The God Delusion

21:02 Sun 04 Mar 2007
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I finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion this morning. I found it clearly written and well-argued. I certainly haven’t seen anything from his critics that appears to refute his arguments, although I wonder how many of them have actually read his entire book.

Granted, I’m sympathetic to those arguments in the first place. Even so, however, I was looking for weakness and/or over-reaching in the text, and didn’t find much. I do think he might be underestimating the human capacity for justification—that is, I think he might be naive in assuming that if religion were abandoned then large swathes of prejudice in the world would fall away.

On the other hand, it’s quite possible that removing one major area where unreason is accorded respect would make it harder for it to survive elsewhere. In which case, of course, the motivation for rulers to encourage religion is all too clear…

There were a few details that surprised me—I didn’t know that Islam still supported the death penalty for apostasy, for example. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, an strikes me as particularly sick. As do the Christian fundamentalists proposing death for aldutery. I’d heard about them before, in the U.S., but it’s still really disturbing. Dawkins quotes Voltaire, who is particularly appropriate:

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Bertrand Russell is also very much on point:

Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.

(Although that latter quotation may conflict with what I was getting at in yesterday’s post.)

Overall, I think that The God Delusion is definitely worth reading, and that it is ultimately uplifting, demonstrating how we can achieve tremendous understanding of and appreciation for the world (and the human being) through reason, and that we do not need deliberate obscurantism or non-thinking.

I’ll close with a link from the book to Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence.

28 Responses to “The God Delusion

  1. NiallM Says:

    You should check out the NYRB review of The God Delusion, amongst other books in the same area, at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19775 – doesn’t seem to feel it’s ultimately uplifting :)

  2. mollydot Says:

    Those proofs are hypnotic. I read a screen or two of them, then left the computer. Thought to myself “Shit, I’m tired. Therefore God exists”.

  3. garret Says:


  4. Tadhg Says:

    Niall: That review has a number of good points, including the fact that there isn’t that much new in The God Delusion. It does mainly rehash a number of other arguments that will be familiar to most people who have examined the area.

    In addition, Dawkins does not, of course, prove that there is no god. The reviewer claims that the question “who designed the designer” doesn’t prove that there’s no god, which is true, but Dawkins uses that point to undermine the idea that a designer is necessary, which is a favorite “proof” for the existence of some supreme being. There’s no proof either way, of course. But this comes right back around to the celestial teapot and its variants—we can hypothesize anything for which there’s no proof either way.

    Dawkins does fall into the double-standards trap a little bit when pointing out that “red states” have higher crime rates, etc., and then essentially saying that if e.g. Stalin committed horrific atrocities it doesn’t matter because there’s no causal link. But Dawkins deserves a little slack here, as the first point is using existing evidence to deflate the moralistic claims of many Christians, and the second is a fairly obvious one—many dictators, including Hitler, used religion to further their atrocities, and the fact that Stalin did not do so merely proves that religion isn’t necessary for such atrocities to occur (although doctrinaire Communism may well serve the function of a religion in many ways). Dawkins is making the point that religion does not, according to the available data, serve to improve morality in general. Atheism may not do so either, but if so, so what? All that proves is that morality is separate from beliefs about religion, which is what Dawkins is trying to get across.

    The author is correct that Dawkins doesn’t engage with more sophisticated proponents of religion such as Wittgenstein and William James. But he does engage with the most common pillars supporting the idea of religious faith (and the idea that religious faith should be privileged). Did Wittgenstein or James supply new pillars, or just come up with interesting theories on top of them? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect the latter, and I think that Dawkins has every right to ignore those and focus on the foundations, no matter how crude H. Allen Orr considers them. And what does it matter here that Augustine rejeted biblical literalism? If he can pick and choose from the Bible, what criteria is he using for so doing? Dawkins makes the point that doing so at all is invoking our own interpretation and understanding, and not relying on the authority of the work involved, thus asserting the pre-eminence of human reason (even while denying that this is the case).

    Orr still privileges religious thought in his review, particularly in the last paragraph. Dawkins asks, loudly, why we should for example give religious thinkers any attention at all when asking ethical questions. Orr ignores this, merely stating outright that difficult questions about what science can do versus what it should do are questions that should be debated between science and religion. Why? Why not science and ethics, science and morality, science and politics?

    Finally, what is “authentic religion”, which Orr just throws in at the end of his review with no discussion whatsoever of its meaning or definition? The rest of the review gives me the impression that he makes some kind of unexplained distinction between the crude Christian literalist types and the sophisticated genteel philosopher types. But he never gives any basis for this distinction, making it seem rather “No true Scotsman” in its nature.

  5. Tadhg Says:

    Mollydot: Heh, indeed. Is that a variant on proof #666?

    Garret: Argon?

  6. sean Says:

    If I described something to you that you can’t experience, and that no-one else can experience, it’s likely most people would say I was describing something unreal, such as Nosferatu or The Greys or Noddy. My description becomes an irrational belief. It is not testable against consensus reality. The problem is, it may be the case that I am the only one capable of experiencing it, whatever it is. To me my irrational belief is a rationally held position based on experiental evidence. To everyone else I’m a nutter. Or is everybody else nuts? :-)

    The notion of “God” as an object used within ideation and thus subject to logical or rational analysis based on the variables and structures derived from consensus reality is simply not the one most mystics would probably hold, I suspect. Indeed, for the mystic it would be unnecessary to say you believed in God if you actually experienced it. Indeed, the whole question would be moot. It would be like saying you believed in the word “and” or in chairs. The problem is the experience is also indescribable and unprovable except with vagaries such as the notion of God or Zen or whatever it may be, so it never enters into consensus reality except as dogmatic, unprovable assertions, or as art or poetry or some other expression of the numinous; either way, impossible to analyse rationally.

  7. god Says:

    Here I am.

    Sean – you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m 5467 years old. I have a beard. My real name is Loxoridian, although these days most people call me Hugh.

  8. mollydot Says:

    Tadhg: I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s a new one – proof from irrelevance. Though many of the existing ones are variations of it.

  9. garret Says:

    I actually think I may be a god. Can’t prove it but I believe it’s possible, no special powers yet but these things take time.
    I’ll keep you posted.

  10. garret Says:

    garret god of out sourcing

  11. Tadhg Says:

    Sean: mystical experiences may be described as “experiencing god”, but that in itself is an assertion that it’s some kind of god, rather than the wonder of the universe, or love at a quantum level, or the misfirings of neurons, that is being experienced. Categorizing it as “god”, even if it’s an avowedly personal belief, is still dubious in some respects, unless you disclaimerize it extensivley and say you don’t really mean what most people mean by “god”… in which case why use the word?

    I agree that these things are not really possible to analyze rationally, and hence it should be clear to most people that running a society based on precepts that cannot be rationally analyzed makes little sense, and that privileging such precepts also makes little sense.

    Garret: if you are a god, you need followers, and many many many expensive cars. Get to it.

  12. kevintel Says:

    Having read all the comments, I’ve deduced that Garret is known as Hugh, is 5467 years old, and is composed of the gas Argon. But we’ll never know because you can’t experience him. On the other hand, you can disclaimerize (!?) him extensively, and follow his fleet of expensive cars. And his ability to outsource will make him hot shit in India and Poland (and pure shit in Nenagh).

    I’d like to point out that he is able to send repetitive text messages which say you don’t really mean what most people mean by what you mean, really, which is a pretty sharp trick for any volume of Argon.

  13. mollydot Says:

    I’d like to point out that he is able to send repetitive text messages which say you don’t really mean what most people mean by what you mean, really, which is a pretty sharp trick for any volume of Argon.

    It’s a miracle!
    Therefore Garret exists.

  14. garret Says:

    Wow all these cars just appeared out side the house and I’ve been given my own pay per view satilitte channel.
    I ‘ve just met a lower diety of on line banking who used to be an arc angel of post office queues who told me that the godess of plastic surgery mistakes is looking for a media handler- so get out there.
    They (they been the abesentee landlords otherwise known as the celestial black hole to black hole belief salesmen or Freds for short) offered me a sub contract to be a God of new age dance classes but I turned it down, too much tie dye clothing not enough black.
    Got to go and shut down some factories before jetting off to India to open a call centre. Hope I don’t bump into the patron saints of minium wage, they tend to get in the way not to mention all that blathering they do. Must get in contact with the holy herald of branded products he is well able for them.
    I think at least I think I do therefore I am well sort of.

  15. mollydot Says:

    I was given a copy on Saturday, so I suppose I’ll be making my own mind up in a while.

  16. Tadhg Says:

    Have you learnt nothing? The whole point is that critical thinking is evil, and you should listen to self-appointed authorities. So I’m telling you that you liked it and that you think that Dawkins is a prophet fit to lead us in all things. That’s all you need to know.

  17. sean Says:

    Tadhg: let me see if I understand what you’re saying. This is a long, belated rant, so hopefully you can bear with me :-).

    I said I suspected the notion of “God” as an object used within ideation and thus subject to logical or rational analysis based on the variables and structures derived from consensus reality is not the one most mystics would probably hold. Then you said the notion of “god” is part of consensus reality in that that most people have some notion of it. The question then arises: why use the word to describe something outside consensus reality, such as a personal experience no-one else can relate to?

    Good point. Let me see if I can try and suggest a possible explanation.

    I think most religious terminology is more akin to poetry than descriptive narrative because it describes an intensely personal experience that also has universal qualities that can be commonly experienced. Unfortunately, they can only described in the most nebulous and poetic of terms because they are hard to ascribe empirical, definitive descriptions to. It’s all very metaphycially slippery, in other words :-). What complicates it is that the experience is partially an external sensory experience and partly a product of a unique set of circumstances internally. One is the prequisite of the other. It’s a feedback loop of a kind. In a way, the observation and the observed end up being the same thing. The imperfect and artificial (but practical) distinction between the subjective and objective breaks down. It happens at a given moment and is true of that moment. Attempting to capture it intellectually end up in infinite loops, paradoxes or a semantic malaise of one kind or another (like this one :-)). Zen fables, Vendantist quibbling, and so on emerge. Arguing the point about religon or God on logical, rational grounds misses the basis of religion, which is a combination of shared types of experience, the gist of which – in a poetic sense – is inferred by religious nomenclature, and very personal experiences that are triggered by the process and the paradoxical infinite recursions and so on inherent in any theological thinking.

    Second, you say running a society based on (or that gives priviledge to) precepts that cannot be rationally analysed doesn’t make much sense.

    To me, and I may be entirely deluded about this, is that it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to see that this sort of pragmatism can end up as dogma in itself. In other words: what’s the rational basis for it? What if I said I don’t think it can be rationally analysed and that its basis is irrational faith in conscious thought and consensus reality? To a mystic, the precept that denies the reality of her experiences – and writes them off as a “belief”, is irrational and doesn’t make sense, in that what she is being told is at odds with what she has experienced (and most probably continues to experience).

    Perhaps my point was that religious experience is poetic experience; it’s not a logical series of thoughts using commonly perceived variables (like a strict narrative or description), but more of an explosion of interrelated feelings and thoughts that operate at such a fast speed that conscious thought can only act as part of the process, not really as an overseer or observer. Perhaps this sort of experience is a direct experience of the subconscious; a direct experience of the more complicated process which seems to operate at many times to speed of conscious thought by virtue of the fact it is not as sequential and semantic. The conscious mind has a moment of insight, like the feeling you get from a poem, or a hunch, or a moment of artistic inspiration, from intuition, and so on. To me, a mystical experience is this sort of feeling amplified sometimes to overwhelming proportions. That’s my take on it.

    I think this can give a person a sense of freedom, power and connectedness that makes rational, sequential thought seem to a limiting influence. I don’t think these sorts of experiences are “beliefs” at all, I think they are a genuine mental phenomena shared by many people. The problem is they are subjective and objective, personal and universal at the same time. The traditional distinctions between the positive and normative are hard to sustain. I also think “God” (lower case of upper case according to preference :-)) is an apt phrase to describe them, but you could just as easily use other language if it is more compatible with your belief structures :-). Moreover, I suspect rigid thought patterns of the dialectical kind invariably close up access to the mystical; the observer influences the observed in this sense.

    Denying the reality of others mystical, poetic experiences by taking issue with their descriptions in a rational sense, or demanding positive proof, misses the nature of mystical thought processes altogether. Denying the reality of peoples’ mystical experiences can be very cruel; it doesn’t help people deal with them, in cases where the experience is disturbing it makes it harder for that person to cope, and it doesn’t genuinely try to understand the phenomena, it categorises it, sure, but it doesn’t understand it. Religion and so on is always going to be around. The only way to deal with dogma and zealotry is to really understand mystical experience and then reverse engineer it. That way you can go to heart of religion and the nature of “god” – or whatever you want to call it – and relate to religious folks in a constructive way as opposed to just arguing at cross-purposes which is what Dawkins always seems to do.

    What disappoints me about Dawkins and co. is that they don’t seem to try and delve into “authentic” religious experience, and simply dimiss it as irrational personal beliefs and dogma. There’s much more to it than that, I think, and it would be much better if he took a really scientific approach to it, rather than the more reactive cultural, positional argument he puts out. All he does is – ironically enough – preach to to converted :-).

  18. Tadhg Says:

    Shorter Sean:
    There ways to think that are not rational. There are experiences which do not fall into the category of the strictly rational. These ways and experiences are important parts of human existence and should not be either ignored or relegated to inferior status simply because they are not part of a rational structure.

    I agree with this. Quite strongly, in fact. I have no interest in reductionist materialism, and it’s important to be skeptical about accepting scientific materialism as a definitive explanation for our universe. Furthermore, because we don’t understand consciousness very well, it would be pretty stupid to simply ignore certain classes of experience as irrelevant. And the intuitive leap, or the “mystical experience” that Sean likens to an intuitive leap amplified, is obviously incredibly valuable (rather a lot of scientific discoveries have been made with such leaps, and in some cases with such experiences).

    But rationality, as a mode of thinking, is an excellent analysis tool. The best one we have, in fact. My own take on it (and I tend to read Dawkins as tending in this direction also) is that it’s critical to use rational analysis, where possible, before making social decisions. Personal decisions are another matter. But decisions in the social or political spheres should be considered rationally, because otherwise we are at the mercy of emotional manipulation or simple stupidity. The question of whether or not “God” exists doesn’t demand rational analysis until you start going around saying that we should run our society based on the dictates of this “God”. Or that you should give equal weight to ludicrous notions about the age of the universe because you have a book that you’ve designated as “holy” which supports those notions, and this book should be considered equal to scientific evidence because this “God” wrote it. And so on.

    If you have a mystical experience, that’s an important and wonderful thing, and insight and wisdom from it should be shared with the rest of humanity. And ideas arising out of those experiences may need some shielding from critical analysis, as all ideas do at first—it’s really easy to kill creativity by insisting on immediate rational analysis and criticism of ideas as soon as they arise. But as soon as you enter the social/political sphere, your ideas/wisdom/insight need to be examined rationally. You had a vision? Great. You had a vision that helps you appreciate the beauty and majesty of the universe, and the importance of all life? Great. You had a vision that revealed to you that it’s immoral and an offense against nature to wear color? Okay… but when you start lobbying for laws outlawing colored clothing, the lack of a rational basis for your argument should be exposed and should essentially remove your suggestion from serious consideration.

    There are other complexities here—as with anything like this, a major question is “who gets to define what rationality is?”…

  19. John Says:

    Tadhg and Sean: I have to start by saying the dialogue between you has been a treat to read. It brings to mind a related dialogue between the bloggers Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris that is covering (in progress) some of the same ground in a different way. Here’s the link:


    I especially appreciated Tadhg’s comment that …’it should be clear to most people that running a society based on precepts that cannot be rationally analyzed makes little sense, and that privileging such precepts also makes little sense.’ (with which I agree wholeheartedly) and Sean’s thoughtful comment on the same. I would like to suggest that if it WERE possible to arrive at a position of faith in God via rational analysis, that then suggestions about what is good and bad for society based on those precepts should not be rejected out of hand. And if you don’t believe that that position is attainable by rational analysis, why not?

    Tadhg, you said ‘The question of whether or not “God” exists doesn’t demand rational analysis until you start going around saying that we should run our society based on the dictates of this “God”.’ If I understand you correctly, I’d have to disagree. It seems to me that the existence or non-existence of deity in the general sense and some understanding of his/her/its character if he/she/it exists does at least deserve the application of reason.

  20. Tadhg Says:

    John: that sentence of mine was definitely unclear. I’m not claiming that reason should not be applied to the concept of a deity. What I meant was that one should not force rational analysis/justification onto the personal beliefs of others—in other words, if X believes something I think is irrational, I should just leave X alone with that rather than trying to convince X. This changes the moment that X tries to alter society to go along with those irrational beliefs.

    As for the point about whether it’s possible to arrive at a faith in God by rational analysis: I have my doubts about that, and the first reason is that if it’s arrived at by rational analysis, it’s not really faith, is it? We arrived at a conception of how physics works, for example, by rational analysis, but it’s hardly “faith”—even though we know that this conception may be superceded by another model as we discover more.

    Unless you mean that a rational analysis might prove that a faith in God would be a rational social ideal because of the alleged benefits it brings, regardless of the truth value of “God” per se. I don’t accept that, mainly because I think that rational analysis is the best tool we have for figuring out what we should do, and insisting on irrational belief as the foundation of a society essentially sanctions the throwing away of that tool.

    There are precepts which can in themselves be rationally analyzed independent of their relationship to religion, and I’m all for that. But again, privileging them because of other beliefs that cannot be analyzed makes no sense to me.

    Where would that get us? If somehow rational analysis could lead to faith in the Christian God (which I have rather serious doubts about, to say the least), how would that alter things? Frankly, if you could PROVE to me that the Christian God existed and that (for example) he really did think that adulterers should be stoned to death, I would still insist that this was immoral and wrong, and that there should be no such penalty.

    Thanks for the Harris/Sullivan link, I’ll have to read that when I have a little more time!

  21. kevintel Says:

    Frankly, if God were proven to exist, I’d personally go a bit easy on insisting about immorality or this or that, and pay a little more attention to how He felt about those issues. After all, He did write the rulebook on smiting.

  22. Tadhg Says:

    That’s a highly practical approach, sure… but then you’re really talking about a vengeful, powerful, authority enforcing obedience through fear and intimidation—again hardly a good cornerstone for a moral system.

  23. kevintel Says:

    Hey, I’m not talking about a vengeful, powerful, authority enforcing obedience through fear and intimidation, or about moral systems; just that if there was a God, and it had come to pass that along the way He had smote this guy, or visited a plague of locusts on someone else, that I’d pay attention to his views on the various issues of the day and I’d certainly be amenable to lugging some clay tablets around with me, should he command it.

    I think the word is ‘pragmatic’.

  24. Ekzeteos (John) Says:

    I’m liking this format a great deal!

    Tadhg: Very consise clarifications. Thanks. Let me try to briefly comment to your main points:

    You wrote ‘one should not force rational analysis/justification onto the personal beliefs of others’, with which I agree in princple, on the basis that I don’t believe anyone has the right to force anyone else to do or think or confront anything. But I don’t believe that avoidance is useful either, i.e. ‘just leave X alone with that’. I have had too much value added to my life by engaging in hard, thoughtful, challenging dialogue with people with whom I disagreed. I experienced a true revaluation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a result of a debate of that kind, which wouldn’t have happened if my friend and opponent had simply left me alone with my irrational belief. I also think you shouldn’t let people who practice religion off the hook so easily. I take the New Testament seriously when it says Christians should prepare themselves, “always being ready to give an answer to anyone who asks from you a reason for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) Not faith in the hope, not belief of the hope, but reason for the hope.

    Your point about faith vs analysis is well taken. I get so used to using the word “faith” as shorthand for my religious practice, that I forget that for most people “faith” means something believed in the absence of evidence. What I meant to have asked was about the possibility of arriving at an understanding of God through rational analysis and then the potential of reasonable precepts that would be derived from that understanding, which is really what you addressed anyway, so thanks for answering what I meant, not what I said.

    For me, faith doesn’t really come into the process of discerning what is good and what is not good. There is a tool for discerning right from wrong that comes out of the Protestant Reformation called the Weslyan Quadrilateral. It is essentially: scripture, tradition, reason and experience. And since scripture is really just the experiences of our elders which became important enough as tradition to write down (unless you subscribe to the “Perfect Transcription of the Holy Book” theory of the Bible or the Koran or whatever (Principia Discordia excepted of course) which I don’t) what you have is the advice of the elders and your own God given reasoning ability. And this isn’t fringe stuff. This is central to protestant theology.

    Good precepts are good precepts are good precepts. I agree gladly that rational analysis is the best tool to ferret out good precepts from the tangle of potential ideas. I’m an advocate of a sort of an intelectual darwinism, a free-market of ideas where EVERY opinion and analysis is given the chance to survive and procreate, because I believe thoughtful analysis of facts and educated opinions will eventually beat out the alternatives. But that means that religious ideas get to be beaten up and bruised just like the rest.

    I believe that God exists. But for the sake of clarity, let me begin with the concrete: I believe the universe exists. I believe that humans exist on this planet as a result of very complex processes. That may have been as the result of a divine creation, or it may have been some sort of guided evolution, but I believe that there was some divine agency at work for several reasons. One, I find the “irreducible complexity” arguments of Intelligent Design compelling. Two, I find the secular evolutionists’ argument of “Puncuated Equilibrium” no more “reasoned” simply saying that “God did it”. And three, I believe that there’s plenty of evidence that doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity that there is some immaterial component within the human animal, and I find the secular humanists’ argument that the “spirit” is somehow an evolved tool to facilitate altruism little more “reasonable” than Punctuated Equilibrium. As a devotee of Ockham, I have to believe that the simplest explanation for the evidence to which I’ve been exposed is that our spirit is a fragment of a greater Spirit.

    That doesn’t mean that that Spirit necessarily resembles Michaelangelo’s “Creation” or George W. Bush’s “divine Buddy” or anyone’s particular claim on God. I don’t think I would want to try to prove to you that the “Christian” God existed because there could be no such thing, any more that there is some sort of monolitic “Muslim world” without division or gradation. But I still suggest that the existence or non-existence of a Deity that might impact our lives in some way is a question to which we (humanity) can and should apply reasoned analysis.

    So much for briefly commenting.

    BTW, insofar as there is a peculiar “Christian God” that I follow, I believe he came down from heaven to STOP a woman from getting stoned to death for adultery because the punishment was immoral and wrong, so I guess you and He agree there.

  25. Tadhg Says:

    First, in reference to the question of scripture and “perfect transcription”, I believe only the KJV can be trusted.

    That aside, I agree with you that religious ideas get to be beaten up and bruised just like the rest. This is good, because part of the my point here is that I think that no ideas get to be excused from analysis (of course, I doubtless have many ridiculous and untested ideas that I think are facts in my own mind, despite my best efforts).

    Given what you’ve said about “irreducible complexity”, I should ask whether or not you’ve read The God Delusion, as in my opinion it deals with that argument fairly well.

    As for some immaterial component within the human animal, who knows? I don’t, mainly because I don’t know what consciousness is. However, it seems likely to me that as we understand the brain and body better, it’ll be clearer and clearer that our faculties arise from physical structures within them, and that explanations requiring the immaterial will become superfluous. (On the other hand, it may be impossible for us to ever fully understand the workings of our own minds, and so room for the immaterial may remain.) As for altruism and the “spirit”, studies such as this one suggest that we humans don’t have a monopoly on it.

    I can’t really see Ockham’s Razor working in favor of a greater Spirit in this context. I think a “greater Spirit” creates just as much complexity as any of the other arguments, because you’re still stuck explaining how that being came to exist.

    Heh, indeed, the stoning might have been a bad example for this particular context, but the larger point is hopefully clear—that even if the Christian God existed, I would still seek to apply my own reason in terms of deciding right from wrong.

  26. Ekzeteos Says:

    It occurred to me that I ought to read the book that started this discussion. Your last message REALLY makes me want to read it. Maybe I’ll recommend it for my Men’s Book Group at church. Again, thanks for your thoughtfulness and this great foum for discussion.

  27. sean Says:

    Tadhg & John,

    I agree with you – I prefer a society that operates primarily on the basis of evidence-based argument, rather than one based on assertions from personal experience – Dawkin’s “faith is a belief in something wihout evidence” – that cannot be tested and can quickly become a source of zealotry. But there are problems with Dawkin’s approach to religion, I think. Let me try and point out one, I haven’t managed to yet, but I’ll keep trying :-).

    Dawkins on Newsnight on the BBC:

    Jeremy Paxman: Have you ever stood on the top of a mountain or something and been stunned by what you’ve seen and had some spiritual sense?

    Dr. Richard Dawkins: Most certainly, it’s a very difference sense from a religious spiritual sense however. The first chapter in my book is about Einsteinean religion and Einstein had that feeling as I do when contemplating the Universe or contemplating the laws of physics … that’s nothing to do with God as ordinary people understand God which is a personal being who reads your thoughts, forgives your sins, knows everything that you do, raises you from the dead and so on.

    In the first chapter of “The God Delusion”:

    “The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

    Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is our better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’ Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.

    Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.

    Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. Einstein sometimes invoked the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so), inviting misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own. The dramatic (or was it mischievous?) ending of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, ‘For then we should know the mind of God’, is notoriously misconstrued. It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that Hawking is a religious man.”

    Dawkin’s definition of the “Einsteinean” sense of the spiritual is how many religious people initially sense what they later conceive of as God. From that point, I suppose some conceptions of God are a construction by analogy; the deistic God is constructed from analogies with the mind of the person conceiving it; this is not supernatural God, but a God based on the self-evident sense of identity stimulated by the experiences of the “Einsteinean” spiritual experience mixed with whatever neurotic complexes and cultural conditioning the person has – probably best dealt with with counselling where the person’s thinking is causing them pain (guilt being the classic one).

    I suppose Dawkin’s point is this, essentially: some ideation describes observable phenomena, some does not. From the empiricists point of view, if an idea describes a phenomena that is not observable and repeatable it is an illusion. “God” is an alternative scentific hypothesis with little evidence to support it. But at religion’s heart there is no observable phenomena; rather the phenomena is the experience of being, and the powerful sense of mystery implict in that. All sorts of thinkers from Eckhart to Vendantists to Schopenhauer explicate variations on this.

    The question for the mystic is: why believe anything at all, that is: why get lost in abstractions? Is belief necessary when you’re talking about mystery? Mystery being the absence of understanding, the imponderable? That is the “power” most people sense in a feeling of God, or in daemonic dread, or whatever way they want to put it. When people say God is suprarational, beyond thought, that may be what they’re getting at: the nature of the imponderable. That some people struggle with this in its raw form and revert to some sort of personalisation or ideological structure is entirely understandable; “faith” gives a person hope in the face of the absurd should she find it disagreeable or not be in a position to cope with it. For the mystic, it’s not necessary, their psychology is sufficiently robust to have no coherent mental structure.

    Of course, you could argue that the Dawkin’s book is a polemic intended for people who subscribe to mainstream religions not lunatic mystics; but because it fails to address the fundamental basis of religion, he simply classifies it away, and so it seems to miss the point. What do you think?

  28. Tadhg Says:

    While I agree with a lot of your points about the origin/nature of religion, I cannot agree with you that the experience of being is its fundamental basis, or that religion isn’t inextricably bound up in explanation of the universe—explanation that will frequently conflict with other systems of attempted understanding (such as science).

    Religion has always been about attempting to understand our place in the universe, ourselves, and the universe—as well as other things such as mechanisms for/of social control. Cosmology and origin are critical to religions, because they ground a narrative that believers can place themselves in. The mysticism you speak of is an attempt to take the questioning about being, and the wonder at being, and separate it from a rigid narrative to a greater or lesser degree (depending on the mysticism in question). I do think that mysticism is a deeply important human experience, but I’m not sure where your definition of it is that different from Dawkins’, as I don’t think he’s really dismissing a sense of wonder at being as illusory. Rather, I think he’s saying that it doesn’t need irrational explanations—indeed, he views it as a motivator for rational understanding.

    Further, if you claim that your experience of God is suprarational, “beyond thought”, what does that actually mean? That it cannot be analyzed according to rational principles because it is fundamentally experiential, wrapped up in personal feeling and sense? If so, there’s no issue with that whatsoever—until you start asserting that this is “proof” of something, when it’s “proof” of nothing but the fact that you have those feelings, that experience. It doesn’t in any way indicate the existence or non-existence of a deity. It does prove the existence of a range of human experience that’s very significant—and potentially dangerous, since (as has been demonstrated many times) it can be manipulated for various terrible purposes.

    I begin to think that we’re talking about three different reactions to this kind of “mystical experience”:
    Dawkins reacts by pointing out that it can be interpreted as wonder at the universe, and that other interpretations are unsupported by evidence.
    You appear to react by claiming that it indicates the existence of an important realm of human experience and meaning that is (currently) outside the purview of the rational and scientific but is extremely valuable nonetheless.
    Most religious groups react by claiming this experience as proof of the rightness of whatever their own creed is.

    Dawkins is very clearly attacking the third approach, and rightly so. It doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. He also clashes to a lesser degree with the second approach, mainly because he feels (with some justification) that it is often actually a hiding place for the third.

    I don’t think there’s necessarily a clash between the first two. Seeking to understand the experience is fundamentally a scientific endeavor. What I think you’re doing is to protect that second realm against a dismissive reductionist approach, one which simply deems it not worth exploration because it’s intensely personal and very difficult to measure in typical “Big Science” ways. I agree that such protection is necessary, and that reductionism is a danger (a kind of scientific overreaching, really). But I’m not sure that Dawkins is really a proponent of such reductionism.

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