Saturday, April 7, 2007

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Title: The God Delusion
Author: Richard Dawkins
Rating: Great!

Some time back I reviewed a book by Sam Harris - Letter To A Christian Nation - a cry for change in our nation. Among other things, it discusses how atheists are treated and begs for improvement.

Dawkins has a different agenda in The God Delusion. In it he sets out to disprove the existence of god to the best of anyone's ability, to show the places that we give religion undue respect, and to debunk the case for it's underlying necessity in our daily lives. I think he succeeds admirably, and in the process he centralizes and summarizes a lot of good arguments that atheists have made over the years. I'm sorry to report, however, that despite Dawkins's extensive and well researched efforts, not everyone will be persuaded.

I've been in an email conversation with a friend (John) about religion, faith, and related topics for months. He and I read The God Delusion at the same time, and at least in the case of John, Dawkins didn't get a convert. I don't fully understand it, but I'm reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I cannot understand it. Let me try to explain.

For me, the single most important human quality is reason. Without it we're merely a collection of animal instincts stuck together in an ungainly body, the current product of an ongoing evolutionary process that is clearly not directed or controlled. But reason is something wonderful. It's a product of evolution, of course, but it is an amazing ability. With it we can do things no other species we know of can even contemplate. We can build complex tools to learn more about our world and expand upon our limited senses. We can inquire into the nature of the world around us, and refine our models of how and why it works to a degree no other creature on this planet can envision.

From the weird realm of quantum mechanics, to the 14 billion (give or take) year old universe, to the millions of light years that separate galaxies, to the nature of light itself, things that are not accessible to our senses have been teased apart and understood in ways that religion cannot and could never approach. The universe is an amazing place, full of unexpected things, chances to learn, and opportunities to use our reason to unravel the mysteries of why and how things happen. Science is the method, driven by reason and curiosity, that opens these vistas to us. There is nothing else - no other "way of knowing" - that even comes close to science as a vehicle for understanding.

Now take even a moderate religious believer like John. For him, there comes a point where faith cuts in. A point where, despite evidence, reason, logic and all the things make humans so unique on this planet - the very things that keep us from living as bands of hunter-gatherers in the jungle - he sets aside all that to say "God did this."

I must respectfully - and with great bewilderment at the faith John and others espouse - disagree.

There is no evidence for god. None. Oh some claim they've proved he exists. They haven't, and Dawkins explains why. Some claim they've experienced revelation directly, but they don't understand just how odd and fragile the human brain is, and the amazing things it can be made to do under the right circumstances. Revelation fails to impress, and again, Dawkins explains why. Others demand that religion must be true because it is a civilizing force, that our morals come from it, and therefore it has power. Dawkins shows the fallacy of those arguments as well. Dawkins also asks the obvious question: why does the believer never ask where this god came from? Who or what created him? Isn't this god at least as unlikely as the universe it supposedly created? In fact, as Dawkins points out, he's even less likely.

After years of reflection and discussion with others - including many of faith - it's become obvious there is nothing supernatural in the world; no god or gods created us. Dawkins nicely collects and summarizes much of the information I've used to come to that point of view, and he pushes some of the conclusions a bit farther than I had on my own.

Don't get me wrong. Assuredly there are natural things that we don't yet understand and haven't yet encountered, but to assert there is some special force/presence/power/energy/spirit (or whatever you want to call it) in the universe that is somehow outside of human experience, well, that's just making up stories.

I know someone who had imaginary friends when she was a child. She talked to them; they followed behind when her family went somewhere in the car. They had names and behaviors and all kinds of specific qualities. But over time she outgrew them. As a youngster they were very real, but as she aged she realized they weren't there and the game ended. If it hadn't ended she'd be called mentally ill and treated for the condition. Deservedly so.

Religion - or any belief in the supernatural for that matter, be it god, ghosts or astrology or auras or whatever you like - is that same kind of childhood fantasy, but still present long after it should have been outgrown. And formal religion is the most pernicious case of all. Thanks to a set of deeply rooted cultural expectations I - and everyone else - must show religion all kinds of extra respect that we don't have to show towards similar beliefs. Criticize astrology and few will mind. Criticize Islam or Christianity and you're (possibly literally) taking your life into your hands.

And faith - the ability to discard reason for the invisible man in the sky - there I just cannot go. John has that kind of faith. He's not a biblical literalist, thankfully, and in fact I'm not exactly sure what religion he would claim to follow. Perhaps he isn't sure himself. But strip away the garb of any religion and you get to the same point, a place where the believer says "I accept X on faith alone" or (even worse in my mind) "I deny X, despite all the evidence in favor of it, because my faith requires that I deny it". This is the thing that I cannot comprehend, the gulf I cannot cross: the denial of reason and evidence for an unfounded and false belief.

I've tried to understand it over the years. I've talked to believers of various sorts and asked all kinds of questions, framing things in different ways trying to find the limits of their faith, or learn why and how they believe what they do. In the end I always come away lost. For me, there is nothing that I know - or think I know - that isn't subject to revision and correction. Reproducible evidence from a reputable source is all I ask and I'll stop believing in X and start believing in Y. John - and apparently 95% of the population of the US - doesn't feel that way. For them there are simply some truths - given to them via scripture or revelation or trained into them by their parents and their religious leaders - that simply cannot be questioned. To my mind that denies humanity's best and most precious attribute: reason.

Dawkins has to admit the same puzzlement that I do in dealings with the truly faithful so he cannot end that confusion. But he does well on everything else in this volume. The God Delusion is an excellent resource if you wind up in discussions about religion. Dawkins is very well read - on both sides of the issue - and quotes from all kinds of sources regularly. His logic is impeccable, and his writing approachable. This isn't a dense, scholarly tome. Instead it's a fun and sometimes funny book that happens to discuss a serious topic, one that has been without effective criticism far too long.

And at the end he provides a hefty bibliography and a list of organizations that people looking for help in escaping religion can turn to. If you're one of those whose faith is wavering or who is wondering about the value of the religion you were taught, please read this book. There is a lot of real value in here, and the honesty with which is is presented is refreshing.

This is a powerful book. But it's not a call to arms. It's not asking atheists to rise up in open rebellion in the streets. Dawkins is a very good scientist, and he makes his case clearly and logically. It's for the rest of us - those who share his view of the world - to determine how we will act. As it should be.