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.


Dan said...

Hey Craig, I've read his book and while I do agree that Dawkins comes off as smug and self-satisfied in much of what he talks about (especially the odiously titled "Brights" program), I don't know if it's fair to characterize him as using the word "nebulous" pejoratively here. It seems like, as he says in his book, he's making a specific argument against organized religion and Yahweh. During some of his debates, such as with Alistair McGrath, there were a number of things that McGrath would not admit to believing, but still defined himself as a Christian (and made Dawkins look rather foolish in the process) and I think to that extent that many self-proclaimed Christians are nebulous in their beliefs and thus very difficult to argue with, especially in a seven minute clip addressed to anonymous masses. The worrying thing is that even if we assume he was intentionally offending some deists or Buddhists or a very loosely defined sect of Christians, there's still an American public to address of which some estimates suggest that 50% believe in angels and 90% believe in a personal God. This seems to be the group that most of his material is criticizing.

Incidentally, having read the four books by the somewhat ridiculously named 'Four Horsemen', I would suggest that Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett probably addresses the issue most fairly (I guess philosophers are better philosophers than biologists and political columnists). Naturally, he is the least talked about.

Craig said...

Thanks for your comments, Dan, and for the reading recommendation.

You make some good points about the degree to which a sector of the American public is happily wallowing in superstition, and I completely agree that it needs to be addressed. Of course it's not an easy job, and telling such people that they are irrational does not seem to make much difference. I'm reminded about what Jean-Paul Sartre said about anti-Semitism: that those who hold such views tend to revel in their irrationality because it gives them an intoxicating feeling of being free from accountability. Certainly, insisting on the literal truth of the Bible and on the existence of a personal God who regularly intervenes in human affairs saves people the responsibility of a whole lot of troubling thought and questioning and doubt.

At any rate, my own feeling is that the hope of reforming that sort of naive faith may lie more with examples of more sophisticated thinking about spiritual matters rather than mere dismissal of the sort Dawkins offers, because there is a more profound dilemma that is not addressed when the conversation assumes a tone of mockery. This, is, of course, related to what you say about how philosophers tend to philosophize more successfully. And one philosopher who has spoken very clearly about the dilemma is Charles Taylor. At the risk of distorting the point through trying to be succinct, the dilemma has to do with satisfying our need for an affirmation of a core of identity and a sense of goodness that transcends the random, shallow, materialistic discourse that dominates our cultural environment, while yet ensuring that this affirmation is consonant with our ideas of rationality.

Now these questions of affirmation, of what sort of people we really want to be, and how to think about our successes and failures in those endeavours, how to understand our freedom to achieve or fail; these questions were once framed in terms of religion. And while many of us, such as myself, no longer find much use for religion in general, that does not change the fact that the questions still need to be addressed if one is not to become a hollow and shallow being.

The point is that a total denial of spirituality strikes many people, even if they can't quite express why, as a sort of self-mutilation. And so, I think that to be dislodged from superstition what they really need is not to be prodded, scolded and mocked, but to be offered something more refined.

Now, speaking personally, I myself belong to no religion because I just can't fit my mind to the necessary tenets of faith any given established religion represents. Nevertheless, I am interested to hear what subtler thinkers have to say about these matters, because I do think that the discussion can be pertinent to me, just as, say, Bach's "St Matthew's Passion" can speak to something in me that goes beyond any of the specific dogmas Bach himself might have embraced.

Mike said...

Craig, I think you may be taking this interview out of context. Bill Maher’s show is a popular comedy, directed at a general liberal public who enjoy making fun of religion. I’m sure you realize this discussion isn’t meant to be a serious one with fine philosophy. So it is only natural that Dawkins is making humorous and exaggerated remarks – he only has about 2 minutes of talking time in the whole episode!

You say Dawkins takes a literalistic and na├»ve view of God, but that is not true. In several of his books, debates, and speeches, Dawkins recognizes the more intelligent forms of religion (deism included) and accepts their value. True, he is most often talking about literalistic, “stupid” religion, and rightly so, because that is a far more exciting, worrying, and surprising topic. Notice Dawkins’s respect for Francis Collins before he’s told that Collins believes in the snake. You said Dawkins wants to say that all religious people are stupid, but he definitely doesn’t: he frequently mentions his respect for the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example.

You say it is obvious that the literalistic view of God is stupid. It may be obvious for well-educated people, but for many people around the world (including in the US) it is quite the opposite.
You also say Dawkins denies spirituality. He actually often talks about the things he feels spiritual about. He has even written an entire book (Unweaving the Rainbow) and produced a TV series about his kind of spirituality.

Dawkins might not be the deeply-philosophical thinker you’re looking for, but he doesn’t pretend to be. He’s a scientist. He tells it like it is, knows his facts, argues well, and has definitely had success in conveying his message. If you want his deep insights on the meaning of life, I recommend The Blind Watchmaker.

Craig said...

Thanks for your comment, Mike. I'm sure that you are quite right that the Bill Maher show is not a venue in which Dawkins can reveal the full complexity of this thinking, and I will certainly look into the two books you mentioned (which, indeed, I haven't read) for the more nuanced views. Still, it seems fair to say that Dawkins must be held responsible for the representation of his own ideas in this case. Because, if he has "dumbed them down" or trivialized his opponents to meet the medium in which he is working, he did so not only deliberately but in person; so in a sense, he is as responsible for any betrayal of himself as he is for anything he has written. One can only blame the medium for so much. If a person chooses to reduce their thinking to a slogan than will fit in a tweet or on a bumper sticker, those few words had better say what they really mean. That's the standard to which we hold politicians, and it seems fair to me to apply the same standard to public intellectuals.

At any rate, the heart of my concern, and of my criticism of Dawkins (qua television personality) is that what could be a productive and enlightening debate about the changing roles of faith and spirituality in human identity has become increasingly illiberal and anti-intellectual in its tone. It is probably true that the right-wing fundamentalists bear much or most of the responsibility for that, but I suppose I find myself more dismayed by the failures of the liberal enlightenment to engage the topic with the thoughtfulness it deserves. I can't speak for others, but personally, I am always a little more irked by simple-minded betrayals of my own side of a discussion than by simple-mindedness on the other side---maybe because my bias leads me to expect it to be simple-minded from the beginning.