Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Sat 9th Dec, 2006

Tomorrow's Atheist

I recently read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. I heard about it from a guy coming into the Woodcraft Guild shed when I was there one fine Thursday, and loudly proclaiming that he'd had to do a review on a book he hated. His impression of it was of an author with a big agenda and with little sympathy for those who don't see his way. "What is it, then?" I asked jovially; "The God Delusion", he replied. With that recommendation, I had to buy it.

I do feel that the above anonymous reviewer is right to a certain extent: especially in the earlier chapters, Dawkins comes across as unsympathetic - to put it mildly - of people who are either sympathising with religion or trying to play nice around it. Even the title can come across as a bit arrogant, although he points out in the introduction that the word "Delusion" has the right dictionary definition but the wrong social overtones for his intended use.

But I think he does this with good reason. Dawkins mentions Stephen Jay Gould's book "Rocks of Ages", which advances the idea of "NOMA", or Non Overlapping Magisteria. Basically, science can explain everything that we see in the physical world, religion offers explanations of what happens before and after we're around to experience it, and various other Magisteria (such as Art and Ethics) have their own fields to explain. If they could all just keep within their own fences - and not have an artist criticising a scientist on whether the Second Law of Thermodynamics is aesthetically pleasing or culturally relevant, or a swami telling us that cows are more important than humans - then everyone would be getting on just fine. Dawkins says

But I believe, as I think Dawkins does, that that doesn't happen. In particular, religion knows no bounds to what it should control. It tries to tell us how the world was made, how to run our lives, and what is good and bad art. I'm sure there are other magisteria that it (generically speaking) tramples on. The Declaration of Human Rights (article 18) allows for freedom of religion, but many religions don't allow you to pick and choose: in some, you can be stoned to death for changing your mind. And yet if you try to take their religion away, they will demand that you stick to the same declaration that they deny other people. These people aren't just about sitting in their corner being nice, these people are about telling others how to run their lives. (This also goes for more 'mild-mannered' religions such as Church of England, for reasons that Dawkins elaborates.) And all from a set of stories which make no sense, which teach lessons that have to be heavily 'interpreted' to avoid the obvious flaws, and which have as much justification for being a basis of a moral and ethical code as, say, this one I found.

But, obviously, I'm biased.

To get a less biased opinion of what people think of the book, I looked at its page on Wikipedia. From this I got the impression that, while religious people may like to feel a bit superior over 'non-believers' from time to time, they hold no candle to book reviewers. Book reviewers are instantly better than the author that wrote the work, and instantly know far more about the subject and are better qualified than the author to choose what should have gone into the book. Many of the reviews mentioned on the Wikipedia page propose that Dawkins didn't really understand the field of religion, philosophy or human nature well enough, and therefore his book is fundamentally flawed.

I can't help but feel that there's none so blind but those that don't want to see. It's not a book criticising every aspect of Christianity, or a book elaborating on every facet of human morality, or a total proof that evolution is the only true way that life on Earth has come to be. It touches on all those subjects briefly, to make a few points that cover the main areas of discussion, before moving on. Its fundamental point is made right at the start: that we sometimes don't know that we can try a new thing or choose not to do something. The God Delusion seeks, in my opinion, only to be a "consciousness raiser" for the general topic. This is why he includes a helpful list of atheist groups for people to turn to for further information, and he lists his references so that other people can learn from the sources he's read. The Bible has far more glaring omissions than this book, yet none of the reviewers want to subject it to the same scrutiny.

I could ramble on for much longer - I did, but I trimmed it out as being otiose - about the good things this book says. Ultimately we must make our own minds up - even about whether we believe what Dawkins has to say. The God Delusion, by advocating such scrutiny even of itself, is far more intellectually and morally justifiable than any religion which tells people to take everything, ultimately, on faith alone.

P.S. I read a letter in the paper from a theist who attacked the book. Tiresomely, he just reiterated Pascal's Wager and St. Thomas of Aquinas's arguments, which Dawkins has already expertly rebutted. The thing that worries me most about the theistic scholar is their tendency to just rehash existing arguments and quote secondary and tertiary analyses; in their attempt to get the high ground, they just end up making even taller and more precarious towers to stand on. Tedious.

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