Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Richard Dawkins and "The God Delusion"

A friend of mine recently posted this video on his Facebook page, and I commented on it there. But because what I said returns to a thought I've had recurringly, I decided I would also record the thought here.

I am nagged by the feeling that Richard Dawkins, in his argument in favour of atheism, just makes things far too easy on himself. As Northrop Frye (in my view, a much more impressive thinker than Dawkins) once said (I paraphrase): "The problem with the question 'Do you believe in God' is that what people really mean is 'Do you believe in what I mean by the word God'." And Dawkins takes a very literalistic and naive and therefore very stupid idea of God ---an old guy in the clouds struggles with a snake in a garden and intervenes omnipotently but, 'for reasons unknown,' capriciously in human affairs--- and then shows just how stupid it is. Well...duh. Yes, that sort of thinking is superstition, and those people who stand by it are probably stupid. But what Dawkins wants, really, is to say just how stupid ALL believers are (you notice how he won't let go of that). Any idea more nuanced than the one he has just crushed is, in his view, "nebulous," and therefore he is still by far the cleverest man about.

But consider this: would it not be rather stupidly literalistic to say, for example, that Hamlet did not exist? A sophisticated thinker would be able to offer a dozen different ways in which Hamlet certainly exists, along with a few in which he didn't, and we'd get on with the discussion. If someone said we were being nebulous, we would say they were full of shit. Well, whatever else may be said of God, he is at least that, a character in a book---in fact, many books and many works of art; so it must be at least as stupid to say flatly that "God does not exist" as it would be to say that "Hamlet does not exist." Or, to look at it another way, there are adolescents who think they are very clever when they declare that "objectivity" or "truth" or "justice" or "love" or "mercy" or "honour" don't exist; and they don't, if you have no capacity for abstraction, and that's why intelligent adults seldom say such things. And again, one might say at least as much for the concept "God." Therefore, it is not really a discussion of existence, but of attributes; and this is where we can learn something from the sophisticated thinking of Northrop Frye, or Martin Buber or Charles Taylor or other modern, quite brilliant, believers.

In short, I just don't think that there can be any intelligent discussion of anything, religion included, without a little humility in play, and Dawkins, with his smug, one-dimensional, seven stage model of belief, comes precariously close to showing none.