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.

11 comments:

THE KRIS said...

as usual, i'm on board. also, i just found what i can only hope is the worst use of "science" to disprove atheism...

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/06/i_grow_concerned_for_your_cran.php

fbg said...

Damn. I wonder if someone really thought that was a good argument, or if someone "heard about" the argument and tried to recreate its ignorance.

THE KRIS said...

yeah, i've started to wonder if that's on the level. sure, there are people that dumb (or at least ignorant), but nobody seems to know where it originally came from.

Prada said...

Good post there, FBG. I admit that I have wanted to read Dawkins' book for a while now, but like you, I assumed that it would be very anti-god and I didn't want deal with any backlash from family taking much offense with finding it on my nightstand. Of course, another book that I never bothered to read was a book that an old high school friend gave me entitled "God Doesn't Believe In Atheists". HA. reading that right after "The God Delusion" might give you an aneurysm.

fbg said...

Thanks Prada. The funny thing about your comment is that in his book Dawkins' #1 complaint is not that people believe in a god, but that people refuse to question their beliefs. So, your refusal to read the book because it had opposing opinions is a perfect example. On the other hand not everyone has to read every book.

That book "God Doesn't Believe in Atheists", from its title, sounds like it might be similar to my older blog posts. If you define atheists to be people who say, "God doesn't exist", then those people have a shaky logical foundation just like people who claim they know He does exist.

I highly recommend Dawkins' book, though, since it covers tons of topics very well and cites hundreds of sources.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. It sounds like Dawkins' book isn't as vitriolic or incendiary as the title has led me to believe. Based on your review, I just downloaded the kindle edition and will start reading it after I finish Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions".

I believe you're following my public blog on Posterous but I've also got an anonymous blog on the narrow topic of my evolving religious opinions at http://epistemicfaithcrisis.wordpress.com/ , if you're interested. I'm posting this anonymously (and not linking my public blog) for obvious reasons.

fbg said...

Yeah, man. I am surprised how many people are surprised when I tell them that, even though I thought the same thing before I read it.

I read the book mainly because its the most famous atheist book, and I expected to find some holes in the arguments. In the end (actually, at the beginning of the book) what I found was that his main goal wasn't what I thought it was.

I'll definitely start reading your blog, and I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about the book. Have fun!

Andy G said...

This is a topic I have not only read about, but have spent many years searching through experiences, relationships, and the words of others in order to find my truth.

I agree that one of the most dangerous things is to never question your own beliefs. As we mature we are given a remarkable ability to not only create ideas from practices of free thought, but we can also analyze what has been said by others.

I think this fits right in with the balancing act that I have been thinking about recently. Logically we look at evidence and draw conclusions, but I think many of us look at religion through lenses of fundamentalism AND emotion. To me this is quite a dangerous combination. Emotion and passion themselves are necessary, but it seems to me that, especially in this case, these need to be balanced with logical arguments.

I may be a "pussy agnostic" but that is why I love the way I do. It's why I can literally feel the effects of the a beautiful San Diego sunset. It's also why I feel at peace with the way I live my life. It's not the threat of angering God or going to Hell driving me to morally live a life worth living.

Absolution is a tough thing to preach no matter what side of the argument you are on. I definitely need to pick up this book for a read.

fbg said...

I agree with most of this, but I don't think emotion and passion should be *balanced* with logical arguments. This might not be categorically true (though I have a feeling it is), but logic, reason, and fact are superior to emotion and passion simply because they can be proven. Emotion and passion are choices, in a way, and can change from person to person and from day to day, but logic, reason, and fact cannot (allowing for "probable" facts and "almost certain" facts). Because of this, emotion and passion come after reason for a rational person. That is, a rational person thinks about the facts and then uses their emotion to act upon them. Even if they make a decision with which most people would disagree, they still have the facts in mind when making their unlikely decision. People who ignore facts and act on emotion alone (or anything else) are by definition irrational. Irrationality by itself is not "bad", but becomes "bad" only in the context of a society that wishes to perpetuate itself. If a person who wishes to perpetuate society acts irrationally, then they are likely harming (or helping less) the society and failing in their goal.

I guess that was a long way to say that there should be not a logic-emotion balance so much as a logic foundation upon which emotion can act. How far from that foundation you want to jump is your business.

fbg said...

Oh, and one more thing:

The main reason I went from calling myself "agnostic" to something like "atheist" (even though you'll never catch me arguing that there is no higher power at all, so I prefer "apatheist") is that some of the irrational people I mentioned in my previous comment are aligning against logic and reason and in doing so are messing up my own life. Someone who claims that evolution is not true and that science is a sham, in part, is literally and grossly decreasing my quality of life and that of others. It wouldn't be a big problem if there weren't so many of them. So now I label myself their ideological enemy. And none of this inhibits my ability to love. Dawkins says it better than I do in some parts of the book. (other parts can be tedious)

Andy G said...

I wasn't directly attacking the comment about being agnostic or not. I'm just hesitant when it comes to neatly fitting people and their beliefs into specific categories.

I also wasn't saying that it directly affects my ability to love, but I was more pointing towards how it affects how I perceive love. That is to say that I don't believe a person's religious views directly make them more or less able to love.

As far as your point regarding logic, I think we are pretty much on the same page. Balance might not be the correct word, but I think it works both ways in that either logic/reason or emotion/passion working exclusively can lead to errors in judgement, or, at the very minimum, ignores significant issues involved in various arguments or decisions. Obviously, when arguing religion your views and ideology will influence the platform from which you reason.