03 March 2015

Revisiting 'The God Delusion'

In my a recent post, I dug through a book that had been very influential to my thinking in my early days as an atheist (circa 2008) — Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, which looks at religion from the perspectives of cognitive psychology, evolution, and sociology. That nugget of nostalgia got me thinking about another book I read around that time — Richard Dawkins' landmark book The God Delusion.

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that TGD has been a monumentally influential book. It spurred apostasies, brought public debate about religion into the cultural limelight, inspired non-believers to speak out, and provoked a backlash from Christian apologists that continues to this day. Dawkins' book didn't accomplish that single-handedly (that might be giving it a bit too much credit), but it was certainly a timely publication that, along with other popular polemics like Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great and Sam Harris' The End of Faith, helped inspire a new generation of outspoken nonbelievers and made the case that religious ideas were fair game for commentary and criticism in the public forum, regardless of whom such discourse might offend.



There's a bit of a connection between Religion Explained and The God Delusion, even though the books couldn't be more different. RE is popular science, a dispassionate anthropological study of religion; TGD is a polemic, meant to provoke and persuade. But I thought about their connection when I reflected on the criticisms of TGD from religious apologists.

"Dawkins is so popular," bemoaned theologian William Lane Craig, "because people are so unsophisticated in their thinking!"[1] Craig's quip adequately characterizes the response from academic theologians: TGD is just unsophisticated. It's puerile, inept, and fails to acknowledge the wealth of nuanced argumentation on the existence of God. Take for example this excerpt from a critical review of the book from Peter Williams, a theologian at Cambridge [2]:

[...] Dawkins’ attack upon the historical reliability of the bible, which draws upon scholars like agnostic Bart Ehrman (who follows Hume’s discredited proposal that miracle claims cannot in principle be supported by evidence[10]), is full of demonstrably false and misleading claims. Indeed, Dawkins’ critique constitutes a ‘greatest hits’ of the sort of thing I expect to hear from students who have uncritically lapped up philosophically outdated sceptical treatments of scripture that confirm their prejudices.[11] Plenty of contemporary scholars reject Dawkins’ opinions concerning the reliability of the bible, on evidential grounds. 
Moreover, Dawkins simply doesn’t recognize when he is out of his philosophical depth. Antony Latham is correct when he laments that ‘Dawkins clearly has an inflated idea of his competence in metaphysics.’[12] And as Oxford theologian Alister McGrath comments: ‘Dawkins’ engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate, often amounting to little more than cheap point scoring… His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.’[13] 

So what are we to make of this? I quite enjoyed TGD, although since I had already deconverted I can't say it was particularly influential for me — more just preaching to the choir, as it were. I've also found that the criticisms of the book I've read (including Williams') miss the mark on virtually all their key arguments. But the real reason that Dawkins' polemic doesn't satisfy academic theologians is because it's not a book written for academic theologians; it's a book written for laypersons, for the everyday believer.

Are those really two different things? Well, actually, according to Boyer, yes. One of the more provocative strategies Boyer employs is to disabuse us of popular assumptions regarding why people have religious beliefs — they provide comfort, they hold society together, they provide explanations for mysterious things. Surely many a non-believer has cynically dismissed religion with just such assumptions. And yet, they are fundamentally false. A fine example is in the idea of 'ultimate explanations', a topic with which academic theologians are consistently preoccupied. Boyer begins,
The mistake of intellectualism was to assume that a human mind is driven by a general urge to explain. That assumption is no more plausible than the idea that animals, as opposed to plants, feel a general "urge to move around." Animals never move about for the sake of changing places. They are in search of food or safety or sex; their movements in these different situations are caused by different processes. The same goes for explanations. From a distance, as it were, you may think that the general point of having a mind is to explain and understand. But if you look closer, you see that what happens in a mind is far more complex; this is crucial to understanding religion. [p16] 
[...] the mind does not work like one general "let's-review-the-factsand-get-an-explanation" device. Rather, it comprises lots of specialized explanatory devices, more properly called inference systems, each of which is adapted to particular kinds of events and automatically suggests explanations for these events. 
[...]Religious concepts may seem out of the ordinary, but they too make use of [these] inference systems  
Boyer's crucial point is that people are not generally concerned with ultimate explanations; rather, they're concerned with more immediate explanations — the need to find some kind of meaning in the chaos around them. Religious laypersons, by and large, have never heard of the various 'necessary being' arguments; when they pray, they don't say, "We thank you, O Lord, for your glorious and necessary existence, and we worship you as your nature requires of us!" No, religious laypersons are concerned with everyday events: Why did this unfortunate circumstance happen to me? What can I do to shape the outcome of future events in my favor? People pray for the health of their loved ones, to be more patient with their spouses, to have financial security, to find love, to cope with grief, to find creative inspiration, and many more such everyday occurrences.

They are not concerned with whether the Kalam Cosmological Argument provides a sound explanation of the causal origin of the universe, nor are they concerned with whether Aquinas' Five Ways are an effective proof that God timelessly sustains the universe in existence. Indeed, very few believers have even heard of these kinds of arguments, much less studied them in any depth. Nor are believers concerned with whether God provides a necessary grounding for objective moral facts; rather, they're concerned with being a "good person" in the sociocultural context which informs their conceptualization of that ideal, and they see religious community as a means by which to accomplish that.

The God Delusion
was written precisely for those laypersons. Dawkins wasn't concerned with some nebulous 'necessary being', but with an anthropomorphic God who listens to prayers, influences the course of events on Earth, affects people's thoughts and actions, judges people for doing right or wrong, and who demands devotion to a specific dogma and doctrine that provides a moral compass. His arguments were that all of these ideas are misguided — that there are more rational ways to make sense of the world around us, that we don't need religion to be good, and that the rigid dogmas and doctrines of religion run counter to a scientific-minded search for knowledge. That Dawkins has been so roundly criticized for failing to engage the arguments of religious academics simply underscores how disconnected the religious intelligentsia is from the realities of everyday belief, and this is evidenced in how the innumerable 'rebuttals' to the book have hardly even been a footnote in popular culture.

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