Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Some Gripes with "The God Delusion"

A year after the hubbub, I finally picked up a copy of "The God Delusion". In Thailand. While Western bestsellers are often translated into Thai (even Stephen Hawking's books), "The God Delusion" hasn't been.

Many of the arguments against God would strike ordinary Thai Buddhists as irrelevant to their religion. At best, a Thai might read the book and find himself all the more convinced that Christianity, as my friend Suvit says, is an "unreasonable" religion...hardly a good reason to spend 400 baht for the soft cover. The Thai Buddhists I've known have never shown any antipathy toward evolution or physics. An old universe is no big deal when you measure time in kalpas . Some might even claim Buddhism bends over backwards to befriend science, knowing that its competitors are at odds with science.

Flipping through the pages, you've got the 747 that spontaneously assembles in a junkyard. Irrelevant to Buddhism. Proofs of the existence of God via Aquinas. Irrelevant. Irreducible complexity. Irrelevant. The book seems largely a critique of Abrahamic religion, but Dawkins usually omits "Abrahamic". This has got to be irritating to thoughtful Buddhists, Hindus, etc.

It's hardly a large chunk of my identity, but it would be fair to call me an atheist. I'm part of the choir that Dawkins is accused of preaching to. Atheists are known to be independent thinkers, even compulsive contrarians. Dawkins likens organizing atheists to herding cats. In this spirit, let me take a few more swipes at "The God Delusion".

*Of all Dawkins' arguments against God's existence, his favorite seems to be the idea that God must be hugely complex, and therefore must have simpler origins. When creationists argue that the events of evolution are improbable, they're merely begging the question, since God is the most improbable entity of all. Dawkins doesn't, however, dismiss the possibility of aliens that are so advanced as to appear God-like in their powers. He doesn't even dismiss a matrix-like scenario, where our universe might be a mere computer simulation, overseen by a snot-nosed teenaged geek-God.

Dawkins points out, reasonably enough, that such Gods would be the results of evolutionary processes. Is this really important? The geek-God would still be, for all intents and purposes, omniscient and omnipotent. He could intervene and answer prayers. He could get pissy and conjure a hurricane to punish homosexuals. He could change the laws of physics after an argument with his mother (who complains that he should step out of his room every now and then). He could demand praise, and punish those who fail to offer it with an eternity in hell. All this...but his powers are supposed to be diminished because he did, after all, have his own evolutionary roots.

The geek-God is a bit absurd. The point: does it really matter so much whether the God-figure is evolved or not, complex or utterly simple? When God, 5 kilometers tall, bearded and robed, surrounded by a retinue of cherubs, starts stomping on your cities and demanding prostrations, do you confront him with the notion that he is "merely" evolved?

* Why would anyone go to war for an absence of belief? (pg 316)

Dawkins rails against religion in the preceding sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, and finishes Chapter 7 by hailing the virtue of all absence of belief. Dawkins is pulling a bit of sleight of hand in omitting "religious" before "belief". And then, if we're referring only to religious belief, it's perfectly imaginable that an atheist could go to war over some silly racial beliefs (Hitler?), or in the belief that he is hastening inevitable evolution by culling certain weak individuals, or in the belief that his particular political system should be spread. What's more, a hawkish atheist might instigate war against a religious society if he feels those religious memes are particularly insidious to his own way of life. Here, you're forcibly defending your right to non-belief. Christopher Hitchens seems a bit inclined in this direction.

Dawkins points out that while certain historical nasties may have been atheists, their atheism wasn't necessarily the cause of their unpleasantness. What's more, it's fairly easy to cite cases where religiosity absolutely was the cause of unpleasantness. Atheism would seem to have the moral upper hand here. However, it's just a matter of time before some loony atheist mass murderer or dictator emerges, citing a liberation from absolute morals as his incitation. Given such an event, atheists would be left saying, "he wasn't a real atheist"...this sort of logic is, at best, unforceful. At worst, it's an outright fallacy.

One might even imagine a nutjob Christian committing a heinous crime, purposely getting caught, and then claiming that atheism was his inspiration. Admittedly, this is an unlikely scenario...message boards are rife with posters claiming "I used to believe in atheism" or "I used to be an evolutionist", who are quickly revealed to know nothing of either subject. These folks are lousy at faking atheism.

Atheists, however, are often rather effective at faking religiosity. In many cases, they've been forced to feign piety simply because they don't want their heads to be separated from the bodies. Any number of outwardly religious despots may have been closet atheists. And who is to say that non-belief in absolute morality wasn't a factor in their crimes?

My point here: atheists should be careful about this claim that evil never flows from atheism. A more accurate thought might be, "atheism that emerges from careful inspection of religious belief rarely causes unpleasantness in this world." Not a good sound bite. Any number of street criminals are atheists in the sense that they aren't believers in any particular religion. But I doubt many of them have seriously examined questions of religion and morality.

Dawkins isn't nearly as extreme as Hitchens in this area. Though Stalin himself was an atheist, Hitchens will tell you that Stalinism was prepped by centuries of authoritarian Christianity. Such a view lets atheism off the hook for just about any crimes imaginable, at least for the next few centuries.

* Dawkins argues against the brainwashing of children into the dogma of a particular religion. It would be better to educate them as to all the possibilities, and let them make up their own minds when they're mature enough. Dawkins, of course, provides horrifying and extreme examples of such brainwashing. But there are very liberal believers who argue that it's flat out immoral to raise a child without a grounding in morality. Atheists then counter that morality doesn't need religion. Practically speaking, though, most folks see morality as being grounded in religion.

Though he doesn't state it outright, Chapter 9 intimates that Dawkins wouldn't be entirely unsympathetic to a government that actually stepped in and prevented childhood religious indoctrination. Imagine, then, the difficulties that would arise as an earnest, religious, not particularly well-educated couple struggle to raise a child properly. Like it or not, morality is inseparable from religion in their own could they possibly provide a moral foundation without a religious one?

My own intuition is that Dawkins would do better to continue to grind away at the silly dogmas that infest the minds of adults who may become parents, than to hope that religious folks might allow their children to explore a menagerie of belief systems before "deciding", or to hope that legislation might be enacted that prevents childhood religious brainwashing.

To summarize:

1) Very little of TGD applies to Buddhists. Hindus too, I assume. So Dawkins should make it clear when he's really referring to Abrahamic religion.

2) If there's a Creator, he must have evolved. So what?

3) There are plenty of ways atheists can screw up the world. Give them a fair chance first.

4) Fact is, a moral foundation and religious upbringing are inseperable for many folks. Let's chill out on the notion that a bit of religious indoctrination is akin to child abuse.

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