So I read The God Delusion. I wasn’t going to. The reason is this: I didn’t want to read an atheist manifesto. I’m an atheist, no need to strengthen my unfaith. I have read books on atheism before, so I have that under my belt. Now, I am interested in religion as a natural phenomenon, but that’s a different issue. With all that said, I caved to the cultural phenomenon that is The God Delusion and read it. And I’m glad for it, was a fun book on the whole, something I hadn’t expected. Dawkins preaches an entertaining sermon.
The book is divided into two rough halves, the first is a quicksilver tour which explores why people are religious, and the history of various intellectual debates that have emerged from the phenomenon. The second half gives space to Dawkins’ ideas and reflections on what we’re going to do about it, on the influence of religion on world affairs and its relationship to morality. When I say it was a fun book on the whole, that means that the first half was more enjoyable than the second, and on the net it was worth the time. If the order of the chapters had been reversed I certainly wouldn’t have completed it; Dawkins the witty scientist cedes ground to Dawkins the op-ed writer with every chapter. There were many times I laughed during the first few chapters, but the rather ponderously serious tone cast a pall over the author’s attempts to interject his wry wit by the end of the book.
I was genuinely surprised by the fact that Richard Dawkins was not a village atheist. He’s not, rather, Dawkins is pretty familiar with the literature surveyed in Breaking the Spell, that is, he knows the cognitive anthropological background from which religiosity emerges. Dawkins is also familiar with functionalist arguments put forth by individuals such as D.S. Wilson. Dawkins also is not ignorant of rational choice/economic models which posit religions as competing firms. Finally, Dawkins hits the various rationalistic proofs, and disproofs, of Aquinas and Anselm. Dawkins is a more lively writer than Dennett, so even though the text is considerably more spare in regards to the terrain surveyed, he brings the ideas to life in the economical manner that is his trademark, and his occasional humorous asides enrich the general reading experience. Only Richard Dawkins can alternate a discussion of the merits of multi-level selection in the context of memetics with a snide but witty joke.
Dawkins uses the models which he introduces in the first half of the book in the transitional chapters where he attempts to decouple morality from religion. Dawkins makes the argument that religion is often the trailing indicator of ethical change and that it is an undefinable Zeitgeist that is truly allowing us to scale the heights of civilizational progress. He does not depart greatly from the general sort of arguments that the cognitive psychologists he alludes to in the first portion of the book make in regards to morality. His rebuttal of a functionalist or rational choice argument is thinner, but I would argue that both these models’ relationship to morality has not been clearly born out. I think Dawkins dismisses the reality that Communism was aggressively atheistic too quickly.He arguments are a good place to start, but Dawkins doesn’t truly engage the critique in my opinion, as atheism and anti-clericalism were central components of Communist movements throughout the 20th century. Nevertheless to be fair I think that is probably demands a separate treatment.
It is in the last third of the book that Dawkins really lost me. In fact, this portion of the book would have been more persuasive if he hadn’t shown quite clearly that he’s rather familiar with the literature on religion in the first half of the book. Whereas earlier Dawkins attempted to show that religion was not the root of morality, rather, it was often a handmaid, in several chapters he attempts to show its pernicious influence and power in forcing political and social issues in a particular (generally reactionary or conservative) direction. But, I think there is a problem here in that if you attempt to decouple explicit religious ideas from their relevance to the cognitive processes on a day to day level, I think it harder to make the case that a particular religion (Dawkins has it in for Abrahamic monotheism) is responsible for a particular social harm. Rather, the framework that the author sets up earlier in the book seems to pose the strong possibility that religion is a post facto justification, that it is swept along with the Zeitgeist, for good or ill. I think an examination of the conflicted attitudes toward sexual freedoms in Communist nations can attest to the fact that if you remove religion that does not imply that social conservatism magically disappears (Japan and China also attest to this).
Religion is a natural phenomenon, Dawkins seems clear on this, but as he progresses in the book his conception seems to become Otherworldy, and just as religionists see God as the root of all good, Dawkins sees it as the root of much evil. Whereas earlier Dawkins seems to imply that religion scaffolds basal moral sense, he seems to be unwilling to admit that conversely evil in the name of God is simply in name only, because organized religion is nothing but a collection of emotionally salient names coupled with rituals and folkways. The fact that Dawkins feels that he has to battle religion as if it was a demon behind every shadow also attests to another implication of the first half of Dawkins’ book: religion is inevitable and ubiquitous. It is a natural phenomenon, it emerges simply from the structural biases of our minds and the modal paths of our lives. Dawkins himself was a believer, and to my surprise a quite sincere one it seems, so he should know the score here. The literature Dawkins references strongly points to the reality that by the necessity of the nature of human cognitive architecture our species is religious. You can’t get away from God, he simply repackages himself in new forms, whether it be Crystals, as a Goddess, or as Kim Jong-il.
With this in mind some of Dawkins’ later assertions seem counter-intuitive and quixotic. Like Sam Harris he makes the case that moderate religion is problematic because irrationality serves as a legitimization of irrationality in general, and so violence in the name of God draws strength from the seedbed of non-violent religion. And yet I am reminded of the reality that rapists have almost certainly engaged in masturbation because of their sexual impulses derived from their testicles, that hard-core drug addicts likely almost certainly began with softer drugs and simple pleasures. But just because the latter is prior to the former does not mean that we should, or can, banish the latter to forestall the former. Some of the authors that Dawkins cites early in the text do assert that we can not banish religion, or even diminish its dominance in the minds of the average human. Dawkins knows this, but his denouement tip-toes around this reality, this inevitability. Fundamentally, I agree with Dawkins that “moderate” religionists do serve as the seedbed for “fundamentalists,” that non-violent irrationality serves as the necessary precondition for violent irrationality. Nevertheless, that is irrelevant if the reality is that religion and irrationality are simply inevitable facts of existence within this universe. Hands can do harms, and cars kill, but acknowledging this is not deep insight. The key is to tame nature and use its rules to bend it to our will, not to pretend it doesn’t exist and assume that it isn’t a contingent system.
And speaking of natural, one of the most interesting things abut Dawkins book is that he is forwarding his concern that children are indoctrinated into their parents’ religion, and he finds that appalling. As someone who seems to have been relatively immune to such indoctrination (unlike Richard Dawkins I never seriously accepted the religious “truths” promulgated by my parents) I see absolutely no hope that in the near future that there is any way to interfere or mitigate this process. I am not even particular interested in entertaining the implications of Dawkins’ concern on this issue because I don’t think that that particular thought-experiment is going to lead anywhere. Again, not to harp on the point, but Dawkins’ citations suggest that if children aren’t indoctrinated into their parents’ religion they will amost certainly accept some other superstition. In this case Dawkins seems to be assuming a naive sense of free well, as well as a tabula rasa conception of human nature. Among atheists there is an old joke that all children are born godless, but eventually indoctrinated into believing in gods. But science is science, and the works that Dawkins references in the first half of his book produce a great deal of evidence that children are ‘natural theists.’ So a child is not turned into a Christian or Muslim from the state of non-theism, but rather inculcated in a specific set of beliefs slotted on top of their innate religious sensibilities. Now, you may find this abhorrent, but I am not one to worry much over the reality that only by the caprice of fate does one child hew to the Triune God of the Christians while another holds to Allah and another bows his head to Vishnu. Leave it to theists to be concerned with the nature of creeds.
For me the frustrating aspect of all this is that The God Delusion attempts raise consciousness among atheists as a group. But to actually act in the world around us we need to acknowledge it as it is. Dawkins points to all the general landmarks which sketch out the bounds of our universe, which is socially going to remain religious, but he simply can not be bothered to use this as a background assumption when formulating policy prescriptions or advising us in how to interact with various religious groups. It as if Dawkins wants us to “Imagine there’s no religion,” after bathing us in the scientific literature which implies that this is fantasy-land thinking, frankly, the height of irrationality!
This does not mean that I am turned off by Dawkins’ militant, condescending and tactless atheism. I’m not. I laughed at quite a few of his barbs at the incoherency and question begging of theology. I do wish he was a little more humble and admitted his own values aren’t always grounded in rock-hard reason, but no one is a saint. People like Dawkins and Sam Harris have their roles to play, they are right that moderate religionists simply can not attack fundamentalists with the vigor necessary to the task. Over the past centuries religious enthusiasm has had its rival in the Humes, Voltaires and Paines of the world. Secular intellectuals who carve out a particular niche for themselves are necessary in the ecology of ideas. Just as religion maybe an inevitable part of the universe, militant atheist intellectuals can serve as a regulating force which keeps the system at equilibrium. They can not only attack fundamentalist religion at its root, but they aid liberal religionists in the tactics of triangulation, allowing there to be some contrast so that the fundamentalists can not dismiss the liberals as pure heretics. Moderate religionists maybe the “gateway drug” to fundamentalism, but they are here to stay, and we should learn to make our peace with them in the ways possible, because they stand with unbelievers against the fundamentalists on many issues (in The Future of Religion by Stark & Bainbridge, they report that moderate religionists tend to cluster more with secularists in their behaviors than fundamentalists). The world is messy and diverse, with an inevitability of pluralisms. But this isn’t all bad, cultural nature in all its profusion can be a grand work of art to behold.
Finally, I want to end on a high note, and praise Dawkins for one particular issue, and that is holding Islam to the same standard he does Christianity. To some extent I think that Dawkins seems a bit mechanical about this, as if he had to interject Islam in particular sections of the text to seem balanced and not myopic, but, it did the trick. In terms of a rhetorical delivery it of course helped him in seeming to make a broad principled, as opposed to parochial, case. But Islam is a serious issue, because it is, frankly, at a earlier cultural stage than Christianity. While Christians, as a whole, have learned to accept unbelievers as a fact of nature, Muslims have not. Dawkins points out that children are indoctrinated into religions, and I suggest that most children are going to be religious anyhow, but not all. In Christian lands these children who are natural unbelievers will go through turmoil and personal tumult, but in Muslim lands their lives maybe in danger if they express their views publically. This is a human rights issue which I think we should raise more consciousness about, and we can stand with religious believers of all stripes and demand that Muslims join at least the 19th century, if not the 21st.
Clearly the The God Delusion was a somewhat disjointed book. I think it comes close to incoherency because of the neglect of major points introduced early on in the exposition in light of later chapters. Fundamentally it is several books, and only a writer with the textual dexterity of Richard Dawkins could have pulled it off, because it isn’t a thin work in terms of substance. You’ll come away sated, even a bit gorged by the full throttle assault of ideas. It is, for lack of a better metaphor, an excellent “Core Dump” of Richard Dawkins mindscape when it comes to religion. And like any Core Dump there is a certain graceless lack of structural coherency here. But there are plenty of nuggets of logic, functional and elegant verbal flow to satisfy anyone.
Addendum: If you want to read what I think, check out Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm.