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The God Delusion

March 4, 2012

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.


From → Book Review

  1. Kiah permalink

    Your third point is very interesting. I’ve never looked at the world in that sort of light before but it makes sense when I can actually find a way to wrap my brain around it. I wonder, though, if there’s a line we should draw in accepting such behaviors as those you mentioned due to a mentality of thinking that has since evolved? If so, then where does it lay and how do we decide that? Surely rape and other such heinous crimes cannot be pardoned because it was a different time? And by the standards of the mental evolution theory, how much of the Bible can believers take at face value?

    I’d love to hear more of your views on this subject.

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