Categorized | Religion, Reviews

The Gospel According to St. Dawkins

DISCLAIMER: The following article expresses the views of the author (hgamboa) and does not necessarily represent the editorial position of www.filipinofreethinkers.org.

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Last night, after weeks (which felt like years) of screening and deleting the emails I get from the Pinoy Skeptics facebook group, I decided to participate in a discussion with a few folks there. When my friend John Paraiso invited and included me to join the FB group, I loved the idea and mandate of their FB page. But as soon as the FB page got established, I noticed that a lot of the posts there focused on god or religion bashing and I also noticed quite a few rabid self-professed atheists. It’s sad because that FB group could be a great group. The presence of a few rotten apples in the basket seemed to have tarnished the image of the group as I believe some folks have decided to leave the group (including myself).

Well, in my discussion, I recognized a Dawkinian flavor in statements made by some of the participants. I also noticed the use of a few Dawkinian favorite words such as “delusion” (from his book “The God Delusion”, which many atheists hold dearly as if it is some sort of bible). That is fine and dandy; however, what is it about Richard Dawkins and his work such as “The God Delusion” that seem to induce polemic with rabid atheists such as some folks at the Pinoy Skeptics FB page? I wonder.

In a forum I used to frequent, we discussed the (in)famous [depending on which side of the fence you are in] atheist-scientist, Richard Dawkins (RD) and his book – “The God Delusion”. I would like to share with my readers some comments I had with the book. Please note that my comments do not in anyway imply that I subscribe to the beliefs and mindset that RD attack. However, I would also like to point out that I also do not necessarily embrace everything that atheist saint Richard Dawkins says.

In the first chapter, page 18, of the book, Dawkins laid out his definitions of terminology on theist, deist, and pantheist. He referred to deism as a “watered-down theism” while pantheism as “sexed-up atheism”. Of course, with theism, he refers to the belief in the traditional supernatural deity who created everything and comes in from time to time to bend natural laws and interfere with human events. So, with respect to his definitions, I do see his point.

But I guess it boils down to what one means about theism and God. If God is reduced strictly to the word, then I guess I can see the point. But if we go beyond the word and go with the meaning behind the word, it may be a different case. Some may even say that an atheist is not really an atheist. When an atheist says that there is no God, he may mean that there is no God that he has grown up with – that God is not capable of being God for him. Theism defines God as an external being (a.k.a. Supreme Being), supernatural in power, dwelling above the sky, occasionally invading the world to split the Red Sea, to bless and answer prayers…and of course, to punish disobedient ingrates. Of course, with the advent of freethought and modern scholarship, God is now unemployed. He can no longer do what he once was thought he could do. No one needs this God anymore to explain tsunamis, hurricanes, diseases, etc. So if God is strictly captured in theism, which is the belief in this unemployed deity, then the atheist may be just saying that he doesn’t believe in this theistic God anymore.

Anyway, RD brought out a good point regarding nominal religionists who are qualified as atheists. In page 14, he points out:

“The present Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, told me that he goes to church as an ‘unbelieving Anglican… out of loyalty to the tribe’. He has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned… There are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews and observe Jewish rites, perhaps out of loyalty to an ancient tradition or to murdered relatives, but also of a confused and confusing willingness to label as ‘religion’ the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein.”

 

On page 18-19, RD says:

“There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like ‘God is subtle but he is not malicious’ or ‘He does not play dice’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic….Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense…Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: ‘To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense, I am religious’. In this sense I too am religious…”

 

Of course RD differentiated himself from Einstein with the reservation that “cannot grasp” does not have to mean “forever ungraspable”. RD doesn’t prefer to be called religious because he feels that the term is (destructively) misleading as according to him “religion” implies — “supernatural”.

I also do not think Dawkins is necessarily giving Einstein a “pass” because Einstein was such a hotshot. I think this is more of an emphasis of what RD feels of a belief that has a “Deserved Respect”, which is what the section is all about (pp. 11-19). He just gave Einstein as an example.

Further reading took me to what RD said on page 14. He said:

“An atheist…is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles — except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand”.

 

Granting that atheists (may) espouse the words above from RD, but are those words necessarily sound? At first glance, sure. Afterall, RD rightfully posits the improbability of God. The issue is probability, not certainty. The justification for one’s judgment is anchored from the point that observational evidence can never make a prediction or a generalization certain; it can however, gauge merely the ‘probability’. Now the question is – how probable?

RD seems to recognize only two options – 0% probability (blind faith) and 100% probability (from overwhelming empirical evidence). On page 48, he said:

“The view that I shall defend is very different: … Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability”.

 

This reminds me of RD’s lecture at the 1992 Edinburgh International Science Festival. This is how he ended the dismissal of the “God Hypothesis”.

“The alternative hypothesis, that it was all started by a supernatural creator, is not only superfluous, it is also highly improbable. It falls foul of the very argument that was originally put forward in its favour. This is because any God worthy of the name must have been a being of colossal intelligence, a supermind, an entity of extremely low probability–a very improbable being indeed…. Even if the postulation of such an entity explained anything (and we don’t need it to), it still wouldn’t help because it raises a bigger mystery than it solves.”

 

( For the more complete speech, please see: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Dawkins_Richard/NoNothings_Dawkins.html)

I’m just wondering… how improbable? What basis is this figure determined? RD says God is “an entity of extremely low probability”. How low? On the basis of what evidence is this probability determined? I’m not busting RD’s chops (nor his followers’) but I am just wondering how RD arrives at any figure. And when does probability determine whether or not something actually exists? He did say that he will be defending the “Either he exists or he doesn’t” view, did he not?

On page 47, RD describes Agnosticism as a “fence-sitting” position. He also wittingly dubbed it as PAP which stands for Permanent Agnosticism in Principle. The PAP style, RD says, is “appropriate for questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather, because the very idea of evidence is not applicable”. I feel that this is somewhat misleading. If the scientific method (through empirical evidence) can neither prove nor disprove the existence or nature of God, then either we abandon the question (something RD does not choose to do) or we answer it on other grounds. I think that the question on God’s existence or nature ought to be a matter of intellectual integrity in which all sides of the debate – whether atheist, theist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever, seek to offer the “best explanation” of the available evidence. This is basic philosophy of science. It is not going away just because RD chooses to ignore the other explanations or he doesn’t like the non-empirical (e.g. supernatural).

Sure, I am with RD when he rejects the notion of giving equal probability of being right regarding the hypothesis of God’s existence and non-existence. If the scientific method cannot settle an issue, it does not mean that all answers have to be regarded as equally valid, or that we abandon rationality in order to deal with them. Maybe this just means that we have to consider looking at a different level. If empirical evidence is not enough (or applicable) to determine the existence of a non-empirical, then a person has to infer its existence by different means of reasoning. Why can’t God be demonstrated to exist, at least in principle, in the same way? Perhaps the scientific method alone cannot ultimately determine the God question, even though it has a lot of important contributions to give to the debate.

Another thing that caught my attention is RD’s objection to what he sees as the disproportionate privileging of religion. I do recognize RD’s objection to this. I mean what is it about religion that also deserves a uniquely privileged respect? I think this is about attitude. Discrimination may be a product of people’s bias or even fears. People with a strongly held belief may tend to move Heaven and Earth to protect such beliefs if they feel threatened. Just like how the Church has treated scientists in the past that threatened their strongly held beliefs and just like the example of the cop who wouldn’t help the atheist activist in the story told by RD in his book.

But I do not think atheists (or non-religionists) are necessarily the only ones getting the unfair treatment.

Alister McGrath, from his book “Dawkins’ God” tells of the case of an Augustinian monk who, from 1856 – 1863, grew around 28,000 pea plants and observed how characteristics were transmitted from one generation to the next. His name was Gregor Mendel. Now, I think most of us here are familiar with Mendel’s contribution to genetics from our high school biology so I would skip the details of his experiments. Anyway, during that time, Charles Darwin was becoming a very popular figure. Darwin’s theory had considerable explanatory force which was recognized by many at the time, even those who were afraid about the implications of his ideas for the place of humanity within nature. Yet there was a problem with the theory. How did nature “remember” and “transmit” new developments in species? How could a rising generation “inherit” the traits of its predecessor? At that time, Darwin and his contemporaries believed that characteristics were “blended” when they were passed to the offspring. But if that were the case, then how could a single mutation be spread throughout the species? It would be diluted to the point of insignificance, like a drop of ink in a bucket of water. In Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis, variation would simply become diluted.

Now, Darwin’s theory for the mechanics of inheritance ( known as “pangenesis” ) was based on hypothetical “gemmules” – which are supposed to be small particles that somehow determine all characteristics of the organism. These “gemmules”, at that time, had never been observed; nevertheless, Darwin argued that it was necessary to propose their existence to make sense of the observational data he had. It was an ingenious solution; yet still lacking solid support. Through Mendel’s work, Darwin’s theory would (much) later get some solid support it needed. With that, adaptive mutations could spread slowly through a species and never be “blended out”. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, building on small mutations over long periods of time, suddenly became much more plausible.

Great story, eh? But it wasn’t all peaches and cream. Mendel’s studies were ignored not until 1900 when it was acknowledged and appreciated by Carl Correns et al. B.E.Bishop’s article: “Mendel’s Opposition to Evolution and to Darwin” (Journal of Heredity 87 [1996]: 205-13) offers an explanation why Mendel’s views were ignored. The article says that Mendel’s studies were seen to be in tension with Darwin’s ideas, which were rapidly being accepted as scientific orthodoxy at the time. There was hostility towards Mendel within some circles that some even questioned the reliability of his experiments. It was argued that Mendel’s studies would oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution and they questioned the reliability of Mendel’s studies given this personal agenda. I think this suggests that discrimination (or unfair treatment) is really more about human attitude and not necessarily because of religion.

Here’s another story.

In July 1954, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ordered an increased explicit commitment to atheism in its schools. Belief in God, at that time, had not yet been eliminated by argument or force. The only option seemed to be an indoctrination of the country’s children. Soviet schoolbooks repeatedly asserted the malevolence of religion and credos such as “The Marxist must be a materialist, i.e., an enemy of religion” flourished. For more information on this, please see:

http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/2002/2/022mail.html

and

http://www.uiowa.edu/~c16e051/porritt.doc

So, if RD’s arguments carry weight, can we conclude that atheism (or a non-religionist mindset) also had its share of unfair advantages? And would it be fair to say that such unfair advantages given are not necessarily specific to religion? Even if we widen the scope, not just about discrimination or unfair treatment, but atrocities and evil acts, are we to conclude that atheism (or a non-religionist mindset) is evil, immoral, given the case of the Soviets? No! Of course not! As McGrath says: “The institutional abuse of an idea does not discredit it, whether we are talking about atheism, theism, or democracy.” But I am somehow astonished that RD does not seem to care about this.

Going back to my discussion at the Pinoy Skeptics FB group, there was this participant who was pontificating on the superiority of science. That is fine and dandy but does this necessarily mean that science should be the ultimate determinant of truth? On page 66 of “The God Delusion” a reference to Eugenie Scott on page 66 can be seen. Scott, as RD describes, is an activist of science and is the big cheese of the National Center for Science and Education. Anyway, in an article Scott wrote from the NCSE website, a demarcation problem in distinguishing which is science and which is pseudoscience is recognized. Here is an excerpt of the article:

“First, science is an attempt to explain the natural world in terms of natural processes, not supernatural ones. This principle is sometimes referred to as methodological naturalism. In time, a consensus of how some aspect of nature works or came about is arrived at through testing alternate explanations against the natural world. Through this process, the potential exists to arrive at a truly objective understanding of how the world works.”

 

(For the complete article, please refer to: http://ncse.com/rncse/23/1/my-favorite-pseudoscience )

Now, this makes me wonder again (as I have wondered about this before) about making the distinction between science and pseudoscience. Is there a science that is responsible for making this distinction? Which science is tasked to know what science is and what pseudoscience is and differentiating the two and providing the criteria for doing so? (e.g. Physics? Biology? Chemistry? Psychology?)

Professor Steven Schafersman, in his article from: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/schafersman_nat.html said:

“Naturalism is, ironically, a controversial philosophy. Our modern civilization depends totally for its existence and future survival on the methods and fruits of science, naturalism is the philosophy that science created and that science now follows with such success, yet the great majority of humans (at least 90% of the U.S. population) believe in the antithesis of naturalism–supernaturalism.”

 

Naturalism, as Schafersman tells, is a philosophy, and the opposite of naturalism is supernaturalism (which is also a philosophy). Granting that science is the ultimate determinant of truth, going back to Scott’s article, if there is no science to distinguish science (materialism and/or naturalism, whichever side you are in) from pseudoscience (supernaturalism) then how are we to make a judgment call on the two? I think, as rational individuals as we claim to be, such questions can be a very humbling question to ponder on. When we talk about metaphysics and spiritual issues, and think of them as useless, non-sense, and illogical, we may have to think twice.

Moving on with RD’s book, after RD gave his objections to the privileging of religion, he went on to attack the God Hypothesis. The very first words on that next chapter are:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction…”

 

He then supported his assertion with a whole series of derogatory adjectives from parts of the Old Testament. But he doesn’t mention the compassionate love of God in Hosea, the justice of God in Amos, the tenderness of God in the twenty third Psalm, the suffering servant in Isaiah.

The New Testament was not given some slack either. Dawkins asserts that the doctrine of atonement is a “vicious, sado-masochistic repellent, barking mad”. However, he shows minimal thought on the life and teachings of Jesus nor with Christian understanding of the death and resurrection. Sure, I am not a fan of the Christian theology of atonement either, but RD should have at least looked at why Christians live by the theology of atonement by looking at its Jewish roots (Yom Kippur).

Then RD goes on to attack the many failures of religious people. The fundamentalists, the foolish experiments of believers, and so on and so forth. Nothing really new there and I do recognize he is just making a point. However, RD seems to overlook the good contributions of religious people in the world and the harm perpetrated by atheist regimes.

In the third chapter, RD gives us a survey of arguments for the existence of God. For those who are not familiar with the counter-arguments, I’m sure they will find RD’s rebuttals to be spectacular. But for those who are familiar with them, there is nothing new. I do not have any major objections for chapter 3. For me, I think RD gave a nice rehash of the counter-arguments on the issue of God’s existence. I give him two thumbs up for sending the message that the arguments by theists (the ones he gave out as examples) do not prove anything. But then again, a theist may ask, who says these should be about proving God (as if it were all that possible)? A theist may say that the value is not in proving God but in exploring the rational implications of faith in terms of our experience of causality, beauty, purpose, morality, and so on. I think believers of RD may need to think about that should theists decide to throw them that curve ball.

On page 79, RD says that the mature Darwin blew William Paley’s Natural Theology out of the water. Well, I think RD maybe getting carried away with giving Charles Darwin too much credit. The theology has already been rejected by many leading theologians during that time (before the time of the mature Darwin), such as John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Sometimes, I think RD and his fanatical legion (who may very well be Charles Darwin worshippers as well) just get too carried away with their anti-religious rhetoric, as seen in RD’s book and posts in web pages such as the Pinoy Skeptics FB page.

 
DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.

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