29 March 2015

Is there a greater threat to human rights than religious fundamentalism?

Just a recap of some items in the news so far in 2015:
  • A blogger in Egypt was sentenced to a thousand lashes with a cane (in public) for insulting Islam. Amnesty International, last I checked, is still petitioning for his release. [1
  • In Afghanistan, a woman was beaten to death after being falsely accused of blaspheming the Koran. [2]
  • Sweden is scrambling to restore relations with Saudi Arabia after a diplomat rebuked the country's treatment of women, and Saudi leaders responded by threatening trade relations with Sweden. [3]
  • Muslim extremists killed several people over a cartoon. [4]
  • Here in the US, conservative religious Indiana legislators passed a law legalizing discrimination of LGBT citizens. [5]
  • In my home state of Oklahoma, legislators are trying to pass a law that would ban non-religious marriages. [6]
That's just what I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure with a little digging, I could find much more vile, contemptible inhumanity coming from religious fundamentalists. Certainly what we face here in the states is not nearly as extreme as what women and religious minorities face in the Middle East, but I can't help but wonder — if fundamentalists were given carte blanc to govern as they please, would Christian fundamentalist nations look much different than their Muslim neighbors?
Women in Kabul march in protest of the killing of the woman known only as Farkhunda, who was publicly beaten to death after she was falsely accused of burning a Koran.
WOMEN IN KABUL MARCH IN PROTEST OF THE KILLING OF THE WOMAN KNOWN ONLY AS FARKHUNDA, WHO WAS PUBLICLY BEATEN TO DEATH AFTER SHE WAS FALSELY ACCUSED OF BURNING A KORAN.
I don't think there is a single greater threat to human and civil rights than religious fundamentalism, and I know that many of my religiously moderate friends would agree. But as a non-believer, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, I accept and celebrate a 'live and let live' outlook; I know many religious people who are wonderful individuals. One of my clients, for example, is a pastor who spent the last week feeding impoverished children in Haiti; I can safely say that he is doing more than I am to make the world a better place, and if he finds inspiration for his good works in his faith, more power to him. I believe that a great many religious people in the world would not hesitate to condemn terrorism, violence, misogyny, and discrimination.

But I'm also sympathetic to an argument that Sam Harris put forth in The End of Faiththat religious moderatism indirectly facilitates extremism by extolling belief by faith as a virtue. Religious moderates have little argument against extremists that the extremists cannot easily co-opt for themselves — that the other guys, for example, are not interpreting the holy book correctly, or that they are simply following the wrong religion entirely. Theologians, unlike scientists, have no methodology by which to objectively identify and weed out erroneous ideas; instead of building a consensus, religious disagreements simply produce more and more schisms. There are tens of thousands of sects and denominations, all at odds with each other as to who has the correct version of the correct religion. Perhaps the problem isn't that the other guys have it wrong, but that people are arguing over holy books in the first place.

20 March 2015

Hubble is a lie

Surely many of us have marveled at the stunning photographs that the Hubble space telescope has given us. I mean wow, what an amazingly, incomprehensibly huge and marvelous universe we live in! Who can forget amazing shots like the famous Horse Head Nebula:
Or the astounding Pillars of Creation:
Or, my personal favorite for sheer You are insignificant humility, one of the many Deep Field photographs showing thousands of galaxies in what, to us, would be a barely perceptible speck in the sky:
deepfield.jpg
I mean wow. Space isn't just incomprehensibly large — traveling between any two stars in the above nebulae would likely take, with our current technology, tens of thousands of years — it's also beautiful. It's like God is some sort of cosmic artist!

But it's a lie. Space doesn't look like that, at least not to human eyes. I mean the question of what space "looks like" is kind of odd when you think about it — alien creatures who perceived x-ray light would see a very different-looking universe than we do. The concept of "looks like" is something deeply constrained by our human embodiment. But what would space look like to us if we were out there? Could we see those stunning swirling nebulae if we could get close enough to them (bearing in mind that "close", as in the the above pictures, is still tens of thousands of light-years away)?

No. No we could not.

Deep space photography is, for the most part, boring black and white. But then, to represent various elements, filters are applied. So they apply a brown filter and it represents sulfur, or a blue one and it represents oxygen. The composite image you get is the totally amazing menagerie of colors. But the colors are imposed on the pictures, not 'out there' in nature. From Hubble's site:
“There are no “natural color” cameras aboard the Hubble and never have been. The optical cameras on board have all been digital CCD cameras, which take images as grayscale pixels. 
Sometimes the color is as natural as possible. However, the color given to the images is not just “artistic embellishment.” The images are, indeed, downloaded as black and white, and color is added for a number of different reasons – for example, to show the dispersion detail of chemical elements and highlight features so subdued that the human eye cannot see them.”
It gets lamer: if we could travel toward one of those nebulae, we would see a whole lotta nothin'. This is because of an optical principle called conservation of surface brightness. As you got closer to a nebula, its brightness would disperse over a larger area of your vision so that it never appeared to get any brighter. It'd be pretty, sure, but instead of looking like the stunning Horse Head or Pillars of Creation photos, it'd look more like this:


We like to think of space as beautiful and exciting. Science fiction movies and games feature space ships whooshing through bright clouds of swirling gasses, dense asteroid fields, and stunning planets flanked by eye-popping stars. The truth is, space is — to our eyes, anyway — pretty bland-looking. It's mostly empty, it takes a really long time to get anywhere, and it wants to kill you in many horrible ways.

But hey — on the upside, we can at least be glad that we have the technology to 'see' what our eyes cannot. Even though stuff is really far apart and far away, there's still an infinity of neat stuff to discover. Space — empty and vast though it may be — is still really, really damn cool.

16 March 2015

Pre-thoughts on the Rauser/Schieber debate

The audio and/or video for the recent debate and discussion between Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber isn't available yet, but on his blog the other day Randal did a short podcast in which he reflected on the debate and summarized his thesis. With the rather huge caveat that for all I know Randal's more detailed arguments fully address my objections or that Justin had similar thoughts to mine, I wanted to offer some quick thoughts based just on the outline that Randal posted. You can listen to the clip (it's relatively short) on Randal's site here.


First, a point of agreement with Randal: his thoughts on debates echo my own. I think they tend to be rather unproductive, that the audience is rarely comprised of 'fence sitters', and that they often exacerbate an adversarial attitude between believers and non-believers. I suppose the only difference between Randal and I is that in the last six months or so I've come to feel the same way about lengthy internet debates. I definitely think there's value in irenic discussion and spirited debate, but protracted debates in the comments sections of blogs never bring out the best in anyone, myself included. We're all passionate about our beliefs, but it's good to know when to bail out and, if necessary, let the other guy have the last word.

Anyway, Randal outlines what he describes as a "modest thesis" with three major arguments:
  1. One does not need evidence for their belief in God to be rational.
  2. Atheists/naturalists/skeptics are often hasty in dismissing transcendent agents as plausible explanations for events, and this reflects a bias against such possibilities.
  3. Theism provides a better account of our moral intuitions than atheistic naturalism.
The first two arguments are connected somewhat, but the third is distinct as an offering of an evidential argument for the existence of God. Randal may not believe that evidence is required to hold a rational belief in God, but he clearly believes that evidence can bolster the case.

I'm going to tackle these arguments in order, and talk about some of the red flags that popped into my head as I listened.

(1) Evidence and belief in God


My first thought was that Randal's statement was a bit peculiar — what exactly does he mean by "rational" (rational to whom, or according to whom?) and, more importantly, what does he mean by "evidence"? I take him to mean that one's own phenomenological experience provides sufficient evidence in itself to believe in God — something like William Lane Craig's 'inner witness of the Holy Spirit', a perceived miracle, or an answered prayer. I think by "evidence", Randal meant what we would take as empirical or scientific evidence — that is, evidence that can be independently corroborated by other people. I take Randal to be saying that even if one's phenomenological experience can't be corroborated by others (which is the case, by definition, since we don't have access to each other's phenomenological experiences), that the trust we have in our own experiences and our intuitions about those experiences provides sufficient grounds to reasonably believe that perceived supernatural experiences are authentic.

I hope that's a charitable understanding of his argument. Assuming it is, a couple of issues are apparent.

The first problem is that this position essentially eliminates anything particularly special about the particulars of the claim. Randal could claim that he was visited by the spirits of his Nordic ancestors (note: I don't actually know if he's Nordic), that Cthulhu visited him and reveal a cataclysmic prophecy, or that he was given by God himself a New New Testament of Jesus Christ that ought to supersede the Christian Bible. Regardless, since no one else has access to Randal's phenomenological experience, no one can definitively refute his claim. There's nothing particularly special about Randal's actual beliefs — the Holy Spirit, Christian miracles, or whatever. By claiming that his beliefs do not need to be supported by evidence that can be independently corroborated, he has insulated his beliefs from further inquiry.

 

(2) Atheists hastily dismiss transcendent agent explanations, indicating a bias against them

I think that non-believers dismiss transcendent agent explanations not because of a bias against them, but precisely because we hold them to the same standard as any other type of evidence.

Let's think for a moment about what exactly is being claimed when it's claimed that a transcendent agent acted in some causal fashion. First, this is a supernatural being that cannot be directly observed empirically, but nonetheless has both a mind and the capability of causally affecting the physical world. Second, this agent did, in fact, transcend whatever 'boundary' there may be between the natural and supernatural worlds and produced an observable effect in the natural world. And finally, this effect was made specifically to one person, or perhaps to a relatively small group of people (such as everyone in a church); i.e., it is revelatory in nature.
Our materialist understanding of science gives us a powerful, useful, and reliable way of modeling the world around us. We understand how particles and forces interact, how causes work, etc. Even our minds, at least while we're here on Earth, appear to require electronic activity in our brains. So when someone claims that an observable or even phenomenological experience was caused by a supernatural agent, they are in fact making an empirical claim. We should, at least in principle, be able to examine such claims using the tools of science.
Doing so, we can ask a few sensible questions:
  • What exactly is a transcendent agent? 
  • In what ways can a transcendent agent causally affect the physical world? What limitations are there, if any?
  • What is the mechanism by which the agent "transcends" their supernatural nature and affects physical objects and forces?
It will not be a surprise that theists are generally apprehensive about modeling a transcendent being in such a specific way. But you can't have it both ways: either this being causally affects the physical world and can in principle be examined using the tools of science, or the being cannot in principle be examined using the tools of science precisely because it does not causally affect the physical world.

Two problems are apparent, here, for the theist. The first is that the precise nature and causal power of the transcendent being is mired in ambiguity that stifles further inquiry. The second is that we have scientific accounts, from a variety of independent disciplines, that can plausibly account for the purportedly supernatural event. Craig's internal witness, for example, can be plausibly accounted for by groupthink, confirmation bias, and the sensed-presence effect [1].

It's at this point I have to step back and remind my readers of what's really the issue: whom, precisely, Randal is intending to convince. While Randal indeed may be able to consider his belief rational by shielding it from inquiry (effectively allowing him to justify a belief in anything he dreams up), we are also rationally justified in being skeptical of his claim of witnessing or experiencing a supernatural agent for the two reasons outlined above. It's absolutely vital here to note that we are under no obligation to disprove his claim; to justify a rational skepticism, we only need the presence of plausible alternatives which contrast the ambiguous and revelatory nature of the original claim.

Plausible scientific explanations like groupthink, confirmation bias, the sensed-presence effect, or even the psychology of possession are — in stark contrast to the causal abilities of supernatural beings — robustly documented and well-established empirical phenomena. Furthermore, these explanations have the added power of transcending cultural biases. In order to take Randal's Christian beliefs at face value, one must already be a Christian and accordingly share with Randal a number of assumptions about the nature of the world, of God, and the proper interpretation of the Bible (i.e., not all Christians agree on what kinds of holy spiritual experiences one can have, nor do they agree on the way God interacts with the world and his followers). But scientific explanations view these spiritual experiences as common humanistic phenomenon, not necessarily justifying the truth claims of any particular religion.

As long as Randal cares only about viewing his own beliefs as rationally defensible, as immune to being discredited by skeptics, I think his argument holds water. Indeed Randal may have had any number of authentic spiritual experiences. But since these beliefs are not rooted in evidence that can be independently corroborated and because they can be plausibly accounted for by scientific explanations, we non-believers are more than justified in being skeptical of the validity of his beliefs. If Randal wants to convince not just himself and (presumably) others who already share his assumptions but also to argue that others are wrong to be skeptical, then he's got his work cut out for him.

This in turn leads me to further question Randal's first argument. I think that part of being a good skeptical and critical thinker is avoiding the easy trap of privileging your own intuitions and biases above evidence that can be independently corroborated by others. I may, for example, have a memory of tripping and falling during a birthday party as a five-year-old child (I don't, but bear with me). I may have experienced genuine distress in reflecting on this event as I remembered how embarrassed I felt. But it could well be that the memory is false; false memories are, in fact, a common phenomenon [2]. So I attempt to corroborate my memory with others, like my parents, who were there; they do not remember me falling. Finally, they pop in a blurry old VHS cassette of the party, and there's no evidence that I fell. It wouldn't matter how real I had taken the experience to be; I would be forced to accept that it was most likely a false memory. In the same way, I feel that Randal is attempting to privilege his own perceived experiences, all of which are deeply entrenched in the particulars of his sociocultural upbringing, over plausible and more parsimonious alternatives which transcend those sociocultural boundaries. When he has to resort to defending a belief by shielding it from independent inquiry, he's failed to be rationally self-critical.

(3) Theism better accounts for moral intuitions

I won't spend as much time on this one, particularly because it was a frequent topic I've discussed here on The A-Unicornist. In his clip, Randal begins with the caveat "If we are moral realists"; i.e., that our intuitions give us objective, factual information about the world....

Except I would imagine that most atheistic naturalists are not moral realists, at least not in the sense Randal is describing: that morals are objectively existing truths that exist independently of human minds; "out there", so to speak, to be "grasped" by the mind. Instead, I think most naturalists agree that moral intuitions reflect a common embodiment — our shared biology, our shared needs and interests (solidarity), and our necessarily gregarious and social living. Moral intuitions evolved from more rudimentary traits of empathy, cooperation, and sympathy that can still be observed in our primate cousins. If atheists are moral realists, it's likely strictly in the sense of embodied realism [3].

As societies become more populous and diverse, our needs and interests change; accordingly, our moral intuitions also change. Most of us living today cringe at the notion of owning another person as a slave, subjugating them not as humans but as mere property. It is, indeed, one of the strongest moral intuitions many of have. And yet if any of us lived even just a couple hundred years ago, our intuitions about slavery would likely be quite different. We might see it as God's natural order, as a necessary evil, or even look aside with indifference. A theist might hastily dismiss this "shifting moral zeitgeist", as Richard Dawkins put it in The God Delusion, as moral relativism or moral nihilism. But our common embodiment and human solidarity allow for stable moral truths.

Furthermore, adding divine commandments — and with them, divine punishment and reward — adds nothing to our moral obligations. Avoiding a behavior for fear of punishment is not morality, but subservience. I do not need to be told, for example, that it offends God were I to cheat on my wife. In doing so I would rob myself of the intimacy and trust I share with her, risk losing the amazing life we've built together, and worst of all it would devastate her. I'm motivated to stay faithful not by fear of reprisal, but because I love her. A litany of such moral behaviors are motivated by our human empathy and solidarity, and do not need the veneer of a divine threat to keep us in line.



That concludes my thoughts on Randal's brief clip; I'm looking forward to hearing the full debate.

04 March 2015

Arguing on the Internet

Remember this meme (now quite politically incorrect) from the early aughts?
Remember that time when you had a protracted debate with someone on the internet, and they thanked you for persuading them to change their views? No? Of course you don't, and there's a scientific reason why such debates — in which we comb through each other's arguments point by point and construct rigorous rebuttals and arguments — are not just unproductive, but counterproductive.
With all the news about anti-vaxxers, you've probably heard of the backfire effect. This means that when people are confronted with evidence that undermines their point of view, they actually get more entrenched in their opinion. And by "people", I mean you. And me. Everyone. Nobody is exempt from this phenomenon. Much as haughty thinkers and philosophers would like to think otherwise, humans are not particularly rational creatures; at least, not in the way that philosophers have traditionally believed — that rationality and emotion are separate and often antithetical. Cognitive science has shown that reason is inherently emotional, and indeed that the process of reasoning itself is emotionally guided and motivated [1].
The backfire effect has been thrust into the public eye on a number of science issues — vaccinations, climate change, evolution, GMOs — and in every case, the depressing truth is that once people are entrenched in a position, showing them evidence they are wrong not only doesn't persuade them, but it makes them even more certain that they were right. And if this happens with issues that are fairly cut and dry such as those above, it's only going to be worse on matters of religion and philosophy.

Consider for example the question of whether the gospels in the New Testament are reliable accounts of an historical figure. Since original manuscripts do not exist, and there are no contemporaneous accounts of Christ's life, it seems perfectly plausible that the story could have been heavily altered and saddled with myth in the approximately half-century between the purported events occurring and any documentation. This seems especially plausible given that even in our modern, scientific era, mystic con artists like Peter Popoff and the late Sathya Sai Baba amassed legions of devoted followers. An entire religion, Scientology, has been built on falsehoods and pseudoscience surrounding L. Ron Hubbard, who died only in 1986. Is there any reason to believe that people were any less gullible 2,000 years ago? But from the perspective of a Christian who is deeply invested both personally and socially in their religious beliefs, the inability of skeptics to offer direct, incontrovertible evidence that the gospels are false is viewed as a weakness. Remind them that even if the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony (a dubious claim in itself [2]) that a wealth of scientific research has shown eyewitness testimony to be notoriously unreliable, and they become even more determined to convince themselves that eyewitness testimony is reliable [3].

Or, take something like Scholasticism. You can't affirm the tenets of Scholasticism without concurrently taking the philosophy of Essentialism to be true. You cannot believe Essentialism to be true unless you also believe the Correspondence Theory of Truth to be true, and so on. It's my perspective that, based on what we've learned about the mind via cognitive neuroscience, there are a wealth of reasons to think that the Correspondence Theory of Truth and Essentialism are both false [4]. But if you're debating a Scholastic on the existence of God, cutting through so many layers of assumptions requires presenting a great deal of evidence that is not only terribly impractical to summarize in the various blog-comment formats, but based on what we know about the backfire effect is highly unlikely to persuade them anyway.


To be clear, the backfire effect isn't a problem that only affects religious people or science deniers; it affects all of us regardless of where we lie on various spectra of belief. I, too, am subconsciously motivated by a desire to retain a coherency to my beliefs and, when presented with arguments or evidence that may undermine it, comb through them with a degree of skepticism that is difficult to turn inward and apply to my own beliefs.


How do we break the cycle? I'm not sure if we can free ourselves entirely; human reason is inevitably tied to emotion, and the greatest mistake we can make is to think that our capability to think rationally, no matter how trained and refined, allows us to transcend that basic fact. I will say this, however: for me, losing my religion has made changing my position on other matters a fair bit easier. Some nine years after deconverting from Christianity, I changed from 'agnostic theist' to 'agnostic atheist', which I remain today. Neither shifts in perspective came quickly or easily, but with much self-reflection and study. Over the years I've changed my tune on matters like free will, morality, the value of philosophy, what it means to ask where the universe came from, and a variety of other issues. Once I was able to drastically shift perspective on something that was such a deeply rooted part of my identity and not lose any sense of self, it became easier to become more inwardly skeptical about some of my other beliefs. On the other hand, though, I've also become more deeply entrenched in other matters — my skepticism of "metaphysics" as a discipline, what we can know about the world and our own minds through self-reflection and pure reason (not much), the unreliability of 'miracle' claims, the foolishness of supply-side economics, and many other such issues. No doubt that protracted debates on these matters only served to solidify my biases.

I can't ever be fully untethered from emotionally motivated reasoning, but I do my best to view no idea as sacred and to view my own knowledge as contingent and fluid. When I've shifted my views in some way, whether subtly or starkly, I've always found that I'm no worse for the wear. I think we have to condition ourselves to be ready to change our minds, and to recognize that no matter how well-read and learned we think we are, our knowledge will always be eclipsed by the innumerable perspectives we've yet to consider. This is why I think it's more important to read widely than it is to debate with others on the internet; we don't like to be told we're wrong, but it might be easier to shift our views if we're intellectually curious. An inquisitive mind will always be more receptive to new evidence and argument than a defensive one.


This post was inspired by a terrific blog post by David McRaney on his site You Are Not So Smart, which offers a wealth of insight into how terrible we humans really are at being rational. Read his full post on the backfire effect here.

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.