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God – Delusion?

8 November, 2006

So, I’ve read the book The God Delusion, (Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press, 2006, ISBN 9780593055489. 400 pp)

I’ve referred already to Dawkins’ argument against the religious indoctrination of children.

Here’s the second part of my reaction to his book.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist best known for such works as The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype.
An outspoken atheist, Dawkins sets out in The God Delusion to refute religious belief from every possible angle. His initial assertion is very reasonable: ‘the God hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis which should be analysed as sceptically as any other’. Hard to disagree with that: I think we need to disect religious beliefs with much more scientific rigour than we mostly do.

Problem is: Dawkins can be as scientific as you want when he’s dealing with genetics or evolution, but ask him to apply the same methods to religious beliefs, and you’ll be disappointed.

So, for example, in discussing the phenomenon of religious belief, he fails to acknowledge the vast array of different beliefs, and different ways understanding ‘God’, that exist in the world. Instead, he prefers to limit his invective to easy targets: the Gods of the Old Testament, the beliefs of fundamentalists and extremists, and so on. There’s probably as many different kinds of religious belief as there are believers, but you wouldn’t think so to read Dawkins .Everything is reduced to a lowest common denominator tat many believers will not recognise. In fact, Dawkins doesn’t seem to have sought any first-hand evidence about the everyday spiritual experiences of ordinary believers, so his research sample is partial, to say the least.

Direct personal experience of God merits only five pages (out of 400) and even then it is dismissed (with characteristic condescension) as ‘hallucination’: ‘you say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant.’

If only he had sat down and listened to a few Quakers (or Sikhs, or Hindus, or Buddhists), Dawkins might have painted a more accurate and rounded picture of what believers really believe, and what makes them tick, than those that people his book: stereotypical gullible fools, duped by religions that ‘rely on miracle stories’  ‘to swell congregations’.  

One gets the impression that, in matters religious, Dawkins simply has to make the evidence fit his own world view. For example, faced with the fact that many fellow scientists are also believers in God, he simply discounts their testimony; the eminent scientist Stephen Jay Gould is ‘supine’ for writing that science cannot adjudicate on the issue of God’s superintendence of nature: ‘I simply do not believe that Gould could have meant much of what he wrote …’. 

This is one of the reasons why I find this book a missed opportunity. Dawkins undermines his case by resorting too often to easy rhetoric, and too seldom to scientific rigour.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 November, 2006 12:07 am

    The basic problem, as I see it, is that all the evidence for theistic belief all comes in the form “someone said”… “someone saw” … “someone wrote”. And, despite the best will in the world, people can and do say anything to further their aims. Dawkins, like anyone of a scientific mindset, does not accept a person’s word(s) as evidence, regardless of their provenance. Remember Lysenkoism, or “cold fusion”, and how the claims didn’t hold up? Every extraordinary claim gets the same treatment…

  2. 13 November, 2006 11:26 pm

    Mmm.
    Trouble is, in his latest book, he does actually accept other persons’ words as evidence.
    He’s not a physicist or a cosmologist, but he goes to great lengths to use some (selected) current theories from these fields to justify his assertion that there could not be a God.
    To do this, he had to rejet th theories of other cosmologists and physicists; on what basis we don’t know.
    Dawkins applies his scientific method only when it suits him.

    Besides, we all accept evidence of the ‘someone said’ type; how could we do otherwise? I’ve got no personal evidence of Darwinism, but I believe that it’s a reasonable theory to explain the evolution of life on Earth, because Dawkins says so.

  3. 14 November, 2006 6:56 pm

    I must also take this time to remind everyone that Dawkins and many fundamentalist creationist may be asking the wrong question. They ask “Does or did God exist?”, that has never been the right question for people of faith. People of faith don’t seek the answer to that question they seek to step out in courage and live a life of faith. Note that I was careful not to say believe. Stating you believe is not a life of faith, it is a gnostic misnomer.

    The concept of God includes the idea that God must exist. In some sense to beg the question of God’s existence is to ask ‘how’ when we are in no place to answer such a question. Hence the necessary courage to have faith. We can neither rationally justify nor rationally condemn the existence of God.

    Religion doesn’t posit or theorize the existence of God. It has faith in God. Faith, according to Paul Tillich, is to have an ultimate concern, it is not a penultimate concern.

    To use the scientific method in matters of faith, is to confuse science and religion completely. It would seem that one does not pray to scientific reason, just as one does not use the scientific method on a prayer. It makes no sense to think of prayer or science in this way. They are different forums, and must be treated as such.

    For further reading: Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, and DZ Phillip’s The Concept of Prayer (sadly out of print but available on Amazon).

    Let us remember that not all Theists know the extent to which they can say something rationally, and not all Scientists know what is not rationally atainable or verifiable. Let us remember that it has been Philosophers and Theologians throughout the years who, by no means have perfected this, but seek to remind us that there is a line between what we can say and cannot say, and what we cannot say has always been more important.

  4. 14 November, 2006 11:41 pm

    Quite. But I think the subtleties of Tillich probably escape Dawkins.

    Judging from his recent book, he hasn’t really done much research into the different ways of understanding belief.

    Having said that, I suspect that Tillich is not widely understood by the majority of people who claim to be Christian, either. To the extent that Dawkins criticises unthinking knee-jerk attachment to second-hand beliefs that don’t originate from any personal search, I think he’s right.

  5. 15 November, 2006 7:55 am

    Agreed, forgiveness is amazing isn’t it?

    Both sides miss the point if all they can see is the tip of it.

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