Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Belated Book Review: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Ever since I read Dr. Francis Collins' statement that he keeps the complete works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on his bookshelf (“One must dig deeply into opposing points of view in order to know whether your own position remains defensible”), I've been nagged by the feeling that I was behaving somewhat like a Hobbit (who, according to J. R. R. Tolkien, “like books which tell them what they already know.”) I sustained a blow to this mentality many years ago when I read The Creator and the Cosmos by Hugh Ross, which made short work of my fundamentalist “cosmology” (such as the idea of an Earth which is thousands, rather than billions of years old.) I was relieved, rather than shaken – who really enjoys defending the indefensible? Dr. Collins' The Language of God, which helped me to reconcile biological science (including Natural Selection) with my Christian faith, completed for me the basic process, including a firm repudiation of Intelligent Design (ID), which negates the scientific method whenever a difficulty is encountered, replacing it with a miraculous default.

We live during a time in which battle lines are now drawn not only between “Creation vs. Evolution” or “Science vs. Faith”, but, ever increasingly, “Young Earth Creation vs. Theistic Evolution”, in which Christians themselves are divided over whether a literalistic interpretation of Genesis trumps all the disciplines of mainstream science. Over and against this stands Richard Dawkins, the Chuck Norris of militant atheism, for whom any belief in God or the supernatural is not only wrong, but at best misguided, at worst evil incarnate. His magnum opus, The God Delusion (henceforth TGD), has become sort of an atheist Bible, and its enormous popularity is significant in an age where atheism has lost much of the stigma that has dogged it for centuries and kept it largely underground. Along with books such as the late Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, TGD has emboldened millions of people to abandon beliefs they held for reasons other than deep personal conviction (i.e., family tradition, indoctrination, etc.)

Church, we had it coming. If half of Dawkins' observations about religious faith are true (I didn't try to keep score), then we are facing a massive reformation of our intellectual, moral and spiritual integrity. My decision to read TGD was, as I indicated, encouraged by Dr. Collins' fearless admonition to face alternate viewpoints head-on. Since there are numerous rebuttals, and even entire books challenging or purporting to refute TGD, the easy way would have been simply to read one or more of these and use it as ammunition against the atheistic onslaught.

Having read TGD cover-to-cover, I'm glad I finally took the high road. Dawkins writes well, has a keen sense of humor and does his best (mostly) to be fair and objective. He is an eminent scientist with keen sense of the marvelous, and he makes many fascinating observations about nature, the universe and humanity. Much to my astonishment, I began to find Dawkins likable, and I found myself laughing with him far more often than at him. He is as worthy an opponent as a thinking person of faith is likely to cross swords with.

And here I must unsheathe my own. But wait a minute - me, an electric guitar player, take on one of the world's most formidable atheists? Who do I think I am, anyway? I'm no scientist, nor philosopher nor theologian. I don't even have a college degree (which nonetheless didn't prevent me from once creating a university course.) My audacity usually extends as far as taking on musical challenges that I'm not 100% sure I'm qualified for. My confrontation with Richard Dawkins must be of the David vs. Goliath variety, or perhaps merely Quixotic.

There are other ways to confront him – he is justifiably predisposed to quote the various cases made against himself, especially since they are frequently hate-steeped invectives made all the more disagreeable by their ignorance and outright stupidity. Nobody wants to look bad in a public showdown, and by reprinting his own hate mail, Dawkins underscores his own perceived moral, as well as intellectual superiority by demonstrating the ethical and logical bankruptcy and hypocrisy of some of his more virulent foes. If I am to score any points against him, I'd better leave smear tactics to those who possess no other weapons.

That's not to say that Dawkins never resorts to unfair tactics himself. He tries hard not to sling too much mud, except at Yaweh, the deity of the Bible, against whom he unleashes his most contemptuous and hostile assault. Incomplete and one-sided though it may be, Dawkins' case against the biblical God should be answered, although it has elsewhere been treated by thinkers far superior to myself. Where he skewers statements by Augustine, Martin Luther and many others, I often find myself nodding in agreement. There is seldom, if ever, total agreement in any camp, even Dawkins' own. Far worse, to me, are his frequent attacks on straw men. Many of his favorite victims (i.e, baptism of infants, a mystically-addled Hitler, young earth creationism, experimental prayers for healing) are soft targets against which nearly any thinking religious person could make an equally compelling case. A cursory perusal of the works of C. S. Lewis would have eliminated the perceived need to include many of these in any rational attack on religious faith.

Unfortunately, Dawkins doesn't face his most formidable adversaries head-on. His only mention of C. S. Lewis, the “apostle to the skeptics”, occurs in a cursory dismissal of Lewis' 'Trilemma' argument (Jesus as liar, lunatic or Lord), asserting that Lewis “should have known better.” Likewise, Dr. Collins, our foremost advocate of Biologos (the harmony of faith and science), warrants only passing mention, with no real attempt at refuting any of Collins' arguments for faith, despite his wholesale agreement with Dawkins on the question of evolution. Here would have been excellent sport, but Dawkins either dodged these bullets or didn't bother to notice they'd been fired. I will give him the benefit of my doubt here, since the latter seems at least intrinsically plausible. Nobody's perfect.

My own quibbles with Dawkins involve the farthest-reaching questions, which he seems to have attempted to answer but repeatedly comes up short. He argues that religion is not the source of morality, but he needn't have looked any further than Romans 2:14-15 to find that not even Christianity makes such a claim (“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.”) Likewise, his attempts to explain traits such as altruism as holdovers of herd mentality, or misfirings of genetics, fail to address the moral dilemmas posed by something as subtle as cheating on an exam, or on your income taxes. Still worse is his total failure to address perhaps the Greatest Question(s) of All: What is the meaning of life, or of the universe?

I can cut Dawkins no slack here. That is not to say that he has never pondered the question, or that he is in any way shallow – to the contrary, this guy is deep. I love his sense of awe at the beauty and complexity of the universe, and his insistence upon unraveling as much of it as he, and we, can. Before I pull the metaphysical trigger, I wish to reaffirm my agreement with him that we should aggressively oppose virtually all attempts to limit scientific research and knowledge. I share his contempt for small-mindedness, and no person of faith should fear any advance in scientific knowledge, since any such advance should automatically bolster our faith as it adds to our understanding of creation.

Dawkins repeatedly insists that the existence or nonexistence of God is a scientific matter, but in no way can I fold, spindle or mutilate my brain into agreeing with him. Since what the Theist means by “God” is by definition something outside of time and space, it can never be detected by using the tools of science. (Here Dawkins declares himself to be at variance with fellow evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who insisted that science has nothing to say on the matter.) Never say never, but I say never. Dawkins rightly insists on the picking apart of everything that can be observed, detected or hypothesized. Unfortunately, when something falls outside the realm of observation or other forms of verification, its hypothetical existence must be determined by other means, (i.e., revelation, which Dawkins open-mindedly dismisses out of hand.) The Hot Big Bang model of creation, that most mysterious and yet foundational of natural phenomena, can and should be subject to the most rigorous research we can devise. But even if it can be shown to have resulted from a random fluctuation in a quantum anomaly, we are forced (if we are brave enough) to ask where those came from. Stephen Hawking's assertion that it all came from the Laws of Physics (“which have always been there”) ignores the fact that laws can do nothing without a patient to act upon. Gravity cannot be the apple it causes to fall. I have long maintained that any child could see this, but not even a wall full of academic credentials can force their recipient to see what they wish not to see.

TGD makes blessedly little of wishful thinking as a source of belief in God (or a lack thereof), but it should be acknowledged that for every person “deceived” into believing in God through wishful thinking, there might equally be a person hoping like mad that He doesn't exist. As C. S. Lewis observes, the question does nothing to move us toward a logical conclusion, since there are plenty of wishes on both sides. Of far greater portent is the Anthropic Principle (the narrow spectrum of conditions in which carbon-based life can develop), about which Dawkins makes a good deal of heavy weather. The existence or nonexistence of planets with the right moisture, temperature, gravity, etc. to support life is the subject of extensive research and conjecture, but only enters into the theological realm as regards the likelihood, or lack thereof, of life arising spontaneously from non-life. The now-popular Multiverse scenario (in which an indefinite number of universes existing outside our own, elevating the probability of matter morphing into life somewhere) cannot be tested, verified, nor falsified. The vastness of our own universe surely provides scope enough for life (which we know to have occurred in our own backyard) to materialize, whether accidentally or intentionally. As a straw to be grasped in the attempt to indicate that anything might happen, given enough time and material, Multiverse is (to borrow one of Dawkins' pet names) a cop-out of unimaginable proportions, or, at best, irrelevant. Life already happened; deal with it. We must look at the final chapter of his book to see the unhinged lengths to which he will go in order to defend his position.

In his invocation of the miraculous-as-theoretically possible, a marble statue of the Madonna could theoretically, through a random flash mob rebellion against normal molecular movement, wave its hand. (While somebody reliable was watching.) Rather than delve into the near-infinite absurdity of this scenario (conclusively trashed by authorities on all sides of the issue, even his own), I will simply state that Dawkins-as-final authority is a chimera, just one more example of wishful thinking, of which most or all of us are equally guilty. This colossal cock-up should serve as a warning to those who would set up any man, be it Dawkins, Darwin, C. S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Einstein, Karl Marx, Francis Collins, the Dalai Lama, or the Pope as bulletproof. (I plead guilty myself.)

I hasten to add that Dawkins is, barring his foibles, an important figure in the worldview debate. Iron sharpens iron. One of the more delightful surprises awaiting me in TGD was his vast appreciation of P. G. Wodehouse, to his mind and mine, “the greatest writer of light comedy in English”, not the least reason being (for both of us) his profound biblical, and therefore cultural literacy. Dawkins justly, and admirably, points out that an ignorance of the King James Version of the Bible as a vast source of our culture's rich verbal heritage would be an impoverishment. For example, Wodehouse's bumbling hero Bertie Wooster comparing his own hangover to Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera's temple (the side of his head, not a building) would ruin the inside joke, lost on a biblical illiterate. Dawkins gives us a veritable laundry list of biblical tropes, including “my brother's keeper”, “coat of many colors”, “kill the fatted calf”, “the stars in their courses”, and “the patience of Job”, among dozens of others. Though these concessions in no way diminish his contempt for religion, they, perhaps unwittingly, give it more importance than he intends.

I believe Dawkins' most glaring oversight to be his total failure to address the greatest questions ever asked: Who am I? What is the meaning of life, and of the universe? Does the universe have a purpose? Whether by brushing these aside or merely forgetting to treat them, he makes, what seems to me, the worst blunder a man on such a mission as his could possibly commit. I plead an unlearned man's ignorance of the minutiae of various schools of thought regarding the meaning of the universe, but with America's Founding Fathers (for whom Dawkins professes boundless symathy), I subscribe to the proposition that certain truths can “be self evident”. If an accidental, irrational universe can somehow “acquire” meaning and purpose, somebody had better spell the process out for me in language that even I, and others even stupider than myself, can understand.

I applaud Dawkins for his commitment to the values of honesty, compassion and decency, even as he saws off the branch he's sitting on. To those who attack him with far more hatred and violence than he himself allows himself toward even the most contemptible or misunderstood of his adversaries, I had best not say what I really think of them. My surprise at being able to enjoy so much of TGD will probably lead me to read his other books. I should very much like to meet him. If I condemn some of his more unkind characteristics, I likewise condemn them in myself (tact being a wildly variable resource in my Asperger's-infested toolbox.)

I challenge every thinking Christian or theist to read The God Delusion; likewise I challenge all agnostic or atheistic Hobbits to venture beyond the familiar and comfortable and read C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity or Francis Collins' The Language of God. And I would encourage us all to read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, a Jewish atheist who demonstrates more courage and fairness in evaluating opposing sides of the ideological spectrum than I would have dared dream possible. It's a lot of work seeing both sides of the story, but for the Biblical theist it isn't supposed to be an option - “The first to put forth his case seems right, until someone else steps forward and cross-examines him.” (Proverbs 18:17). And as for the atheist or anti-theist? What have you got to be afraid of?