Friday, May 23, 2008

Review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

By Rich Bordner

To be an atheist is all the rage these days. Or at least that's what you'd gather by a selective viewing of media shows. Since September 11, 2001, a new batch of particularly aggressive and media-savvy atheists have cropped up in popular culture. Their books are selling well. In fact, some of them have stayed pretty long on the NYT best-seller list.

So recently I decided to read three of those books.

The first one I read was The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is a very well known biologist and advocate of naturalistic science (the idea that science must be wedded to a worldview that holds that the physical world is all that exists.). He's an Oxford fellow, and we all know that those who speak with a British accent and hail from Oxford are darn smart and therefore should be listened to, so I was anxious to see what all the hubbub was all about.

Dawkins' project in the book is to convince us that religion is not only irrational, but immoral and bad for society.

The first two chapters of his book deal with some preliminary considerations (Did Einstein believe in God? No, when he said we would "know the mind of God" in the future, or "God does not play dice" he was using the word "God" in a very poetic, metaphorical sense.) and terminology. The main parts of his book, though, are chapters 3 and 4. In chapter 3 he engages in "deck clearing." He takes a look at the arguments traditionally raised for God's existence and finds them seriously wanting. Chapter 4 is the lynchpin of his book. In that chapter, he advances a positive intellectual case for atheism; that is, he advances an argument *for* atheism. After all, the title of that chapter is "Why there almost certainly is no god." Bold title.

After that, he has to do damage control. Religion has traditionally served as the root of many important things (like morality, wonder, happiness, etc), and Dawkins now has to explain how those things can exist in the absence of religion. In Chapter 5 he tackles the widespread existence of religion itself: if it’s all just a sham, then why is religion so prevalent all over the world? Chapters 6 and 7 deal with morality; he advances an evolutionary explanation of morality and explains how we do not get our morality from the Bible. Chapter 8 details the damage religion has done to society, while he takes on the subject of a religious upbringing in chapter 9. He ends up saying that a religious education is "child abuse." I am not exaggerating.

He ends the book in chapter 10 by claiming that a proper wonder of the physical world can fill the inspiration gap left by religion.

So that's his project. What do I think?

I was very disappointed. After reading his book, I find Dawkins is hard to take seriously.

There are many things I could focus on. For example, I could focus on how his evolutionary account of morality is no "account" at all. The "morality" he ends up with is not morality but something completely different: a by-product of our evolutionary past. He only explains how we "behave" in a way that we call "moral." This is a far cry from real morality. Morality is a deeply true feature of reality that we must submit to in our behavior. It prescribes our actions and attitudes. Reducing it to behavior that our genes have programmed into us is not morality, for it guts morality of things like obligation. Anyway...

Since chapters 3 and 4 are the main parts of his book, I'm going to focus my comments on those places. If he fails in those chapters, the rest of his book is a bust. That is, if he doesn't dispatch with the arguments for theism and if he doesn't succeed in convincing us that atheism is a rational position to hold, then he hasn't "cleared the deck" for an atheistic understanding of reality in all the other key places. Religion is still the king of the hill.

As I mentioned earlier, in chapter 3 he takes on what he says are the main arguments for the existence of God. However, he ends up attacking several conveniently erected straw men instead. I'm a philosophy student. I've trafficked in that area for 10 years now. I deal with these things, and I didn't recognize many of the arguments he addressed. He didn't even acknowledge the best arguments; he acted like they didn't exist. Where was the Kalam Cosmological argument? Where was the Moral argument? Where was the Argument from Consciousness?

Nowhere to be found.

He only interacted with one major Christian philosopher (Richard Swinburne), and he only interacted with him limitedly. He quoted him out of context and therefore set up yet another caricature. He pretended all the others (William Craig, J.P. Moreland, Paul Copan, Gary Habermas, Albert Mohler, Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Paul Moser, etc, etc, etc) simply do not exist. When he did quote a Christian, most often it was either from one of his angry detractors (who send him letters), the "men on the street" who call him when he's on the radio, or unsophisticated preachers and priests.

The arguments he did address were weak. He made them even weaker by making them into straw men. These are arguments that very learned men spent their lives expounding, defending, attacking, and thinking over. Mostly, Dawkins merely summarized them in a few lines, no more than a paragraph, then dispatched them in a few lines.

Let me give two examples. One "argument" he dispatches with is the "argument from beauty." He summarizes it like this: "I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: 'How do you account for Shakespeare, then?' The argument will be so familiar, I needn't document it further. But the logic behind it is never spelled out... Obviously... Shakespeare's sonnets (are sublime). They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn't. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Shakespeare. (p. 86)"

That's it. No premised-out argument, no attempt at charitability. This might do for a small blog; but a popular-level book that is purporting to come from a sharp, keen mind? He must be more responsible.

There actually have been attempts to spell it out. Even if there weren't, it wouldn't be difficult for Dawkins to think it through. The argument, in its bare form, goes like this:

  1. There are autonomously aesthetic objects (Shakespeare, for instance, or Beethoven's music, or the smell of a rose, etc). Defining "autonomous": There are objects with aesthetic properties that do not depend upon subjective experiences... they are real objective aesthetic properties. These objects have aesthetic properties no matter how people respond/whether or not people recognize these properties... NOT: beauty is in the eye of the beholder... BUT: the object ITSELF IS beautiful, no matter who views/sees it.
  2. There must be some explanation for these aao's.
  3. The explanation for the existence of aao's is either natural or non-natural.
  4. If the explanation for the existence of aao's is natural, it can be given in terms of the natural sciences (chemistry, biology, psychology...laws of nature)
  5. The existence of aao's cannot be given in terms of the natural sciences.
  6. The explanation for the existence of aao's must be non-natural

You can continue to carry the argument out in a way that leads to a supernatural/God explanation being the best explanation.

Now, that's a world of difference from Dawkins' caricature. For starters, the thrust of this argument is that beauty is an objective property (like morality, consciousness, etc) that calls for an explanation. Some explanations are better than others. The explanation theism gives is much better than the one naturalism (atheism) gives. That's much different from asking "what accounts for Shakespeare" and it’s much different from snarking that "Shakespeare is sublime if God exists and sublime if he isn't." Yes, but there still needs to be an explanation...Dawkins is changing the subject.

Even if you don't think the argument is successful ultimately, the point is that it’s much better than what Dawkins gave.

Secondly, he gives what he calls the "argument from Scripture." The title he gives the argument is bad, for starters: it leads the reader to believe that the argument's thrust is derived merely from something being written in the Bible (like those who say, "It’s in the Bible, God said it, and that's that.")...which is a straw man...but anyway.

First, he only gives five pages to a subject that people have written VOLUMES on...and most of Dawkins' treatment is ridicule and fluff, not actually a précis.

Secondly, in this section, he deals with two purported "contradictions" in the Bible, and there is no attempt to even mention some of those who have answered those challenges. People have written answers to these "contradictions" for centuries, and for Dawkins to pretend they don't exist is irresponsible at best, dishonest at worst.

Third, he says, "Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus' life. All were copied and recopied, through many different 'Chinese Whispers generations' (see Chapter 5) by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas. (p. 93)"

That's it. No attempt to let SCHOLARS who have thought otherwise have a say. In fact, he gives the impression that all "scholars" agree with his assessment.

This is just bad.

Anytime someone does this with the arguments against his case and won't address the most powerful arguments against him, its a major red flag. I had trouble trusting Dawkins on anything after reading this sham.

On to chapter four. In this chapter, he gives a positive argument for the NON-existence of God. One big problem with this chapter is that he only gives ONE argument, and he pretends like it’s a "silver bullet." He pretends that it’s a knock-down argument against theism that can't be defeated. That should tip you off: anytime someone only has ONE argument for his case, he's hurtin'. If you do that, it had better be a pretttttttty doggone good argument.

Another thing about chapter four: He derides those who make metaphysical (as opposed to scientific) claims and speculations, but he makes metaphysical claims and speculations of his own... see, for example, his talk of the "multiverse" on page 145, which has absolutely zero empirical evidence confirming it.

All this should tell you that the rest of his book is highly suspect.

In conclusion, he promises big things, but never comes through. He relies heavily on caricature, ridicule, name calling, and loaded language, but has little substance. There are better defenses of atheism out there.

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