2011-06-06

The Dawkins Delusion

I used to think that Richard Dawkins was a guy who said that no god existed and who ridiculed unnecessarily all those who held unsubstantiated beliefs or faith. I used to think that Richard Dawkins was the figurehead of a recent anti-religion movement whose main goal was to force non- or dis-belief onto others, but then I read his book.

Just a few days ago, I finally finished Dawkins' The God Delusion, which I had been reading for several months now. I have a tough time with nonfiction; I can't read nearly as much nonfiction in one sitting---or one flight---as fiction, but that won't prevent me from saying that The God Delusion is one of the single most important books I've ever read. Politically, no book has affected me more, though Morris Berman's Dark Ages America comes a close second. Both books have convinced me that something is wrong, and both suggest ways to resist the wrongness.

It's not that The God Delusion changed my beliefs. I've always been an atheist, or an agnostic, or ignostic, or non-theist, or apatheist, or any of the labels you might care to paste on my forehead, but that is exactly the problem I had: the labels are there, the labels are misread, and the labels never fit. I didn't want to call myself an "atheist" because I thought that they thought that no god existed. I was called a "pussy agnostic" by a "Swedish atheist" for my disbelief in disbelief, and I knew something was wrong.

Here's the thing: I put Dawkins in the same boat as the Swedish atheist, along with nearly every other godless person I met or heard about. "How can you say there is no god?" I asked myself as a proxy for all of these atheists. The fact remains---see my other blog posts on atheism for more details---that no one can prove the non-existence of a generalized "higher power". That's a fact, and by definition it is not provable. QED.

So, as I looked through the table of contents of Dawkins' The God Delusion, I saw a chapter called, "Why There Almost Certainly is No God," and I immediately wanted to read it and find Dawkins' fallacy. I hadn't even started the book yet, and I was impatient to get to chapter 4. But, in the end, the chapter that convinced me---the one that put me on Dawkins' side---was the very first chapter. In it, Dawkins writes, "In the rest of this book, I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament."

Of course, it isn't immediately obvious what Dawkins means by "supernatural gods". However, reading the book makes it clear: a "supernatural god" is one that defies well-established natural laws. For instance, any god that directly causes a natural disaster, dictates a holy text, or answers the prayers of humans fits the definition. On the other hand, Dawkins is not referring to the "deist" or "pantheist" ideas that a higher power has created the natural physical laws as we know them, such that after creation these laws run like clockwork, indistinguishable from a purely physical system.

To be more specific, Dawkins wouldn't necessarily have a problem with the statement, "The universe was created by a higher power and then was left to run according to physical laws," or some such Einsteinian idea. (Though admittedly he doesn't like the confusion such statements cause when both believers and non-believers claim Einstein and others like him as their own.) Dawkins does, however, take offense at statements that proclaim the occurrence of highly unlikely events, according to modern science. For example: "The Earth is 6000 years old", "The statue began bleeding from its hands", or "Yesterday I prayed to God in heaven, and He answered me." These statements are indeed "almost certainly" not true, and thus a god who is said to participate in such activities likewise "almost certainly" does not exist.

It was with this argument that Dawkins convinced me, not because of the logic but because of the starting point. Prior to starting this book, I wrote a few blog posts focusing mainly on the fact that a belief in a god is not necessarily irrational. Vocal atheists seem to forget this fact often. Belief in a god that comprises all natural laws, known and unknown, is not irrational or illogical. I drew a line, however, between such intellectually coherent beliefs and fundamentalism, whereby believers allow their beliefs to supersede reason and knowledge. There is a difference, and I made it my goal to draw attention to this difference. Dawkins, however, begins on the "far" side of the line---irrational beliefs---and demonstrates that such beliefs are prevalent and that they do significant harm to society in general.

This might explain why, when I say that it is possible to believe in a god without being irrational, the most common response from atheists is, "But religion has caused the world so much harm!" It is obvious that this is not so much a counter-argument as a change of topic. These atheists assume, presumably, that I am defending all religion, which I of course am not doing. It's incredibly disheartening when atheists make sweeping generalizations and judgments of all believers and all religions and then subsequently claim to be a victim of religious prejudice themselves.

Luckily, Dawkins himself, possibly the most powerful atheist in the world, doesn't subscribe to such prejudice. He knows and admits that some beliefs are harmless, and that the true enemy of free thinking people is fundamentalism, not religion, though the two are often inseparable. Beliefs become toxic only when they persist even after encountering evidence to the contrary. Based on this book alone, Dawkins is not at all the tactless, offensive brute I thought he was. His arguments hold up incredibly well, and he provides plenty of citations.

My one qualm with The God Delusion stems from two sections of chapter 2 entitled "The Poverty of Agnosticism" and "NOMA". In these sections, Dawkins introduces several possible positions on the existence of gods. One is "permanent agnosticism in principle" (PAP) and another is "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). Both of these positions rely on the idea that there are some truths that we don't know and that we can never know. Dawkins seems to despise these ideas, but provides no good argument for doing so. He correctly writes that PAP does not assign a 50% probability to the existence of a god (a common fallacy) but refuses to assign any probability at all, but he claims that PAP is not valid because it is possible or will one day be possible to find evidence for or against the existence of gods. Similarly, Dawkins rejects NOMA because he says it is impossible for the spiritual magisterium not to bleed into the physical magisterium. Strictly speaking, he is wrong. However, taking chapter 1 into account and that Dawkins addresses only those gods who meddle in everyday affairs of people in the physical world, his points make much more sense. Dawkins should have directly stated that PAP and NOMA are valid only for non-meddling gods, so that readers are better armed to confront the hypocrisy of believers who claim NOMA and a "personal god" simultaneously.

Speaking of confrontation, Dawkins does a great job of inciting people like me to action. Dawkins has convinced me to join the ranks of organized atheists based on three points:

(1) Fundamentalism is common, especially in the U.S., and causes vast political and social damage through strong organizations, media, and anti-scientific, anti-intellectual lobbying and regulating. It is an atrocity that the Bible is used in support of any legislation at all, including abortion and gay rights.

(2) The ability of fundamentalists to organize---and also the strength of their inherent structure---far exceeds that of their opponents. Anti-fundamentalists must deliberately organize themselves and take action in order to approach fundamentalists' level of political power.

(3) Most importantly---according to Dawkins and me---by far the worst effect that fundamentalism (including every major church in the Western world) has on society is that it teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue. Likewise, teaching some of the more psychologically harmful ideas (hell, for example) should be considered a form of child abuse.


Now, I find myself asking the question: so, where does that leave me? Before I started The God Delusion, I typically called myself an "agnostic", but rarely in conversation, if ever, did that word convey the meaning I intended. Last year I discovered the word "ignostic", which I like, but which very few people have ever seen or heard. I've never wanted to be called an "atheist", since for me and for many others, it implies that I actively disbelieve in gods. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-known physicist, calls himself a "passionate agnostic", but I can't be sure he gets a better reaction to that than I got with my plain vanilla agnosticism. According to Wikipedia, despite speaking often against religion, the comedian Bill Maher calls himself an "apatheist" and views religion as "not worth the bother". Presumably, he is apathetic only to the inner workings of religion, and not to the effects that religion has on society. I agree with that, so you can consider me now officially an apatheist: I don't care if there is a god or not, but I will not tolerate other peoples' gods messing up my life.