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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The God Delusion: A Review

I recently finished reading Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”. What follows is not a comprehensive review of the book; just my thoughts about it.

I try to keep an open mind, but I have to admit I started the book doubting that Dawkins could shake my faith, if you could call if that. Though he presented some good arguments and gave me a lot to think about, ultimately, I was right. I’d already heard a lot of the arguments against God’s existence before and, though Dawkins elaborated on the old arguments and presented some new ones, I didn’t feel he’d eradicated the idea of God. Indeed, his central argument is based on at least one questionable premise, as we shall see.

First, let me say that I really consider myself an agnostic. To use Dawkins own scale of belief, I’m a 3 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being someone who “knows” there’s a God and 7 being someone who “knows” there isn’t one. A 3 means I don’t know for sure if there’s a God, but I’m inclined to believe in one. Interestingly, Dawkins himself states that he is a 6 on that scale; he doesn’t know for sure that there’s no God, but he’s very much inclined to doubt it. Dawkins addresses Agnosticism early on in the book and divides it into two types: Temporary Agnosticism (the idea that we CAN know if there’s a God if we have enough evidence) and Permanent Agnosticism (the idea that we can NEVER know if there is or is not a God no matter how much evidence we gather. He stresses that just because we may never know for sure if there’s a God or not doesn’t mean that his existence and non-existence are equally likely, and I agree. He then proceeds to make arguments that, to him at least, would seem to put the odds AGAINST the existence of a God. Don’t get me wrong, he DOES make some good arguments, but I don’t think he does an adequate job of defeating the idea of a God.

I am also, for the most part, a Deist. For the unfamiliar, there are two kinds of believers in the West: Deists and Theists. A Theist believes in a personal God; one who answers prayer and performs miracles and talks to people and is regularly involved in our daily lives. I’m not a big believer in prayer. For every person who gets what they pray for, you’ll find at LEAST one who didn’t, so God’s help is, at best, unreliable. Theists argue, “But God has a plan.” Well, if God has a plan, there’s no point in praying, is there? If want you want is part of God’s plan, there’s no need to pray for it. If what you want isn’t part of God’s plan, he’s probably not gonna change his mind and who are you to ask him to do it? Dawkins quotes Ambrose Bierce who defined prayer thus: “To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”

But I digress. I DO believe that God performs miracles, though rarely. I’ve heard too many miraculous stories to think that miracles don’t happen and I don’t think Science does an adequate job of explaining why they happen. I think that God does communicate with us, but virtually never uses a voice or words of any kind. I think he makes his point in other ways, like experience, for example. Deists don’t believe in a personal God. We think that God lit the fuse on the fire-cracker that was the Big Bang, but has since been relatively uninvolved. We see the universe as a self-sustaining system. Deists believe we don’t need God to explain the universe or anything in it, and I don’t think we do. We basically believe in the Big Bang and Evolution but believe these were God’s ways and means of creating everything. If there is a God, I think he purposely avoided leaving behind any evidence of his personal involvement in the creation of the universe and the life within it. If God had left behind any conclusive evidence that he exists and created the universe; if we discovered proof that there is, indeed, a God, all Hell would brake loose. This is one reason I think Science tries to rule out using God to explain anything. The moment you accept that there is a God, then people would immediately start fighting over whose God it is. Church leaders, and possibly leaders of other faiths, would start pushing for their religious laws to be made the law of the land. Hell, they do that NOW. It would not be a GOOD thing to find proof that there is a God unless there came with it a list of rules and standards of morality and I don’t think God wants that. I believe he wants us to have free will to choose or not choose what we believe or don’t about how we should live. If we knew there was a God, we’d just stand around waiting for orders instead of thinking for ourselves. I think if God wanted to say anything to us, it would be something like “No, really; go on about your business. As you were. Nothing to see here.”

Dawkins spends much of the book delivering a scorching indictment of religion. He attacks the evils that religion has visited upon the world and highlights the unjustifiably high regard in which it is held even in modern society. I quite agree. It’s appalling the things people can get away with when the things they do are committed in the name of religion. Most of his venom is directed at Christianity because Christianity, more than any other religion, has been responsible for so many crimes against humanity. Attacking the evils of religion is a pretty standard weapon in the atheists arsenal, but attacking religion is not the same as attacking God. I don’t blame God for the messes that we have created, nor do I expect him to clean them up. If God solved all our problems for us, we wouldn’t learn and grow.

Early on in the book, Dawkins asks why Philosophers and Theologians are any more qualified than anyone else to comment of matters of morality and answer life’s most profound questions. He asks why people think that Science has nothing to say about right and wrong. The answer to the first question seems fairly obvious to me. Philosophers and Theologians are moral qualified to address morality and life’s biggest questions for the same reason a surgeon is more qualified to perform a heart transplant; they’ve been trained to do it. Even if you disagree with the idea that God exists, a person who is well-versed in theories of ethics and knowledge and value and reality is more qualified to comment on those things than someone who has not been so trained. As for the second question, I believe Science may very well have something to say about morality and answering the big questions, but that’s a topic for another essay.

As stated before, one of my primary reasons for suspecting that there is a God is that so many people have believed in one and, of those, a good portion claim to have had experience with God directly. Dawkins dismisses this argument, pointing out that some people claim to have seen pink elephants, too, but that doesn’t make them real. Yes, but I’m pretty sure the number of people claiming to have seen pink elephants and the like is vanishing compared to the number of people who claim to have seen and/or heard God. Again, it’s the sheer number of people who seem to have had very similar experiences that leads me to suspect that they’re not completely full of shit. Dawkins actually counters this by pointing out that sometimes it’s hard to explain how a large group of people could have the same delusion, but it would be even harder to explain the phenomenon if it were real. I don’t think the existence of God is THAT far-fetched.

He points out that the brain is capable of being fooled by an illusion. Again, this is true, but just because illusions exist and the brain can be fooled doesn’t mean that God is a delusion. Computers, especially when used for movie effects, can recreate a lot of things that really do exist. Just because something can be created or recreated doesn’t mean it was never real to begin with.

Dawkins is a scientist though and through and tries to use science, particularly Darwinian evolution by natural selection, to explain or disprove a lot of ideas throughout the book. His central argument against the existence of God is that if God created the universe, who created God? Whoever or whatever created God must have been more powerful than God himself. But then, who created this one who created God? And who created THEM? It gets into a kind of infinite regress that Dawkins believes assures us that there is almost certainly no God. Here’s my problem with that argument: His argument assumes that God had a beginning. It assumes the existence of Time, which is a concept that has been called into question going back perhaps as far as Einstein. Quantum Theoretical Physicists have postulated for decades now that time may not exist. Indeed the very existence of the world around us has been called into question. Einstein himself said that “Reality as we know it is an illusion.” It is widely believed among Quantum Theoretical Physicists that the world around us is an illusion; which, I think, lends some credibility to the possibility of there being a God and what we would call a spiritual plane of existence. The idea that “Life is but a dream” has been around for centuries in Eastern religions and philosophies. Again, the premise that God must have been created and had a beginning seems questionable to me because it presumes the existence of time. Dawkins seems to be aware of Quantum Physics as he talks about it a bit toward the end of the book. He does not, however, get into the idea that the world is illusory and time may not exist. Still, I have to suspect I’m not the first person to have thought of this. I’d be somewhat surprised if this hadn’t occurred to him or at least pointed out to him. I wonder what his response was.

He tries to explain the existence and ubiquity of religion in purely Darwinian terms. He thinks that we evolved religion either as a by-product of something else or because it was advantageous to our survival. I felt he was really reaching during this part. I think his need to rule out God caused him to come up with some fairly dubious answers of his own. I remember thinking, “Jesus Christ, dude; not EVERYTHING revolves around evolution.” On the other hand, suppose there IS no God. How DO we explain the popularity of religion. In that case, Dawkins may have a point, but I guess that’s just another reason I suspect there IS a God. I have trouble believing that our belief in one can be explained by evolution.

I think I’ve done a better job of explaining where I DISAGREE with Dawkins than I have of explaining where I agree with him. First of all, I agree with him that religion has and still does terrible harm to individuals and to society as a whole. It has done a lot of good things, too, but I think the bad outweighs the good. People are able to get away with WAY too much bullshit when they do it in the name of religion.

Second, he points out that God is used by Creationists to explain anything Science can’t. This is absurd. You can’t just attribute something to God just because Science hasn’t been able to explain it yet. Of course, Creationists do this in a desperate attempt to get Science to conform to Scripture instead of the other way around, but that’s still no excuse. There have been many things we attributed to God in the past and then Science came up with a better explanation for them later. Besides, exactly HOW do Creationists think God made everything? Did he just snap his fingers and POOF! the world into existence? Maybe he folded his arms and nodded his head like the woman in “I Dream of Genie”. C’mon, guys; you’ve gotta do better than that. You can’t just leave it at “God just POOFed everything into existence.”

This is another insidious thing about mainstream organized religion, though; it tries to stop people from thinking too hard. No need to wonder where we came from; just chalk it up to God. If we followed religion’s lead, science would lose half its motivation. After all, who needs science to discover or explain anything? We have God for that, right? Thank God we don’t really believe that or we wouldn’t have made it out of the Dark Ages.

Finally, Dawkins points out that no one takes the Bible 100% seriously anymore; not as far as morality is concerned. Theists sometimes object that we need God to explain morality; that WITHOUT God, there would BE no morality. Shall we look to the Bible for moral guidance? Certainly not. The Bible – particularly the Old Testament – is fraught with rape, incest, murder, and wholesale genocide all done under the direction of God or with his approval. The Death Penalty is recommended for all manner of minor offenses. One man was stoned to death for gathering firewood on the Sabbath. The fact that we no longer follow the old rules and kill people for this or that, Dawkins points out, shows that there is another standard of morality at work. We must have a standard of morality by which we pick and choose which Bible verses to obey and which to ignore. Whatever that standard of morality is, it did not come from the Bible.

It’s a thought-provoking book I would recommend to anyone regardless of where you lye on Dawkins 1 – 7 scale. I submit that most people who choose not to read it are afraid of having their faith shaken. Many will not read it for that reason. Again, Dawkins presents some wonderful arguments against religion, but I don’t quite buy his arguments against God. He does a good job attacking the Theist God, but doesn’t do a whole lot of damage to the Deist God, which is the one I believe we have, if indeed God exists at all. Despite Dawkins best efforts, I still have to suspect he does.

But of course, as Dennis Miller used to say, I could be wrong.

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