I’d put off reading any of the ”new atheists” until recently. What I knew of their criticisms of religion had not impressed me as particularly sophisticated or even as new, so there seemed no urgency to read them. I’m teaching philosophy of religion this term though and my students expressed a desire to look at the new atheists, so I reluctantly purchased a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and began reading it in preparation for class.
I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s hilarious! Not only has it caused me to laugh out loud, but it has brought home with particular force what an egalitarian industry publishing is. Anyone can publish a book, even a blithering idiot making claims that are demonstrably false and pontificating on things he knows nothing about and on works he has not read.
To be fair to Dawkins, I should point out that he’s clearly not a run-of-the-mill blithering idiot or he’d never have risen to his current position of prominence in science. He’d have been wise, however, to have restricted his public pronouncements to that field. His foray into the fields of religion and philosophy has made it clear that he’s closer to an idiot savant on the order of the infamously racist Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, than to a genuine intellectual such as Stephen Jay Gould.
The preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion includes Dawkins’ responses to some of the criticisms that were advanced against the book when it first appeared. In response to the charge that he always attacks “the worst of religion and ignored the best,” Dawkins writes
If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them (p. 15).
From where does Dawkins get his statistics concerning the proportion of religious believers who subscribe to “understated, decent, revisionist” views of religion? How does he know their numbers are negligible? Evidence suggests otherwise. That is, most people in the economically developed world appear to accept modern science, so if surveys concerning the proportion of the population in this part of the world who are religious are correct, then the numbers of the “decent” religious people are not negligible, in fact, these people are vastly in the majority.
Of course to give Dawkins credit, he does refer to believers “around the world,” and not just in the economically developed part. It’s possible that Dawkins intends his book to enlighten the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and other Muslim fundamentalist leaders, as well as to the few fundamentalists in the economically developed world who reject science. It does not appear to have been aimed, however, at such an audience and I’ve not heard anything about Dawkins’ underwriting the translation of the book into Farsi or Arabic.
Also, how come science gets to “develop,” but religion that has changed over time is referred to pejoratively as “revisionist.” Germ theory was not always part of natural science, but I wouldn’t call contemporary science “revisionist” because it now includes belief in the reality of microorganisms.
“I suspect,” writes Dawkins, “that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realize that non-belief is even an option” (p. 22).
Dawkins is either being disingenuous in the extreme or he is, in fact, feeble minded. Notice he says “our” educational system, so here he is clearly not talking about Iran or the Middle East. The whole reason that it is occasionally controversial to teach evolution in school in the U.S. is that religious extremists have become offended by the ubiquity of evolutionary theory in the science curriculum.
Far from education “letting people down” in failing to make clear to them that non-belief is an option, it more often lets people down in failing to make clear to them that belief is an option. It tends to caricature religious belief in precisely the way Dawkins’ conflation of religion with religious fundamentalism does, with the result that young people are literally indoctrinated with the view that religion itself, not one particular instantiation of it (i.e., fundamentalism), but religion itself is simply a particular form of superstition that is essentially in conflict with the modern world view. Dawkins would appear to be a victim of such indoctrination himself in that he repeatedly conflates religion with religious fundamentalism. He acknowledges occasionally that not all religious people hold the views he attributes to them, but he can’t seem to remember this consistently.
The reader of The God Delusion is faced with a dichotomy unflattering to the book’s author: either a rigorous systematic distinction between religion in general and religious fundamentalism in particular taxes Dawkins’ cognitive abilities beyond what they can bear, or his repeated conflation of these these two distinct phenomena is cynically calculated to raise a false alarm concerning the purported threat that religion in general presents to the advancement of civilization in the hope that this alarm will cause people to storm their local Barnes and Noble in an effort to secure, through the purchase of his book, ammunition they can use to defend themselves against the encroaching hoards of barbarian believers.
In the preface to the original hard cover edition Dawkins writes:
I suspect— well, I am sure— that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option (p. 23).
Really, he writes that, I’m not kidding. I cut and pasted that text from the ebook. Yes, Dawkins is seriously asserting that there are people “out there” who do not realize that it’s possible, even in principle, to reject the faith they were born into. Obviously, these are not church-going folks. If they were, they would surely notice the children who cease at some point (usually in late adolescence or early adulthood) to attend church with their parents, or overhear the laments of parents whose children have “left the faith” during the coffee and cookies that often follows services on Sundays. These people who “just don’t realize that leaving is an option” must be a rare non-church-going species of fundamentalist. Even the Amish, after all, know that “leaving is an option.”
It’s admirable that Dawkins is so concerned about this infinitesimally small portion of humanity that he would write a whole book for their benefit. The view, however, that they represent a significant threat to Western civilization is hardly credible.
A charitable reading of Dawkins might incline one to think that what he meant was that it was not an emotional option, that it would wreak more havoc in their lives than they fear they could bear. (This, presumably, is why more Amish don’t leave the faith.) But if that were truly Dawkins concern, he’d have written a very different type of book because that problem has nothing to do with science or the failure of religious people to understand it.
Atheists, according to Dawkins, are under siege. “Unlike evangelical Christians,” he bemoans, “who wield even greater political power [than Jews], atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence” (p. 27). Oh yeah, atheists exert “zero influence.” That’s why we’re all taught the Bible in school, right? And why my university, like so many universities in the U.S., has such a huge religion department relative to, say, the biology department.
Wait, we’re not taught the Bible in school, that’s part of what fundamentalists are so up in arms about. We don’t teach creation, we teach evolution. We don’t have a religion department at Drexel. We don’t even lump religion in with philosophy, as is increasingly common at institutions that appear to be gradually phasing out religion all together. We don’t teach religion period, not even as an object of scholarly study, let alone in an attempt to indoctrinate impressionable young people with its purportedly questionable “truths.”
“The Penguin English Dictionary,” observes Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a false belief or impression’” (p. 27). Is the belief that religion represents a serious threat to the advance of civilization not obviously false? “The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word,” continues Dawkins, “defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence” (28). Is there not “strong contradictory evidence” to the claim that atheists are under siege?
Is is possible that the survival of modern science really is threatened in Britain, in contrast to the clear cultural hegemony it enjoys in the U.S.? Maybe. Eating baked beans on toast has always seemed pretty backward to me. My guess, however, is that Dawkins suffers from the delusion that we in the U.S. are more backward than the folks on the other side of the Atlantic.
I’ll give Dawkins one thing. He’s right about how our educational system has failed us. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of Dawkins alarmist clap trap. It ought to be obvious to anyone with even a modicum of formal education that Dawkins is talking sheer nonsense. But then Dawkins is a scientist, not a philosopher or theologian. He simply doesn’t seem to understand Stephen Jay Gould’s lovely straightforward presentation of the nonoverlapping magisteria view of the relation between science and religion.
But then it’s hard to say whether Dawkins failure to understand, NOMA, as it is now called, is an expression of his cognitive limits or of his intellectual irresponsibility in that it appears he hasn’t actually read Gould’s paper. What makes me think this, you ask? Well, because Gould goes on at length in this paper about how creationism (Dawkins’ apparent primary concern) is “a local and parochial movement, powerful only in the United States among Western nations, and prevalent only among the few sectors of American Protestantism that choose to read the Bible as an inerrant document, literally true in every jot and tittle” (emphasis added), and one could add here “has made no inroads whatever into the system of public education.”
Perhaps Dawkins thought it was unnecessary to read Gould, that anyone who would defend religion must not be worth reading. We all have our blind spots. I, for example, though I am devoutly religious, refuse to believe that prayer effects any change other than in the one who prays. It’s not because of some paranoid fear I have of inadvertently falling into superstition. It’s because the idea of a God whose mind could be changed by a particularly passionate entreaty, that is, of a God who is capricious and vain, is not at all edifying to me. I refuse to believe God is like that, quite independently of anything that might be presented to me as evidence for or against such a view.
Fortunately, my understanding of the relation between science and religion is a little more sophisticated than Dawkins’, so I can rest easily in my convictions, unperturbed by the phantom of their possible overthrow in the indeterminate future by some hitherto unknown type of empirical evidence. There is no such thing as empirical evidence either for or against the truth of religious convictions of the sort I hold. Fundamentalists may have to live with their heads in the sand but people with a proper understanding of the relation between the phenomenal and numinal realms do not.
That’s where our educational system has failed us. Too many people, even well educated people, have been taught that science conflicts with religion, not with a specific instantiation of religion, that is, not with fundamentalism, but with religion period. Education has failed us in a manner precisely opposite to the one in which Dawkins claims it has. The problem is not that the educational system has led people to the position where they feel that non belief is not an option. The problem is precisely that the pretentious misrepresentation of the explanatory powers of empirical science and the reduction to caricature of anything and everything that goes under the heading of “religion” has led people to the position where they feel that belief is not an option.
I have enormous respect for honest agnostics, despite William James’ point in his essay “The Will to Believe,” that agnosticism is formally indistinguishable from atheism in that it fails just as much as the latter to secure for itself the good that is promised by religion. Agnosticism is at least intellectually honest. The question whether there’s a God, or as James puts it, some kind of higher, or transcendent purpose to existence, cannot be formally answered. Even Dawkins acknowledges that it’s not actually possible to demonstrate that there’s no God (though he asserts, bizarrely, that God’s improbability can be demonstrated). But if God’s existence cannot be disproved, then disbelief stands on no firmer ground than belief, so why trumpet it as somehow superior?
The fact is that we’re all of us out over what Kierkegaard refers to as the 70,000 fathoms. I’m comfortable with my belief. I’m not offended by agnostics. I’m not even offended by atheists. I’m not offended by the fact that there are people who don’t believe in God. I would never try to argue to them that they ought to believe. That to me is a profoundly personal matter, something between each individual and the deity. What’s strange to me is that there are many people, people such as Dawkins, who are apparently so uncomfortable with their atheism that the mere existence of anyone who disagrees with them on this issue is offensive to them. It’s as if they perceive the very existence of religious belief as some kind of threat. What kind of threat, one wonders, might that be?
Religious belief, at this stage of human history anyway, certainly does not represent a threat to scientific progress. Dawkins blames religion for the 9/11. Experience has shown, however, that terrorism, of pretty much every stripe, is effectively eliminated with the elimination of social and economic inequities, just as is religious fundamentalism. So why isn’t Dawkins railing against social and economic inequities? That would appear to be a far more effective way to free the world of the scourge of religious fundamentalism than simply railing against fundamentalism directly. Direct attacks on fundamentalism are analogous to temperance lectures to people whose lives are so miserable that drinking is the only thing that brings them any kind of joy.
“[A] universe with a creative superintendent,” asserts Dawkins, “would be a very different kind of universe from one without one” (p. 78). But what is the difference for people such as NIH director Francis Collins, and myself, who believe that the description of the universe that is provided by science is precisely a description of the nature of God’s material creation? Dawkins is right in that there’s a difference between those two universes. He’s wrong though in believing that difference to be material.
Suppose that one morning you found on your doorstep an apple. Suppose you love apples. Suppose as well that though you could not preclude the possibility that this apple had simply fallen from an overly-full grocery bag of some passerby, for some reason that you cannot explain, you were infused with the conviction, as soon as you laid eyes on the apple, that someone had placed it there for you. What a lovely thought! The whole experience changes your morning, even your day, in a positive way.
In a material sense, of course, it makes no difference whether the apple came there by chance, or by design. It is the same apple, after all, whatever the explanation for its presence. It is not at all the same experience, however, to believe that one has found an apple by chance and to believe one has found it by design.
Now suppose a well-meaning friend, points out the superfluity of your assumption that the apple had been placed there by someone. Suppose this person pointed out that nothing in the mere presence of the apple compelled such an assumption and that you should thus content yourself with a “natural explanation” of how it came to be there. Ought you to abandon your belief in your invisible benefactor? What would you gain by abandoning it? If your friend had been ridiculing you for your “foolishness,” then presumably that would cease. You would regain his respect. But at what cost? It’s none of his business what you chose to believe in such an instance. That he would make fun of you for believing something the truth of which he cannot disprove but which makes you happy paints a very unflattering picture of him. So you would regain the respect of someone whose respect many would rightly disdain, even while you would lose something that had made you happy. And why is the explanation you have supplied for the presence of the apple less “natural” than his? You didn’t assume the apple had spontaneously sprung into existence. The real difference between your view of how the apple came to be there and his is that yours is nicer, that it makes you feel better.
Or to take a more apposite example in my case: Say that for as long as you can remember, you’ve wanted one of those fancy, expensive home cappuccino makers. You know the ones I’m talking about. Not the little cheapie things that can be had for under a hundred dollars, but the really expensive ones that resemble the real thing that they use in fancy cafes and coffee houses. Say that you have always wanted one of these fancy cappuccino makers but because you had chosen the life of an academic and the modest salary that went along with it, you felt a fancy cappuccino maker was an extravagance you simply couldn’t allow yourself. Lawyers can afford such things you reasoned, but then they also needed them because they are generally very unhappy in their work. If you had gone to law school, you could have had a fancy cappuccino maker. You knew this, of course, but chose to go to graduate school in philosophy instead because you believed a career in philosophy would be more fulfilling than a career in law. You made your choice and so must content yourself with a fulfilling career and more modest coffee-making set up.
This seems to you a reasonable trade off, so you do not waste away large portions of your life lusting after a fancy home cappuccino maker. Still, you do think wistfully of such machines sometimes, particularly when you see them in the homes of your lawyer friends, or in one of those fancy kitchen stores that always have so many of them. You have accustomed yourself, over time, to this occasional quiet longing.
But then one Saturday, when you are on your way back to your apartment, after having done your morning shopping, you spy a large bag on the sidewalk in front of one of the houses on your block. People often put things out on the sidewalk that they no longer want, so you stop to see if there is anything there you might be able to use. As you approach the bag, your heart begins to beat more quickly. Peeping out of the edge of the bag is what looks for all the world like the top of one of those fancy, expensive cappuccino makers that you have always wanted. You peer disbelievingly into the bag and discover that not only does it indeed contain such a machine, but all of the accoutrements that generally go with them, a little stainless steel milk frothing jug, metal inserts in both the single and double espresso size (as well as one to hold those Illy pods that you would never buy because they are too expensive), and a coffee scoop with a flat end for tamping down the coffee. As you are peering into the bag, your neighbor emerges from the front door of her house with more bags of stuff to put out on the sidewalk.
“Are you giving this away?” you ask tentatively.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Does it work?” you ask.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Why are you giving it away?” you ask incredulously, convinced that any minute she will change her mind.
“Well,” she says nonchalantly, I’ve had it for four years and never used it. I figure that if you have something for four years and never use it, you should get rid of it.”
You nod and laugh, affecting a nonchalance to match your neighbor’s. As soon as she has disappeared into the house, though, you snatch up the bag that contains the machine and all the accoutrements and stagger under its weight the short distance to your door. You download the manual for the machine (a Cuisinart EM-100, which you discover retails for $325), set it up and give it a trial run. It works like a dream!
Your innermost wish for a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker has been fulfilled! One was deposited practically on your doorstep. Of course it came there in a perfectly natural, explicable way, but still, your heart overflows with gratitude toward God whom you believe has arranged the universe, in his wisdom and benevolence, in such a way that this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker should come into your possession now. God has favored you with the rare and coveted have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too status in that you have been allowed to pursue your life’s calling of being a philosophy professor and have a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker!
You do not need to attribute this turn of events to any supernatural agency in order to see “the hand of God” in it. It does not trouble you to think that your neighbor had very likely been considering putting that machine out on the street for quite some time. That the whole event came about very naturally. But still, it is deeply significant to you and fills you with a sense of awe and wonder. Why should that bother Richard Dawkins?
It is fair, of course, to point out that you might just as well be annoyed that God had not arranged for you to receive this fancy, expensive cappuccino maker earlier. But you do not think that way. Why, you do not know. You attribute this wonderfully positive psychological dynamic to God’s Grace, but of course you could be wrong, perhaps it’s genetic. Earlier it seemed to you that the sacrifice of a fancy, expensive cappuccino maker in order to pursue your life’s calling was really not so very much to ask, and you accepted it stoically. Now, you are overcome with gratitude toward God for so arranging things that your wish for such a machine has been fulfilled. Earlier you were happy, now you are happier still. What’s wrong with that? That seems to me to be a very enviable situation.
Experience may incline us to expect certain emotional reactions to various kinds of events, but reason does not require such reactions. Many religious people are effectively deists in that they accept what scientists call the “laws of nature” and do not believe that God arbitrarily suspends those laws in answer to particularly passionate entreaties. Such people accept that God must thus be responsible in some way for the things they don’t like just as much as for the things they like, but consider that perhaps there is some reason for those things that human reason simply cannot fathom, and look to God for emotional support when the bad things in life seem to overwhelm the good and thank God when the reverse seems to be the case.
To be able to find strength in God when times are bad and to thank him (her or it) when times are good is an enviable gift. Who wouldn’t want to be like that? Of course it is possible to rail against God for not ensuring that times are always good, but it isn’t necessary. The failure to condemn or to become angry is not a failure of logic. Objectively, everything simply is, nothing necessitates a particular emotional reaction. The dynamic of faith is just as rational as the dynamic of skepticism. In fact, it could be construed as even more rational. That is, happiness is something that it is generally acknowledged human beings almost universally pursue and the dynamic just described is clearly a particularly good way of achieving it in that it effectively ensures a generally positive emotional state. Maybe believers are wrong, but even Dawkins acknowledges that no one will ever be able to prove that. Even if they are wrong, however, it seems there is little, if any harm, in their beliefs and a great deal of good.
Why does religion so offend atheists such as Dawkins? No one is forcing them to sign up. Dawkins is not alone in his outrage. It’s pervasive among atheists. The invectives they hurl at believers always put me in mind of those hurled by a child at the participants in an invisible tea party to which he has not been invited.
“There isn’t really any TEA there, you know!” he yells.
But is the outrage over the fictitious nature of the tea, that anyone should pretend to drink something that isn’t really there, or is it at not having been invited to the party? Perhaps the problem with the atheist is the feeling of being left out. Perhaps they are angry that other people get to enjoy something from which they have been excluded, something they have been led to believe is “not an option” for them.
(For a really excellent piece on The God Delusion see Terry Eagleton’s “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” in the London Review of Books.)