Tuesday, 29 April 2008
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
The God Delusion is Richard Dawkins’ latest and most famous book. It has made him a hero of atheists and the Skeptic Movement and one of the most hated men on Earth, mostly among the Christians of the United States. I read it because I like hearing both sides of the story; I hoped it would give me insight, change my mind where changing it was necessary and not leave me confused. For the most part it has done all those things.
But it wasn’t what I expected. I got right through the introduction and first chapter without reading anything I seriously disagreed with. I can’t bring myself to dislike Dawkins and nobody can question his benevolent will, however wrong he might be. Something else on the plus side: Dawkins is a very skilled writer with a developed style that I, as a fellow writer, can admire. He’s very witty, much funnier in print than he is live. He uses perceptive metaphors and similes and has a biting sarcasm.
One thing that disappointed me was that TGD’s scope was far smaller than I anticipated. Dawkins begins the book with his own declaration as a rationalist and atheist. I was then poised for several chapters of a Ken Wilber-style metaphysical argument about how the Western rationalist cognitive suite is far better than any other cognitive suite, but alas no. Dawkins quantum-leaps over the entire issue and continues the book with the unspoken premise that this argument has already been decided and that the Western rationalist cognitive suite has prevailed. This is why throughout my reading of TGD, I felt that it was primarily a book aimed at other Western rationalists, and those religious believers who are Western monotheists and embrace binary Western logic. In this sense, it is not a book that questions or criticizes religion at all, just certain types of religion (But to be fair, one could perhaps argue that this is OK for practical reasons because the Western monotheistic establishment is the most politically and socially powerful in today’s world, with disastrous consequences). I felt a bit left out; as if Dawkins and I are on different wavelengths. Reading the book has inspired me to invent a new word: “Rationalocentralism”. His chapter titles like The God Hypothesis and Why There is Almost Certainly No God are phrases with little meaning for me. For me, God is not an object, or anything that can be hypothesized or disproved; if it was then if He didn’t exist I’d have been able to work it out by now, and if He does, who He actually is! Dawkins would no doubt interpret my views as what he calls “NOMA” (Non-Overlapping MAgesteria), but again this would not be fair because God is not something that can be separated into another “magisterium” from something else. Actually I don’t think at any time in the book Dawkins gives a satisfactory definition of what he means by his book’s pivotal subject matter: “God”. He lumps his promotion of materialism into the same basket as his criticism of Western theism without understanding that the demolition of Western theism doesn’t equal materialism’s triumph. I therefore found it hard to get inside the author’s head and understand his points. (I’ve never spoken to Dawkins, although I’ve seen him a couple of times; but if I did speak to him then a conversation might be very frustrating for both parties!) TGD actually provides little new information for anyone experienced in the God/no God debate. A lot of the issues he discusses go back centuries, and his sources are often thinkers from long ago. Dawkins would not feel out of place at the “soapy Sam” debate in Oxford more than 150 years ago. This is not really a criticism though; the book could be described as a comprehensive summary of the issue which every subject needs and may well have been lacking beforehand.
The majority of the book is spent in proving scientifically that God probably doesn’t exist, He is not necessary in our universe and that to believe that He exists is an irrational act… Erm…. Is that news? What are we meant to say? “KERCHING!... Hold the front page!... Belief in God is irrational!” I for one have never pretended that believing in any kind of God is rational, logical or in any way based in this-world scientific enquiry. But, as I said earlier, seeing as we’ve been denied the chance to discuss the benefits of rationalism over other forms of human cognition it’s not possible to dispute Dawkins’ conclusions within the scope of the book. Dawkins’ main source for his views is his own speciality: biology. He then goes and does what he does best: demonstrate how Evolution is almost certainly true, but he also delves into the realms of physics, geology, psychology and other disciplines and applies the Darwinian eye to other aspects of creation. (At the moment I’m with Dawkins on the idea that Evolution is real, but I’ve not completed my studies of the other side of the argument. I want to watch the movie Expelled and address some other conundrums like: Maybe a wing can develop from a half-wing, but while it’s a half-wing, would it still be functional as a foreleg? etc. There are other such questions.)
There were some occasions when Dawkins’ attitude disturbed me and hearkened back to Rod Liddle’s The Trouble with Atheism. (Liddle’s review is quoted on the back cover: “entertaining, wildly informative, splendidly written. We are elegantly cajoled, cleverly harangued into shedding ourselves of this superstitious nonsense…” Has Dawkins made a convert here!?) For instance there’s a chapter called The Poverty of Agnosticism in which Dawkins quotes an atheist and religious believer making almost identical pejorative remarks about agnostics, running along the lines that both men admired people who’d made up their mind and were certain but poured emasculating scorn on those who were shilly-shallying about in between. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I think rationalism and Western theism have far more in common than they do in difference and are candidates for what David Icke calls “opposames”; I’ll return to that point later). What concerned me was that Dawkins rather endorsed them! He failed to declare any fault with their views. This is a clear mark of something profoundly cultural in the book and Western thought in general: the worship of certainty. Things either are or are not; it’s yes or no, black or white. We need certainty, we strive towards it and we work desperately mop up the areas where it is lacking. This kind of binary logic is a central structure of both Western theism and rationalism, as the two quotes show. To fail to worship certainty, to resist the urge to be fixated on it, is perceived as a sign of weakness. Those who do so are treated like conshies in World War One! This for me is very juvenile, judgmental and narrow-minded; and it pains me to see Dawkins handing out the white feathers. The world will never be certain. The clockwork of Newton’s model is disintegrating into a new model of fractal chaos and quantum superposition. The rationalists who want to find as much certainty as the model allows can go ahead, but they’ve no right to urinate on those who choose not to jump on their bandwagon. I don’t see anything weak about living without certainty; there are many other cultures where certainty is almost an unknown concept and even anathema, but most of those have been swamped by European and North American consumerism and their voices are lost in the din of ring-tones and IPods. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What does a tree sound like if it falls down when nobody is there to hear it?” Well, let me tell you, Richard Dawkins that I am one Westerner who will not be bullied into the recruiting office!
Dawkins also has something of a contempt for theology. This is clear from a quote on page 79 where he says: “If (something) lies beyond the province of science then it almost certainly lies beyond the province of theology. I am tempted to go further and wonder in what possible sense theologians can be said to have a province.” He then quotes a warden at his college who doubted whether theology was even a subject at all. The snootiness of this position repels me. It matters not to Dawkins that theology is merely the study of religious belief; in fact some theologians are atheists. Dawkins, on the same page, says that philosophers would be insulted that somebody equated theologians with them. But as I said above, Dawkins has little time for philosophy either, so how can he even make an informed judgment? I’m very wary of anyone with a disdain for philosophy and theology because it suggests that all the answers have been sorted out… by themselves! Dawkins lays into philosophy later in the book on page 319 where he deals with what he sees as the “science is a religion” fallacy. He says that “amateur philosophers” (Pot and kettle! And at least amateur philosophers philosophize which is more than can be said for Dawkins!) say that to disbelieve in a God is a religious statement and that belief in rationalism is an identical fundamentalist belief. Dawkins refutes this by saying that he’s only a fundamentalist when it comes to the empirical truth, and the example he gives is that New Zealand lies south of the equator. But then if he had a deeply powerful mystical experience (of the type I’ll go into in more detail later) which was so real, but impossible to prove as these experiences almost invariably are, that every fibre of his being screamed at him that it was real; would he accept it? If his response was to swim upstream against his intuition and reject it because of its inherent improvable nature, then he is a fundamentalist. He is no different to the geologist he quotes, Kurt Wise, a man who decided that the world was only 5000 years old against all evidence because the bible said it was. Conversely I refer the reader to the scene in the film Contact where Jodie Foster’s character refuses to denounce her mystical experience even though she cannot prove it; she is therefore not a fundamentalist. The reaction of the hypothetical rationalist’s peers is another factor. How would they respond to their colleague refusing to reject his experience? With understanding and expectance, seeing as they are definitely not fundamentalists and very different to these religious bigots? How would they? We can ask how do they. How did they treat Timothy Leary, John Anthony West, Wilhelm Reich? There are many examples of scientists who’ve stepped out of line and been treated in exactly the same way as religious apostates are; sometimes even the word “heresy” is used. Rationalistic, scientific atheism may see itself as immune from religious-type behavior and lily-white in its conduct, but it’s not; and that’s a bubble that needs bursting. The dichotomy between the material and ethereal is not a universal law, but merely a cultural fad. Nobody can dispute that the ancient Egyptians were full-blown rationalists and materialists with a mental aptitude to take the real world head-on. They produced some of the finest engineering and scientific feats in history, but their language had a single word that translates both “astrology” and “astronomy”. Let me say that again: They had one word that meant two things which in modern Western culture are perfectly distinctive; some might even argue that they are contradictions, and that you can be one or the other but not both! But in ancient Egypt they meant the same thing. In fact if you tried to explain the difference between astronomy and astrology to an ancient Egyptian you’d have trouble making them understand! In their culture there was no contradiction between mystical belief and exact scientific knowledge.
Dawkins’ view of science would be almost endearingly naïve if it wasn’t so misleading to the reader. There’s no doubt that science is an essential part of human activity and it’s achieved many great things, but the image of science presented in the book is of a pure, united front of intelligent, impeccably professional, compassionate oracles of wisdom. This is not what science is. Science has a dark side. This dark side is a child’s playpen of controversy, infighting, politics, dogma, infantile rage and oppression. An acknowledgement of this dark side is very manifestly absent from TGD. Dawkins does occasionally let it slip that all is not well at the mill, but I only counted two occasions. In one Dawkins has just described an incident when he witnessed a scientific ideal. A visiting lecturer had just proved wrong the pet theory of one of his tutors. At the end the tutor walked onto the stage, shook the man’s hand and thanked him for it to a rapturous applause. Dawkins admitted that “in practice” this doesn’t always happen. Yes? Go on, Richard. I mentally said, but was met with a change of subject. He also says that “Most scientists are monists and not dualists” (My emphasis. A monist is someone who believes that the mind is a product of brain activity whereas a dualist thinks the mind is separate from the brain). What? Not all of them are monists? Why not when you’ve presented the issue as such an open-and-shut case? But again, the author fails to elaborate. So when he then claims on page 320: “(Science) believe(s) in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if evidence arose to disprove it”, you’ll realize that I very much doubt that. It would instead be abandoned after a number of decades when so many of the old guard had retired that there were no longer the personnel to man their witch-hunts against the pioneers of the new paradigm, enabling them to work in peace. Then would come the declaration from the pages of the peer-reviews: “Ah, we thought it was that all along”! In one instance he refers to the Templeton Foundation’s prayer study, a proper scientific trial to see if praying for someone who’s ill makes them better. Dawkins is unequivocal: The study showed that praying has no effect at all. However there are other sources which claim that more than one study was done and that the net result was that they did show some sign of working (Fenwick 2005). What is true? Who do we believe? And if there is any controversy or doubt on the subject why doesn’t Dawkins tell us in the book? Why, in the same way, when Dawkins quotes the “rabbits in PreCambrian” cliché, does he not mention the confusion over the discovery of anomalous fossils (Cremo-Thompson 1996)? “It’s OK; if evidence turns up we'll all change our mind…” Pull the other one, Dicky! In actual fact, the author has probably heard of some or even all of these controversies and probably dismissed the alternative conclusions, but this is not a reason to omit them from the book. The book is aimed at laymen and newcomers and it’s giving them a false impression of the scientific world.
One thing that did impress me was that Dawkins, unlike most of his fellow Skeptics, makes an effort to resist the temptation to join in with the group-masturbatathon called MBA (For an explanation of MBA, see here: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/01/chris-french-mba-gold.html) However when he goes into the realm of “personal ‘experience’” (Why does put “experience” in quotes?) he still repeats the establishment line that all occasions where somebody thinks they’ve had, what I’ll call for arguments sake, Divine Encounters, they are simply having hallucinations, something like a very pleasant acid trip, bolstered by the MBA’s wishful-thinking; the same goes for the “imaginary friend” phenomenon in childhood. The main reason for this is that there have been successful experiments in which altered states of consciousness (ASC's) can be artificially induced with drugs, electrical stimulation of the brain’s temporal lobes, by hypoxia of the brain and sleep deprivation or exhaustion, Shamanic trance dances for instance, or from trips in high-G flight simulators. Dawkins goes further to site examples of even more mundane causal sources for ASC-based delusions, like the cry of a particular seagull! Firstly, the fact that we can artificially create ASC's doesn't mean that they're not real, anymore than manually turning a radio dial to another station means that the other station is not real, just a product of your hand! Secondly I think that very powerful mystical experiences, the Divine Encounters I mentioned, are a different phenomenon from other hallucinations altogether. This is not just because of context: EG: "I saw an angel standing at the side of my deathbed" making the vision more significant because it was seen at your deathbed rather than if you just passed an angel in the street on your way to Tescos. No, it sounds like Divine Encounters have a distinct qualitative difference to other forums of ASC's. Although I've never experienced any form of ASC, except a very mild mushroom trip, so I'll have to wait and see if I do to be sure! But I know enough about this subject to disagree with the official stance reproduced in the book. But Dawkins’ breach of the subject gave me an insight during his brief indulgence with MBA when he discusses religious “memes”. “Meme” is a word I thought was invented by Dawkins, but apparently it’s not; he just likes to use it. It means an idea that behaves just like genes, in that it is passed from generation to generation, evolving and mutating along the way. He asks where the meme for religion came from and it brings him onto the subject of Life-after-death (LAD). According to him, the attraction in the supposed myth that our mind is not destroyed when our body dies but continues in another form was one of the sources of the God meme. I’ve written about this subject a lot before and I disagree with that. After reading Dawkins’ explanation of memes, “memeplexes” and how they work, I ask myself why the MBA meme didn’t win out over the LAD meme. It’s too big a subject to go into here, but I’ve said before why I think that the MBA meme is far more attractive and therefore more survivable than the LAD meme. It’s the greatest irony that when it comes to ASC’s and Divine Encounters, organized religion and rationalist science stand side by side. They will unite in condemnation of the idea and anyone who professes it. This is why I say again and again that I don’t see organized religion and conventional science as opposites. I see them together on one side, with other forms of spirituality on the real opposite side. I bring this point up again when Dawkins gets onto the subject of suicide bombers. He laments that if it wasn’t for belief in LAD and the promise of a “martyrs’ heaven” then these madmen would not carry out these barbaric acts. Well how come then that communists in the Middle East, as well as in Vietnam and elsewhere, employed suicide bombing? These are people following the same philosophy on LAD that Dawkins does! He’s obviously never watched Cult of the Suicide Bomber.
TGD goes into detail about the stupidity of the bible, its contradictions and dubious morality. Dawkins provides a solid argument to oppose the idea that the bible is a source of good moral conduct. For a change I’m in agreement with him. He rightly and cleverly observes that the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character ever created in all of fiction: racist, male chauvinist, petty, violently jealous, grudge-bearing, and outright genocidal! That’s because the God of the Old Testament is just that, a fictional character; He doesn’t exist. But how Dawkins crowbars this into his conclusion of the total non-existence of any God escapes me. Once again, I feel I’m on a different wavelength. Nevertheless, suppose we all became Dawkinsian Skeptic/atheists tomorrow; would the world be a better place? Well, I have to admit that it probably would be a great improvement, but would it be a paradise? Definitely not. I’ve already stated how atheists are capable of the same kind of damaging behavior as religious believers. And as I’ve said elsewhere, we’re living in a world where a person can be abused, ostracized and threatened with violence for saying that they're proud to be a Hospital Porter; does anyone really think that in the New Global Atheist Skeptical Republic people who want to believe in supernatural or spiritual powers will be allowed to go merrily on their way? Dawkins actually doesn’t say this in as many words, but he does imply it. Once again, he’s definitely got his rose-tinted glasses on! When it comes to agreeing with Dawkins I’m 100% behind him over faith-based schools and religious indoctrination of children. A big regret of mine is that I sent my own daughter to a Catholic primary school. I didn’t have the excuse of being brainwashed either as I was already three quarters of the way though my own lapsing process at the time. As it turned out, my daughter was not affected and today she’s more of a Skeppie than I am! (I did take her to Mass a few years ago because she asked me to do so, but she lost interest after a while. I still feel guilty over having her baptized as a baby, but none of us are perfect parents and all’s well that ends well.) But I do seriously challenge Dawkins over his view that even moderate religion provides an environment where extremism can flourish. This may be true in some cases, but it can’t possibly be universal; if it was that would mean that the Sufi orders provide a source for suicide-bombing Jihadists! That’s ludicrous! The Sufis are less likely to inspire suicide bombers than Dawkins himself! The Sufi order, the Cathars and many other Gnostic sects also contradict Dawkins’ view that all religion discourages questioning and analytical thought. Again, his book’s narrow scope prevents us from getting a true understanding of the situation.
I also wonder where Dawkins gets his information on historical figures when he “outs” certain people like Isaac Newton and Mahatma Gandhi as atheists. Both of those people were in fact believers in mystical or religious forces of one kind or another. Perhaps it’s so oxymoronic in Dawkins’ view of the world that a person can be a great and innovative physicist, or a dedicated humanistic and secular political freedom-fighter, and yet still be in some way spiritual and mystical, that he’s gone into denial. Maybe this is why the last chapter takes the format it does: Dawkins ends the book by declaring that if you don’t have a belief in a God you can replace it with something else to give you inspiration and meaning in your life. In his case it is of course science. He goes onto a lengthy narrative on the wonders and joys of scientific investigation, the workings of the Cosmos, the miracle of life etc. It taught me a thing or two! Dawkins explains how bats can “hear” in colour and dogs can “smell” in colour! This is because those senses are so much better then their human equivalent that the part of our brain that lets humans see colour is adapted to those other senses in those other animals. As I read this section I realized that for the first time I understood where Dawkins was coming from. I feel that same wonder over the glories of the universe; but is it really necessary to reject belief in God to appreciate that?
At the start of the book Dawkins says that if any of the book’s readers are religious then he hopes they will be atheists when they put it down. So he makes no bones about it; he is trying to win converts. As I said above, I still don’t understand, after carefully reading the whole book, where exactly I fit into it. My own spiritual beliefs are indefinable, but they’re certainly real. I’m not an agnostic in that respect. So I don’t feel I really fit into anything Dawkins says about religious belief. I’ve been called an atheist by a few people, and by some definitions of the word I certainly am. But I’m not anything like the atheism and atheists Dawkins discusses. I would never refer to myself as an atheist. So I still felt a bit like a distant observer of the book’s “rationalocentric” scope, and therefore its theme, rather than a participator. One thing’s for sure though: the book has had a reverse effect on me than the one Dawkins wanted. If anything I’m less of an atheist when I put it down than I was before I picked it up!