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Foreword by Richard Dawkins 
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Post Foreword by Richard Dawkins
In his Foreword, Professor Dawkins explains that he commissioned this book from Dan Barker because the title topic was the single most controversial line in his bestseller The God Delusion. I highly admire Dawkins for his presentation of an evolutionary philosophy. Within his area of expertise, evolutionary biology, he has an unrivaled ability to provide simple lucid explanation of the causal process and universal principles that govern life on earth. For example his description of successful genes as durable, fecund and stable provides an important causal philosophical framework for all evolution, cultural as well as biological.

Where I think that Dawkins is on shakier ground is in his discussion of religion. The New Atheist belief that religion is vicious and should be abandoned is an ideological perspective that I don’t think stacks up at all well against logic, evidence or intuition. What we find in this debate is that people like Dawkins bring their scientific training and try to apply that to religion, without seeing that objective knowledge is only part of the construction of meaning by religious myth. So Dawkins is engaged himself unconsciously in constructing new religious myths, based on giving supreme value to scientific goals. That is a worthy endeavour, but it falls down in this book by Dan Barker, since I would argue there is much unconscious material that drives the book which Barker does not see.

The key problem is the role of symbols. Dawkins and Barker argue that with 40% of Americans believing in Young Earth Creationism, any liberal symbolic interpretation of the creation stories is irrelevant to the politics of faith. With great respect, that focus on demolishing literal beliefs entirely sidesteps the real debate about the role of religion. As long ago as 400 AD, the main theologian of established Christianity, Saint Augustine, said anyone who believes in a literal seven days of creation is an idiot. His term not mine. So what is the point debating idiots? It is like Robert Heinlein’s warning about the pointlessness of teaching a pig to sing.

So Dawkins does not debate idiots. But this book by Barker, in describing the Bible as fiction and God as unpleasant, tries to open a debate with idiots. What else is the point of proving that idiotic beliefs are untrue? As an aside, the Bible is not fiction, since its genre, attempting to pass off its claims as fact, differs from the usual fictional method of suspended disbelief.

Unfortunately, neither Dawkins nor Barker engage on what I consider the core issue raised by this material, namely how we can construct a framework of meaning and purpose in the world without accepting that supernatural myths are literally true.

The reason that these old stories are still so influential is precisely because they do provide such a framework. If Barker is serious about his evangelical crusade against the Bible, it is incumbent upon him to discuss what alternative framework can address the core functions of religion.

Joseph Campbell argued that religious mythology enables us to achieve psychologically necessary tasks, such as having awe for nature, sustaining social organisation and ritual, agreeing on ethical standards and constructing theories of personal identity. Obviously the ancient texts are not sufficient to deliver these objectives in the modern world, which is why religion has such a mixed reputation. But until its critics start to address these functions of myth, the criticisms will not cut through except among those similarly predisposed by a scientific education to regard faith with scorn.

Dawkins started to soften his hard line in his book The Magic of Reality, where he expressed support for the emotions of awe and reverence when applied to the grandeur and complexity of nature. He also described himself as a cultural Christian because of the ritual pleasure of Christmas carols as a traditional community activity. But I get the feeling that Barker is so traumatised by his feeling of betrayal, having converted from Christian fundamentalism, that he finds it harder to see the beauty and meaning within traditional faith.

There is a feeling in this book of tilting at windmills, that belief in the Biblical God will continue in sublime indifference to the efforts of this knight errant. But Dan Barker is no Don Quixote; his observations are factual and not delusional. I just wish he could put this critical Bible scholarship into a better theoretical framework.


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Post Re: Foreword by Richard Dawkins
Robert, I'm enjoying your comments, though I am not reading along in the book. I have always found it strange that Dawkins is less concerned with the adaptive functions of religion than he is in arguing against the literal beliefs of fundamentalists. As such I'm perfectly happy sitting out this discussion of book that seems to focus on Jehovah's anthropomorphic traits.

The Coursera course I've just started to take does look at the possible adaptive functions of religion and, especially, the belief in a soul, which seems common to most cultures throughout history. Here are some of the questions this course addresses:

- Why are soul and afterlife beliefs so common in human history?
- Are there adaptive advantages to assuming souls exist?
- Are there brain structures that have been shaped by environmental pressures that provide the foundation of body/mind dualism that is such a prominent feature of many religions?
- How do these beliefs shape the world views of different cultures?
- What is the role of competing afterlife beliefs in religion, science, politics, and war?

Does Barker's book address any of these questions? I'm curious.


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Post Re: Foreword by Richard Dawkins
geo wrote:
Dawkins is less concerned with the adaptive functions of religion than he is in arguing against the literal beliefs of fundamentalists.
Yes, and this problem well illustrates the gulf we have between nature and culture, with analysis of religion occurring within the framework of culture.

The meme theory which Dawkins first presented in The Selfish Gene aimed to bridge culture and nature through the premise that the core evolutionary principle of cumulative adaptation is universal to living systems, including cultural evolution. So the ‘certain grandeur’ that Darwin saw in a tangled bank applies equally well to how the complex idea of God evolved within human culture.

Of course the problem is that the cultural idea of God is explicitly used to argue that evolution is untrue, so Dawkins has a political reaction against how religion promotes alienation from nature. But maybe if he steps back from this reaction, and instead applies the tools of evolutionary philosophy to the God meme, Dawkins could reach a broader audience with a constructive message about how human spirituality can evolve today within a scientific framework.

Many atheists do not want to concede that religion is adaptive, or that reform of religion could make it even more adaptive, but that is the obvious conclusion from its universal presence.

Human psychology and politics cannot form views on the basis of knowledge alone, and must rely on beliefs. There are far too many decisions where the data is not adequate to determine the best course of action, so we fall back upon principles and values which are essentially religious in nature.

In my comments on the chapters of Barker’s book, your point about why religion is adaptive has been my main theme. If it is true that the God of the Bible is unpleasant, maybe that is because the ecological and cultural niche in which He evolved was equally unpleasant? Predators are unpleasant, using the anthropomorphic term from Dawkins and Barker, because if they were nice they would go extinct. Similarly, we should ask what was it about the historical context of the Old Testament that enabled a capricious patriarchal deity to become the object of adoration.


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Last edited by Robert Tulip on Wed Sep 14, 2016 2:45 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Foreword by Richard Dawkins
I definitely agree that Dawkins is much more effective when he sticks to what he's best at. I love most of his books--Greatest Show on Earth is my favourite--but I found God Delusion to be as boring as hell.


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