I keep losing my personal heroes.
Richard Dawkins is one of the century’s great evolutionary theorists and someone whose work I really admire. His work revolutionized the way scientists thought about evolutionary theory. I think I can safely say that I have read everything that the man has written in every major forum. So, as an atheist myself, I looked forward to Dawkins weighing in on the subject of religion, from the perspective of an evolutionary theorist, in his new book, “The God Delusion”.
This weekend I made it to my local bookstore, grabbed a copy of the “The God Delusion” and sat down with a cup of coffee to read it immediately — even before buying it. Imagine my shock and even horror to discover that Dawkins’ book is trite, facile and just plain, well, dumb.
I read about half of the book, skipping to the parts I thought would hold the most interest and pursuing the index (something I always do with new books). In the end I put it back on the shelf. I couldn’t bring myself to plunk down $30 for such low-quality work. It has the distinction of being the first Dawkins book I will probably never own. Granted, I had heard podcasts about the book and seen some supposed excerpts that raised my eyebrows, but I assumed that, in the manner of such things, those snippets represented the “village atheist” view that did not capture the nuance and sophistication of Dawkins’ work. Unfortunately, those previews did capture the essence of the work. If anything it’s even worse than they suggest.
The entire scope of the facileness of the book will take several posts to address, but the most immediate flaw in the book is Dawkins’ uncritical acceptance of the idea that religion causes people to systematically make worse, i.e., less-humane or -accurate, decisions than does an atheistic worldview. I’ll tackle this argument first because it has long annoyed me, because empirically it isn’t true, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of history can discern the real pattern.
Atheists reflexively repeat the mantra that religion causes oppression, war and general cruelty of all kinds, while asserting or implying that atheism does not. Dawkins falls right into this mindless argument in the opening paragraphs of the book and never lets up. (Reading someone like Dawkins making such a pompous, counterfactual argument is like chewing glass.)
This particular fallacy arises from three sources: (1) attributing every bad decision in the distant past to religion, (2) ignoring all of the bad decisions made by atheists in the recent past and (3) ignoring all of the good decisions that religious people made in the recent past.
Laying all bad decisions of the distant past at the feet of religion comes from projecting a wholly modern western cosmology onto pre-modern cultures everywhere. Until the Elizabethan Sir Roger Bacon (not the monk, the other one), nobody, anywhere, divided the cosmos into our contemporary conception of natural and supernatural. Up until that point, everyone, everywhere, thought the cosmos was governed by supernatural personalities or forces whose actions depended in whole or in part on the moral choices of human beings. Bacon’s key insight, (itself based in theology) that the material world functioned automatically, without continuous supernatural intervention, made a scientific study of the cosmos conceptually possible. Even so, it would be nearly 200 years later, during the time of the American and French revolutions, before such a world view developed real political import.
Until that time, everyone thought about all decisions in what we would today call supernatural terms. In truth, it is better to say that people then lacked our modern conception of the natural. They saw a chaotic and random world that appeared to follow no rules or inherent order. In one of his books, Carl Sagan (another fallen idol of mine) showed how an East Indian oral poem, that told how to create a poultice for an infected tooth, began and ended with a description of the poultice recipe’s relationship to the Hindu gods and the cosmos in general. In such a cultural milieu, everybody, everywhere, justified their actions, good or bad, in terms we would call religious.
This leads to a form of confirmation bias on the part of atheists. They look into the distant past, see some actions we disapprove of in the modern world, notice that the people who chose the actions had a religious world view, and conclude that the religious world view caused the problem. However, since everybody in the distant past had a religious world view, and no significant decision makers until the very recent past had an atheistic world view, the fact that decision makers in the past were religious tells us about as much about them as the fact that they all breathed oxygen.
Atheists like to single out both the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition as examples of inhumanity that occurred because of religion. (The very fact that we atheists feel compelled to reach back 400-800 years for our kneejerk examples of bad religious behavior should set off warning bells.) Yet both events had significant materialistic or practical drivers that would have created much the same events without any religion being involved. The Crusades arose as a counterattack against the Muslim military expansion that had consumed half of the Christian world. Had the United Atheist League conquered half the lands of the League of United Atheists the same dynamic would have applied. Contrary to many people’s view, no atrocities occurred during the Crusades that hadn’t occurred when Christians fought Christians or Muslims fought Muslims. The massacres of the inhabitants of cities that so occupy the modern mind did not arise out of religious bigotry but from the established rules of medieval siege warfare. Cities taken by storm were put to the sack. The Crusaders established Christian kingdoms in the Middle East that lasted nearly two centuries. Those kingdoms were 98% Muslim with a Christian nobility. The Christians didn’t try to exterminate those populations based on religion.
Likewise, the Spanish Inquisition sprang from the very secular needs for political control and money. The purpose of the Inquisition was to create legal and cultural justifications for the seizures of vast amounts of wealth from those accused. The religious aspects of the persecution were just a gloss, as in every other action taken during that time. In modern times, atheistic communists carried out nearly identical actions for nearly identical reasons. (The most strange thing about our view of the Spanish Inquisition is that we regard it with special horror even though the use of torture for both investigation and punishment was a universal standard at the time. What so shocked the contemporaries of the Inquisition was not the fact that it tortured people. Every police power of the time tortured people. What shocked the contemporaries was the class of people who got tortured. Mutilating peasants didn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows, mutilating the rich and noble did.)
Dawkins simply repeats the shallow and ahistorical version of history that any hip 19-year-old college freshman can regurgitate on cue. If Dawkins had approached the question from an empirical point of view, he would have readily determined that evidence for the degree to which religion does or does not promote inhumane decisions can only be found in the history of the last 300 years or so. Only during that time frame have atheistic ideologies gained any significant power to actually make good or bad decisions. Unfortunately for atheists, recent history shows that the more atheistic a political ideology, the more destruction it wreaks when it acquires power. The first true atheistic regime in history arose during the 1792 French revolution, which promptly consumed itself in the Great Terror. Atheistic communism next assumed power, and it killed 120 million people over 80 years, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation more than once. Mussolini was an atheist and the Nazis, who held a diverse mixture of atheistic, deistic and pagan beliefs, were united only by their antipathy towards traditional religion. National Socialism as an ideology was rigorously secular and justified its killings with appeals to a materialistic pseudo-science. Dawkins spends about 4 pages (what about Hitler and Stalin? weren’t they atheists? — p. 291) before concluding that atheism played no part in their crimes. (He comes so close to understanding why atheists go so wrong by observing that atheism didn’t cause them to commit their crimes. More on that later.)
Dawkins tries to lay claim to the American Constitution as an example of a successful atheistic experiment but again he falls into ahistorical stereotypes. The cosmology behind the American Constitution is quite definitely a theistic cosmology in the Baconian model. The founders believed that men could govern themselves because God had created an orderly and lawful natural world. Their government of the people logically precluded divinely-selected political leaders. If political power alone arose from the bottom up, by the conscious selection of men by other men, how could politicians claim to act from divine authority? The extensive writings of the founders show that they envisioned a society of theistic individuals cooperating to create a secular government. The idea that the founders were all a bunch of closet atheists is just silly, and they would have been horrified at the idea. More important, the Founders did not deliver the Constitution complete from on high. It was widely and publicly debated in all of the states and amended before adoption. Even if many of the founders had themselves been covert atheists, the people who actually voted for the Constitution, and turned it from a collection of suggestions into functioning law, certainly were not.
Moreover, Dawkins doesn’t appear to spend any time considering the positive role that religion has played in the last two-hundred years. I checked the index under “slavery” and found only three references, all of them complaining that religious people had not, throughout the history of mankind, always opposed slavery. Well, duh! Strangely, missing from Dawkins’ analysis is any mention of the role that Christian fervor played in virtually wiping out slavery worldwide. Indeed, slavery went from being a human universal to virtual extinction due to the efforts of individuals whom many people today regard as the trifecta of evil: Christian, capitalistic, white males.
Dawkins spends a great deal of time damning religion, but spends very little time highlighting the real-world positive effects of an atheistic world view. That is because, beyond the sciences, atheists really don’t have anything to crow about. The modern welfare-states that many atheistic democratic socialists are so proud of were actually voted into place by people who we can safely group under the description, Christian socialist. Appeals to the ideals of Christian charity, not secular socialism, sold those programs. How about the sexual revolution? The social and political debates over the sexual revolution pitted secular and often atheistic ideas against traditional religiously based morality. Yet only a historical fluke — the HIV virus attaches to T-cells using the same protein hook as the Black Death bacillus — prevented AIDS from killing not “just” hundreds of thousands in the developed world but millions. If so many in the developed world did not descend from survivors of the Black Death, the sexual revolution would have been the greatest cultural disaster of all times. We still don’t know whether the long term effects on family structure and child rearing will be a net positive or negative. The early indications do not look good.
Like Dawkins, I am troubled by the resurgence of the supernatural in the modern world. I worry not only about the resurgence of traditional religions but also the rapid spread of creepy new supernatural fads, like various “new age” practices, psychic powers, Feng Shui, Wicca, Kabbalah and Gaia worship. I am terrified that people who believe in magic water of various kinds have as much say on matters such as nuclear weapons as I do. After nearly three centuries of nearly unbroken progress towards a secular world mediated by reason and experimentation, we seem to have slowed or even reversed the progression.
Unlike Dawkins, however, I don’t shrug my shoulders in bewilderment and conclude that the reason for the decline of the atheistic world view lies in the inherent stupidity of non-atheists. I understand bitterly that atheist over promised, under delivered and spawned horrific monsters that nearly destroyed humanity. I know that the history of the Twentieth Century is dominated by smug atheists causing trainwreck after trainwreck without ever accepting any responsibility.
“The God Delusion” is a trite, shallow unimaginative book. It is not intended to evangelize to non-atheists, but instead preaches to the choir by vomiting out all of the conceits and prejudices that atheists hold in common. As a defense of the atheistic world view it is a pathetic failure. Coming from one of the century’s great scientific minds, it’s just sad.