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The God Delusion

I finished reading (or rather listening to, as it was an audiobook) Dawkins’ The God Delusion last week, and have been mulling it over. I find myself fluctuating between thinking very highly and rather poorly of it, and am on the whole torn.

It has a good many virtues for me. For instance, Dawkins’ makes the very good point that the mild levels of religion in a sense permit the extremist, fundamentalist ones, and therefore all religion should be watched carefully and mistrusted. I’m inclined to agree. If you believe a harmless crazy, irrational thing, what’s to keep you from moving on to a harmful one? Not your reason, certainly, that’s already been dismissed. To some extent, I also appreciate his chapter on the origins of morality, in which he argues that we do not draw our morality from religion and provides some evolutionary explanations for it. He is a passionate spokesman for atheists, and we can certainly use them.

In earlier posts and comments I went into some of my issues with him on the question of respect for  believers, so I won’t harp on that again. What is bugging me more than that is (at least) three fold: 1) the way he holds up science (ie. demonstrative argument) as the only road to truth, but makes only rhetorical arguments himself, 2) his complete lack of philosophical thought, and 3) his failure to recognize that human mentality has evolved.

On the first point: This isn’t even subtle. There are no proofs or evidence of any sort given for anything Dawkins’ says. He makes his points by humor, ridicule, shock, and other such tactics, which are employed to get us to ‘see’ the truth of what he says and question no further. How is this any different than the methods used by the religious to convince us of their points? It put me in mind of Descartes’ Meditations where he starts by saying we should throw out all our beliefs and let in only that which we can deduce (leading to the famed first step and already circular argument ‘I think therefore I am’). Then he immediately goes on to say that intuition is also okay and defines it as “the conception which an unclouded and attentive mind gives us so readily and distinctly that we are wholly freed from doubt.” So, if you feel really quite sure about something, that’s as good as proving it. That more or less seems to be Dawkins’ MO most of the time. Only it has to be something he feels really sure about, not anyone he disagrees with.

Point two: Dawkins is not a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination, but he falls into that fallacy of many people who are extremely knowledgeable in a particular field: if I am qualified to comment intelligently on this subject, I can comment intelligently on all subjects. While holding the banner of science proudly high, he completely leaves its tools behind and enters areas where it is not (at least not at this point in time) really even applicable. Reasoning yes, but he doesn’t seem to me to wield that tool so effectively either. For starters, it is to be taken simply for granted that science is the way, the answer, and the light. Now, you’ll get no argument from me on that one, but I’m still not a fan of taking anything for granted. It is a philosophical question, an epistemological one – how do we know things? what does it mean to know? what is truth? do we have any access to truth? – and I get the impression that Dawkins would be way out of his league tackling that sort of thing.

A much smaller example: In Chapter 9, he lays into the Amish for pulling their children out of school before completing high school, because they don’t believe in education past a certain age. To him this is child abuse, and he rails against people who think that religiously-based traditions should be preserved if it means allowing this sort of thing. He talks about the inhumaneness of “sacrificing anyone, especially children, on the altar of diversity.” In some of his examples this is pretty clear, such as with female genital mutilation. As a society we don’t need to preserve or respect that tradition or make exception to our laws to allow it. It is clear physical damage of another human being. But is it reasonable to lump Amish tradition in there in the same breath? Dawkins takes it for granted that keeping children in school until age 16 is a good, and that not to do so is abusive. It isn’t discussed or justified, we’re just supposed to get outraged along with him. And the Amish are ridiculed for their “seventeenth-century time warp”, breeches, bonnets, and all. Shouldn’t we at least pause to ask what makes them so wrong and us so right? The fact that they believe in God?

I saw a documentary on the Amish in which one of them explained the reasoning behind the rejection of technology. He said it was not a wholesale rejection out of principle, but rather that each time someone brought up the idea of introducing some new advancement into the community, they get together and discuss what sort of impact it might have on their lives. The bonds of the community are placed above all else, and innovations that might threaten them are rejected. I think we could all benefit from a bit of that sort of thinking in our lives. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could have talked long and hard about how smart phones would affect our interactions with each other before they flooded the culture, we all got addicted, and a generation of kids hasn’t learned how to talk to people face to face? I’m not saying that children shouldn’t be schooled at least to age 16, but shouldn’t we at least think through it before being so certain of our rightness?

Dawkins isn’t asking any of these sorts of questions, because he isn’t a serious thinker. He ridicules and moves on, certain in the rightness of his position. To me there’s something pretty dishonest about that.

Finally point three: This is a really weird one for me. Throughout the book, whenever there are historical examples, Dawkins talks about the people of earlier times as though they thought exactly the way we do. An Inca child sacrificed on the altar of the sun god? If only she had known what the sun really is she would not have worshipped it as a god and couldn’t have been happy to die. Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac? Blatant child abuse. Lot offering up his daughters to be raped instead of his male guests? Horrific callousness and misogyny.

Yes, all true, if viewed from a modern mentality. But the Incas and the people of the Hebrew Testament clearly had vastly different mentalities from our own, and Dawkins seems to fail to recognize that entirely. It’s downright bizarre to me that a man with such a thorough and deep understanding of Darwinian evolution could not see how much human mentality has evolved. I suspect that even if we had a Babel fish to translate for us, were we transported back in time 3-4000 years, we’d understand the people so little that it would be like talking to aliens. But perhaps it is precisely Dawkins’ focus on biological evolution, with its huge time spans, that keeps him from recognizing that human mental evolution has taken place at a far greater rate and is not dependent of structural changes in the brain.

In chapter 10 he summarizes one of my all-time favorite books, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, and gets it quite wrong. Jaynes, who was a brilliant psychologist and could think rings around Dawkins, presents and argues very compellingly an extraordinary hypothesis that humans were not conscious until around the 2nd millennium BCE. Instead of being capable of introspection and narration of themselves to themselves, which is what we do all the time, they hallucinated voices (just like the voices of schizophrenics, so obviously the brain structure is there) which told them what to do, and which they came to think of as gods. Dawkins explains that clearly enough, but says that people heard these voices and didn’t realize they were internal. Then at some point they figured out that they were coming from inside their heads and not outside, and moved on. This is missing the essential point of the book, which is that the mentality was vastly different from our own. Jayes is saying people weren’t conscious. How can you miss that and say they just didn’t realize that the voices weren’t external? It makes me think that Dawkins read this book so filtered through his own world view that, whether agreeing with it or not, he couldn’t even quite get what was being said.

There are quite a few biblical stories brought up as examples in The God Delusion, and Dawkins applies this fallacy to all of them. Like his fundamentalist opposites, he gives them a very simplistic, literal reading, and then throws them out as trash. Back to the Lot story: Lot offers up his daughters for rape to save his male guests. By modern standards this is of course appalling. Dawkins holds it up to show how far we’ve advanced in our morality that we no longer view women as objects to be disposed of as we please, nor hold the honor of men, even strangers, far above that  of any female. But surely that isn’t the point the story is making? If we put ourselves into the mentality of the period, the daughters aren’t worthless, they are valuable and beloved property. Therefore Lot is showing his virtue by being willing to give up such valued property in order to preserve guests (and messengers of the Lord at that). Jaynes would say that there could have been no conception of the daughters suffering, it was simply a matter of duty versus possessions.

In short, I like Dawkins, but mainly because he’s on my team. I’m inclined to agree with many of his conclusions, and I’m happy that he is passionately fighting on my side. He’s witty and rhetorical, and as our politicians never stop showing us, wit and rhetoric win the day over intellect every time. But I find him a very black-and-white thinker who fails to ask the harder questions or to see fine nuances.


Talking Philosophy with the Kid: Patriotism

A couple weeks ago we were at the public library looking for books on Native American history. Nearby were the shelves of US history and the kid picked up one to look through it. It was well-illustrated, full of jolly pictures of children, fireworks, flags, and dead presidents. It even had an odd picture of a bunch of dead presidents, their faces taken directly from old portraits, portrayed as members of a brass band, while children looked on and cheered. She wanted to check out this book.

“No,” says I, and attempted to redirect her back to the Native American books.

She persisted. “Why not? I like this book.”

After a few more tries to ignore it were thwarted, I saw that I would not escape without some kind of explanation. So I tried. I told her that countries are run by governments and that the primary function of these governments is to take care of the people of the country, but that generally they fall into the hands of rich people whose primary interest is to make themselves more rich, often at the expense of the people of the country. I pointed out the presidents in the picture, a bunch of rich old men, who largely represented the interests of other rich old men. Then I explained that sometimes countries need to fight wars to wars to protect themselves and their people, but that sometimes wars are fought just to further enrich the rich old guys in charge, and that the people whom they are supposed to be protecting get sent off to fight and die for them to get richer.

Now why would the people be willing to do this? Because they have been taught to be patriotic, and to equate love of their country with blind following of what the guys in charge say. So when the guys in charge say that you should go fight and die, people do it, because they think that it is in the interests of their country that they do so. They are being brave and loyal, but they aren’t really questioning whether they are fighting for a good cause, they just believe the people who tell them they are.

I pointed out the picture at the very beginning of the book, the Uncle Sam ‘I Want You’ image. This picture, I explained, is bad news. It’s a jolly, cartoony character telling you to go to war and fight for the rich old guys in charge. You, a small child. Books like this are written to convince small children like you to become blindly patriotic so that when the time comes you will do what the rich guys say and fight in their wars without question. Then I showed her how many more books of this sort there were, full of bright pictures and lies about the history of this country. Several prominently displayed ones were authored by Lynne Cheney. And all through this talk as we sat on the floor between the shelves, I peered around nervously, afraid someone would overhear and berate me for teaching my child anti-Americanism.

Of course, that’s not at all what I’m trying to achieve. This is her country, at least as long as she chooses to live in it, and by all means she should love it. But not unquestioningly and not ‘right or wrong’. One of my biggest goals is to teach her skepticism, to question and think through absolutely everything for herself, so that no one may convince her of anything without her consent. I’m not sure how much she really got out of this talk, as hard as I tried to present it at a 5 year old level. But a friend of mine had a good suggestion, when I told her about it later: talk about this sort of rhetoric whenever and wherever it appears – point out the brightly colored candy bars in the grocery checkout line and the sugary cereals at kid level with cartoon characters on the boxes. What tricks are being played on you with these things? What questions should you be asking yourself? It’s not just religion that tries to rope us into unquestioning belief, but all manner of things in our lives around us at all times. I have tried to shield my daughter from advertising by not allowing it into the house (we have no television, no magazines, junk mail doesn’t make it past the recycling bin by the door), but my friend is right, this isn’t enough. She needs to learn how to be immune to it when she encounters it.

Putting the program into effect. I’ll report back on how it’s going.

Pure Genius

Have 10 minutes to spare? Watch this video.

It’s like all of The God Delusion succinctly encapsulated in one witty poem. With animation!

Religion is Bad for Children

These words first came out of my mouth several years ago, quite without forethought, while riding in an elevator with two friends. I don’t even remember what we were talking about that prompted me to say it, though I do recall their reaction being something along the lines of “We’ll tolerate that because you’re our good friend, but you’re a raving lunatic to say such a thing and it doesn’t deserve consideration.”

I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and still believe it 100%. Here’s why.

Children are by nature magical thinkers. They are incapable of syllogistic reasoning until somewhere around age five, and when it begins, it does so very slowly. My daughter has only recently begun to make her first reasoned arguments, and they are rudimentary and only occasional. When she does, it’s really exciting for me and I light up with praise for her. But most of the connections she makes between things are a sort of reasoning by proximity, which is just magical thinking. For instance, yesterday she was spinning coins. She called tails twice in a row and got heads. Before spinning the third time, she said she would try calling heads in the hopes that this would cause the coin to come up tails. When I asked her why the word she said should affect how the coin fell, she just looked at me blankly, and then went back to spinning. It didn’t even occur to her to consider that her words didn’t determine how the coin fell.

If you’ve ever been acquainted with any small children, you know that’s pretty typical. If they wish for snow and the next morning there is snow, they immediately assume they caused it. We tend to find this rather endearing, but it can also go awry. If a child for some reason wishes for his grandmother’s death and then she dies, he will in the same way assume that he caused her to die and be guilt ridden. possibly to a devastating extent.

It’s our job as parents and other reasoning adults to help nurture the onset of reasoning ability in children and coax them out of this stage into the full ownership of their powers as homo sapiens, just as much as we help the grow in other ways. As soon as their minds are ready for it, they need to be led out of their magical thinking into the rational, scientific thinking of which they are all capable. It will expand their world, give them far greater ability to function in it, and help to preserve them from the bizarre fallacies which can result from magical thinking.

Many adults, however, seem to feel quite the reverse, that children need to be protected from reasoning and encouraged in their childish magical thinking. They equate it with ‘innocence’ (which can be quite a dangerous concept) and want to preserve it as long as possible. This is a strange and I would even go so far as to say abusive retardation of a child’s mental growth, the psychological equivalent of underfeeding him to retard his physical growth. Whence comes this idea that children need (unreal) magic in their lives and that they ought to be protected from being able to think clearly about the world?

I had an argument with my daycare provider a couple months ago because she reprimanded my daughter for telling the other children that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus and then told me I needed to reign her in on this subject. My child was in trouble for telling the truth? She’s depriving them of magic, I was told. So it’s my child’s job to help propagate a lie the other children’s parents have told them? Apparently so. And in fact I am making a mistake by not also telling my child the same lie. I am depriving her of wonder and innocence. My response that I spend time every day showing her the wonders of reality and the unfathomable immenseness of the undiscovered world met with an ‘agree to disagree’ response. But my daughter herself had the wisest words on the subject for me when we discussed it later: “I would like to believe in Santa Clause, but I’d rather you tell me the truth.”

So here is this delicate point in a child’s mental development, when they need to shed the primal, animalistic stage of connection-making by proximity and take up their human inheritance of reason. Enter religion, the queen of magical thinking. Parents and authority figures, instead of teaching reason, telling children that they have a an invisible part of them that can live separately from their bodies and will live forever, that there is an old man in the sky who can read their thoughts, that a man was once born of a virgin and that man can hear their thoughts too, and on and on. Endless lists of nonsensical, magical ideas, which the adults whom the children trust and listen to clearly fervently believe. It feeds into their ready inclination to believe irrational things. How can syllogistic reasoning develop in such an environment? How can a child shed magical thinking when he is being fed more magical ideas all the time? Introduce these ideas for the first time to a fully developed, thinking adult and he may choose to believe them for himself (though more likely he will laugh them off), but a small child is not yet capable of judging the likelihood of what he is told for himself. If it comes from trusted adults, it will be believed, and more often than not held on to in the face of contrary information even when the child has reached an age at which he can reason. How many billions of potentially intelligent thinkers have had their intellectual growth retarded by the malnutrition of religious ideas in childhood?

I know I’m not going to change the way anyone else chooses to raise their child, but at least I can teach my daughter that if A=B and B=C, then A=C. I consider it my moral duty to preserve her from religion.

Talking Philosophy With the Kid: Beyond Good and Evil

Recently my daughter asked me, quite out of the blue while having a bath, if there were such a thing as good and bad. Apparently she saw a movie in which a character says they do not exist, but then later on changes his mind and agrees that they do.

So I introduced her to the subject of relativity. I explained that there is no absolute good or bad, but only good or bad for someone or something. For instance, if our roof leaks that is bad for us. But it’s good for the guy who comes to repair it because it gives him work. And for someone living in a far away place who does not know us, it is irrelevant, neither good nor bad. She listened very thoughtfully and seemed to get it entirely – she was even able to think up several examples of her own. The she asked if destroying the environment isn’t bad for everyone. Yes, I explained, it is. It’s bad for all the people on earth, and all the animals, all life. But is it bad for a star in a far-off galaxy? Or any possible alien life-forms living on a planet in its solar system? No. As irrelevant as our leaky roof to the guy in Mexico City. Nothing is per se good or bad and the universe is vastly indifferent. I think she sort of got it.

Not that a believer couldn’t have this sort of conversation with their child, but to me this is an excellent example of the joys and benefits of raising an atheist child. I don’t tell her about intrinsic, sky-god morality that we must follow, but try to present her with tools to think through the complex questions of ethics herself. Her reasoning muscles are still new and weak, but she’s beginning, and I hope to help her exercise them until they are strong and capable.


I just stumbled on this letter from a father raising atheist children. It’s well written and highly encouraging.

Also, this series of videos. I’ve only had time to watch the first one, which presents the thesis of the rest, but it mades an excellent point. Religion does not have a monopoly on profundity of emotion! I’m looking forward to seeing the rest.

Whiny Cowards?

The other day I came across this post on a website called Catholic Lane.

I read through the summary of the case and indeed, the  plaintiffs alleged that they were “injured because they feel excluded, or made unwelcome when …. ask[ed] … to engage in a religious observance that is contrary to their own principles.” The court ruled that “hurt feelings differ from legal injury” and the plaintiffs were not injured in respect of time or money. No one was being forced to pray nor being abused or selected against for choosing not to pray. It was a battle which had been fought and lost already against Obama’s national day of prayer, and was bound to be lost again.

But does that make the plaintiffs “whiny, sniveling, little, pusillanimous cowards?” The writer, Mary Kochan, takes the reason stated in court at face value as the reason the case was brought in the first place. The atheists had their feelings hurt and couldn’t bear to have to hear about a praying majority. Further, she writes, “You are a pitiful joke. Trembling over the mere mention of God. Running like babies to court because of your brittle feelings. “Oh, but judge, but judge, I saw a cross and I just can’t stand it.”  “I heard someone say ‘Merry Christmas’ and it hurt my feelings.”  “I just can’t sleep knowing there is a manger scene at the courthouse.”  “The sight of the Ten Commandments makes me wet my pants.”

Let’s pause a moment. In most court cases, what is the plaintiff’s objective? To win his point, yes? To gain whatever it is he has come to fight for. To that end, he will say not the bare bones truth of what he feels, but what his lawyer advises him will be the most effective thing to say to win the case. It seems naive to assume anything but that the lawyers of the Freedom From Religion Foundation advised them to plead feeling excluded as the thing that might give them the best chance of winning. Given that, let’s consider what might be the real motivation of any person or organization fighting to keep religion out of government, out of courthouses, out of schools. Just to be clear, to my knowledge these cases are only ever against religion in state organizations. No one is crying to a judge because they saw a cross or heard God mentioned in a non-state setting.

As the statement of this case reminds us, the First Amendment establishes that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” We are certainly not at a point at which any law might come up directly violating that and actually attempting to establish a state religion. But that’s not how these things happen, is it? They happen by degrees, with little things that are hard to argue against. Hitler didn’t come out of nowhere and start deporting Jews. All sorts of small things laid the groundwork in the preceding decade, notions of genetic supremacy, increasingly aggressive anti-Jewish humor, even a board game called ‘Juden Raus’ (Jews out) in which one played at hunting down and arresting gross caricatures of Jews. Just a game, right? Nobody gets hurt. But they get desensitized for when the time comes for the real thing. (story)

So when atheists see religious statements displayed in courts and schools, or informing law, we become alarmed, and it has nothing to do with our tender little feelings. In fact, Christians and all other believers should be just as alarmed. Do any of us really want a particular religious creed enforced by government? Do we want laws dictated by a particular moral code? Even if you happen to agree with most of it, what about the bits you might not agree with? Do you want to be threatened with arrest if you don’t go to church every Sunday? And not the church of your choosing, but the governmentally approved one, the only one left standing. How exactly would this differ from living under the Taliban? Yes, I’m leaping to extremes, but all extreme outcomes start somewhere, often innocently. We should all be anxious to preserve the separation of church and state if we want to maintain freedom of belief, freedom of non-belief, any freedom at all.

On a side note, I’m intrigued by Mary Kochan’s assertions regarding Jefferson’s religiousness, having just read Dawkins’ passage in which he suggests exactly the opposite, that Jefferson may even have been an atheist. I don’t think it’s either here nor there when it comes to the importance of separation of church and state or the Constitution’s clarity on the subject, but I’m curious. I haven’t read Jefferson since college and would like to go through some if his writings to see what my conclusion is about his beliefs.