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Monday, January 05, 2009

dawkins' god delusion revisited

A blogger named Philobyte has found my March 2007 post The God Delusion: A Source Criticism and is not impressed.

It's good that someone religious has read Dawkin's God Delusion. One would hope for some debate of facts and attitudes, but instead there is only sarcasm.

Actually, the technical term is satire, but I'll try not to quibble.

As I read The God Delusion, I was struck most by the unevenness of the book. Dawkins raised some serious issues which show the hollowness of Intelligent Design (ID), he struck some mortal blows at the philosophical "proofs" for God's existence, and he pointed to double-blind experiments on intercessory prayer that have shown it not to be effective.

Dawkins also likened religious instruction to child abuse, he alternately referred to God as an imaginary and an immoral being, and he alleged that suicide bombers take their faith more seriously than soup kitchen volunteers.

The God Delusion is a book with two separate voices competing for attention. So I thought I'd play a little game of source criticism. Philobyte was disappointed with the tack I took:

So you expect some examples of poor research, or self contradiction in the essay, you will be disappointed. The writer sets up "sources" of inspiration for Dawkins:

Erm, no, I set up "sources" who were the "actual authors" of the book. There is "H" who has most of the good arguments, and "A" who comes up with the insults. Then there is Dawkins himself, "R", who blends the writings of "H" and "A", with mixed results.

Of the two "authors", "H" has the more modest goal … to disprove the "god hypothesis", which is:

There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

"A" is antagonistic toward all possible concepts of a divine being:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

Now I don't really believe The God Delusion had multiple authors; the "H" and "A" labels are simply a convenient way to sort out the book's two voices.

But for the sake of discussion, I'll drop these imaginary sources. Richard Dawkins is the one whose name is on the book; he is responsible for the ideas found therein — regardless of who might have actually penned them.

Had Dawkins stuck with the premise of debunking his god hypothesis, this would have been a devastating critique of all "proofs" of the existence of God. Dawkins knows, however, that many believers do not see their deity as a hypothesis; that they would respond simply by saying, "That's not the God I believe in," so he tries to either shoehorn them into the same mold, or dismiss them as not being sincere.

Consider Dawkins' handling of polytheistic religions:

Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? … Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it.

Now I'm no more a believer in Wotan than Dawkins is, but I can't see how this gesture could even begin to cover Dawkins against a charge of neglect. Does Dawkins have a clue about the meaning of the ancient myths (or modern myths, for that matter)? Does he have any familiarity with the work of Joseph Campbell, or of Carl Jung, in understanding how mythology can shape our lives? Does Dawkins show even the tiniest glimmer of understanding of the power of myth? I don't think he has ever looked at mythology beyond maybe a superficial glance.

You see, in the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies, the gods did not create the universe. Had Dawkins wanted to relate his dismissal of mythology to the god hypothesis, he could have pointed to that fact alone, and said nothing more. But Dawkins has a higher goal in mind, that of attacking all religion. He explains in chapter eight:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

Now just how mythology teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue, Dawkins never addresses. He just assumes that we'll take his word without questioning.

Moving on, here's Dawkins on non-theistic religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism:

Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.

This shows Dawkins' gross ignorance, not just of these religions, but of what constitutes a religion. Certainly non-theistic religions don't mesh with Dawkins' god hypothesis, but Buddhist non-theism is very different from atheism. Buddhist non-theism is more about recognizing that the ultimate answers must come from within. This is not incompatible with belief in supernatural beings which may help or hinder the individual in finding those answers. Many Buddhists pray to the Buddha or to other spiritual guides. Meanwhile, Confucian rituals such as taking shoes off when entering the home or burning money as an offering to dead ancestors can hardly be called an ethical system or a philosophy. These are religious rites, performed by religious people who are not the least bit concerned about proving a hypothesis about a creator-god.

So once again, Dawkins is not speaking in the context of the god hypothesis; if he were, these religions would be outside his scope. He's looking to his larger goal of abolishing all religion. But if Dawkins wants to be taken seriously, he needs to explain why Buddhist and Confucian prayers and rituals should be considered a philosophy and not a religion. Where should we draw the line between the one and the other? Or, failing that, Dawkins needs to explain how these religions make the world safe for fundamentalism and teach children that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

I've raised just two very basic questions in this post: What is the power of myth? and, What is the dividing line between religion and philosophy or ethics? In the more than 400 pages of The God Delusion, Dawkins doesn't even begin to address either of these. If he really wants to make the case that religion in all its manifestations is dangerous, he needs to do better than that.

I haven't even touched on Dawkins' lack of understanding of the monotheistic religions; as time allows, I'll address that in a future post.

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