27 January 2008

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Houghton-Mifflin, New York, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-618-68000-9. 374 pages.

The God Delusion
is well-written, and well-reasoned. It deals with a difficult and complicated subject in a manner that kept my interest without being condescending or simplistic, in spite of the need for detailed explanations throughout. Dawkins comes across as a likable, optimistic teacher with a strong desire to see clear thinking take root and grow in the world.

Dawkins uses science and logic to illustrate how irrational religious beliefs have evolved and developed over the history of mankind, and how they have plagued civilization.

There will be, of course, objections to this book. Atheists run into this all the time. Apparently some religious people feel threatened by atheism; perhaps they don't like to have to think carefully about exactly what they believe. Dawkins' analysis of the origins of religion, and the actual substance of which it is formed, is daunting to say the least. He challenges the circular logic of faith, which says that one must believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. It is this anti-logical trump card that defeats all rational discussion. If one argues that God cannot be seen, heard, or felt, the response will be that God wants it this way: God wants us to have faith in him without any evidence of his existence. Religion says that belief in the improbable is the key to understanding God and pleasing him.

This book provides welcome relief from the background guilt that I experience when discussions of religion erupt. While I regard most of this stuff as nonsense on a rational, adult level there is always the "inner child" that was taught early on to fear the omniscient bearded man in the sky. There is the confusing story of Jesus and his inscrutable sacrifice, which somehow relieves me of original sin, or something like that. Talk about a guilt trip! Here's this man who, 2000 years ago, suffered a horrible death at the hands of merciless sadists because he knew that you were coming along, and he loves you, even now. Aren't you ashamed of yourself for not believing this.

It is not hard to debunk the myths that come from religion, whether it's the story of Jesus or the promise of a heaven full of virgins to the suicide bomber (Dawkins, by the way, rightly asks: what about the fate of these virgins? How do they feel about it? And why would a man want virgins, anyway?) it's pretty easy to simply say: this is not possible, not probable, it cannot be proven and so it is not true. What is difficult is to free people from the innate feeling that they are supposed to believe in this claptrap, and that if they don't, they are evil, ungrateful heretics and that God (who loves them) will punish them with nothing less than merciless eternal torture. This predisposition to adopt such illogical nonsense as one's "beliefs" is, as Dawkins points out, most likely a sort of side-effect of natural selection.

I found this concept immensely attractive. Parents impart much useful knowledge to their children, e.g. don't eat spoiled food, wash your hands, get enough sleep, the good fish are in this part of the river, etc. At the same time, parents may tell their children things which are inaccurate or untrue, such as the idea that you can "catch" a cold from getting wet and chilly, that people of another race are inherently inferior, or that there is an invisible omniscient omnipotent being who requires certain bizarre behavior and will punish you if you fail to display it. While the bad ideas may be quite useless or even harmful, the basic good information is often required for survival. Offspring with a penchant for hearing and adopting the instructions of their parents are probably more likely to survive, hence natural selection will favor this trait. The bad ideas, such as religion, are as fervently adopted as the good. Dawkins' own explanation of this concept is much more skillful than mine, and includes good examples and illustrations.

The message of The God Delusion is that too much evil is done in the name of religion for it to occupy the exalted place that it enjoys in human society. Why should we continue to grant special privileges (tax exemption) and overlook behavior which, if not excused under the explanation of religious belief, would be considered illegal and destructive (e.g. taking children out of school)? Religion is responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Religion fuels the never-ending wars of the Middle East, and the conflict in Ireland. Many representatives of one of the major religions of the world have been exposed as pedophiles, and that church itself has been found to be complicit in covering up or impeding prosecution of crimes committed by these people. How is it that rational people continue to tolerate this monstrosity in our midst?

This topic cannot be broached without inspiring controversy. I am sure that many people will find me heretical, insensitive, and evil for expressing these ideas. Fortunately for me, very few people read what I write here, so I will not have to put up with too much abuse. But to anyone who does object, I invite you to borrow this book from your public library (or buy it, if you don't mind putting money in the hands of the infidel) and read it. Give it an honest chance and ask yourself if it doesn't make a lot of sense. Some will, of course, reject it out of hand. But a few may just be relieved to find that they are not alone: many of us are unwilling to ignore logic, to eschew science, and adopt dangerous and destructive myths foisted upon us by previous generations. Many, I imagine, will be very pleased to read this book, and to enjoy its clear and reasonable arguments and Dawkins' fine writing.


Xigent said...

A well-written, thought-provoking review, Mr Lester. You may soon regret how many thoughts it provoked, in fact.

Dawkins makes the classic argument, and it is effective (and entertaining) as far as it goes: People are tribal, they have long felt insecure in a dangerous world, and relatively few have the cognitive skills or intellectual tools to evaluate, much less validate, age-old "religious" beliefs.

And so they invented gods to help them cope. Gods who are on their side. Gods with whom their shamans have regular, direct contact. Belief in those gods has been passed down, and sizable proportions of the human species still believe in them, contrary to all evidence.

I've heard Dawkins's lectures and done a quick skim of the book. His is a sound, exoteric, positivistic analysis. In fact, any scientist worth his/her salt can make the same case.

But Dawkins, it seems to me, undermines his case by brushing aside key dimensions. For one thing, "religion" is hardly a homogeneous category to begin with. There are mystical religions and ritual religions, to name but two divergent categories. The former turn the mind of the practitioner inward and dispose to pacifism; the latter often project deifications onto external totems and can be used to mobilize for war.

For purposes of illustration, let's lapse into a little reductionism: When assessing what appears to be irrational "religious" behavior among prehistoric human ancestors, yet with millennia of human experience transmitted orally and later in writing, one is left with one basic choice: Either everyone who came before the rational debunkers like Dawkins (who espouse a very readily comprehensible argument) was an idiot, or else their cumulative religious experience went beyond collective psychosis in ways that may not be apparent by simple observation.

Since the human brain has not changed materially in centuries, a case can easily be made for the latter — or at least room can be made for doubt. The most cogent example are those "religions" that incorporate mysticism but that are neither theistic nor deistic. Like Buddhism. What does a Dawkins do about Buddhists? They have similar rituals, similar moral codes, yet no god. They're not big on killing and crusades.

For some reason the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton got along famously. Both had had personal revelations that were similar in many ways, despite emerging from very different traditions. In fact, the same holds true for "religious" mystics in human cultures on separate continents that have never had any ostensible contact with each other. From Tibet to Persia to the Andes to the Yaqui Indians of Northern Mexico to the Hopi to the Inuit. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of parallel examples.

Not only that, but Zen monks, when tested with EEGs, also show measurable resilience to stressful psychological stimuli and have fewer residual effects. They have lower blood pressure and better general physical and mental health than even the wealthiest members of their non-practicing peer groups, despite living far below the poverty line.

Could it be that "religion" evolved as an ingenious, subtle, and subjective mode of living designed to achieve and maintain optimal brain and enzyme chemistry, the kind that is experienced as well-being or happiness? I don't believe Dawkins touched on such a hypothesis.

What if one could choose between a Zen master's equanimity, health, and life expectancy (and the beauty and harmony of Zen gardens) and Dawkins's compulsion to climb the academic hierarchy (watch that blood pressure!) and to proselytize for his views far and wide? (Do the gardens of crusading atheists look anything alike? Whose carbon footprint is larger?)

Some of us would conclude that the godless "religions" have more to recommend them, not least because the cultures of their practitioners are far more ecologically sustainable, than Dawkins's cerebral analysis, which is itself hardly devoid of devotional (even evangelical?) trappings.

If you found yourself on a transatlantic flight that suddenly began to plunge into the cold, dark North Atlantic, would you rather be seated next to a Zen master or next to a Richard Dawkins? In your last minutes, would you rather hear Dawkins on his cell phone, or the Zen master (who probably wouldn't bother with one)?

Maybe we should reserve judgment before stamping out all traces of religion.

Eric Lester said...

I appreciate your thoughtful words, no matter how provoked they may be.

I was a little surprised to notice that I read The God Delusion a whole year ago. It doesn't seem possible that it could be that long.

My enchantment with Dawkins' ideas has faded a bit, but I still think he has some important points to make. On the bad side, religion causes violence, hate, war, repression, prejudice, and suppression of original thought. On the good, it ads some beauty and mystery to our often drab existence, and provides some survival advantages -- this last point is Dawkins' own.

In an interview I heard long ago, Andrew Weill was asked if much homeopathic medicine worked only because of the placebo effect. Weill replied that if so, we should be looking more carefully into other ways that we could cultivate that same "effect."

In pursuing the positive gifts that religion has to offer, we must guard against its potential to exclude, to form us-and-them antagonisms, to beget resentments that last for generations.

" My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.

"Unlike science, the religious tradition teaches the concept of forgiveness, tolerance and compassion. Scientists cannot help you change your emotion, only religion can."
~ His Holiness Tenzing Gyatso, Fourteenth Dalai Lama