Saturday, April 12, 2008

Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion": Book Review

Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion": Book Review

When over 1,100 have preceded me on Amazon US excoriating or exalting in this well-publicized defense of rational, Darwinian, and patient accretion from cooling rock to protoplasm to us over billions of years against the assertions of belief in any deity or gods, I find it daunting to join the boisterous queue. After reviewing here and on Amazon Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great," Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," and Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell," I now come to the fourth in recently amplified rationalizations that both attack religious credulity and assert scientific inquiry. As a scientist, Dawkins shares with Dennett an ease in explaining laboratory findings. As one tending towards social impacts, Dawkins connects with Harris, whom he often cites. As a popularizer of intellectual currents, Dawkins addresses the same audience as Hitchens. I've found all four books fascinating, and all four have caused me to think harder about my own beliefs; all four also contain flaws in their perhaps inevitably sweeping claims that may not prove major, but nonetheless need to also be addressed respectfully.

I anticipate many who criticize Dawkins may need reminding of his early caution, twice repeated: "I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus, or Wotan." (31) He counters the "God Hypothesis" of a "superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us," with an "alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution." Creative intelligences come later into the process and cannot have designed it, therefore our attribution to a Prime Mover or Uncaused Cause is incorrect, and so that's the title of his book. He reiterates: "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." (36)

Dawkins employs the crane, i.e., a process of gradual construction that allows more complex construction from the ground up, rather than a skyhook, i.e., a "deus ex machina" (surprisingly he does not use this phrase) that intervenes in the plans from the opposite direction, and lacks an empirical foundation traceable in the geological and genetic and biological records. Much of the middle of his text defends scientific rather than supernatural causes for our evolution. Despite his credentials, he does seem to fudge Fred Hoyle's Boeing 747 argument as he does Anselm's ontological proof and Thomistic proofs, causing me to suspect he's stronger in science than philosophy; yet even with his insistent separation of chance from Darwin's theory, I felt as if Dawkins labored to explain this clearly. After he insists that this process is not by chance or by random unplanned happenstance, but by an immensely meticulous and attenuated internal mechanism of advancing by what benefits an organism in its survival, Dawkins enters the territory that Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett have also explored. Religious dictates to truth are undermined by claims using logic, improbability, and lack of external proof. If humans (see Dennett) have an inbred attraction to religion, it's like a moth to a flame-- the insect's been engineered to guide itself by the moon, and has not evolved past the stage of discerning and avoiding artificial light as its beacon.

Here, although compared to a radio interview I heard with him he devotes only a fraction of what I would have expected to this topic, Dawkins adds his own emphasis to the atheists' resurgence. I was peeved by his donnish dismissal of theology itself as a respectable endeavor. This may be logically true by his theorem, but it reeks of Oxonian snobbery. He denies that religious faith should be accorded any automatic respect per se. If its claims cannot be independently corroborated, then they lack the openness to revision that scientific inquiry by its nature possesses. Scientists willingly debate and recant and revise their positions based on evidence that emerges. Believers cannot do this; the base of the dominant world's faiths lies in pre-modern codes, imaginative tales, and archaic precepts said to be dictated from invisible beings and written down in haphazard and often contradictory fashion. "The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism." (306) That is, any appeal by moderate religious adherents cannot be justified anymore than the extremist interpretations, for both ultimately rest on non-demonstrable standards lacking objective verification.

Finally, as with his non-believing colleagues, Dawkins urges us not to think of "Catholic" or "Muslim" children, but only offspring of "Catholic" or "Muslim parents." Young people, he warns, should not be subjected to beliefs by indoctrination; he agrees with Hitchens that such upbringing amounts to brainwashing. And, as with Harris' urging that if parents simply told the truth to their children, that religion would cease, Dawkins may appear quixotic in such an appeal to reason given our global diversity and immense differences in upbringing. Yet, the logic of Dawkins' argument emerges movingly, as it had at the conclusion of Hitchens. Both writers eloquently end their books by appealing to the long-term vision of humanist nobility, and a sense of our own fragile bursts of life within a universe that on its own terms has plenty to chill, dazzle, and fascinate us.

A few of his points in this predictably ambitious book needed sharper focus. Stephen Unwin's Bayesian argument for God's existence is converted by Dawkins into six points, but Dawkins glosses over them in his criticism. I'd like to have understood why #3 "Nature does evil things" and #4 "There might be minor miracles" do not fit. (107) Dawkins rushes to condemn all six points without sufficiently countering each one first. On language drift being probable "by the cultural equivalent of random genetic drift," Dawkins fails to give sufficient explanation. He continues that "I doubted that the details of language evolution are favored by any kind of natural selection, I guessed that language evolution is instead governed by random drift." (198) The tone here hints at Dawkins' unease. I'd consult Guy Deutscher's "The Unfolding of Language" (reviewed by me here and on Amazon) for an up-to-date elaboration.

Quoting Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction" (249) Dawkins supports his desire for admitting that we can base our morality in non-scriptural sources. I agree with his demonstration from modern interpretations of Holy Writ that most believers do this anyway, rather than consenting to terrible punishments that ancient divine dictates demand. He counters how Israeli children support extermination in their own times that repeats that done to peoples in Jericho or Canaan in the Bible in a powerful application of half-civilized culture to our own advanced situation. George Tamarin's study that tests morality for young Israelis today by presenting them, no matter how avowedly secular, with their own reactions to genocide makes for provocative and disturbing analogies. Still, Dawkins yokes religious identity to political mayhem in a manner that Hitchens and Harris share; such a coupling does complicate matters of identity.

All three turn to Northern Irish sectarianism as a case study. They agree that labels there derive from Catholic or Protestant origins; Dawkins does improve on Hitchens' own more facile reactions. Dawkins admits how such wars and feuds "are seldom actually about theological disagreements." (259) Dawkins takes the time for nuances: "When an Ulster Protestant paramilitary murders a Catholic, he is not muttering to himself, 'Take that, transubstantiationist, mariolatrous, incense-reeking bastard!'" The reason's probably revenge for an earlier "transgenerational" tit-for-tat chain of killings.

He adds that: "Religion is a label of in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta, not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not." (259) Also, Dawkins delves deeper into the use of "inherited" labels--"without religion there would be no labels by which to decide who to oppress and whom to avenge." Still, you have the indelible surnames, unless the government decided to erase all traces of Gaelic or Scottish or English markers. I'm certainly not sure, however, how you'd extricate the giveaways of longstanding division among tribes from an individual today who bears the heavy weight, and perhaps familial pride (a factor not addressed by Dawkins) in his or her own genealogy and local history. Yet, I do concur that the world over probably "you'll find religions as the dominant labels for in-groups and out-groups" as "a very good bet." (260)

Dawkins later leaps into the Stalin/ Hitler atheist debate getting tangled in Adolf's profession of such, striving to uphold his main point: "Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism." (279) Stalin's "dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism," however, did encourage mass destruction of cultural patrimony and attacks on religious confessionalists, so I became confused at too hubristic a simplification. Dawkins argues that religious wars, on the other hand, "really are fought in the name of religion" but no war "has been fought in the name of atheism. Why should it?" If atheists will not gain by their own credo any martyr's crown, Dawkins wonders: "why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?" Still, I wonder if such an anti-religious hatred as part of a perverted anti-cultural pogrom has not been responsible for the likes of the Khmer Rouge, Communist revolutions in China and Russia, or the current genocide in Tibet. I admit that many regimes distort the ancestor and hero worship and mass adulation and a cult of martyrs into a secular, godless pantheon, but Dawkins does not enter this idolatry (although Hitchens does with a fine entry on North Korea).

In less brutal versions, the clash of secular and religious still causes terror, according to Dawkins. Our society's often promulgated "respect" for other ethnic cultures Dawkins faults with unwise and foolish tolerance for female genital mutilation, media glorification of past Incan barbarities such as human sacrifice to the sun gods, or even the right of the Amish to raise children in "their own" way. Yet, Dawkins does not raise the "rumspringa" option, featured as the title of a recent documentary, that allows young Amish a chance to sample the delights of the world outside before they decide to return to their traditions and continue them. Dawkins overlooks this rather sensible "Plan B" when it would have strengthened his argument, if unintentionally, that religiously raised children should be given a chance to question their faith and not be treated as if dissent is never an option.

Inconsistency in the documented nature of Dawkins' enormously complex assemblage of disparate sources deserves mention. While he introduces his quotations, he unevenly cites them in the endnotes. Furthermore, most chapters have but a few numbered references; not all of the texts he uses can be traced to the bibliography. For instance, Anthony Kenny's description of his first months saying Mass cannot be traced, while two other authors on that same page 186 can be traced. Books often have only the link implied to the end-of-text works cited, and not the exact page of the quote; others, perplexingly, do have enumeration to the endnotes and precise page references. I cannot figure out why there's this disparity. For a controversial book like this, whose references by challengers and defenders will be hunted down, it's important that the same standards of scholarly reference be applied to every quote, summary, or paraphrase in conventional academic form.

When I finished and reviewed Hitchens' (livelier if more pugilistic; however, Dawkins baits the Templeton Foundation annoyingly too) book a couple of weeks ago, I wondered what would replace the legacy of religious thought, culture, and art for so many who-- when honestly confronting their often inherited array of impossibly verifiable beliefs and assumptions-- find them insupportable by evidence from science, logic, and commonsense. (Dawkins notes the odds of a child leaving his or her religious tradition being 1 in 12 even in Britain. I imagine higher odds in America, let alone most of the world). Hitchens took not only energetic enthusiasm (in the secular sense) but much contagious (if sometimes smug) glee in encouraging readers to leave behind their outmoded habits of faith. Dawkins, however, as his early vignettes of his own upbringing and of Einstein's non-religious belief indicates thoughtfully, addresses the plight of modern readers more coldly, and more truthfully.

For Dawkins, the "humanitarian challenge" must replace God. But, for many of us who may concede the probability that God doesn't exist, we still hold a "trump card." It's one I often keep up my own otherwise hidden or empty sleeve: our own "alleged psychological or emotional need for a god." (352) Even if our well-being depended on a belief in God, Dawkins rejects the truth of such a belief. Without independent criteria, it's next to impossible given the physical evidence that a Creator designed the universe. Dawkins here paraphrases Dennett's distinction between belief in God and belief in belief. Dawkins finds that while atheists may well despair, they appear to do so neither more nor less so statistically than their fellow believers. (He asserts too that non-believers do not differ on morality from the best of believers; as expected, he favors secular ethics for all.) Of course, and I support Dawkins here, he also suspects many who claim belief are less than certain deep down of any supernatural force or eternal life, yet cannot admit as such for a variety of understandable and familiar reasons-- or rationalizations or familial loyalties or societal pressures or mental evasions.

He ends his intermittently engrossing, yet ultimately scattered study with an analogy to "the mother of all burkas," asking us to imagine the tiny slit from which we see the world through our electromagnetic spectrum. Dawkins compares what we comprehend to a bat, or a dog, or a bug's vision. He reminds us of how astonishing such a realm as our hurling rocky planet is with its delicate envelope of air, and how "in Middle World" we evolved our own model of the real world with our sense data that differs from other organisms. This vast scale of improbabilities that allows us to live at this moment may be statistically nearly impossible to understand, but Dawkins inexorably insists that this is the evidence we have. The only miracle is that of our own anthropic presence in a universe that we have grown up within, and in "one of the minority of friendly places" we exist under laws and constraints that pressured us into becoming who we are, over billions of years and enough time, therefore, for not the impossible to happen with (or without?) a Creator, but the improbable to happen, after we beat the overwhelming odds for our own survival.

(Condensed version posted on Amazon today with an opening appeal to reason; I left my own beliefs out of that review, and wonder if it's warped pearls before swine, after sampling the past couple of months' worth of posted responses there. Sigh.)

Image: J.E. Millais, Mariana (1851) "Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1999": T07553.
"This is Mariana from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure. She leads a solitary life, rejected by her fiancé after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. But she is still in love and longs for him. Mariana’s tired pose, her embroidery, and the fallen leaves suggest the burden of her yearning as time passes. The painting was originally exhibited with lines from Alfred Tennyson’s poem Mariana: She only said, ‘My life is dreary– He cometh not!’ she said; She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary–I would that I were dead!’(From the display caption July 2007)"

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