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Review of "The God Delusion" - San Fran Chron
Better living without God? Religion is a dangerously irrational mirage, says Dawkins Reviewed by Troy Jollimore San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, October 15, 2006
The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins
He's a brilliant man," one of my colleagues once said of Richard Dawkins, "but so impolite." I agree, but think he chose the wrong conjunction: If I had to identify Dawkins' cardinal virtues, I would say that he is brilliant, articulate, impassioned and impolite. As Emerson famously said, "Your goodness must have some edge to it -- else it is none." "The God Delusion" is a fine and significant book, and this is largely due to Dawkins' willingness to employ the sharp edges of his intellect to cut through a paralyzing propriety whose main effect is to stifle conversations -- about religion, about intellectual responsibility, about politics -- that we very much need, at this particular moment in our history, to be having. Some will accuse Dawkins of being not just impolite but also intolerant. He is indeed a kind of crusading atheist, and makes no bones about his opposition not just to religious extremism but also to all species of religious faith -- a phenomenon he regards as fundamentally irrational and deeply dangerous. Religious moderates, he points out, have an unfortunate tendency to lend their perceived legitimacy to more extreme faith-based positions. They do this in large part by encouraging the common belief that accepting religious claims in the utter absence of evidence, and treating them as immune to rational criticism, is perfectly reasonable behavior.
"As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers," Dawkins writes. "The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith. This is one reason why I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith."
Elsewhere he approvingly quotes a statement from Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago professor of evolution and ecology, that "the real nature of the conflict ... [is] not just about evolution versus creationism ... To scientists like Dawkins and [E.O.] Wilson, the real war is between rationalism and superstition." 67
In a certain sense of "intolerance," this sort of view surely is intolerant of religious faith. And there is no question that it will make some people unhappy. (Others, by contrast, will take great delight in Dawkins' wit and wickedness; he is particularly amusing in his footnotes.) But the danger of offending someone is inherent in any exercise of free speech, particularly speech that is critical of society's sacred cows, and the idea of sacredness is surely the biggest sacred cow of all. Sadly, with respect to religion, tolerance of religious belief is taken to license a profound intolerance toward those who would question such belief. The result is a society in which important political and moral decisions are heavily influenced by voters' religious views but in which people whose lives and behaviors are restricted by these decisions are regarded as rude, subversive or downright immoral if they attempt to raise questions about whether "but I just believe it" (or the equally weak "but my holy book says so" really constitutes an adequate justification.
As Dawkins points out, criticizing someone's religion is almost universally regarded as offensive, whereas a believer's right to criticize behaviors of which they disapprove (homosexuality, promiscuity and any number of other examples) is not only protected but frequently lauded as an expression of religious freedom.
Dawkins is at his best in his exposure of one of the big lies of our time: the claim that there is simply no conflict between religion and science. This claim, which is rendered almost obligatory by the social pressure to tolerate all manner of religious beliefs, can be fleshed out in a number of ways: that science is based on evidence or reason, while religion is a matter of faith; that science answers the "what?" questions, while religion addresses the "why?" questions; that science concerns facts and religion values; and so forth. To borrow Stephen Jay Gould's fancy term, science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" -- two entirely distinct areas of inquiry, each with its own subject matter and its own methods of treating that subject matter.
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Re: Review of "The God Delusion" - San Fran Chron
Many find this a lovely thought. But the all-inclusiveness of what Dawkins wittily refers to as the "Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists," no matter how well intentioned, must ultimately fail because religious believers are themselves committed in their daily lives to the very concepts of evidence and objective truth on which science is founded (we simply couldn't survive without them) and because the account of the universe revealed by the scientific research that proceeds on this foundation is one that leaves increasingly less room for anything recognizable as God.
Advocates of intelligent design are in fact correct to claim that Darwinian biology is not religiously neutral, just as its critics are entirely correct to point out that because intelligent design is presented as a scientific program -- its basis is the claim that there are good scientific reasons for dissatisfaction with the Darwinian position -- it must be evaluated scientifically (a test it spectacularly fails). There is no peculiarly religious "magisterium" within the bounds of which creationism, intelligent design or any other religious view can be legitimate, without its being more broadly legitimate: If the claim that complex life forms display the work of an intelligent designer is correct, then current biological theories are simply flat-out wrong, end of story.
This is true, moreover, whether the designer is pictured as directly creating the complex life in question or as simply guiding or initiating the process of evolution, for it is essential to evolution via natural selection that it is unsupervised, unguided and unintended. Once a designer is introduced, there is nothing left for natural selection to explain. And no intelligent designer -- unless it was a sadist -- would choose to work through such a tedious, inefficient and downright cruel method as natural selection.
Dawkins does not attempt, in this book, to summarize the vast array of experimental findings that support the plausibility of the Darwinian explanation. (Those who desire this might begin with his 1986 book, "The Blind Watchmaker." Instead he sticks mostly to the conceptual level in an effort to explain why, given that the Darwinian story is indeed supported by the empirical evidence, it provides a much better explanation of the observable phenomena than does "the God hypothesis." Step 1 of this effort is a whirlwind dismantling of many of the most influential arguments in favor of God's existence, including Aquinas' "first cause" arguments, Anselm's notorious ontological argument and the argument from experience. An entire book could easily be devoted to this topic -- indeed, whole shelves have been dedicated to the ontological argument alone -- but while some readers may find the treatments too quick or, on occasion, a bit glib, Dawkins' dispatchings of various fallacious "proofs" of God's existence are on the whole sensible, and in places quite insightful.
Step 2 deals with the "argument from improbability," which appears most commonly as the well-worn argument from design. The basic structure of the argument, in its traditional form, is admirably simple. Many things in the world appear to have been designed; it is highly improbable that apparently designed objects would occur in the absence of a designer; thus we can conclude that a designer exists. Multitudes of believers have found some version of this argument persuasive. But as Dawkins points out, the argument not only does not work, but it also actually suggests the opposite of what it is supposed to, for the simple reason that any designer capable of producing such complex and intricate mechanisms is at least as unlikely to have occurred on its own as are the mechanisms themselves. (In fact, because designers tend to be considerably more complex than their designs, the "natural" occurrence of the designer is presumably far less likely.) Moreover, the inference to a designer based in the improbability of complex life forms having happened by chance is based on a profound misunderstanding of evolution via natural selection, which, as Dawkins points out, is not in the relevant sense a process of chance:
"No indeed, chance is not the likely designer. That is one thing on which we can all agree. The statistical improbability of phenomena such as Euplectella's skeleton is the central problem that any theory of life must solve. The greater the statistical improbability, the less plausible is chance as a solution: that is what improbable means. But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection. Chance is not a solution. ... Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested. Intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. ... Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman's pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman's pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance."
"The God Delusion" ranges widely enough that I cannot hope to do justice to all its parts. For my own part, I was greatly cheered to discover that the commonly cited example of Albert Einstein as a scientist who believed in God is flatly contradicted by several of Einstein's own statements (he himself referred to the claim as "a lie which is being systematically repeated" . (The degree of religiosity of the Founding Fathers, it turns out, tends to be similarly overestimated.) I was intrigued by his presentation of John Hartung's argument that the New Testament, while representing a partial improvement over the Old, still falls well short of acceptable moral standards ("Love thy neighbor," it appears, applies only to members of the in-group of Israelites, and most expressly does not include heathens), and I was amused by Dawkins' demolishing of the idea of the Bible as a reliable source of moral guidance. ("Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude," he writes, "have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it?"
Indeed, it should be said that while it deals with matters of the utmost gravity and urgency, "The God Delusion," particularly in its early chapters, is a very funny book. To those readers tired of being told that they must bow respectfully before every absurd or bizarre superstition they encounter, and who worry about the effects of this atmosphere of hyper-tolerance on the health of our society, Dawkins' irreverent and penetrating work will seem a breath of fresh air.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- As Jerry Coyne's remark suggests, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson is often taken to be as much a foe of religion as Dawkins himself. This is not hard to understand. In such books as "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," "On Human Nature" and "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge," Wilson has proposed and defended a radical reduction of such humanistic fields of inquiry as religious studies, moral philosophy and literature to the biological sciences -- a reduction that often seemed to leave little room for such antiquated notions as meaning, beauty or objective values, let alone for God or the soul. But in "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth," Wilson extends a welcoming hand to the Christian community, particularly to those Christians in the American South. (He himself was raised as a Southern Baptist.) Not that he is in imminent danger of re-conversion: He begins the book by reiterating the differences between religious worldviews and his own, and returns to this theme in the final chapter. But the chapters between indicate that Wilson no longer shares Dawkins' view that "the real war is between rationalism and superstition." Rather, in light of the current environmental crisis and, in particular, the accelerating destruction of the world's biodiversity, he is now willing to strike up a strategic alliance with the faithful, in order to enlist their help in the project of preserving as much of the planet's natural heritage as can be salvaged:
"Let us see, then, if we can, and you are willing, to meet on the near side of metaphysics in order to deal with the real world we share. ... I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living Nature is a universal value. It doesn't rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity." It is hard to disagree with Wilson's aim here, or to feel no sympathy for his method. Surely if the Christian community could be brought into the pro-biodiversity fold, it would be worth doing. Yet one comes away from "The Creation" suspecting that while the book may cheer and entertain many who are already environmentally enlightened, it is unlikely to attract hordes of the faithful to its cause. This is partly because of the difficulty of the task, and partly because the book contains very little that is new, or even -- aside from the intended novelty of being addressed explicitly to a religious audience -- presented in a new way. (The environmental evidence is readily available, and if you haven't already been convinced by "An Inconvenient Truth," etc., well, what would it take?)
The truth is that religious faith and concern for the health of the planet have traditionally been at odds in Western society, and the reasons for this are deep, complex and almost entirely unexplored in "The Creation." Christianity, in insisting that the earth is but our temporary home and in granting human beings dominion over it and its soulless creatures, has encouraged the devaluation of nature among its adherents. The apocalyptic mind-set that is convinced of the imminence of Christ's return to earth does not mesh well with the conservationist outlook that holds that our practices must be made sustainable into perpetuity. The religious view that it is reasonable to hold beliefs that we have no evidence for is taken by many as an entitlement to summarily dismiss any facts they happen not to like -- including those that constitute evidence of looming environmental catastrophe.
And the common belief that everything that happens is in some way part of God's plan tends not only to discourage people from having compassion for the unfortunate (well illustrated in Dawkins' description of Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne's attempt "to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble" but also to dissuade people from developing any sense of urgency about the state of the planet. Wilson acknowledges some of these points in a cursory way in his first chapter, but then neglects entirely to address them in his appeal to believers, choosing instead to address them entirely from within a scientific framework with which many of them have little sympathy.
At times, Wilson seems on the verge of acknowledging the depth of the fissure between religious and nonreligious worldviews, writing that "the difference between humanism based on religion and humanism based on science radiates through philosophy and the very meaning we assign ourselves as a species." Yet his response to the problem -- "What are we to do? Forget the differences, I say. Meet on common ground." -- seems naive and overoptimistic. He is right, of course, that the evidence points to a grave and ever-more looming threat, not only to our way of life but to our civilization itself, and that finding an adequate response to this threat is a purpose we all ought to be able to get behind.
But again, the evidence for this has been available for some time, yet it is Christian conservatism, not Christian conservationism, that is booming. I would like to think that Dawkins has overestimated this and the various other dangers religious thinking poses to our well-being and that Wilson is correct that the faithful might be easily persuaded to form a cooperative, even amicable alliance among themselves and the skeptical to fight the peril that faces us all. But as both of these authors would remind us, wishing doesn't make it so.
Troy Jollimore teaches philosophy at California State University Chico.
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