Thursday, January 04, 2007

The God problem

In a recent essay in Time Magazine, Andrew Sullivan points to the prominence of religion as the most salient aspect of the closing years of the 20th century and the beginning ones of the 21st. Although he is a Roman Catholic, Sullivan is by no means comfortable with this resurgence. And indeed with the evidence that religion is crucially implicated in violence in Northern Ireland, West Africa, and the Middle East, what thinking person could be? While our evangelicals are not violent in this way, the efforts of some of them to turn the US into a theocracy are frightening.

It is in this context, I believe, that the interventions of such atheists as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins must be placed. Unfortunately, they are not doing a very good job. For one thing, they identify religion with the three Abrahamic varieties, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is scarcely an acceptable conspectus of world religion. Animism may be, in our eyes, superstition, but as a rule these beliefs do no harm apart from those who subscribe to them. The views of Scientologists I find preposterous, but they are not setting off car bombs. And to turn from the ridiculous to the sublime, Buddhism and Taoism have benefited hundreds of millions of human beings, without fostering the sort of murderousness that our Big Three have caused. So why don't Harris and Dawkins call a spade a spade? Harm is being caused by the faiths they were raised in, Judaism and Christianity, plus Islam. That is the way things are. Yet to be frank about this problem would probably lose them many readers.

Much attention has been focused on this harm question, especially as expounded in the latter part of Dawkins book. As the review I am citing in part below shows, however, he is guilty of bad faith in the matter of the harms caused by Marxist atheism. He spuriously claims that the victims of these false beliefs cannot (or perhaps should not) be counted. See, however, The Black Book of Communism for very believable estimates. Then, somehow, Dawkins claims that atheism is just a kind of add-on to Communism, an element not central to it. That would be news to Karl Marx who regarded atheism as the cornerstone of his belief system.

The reality is that atheism has surpassed the Abrahamic religions in the number of its victims in the 20th century. I must stess this point. How did the 20th century acquire its dubious distinction of being the most violent era of world history? The answer is godless totalitarianism--Marxism and fascism.

At any rate Dawkins' book has been devastated by a review coming from a biologist, H. Allen Orr. The full review appears in The New York Review of Books for January 11, 2006. Below are some major excerpts.

[Orr on Dawkins]

Among the [recent crop of books advocating atheism], Dawkins's The God Delusion stands out for two reasons. First, it's by far the most ambitious. . . . Dawkins is on a mission to convert. He is an enemy of religion, wants to explain why, and hopes thereby to drive the beast to extinction. Second, Dawkins has succeeded in grabbing the public's attention in a way that other writers can only dream of. His book is on the New York Times best-seller list and he's just been featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

Dawkins's first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), was a smash hit. An introduction to evolutionary theory, it explained a number of deeply counter-intuitive results, including how an apparently self-centered process like Darwinian natural selection can account for the evolution of altruism. . . .

Dawkins clearly believes his background in science allows him to draw strong conclusions about religion and, in The God Delusion, he presents those conclusions in language that's stronger still. Dawkins not only thinks religion is unalloyed nonsense but that it is an overwhelmingly pernicious, even "very evil," force in the world. His target is not so much organized religion as all religion. And within organized religion, he attacks not only extremist sects but moderate ones. Indeed, he argues that rearing children in a religious tradition amounts to child abuse.

Dawkins's book begins with a description of what he calls the God Hypothesis. This is the idea that "the universe and everything in it" were designed by "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence." This intelligence might be personal (as in Christianity) or impersonal (as in deism). Dawkins is not concerned with the alleged detailed characteristics of God but with whether any form of the God Hypothesis is defensible. His answer is: almost certainly not. Although his target is broad, Dawkins discusses mostly Christianity, partly because this faith has wrestled often with science and partly because it's the tradition Dawkins knows best (he was reared as an Anglican).

The first few chapters of The God Delusion are given over to philosophical matters. Dawkins summarizes the traditional philosophical arguments for God's existence, from Aquinas through pre-Darwinian arguments from biological design, along with the traditional arguments against them. . . .

The latter half of The God Delusion is partly devoted to Dawkins's discussion of religion as practiced. Not surprisingly, he finds little good to say about it: religion for him is the root of much evil and its disappearance from the world would be an unmitigated good. Religion, he tells us, is certainly not the source of our morality (indeed the God of the Old Testament is, he claims, nothing short of monstrous) and believers are no better morally than nonbelievers; in fact they may be worse. Dawkins regales us with tales of Christian cops who threaten to beat up an atheist; presents statistics on the higher rates of crime in regions that are religious; and argues that, when considering religiously inspired violence and terrorism, "we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism—as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent re-ligion." Late in his book, Dawkins defends a faith-free morality and provides his own, secular, Ten Commandments. (For example, "Do not indoctrinate your children" and "Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else).")

. . . Dawkins when discussing religion is, in effect, a blunt instrument, one that has a hard time distinguishing Unitarians from abortion clinic bombers. What may be less obvious is that, on questions of God, Dawkins cannot abide much dissent, especially from fellow scientists (and especially from fellow evolutionary biologists). Indeed Dawkins is fond of imputing ulterior motives to those "Neville Chamberlain School" scientists not willing to go as far as he in his war on religion: he suggests that they're guilty of disingenuousness, playing politics, and lusting after the large prizes awarded by the Templeton Foundation to scientists sympathetic to religion. The only motive Dawkins doesn't seem to take seriously is that some scientists genuinely disagree with him.

Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins's work, I'm afraid that I'm among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur. I don't pretend to know whether there's more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins's general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).

Instead, Dawkins has written a book that's distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins's intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer, both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein—both of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan. Dawkins spends much time on what can only be described as intellectual banalities: "Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question."

The vacuum created by Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought must be filled by something, and in The God Delusion, it gets filled by extraneous quotation, letters from correspondents, and, most of all, anecdote after anecdote. Dawkins's discussion of religion's power to console, for example, is interrupted by the story of the Abbott of Ampleforth's joy at learning of a friend's impending death; speculation about why countries, such as the Netherlands, that allow euthanasia are so rare (presumably because of religious prejudice); a nurse who told Dawkins that believers fear death more than nonbelievers do; and the number of days of remission from Purgatory that Pope Pius X allowed cardinals and bishops (two hundred, and fifty, respectively). All this and more in four pages. . . .

One reason for the lack of extended argument in The God Delusion is clear: Dawkins doesn't seem very good at it. Indeed he suffers from several problems when attempting to reason philosophically. The most obvious is that he has a preordained set of conclusions at which he's determined to arrive. Consequently, Dawkins uses any argument, however feeble, that seems to get him there and the merit of various arguments appears judged largely by where they lead.

. . . Exercises in double standards also plague Dawkins's discussion of the idea that religion encourages good behavior. Dawkins cites a litany of statistics revealing that red states (with many conservative Christians) suffer higher rates of crime, including murder, burglary, and theft, than do blue states. But now consider his response to the suggestion that the atheist Stalin and his comrades committed crimes of breathtaking magnitude: "We are not in the business," he says, "of counting evils heads, compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity." We're not? We were forty-five pages ago.

Dawkins's problems with philosophy might be related to a failure of metaphysical imagination. When thinking of those vast matters that make up religion—matters of ultimate meaning that stand at the edge of intelligibility and that are among the most difficult to articulate—he sees only black and white. Despite some attempts at subtlety, Dawkins almost reflexively identifies religion with right-wing fundamentalism and biblical literalism. Other, more nuanced possibilities— varieties of deism, mysticism, or nondenominational spirituality—have a harder time holding his attention. It may be that Dawkins can't imagine these possibilities vividly enough to worry over them in a serious way.

There's an irony here. Dawkins's main criticism of those who doubt Darwin—and it's a good one—is that they suffer a similar failure of imagination. Those, for example, who argue that evolution could never make an eye because anything less than a fully formed eye can't see simply can't imagine the surprising routes taken by evolution. In any case, part of what it means to suffer a failure of imagination may be that one can't conceive that one's imagination is impoverished. It's hard to resist the conclusion that people like James and Wittgenstein struggled personally with religion, while Dawkins shrugs his shoulders, at least in part because they conceived possibilities—mistaken ones perhaps, but certainly more interesting ones— that escape Dawkins.

Putting aside these philosophical matters, Dawkins's key empirical claim—that religion is a pernicious force in the world—might still be right. Is it? Throughout The God Delusion, Dawkins reminds us of the horrors committed in the name of God, from outright war, through the persecution of minority sects, acts of terrorism, the closing of children's minds, and the oppression of those having unorthodox sexual lives. No decent person can fail to be repulsed by the sins committed in the name of religion. So we all agree: religion can be bad.

But the critical question is: compared to what? And here Dawkins is less convincing because he fails to examine the question in a systematic way. Tests of religion's consequences might involve a number of different comparisons: between religion's good and bad effects, or between the behavior of believers and nonbelievers, and so on. While Dawkins touches on each, his modus operandi generally involves comparing religion as practiced —religion, that is, as it plays out in the rough-and-tumble world of compromise, corruption, and incompetence— with atheism as theory. But fairness requires that we compare both religion and atheism as practiced or both as theory. The latter is an amorphous and perhaps impossible task, and I can see why Dawkins sidesteps it. But comparing both as practiced is more straightforward. And, at least when considering religious and atheist institutions, the facts of history do not, I believe, demonstrate beyond doubt that atheism comes out on the side of the angels. Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual facts that (1) the twentieth century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.

Part of Dawkins's difficulty is that his worldview is thoroughly Victorian. He is, as many have noted, a kind of latter-day T.H. Huxley. The problem is that these latter days have witnessed blood-curdling experiments in institutional atheism. Dawkins tends to wave away the resulting crimes. It is, he insists, unclear if they were actually inspired by atheism. He emphasizes, for example, that Stalin's brutality may not have been motivated by his atheism. While this is surely partly true, it's a tricky issue, especially as one would need to allow for the same kind of distinction when considering religious institutions. (Does anyone really believe that the Church's dreadful dealings with the Nazis were motivated by its theism?)

In any case, it's hard to believe that Stalin's wholesale torture and murder of priests and nuns (including crucifixions) and Mao's persecution of Catholics and extermination of nearly every remnant of Buddhism were unconnected to their atheism. Neither the institutions of Christianity nor those of communism are, of course, innocent. But Dawkins's inability to see the difference in the severity of their sins— one of orders of magnitude—suggests an ideological commitment of the sort that usually reflects devotion to a creed.

What of the possibility that present-day churchgoers are worse morally than those who stay away? They might be. Indeed C.S. Lewis, in perhaps the most widely read work of popular theology ever written, Mere Christianity, conceded the possibility. Emphasizing that the Gospel was preached to the weak and poor, Lewis argued that troubled souls might well be drawn disproportionately to the Church. As he also emphasized, the appropriate contrast should not, therefore, be between the behavior of churchgoers and nongoers but between the behavior of people before and after they find religion. Under Dawkins's alternative logic, the fact that those sitting in a doctor's office are on average sicker than those not sitting there must stand as an indictment of medicine. (There's no evidence in The God Delusion that Dawkins is familiar with Lewis's argument.)

In any case, there are some grounds for questioning whether Dawkins's project is even meaningful. As T.S. Eliot famously observed, to ask whether we would have been better off without religion is to ask a question whose answer is unknowable. Our entire history has been so thoroughly shaped by Judeo-Christian tradition that we cannot imagine the present state of society in its absence. But there's a deeper point and one that Dawkins also fails to see. Even what we mean by the world being better off is conditioned by our religious inheritance. What most of us in the West mean—and what Dawkins, as revealed by his own Ten Commandments, means—is a world in which individuals are free to express their thoughts and passions and to develop their talents so long as these do not infringe on the ability of others to do so. But this is assuredly not what a better world would look like to, say, a traditional Confucian culture. There, a new and improved world might be one that allows the readier suppression of in-dividual differences and aspirations. The point is that all judgments, including ethical ones, begin somewhere and ours, often enough, begin in Judaism and Christianity. Dawkins should, of course, be applauded for his attempt to picture a better world. But intellectual honesty demands acknowledging that his moral vision derives, to a considerable extent, from the tradition he so despises.

One of the most interesting questions about Dawkins's book is why it was written. Why does Dawkins feel he has anything significant to say about religion and what gives him the sense of authority presumably needed to say it at book length? The God Delusion certainly establishes that Dawkins has little new to offer. Its arguments are those of any bright student who has thumbed through Bertrand Russell's more popular books and who has, horrified, watched videos of holy rollers. Dawkins is obviously entitled to his views on God, ballet, and currency markets. But I doubt he feels much need to pen books on the last two topics.

The reason Dawkins thinks he has something to say about God is, of course, clear: he is an evolutionary biologist. And as we all know, Darwinism had an early and noisy run-in with religion. What Dawkins never seems to consider is that this incident might have been, in an important way, local and contingent. It might, in other words, have turned out differently, at least in principle. Believers could, for instance, have uttered a collective "So what?" to evolution. Indeed some did. The angry reaction of many religious leaders to Darwinism had complex causes, involving equal parts ignorance, fear, politics, and the sheer shock of the new. The point is that it's far from certain that there is an ineluctable conflict between the acceptance of evolutionary mechanism and the belief that, as William James putit, "the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe." Instead, we and Dawkins might simply be living through the reverberations of an interesting, but not especially fundamental, bit of Victorian history. If so, evolutionary biology would enjoy no particularly exalted pulpit from which to preach about religion.

None of this is to say that evolutionary biology cannot inform our view of religion. It can and does. At the very least it insists that the Lord works in mysterious ways. More generally, it demands rejection of anything approaching biblical literalism. There are facts of nature—including that human beings evolved on the African savanna several million years ago—and these facts are not subject to negotiation. But Dawkins's book goes far beyond this. The reason, of course, is that The God Delusion is not itself a work of either evolutionary biology in particular or science in general. None of Dawkins's loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It's just Dawkins talking.

We should not, though, conclude that there's no debate whatever to be had between science and religion. The view championed by Stephen Jay Gould and others that the two endeavors are utterly distinct and thus incapable of interfering with each other is overly simplistic. There have been, and likely will continue to be, real disagreements between legitimate science and authentic religion. Some of the issues involved are epistemological (Do scientific and religious claims simply begin with different premises, the first material-ist and the second not?), and others ethical (Where do we draw the line between what medicine can accom-plish and what it should be allowed to accomplish?). These questions are difficult and might well merit extended discussion between scientific and religious thinkers. But if such discussions are to be worthwhile, they will have to take place at a far higher level of sophistication than Richard Dawkins seems either willing or able to muster.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dawkins has consistently shown himself an able evolutionary biologist and an equally able polemicist. Other than the Selfish Gene, most of his better writings are short essays, not sustained polemics. What Dawkins seems to forget is that Darwin's facts and theories about evolution does not require a creator or a deity of any kind, which is the principal reason why religionists were so opposed to the science. Darwin, while once religious, became a silent atheist, so not to tarnish by association his science, a stance that Dawkins might have considered for himself before such a useless assault on all religion. The problem is that the "problem of god" is far more complex than a simple dismissal (which is a tendency of his), which as most reviewers are observing, may still be desired, rather than rejected as as an unnecessary fancy, Pascal Bouyer, an evolutionary anthropologist, offers an evolutionary anthropological view of religion in general that I found compelling.

Sam Harris has an interesting twist on religion as a malevolent force, especially the Abrahamic ones. It's not that the monotheists are necessarily prone to violence, but their histories are not innocent of innocent being of some pretty horrid affairs. The Eastern "religions," for Harris, are benign, assuming they are religion, at all. Taoism and Confucianism are more like Epicureanism and and Stoicism, and even Buddhism is more philosophical that religion, and a "view" that Harris himself adopts and advocates.

But the "question of God" is itself the problem, that has no answer. As Bouyer illustrates, there may be evolutionary reasons for believing in a deity (Daniel Dennett takes the very same view). As philosophical theodicy has repeated demonstrated, its efficacy at assailing all religious beliefs is thorough and unrelenting, and it provides valuable reasons for NOT believing such metaphysical superstitions, e.g., articulated by David Hume, J. L. Mackie, and George Smith.

Harris's larger point, though, cannot be denied. The intrusion of religious practices in ordinary affairs and the distortions of actual reality are not allowed in any other arena of human behavior and endeavor, so why then, he legitimately asks, do we "pass" when religious folk make claims bordering on the delusional? In any other context, we'd demand intervention, treatment, or examination of their mental health. It's one thing to have a belief that helps form one's worldview privately, it's another to use religious superstition to cram their irrational agenda down the rest of society's throat, especially since the means of doing so have morphed into a serious perilous situations.

Aside from Christianity's scripture, Judaism's and Islam's scriptures are of a violent, possessive, warmongering deity, and not a "loving" or "peaceful" religion at all. Their strife and conflict, moreover, is no longer a "regional" issue, as the means of terror and war implicate the survival of the world, not just the survival of the species H. sapiens. Given this threat, Harris suggests we demand that these violent religions give a rational account of their malignant beliefs and practices, and surrender their destructive ambitions for the sake of others. We cannot avoid saying WMD and religion in the same breath.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

To suggest that Buddhism and Taoism are "not religions" is a definitional ploy that will not work. In many ways Buddhism is the most profound religion that humanity has ever created, while Taoism is much more than the lapidary truths enshrined in the Daode jing, coming to embrace as it did a whole world-view, along with medical beliefs that are best regarded as metaphysical. And what about animism and Scientology, not to mention others of the 5000 or so religions that humanity has created? These religions are about gods, while Dawkins and Harris attack only the Abrahamic GOD.

An additional problem is that such writers seem tone-deaf to the cultural benefits of religion. Where is the atheist version of Chartres Cathedral and Bach's B-Minor Mass? Or for that matter the Diamond Sutra? To be sure, Dawkins has an appreciation of Wordsworth and other romantic writers, but this seems more formulaic than heartfelt.

Below are fifteen pertinent questions asked by the columnist R. J. Escow:

"Were the wars so often cited by militants (the Crusades, etc.) primarily religious in nature, or did their root causes stem from other factors such as economics, nationalism, and territorial expansion - as many experts in the field suggest? Or is the truth somewhere in between?
Historically, has terrorism been driven primarily by religion - or by other forces? (See Robert Pape's work on the subject.)
Does the historical experience of nontheistic countries challenge the notion that religion is a major factor in causing internal oppression or external military conflict? (Note: I'm not suggesting that nontheistic countries went to war to defend nontheism," as one atheist writer characterized the argument. The question is: Does the absence of religion as a motivator reduce the likelihood of war, as the militants suggest - or not? Suggested countries of study: Cambodia, China/Tibet, USSR.)
What is the extent of religion's role in creating individual discontent and unhappiness through ostracism, sexual repression, prejudice, etc. in various world cultures? (I suspect it's substantial, but I'd like more data.)
Is Islam the origin for genital mutiliation, stoning of adulterous wives, and other abusive practices? (Note: Neither practice is condoned by the Qu'ran, and both existed as tribal practices before Islam. Historically weaker Prophetic sayings, or 'hadith,' are cited to support them. (See Reza Aslan.)
Would the elimination of religion alone eliminate these harmful practices, or would additional actions need to take place?
If so, how can such practices be stopped most quickly and effectively - by campaigning to eliminate all religion, or by using moderate religion as a countermeasure against extremism?
Can the positive influence of religion - in reducing conflict, bringing personal fulfillment, building communities, etc. - be quantified and measured against the negatives?
Do the social problems caused by religion stem from personal religious belief, from organized religious activity, or both?
Is all religious activity harmful, or just the fundamentalist variety (which one research project estimates involves roughly one-fifth of all religious populations)?
Is it true, as some atheists argue that Buddhism's more peaceful doctrine propagates less violence and war than monotheistic religions with violent sacred texts?
Does 'moderate religion' enable fundamentalism to continue? (That's another core militant assumption - also unproven.) Or, does it draw adherents away from fundamentalism and thereby weaken its negative effects?
What's the best way to advocate for needed changes - through aggressive attacks on religion or milder persuasion?
Do the internal dynamics of religious communities suggest that extremism and fundamentalism are the primary source of religion's negative effects - or do these effects come from something fundamental about religious belief itself?
Would the eradication of religion lead to increased trauma, and/or decreased mental and physical health? If so, how should we prepare to address that problem as we work to eradicate religion?"

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to invite you and your readers to join us in reading and discussing Dawkins “The God Delusion” during Q1, 2007. I’m working on getting him in a live chat session for some time in March 2007, but nothing is set in stone. If this chat happens you are welcome to attend.

We had Richard Dawkins for a live chat back in 2003 where we discussed “Unweaving the Rainbow.”

BookTalk - online reading group and book discussion forum

Chris O’Connor

11:17 PM  

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