Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Disservice To Atheism

I have finally read Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion ". It was a big disappointment. It falls way short of his key works on evolution, such as "The Blind Watchmaker"

Bible Bashing

Whilst Dawkins' argues that all religious beliefs share similar defects, much of his criticism in "The God Delusion" is directed against Christianity. The Bible comes in for a bashing. It is, therefore, paradoxical that I requested and received my copy of his book as a Christmas present.

A clear sign that I found the book to be highly problematic was that it took me so long to read it - the whole of January. Picking it up became a task I kept avoiding. It was rather as if I had set myself a chore such as reading the Bible itself.

Knock, Knock

The book is full of knock-out and knock-about arguments. Such an approach is neither intellectually not emotionally stimulating.

To maintain sets of knock-out arguments, a writer is obliged to set up a series of Aunt Sallys which can be bowled over. Dawkins' criticisms are also directed more at the easy target of the Old Testament than at the Gospels (although he disputes that this is what he is up to).

For knock-about, he deals with American style Christian fundamentalism, rather than the type of socially conscious Methodism I absorbed in a pit village over 50 years ago.

The knock-about comes in when Dawkins' delights in digging up the best bits of Christian stupidity he can find. Some from experiences in his past, the others from a great deal of Googleing.

Dialect instead of Dialectics

Dawkins uses the same tone (or harsh dialect) all of the time. Religion is always mad and bad. There is no delving into the inspirational aspects of religion, which in Christianity alone have grabbed such people as Martin Luther King, Keir Hardie and Desmond Tutu.

It is easy to despatch the nonsense which emerges from creationists and the pro-life lobby, but answering religion at its most inspirational requires both empathy and deepth of thought. The best arguments as to whether God exists should touch on morality and metaphysics as well as science. All these forms of analysis require a critic to be involved in 'give' as well as 'take'. Such an approach is called dialectical reasoning. You will not find it in this book.

Dawkins lack of questioning also leads him to condemn religion as being a catalyst to social conflict and political excess. Yet when similiar patterns of trouble emerge in atheist regimes such as the Soviet Union, they are said to have risen from factors other than the prevailing godlessness. What goes for the goose does not go for the gander.

Using his same logic on the Soviet Union, it is possible to argue that the recent troubles in Northern Ireland were of a tribal form relating to the question of whether the region should be part of the Ireland or the United Kingdom and that religious affiliations only slotted people into the two different camps.

The Problem With The Interesting Bit

Dawkins is at his best when he draws from his own expertise.

He explains the significance of Darwinism in ways that will turn many readers to those fine Dawkins' books which litter the Popular Science section at Waterstones.

In one of these ("The Selfish Gene") he developed the notion that there is a similarity between genetic development in nature and the development of mental/cultural understandings in what he named as the equivalent of the gene - the "meme".

When he concentrates on genetic mutuations and on survival resting with those whom nature has best adapted to the conditions around them, then I am fully with him.

When, however, Dawkins claims that concepts such as that of God develop in our understandings in similar ways, then I am not convinced with his explanation. He may be making what Wittgenstein used to call a category mistake.

I am not, of course, arguing that God put the idea of himself in our minds. To explain what has happened I would seek to resort to historical and sociological explanations. Turning Darwin's biological explanations into explanations about thought processes seem to be unlikely, even for someone like me who rejects Decartes distinction between body and mind.

The Weakness Of His Strength

Unfortunately for Dawkins, his very strength is also his weakness. He is a leading scientist, but he turns science into a creed. The Scientific method needs to draw from other methodologies and needs to be aware of Karl Popper's argument that any understandings it comes up with must at least in theory be falsifiable if they are to be meaningful. So just as Einstein's theories subsumed Newton's theories, then the same is always possible for Einstein - and even for Darwin and Dawkins.

Dawkins gives the appearence of someone who believes that it is science alone (and isolated) which can move towards solving the problems of the universe.

I am no critic of the achievements of science and of the significance of the scientific method. But I don't think that we should ignore what other forms of intellectual investigation have to offer.

The Philosophical Vacuum

I had expected a book about the question of God's existence to contain a reasonable amount of philosophical analysis. Dawkins, however, knocks down classical theoretical arguments for the existence of God at breakneck speed. This results in him skimming over both the pros and cons of these arguments.

Yet amongst the critics of such arguments is the highly readable David Hume the 18th Century Scottish Philosopher in works such as "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion". Although Hume is given a nod and a wink by Dawkins, he isn't given any serious coverage.

In dealing with the problem of whether we could be good without having God to guide us, again there is only a passing reference to the philosopher Immuel Kant. Yet Kant is recognised as one of the world's greatest thinkers. Whilst his "Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals" is his most (or his only) readable book.

A serious canter around the Philosophical problems is "Difficulties in Christian Belief" by Alasdair C. MacIntyre (SCM Press 1959). Dawkins missed this one as it came from a serious Christian publisher. Anyone reading it, however, can see why MacIntyre became an atheist soon after its publication.

Tunnel Vision

It is the form of Dawkins' scientific certainty which leads him to his absolutist claims and to his unwllingness to look for a good thing to say about religion. Aided by the fact that he is writing also for an American market, he regularly turns his face and fire towards Christian fundamentalism. They present. of course, a serious problem. But they should not have been allowed to distort the issues Dawkins was investigating.

His approach leads him to take up a counter fundamentalist position of his own. So the non-fundamentalist religious person is dismissed as he or she are held to be guilty of opening the door for extremists (including terrorists). Whilst the agnostic (and even the closet atheist) are damned for failing to root out religious viewpoints.

As Dawkins seeks to win each contest hands down (and each sub-point), his book loses its way. It even lacks a conclusion in which the threads of a writer's arguments can be drawn together. This is because his many separate issues only really have one thread to them.

As a result he ends up talking a great deal about himself and his own experiences. He does not need to do this, of course, as his knowledge is encylopedic. So he knows how to keep saying things. The problem is that what he adds in relation to his subject matter is always exactly where he started out from in his very first chapter. To repeat ones case in numerious different contexts gives an unfortunate impression of padding.

What Next?

What worries me about Dawkins'approach is that he (and anyone taking on board his stance) are in a vunerable position.

They are unlikely ever to adjust to the above types of criticism. To do so requires a different form of mind set. But there is something which just could get him to shift his ground. The very form of religious fundamentalism which he currently abhors.

In intellectual terms his position is hard. Yet hard atheism and hard religious belief have more thinking processes in common than they would care to admit. It is soft and closet atheism that is less likely to be subject to a death bed conversion.

If Dawkins ever gets around to giving in to Christianity and then writes "The Atheist Delusion", I will give it a miss as I have already struggled through its equivalent.


hedendai131 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Harry Barnes said...

The above spam should be ignored.

SOWER said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Harry Barnes said...

I removed the above comment from SOWER because it was a huge cut-and-paste job covering eight long items he had earlier posted on his own blog. To see his blog you will need to click on to his title in the above item. You will soon see what he is all about. The fact that he is a nutter is purely co-incidental to my decision to delete his material.

MR. X said...

True, I agree that he is scoring easy points. But I don't think he is a fundamentalist.

Harry Barnes said...

Mr X : OK, he is only fundamentally flawed