Monday, October 30, 2006

The Dreadful Dick Dawkins Part I

by Drek

Regular readers of this blog, not to mention my usual blog, are probably aware of my religious orientation. This is effectively public knowledge given the occasional posts I have left on each site. As one might expect, this means that I have a certain awareness of common arguments used against atheism and keep my eye on prominent atheists.

If you're having a hard time thinking of any prominent atheists you're not alone. Our relative absence is because (1) there aren't many atheists to start with, (2) we have good reason to hide, and (3) the only people who are often credited with being atheists are generally thought to be evil. Of course, the association of these folks with atheism is largely unfair, and others who likely were not theists but who did great things are often claimed by the other side, but that's not the point.

Despite all this, there are at least a few well-known atheists and one of them is evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins. Some of you may have heard of Dawkins recently due to the publication of his new book, The God Delusion. In this book Dawkins argues, as you might expect from the title, that religion is a delusion* and a dangerous one at that. Now, in the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that I haven't read this book yet. I want to read it, I look forward to reading it, but I have not as yet actually read it. So, I can't speak to its quality. I also feel that I should point out that however much I appreciate Dawkins' existence, I don't completely agree with his approach to religion. Do I think that religion is a sort of mass consensual fantasy? Pretty much, yes. Do I think it's largely harmful? Yep. Do I think that science or evidence can actually disprove the validity of religion? Oh, hell no. I don't think this is at all possible, and usually think it's counterproductive to try it. So, while I appreciate Dawkins as a public figure fighting for atheism, I don't really think his project will ever bear fruit. Ultimately this means that while I expect to enjoy The God Delusion I doubt I will agree with it unreservedly.

Yet, in saying all that, I think I can still object to the recent book review on Dawkins' work published in the New York Times. This review, written by Jim Holt,** is quite frankly negative. Okay, that's an understatement: it's actually rather vicious. In the viciousness, however, it's fairly clear that the reviewer simply doesn't like Dawkins' message and wishes he'd just keep his atheism to himself. This, and this alone, is really what I have a problem with. Religious persons of all stripes are permitted, and often expected, to try and convert their friends and neighbors. Often they are rewarded for conspicuous displays of piety and religion acts as a sort of human capital. So, I consider it a bit absurd for someone to be condemned not merely for taking pride in their own religious views, but for simply doing what everyone else does already: doubting the gods of others, and giving voice to that doubt.

After all: we are all atheists. Those who take the title merely doubt one more god than everyone else.

In any case, an examination of the review of Dawkins' book proves to be somewhat interesting so, without further ado, let's take a look.

The review starts off by observing that the purpose of Dawkins' book is "consciousness raising" and that Dawkins depicts atheism as a "brave and splendid" endeavour. While the reviewer clearly intends these observations to be somewhat sarcastic, I'm forced to observe that such is the purpose and message of virtually any book written in praise of a faith. Why should atheism be any different? The test of a book like this is at least partly in its veracity which, as of yet, remains to be determined.

Dawkins' book apparently proceeds as follows:

Dawkins’s case against religion follows an outline that goes back to Bertrand Russell’s classic 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” First, discredit the traditional reasons for supposing that God exists. (“God” is here taken to denote the Judeo-Christian deity, presumed to be eternal, all-powerful, all-good and the creator of the world.) Second, produce an argument or two supporting the contrary hypothesis, that God does not exist. Third, cast doubt on the transcendent origins of religion by showing that it has a purely natural explanation. Finally, show that we can have happy and meaningful lives without worshiping a deity, and that religion, far from being a necessary prop for morality, actually produces more evil than good. The first three steps are meant to undermine the truth of religion; the last goes to its pragmatic value.

So, in essence, this book is at least as much an argument against religion as it is an argument for atheism. This is often fairly standard for atheistic works, sadly, for two reasons: first, atheists (in my admittedly limited experience) often consider hard truths more valuable than pleasing fictions. Thus, a strong inkling that god does not exist is sufficient to render belief unnecessary and undesirable. Second, atheists often have the perspective that a lack of belief in god is a default condition- in other words, one has to be taught to believe. As such, in a weird way we don't feel we have to talk others into our position because their natural inclinations are in that direction. This is unfortunately naive. At a deeper level, however, the truly disappointing thing is that so much of the public perception of atheism is that it is a force destructive of religion, without being constructive of another social order. As we will discuss in a later post, this is probably the greatest achilles heal faced by modern atheism.

From here, however, the criticism gets going:

What Dawkins brings to this approach is a couple of fresh arguments — no mean achievement, considering how thoroughly these issues have been debated over the centuries — and a great deal of passion. The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie.


It’s all in good fun when Dawkins mocks a buffoon like Pat Robertson and fundamentalist pastors like the one who created “Hell Houses” to frighten sin-prone children at Halloween. But it is less edifying when he questions the sincerity of serious thinkers who disagree with him, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, or insinuates that recipients of the million-dollar-plus Templeton Prize, awarded for work reconciling science and spirituality, are intellectually dishonest (and presumably venal to boot). In a particularly low blow, he accuses Richard Swinburne, a philosopher of religion and science at Oxford, of attempting to “justify the Holocaust,” when Swinburne was struggling to square such monumental evils with the existence of a loving God.

So, first off, Dawkins is strident. Well, I can't fault him for that. Atheists are the great mysterious minority. How many are there? We don't know. Why do they believe as they do? We don't know. How many explicitly atheistic organizations are there? We don't know, but surely not many of any size. We are a community so secret even we don't know who we are. So, if Dawkins is vocal about his atheism, I feel a sense of gratitude. More of us need to be open about our faith, even if I don't approve of evangelism. Secondly, I fail to see what aspect of being a "serious thinker" renders your sincerity automatically unassailable. I suspect that Gould was sincere, but if Dawkins has a case to make, then I welcome him to make it. Third, let's be honest about the Templeton Prize: there is much in it to be suspicious of. It's a prize meant to show that religious thought is making as much progress as science, but it is by no means a prize awarded to hard-nosed efforts to resolve the thorny conflicts between science and fundamentalist religious doctrine. Past winners have included such scienctific "luminaries" as Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, Billy Graham, known among other things for some interesting remarks on Jews, and Mother Teresa, who, despite her excellent reputation, is somewhat controversial. Certainly the TP has also gone to legitimate scholars, but they are in very strange company. So, frankly, I think a little criticism of the Templeton Prize is bloody well warranted. Finally, the reviewer himself is perhaps taking things out of context in his discussion of Richard Swinburne's work. To "justify the holocaust" suggests to many an effort to make such behavior appear warranted or reasonable, however I suspect that Dawkins was criticising an effort to "justify the existence of the holocaust in a world ruled by a loving god." This is an entirely different matter and Dawkins is well within his rights to question such an effort.

Following all this the reviewer castigates Dawkins for failing to argue clearly and well, but then fails to do so himself, in the process making one of the classic errors of the atheist/theist debate:

It is doubtful that many people come to believe in God because of logical arguments, as opposed to their upbringing or having “heard a call.” But such arguments, even when they fail to be conclusive, can at least give religious belief an aura of reasonableness, especially when combined with certain scientific findings. We now know that our universe burst into being some 13 billion years ago (the theory of the Big Bang, as it happens, was worked out by a Belgian priest), and that its initial conditions seem to have been “fine tuned” so that life would eventually arise. If you are not religiously inclined, you might take these as brute facts and be done with the matter. But if you think that there must be some ultimate explanation for the improbable leaping-into-existence of the harmonious, biofriendly cosmos we find ourselves in, then the God hypothesis is at least rational to adhere to, isn’t it?

Sadly, despite what this paragraph would have you believe, the alternative of random, meaninglessness is not a belief in god. Non-random processes can occur in a purely naturalistic world, and meaning can exist without a great unseeable skybeast. As always, however, commentators enjoy trying to recreate the issue as a dichotomy and, sadly, this often goes as much for Dawkins as anyone else.

If we skip forward, we find the reviewer mentioning Dawkins answer to the classic problem of origins: without god, where did the Universe come from? The answer, comments Dawkins, is that he doesn't know, but that it's silly to say that god made it. This isn't so much an answer as giving a name to one's ignorance. Simply saying "god did it" makes us feel as though we have explained something when, in fact, we remain as ignorant as ever. Yet, the reviewer attempts a bizarre and incredibly flacid challenge to this fundamental point:

If God is indeed more complex and improbable than his creation, does that rule him out as a valid explanation for the universe? The beauty of Darwinian evolution, as Dawkins never tires of observing, is that it shows how the simple can give rise to the complex. But not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat). It is far from clear which explanatory model makes sense for the deepest question, the one that, Dawkins complains, his theologian friends keep harping on: why does the universe exist at all? Darwinian processes can take you from simple to complex, but they can’t take you from Nothing to Something. If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God.” Of course, it can’t be known for sure that there is such an explanation. Perhaps, as Russell thought, “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”

So, wait, hang on... Dawkins is wrong because god might have evolved? Or he's wrong because thermodynamics shows that things get messier over time?*** Or is he wrong because evolution requires material to work with and we're now talking about where the material came from? Or is he wrong because we could label whatever arbitrary starting point the universe has "God" and let it go from there? That last one is my personal favorite: as long as we ignore the concept in question and just bandy the label around, the argument is never wrong! Wheee! In short, the reviewer doesn't seem to know why Dawkins' point is wrong here, but he's sure it must be. Somehow or other. In the end, the problem remains: either we accept Bertrand Russell's point that "the universe is just here" or we accept the theistic version of the same argument, "the universe god is just here."

I could keep at it, describing and challenging the idiocy of this review, but I won't. It's frankly too painful for me to endure, particularly when the reviewer once more brings up Stalin, and Mao, and Hitler. Instead I will simply discuss the reviwer's ending paragraph:

As for those in between — ranging from agnostics to “spiritual” types for whom religion is not so much a metaphysical proposition as it is a way of life, illustrated by stories and enhanced by rituals — they might take consolation in the wise words of the Rev. Andrew Mackerel, the hero of Peter De Vries’s 1958 comic novel “The Mackerel Plaza”: “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”

This is not a proof of god's omnipotence, but rather a demonstration of what mankind can acheive with sufficient dedication. We can produce magnificence, and we can produce horror, but in either case we produce it ourselves. Yet, Dawkins is making an argument that is logically compatible with Mackerel's assertion, and it deserves serious consideration:

Perhaps the final proof of god's omnipotence is that he need not exist in order to damn us.

UPDATE: See the second part of this series here.

* Yes, I know one isn't supposed to use a word in the process of defining it. This is why I linked to a dictionary definition which, ironically, uses a conjugated form of the word in defining it. Seriously, I don't even know what to do with that.

** I'm fairly certain there's no relation to the conservative politian and creationist shill Jim Holt.

*** As a side note, entropy says no such thing. Entropy does not, contrary to popular belief, say a whole lot about organization and instead deals with energy flow. Check here for a brief explanation.

As a final note: This post was adjusted to remove a point that, frankly, just didn't make any sense. As long as this thing is, it's hardly surprising that I screwed up. Special thanks to my colleague the Warbler for pointing this out.
I thought you might enjoy the posting on on this.
Thanks for pointing that out.

Note to readers: here is the permalink to the Cosmic Variance post.
i've just started reading your post and it looks interesting.. but i just thought i'd point out that, in his book, dawkins say that he does not think he can disprove the existence of god.. but he does say that he almost certainly does not exist.

now, back to the rest of your post :)
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