final thoughts on The God Delusion

I spent my off day yesterday reading The God Delusion. And I have to say it strangely better than I thought it would be and much much much worse. I then went to see Juno last night (great, beautiful, quirky film) which redeemed the otherwise somewhat wasted day of Dawkins. (Apologies to my buddy C4, who thinks differently on the matter).

On the better side, all I can positively say for the book is that it makes me want to read a whole series of other books that he cites (that sound much more interesting)–including his own earlier works on evolution (minus the anti-religious tirade), e.g. Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, etc.

I can also appreciate his point that there is no evidence for a supernatural God designer figure. Since I don’t believe in that, that’s not particularly bothersome to me.

On the dark side, the most obvious criticism is that the book is not so much an argument as a tirade. It’s like an adolescent smug temper tantrum. Dawkins refers on a number of occasions to “sophisticated theologians”–though (un?)remarkably he doesn’t cite any by name. Who are these ethereal beings lurking in the background of the text? Has he ever read any? And why would I trust his judgment–as opposed to experts on the subject–on who is and isn’t a sophisticated religious thinker?

For me it isn’t a study of religion, so much (seems to me) as an ideological treatise. The fact that he says St. Paul invented Christianity shows quite plainly that he just hasn’t done his homework. [For the record, Christianity didn’t exist during the time of Paul of Tarsus. There were Jews who believed Jesus was the Jewish messiah (Paul was one such person) and Gentiles who found were attracted and joined the movement. Christianity is not an appropriate term for the movement until around 100 C.E., long after Paul was dead. It may still be wrong, however we define that, but this is 101 stuff.]

The worst part I found was his shoddy logic on this question (Chs 5-7) of whether religion is a by-product of some other evolutionary function. He makes this argument coupled with his argument that moral values have evolutionary grounding (which I actually think is true though incomplete by itself) in order to argue that religion is not the source of our morality–and then given that the “God Hypothesis” (i.e. again Supernatural intervening God) is unsound/highly improbable, then religion should be excised from human beings. Doesn’t give an accurate view of the cosmos nor our morality, hence throw it out.

The problem with this argument is that it begins with the assumption already in mind (namely that religion is a by-product) and then works theories as to explain how this could be. He never mentions why it would be correct to see religion as a by-product. He offers a whole series of interesting hypotheses as to how religion might be a by-product of something else, but never why this overall theory is appropriate in these circumstances.

The example offered from the natural world (p.200) is that of moths who have been selected for an apparatus that coordinates their sight-line with the moon. Humans have produced candles and artificial lights which have screwed with their tracking system, causing them on occasions to fly straight into the candle or bug zapper and kill themselves. In that case the theory of by-product actually explains the phenomenon. Fantastic.

But why again is religion like the moth? No answer from Dawkins. He just “flies right into” the argument assuming he has already made the case and then just looks for the appropriate mechanism whereby this by-productness has taken place.

One day (God willing) we will societally actually get over these Boomers and their egos and their unique ability to see everything through the spectacle of the 1960s cultural wars. But not yet sadly.

Published in: on January 16, 2008 at 11:58 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Chris,

    i appreciate you wasting your time on The God Delusion. no need for apologies though. it’s good to know your perspective on this very important book 🙂

    i say important not because of its sophisticated treatise, but by it’s accomplishment of raising the public’s awareness and getting the religion vs. science debates on mainstream (as it should be, imho. i’m arguing using Sam Harris’s logic at this point).

    that said, i’ve approached the God Delusion in the same spirit as John Shelby Spong. here’s what Spong has to say about Dawkins and Harris:

    “I welcome the attention that serious atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are offering the world at this moment through their books. They are bringing what I regard as a deserved criticism and a necessary correction to what Christianity has become in our generation.

    “I, for one, have no desire to worship a God who is thought to favor the war in the Middle East in order to accomplish some obscure prediction found in the late first century book of Revelation, who suppresses women in the name of ancient patriarchy, or who is so deeply homophobic that oppressing homosexuals becomes the defining issue of church life. “

    incidentally, Dawkins praised John Spelby Spong in the book for being open. he also named other Bishops which he debated in public. so he did name names. maybe Dawkins was referring to them when he said “sophisticated theologians.”

    in any case, i think the difference of our opinion stems from the way how we approached the book. in my case, i read it not expecting a very sophisticated philosophical treatise (Dawkins is not biologist not a philosopher). i read it as if i was reading it, say when i was still back in the Philippines, a country which is knee-deep in Catholicism. from that perspective i appreciate what Dawkins is trying to do: “consciousness raising.”

    that said, i agree with you that Dawkin’s arguments are limited (from a philosophical and post-metaphysical standpoint, as compared to say Wilber’s approach of integrating science and religion). however, the fact of the matter is, Dawkins’ book is much more influential, political, and popular (1.5 million books in 30+ languages). that in itself is a BIG accomplishment of raising people’s consciousness to say to, using SD terms, orange-level. that’s where i find value in Dawkins’ book.

    in a future post i will address “religion as a by-product of something else” thesis by Dawkins. in the meantime, i wonder what’s your take on this topic. if religion is not a by-product of something else, then what do you think it is? isn’t that if you use a developmental perspective like SD, then religion would start to look like a by-product of bio-psycho-social development? or do you have a different interpretation of this?

    thanks for engaging me in this discussion.


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