It Didn’t Work for Me

In New Atheism, Science & Religion on July 1, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

In comments here, I noted how much I admire the science writing of Richard Dawkins but, essentially, that I found The God Delusion (“TGD”) to be very disappointing in a literary sense and reassuring in a personal sense since, surprisingly, nothing in it gave me pause or any real cause for concern about my faith.  In reply, Hitch suggested the following.

What I would suggest is that you explain in more detail how Dawkins’ is naive in his arguments, how what you think can be retained, what needs modifications and what is hard or impossible to reconcile. That seems to me a possibly constructive approach and certainly educational for someone like me.

That would be a huge undertaking, obviously.  But I agree that it ought to be useful and constructive.  So I’ll begin with some general comments on TDG and why I thought it wasn’t very good.  What I say here should also be read in tandum with what I argue more completely here with respect to The Courtier’s Reply.  So read the comments below and, if anyone desires, we can begin the discussion. 

1.  TGD is insignificant.  It reads to me (despite claims otherwise) as if it were intended merely to “preach to the choir.”  At no point did I sense anything approaching a challenge or a concern about what I believe, and that was very surprising to me.  In his science writing, Dawkins is consistently eloquent and compelling.  I expected a real test and didn’t get one.  Revelation,  neuroscience and the problem of evil all offer serious challenges to faith for me, for example, but nothing Dawkins wrote gave me the remotest pause.

2.  TGD fails to connect with the audience it says it’s after.  I am supposed to be Dawkins’s target audience.  I am a believer but am open to the idea that I may be wrong.  In fact, I readily concede that I am sure to be wrong about many matters relating to faith and may well be wrong about it in the aggregate.  Yet Dawkins made no connection with me.  He seems to reject even the possibility that reasonable people of goodwill could find faith to be true, good and valuable.  He also doesn’t seem to comprehend why we might find it so.  TGD was quick to ridicule and debase both my beliefs and me, but it didn’t engage me.    

2.  TGD is lazy.  It read to me like it was transcribed from a series of talks without additional research and editing.  In fact, it seemed a lot like a freshman dorm conversation.  There is essentially no scholarship referenced and nothing is dealt with in depth.  I get that he was looking for a popular audience, but even the notes offered little of substance.  Doesn’t he realize that his constant claim that theology isn’t a proper subject because there is nothing to study isn’t an argument, but a tautology?  Yet he writes as if he has made a profound point.

3.  TGD is dishonest. TGD attacks accomodationists (though he doesn’t use that word) for not really getting it or getting after it in terms of what evolution really means.  But he also admits that Ken Miller is a particularly effective opponent of creationism precisely because he is a Christian.  Which is it?  Dawkins repeatedly cites statistics revealing that red states suffer higher rates of crime than do blue states, suggesting that religious people may be even less moral than atheists. But in response to the fact that the atheist Stalin committed horrific crimes against humanity, Dawkins says that we shouldn’t count heads and compare notes theist v. atheist.  Which is it? Dawkins’s key empirical claim is a related one.  Dawkins doesn’t just claim that religion is wrong, he claims that religion is a terrible thing overall.  He could be right.  Dawkins then tries to tally up the score.  He starts not by looking to what religion posits, but by what it has done.  Fair enough.  Sifting through data relating to this point is difficult and drawing even highly tenuous conclusions from it is extremely difficult, but let’s allow that to pass for now.  Dawkins repeatedly and dishonestly insists upon evaluating atheism differently.  He  insists upon comparing religion as practiced with atheism in theory, ignoring the difficult and complicated story of how atheism has worked historically.  It may be true, as Dawkins contends, that Stalin’s brutality may not have been motivated by his atheism — it surely isn’t the whole story.  But brutality by religious institutions may have motivations similarly divided or open to dispute as well.  The Inquisition may have been about politics as much as it was about religion, for example.  Dawkins ignores that.  In large measure, the 20th C. was an experiment in secularism, and the results were dreadful.  It’s understandable why Dawkins would want to ignore it.  But it’s dishonest if he insists on judging religion based upon practice alone. 

4.  TGD is incomplete.  Dawkins repeatedly proclaims that a universe where God exists would be very different from a godless one, making God a scientific hypothesis. Okay.  But if so, how would a godless universe be different and what experiments should we perform to verify God’s non-existence?  Dawkins never says.  Dawkins doesn’t address personal religious experience sufficiently (much less common religious experience), seeming to rely solely upon the obvious fact that we are often tricked.  Duh.  In any particular case, why should we determine that we were tricked?  Dawkins doesn’t say.  Does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?  If so, how does he account for the disparity with what they actually believe and why, for example, do the Gospels show Jesus weeping for the dead Lazarus right before He brings him forth from the dead?  Dawkins never says. 

5.  TGD is smug without warrant.  Dawkins seems especially proud of his argument that a God who could create a universe must be much more complicated than the universe and yet is impossible because complex beings can only appear via evolution (the “ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”).  Since time starts with the Big Bang, and since the universe came from somewhere without time (let’s call it eternity), it follows that standard probability rules can’t apply. With eternity in play, nothing can really be deemed unlikely. With respect to evolution, how could it occur without time to work in? 

6.  TGD is sadly anecdotal.  Dawkins disappoints by neglecting anything approaching serious science and relying upon anecdote to make his points.  He gives us a nurse who told him that believers fear death more than nonbelievers but offers no data to support the claim.  Good science writing uses anecdote to illustrate an argument.  TGD uses anecdote to make its arguments.

7.  TGD suffers from a failure of imagination.  Dawkins’s main criticism of those who oppose evolution is that they suffer from a failure of imagination. He suffers from that same failing with respect to religion.  The only religion he recognizes as legitimate is of the fundamentalist sort.  By failing to recognize legitimate faith as other than crude and monolithic, he skirts the challenges offered by other approaches to God.

8.  TGD is largely redundant.  Only the ultimate 747 gambit is remotely new, and even that isn’t very good.

9.  TGD is phoney.  Dawkins never even acknowledges, much less addresses Christianity (and it is essentially Christianity that he attacks) of the best sort.  I get that he’s interested in “real people/real beliefs” and not esoterica, but defeating Sarah Palin’s “arguments” doesn’t mean that Oakeshott is defeated.  At a minimum, Popper’s charity principle demands more.  Without addressing the best, all Dawkins can aspire to is to turn “our” morons into “your” morons — and that won’t do anybody much real good.  Similarly, Dawkins suggests (without quite asserting) that people of faith are mentally ill (via the carefully chosen “delusion” of the title, for example) and are child abusers.  These are phoney cheap shots that should have been beneath him.

Comments, questions and challenges are invited.


7 Responses to “It Didn’t Work for Me”

  1. My first impulse is to try to respond to the points, but I think a better thing to do is to actually not do that. You clearly get that Dawkins tries to reach the believer and has some points he things are important to get across.

    Let’s forget how he did it, in fact let’s largely forget the book.

    If you wrote such a book (if you could) or you would be in editorial correspondence with an author of such a book, how would it be written?

    There are the following simple starting points:
    1) The book should be describing lack of religion in a sensible light.
    2) The book should be describing the intersection of religion and and disbelief as well as science
    3) The book should describe the societal problems understood to be related to religions, or justified by religious beliefs.

    The goal is to have these points made effectively yet accessible?

    Questions to consider:
    *) Is there any way to talk about lack of religion without implying a criticism of religion that will repel believers?
    *) Is there any way to talk about societal problems linked to religion without the same repelling effect?
    *) Is there a way to describe religion on the disbeliever’s terms that will not be misunderstood by a believer?
    *) Does describing nonbelieve as a moral alternative imply a criticism of good aspects of religion?

    But I don’t want to be lazy. If you want me to address the points you raise I will. I won’t promise that I can do them all justice, because I actually don’t want to defend Dawkins or the book. Rather if I respond I’d give my reaction to your criticism and explain it from my perspective (how I read it, how I would do it, what the complications might etc).

  2. […] response to my writing about why I didn’t think The God Delusion was very good (here), Hitch asked how I — clearly part of the ideal target market for that kind of apologetic […]

  3. What exactly do you mean by “revelation, neuroscience and the problem of evil”?
    By revelation, I take it to mean God “showing” Himself to believers. Dawkins talks about this in his book.
    By neuroscience, I take it to mean scientific explanations for traditionally religiously framed thought processes. Dawkins touches on this in his book.
    There is a good size section on the problem of evil as well.

    So my question is: Am I just not understanding what you mean by these terms, did he not hit the right nerves when he talked about those subjects, or did your own cognitive bias prevent you from absorbing those subjects in his book?

    • I meant that those areas pose difficulties for me, but that Dawkins didn’t hit on the aspects I find troubling. I expected to find substantive challenges to me on a personal level in TGD and was surprised that I didn’t. With respect to my own biases — they are inescapable. I want to avoid them and actively try to minimize them. Reasonable people can differ on how successful I am at it both generally and in specific instances. That said, I clearly believe that reason need not require a single outcome in many of these (difficult) areas. Reasonable minds can and do differ. In my view, it’s a fundy attitude (in general) to insist that for some frequently contested set of facts, there is only one reasonable interpretation and that such interpretation is so clearly and unequivocally true that those who disagree aren’t merely wrong, they are inferior (evil, delusional, etc.) for thinking otherwise. I emphasize the “generally” because there are some issues upon which I think it is unreasonable to disagree (e.g., a 6,000 year-old earth). On the other hand (and again for example), I don’t think climate change is there yet, even though I think the evidence is clear. In that instance, I’d propose being active in fighting climate change not based upon the alleged undeniability of the science (even though I — as a non-expert — think it’s solid), but upon the relative consequences of being wrong.

      Maybe it’s all confirmation bias, but I actively try to avoid it as best as I am able.

      • I’m working on a series of posts right now that this conversation helped give birth to. I do find you to be a theist of a most peculiar type. I agree that there are some things for which we do not have a preponderance of evidence enough to critisize holding an opposing view. I do believe as well that having a personal god would be one of those views. Where I differ is not making the logical step to say we have enough evidence to discount a Christian God as described in the bible. I believe that we do in fact have such evidence.

        I also applaud you for having such an enlightened stance on AGW. I still hold to my assertion that the religious right’s fundamental issue with climate science is that they can smell blood in the water and would love nothing more than to have a perfect example of science being wrong on AGW, thus “proving” that they are also wrong on evolutionary biology. It is wishful thinking. The blood they smell is the chum of red herrings thrown out by the oil companies and other corporations designed to bait them into doing their dirty work. I fear they will find no feast at the end of the blood trail.

        I wish you would expand a bit more on your troubles with your religious belief. Perhaps you will find that others can do a better job than Dawkins, who certainly could not have read your mind while writing his book.

  4. […] has a couple posts up criticizing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  The original post is here followed by a follow-up post here stemming from an ongoing discussion with Hitch.   I really want […]

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