The Dawkins Illusion
by Colin Bower (Jan. 2007)
Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself
And falls on the other.”
The key question is this: why did the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, bother to write a book as inconsequential as The God Delusion? Not, surely, to pad out his CV. He has made substantial contributions to the public understanding of evolutionary science, and, with his concept of meme theory, he has formulated an original scientific hypothesis that is hardening into received knowledge. He is the author of a string of best-selling non-fiction books, in popular debate about such matters as the co-existence of god and catastrophe he has made many trenchant interventions, and, in doing so, he has focussed public attention on the inherent childishness of faith-lead understanding of natural phenomena. Now in his mid-60s, he is a man in full, with an assured and a well-earned reputation. In the meanwhile, other academics, notably Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have covered – even if only partially – much the same ground as he has also now deemed it important himself to conquer.
From a historic perspective, the tradition of secular freethinking is as old as the Enlightenment, indeed, as old as the Athens of Socrates. Luther challenged the might of the Roman Catholic Church in word, and Galileo challenged it in deed. Some of the 17th Century philosophers of the age of reason were profoundly and bravely anti-religious, which in those times meant of course anti-Christian. Such belief in god as they professed was clearly not belief in either an Old Testament or a New Testament god, and if a philosopher such as Spinoza claimed to derive knowledge from god, it was the god of his rational faculties, not the god of his faith. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (“…Christianity has in fact long vanished not only from the reason but from the life of mankind, that it is nothing more than a fixed idea") was resolutely anti-Christian, and his ideas were popularised in England by George Eliot. The Jacobins of the French Revolution were feared for their atheism, and the least that can be said of the founding fathers of America is that they shared no allegiance with the believers in myth, magic, or miracle, nor in the kind of supernatural god that went with such beliefs. Nobody needs to be reminded of Tom Paine’s implacable opposition to Christianity, nor that he was the kind of man – amongst many others – who, if he believed in god – did not believe that he was relieved thereby from his human responsibilities. The East Coast transcendentalists were arguably atheist, and certainly agnostic. In the late 19th Century Marx formalised the great materialist belief system of the 20th Century, and in its wake came existentialism, the widely-shared philosophical belief system that laughed at the notion of a god. Post-modernism does not recognise any substantive truth, and therefore god, if she exists, is taken to be nothing more than a figment of our imaginations, along with everything else, which hardly represents a proposition worth opposing.
It is nearly 80 years years since Bertrand Russell declared his atheism (“The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men”), and in recent years popular works proclaiming atheism are two-a-penny. In the academic world, work by mainline scholars in thelogy (Geza Vermes), the intellectal tradition (Charles Freeman) and even in archeology (Finkelstein and Silberman) fatally undermine the religious tradition that justifies belief in god. The Anglican churches of Europe stand empty, the Roman Catholic Church back-tracks desperately and loses adherents, and Ireland has emerged as a leading example of free-market material prosperity. What on earth could have attracted Dawkins to raise a storm of argument about so non-existent an argument as the argument about the existence of god? If you stake out your ground as a rationalist, and you procede with your argument on narrowly rational grounds, as he does, what battle is there left to fight, what intellectual challenge is left to be confront, and who is there left to persuade?
Conceptually, there really is nothing more that Dawkins could have added to the subject, and accordingly, he has added nothing. The only conclusion that I can reach – a distressing conclusion for one who has been more than an ardent admirer of Dawkins - is that he was seduced into the enterprise of writing The God Delusion by the opportunity firstly of playing to the gallery, and secondly, by the prospect of earning a lot of money from the bankable sales to be expected when a high-profile author piles into a lowest-common denominator debate: is there a god or isn’t there?
The gallery? What gallery is Dawkins playing to? Well, he claims to be writing in order to persuade crypto-atheists to “come out of the closet”. I don’t believe this for one moment. The gallery he really plays to is composed of those freethinkers who enjoy seeing their views corroborated, just as committed and convinced Christians, Muslims and Jews continue to buy books that tell them what they know already, and whose commercial support is as dependable as folding money in the collection plate.
A great deal of the apparent justification for his enterprise is carried on the flimsiest of arguments, arguments rendered even flimsier by their repetition. The argument is given to us early in the book, and represents a lamentable gambit by a person reputed to be one of the most feared polemicists in the world:
It [the book] 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…That is the first of my consciousness-raising messages…And, while natural selection itself is limited to explaining the living world, it raises our consciousness to the likelihood of comparable explanatory ‘cranes’ that may aid our understanding of the cosmos itself…I also want to raise consciousness in three other ways.
…religion and childhood is the subject of Chapter 9, which is my third consciousness-raiser…Precisely because my purpose is consciousness-raising…My fourth consciousness-raiser is atheist pride
All of this consciousness raising puts me in mind of a radio advertising campaign mounted some years back by some pseudo-government agency in South Africa. We had then and continue to have a frightful rate of rape in our country. The South African criminal justice system was and continues to be incapable of halting this epidemic of sexual violence. So a bright spark in the civil service or in some useless non-profit organisation came up with the idea of an anti-rape advertising campaign, an idea taken up with enthusiasm. One of the country’ favoured daughters the Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron narrated a message which encouraged South Africa males to the view that “real men don’t rape”. Many men protested. They rightly said that the ad campaign was based on the assumption that all men were potential rapists. Pressed to account for this assumption, the makers of or apologists for the campaign backtracked, and said it was “designed to raise consciousness of the hateful crime of rape”.
I and many millions of other South African males said: “But I no more need my consciousness raised in regard to the crime of rape than to the crimes of murder, robbing banks, tripping up little old ladies, or poisoning wells at night”. And so the logic went, well, maybe the law-abiding types didn’t need their consciousnesses raised regarding evil deeds, but then the evil-doers certainly did – the rapist, murderers and robbers, actual and potential. But can you imagine a more utterly useless enterprise than the raising of consciousness of rapists, in the expectation that - their consciousness accordingly raised - they would abandon their lives of crime?
Such exercises in the raising of consciousness are habitually exercises in subterfuge. The government’s job was - and is - the apprehension and punishment of rapists. This it signally fails to do. So it deflects attention from its incompetence by resorting to “consciousness raising”.
No, “consciousness raising” is ever the work of party publicists, propagandists, public relations practitioners and advertising people, of spin doctors, and of people who seek to manipulate public perceptions in their own interest. Consciousness has got nothing to do with understanding, with the often arduous business of learning a new fact, or of mastering a body of knowledge. It has got nothing to do with wit, wisdom or insight. It is merely the dull roar that tells me I am alive. I really don’t mind if someone tries to raise my awareness – my awareness, for instance, of the difficulties suffered by disabled people using public transport systems – but this is a different thing entirely. If someone wants to appraise me of a good argument that might encourage me to change my mind on an issue, I’m all for listening. And if someone wants to provide evidence for an unusual point of view, I am, I hope, always eager to attend. But my consciousness is my own, I’ll keep it at whatever level I choose, and I will thank the world and the busy-bodies who inhabit it to stay well clear of it, thank you very much.
However then did Richard Dawkins, illustrious scientist, get caught up in so disreputable a business as the writing of a large book with the preposterous aim of raising the world’s level of consciousness? It seems that he draws his inspiration for so doing by the success of the women’s movement in making most males - and presumably a not insignificant number of females – sensitive to the sexism embedded in our language. He says that it was as a result of our raised consciousness to linguistic sexism that we began avoiding words such as “mankind”. At least I think he says this for it is not in the least clear whether he is saying that, our consciousness having been raised by the women’s movement, we stopped using sexist language, or whether he is saying that, in respect of women’s rights, our consciousness was raised as a result of the use of non-sexist language (you make it out, the argument, such as it is, is presented on page 135 of his book).
Either way he must speak for himself in regard to his liberation from the patriarchy. It was a good argument allied to good evidence that finally persuaded me of the view that the proponent’s of the women’s’ movement were right to be offended or even outraged by the patriarchal elements in our language (and even if I have reached the wrong conclusion I did think long and hard about the argument and the evidence). And as a lover of that language, and the linguistic tradition I had inherited with it, it was argument and evidence that I needed in order successfully to challenge my presumptions. The last thing that would have effected such a change was an attempt to raise my consciousness, and I am surprised by Dawkins if I understand him to be reporting that he amended the patriarchal vocabulary he might otherwise be using as a result of having his “consciousness raised”. I thought that the scientific mind was moved more by the accumulation of elemental evidence than by the play of idle breezes.
He returns to his favoured theme from place-to-place in the book, telling us, for instance, that maps made in the southern hemisphere that show the south pole at the top serve to “raise the consciousness” of children (and parents) that north is, as he puts it, “an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on ‘up’”. This is ghastly. “Upside down” maps simply and rightfully challenge a conventional notion: that there is a “top” and a “bottom” to the universe, and therefore also to our planet. What has this got to do with “consciousness”? The publication of such maps is part of an educational process, and a profoundly good one. To suggest that young learners in New Zealand cannot be taught a truth grounded in scientific principle, but need to have it discretely piped into their heads by the clandestine process of “consciousness raising” is patronising, and bad educational methodology.
You may think I am going on about this a bit too much. But it helps me identify the source of the bad odour that emanates from this book, the odour of dishonesty. His new-found enthusiasm for “conscious raising” is opportunistic. It provides what he takes to be a defensible justification for placing such a book before the public in the want of any more legitimate reasons for doing so. To argue about the existence or otherwise of god is a jejune enterprise that in polite society is rightly regarded as bad form. It is a useless, tiresome, noisy and utterly pointless endeavour: you say “I believe in god”, I say “I don’t believe in god”. There is no resolution to this difference in beliefs, and there the matter must rest. Of course, it would be important to argue about such a conflict of belief if it could be shown that it has tangible consequences in the world. If I, by not believing in god, behave badly, or if you, by believing in god, mount wars, then here indeed would be a matter of some consequence for the human race. But, as Dawkins knows, no such conclusions are available to us, and although he makes much of a soupcon of anecdotal evidence displaying the turpitude of some god-believers, he knows that there is no causative relationship between behaviour, on the one hand, and delusional belief in god on the other. This leaves him with little work to do, unless you see the raising of consciousness as work.
What offends him most, of course, is his perception that those who believe in god are stupid. But there is not much by way of respectable headway you can make in life – certainly none in a publicly-funded institution of learning – by declaring stupidity to be your enemy. The prevailing educational zeitgeist holds that even the most stupid amongst us is clever in his or her own way, and to declare a war on stupidity would be to brand oneself as unreconstructably arrogant. So, in legitimising his enterprise, his default position becomes consciousness raising.
Analogously, he is like Macbeth, who – in mounting his horse – leaps clean over it, and falls in a heap on the other side. The suggestion embedded in the image is that, without the counter-balancing resistance of conscience, Macbeth’s ambition is out of control, and creates a dysfunctionality that renders him gauche, incapable, and bereft of human capacity. He cannot even judge the effort required to leap onto his horse. Dawkins, it hardly needs me to observe, clearly does have a great mind, but in the absence of matter to engage with, it is rendered similarly both gauche and dysfunctional. Lacking a real subject, he doesn’t really have an enterprise.
This shows in odd but telling ways. The lucid elegance that is the habitual hallmark of his previous work is noticeably absent in The God Delusion. It is impossible to ignore the grammatical solecisms that occur when trying to integrate so inert a neologism as “consciousness raising” into otherwise logical and grammatically sound sentences, as we see in the following phrases, already quoted above: “…raise consciousness to the fact…” or “…raises our consciousness to the likelihood…” But the raising of consciousness is an intransitive action. We can raise consciousness (I suppose), but we certainly cannot raise consciousness “to” anything, least of all either a fact or a likelihood. And it makes no sense to write: “My fourth consciousness-raiser is atheist pride”. To what does “atheistic pride” raise consciousness (as it were)?
He over-writes - here are examples taken from a single page of text, “robustly scathing…scrupulous good manners…just comeuppance…absolute impossibility…” and, chosen at random from other pages, “…truly remarkable…overwhelmingly probable…damningly typical…grotesque amplification”. He often enough simply throws words together, for instance writing: “The Catholic Encyclopaedia dismisses polytheism and atheism in the same insouciant breath…” The encyclopaedia may be cavalier in riding slipshod over objections to its theology, but insouciant (light-hearted unconcern, nonchalance), never.
You might think I quibble when I criticise him for a phrase such as “stunning elegance” (used twice), but it is his own habitually high standards that lead me to do so, and I must ask if “stunning elegance” is not a less impressive thing than mere “elegance”. But if you still think this is nit-picking, here is another kind of elegance that he offers, “devastating elegance”, which is how he describes Darwin’s theory of evolution. No doubt elegance can affect one in many ways, but never, I insist, “devastatingly”.
In criticising the president of a historical society in New Jersey (no name given) for the letter he (or she) wrote to Einstein (thereby exposing what Dawkins calls “the weakness of the religious mind”, he comments: “What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice”. I can’t quote the letter in full, but Dawkins is over-stating his case, and misrepresenting the letter writer. I might have reason to dislike the letter myself, but in it I find no evidence of the “cowardice” that Dawkins so readily diagnoses, and indeed I find something generous in its concluding sentence: “…I hope, Dr Einstein, that you were misquoted and that you will yet say something more pleasing to the vast number of the American people who delight to do you honor”.
If language is not so much a tool of thought as the medium within which thought crystallises, it is, in itself, integral with our sense of logic and meaning. This is necessary to understand this if we are also to understand why he loses his argument from place-to-place by an inadequate command of his medium Take the following phrase, for example, used as a chapter heading (I am indebted to another reviewer, by the way, for this insight): “Why there is almost certainly no God”. To be “almost certain” is certainly not to be “certain”; in fact, it is to be uncertain. Therefore, to be “almost certain” that there is no god is just not good enough in a book which calls god indisputably delusional. If god does exist, then it is certainly in the crack created by his word “almost” where he will be found. And another example: he says that an atheist is “somebody who believes that there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking beyond the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles…” Believes? If atheists are people who define themselves in terms of what they believe (as opposed to what they know) then surely they are no different from the so-called delusionists of his book’s title?
He is given to generalisation, sometimes benign, it is true, but sometimes mendacious: “…for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind, and indeed, a healthy mind…” and separately, “The genie of religious fanaticism is rampant in present-day America….”, which diminish rather than strengthen his argument.
It’s easy enough to provide a list of all the bad things in history you can lay at the door of religion, as he readily does, but to be even-handed, you also need to account for the origin of non-religious evil such as was incarnated in people like Stalin, Hitler (no-one could seriously argue that it was his Christianity that motivated Hitler’s desire for lebensraum), Pol-Pot, Amin or Mugabe, or which inspired the Japanese in WW 2. It may appear to be true that religion and belief in god cause people to do bad things, but the key question is: which is the cause, and which the effect? Do you behave badly because of religion, or in spite of religion? He approvingly quotes Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg, who apparently said: “With or without it [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion”, which would make a good aphorism if someone were able to demonstrate that it was true.
Religious people participated in the South African Boer War (26 000 dead in concentration camps), in the 1st World War, and in the 2nd World War, but no-one could claim that religion or god-delusion was the cause or even the proximate cause of those wars. It may be true that religion provides opportunity for the accumulation of power and profit, and to do the bad things such an accumulation often entails, and it may even be true that to abandon religion and a delusional belief in god might be to close down some of those pathways to power and profit. But even if we were to admit this, the more fundamental question that needs addressing is: where does the human desire for power and profit come from, and the potential for evil? For its existence does not originate in religion, or, alternatively, if it did, this would be the particular cause and affect relationship which Dawkins would have to demonstrate. By ignoring complexity, and thereby avoiding the resistance that opposing ideas might provide, Dawkins vaults clean over his horse, and falls on the other side.
The raising of consciousness isn’t the only opportunistic position Dawkins takes up. Making an overt comparison with the world of homosexuality and the fears of public recognition it often entails, he also writes, he tell us, to encourage closet atheists to come out into the open. “My dream” he says, “is that this book may help people to come out”. Again, I must report that I find myself plainly incredulous. Certainly in the worlds I am reasonably conversant with – Britain, Western Europe, the Commonwealth, perhaps even Canada – it is risible to suggest any comparison between “coming out of the closet”, and “admitting” to being an atheist! Why, all of 40 years ago, on campuses in England, you needed courage to admit to being a Christian, not an atheist! It was a major social indiscretion to be caught going to church on a Sunday morning, and nobody in serious argument quoted from the Bible. Christianity as an aspect of public life in Britain is under siege. South Africa, for instance, is constituted as a secular state (and so also, surprisingly, is Italy). But it is a symptom of the contrived nature of Dawkins’s enterprise that he has continually to inflate the social problem he nominally diagnoses (delusional belief in god) in order to justify attacking it. Dawkins is surely being disingenuous to suggest that in all of the territories I have referred to where he is currently selling books by the lorry load, and earning a pretty penny from so doing, he is providing a service to crypto-atheists and other sorts of non-believers by helping them build up the courage they would otherwise lack to declare themselves.
So that leaves us with the USA, where, he fears, fundamental religiosity is a dangerous phenomenon that must be resisted. He produces a rash of statistical evidence to justify his concern, but there remains a challenging job of interpretation to do before these stats can be taken to be supportive of his case, and it is notable that others do not share his diagnosis. Writing in Prospect magazine (November 2006, Issue 128), AC Grayling reaches the opposite conclusion:
What we are witnessing is not the resurgence of religion, but its death throes…The historical precedent of the counter-Reformation is instructive. For over a century after Luther nailed his theses to Wittenberg’s church door, Europe was engulfed in ferocious religious strife, because the church was losing its hitherto hegemonic grip and had no intention of doing so without a fight. Millions died, and Catholicism won some battles even as it lost the war. We are witnessing a repeat today…As before, the grinding of historical tectonic plates will be painful and protracted. But the outcome is not in doubt. As private observance, religion will of course survive among minorities; as a factor in public and international affairs it is having what might be its last—characteristically bloody—fling.
Nevertheless, assuming for the moment that Dawkins is right to be concerned about the rise of religious fundamentalism in America, what possible effect will his book have on it? Who does he think he is persuading? It would be instructive in this regard to see a breakdown of his sales in the USA. I bet by far the major portion are coming from East Coast and West Coast metros: New York, Boston, San Francisco and other comparable centres where secular humanism represents the established hegemony.
And how many are coming from the Bible-belt, the very heartland of his claimed readership target? If it is populated by the kind of people who burnt John Lennon’ records, are they really going to buy in significant numbers a book with so satanic a title a The God Delusion? And there is something of a contradiction between his aim (to persuade atheists to come out of the closet) and his message, for the very people he claims to be targeting are also the people he is at pains to prove are beyond the reach of rational persuasion. He appears to engage with this contradiction by writing: “… I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there, people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious…or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it”, but such a bromide does not save him from it. If the people are open-minded and possessed of native intelligence, they will be open-minded and intelligent in their religious views, and the desire to further “improve” their condition is surely hubristic. It further seems to me contradictory to posit an America in the grip of rampant Christian fundamentalism, and an America he in a different context in his book posits as being well-populated by atheists (“But the isolation of American atheists is an illusion…Atheists in America are more numerous than most people realise…”).
If it is my case against Dawkins that he fails to engage with necessary complexity, it is a case well made by reference to Dawkins’s use of statistics. Even if one were to acknowledge the point that Grayling is quoted as making above, it would, I take it, be non-contentious to observe that some parts of the population of America are participating in a religious revival of sorts. But for the purposes of writing a book about the implications of this revival for America and for the world, or for the effect it might be having on the moral character of the people of America or the world, you need to convert simple quantitative analysis to complex qualitative analysis. What exactly does it mean when people report in a questionnaire (for instance) that they are Christian, believe the world was created 6500 years ago, and believe also that miracles have taken place and continue to take place? Yes, it offends Dawkins that people might hold such views, and indeed it offends me too. I guess both of us need simply to cope with that sense of offence and move on to the things in life that don’t give us offence.
But more importantly, we know that what people say they believe and what they actually believe can easily be different things. We also know that how people respond to a questionnaire and how they respond to the exigencies of life can be different. If the people of America had to respond to a questionnaire asking them if they ranked more highly the value of a Mercedes SLK or family love, you can bet your bottom dollar that nearly all of them would say “family love”, which would hardly explain the galloping divorce rate or the widespread aspiration to own Mercedes Benz SLKs. On the basis of such a questionnaire we would not be justified in reaching what might seem like the obvious conclusion that Americans are not materialists. If people claim to believe in myth and miracle, but place their faith in scientific principle when they fly in jetliners or go for eye surgery, can we be sure we are entitled to say that we understand them adequately? Of course there are real flashpoints where religious faith meets scientific rationalism, and we know them well: abortion, stem cell research, etc. On these issues, Dawkins expresses his sense of moral outrage – again, one that I share – but he hardly adds anything new to the debate, and tactically, you have to question whether he furthers the cause of reason by telling the pro-lifers to abandon their religion.
He makes much of the apparent fact, supported by those damned statistics, that the one attribute that will bar you from holding an elected office in America is your declared atheism. This may see lamentable, but actually, in what way does it matter? What surely matters are the policies that atheists may be taken to espouse that would make them better representatives of the public than the god-deluded representatives. The point he makes and the outrage he expresses are easy, and, dare I say it, cheap. By his own admission, there are a great many crypto-atheists in public office, who we must assume are cryptically pushing their atheist agendas, whatever they may be, and shaping public policy accordingly, but the really key point to be made - the more challenging and the more difficult one - is what would atheist qua atheist public policy be on the major issues of our times? (More on this below).
He really does set out to climb an exceedingly low mountain in The God Delusion. Another way of refusing to engage with complexity is by conflating all religious belief that is based (in his view) on a god-delusion. It would be an arresting argument that held that all deistic religious affiliation was equally delusional, and therefore equally objectionable, and certainly not one that I would automatically reject. The argument would be tested by the following question: is the Anglican parish priest who spends a lifetime doing what Wordsworth called “…little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love…” but who also celebrates communion on Sundays by drinking wine and eating wafers which he takes to be the blood and flesh of Jesus as delusional as the Islam warrior who blows himself up along with 20 innocent victims in the belief that he is doing god’s work, and making the world a better place? It is a question that needs to be answered and an argument that needs to be made, and both answered and made with a great deal of persuasive power. Dawkins eschews the argument, and simply asserts his answer: yes they are.
He certainly nowhere in his book gives any evidence of agreeing that there might be important distinctions to be made between different forms of religious delusion. He overtly says that, for his purposes, the differences (between the three great monotheistic religions) matter less than their similarities. This is altogether too easy. Would he prefer to live with his family in the Bible belt of America or in Iran? No doubt some real differences in delusion start to appear when one is put to the challenge of answering such a question. He runs scared of the challenge. He dissimulates with an apparent even-handed treatment of the equally delusional states of Christians, Jews and Moslems. It is quite right to wonder what moral high ground any of these deistic religions can claim to occupy, but in allowing the matter to rest there, he cuts himself far too much slack. Say what you like about Christianity, it lives in peaceful harmony with democracy and freedom; but the same cannot be said for Islam, which is mounting a deadly serious challenge to democracy and freedom throughout the western world. By pretending that all god-delusions are the same, Dawkins is, I suggest, simply being a coward. He makes much of the Islamic reaction to the cartoons carried in Jyllends-Posten, but real even-handedness would surely entail comparing such a reaction very adversely indeed with the politely expressed sense of hurt Christians felt in reaction to The Life of Brian.
Here is another kind of complexity any critique of religion would have to engage with. It takes the form of a quote from an interview conducted with the makers of a TV programme I regret to admit I have never seen, but would probably be known to NER readers, South Park (Reasonoline, an interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone). Apparently it is as scabrous and iconoclastic a satire on human foible as has yet been made, recognising no cow too holy to slaughter. The makers of South Park, secular, materialist, and about as non-delusional as you can get were drawn into the following admission:
In the episode “All About Mormons” a Mormon family moves to South Park, and one of the boys finds out that they’re pretty nice. Then they have a fight, and at the end the Mormon boy teaches him a moral lesson: “Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life and a great family and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice, and helping people, and even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.
Sitting by myself in the quiet of my study, I could have broken out into applause when I read this, not so much, I think, because of the sentiment expressed by the Mormon boy, but because of the scathing honesty of the irreligious satirists who wrote it. They recognize something that Dawkins appears to miss. Is that Mormon boy diminished by holding a set of beliefs Dawkins believes to be infantile? Would he be improved by sharing Dawkins’s atheism? Yes, it takes some growing up before you recognize the complexity of the human animal.
The question I keep putting to myself as I read The God Delusion is this: what are the real societal, political or even educational problems that exist as a result of this delusion, and it what way are they solved by taking Dawkins’s advice. One of the objections to delusion, he argues, is that it stands in the way of science, the scientific ethos, and the realisation of our scientific potential. (“…it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect”). Like Dawkins, I am a passionate supporter of the scientific enterprise in all of its forms, and if Dawkins were right, I would also be an implacable enemy of delusion. But I have to wonder whether he is not - again – overstating a problem in order to justify the radical cure he proposes. Is the work of science hampered by religious delusion? Some while ago – as an interviewing journalist – I had the opportunity to speak to an American man who enjoys serious eminence as one of the world’s foremost genetic scientists, and must hover perilously close to wining a Nobel prize. I tried to draw him on the subject of the opposition of the religious right in America to aspects of scientific work in stem cell research and embryonic screening. The best I could get out of him was something like this, very diffidently uttered: “Yes, there is a minor problem of tactics…we don’t waste time and energy in public stand-offs…and we get our research done…”
Dawkins is being simplistic. Yes, sometimes it happens that religious fundamentalism get into the way of scientific research. The far more astonishing thing, it seems to me - and certainly much more damning of the ontology of faith – is that religious fundamentalism compromises its position so fluently, so readily and so easily to accommodate the scientific evidence that by rights ought to destroy it. The Christian farmers that I know, who pray in church every Sunday, have no problem whatsoever following selective breeding methods, or otherwise harnessing the fruits of scientific research for their agricultural gain. In such a context, the Amish are the only true opponents of the scientific approach, and one can hardly argue that this small band of determined and charming antediluvians is a threat to the scientific enterprise.
It is, I think, an exaggeration to imagine that science and scientific research is to any meaningful extent encumbered (in the West, at least) by religious bigotry. From time-to-time religious objections are legitimate, and must be faced and satisfied. And we must remember that science, and particular the application of science in technology such as nuclear power generation, space travel, or the aero-industry is often opposed by lobbies that are purely secular. As Dawkins himself tells us, only 7% of the members of the American National Academy of Sciences profess belief in a personal god, so we must assume that few of the top scientists in America are hampered in their vocation by their delusions of godhead. We also cannot argue that more young people would go into science but for their religious beliefs, for this would be a bit like saying that far more people would go in for science if only they didn’t prefer the humanities. I’m not sure that we have a shortage of scientists in the world, as those who seek employment in scientific research would probably verify. To me, the god delusion looks more and more like a straw man.
Dawkins seeks to demonstrate that he is in good scientific company as an atheist, but the proof he assembles is unpersuasive, and for a scientist with a deserved reputation for objectivity, it is subject to bias that comports closely with dishonesty, for he seriously misrepresents the position of Stephen Hawking, author of the two History of Time books. The view that I have expressed at NER reviewing Hawking’s work is available here for those interested. My main criticism is that Hawking resorts to appeals to the divine intelligence and to the divine architect far too often in his work for him to be taken seriously as a disinterested scientist, especially one who nominally appears to be giving a scientific account of the origin of the universe. Indeed he ends his book with the infamous and profoundly unscientific and unintelligent observation: “For if we find the answer to that [why the universe exists], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.” This observation, Dawkins tells us, has been “notoriously misconstrued… It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that Hawking is a religious man”. Not mistakenly at all. The evidence of his books shows not only that Hawking is a religious man, but that he shares the delusion that god exists with the many millions of fundamentalists that Dawkins so reprobates. Dawkins summons him up as an ally, but an ally he is not - check the evidence!
Of the cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, who wrote The Sacred Depths of Nature, and who “loves churches, mosques and temples”, Dawkins insists with more force than persuasive power, “Yet a careful reading of her book shows that she is really as staunch an atheist as I am”. But why should it require such a careful effort on Dawkins’s part to find her atheism buried in the flotsam of her religiosity? Why should we have confidence in his judgment when he is not disinterested? What set of criteria is needed to differentiate apparent religiosity from actual atheism? And most of all, how come she gets to receive such attentive consideration of her complex views, when the great unwashed are all herded into the same derided fundamentalist camp?
He seeks Einstein also as an ally to his atheist crusade, and works hard to make a distinction between “Einsteinian religion” and “supernatural religion”, but fails. When Dawkins strives, as he puts it, “…to clarify the distinction between supernatural religion on the one hand and Einsteinian religion on the other…” we are enjoined to understand him in the following terms: “…bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional”. What devilish work that little word “only” does in his sentence! Is he by it conceding that there are other sorts of gods?
Einstein may well reject what he calls “a personal god”, but a god who is not a personal god is still a god; a pantheist can displace god into the trees, the rocks and the seas, and a deist can displace god into the so-called laws of the universe, but, disguise the name as you will, it is still god that they recognise, and therefore they are not atheists. Einstein declares that Nature is “a magnificent structure…that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This…” he says “…is a genuinely religious feeling…” But the asseveration in no way helps Dawkins make a distinction between supernatural religion and Einsteinian religion as he supposes it does. Is Einstein’s position “genuinely religious”? If so, what makes it genuinely religious? And if it is genuinely religious, is it not because he sees in that “magnificent structure” evidence of the existence of god?
Let’s assume for the moment that he doesn’t see evidence of god. Under such a circumstance, it seems to me that he has no right to call his feeling “religious”. He may be able to feel humility in the face of human achievements very much greater than his own, but I cannot begin to understand why he should feel humility in the face of a process that evolutionary science is at pains to demonstrate is mechanical, blind and directionless, and I therefore fail whatsoever to understand what gives him the right to call that humility “religious”.
But what of the other case, the case based on the assumption that Einstein is calling his experience religious because he does see evidence of god in that “magnificent superstructure”? Dawkins quotes him as saying: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious”. Yes, that seems to me an unquestionably religious attitude, and I cannot for the life of me understand how it could exist if it was not connected with some recognition of the existence of god, however defined. Call Einstein what you like, but on the evidence of his own utterance, he is not an atheist.
When Dawkins says that the “metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists” (oh, so that confirms it, they do have a god) “is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible…” he is guilty, again, of exaggeration; the gods may be different, certainly, but not different in the measure of light years. Once we have agreed the astonishing truth that gods exist, as the physicists apparently do, our understanding of who or what those gods might be is just fine detail.
He acknowledges that many great scientists often give the impression of “sounding religious”. But apparently they are not, which means that they get from Dawkins a special dispensation that the great delusional unwashed don’t. Martin Rees is allowed to be something like an honorary atheist, for whereas he goes to church on Sundays, he goes (he admits) as “an unbelieving Anglican…out of loyalty to the tribe”, which probably makes him as much a Christian as millions of others who incur Dawkins’s disapproval, although it is disapproval that Rees himself escapes, probably because he is an eminent scientist. I would feel a great deal more confident of the honesty of Dawkins’s investigation had he taken it upon himself to give his scientific colleague one moerse klap* for being such a pathetic hypocrite, simultaneously besmirching the magisteria of both science and religion.
Dawkins is himself not immune to a sense of mystery. He describes himself as a boy: “…tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way.” What exactly, we are entitled to ask him in the context of the book he has written, did he hear, and why should it have made him tearful? We may congratulate ourselves on our status as rational scientists when we avoid images of patriarchal gods in the sky, and substitute in their place words like “transcendent wonder” (Sagan’s phrase, approved by Dawkins), or “pantheistic reverence” (Dawkins’s phrase) but I find it hard to believe that wonder and reverence could be evoked by mere complexity; they are sensations evoked in the face of incomprehensibility and mystery. And if the wonder is transcendent, where does the transcendence take us, if not to a place outside of the natural world? Many scientists, he agrees, have a “quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe”, but how, I am led to wonder, does “quasi-mystical” differ from “mystical”? Is it mystical or is it not?
It seems plainly to me that, ontologically, Dawkins is straining out gnats the more easily to swallow camels: it is only belief in the little mysteries that are apparently delusional, not belief in the really big mysteries, like the mysteries of nature, or perhaps even the mystery of the origin of the universe.
Let me declare myself at this stage, although it may be apparent to any reader who is still reading this review: I am not a religious person, and although I might loosely say, “I don’t believe in god”, a far better formulation would be: “I have never experienced the presence of god”. I also reject with a fair degree of contempt what I take to be Biblical fairy tales. But it is surely obvious that many intelligent, well-meaning and sensible people see in whatever religious allegiance they have, some kind of metaphor that functions as a catch-all for their sense that life is ultimately a mystery. They call that mystery “god”, just as the physicists call it the Big Bang, and if we hold that the notion “god” is fanciful and infantile, we must surely hold that the formulation “Big Bang”, taken from the nursery, also is. And isn’t it obvious that life is a mystery, and must forever remain one, for we cannot be both knower and known at the same time. Our minds cannot tell us why they exist. This is why I have such contempt (strong word, I know) for the Hawking formulation “complete unified theory that will describe everything in the universe” (ourselves as well, presumably, for we are also part of the universe), and the Dawkins formulation: “…I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding…we may eventually discover that there are no limits.”
The claimed purpose of The God Delusion is to get all of those crypto-atheists “out of the closet”. What would be the purpose? It cannot simply be to help them live happier lives, for he is not a therapist, and he would surely be the first to agree that we are all responsible for our own happiness. And in the matter of belief, it seems clear to me that everyone should be free to believe whatever they want to, subject only to the rights to freedom of others. The purpose can only be then, as far as Dawkins is concerned, to make the world a better place. Atheists would do things differently, and this ultimately means that they would be different politicians with different kinds of goals from the politicians and the political goals we currently have. “Even if they can’t be herded, cats [atheists] in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored” he writes. So what kind of noise would he want them to make? He further wonders: “What might American atheists achieve if they organised themselves properly?” This is not just unhelpful, it is downright pusillanimous, for the key question is: what would Dawkins like them to achieve? Would their achievements be better than the achievements of the god-delusionists?
A very real task, it seems to me, and one that only a brave person would undertake, would be an examination of the political consequences were our public policies to be based on such principles as the newly organised atheists making a noise were to formulate. There, it seems to me, is the rub. If god is a delusion, scientifically demonstrable, then Dawkins really ought to be campaigning for the abolition of the monarchy in England, and the disestablishment of the Church of England. He should be campaigning for the dissolution of Israel, and he should be the most high-profile antagonist of Islam the world has yet seen. I should expect to see him leading a campaign against the outlawing of what is laughably called religious hate speech, going out of his way to give offence to Islamic states and their leaders, and – above all else - challenging Islamic influence in England, his own back yard.
He has instead left us a theoretical work on the origin of bad weather without ever having left the safety of the harbour. Yes, there are good things in his book, but overall it is a very ordinary achievement.
* Afrikaans, meaning something like: “a damn good clout”.
NB: At the risk of sounding like I am milking a commercial opportunity, I should point out that I am the author of a book, Open Minds, Closed Minds and Christianity (Aardvark), published in South Africa only, a year or more before The God Delusion appeared. It is also a critical review of Christian history and theology, and it shares some similarities with Dawkins’s book, but has some major differences. I am aware that I am responsible myself for some of the errors of judgment I allege against Dawkins. Readers sufficiently interested can track the book down on the Internet.
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