreciate how other people perceive metaphysics, and more like his is intentionally setting up straw men. In his survey of theist and supernatural beliefs, he skips Taoism entirely, and is oddly dismissive of the sort of spiritualism that Einstein and many others happily espouse. He essentially defines those beliefs away. People who have those beliefs may consider them religious, but since it isn’t what Dawkins is arguing against, he advances a narrower definition of theism that even some theologians would not accept.
For Dawkins, “a theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation.” A prominent theology in the last century has been “process theology.” In this approach, the concept of free will is extended beyond rational beings to all of existence. God does not directly manipulate the world, God merely has the power to persuade. God does not create ex nihilo, nor does God personal intervene in the material world. Indeed, events in the material world can change the deity over time, leading to the sort of ethical progress that Dawkins demonstrates in his chapter on the inadequacy of theistic morality.
Process theology exists as a result of serious intellectual work by theologians and religious thinkers. It would have been to Dawkins’ advantage to engage with the existence of such serious religious thought, rather than dismiss the idea of a deity as delusional off the bat.
Arguments that genuinely engage what people think and that offer new information, are more useful to all involved than restating the same arguments people have always made. Pointing out that the Old Testament has some weird stories and endorses morally unacceptable practices won’t change anyone’s mind about it.
In that sense, the most important and original section for me comes towards the end, when Dawkins raises the entirely valid point that we ought not to refer to children as “Catholic children,” “Muslim children,” “Jewish children,” etc., any more than we would refer to them as “Keynesian children,” “Monetarist children” or “Marxist children.” Religion is not genetic, and a child raised in a particular religious setting should not be labeled with a particular religion until they actually are mature enough to choose a set of metaphysical commitments.
Unfortunately, that part of the book is brief, and embedded in a chapter that invests too much effort arguing that religious indoctrination is – or at least can be – as a greater violation than childhood sexual abuse. The flaw is laced through the book – bad effects of religion are offered as arguments against any sort of belief in anything supernatural, while attempts to invoke the positive that has come from such beliefs is dismissed a priori as irrelevant. “Religion’s power to console,” Dawkins writes, “doesn’t make it true.” A fair point, but not necessarily a compelling argument against religion, either.
Dawkins invests substantial effort presenting evolution as an argument against theism, that (as he says several times) the universe as we know it is unlike what we should expect from one that is designed. While it is certainly true that it is unlike some ways that it could be designed, he never actually develops the argument that a deity would be unlikely to produce a universe like our own. I would argue that he could not possibly make such an argument – a position he mocks, but only because he misunderstands it.
To understand the problem, it’s worth picking up a tool from a proof of God’s existence that Dawkins rightly rejects – Unwin’s Bayesian approach. Unwin applies Bayes’ theorem to a set of entirely subjective assessments of the probability of various things if God exists (the sensation of good, the existence of evil, religious experience and miraculous events). Unwin crunches his subjective beliefs about the probability of those things of God exists, and winds up with some large probability of God’s existence. Dawkins rightly rejects this as a compelling scientific proof, but doesn’t recognize that this example shows the error in treating theism as a scientific hypothesis.
Bayes’ rule essentially assesses the probability of the data you observe if your hypothesis were true times the probability of your hypothesis being true relative to the probability of getting that data somehow (the probability of the data given that your hypothesis is true times the probability of your hypothesis being true plus the probability of the data given that your hypothesis is false times the probability that your hypothesis is false). What’s nice is that it allows a researcher to add his or her own subjective knowledge to the analysis up front, though enough data ought to wash out the effect of subjective bias.
What is the probability that the universe would look the way it does if there were no God? If there were? How do we assess those probabilities scientifically? God is, by definition, capable of creating anything, and without knowing a great deal more than we do about God’s will, it would be the height of hubris to insist that we know what God would prefer. It is possible to assess the probability of some event due to known natural causes, but without knowing the other part of the equation, our subjective assessment of the probability of God’s existence will dominate the equation.
People who approach the equation thinking that God almost surely exists will find confirmation for that belief in everything. People who think God almost surely doesn’t exist will find confirmation for that belief everywhere. And people who think that it isn’t coherent to attach a probability to God’s existence (a category Dawkins ignores entirely) will also reject the idea that additional evidence could possibly allow someone to assign such a probability.
Having arrived at that conclusion, such a person might well take the position that it’s not worth the effort to try to change people’s minds about the matter. Dawkins’ attempt at addressing the reason why people should care is singularly unimpressive. Chapter 8, “What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?” lists a variety of cultural battles, including those over stem cells, equal rights regardless of sexuality, abortion and science in which religion has made itself a roadblock or where it has inspired violence.
The argument is that faith per se is harmful, and should be replaced by more constructive approaches to morality and metaphysics (Dawkins argues that metaphysical questions are unworthy of consideration anyway). The counterargument is that slavery ended in America thanks to religious people, and that Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s religious faiths were essential to their unquestionably good works. Indeed, he manages to discuss how religion drove Fred Phelps to promote his anti-gay bigotry in a protest at Coretta Scott King’s funeral without mentioning that King’s vocal support for gay rights was itself driven by her religious faith.
Dawkins is an important figure in the battles over science education, so it is, as RSR rightly notes, unfortunate to see his willingness to sacrifice science education in pursuit of a religious war. His attitude seems likely to turn off substantial chunks of his preferred audience, as evidenced by the largely mixed reviews from other sciencebloggers. However, it should make tonight’s event quite interesting.