Book Review: The God DelusionPosted: January 12, 2012 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Book Reviews | 20 Comments »
I’m fascinated by religion and the need we humans have for it. And I suspect that many others are as well. However, as any culturally fluent individual understands (at least tacitly), it’s not exactly the choice topic to discuss at cocktail parties with guests whom you don’t know very well. Unless, of course, you want to risk being perceived as a gauche individual. In a similar fashion to politics (yet more intense), religion has a tendency to escalate tensions between people in a fiery way that usually ends in a nonsensical shouting match.
That religion tends to create controversy is not, however, a sufficient reason to avoid being critical of it, even publicly. I think is because cultural fashions come and go. Consider this: I suspect at one point in American history it was socially taboo to openly criticize slave owners too. Just imagine if no one had the courage to rock the boat with slave owners (think “master-slave morality“). Other people’s religious beliefs, both intentionally and inadvertently, affect all of our our personal lives, often in negative ways. In other words, the foolish beliefs of others can cause very real harm to innocent bystanders. My question is this: should rational people politely respect these types of beliefs?
Richard Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is a brave, yet much needed, polemical critique of religion (even moderate religion) for modern day atheists. And parts of it certainly come off as offensive. Offending others, however, is not categorically a thing to avoid doing. In fact, sometimes it’s mandatory! As Daniel Dennett wrote:
I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.
Perhaps you’ve heard a line of reasoning similar to the following: you’re an atheist (?), well then, you must be an immoral heathen too! Even an amateur logician would be able to tell you that this argument is absurd, yet I frequently hear variations of this argument muttered from the mouths of people who are otherwise very intelligent.
Dawkins asserts that atheists can be “happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled” and he is absolutely correct. It’s not within the scope of this essay to provide the scientific evidence behind why this absurd claim needn’t necessarily be true; however, I do intend to use this anecdote to make a further claim (and one that Dawkin’s promotes too). The current fashion in America is to view atheism as a dirty word that is associated with some nasty connotations.
In America, it’s acceptable to say you reject the gods and tenets of certain religions, but heaven forbid you call yourself an “atheist”. The problem, however, is that there is some confusion over what atheism really is, because there are at least two ways to think about atheism.
Here is how Wikipedia defines atheism:
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.
So in the first sense, almost every human is an atheist of some gods. In the second sense, atheist is a word for the dogmatic belief in something we cannot yet prove with empirical evidence or logic. I believe that atheists (at least intelligent ones) use the term in the broad sense when discussing religion. I concede, however, that when the term is used dogmatically in the second sense, it can be as offensive as religion itself is. Allow me, then, to reveal my personal bias and religious views since they certainly influence what I’m writing in this essay. I am committed to the first kind of atheism. There are many different fashionable euphemisms to describe the type of atheist I am. However, if I must use one, I prefer “possibillian“.
Dawkins, in a witty fashion, elucidates on the first type of atheism when he wrote the following. “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.” In other words, if one is willing to reject any of these gods, then that individual is an atheist in at least one sense of the word. And what methodology does one use to reject these types of gods? Shouldn’t this same methodology be used to evaluate all gods? I’ll leave it to the reader to ruminate over the logical implications of this point.
Along with atheism, “God” itself is a confusing word that can have subtle, but distinctly different meanings. To some children (and sadly to some adults too), God is a Colonel Sanders looking figure who sits on a cloud and interferes in our lives (by helping people win football games for example). But to renown scientific figures like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, the word God is often used to describe the supreme mystery that science cannot yet (or never will) explain.
As such, it’s entirely disingenuous to equate these two usages as equal. A theist’s version of God is much different than, say, a deist’s or a pantheist’s. When scientific geniuses, like Einstein, used the word “God”, then, it does not necessarily imply that they meant it in the same context that today’s theists would have us believe. Although, theists obviously have an incentive to have us believe otherwise in order to support their goofy beliefs.
According to Dawkins, Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God. However, there is a reason to believe that Einstein may have been an agnostic. When Einstein said or wrote things like “God does not play dice”, he was not speaking literally though. Religious texts run deep in most people’s literary background and, as such, we often use religious terminology metaphorically and poetically. Even atheists of the dogmatic variety inadvertently do this on occasion.
I think many critics of Dawkins, especially those who haven’t read his work, unfairly accuse him of attacking all notions of “God”. He’s not. In fact, he makes it explicitly clear that he is out to attack the theists’ version of God and not Einsteinian versions of God. And as I alluded to earlier, if one is already willing to reject some gods based on lack of evidence or logic, why not follow the same methodological and logical implications that would reject theistic notions of God as well?
Strangely, many people are quick to protect the sacred irrationality of religion, again, particularly in America. I have my own theory as to why this is and it relates closely to Argumentative Theory. My reasoning goes like this. Arrogance affronts us, even if we know that the arrogant person is correct (actually, I think it affronts us more so in people who are correct). And we humans have this fascinating self-preservation mechanism that often lets our ego get in the way of searching for truth. In other words, we’d rather win than be right. As such, I suspect that this is why many open and liberal minded people come to the defense of religion (even if they don’t agree with it) and dislike the militarism they perceive in people like Dawkins. They’re simply looking to argue with someone and want to defend the religious, whom they likely feel are ill equipped to defend themselves in argumentation.
The trouble with this sort of defensive passivity towards religion, though, is that real harm is inflicted on real people because of foolish and irrational beliefs (read some history books for examples). Religion can (and has been) used to justify doing a lot of harmful things (again, history books are littered with examples). If we allow ourselves to be sensitive to some absurd faith based claims, then how can we shun other ones that are equally as absurd, but culturally different? For instance, some religions have faith that illegal narcotics allow them to come into contact with their God. Should we make a legal exception for these individuals? How about for prayers in schools? How can the open-minded person deny these individuals their right to worship their God, where ever and when ever they choose? For this reason, I think Dawkins makes a compelling case for actively fighting against religion’s influence in places where it doesn’t belong, namely public places.
In the end, Dawkins reminded me that religion stems from the uniquely human and narcissistic desire to believe that the universe was created for our benefit. News flash: it wasn’t. Science tells us that we are incidental and accidental. Not surprisingly, this thought makes some people uncomfortable. The point of science isn’t to make people comfortable though, it’s to discover truth. Personally, I think the great Umberto Eco offers up some consoling words to those who embrace their atheism: “When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.”