Monday, 13 June 2011

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

The editorial line of this blog is unsympathetic to Dawkinsian atheism (as it is to religious fundamentalism), but it has to be said that this is far from being a bad book.

Dawkins is a good writer - a man with an obvious gift for communication.  His prose is lucid, readable and even urbane, albeit with occasional intervals of Pooterish lameness.  He is less pompous and more interesting than his fellow antitheist Christopher Hitchens.  He mostly keeps his invective within bounds, though he does not hide his contempt for the supernatural view of the world and those who espouse it.  In all, an admirer will find his approach clear-headed, rigorous and incisive.  An opponent is more likely to find it rigid, simplistic and suffused with its own brand of fundamentalism.  Dawkins even feels obliged to protest at one point that he is "not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking".  It says a lot that he thinks that such a caveat is necessary.
 
 "....its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar...."

When he deals with scientific matters, Dawkins is sure-footed and informative, as befits a leading expert in the field.  On the other hand, the book as a whole suffers from something of a lack of intellectual fibre.  No-one questions Dawkins' calibre as a scientist, but for much of the book he is playing away from his home turf, and it shows.  He seems to have done an awful lot of his research by surfing the internet (and, in one case, reading Playboy, which he presumably buys for the articles).  He is also a little too fond of quoting random anecdotes and media reports.  As other reviewers have noted, there is more than a hint of laziness in all this.  A popular book by an academic writer should do two things: it should assimilate thoroughly the body of specialist knowledge in the relevant field, and it should weave it together and package it in a way that the general book-buying public can understand.  In this case, Dawkins appears to have attempted to go straight to the second stage without properly tackling the first.  I will have more to say about his grasp of his chosen subject of God and religion later.

Dawkins is also given to a degree of exaggeration.  For example, he compares the status of atheists in America today to that of gay people 50 years ago.  It is not clear how this comparison would go down with the thousands of gay Americans who profess religious beliefs, and Dawkins appears to be unaware that gay men were at risk of criminal prosecution and imprisonment in some states as recently as 2003 - something that has never been true of atheists in any period of US history.  Even in Britain, it is reported that 1 in 5 gay people suffer homophobic attacks, a statistic which I highly doubt corresponds with the equivalent figure for American atheists.  It is also worth noting that atheists did not spend most of the 1980s and 90s desperately battling widespread indifference and prejudice while a deadly virus killed hundreds of thousands of them.  As in other cases, one wonders if Dawkins has really thought through what he is saying before putting pen to paper.


II

In many ways, the first chapter of the book is the most interesting one.  This is not Dawkins' intention: he intends it as a means of disposing of an awkward distraction before moving on to the main business of the book.  Basically, he acknowledges that scientists who otherwise have no supernatural beliefs frequently express a quasi-religious awe and wonder at nature and the cosmos, and sometimes express themselves in sacramental terms.  One famous example is Stephen Hawking, with his talk of breathing fire into the equations and knowing the mind of God.  Another is Albert Einstein, who seems to have been a sort of naturalistic pantheist in the mould of Spinoza.

Dawkins himself makes no secret of the numinous fascination that the natural world holds for him.  The book's closing chapter is essentially a paean to the wonders of science as a viable substitute for the mysteries of religious faith.  Dawkins is more than capable of misty-eyed passages on the "poetry of science", speaking of himself as being "tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way" and so forth.  He maintains, however, that none of this has anything to do with belief in a supernatural realm: the object of awe and wonder is the real world, and when God is mentioned by scientists in this sort of context he is simply to be equated with the workings of the universe.  Allowing this kind of thing to get confused with religion is, says Dawkins, "an act of intellectual high treason".

This bluster is not entirely convincing - not only because it relies on a culturally specific Western dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, but also because the sentiment that Dawkins is describing is so transparently proximate to the religious impulse.  There really isn't a vast distance between the naturalistic pantheism of Einstein and the religious pantheism espoused by Matthew Fox and a large number of Unitarian Universalists and neopagans.  Nor, for that matter, is there all that much distance between Dawkins' scientific atheism and ideas found on the left wing of traditional religion as represented by Don Cupitt, Richard Holloway, John Shelby Spong and Reconstructionist Judaism (Dawkins himself refers to Holloway and Spong with apparent sympathy).  I won't insult Dawkins by calling him a religious man, but his position does seem to represent a point on a continuum rather than one side of a deep ravine.

If Dawkins is a little too sure that Einstein's God is not the God of religion, he is less sure about other distinctions.  His confusion is particularly evident in a series of passages near the beginning of the book in which he succeeds in conflating polytheism with monotheism before going on to collapse both into "anything and everything supernatural".  At the same time as he is doing this, he declares that he will be concentrating on the Abrahamic faiths - three rather specific and somewhat atypical religions - before casually mentioning that he is going to ignore "other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism".

This kind of conceptual sloppiness is not on.  Refuting the existence of an Abrahamic deity is not the same thing as refuting monotheism in general, which is in turn a significantly different enterprise from refuting polytheism.  More seriously, refuting theism of whatever stripe is by no means the same thing as refuting the broader notion that there is a spiritual or supernatural aspect of existence - a notion which Dawkins has seemingly already identified in the Einstein chapter as the fundamental division between religion and rationality.  These distinctions matter.  Dawkins is too eager to start blasting away at concepts which he has not troubled to unpack properly or even to understand.  His attitude of it's-all-bollocks-anyway-so-who-cares might pass muster in an argument in a pub, but not in an authoritative 400-page book by an Oxford professor, even one written for a popular audience.

In fact, notwithstanding some references to the God of deism, the deity that Dawkins is concerned with has a definite Abrahamic feel to him.  It clearly annoys Dawkins that people accuse him of viewing God as an old man with a white beard, but it is nonetheless clear that his deity approximates to being an organism of some sort - a larger, angrier version of the specimens that his colleagues at Oxford prod at in their laboratories.  It turns out that Dawkins' God is a very large, very complex entity which can create worlds, keep subatomic particles in order, read billions of people's thoughts and engage in an occasional spot of smiting.  Dawkins' knock-down argument against this behemoth is that it is inconceivably unlikely that such a thing could possibly have popped into existence out of nothing before the beginning of time - after all, we know that complex life-forms only appear at the end of a long process of evolution.

This is a vision that is as crudely anthropomorphic as anything in the older books of the Old Testament, and it should not need to be pointed out that this deity is not one that religious people in general (and not just the more intellectual ones) believe in or worship.  A less crude and caricatured depiction of God might be something like this:
There the eye goes not, nor words, nor mind.  We know not, we cannot understand, how he can be explained:  He is above the known and he is above the unknown....
What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken....
What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think....
What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see....
What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear....
What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn:  Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.
That was from a Hindu text, but this way of looking at the divine has equivalents in the Abrahamic religions too, such as the long and venerable Christian tradition of apophatic theology.  Dawkins has responded by deriding this sort of thing as "apophatuousness".  Likewise, though he does touch briefly in the book on the related concept of divine simplicity, it is clear that he doesn't have any real interest in getting his head around it.  One begins to have some sympathy for Terry Eagleton's well-known (if somewhat condescending) critique of Dawkins' deep ignorance of theology.  No-one has much hope of him believing this stuff, but he might at least take the trouble to understand what he is attacking rather than just relying on a mixture of straw men and disdain.  If you are attacking an idea - any idea - you need to be thoroughly familiar with what its proponents actually believe, and you need to direct your arguments squarely towards the appropriate targets (and not just the easy ones).  This Dawkins refuses to do.  He claims that most theology simply assumes that God or gods exist and goes on from there, so he only needs to bother reading explicitly apologetical writings - but he is letting himself off too lightly here.  Snide comments about "apophatuousness" just won't cut it.

Speaking of apologetics, Dawkins gives short shrift to the traditional arguments for the existence of God.  I'm actually with him on this: the arguments don't tend to change anyone's mind, and the debates over them appear to have been fought more or less to a stalemate.  Dawkins, however, seems a little too eager to get them out of the way.  The big one - the cosmological argument - is subsumed into a brief discussion of Aquinas' 'Five Ways', the entirety of which covers barely three pages.  He goes on to misunderstand the argument from aesthetics and to describe the ontological argument (which even Bertrand Russell took seriously) as "infantile".  Outside the realms of philosophical argumentation, he brushes aside personal experiences of divinity as the products of mental illness, hallucinations and optical illusions.


III

Dawkins has no time for the notion that the order and compexity of the material world imply the existence of a God.  As far as life on earth is concerned, he explains that evolution is able to account for the observed intricacies of nature.  This is not an unreasonable line of argument - albeit most religious believers in the West have no problem with the theory of evolution - but he is less convincing on the origins of life itself, and indeed on the origins of the cosmos.  We can't explain how or why the universe exists, he concedes, but positing God as the solution is a poor answer, and the theory of evolution as applied to life on earth should "raise our consciousness" to the possibility that some comparable scientific theory explains the origins of the cosmos (presumably including the why as well as the how).  Dawkins is sympathetic towards the idea that the universe is itself part of a larger "multiverse", and he is receptive to the American physicist Lee Smolin's eccentric idea that our universe emerged from a process of evolution from a larger number of universes.  He is perhaps too quick to disavow the obvious response that, if theories like these are the alternatives, one really might as well believe in God.

Dawkins sees religion as a by-product of human evolutionary instincts.  Specifically, he suggests that its roots are to be found in the valuable propensity of young children to trust what adults tell them, leading them to absorb improbable stories about gods and miracles at the same time as useful information about not swimming in the river with the crocodiles in it.  He does not embrace the intuitively more plausible argument that religion has some sort of inherent evolutionary function that has ensured its survival and prevalence - promoting social cohesion, for example, or encouraging individuals to sacrifice themselves for the tribe.

Dawkins notes that religion is a perennial source of conflict and suffering (he even provides a not wholly accurate summary of the Mortara case).  Few well-informed people would disagree with this: I have a whole blog dedicated to an example of the toxic intersection of religion with authoritarian politics.  But if we go down the route of saying "religion is bad", the question arises, "compared to what?".  Dawkins honestly appears to believe that the appropriate comparison, and the broader choice facing the world, is between religion and liberal rationalism - and yet he is surprised that people accuse him of having a nineteenth-century mindset.

The real source of conflict is not so much religion as ideology, of which religion is a subspecies, combined with the human inclinations to tribalism and aggression.  Dawkins recognises this to an extent, but, as in his other writings, he has no real response other than to argue rather unconvincingly that religion is just worse than other such phenomena.  The historical record belies this - and this is the true significance of the "what about Hitler and Stalin?" argument that believers often throw at atheists.  Dawkins thinks it sufficient to note that Hitler and Stalin (the former of whom seems to have had some sort of belief in God anyway) didn't commit their crimes in the name of atheism as such.  Well, no - but no-one is suggesting that they did.  The point is rather that taking religion out of human culture neither blunts our potential for murderous aggression nor eliminates the ideologies that provoke and justify it.


IV

This is not a polemical work in the strict sense, but Darwin's Rottweiler will not disappoint his fans.  Dawkins writes of the "anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion", and of "self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery".  He informs his readers that "[f]aith is an evil", that religious people worship a "psychotic delinquent" and an "evil monster", and that they suffer from a condition which is comparable to drug addiction and mental illness.  He is sympathetic to the genuinely disturbing idea that parents should be legally restricted by the state from giving their children a religious upbringing.  He unaccountably describes John Lennon's vacuous dirge Imagine the former Soviet Union as "magnificent".  He even has a go at agnostics and (as we shall see) at more moderate atheists, whom he accuses of cowardice and betrayal.

Dawkins is unapologetic about his abrasive style.  It irritates him that religious beliefs are widely regarded as being automatically entitled to respect.  But, given the deep-rooted and emotionally committed nature of religious belief, it is not easy in practice to show disrespect for X's faith without showing a fair amount of disrespect for X herself, which is hardly good humanist behaviour.  As a non-religious acquaintance of mine once said in reference to Dawkins, "having the facts on your side doesn't entitle you to be a c*nt about it".  It also seems clear that most people respond better to a tactful, sober approach when their cherished beliefs are being challenged than to a full-frontal assault, which often merely invites a defensive counter-reaction.  Dawkins' respose is to point out that strident rhetoric seems to be considered acceptable in other areas of life, such as political speeches and newspaper restaurant reviews.  Even if one accepts these slightly surprising analogies, however, Dawkins seems to be forgetting that plenty of us despise juvenile political invective as well - and, as for restaurant reviews, being the A.A.Gill of scientific rationalism is hardly something to be proud of.

Dawkins is on even dodgier ground when he tries to argue that the "passion" of the atheist is different from the rage of the closed-minded fundamentalist because it is based on evidence which could in principle be refuted.  This evinces a decidedly generous view of the atheist community, much of which is demonstrably not composed of bloodless Socrateses (see here for a recent example of what I mean).  It is a bit like Dawkins' claim that being an atheist "nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind".  He also puts foward the idea, without quoting any evidence, that there are disproportionately few atheists in prison, suggesting that this is because atheism correlates with such attributes as "higher education, intelligence or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses".

It is difficult to take this stuff very seriously.  No doubt many atheists, particularly in majority-religious societies like the United States, are clever men and women who have come to acquire their views through a process of independent-minded thought and research.  For that matter, there are probably many jailbirds who call themselves Christians, Muslims or whatever because that was the religion of their parents.  But all this proves a lot less than Dawkins thinks.  In this country, as he must surely be well aware, there are plenty of non-religious and anti-religious people who have embraced their position in an unreflective manner or who invest in it with the currency of their emotional prejudices.  Of course, plenty of religious people do exactly the same thing, but atheists shouldn't be sinking to their level, remember?  The sad fact is that not many human communities are composed of principled intellectuals who would be more than happy to alter their views in a heartbeat if only they were shown evidence supporting a different conclusion.  Taken in its entirety, the atheist community is no exception to this, despite its self-congratulatory protestations to the contrary.  (Nor, for that matter, is the notoriously bitchy and egotistical academic world from whence Dawkins emerged.)

It speaks volumes that most other atheists, with the exception of the usual suspects like Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, appear to think that Dawkins is a bit much.  The introduction to the paperback edition of the book acknowledges that a number of reviewers who are themselves non-believers took issue with the style and substance of Dawkins' writing.  This might have given a lesser man pause for thought, but Dawkins is made of sterner stuff.  He roundly rejects the criticisms and makes it clear that he dislikes people who say "I'm an atheist, but..." almost as much as he dislikes "faith-heads".

Dawkins, then, is not a man who is afraid to make enemies on his own side.  He scorns the idea promoted by other non-believing scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Martin Rees that faith and science are concerned with different questions and inhabit different arenas - an idea that many of us would regard as almost self-evident.  He blasts scientists of the "Neville Chamberlain school" who make common cause with moderate religious people against swivel-eyed creationists.  The true battle, he says, is not creation v evolution but reason v superstition, and no quarter can be given to the enemy.  He keeps bringing up the Templeton Foundation, a Christian organisation in the US which tries to build bridges with believers and moderate atheists in the academic world, in a vaguely similar way to how some people go on about the Freemasons.  He acknowledges that he has been criticised by some commentators - and, indeed, taunted by his opponents - for damaging his own cause and giving ammunition to the fundamentalists through his inflexible and dogmatic attitude.  This, he assures us with apparent sincerity, is just reverse psychology - his enemies are in fact secretly terrified of him, and are trying to manipulate him into stopping his attacks.

There is nothing particularly original, or indeed attractive, about this mindset.  Whether Dawkins' views are right or wrong is in many ways less interesting than the manner in which he holds them.  The black-and-white simplicity, the absolute confidence in a particular worldview, the refusal to compromise in the struggle of light against darkness, the preoccupation with principle over pragmatism, the conviction that people who are laughing at you secretly know in their hearts that you're right....  Somehow, it all seems oddly familiar.