I think I have to agree...
Richard Dawkins, who holds the interesting title of “Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science” at Oxford University, is a master of scientific exposition and synthesis. When it comes to his own specialty, evolutionary biology, there is none better. But the purpose of this book, his latest of many, is not to explain science. It is rather, as he tells us, “to raise consciousness,” which is quite another thing.
The nub of Dawkins’s consciousness-raising message is that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration. Belief in God is not only a delusion, he argues, but a “pernicious” one. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
Dawkins’s case against religion follows an outline that goes back to Bertrand Russell’s classic 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” First, discredit the traditional reasons for supposing that God exists. (“God” is here taken to denote the Judeo-Christian deity, presumed to be eternal, all-powerful, all-good and the creator of the world.) Second, produce an argument or two supporting the contrary hypothesis, that God does not exist. Third, cast doubt on the transcendent origins of religion by showing that it has a purely natural explanation. Finally, show that we can have happy and meaningful lives without worshiping a deity, and that religion, far from being a necessary prop for morality, actually produces more evil than good. The first three steps are meant to undermine the truth of religion; the last goes to its pragmatic value.
What Dawkins brings to this approach is a couple of fresh arguments — no mean achievement, considering how thoroughly these issues have been debated over the centuries — and a great deal of passion. The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. Dawkins fans accustomed to his elegant prose might be surprised to come across such vulgarisms as “sucking up to God” and “Nur Nurny Nur Nur” (here the author, in a dubious polemical ploy, is imagining his theological adversary as a snotty playground brat). It’s all in good fun when Dawkins mocks a buffoon like Pat Robertson and fundamentalist pastors like the one who created “Hell Houses” to frighten sin-prone children at Halloween. But it is less edifying when he questions the sincerity of serious thinkers who disagree with him, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, or insinuates that recipients of the million-dollar-plus Templeton Prize, awarded for work reconciling science and spirituality, are intellectually dishonest (and presumably venal to boot). In a particularly low blow, he accuses Richard Swinburne, a philosopher of religion and science at Oxford, of attempting to “justify the Holocaust,” when Swinburne was struggling to square such monumental evils with the existence of a loving God. Perhaps all is fair in consciousness-raising. But Dawkins’s avowed hostility can make for scattershot reasoning as well as for rhetorical excess. Moreover, in training his Darwinian guns on religion, he risks destroying a larger target than he intends.
The least satisfying part of this book is Dawkins’s treatment of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. The “ontological argument” says that God must exist by his very nature, since he possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist. The “cosmological argument” says that the world must have an ultimate cause, and this cause could only be an eternal, God-like entity. The “design argument” appeals to special features of the universe (such as its suitability for the emergence of intelligent life), submitting that such features make it more probable than not that the universe had a purposive cosmic designer.
These, in a nutshell, are the Big Three arguments. To Dawkins, they are simply ridiculous. He dismisses the ontological argument as “infantile” and “dialectical prestidigitation” without quite identifying the defect in its logic, and he is baffled that a philosopher like Russell — “no fool” — could take it seriously. He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute. Shirking the intellectual hard work, Dawkins prefers to move on to parodic “proofs” that he has found on the Internet, like the “Argument From Emotional Blackmail: God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” (For those who want to understand the weaknesses in the standard arguments for God’s existence, the best source I know remains the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie’s 1982 book “The Miracle of Theism.”)
It is doubtful that many people come to believe in God because of logical arguments, as opposed to their upbringing or having “heard a call.” But such arguments, even when they fail to be conclusive, can at least give religious belief an aura of reasonableness, especially when combined with certain scientific findings. We now know that our universe burst into being some 13 billion years ago (the theory of the Big Bang, as it happens, was worked out by a Belgian priest), and that its initial conditions seem to have been “fine tuned” so that life would eventually arise. If you are not religiously inclined, you might take these as brute facts and be done with the matter. But if you think that there must be some ultimate explanation for the improbable leaping-into-existence of the harmonious, biofriendly cosmos we find ourselves in, then the God hypothesis is at least rational to adhere to, isn’t it?
No, it’s not, says Dawkins, whereupon he brings out what he views as “the central argument of my book.” At heart, this argument is an elaboration of the child’s question “But Mommy, who made God?” To posit God as the ground of all being is a nonstarter, Dawkins submits, for “any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide.” Thus the God hypothesis is “very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability.”
Dawkins relies here on two premises: first, that a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith); and second, that to explain the improbable in terms of the more improbable is no explanation at all. Neither of these is among the “laws of probability,” as he suggests. The first is hotly disputed by theologians, who insist, in a rather woolly metaphysical way, that God is the essence of simplicity. He is, after all, infinite in every respect, and therefore much easier to define than a finite thing. Dawkins, however, points out that God can’t be all that simple if he is capable of, among other feats, simultaneously monitoring the thoughts of all his creatures and answering their prayers. (“Such bandwidth!” the author exclaims.)
This sort of coolly speculative thinking could not be more remote from the rococo rituals of religion as it is actually practiced across the world. Why is it that all human cultures have religion if, as Dawkins believes he has proved, it rests on a delusion? Many thinkers — Marx, Freud, Durkheim — have produced natural histories of religion, arguing that it arose to serve some social or psychological function, such as, in Freud’s account, the fulfillment of repressed wishes toward a father-figure.
Dawkins’s own attempt at a natural history is Darwinian, but not in the way you might expect. He is skeptical that religion has any survival value, contending that its cost in blood and guilt outweighs any conceivable benefits. Instead, he attributes religion to a “misfiring” of something else that is adaptively useful; namely, a child’s evolved tendency to believe its parents. Religious ideas, he thinks, are viruslike “memes” that multiply by infecting the gullible brains of children. (Dawkins coined the term “meme” three decades ago to refer to bits of culture that, he holds, reproduce and compete the way genes do.) Each religion, as he sees it, is a complex of mutually compatible memes that has managed to survive a process of natural selection. (“Perhaps,” he writes in his usual provocative vein, “Islam is analogous to a carnivorous gene complex, Buddhism to a herbivorous one.”) Religious beliefs, on this view, benefit neither us nor our genes; they benefit themselves.
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