Saturday, July 07, 2007

Reading "The God Delusion"--Part One

Way back, about a month or two ago, I had done a few posts about atheism. Intrigued by the new wave of atheistic media that has swelled into recent popularity, I put myself on the list for Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, at my local library. There was quite a number of people ahead of me, so I put it on the back burner of my mind and promptly forgot about it.

It arrived yesterday and I have been engrossed in it since this morning, picking it up here and there whenever I have free time. So far, I have yet to run through the streets singing REM's Losing My Religion. (Boy am I dating myself with that reference!) I'm almost through chapter 3--Arguments For God's Existence. I am not devastatingly impressed. However, I still have more chapters to read; maybe Dawkins will put aside his little bitternesses and surprise me with some new thought that I haven't previously heard.

My biggest annoyance, is with his constant reliance on the phrase,"I suspect." Although, sometimes he swaps it out for,"One feels," or "I don't think." Over and over he will use these phrases to assert that many leaders, thinkers and scientists were almost certainly as adamantly atheistic as himself. He reinterprets their own words in the light of this assumption, assuring us that if they had really spoken what they felt, they would have been more adamant and less vague in regard to religion, science, and the interaction of the two. Conveniently, most of those he refers to are dead and cannot speak for themselves. What bad timing for them!

I am not saying that Dawkins portrays devout Christians as atheists, but people with more vague and philosophical leanings, or scientists who were less idealistically opposed to religion than himself are subject to his "scientific" revisionist mind-reading.

Regarding the Founding Fathers of the United States, he writes:

"Certainly their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt
that most of them would have been atheists in ours." (page 39) [emphasis mine] doubt? Dawkins, say it ain't so! How can you have no doubt about something that is unprovable? Isn't that contrary to your whole thought system, being certain of things that have no provable basis?

In regards, to T.H. Huxley, who coined the term agnostic and declared that agnostics have no creed, not even a negative one, Dawkins writes:

"But Huxley, in his concentration upon the absolute impossibility of proving or
disproving God, seems to have been ignoring the shading of probability.
The fact that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of something
does not put existence and non-existence on an even footing. I don't
Huxley would disagree, and I suspect that when he appeared
to do so he was bending over backwards to concede a point, in the interests of
securing another one."( pages 49-50) [emphasis mine]

In recounting an episode during which two astronomers turn over a deep question--which Dawkins had put to them--to a chaplain, he writes:

"I suspect that neither the Cambridge nor the Oxford astronomer really believed that theologians have any expertise that enables them
to answer questions that are too deep for science. I suspect that
both astronomers were bending over backwards to be polite...."(pages 56-57)

Concerning Stephen Gould's statements and writings, he says:

"I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much
of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages. As I say, we have all been
guilty of bending over backwards to an unworthy but powerful opponent, and I
can only think that
this is what Gould was doing."(page 57) [emphasis

On and on it goes. It's tedious and unnecessary. It's as if he is building up an army of thinkers to give his own thoughts and views more clout. Don't bore me with theories about what might have been in a different time or universe. Tell me what you think, and why, without trying to assemble a list of allies. As I said, I find it annoying.

A corresponding, though less obvious, theme permeates the book so far--that Christians are motivated by either fear, ignorance, or the desire to control others for power or money. While being able to mind-read the motivations of dead thinkers and scientists is an amazing power to have, it is not nearly as impressive as being able to mind-read what all Christians must think! I have yet to come across one sentence that implies that people might be religious because they are altruistic in their outlook on God, life, and others. Has he never come in contact with a sincere, caring, intelligent believer? He leaves the impression that everyone he has met who carries the label, Christian, is the worst sort of person. Perhaps, that can be chalked up to his own bias? Only he knows.

When discussing religious experience as a basis of belief in God, Dawkins explains how our brains are designed to makes sense of things that have no sense--referring mainly to visions and voices that people claim to have seen or heard. He assures us that our brains can be untrustworthy. I contend that he seems not to distrust his brain at all when he ventures to suppose what others really thought and currently think.

Discussing the famous "Lunatic, Liar or Lord" argument from C.S. Lewis, Dawkins insists that the three options are "ludicrously inadequate."

"A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken." (page 92)

Very interesting reasoning in that it completely contradicts his whole premise and the very title of his book! Jesus calls himself the Son of God, but is honestly mistaken? Wait a minute, didn't Dawkins earlier write in the Preface:
The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as 'a
persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence,
especially as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder'. (page5)

And on page 89, didn't he quote Sam Harris' work, The End of Faith, when discussing personal experiences?:

" 'We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational
justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them
'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad', 'psychotic' or
'delusional'.....' "

Considering that before Jesus made the claim that he was the Son of God no one else believed it, and it wasn't a commonly held belief, doesn't that fit Dawkins' and Harris' definition of mad? Of course it does, but it doesn't further Dawkins argument at this point in the book.

Well, I still have to finish the last few pages of Chapter 3 and then the rest of the book. Perhaps, I am misjudging the groundwork that Dawkins is laying. I will give him the benefit of the doubt until I reach the last page.

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