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Thu, 27 Oct 2011

An Interesting Article on the New Atheism

Michael Antony has a very interesting article on the New Atheism in the April/May 2010 issue of Philosophy Now magazine. Antony clearly points out some of the serious flaws in the New Atheists' main line of argument.

Antony's article should be of interest to anyone concerned with the New Atheism. It is especially interesting to those of us who embrace a rational approach to knowledge, but who find the New Atheism to be irrational.

posted at: 23:50 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Is Faith Good or Evil? It's Not a Simple Question

Are religious believers right when they claim that faith is an important virtue? Or are the New Atheists right when they claim that faith is dangerous and bad for society? The truth is more complicated than either side realizes! I've posted a document on this topic. Here is the link.

(In case you're wondering whether I personally believe anything on faith, read the later part of the document - the part where I talk about philosophical positions that do not make use of faith. I give away the answer somewhere in there.)

posted at: 23:24 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Sat, 18 Jun 2011

Dawkins and Scientism: Exploring the Connections

In this blog I have written a lot about Richard Dawkins' atheism ("The Anti-Dawkins Papers" plus other posts in the atheism category). However, there is one important question about Dawkins that I've never fully addressed. Does Dawkins' position in The God Delusion amount to "scientism" - the attitude that science is the only legitimate way of knowing the truth, or at least is far superior to other ways of knowing the truth?

If you read The God Delusion carefully, you cannot help feeling that Dawkins is preaching scientism. Dawkins doesn't seem to think that nonscientific ways of knowing have much importance to our understanding of the nature of reality. He even tries to reduce the question of the existence of God - a philosophically loaded problem with many conceptual complexities - to a problem that can be settled by science alone [1]. He does acknowledge at least one nonscientific way of knowing: he mentions philosophy, and especially moral philosophy, in a positive way [2]. However, his worldview clearly is driven by one way of knowing: science.

You don't have to go by general impressions like these to recognize that The God Delusion promotes scientism. Here are some examples that reveal Dawkins' scientistic view of things. (Note that I said "scientistic," not "scientific.")

First, there is his discussion of philosophical naturalism near the beginning of the book [3]. Not all of the beliefs he attributes to naturalists are necessary for naturalism. He describes a materialistic or physicalistic view of the mind and takes it to be part of naturalism. In reality, you don't have to embrace this view to be a philosophical naturalist. Instead, you could adopt another view of mind, such as neutral monism or a double-aspect theory, and still be a naturalist. (That is exacly what Spinoza did [4].) However, Dawkins ignores these other possibilities. He adopts the view of mind that we would end up with if science alone could solve the mind-body problem. The other possibilities raised by philosophical analysis (a nonscientific way of knowing) just get ignored. This is a scientistic move if there ever was one.

Second, consider the main argument in The God Delusion. This is the "argument from improbability" set forth in chapter 4. I've already exposed the mistakes in this argument elsewhere (see this paper). Here I'll just point out that the main mistake is a glaring example of scientism. What is this mistake? It's the attempt to make an estimate of probability on a hypothetical entity that is defined in advance to be supernatural. Probability estimates for complex systems depend on the laws of nature (read this paper for details and examples). Once we define God as supernatural, we cannot safely assume that if there were a God then the usual laws of nature would apply to God. (If all the laws of nature did apply to God, then we could understand God as part of the framework of nature, so God wouldn't count as supernatural.) But this serious conceptual problem doesn't stop Dawkins. He goes ahead and applies an argument based on the laws of nature to a conjectured being defined, in advance, so that the laws need not apply to it. Nice trick if you can do it!

Note that I am not claiming there is a supernatural God - though probably some angry Dawkins-heads will accuse me of claiming this, just because I disagree with Dawkins about something. I don't even claim that such a being is probable. (Follow these links for my opinions on theism and the supernatural.) I'm just pointing out a feature of one of Dawkins' arguments. The implicit, underlying logic of that argument seems to be something like this: God (if there were one) would be supernatural; but natural laws would apply to God anyhow, because, well, they're science; therefore, we can go ahead and apply natural laws to that blatantly nonnatural being without any worries. If that isn't scientism, then what is it?

Third, when Dawkins defines "God" [5], he brushes aside the philosophical conceptions of God that are scientifically untestable. He leaves us with only a supernaturalistic conception (an easy target for scientific skepticism) and a simple sort of pantheism that he can easily absorb into atheism. I dealt with this stunning omission at length in the first Anti-Dawkins Paper (follow this link for the details). Dawkins claims that the existence of God is a scientific problem [6], but he is able to make this claim only because he has done some serious cherrypicking, leaving out the ideas of God that are not scientifically testable. Again, if this isn't scientism, what is it?

Fourth, in one spot Dawkins bitterly criticizes the idea that "other ways of knowing besides the scientific" might be relevant to the God question [7]. Can that leave any doubt about the role of scientism in his position?

Fifth, in his discussion of dualism, Dawkins describes monism in a way that clearly restricts it to materialistic monism [8]. He doesn't even bother about monism in general, which includes not only materialism, but also viewpoints like double-aspect monism and neutral monism. In effect, he dismisses all forms of monism except the most scientific-seeming one - the one that requires almost no philosophical reflection. He equates monism to that single form of monism. This is another splendid example of scientistic bias.

Followers of Dawkins will, no doubt, point out passages in Dawkins' book where he seems to disagree with scientism. To preempt the most obvious rebuttal of this sort, I will point out the best example of such a passage. In Chapter 4, during a discussion of the improbability of God, Dawkins writes "I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking." [9] I am confident that Dawkins was sincere when he wrote that statement - but how can the statement possibly be correct, in view of what he says elsewhere about naturalism, improbability, monism, ways of knowing, and the definition of God? True, his position isn't an exceptionless scientism - he mentions some forms of philosophy favorably - but his position still is both narrow and scientistic. His anti-scientistic remark seems silly when you consider what's in other parts of the book.

Dawkins' position in The God Delusion amounts to a form of scientism. It is not scientism of the absolute sort that disallows all nonscientific knowledge, but it is scientism nonetheless, even if it allows some wiggle room for other ways of knowing.




References to The God Delusion (TGD) refer to the following edition: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

[1] TGD, especially chapter 4. See also p. 55.

[2] See for example chapter 6.

[3] TGD, pp. 13-14.

[4] If you have any doubt that Spinoza's naturalistic worldview is more than just physicalistic, read Will Durant's chapter on Spinoza in Durant's book The Story of Philosophy (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1953).

[5] In TGD, chapters 1 and 2; see especially pp. 12-13, 18-19, and 31.

[6] TGD, especially chapter 4. See also p. 55.

[7] TGD, p. 154.

[8] TGD, pp. 179-180.

[9] TGD, p. 155.


Post edited slightly 7/5/2011.


posted at: 03:59 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 02 Mar 2011

Some Closing Remarks on "The Anti-Dawkins Papers"

This post is a follow-up to "The Anti-Dawkins Papers," my critique of Richard Dawkins' atheistic book The God Delusion.

"The Anti-Dawkins Papers" are now complete, but I still have more to say about Dawkins' ideas. There are more flaws in Dawkins' line of argument than the few points I covered in the "Papers." I have continued my critique of Dawkins in the atheism category. (The "Papers" form a subcategory of that category.) Also, I've updated the "Papers" a bit in response to some readers' objections to them. (See Paper 11.) The objections I have seen so far have been easy to rebut.

(Note added later: In the time since I finished "The Anti-Dawkins Papers," several criticisms of the "Papers" have appeared on the web. I am replying to these criticisms on a separate page. So far I have been able to rebut all the criticisms. Also, some fans of Dawkins have made false statements about my academic background. I am countering these falsehoods by providing the facts about my background on yet another separate page.)

The atheism category has gotten quite long, so some of the older posts have dropped off the bottom of the main atheism page. The dated links in the left sidebar will take you to the earlier posts.

If you are interested in my views on religion in general, you might want to read the religion category of this blog, which includes the atheism category as a part. Also, you might want to read my other blog, which deals with my own view of religion. Those who think I am a theist or an atheist (and I've been called both) might be surprised to find out where I really stand.

You might be wondering what I think of other New Atheist authors besides Dawkins. With one exception, I haven't addressed those authors specifically (though I might say more in the future - no definite plans yet). Instead, I have concentrated on Dawkins because he seems to have done the most thorough job of pushing the New Atheist agenda. If you know how to debunk Dawkins' arguments, you will know how to debunk many other New Atheists' arguments too.

Some people claim that because I don't like Dawkins' book, I must be a theist pushing a religious agenda. Am I a theist? To find out, follow this link - and then explore my two blogs. To find out whether "The Anti-Dawkins Papers" have a religious agenda, consider this quote from the last of the "Papers":

"Belief in God remains a reasonable option for thinking people; so do atheism and agnosticism."

When I wrote "The Anti-Dawkins Papers," I was not trying to prove a particular religious viewpoint. Instead, I was trying to show that The God Delusion fails to settle the question of the existence of God. That much I have shown.


Updated 7/21/2011

posted at: 23:51 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 08 Apr 2010

A Final Word on Leprechology and the Courtier's Reply

Recently I wrote two posts debunking two arguments by atheists: Richard Dawkins' comparison of theology to leprechology, and PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply" argument. I showed that these two arguments are logically unsound regardless of whether God exists. (The same goes for other versions of the leprechology comparison, using fairies, monsters, and the like instead of leprechauns.) In my posts (here and here), I analyzed those arguments at length and in great detail, with a logician's eye. I included a lot of detail because I wanted to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with those arguments.

However, you don't need that much detail, or that many words, to see that the two arguments in question are wrong. All you need is some logic. With the leprechology remark and the Courtier's Reply, Dawkins and Myers are pulling a cheap and very old debating trick: refusing to listen to your opponent's arguments.

It's clear why some of Dawkins' opponents want him to study theology. His opponents think that specific theological teachings and writings contain ideas that undermine Dawkins' arguments. By telling Dawkins to consider some theological points, his opponents are making rebuttals to Dawkins' position - rebuttals that take the form, not of brand new arguments, but of arguments and ideas that already are in the literature.

Instead of hearing these rebuttals and demolishing them, Dawkins simply claims he doesn't need to understand them. This is, in effect, what he is doing when he says he doesn't need to learn theology. He is ignoring these rebuttals instead of showing why they are wrong.

I'm not talking about rebuttals that don't need further attention - like when creationists bring up the same old shallow arguments against evolution. The answer to such repetitive arguments is simple: just say something like "I've already addressed that objection in my writings." These particular objections based on theology aren't like that. They are new objections - ones that Dawkins never addressed in the past. (Obviously he didn't, or he wouldn't be claiming that he doesn't have to understand them.)

In the past, Dawkins has done a splendid job of debunking objections to evolution. In that case, he didn't ignore the rebuttals to his position - he destroyed them. He also has tried to answer many objections to his atheism. Why can't he just do the same thing again, this time with the rebuttals he's currently ignoring? Why doesn't he just understand and refute them? By failing to do this, he leaves atheists and believers alike wondering whether he can refute these objections. He undermines his credibility severely.

You can't settle any debate by plugging your ears and singing to drown out your opponent's arguments. That is what Dawkins is trying, in effect, to do.

That's what Dawkins' avoidance of theology amounts to. The problem is not his disbelief in the theological writings. (As an atheist, he's certainly entitled to disbelieve them.) The problem is that his opponents have offered rebuttals to his arguments - rebuttals that happen to make reference to technical ideas in the theological writings. By deliberately shunning those writings, he is refusing to answer the rebuttals. For all practical purposes, he has resigned from the debate.

From his leprechology remark and similar statements, we can guess what Dawkins presumably has in mind when he handwaves away theology. Since he doesn't believe there is a God, he finds it unnecessary to read books that assume there is a God or that purport to describe God. This reaction seems reasonable from an atheist - until you think about it. Actually, the nonexistence of God wouldn't reduce the need for Dawkins to take theology into account. The reason Dawkins needs to learn some theology is not that God exists or that theology is true. The reason is that his opponents are offering counterarguments to his position - and to grasp those counterarguments, he needs to learn a few ideas from theology. To refuse to answer those counterarguments is to give up the debate. Yet this is what Dawkins is doing by claiming that theology is irrelevant.

He might as well just plug his ears and sing.

Someone might argue that we can debunk God without knowing theology, on the grounds that God is a supernatural creator and any kind of supernatural creator is implausible. Perhaps this is what Dawkins was thinking when he chose to ignore theology. However, this argument doesn't help Dawkins in the least. Most religions teach that God is a supernatural creator - but that isn't their definition of God, or even the most important part of their idea of God. Most religions regard God first of all as a supremely good or perfect being, or as the most complete or all-encompassing possible being. This means that if the supernatural creator were debunked, the religions (except for the fundamentalist sects) could consistently go on believing in God! If the religions had to drop the belief that God is literally a supernatural creator, they still could believe in a supreme being. They would have to change some of their doctrines, but the most important part of their idea of God would survive. No doubt this change would come as a shock to many believers. However, the believers could go on worshipping God just like before. In fact, some believers seem to have made this change already. One sometimes meets Christians who believe that the universe probably had natural causes, but that the event of creation nevertheless reflects the glory of God. Most religions teach that God is a supernatural creator - but a "God" defined as supernatural creator, and as that alone, has little to do with the God of religion.

Also, there are philosophical ideas of God that don't involve a supernatural creator in the first place. (I don't only mean a poetical pantheism that relabels the physical universe as God. I mean alternative concepts of a real supreme being.) I've written about these elsewhere (here, here and here, for example), so I won't repeat them all here.

By defining God as a supernatural creator and ignoring other parts of the idea of God, Dawkins has created a God concept that is almost useless for him to debunk. At most, he's proving that God, if there is one, is not a supernatural creator. Even if he were right about that, it would not imply that there is no God. How could he fix his argument? Use a definition of God closer to the ones the religions really use. And to find out what they use, he would have to study a little bit of (gasp!) theology.

Needless to say, none of what I have written here is an argument for the existence of God or against atheism. You can be an atheist and still recognize that leprechology-type arguments and the Courtier's Reply are bunk. I have only shown that these two particular lines of argument are useless. In view of the popularity of those arguments among Dawkins' followers, this may be an important point to make.

Richard, stop playing with the leprechauns and hit those books!

posted at: 00:28 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 02 Apr 2010

The Courtier's Reply Exposed: Why Dawkins Still Needs Theology

Critics of Richard Dawkins' atheism sometimes claim that Dawkins should pay more attention to theology in his arguments against God. I've already written about this criticism in an earlier post, where I showed why the critics are right. The reason they are right doesn't depend on whether theology is true or whether there is a God. The reason is that theological writings, whether right or wrong, tell us what religions mean by the word "God." You can't debunk God rationally if you don't bother to learn what the word "God" means. To debunk the God of a religion, you have to at least know what believers in that religion mean by "God." If you don't know that, then you don't even know what kind of being you are trying to debunk. In the worst case, you might not even know what kind of evidence counts as evidence for that being. Your knowledge of science won't necessarily help you out of this quagmire, because when you argue against God you really won't know what you are talking about. This is the case regardless of whether there's any truth to theology. Atheists have to face this fact just as much as believers do. For further details, read my earlier post.

The claim that Dawkins needs to consider theology boils down to the claim that you can't debunk something unless you know what that "something" is. In other words, you should know what you're talking about before arguing against it. This standard seems reasonable - but it didn't stop Dawkins. Nor did it stop his fellow atheist PZ Myers from inventing the "Courtier's Reply." [1]

The Courtier's Reply is a takeoff (pun intended) on the well-known story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" from the writings of Hans Christian Andersen. In the original story, a boy notices and says that the Emperor is naked, even though almost everyone else believes (or pretends to believe) that the Emperor is dressed in invisible clothes. In the Courtier's Reply, an imperial courtier says that Dawkins shouldn't call the Emperor naked without first studying complicated writings about the Emperor's wardrobe. The main point of the Courtier's Reply is that you don't need to study detailed writings or doctrines about something unreal (the Emperor's clothes, or in Myers' opinion, God) to decide that it's unreal.

Judging by the internet traffic, the Courtier's Reply seems to have impressed a lot of Dawkins' camp followers. However, if you actually think about Myers' argument instead of just believing it, you find that it's a hopelessly bad argument. I've already said what's wrong with it in my earlier post. Here I'm going to analyze Myers' argument at length and in gory detail - enough detail to show exactly how the trick is done.

First a bit of terminology. From now on I'll call Myers' story about what the courtier said the "Courtier's Reply." I'll call Myers' argument against Dawkins' critics, based on the Courtier's Reply story [1], the "Courtier's Reply argument."

The Courtier's Reply argument depends on an analogy between two assertions:

  1. The assertion, made by critics of Dawkins, that you need to read up on theology before you can decide rationally whether God exists.
  2. The assertion, made by Myers' fictional courtier, that you need to read up on the Emperor's clothes before deciding whether the clothes exist.

The second assertion obviously is false. The boy in the story can decide whether the Emperor has clothes without referring to any detailed writings about the alleged clothes. The Courtier's Reply argument suggests that one can decide about the existence of God the same way - without absorbing any detailed writings about God.

The analogy between the two assertions is extremely weak. Why? Because the two decisions involved - deciding whether the Emperor's clothes exist, and deciding whether God exists - require background knowledge of very different kinds.

To see what this means and why it's important, consider the following four points about the decision that the Emperor has no clothes.

  1. The required decision is about the existence of the Emperor's supposed clothes.
  2. To decide whether the Emperor has clothes, you need some knowledge. The first thing you need to know is what clothes are - or in other words, what the word "clothes" means. If you don't have a clear idea of what clothes are, then you can't decide with confidence that the Emperor has them or doesn't have them. For example, what would happen if the boy in the story thought "clothes" meant "pigtails," and the Emperor was naked but had pigtails? The boy would conclude that the Emperor has clothes - but that conclusion would be wrong. In general, you can't decide rationally whether something exists (or whether there is evidence for something) unless you know what that "something" is. You need to know what entity it is that you're trying to decide about.
  3. For most of us, including the boy in the original story, this need for background knowledge is not an obstacle. Why? Because we already know what clothes are! We have a working knowledge of clothes that lets us tell whether someone is wearing them. We acquired that knowledge from the culture in which we grew up. Even without an exact definition, we know well enough what the word "clothes" means.
  4. If you know what clothes are, it's easy to figure out how to detect clothes on a person. If you look at a person's body (or touch it if necessary) and find no clothes there, then you can safely assume that the person does not have clothes on. We can assume this because clothes, whatever else they might be, are physical objects that cover parts of the body.

Now consider what happens when we change these four points by replacing the Emperor's clothes with God.

  1. The required decision is about the existence of a supposed being known as God.
  2. To tell whether God exists, you need some background knowledge. The first thing you need to know is what the word "God" means. Once again, you have to know what something is supposed to be before you can decide whether it exists. Just as with the word "clothes," if you don't have a clear idea what "God" means then you can't decide rationally that there is, or is not, such an item as God.

    So far, the decision about God seems to work the same way as the decision about the Emperor's clothes. But...
  3. Point 3 is where the analogy falls apart. Here's the problem. Practically everyone has a very good idea of what clothes are - but most people do not have a very clear idea of what the word "God" means in the world's religious teachings. Whether we believe or disbelieve, most of us have an idea or mental picture of God that doesn't reflect what the word "God" actually means in religious thought. The mental picture of God that some of us picked up in church doesn't give us the whole story. This limitation affects believers and unbelievers alike - and even those fanatics who claim to know all about God. I'll say more about this in a moment.
  4. For point 4, the analogy falls apart again. Even if we knew what God was supposed to be, we might not know automatically how to determine whether there is a God. For all we know, God might be much harder to detect than are clothes. (The idea that something important might be hard to detect is not silly. Some physical particles and forces are very hard to detect. In mathematics, you can't prove a theorem by "detecting" anything; there are other ways to know whether a theorem is right.) In this respect also, God is not like clothes.

Point 3 about God is the most important point, and also perhaps the most surprising. This point needs some explaining. It isn't nearly as radical as it sounds. I'm not claiming that most people lack an idea of God. Needless to say, most people have a concept or mental picture of God, and can explain to you what they mean by the word "God." However, an individual person's mental picture of God usually is not the same as what that person's religious tradition, or any other tradition, means by the word "God." I've already explained this in my earlier post, so I won't repeat it all here.

What's the upshot of all this? Here it is: To understand what the word "God" means to real people (not only yourself but others too), you probably have to learn something that isn't part of your present knowledge. It isn't enough to take the mental picture of God you picked up in Sunday school and run with it. If you're like most people (even scientists), you have to learn something new. You need to learn ideas that you don't pick up automatically in church, in school, at atheist meetings, or in everyday life. Of course, if you want to be careless, you can take an oversimplified mental picture of God, debunk it, and claim that you have debunked God. (Some people do that.) But if you want to make a careful argument about that conjectural being called "God," you have to study what real people mean by that word. These people aren't limited to the silly Bible-chuckers and addled "theologians" that Dawkins carps on. There also are a lot of serious religious scholars out there - scholars who actually think, and think hard, about religious issues. And one way to find out what God this group believes in is to read some theology.

Now we can see what's wrong with the Courtier's Reply argument - and why atheists, like everyone else, should ignore it. To figure out whether the Emperor has clothes, you don't have to learn anything new. To figure out whether there's a God, you probably do have to learn something new. You need to learn what people actually think God is. The best way to get that knowledge is by reading something - and what you read should include some theology. You don't have to believe theology. You don't have to be an expert on theology. In fact, you could read books on the philosophy of religion instead of on theology, and probably pick up all the theological ideas you need. (Philosophers of religion try to analyze religious and theological ideas rationally.) But whatever you read, you do need some of those theological ideas.

In case anyone missed it, I'll say it again: you don't have to believe theology to learn something from it. You can think theology is utter claptrap if you like - but you can't run away from the fact that theology cues us in to the meanings of religious terms. The Courtier's Reply argument suggests that if you take theology seriously, you are nothing but a fawning servant of religion. That is nonsense. Theology can be of interest to atheists and believers alike - not because it's true, but because it tells us something important about what people believe.

Now I will propose my own variation on the Courtier's Reply. This version takes into account the fact (apparently missing from the arguments of Dawkins and Myers) that you actually have to know what you're talking about before you can make a rational decision about a conjectured item's existence.

A boy comes from an island where everyone wears a loincloth - and that's all they wear. For this boy, a loincloth isn't just one form of clothing - it is clothing. For him, the word for loincloth also means clothes. The language of his island has a word for loincloth, which is the only word in that language for body covering. (In this boy's experience, there is no difference between the two.) Because of his past experience, if he saw a shirt, or trousers, or socks, he wouldn't label them as clothes. He is not stupid - in fact, he's rather smart - but he has a very limited idea of clothes, because nobody in his land ever wore any clothes besides a loincloth. In fact, the people there don't have the words to distinguish between loincloths and clothing in general.

This boy comes to visit the emperor of a country where people wear complicated outfits. This emperor doesn't wear a loincloth. For now we won't bother to say exactly what he wears. He might be wearing trousers or a kilt - or less. The important thing is that he does not wear a loincloth.

The boy says: "Hmm. The Emperor has no clothes on!"

Upon hearing this, a courtier takes him aside and says:

"Wait a minute. You came from a country where they have a very narrow idea of clothing. In your land, they don't even have separate words for clothes and for loincloths. So, allow me to inform you about what the word 'clothes' means to people elsewhere who use that word and its equivalents.

"You are right in using the word 'clothes' to refer to a loincloth, but there also are other forms of clothes. It's true that the Emperor has no loincloth, but don't decide too hastily that the Emperor has no clothes. You don't yet have a general idea of clothes, or even a decent rough-and-ready mental picture of what clothes are. Thus, you are premature in deciding that the Emperor has no clothes.

"One way to learn what clothes are is to read our books about the Emperor's clothes. You don't have to believe everything in those books, or even anything. Just use them to learn what people mean when they talk about "clothes." Another way is to wander around in the empire for a while, talk to people, and pick up what different people mean by that word. And there may even be other ways to learn what you need.

"I'm not going to tell you whether you should think the Emperor has clothes. Read, discuss, and learn the general idea of clothes first. Then decide for yourself!"




[1] PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply," in Pharyngula (blog), 12/24/2006. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.


posted at: 23:54 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 17 Mar 2010

Why Dawkins Needs to Study Theology - Especially if There Is No God

One of the standard criticisms of Richard Dawkins' atheist crusade is the charge that Dawkins doesn't pay enough attention to theology. The two most important atheist replies to this criticism are Dawkins' comparison of theology to "leprechology" [1] and PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply" [2]. In this post I will point out why the criticism against Dawkins is right - and why the leprechaun argument and the Courtier's Reply are wrong.

Why should Dawkins learn something about theology before debunking God? The reason has nothing to do with whether theology is true, false, or silly. The reason is simple: theological writings tell us what religions really mean by "God." If you don't know what religious teachings mean by "God," then you can't make a credible rational argument against the God that people believe in. You might not even know what would count as evidence for that God, so you can't claim, with any confidence, that there is no evidence for that God. This is the case whether or not any of the beliefs stated in the theological writings are true.

Let's get back to basic logic here. Before you can prove that something doesn't exist, or that there's no evidence for something, you must at least know what you're trying to disprove. If you don't know what the God of religion is supposed to be, and you try to debunk that God, then you don't even know what you are debunking. You can't even argue convincingly that there's a lack of evidence for God, because the kind of evidence you would need depends on what "God" means. And like it or not, theological writings reflect what real religious teachings take God to be.

Let me explain these points in more detail.

Despite what some angry atheists have said on the Web, theological writings aren't just collections of silly religious beliefs. Along with any silly beliefs (or serious ones), those writings also disclose something much more important. The theological writings of a religion contain the religion's definition of God - what sort of entity the religion's believers, and especially its scholars, have in mind when they say "God." This might not be a formal definition; it could be just a rough idea of God instead - but still it serves to define the alleged being called "God." We can learn this definition from theological writings regardless of whether the beliefs stated in those writings are true or false. Even if you think theology is factually wrong, reading about theology is a good way to tell what religious thinkers actually believe God to be. Theology, whether we believe it or not, tells us what religious teachings mean by "God." And that is important for all of us, atheists or believers, to know.

Why is it important for atheists to know what "God" means to believers? It's important because you can't very well debunk something without knowing what it is that you're trying to debunk. If you're trying to debunk the God that religions promote, but you don't even know what the religions mean by the word "God," then you might be debunking some so-called "God" that religious people don't even believe in. You might be debunking some special concept of God that's in your head, maybe left over from your churchgoing days, instead of the concept of God that actually matters to any particular religion. If you don't know what God is supposed to be, then you can't even know what kind of evidence would count for or against God. No matter how good your grasp of scientific methods and standards of evidence, you don't know with any confidence what kind of evidence you should be looking for. You might end up thinking that there's evidence for God, or that there isn't any evidence for God - and you might well be wrong. (Later in this post I'll fill in more details about how this can happen.)

Here's an analogy to illustrate this point. It's inspired by Dawkins' well-known comparison between leprechauns and God [1].

Suppose you are trying to decide whether leprechauns exist. To do this rationally, you first have to know what leprechauns are supposed to be. If you grasp the idea of leprechauns - small humanoid beings of a type mentioned in Irish folklore, who typically wear green and guard pots of gold - then it's easy to decide that there is no credible evidence for those beings. However, if you have no idea what "leprechaun" means, or have only a hazy idea of leprechauns, then you could easily make a wrong decision about whether they exist.

Here's an example of this last point. Suppose that someone (call him Hawkins) thinks that "leprechaun" means a being who wears green and protects a supply of gold. In Hawkins' view, a leprechaun is defined only by these two traits; he doesn't think of leprechauns as especially Irish, or as having any other familiar leprechaun traits. Then according to Hawkins' definition of leprechauns, some coin collectors would qualify as "leprechauns." If Hawkins met a collector of gold coins who happened to be wearing green, then Hawkins might conclude that leprechauns exist!

Of course, Hawkins would be wrong - but not because he lacks evidence for leprechauns. He would be wrong because he doesn't even know the standard meaning of the word "leprechaun." He doesn't know what the word "leprechaun" means to informed users of that word. Because of this gap in his knowledge, he can't even know what kind of evidence would count as evidence for the existence of leprechauns (as they usually are conceived). He could easily be wrong about whether he has evidence for leprechauns. In this example, he thinks he has evidence for a leprechaun, but he does not.

If Hawkins tries to defend his wrong conclusion by saying "Well, my conclusion is right according to my idea of a leprechaun," then he is admitting that his idea of leprechaun is different from the one that other people use. Hawkins' conclusion about leprechauns might be true according to his definition, but probably it is of no interest to anyone but Hawkins.

Before you can debunk something, you have to know what that "something" is supposed to be. This obvious principle holds for leprechauns, the Loch Ness Monster, and Russell's famous orbiting teapot. It holds just as well for God. Suppose you are trying to decide whether God exists. To decide this rationally, you first need to know what God is supposed to be. If you're trying to debunk the God that the religions promote, you first have to know what that God is supposed to be. In other words, you have to know what the religions believe God to be. You need to know this regardless of whether religion is true and regardless of whether there is a God. If you want to decide rationally whether the God of religion is real, then you must first know what the God of religion is supposed to be. Otherwise you don't know what you are talking about.

How do you find out what real religions take God to be? One way is to ask average, ordinary believers. This is a start. However, average believers usually don't know their religion's teachings very well. (This isn't a putdown; I have known many believers who admitted freely that they didn't really care about the technicalities of doctrine.) In any case, the rank-and-file believers, though important, are not the only important group in a religion. There also are the intellectual movers and shakers of the religion. I don't mean the organizational leaders. I mean those who shape and systematize the teachings of a religious tradition. This group includes the theologians.

I'm not claiming here that theology is true. That's a separate question. My point is not about the truth, falsity, or preposterousness of theology, but about what people believe. If you don't know what the theologians of a religion say about God, then you don't know what that religion actually teaches about God. Even if theology isn't true, it's still part of what many religious people believe. If you want to know what the religions really say about God, part of what you have to know is what their theologians have said about the nature of God.

This is why atheists need to learn some theology before trying to debunk God. Even if theology is nonsense, Dawkins still needs to study it - because one can use it to glean information about what religious people mean by "God." And that information can make or break an atheistic argument.

You don't need to to be an expert on theology before arguing against God. You certainly don't have to believe theology. However, you do have to be familiar with some of the key ideas in theological thought. You have to study something that explains theological ideas - unless you happen to have learned some of those ideas already. And you have to study ideas from more than one religious tradition, or else you won't know what people (except for those in a particular tradition) think God is like.

Personally, I think it's much more important to study philosophy of religion than to study theology. Philosophers of religion analyze the ideas of religion rationally; they can present theological ideas in ways that are of interest to rational thinkers. These philosophers also explore philosophical ideas of God - ideas based on reason, which aren't the same as the faith-based theological ideas. But no matter which subject you focus on, you need to understand some theological ideas. (By "philosophy of religion" I mean real philosophy of religion, in which the ideas of the religions are analyzed rationally. I do not mean writings that pretend to explain why people believe in God but refuse to analyze religious concepts. Those tracts aren't philosophy of religion; they're more like speculative psychology.)

Here are some questions that someone might ask at this point:

  1. Do I really need to know what those silly theologians think of God before I decide whether there's a God?
  2. Isn't God like Russell's teapot - something that we can safely disbelieve in because of a lack of evidence?
  3. Isn't it enough just to show that there is no supernatural creator? Wouldn't that show that there is no God, even if we don't know the details of what God is like?

The answers to these questions are:

  1. Yes, you do have to know something about what theologians think - at least if you want to make your decision rationally. If you don't know what the theologians think, you might well be debunking something besides the God of religion.
  2. Maybe God is like Russell's teapot, or maybe not - but in either case you can't apply the teapot argument to God if you don't even know what "God" means! Even if the teapot argument is right, it doesn't generalize to things that aren't defined correctly. We can safely disbelieve in Russell's teapot because we know what a teapot is - and because we know that it isn't the kind of object that would just happen to turn up in deep space. If we got the concept of a teapot wrong, the argument wouldn't necessarily give true results. (If we thought "teapot" meant "small piece of rock," then we could conclude that there probably is at least one "teapot" orbiting the Sun - and we could conclude this without observing a single one of these "teapots," just on the basis of general scientific knowledge about space.)
  3. No, it isn't enough to show that there is no supernatural creator. According to some ideas of God, there can be a God even if there is nothing supernatural and even if no one literally created the universe. Showing that there is no supernatural creator isn't the same as showing that there is no God. At most, this would show that God, if there is one, is not a supernatural creator. (That would be a painful discovery for some believers, but it wouldn't logically rule out God.)

I've written a lot about various ideas of God elsewhere (see here, here and here, for example), so I won't repeat it all in this post. Here I'll just mention that the ideas of God I am talking about are not confined to a metaphorical pantheism that merely renames the physical universe as "God." I'm talking about real ideas of a supreme being or ideal being - including ideas that do not imply that God is a supernatural creator, and ideas that could survive with minor changes even if God were not a supernatural creator. For more details, start with the links I just gave.

Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, defines God as a supernatural creator of a certain sort [3]. Then he tries to debunk God. Dawkins is making the same mistake as our friend Hawkins. He is using a limited definition of "God" that doesn't adequately capture the religious usage of the word. It's true that most believers think of God as a supernatural creator. However, others have believed in a God who did not make our present world, or who is a spiritual reality within nature instead of a supernatural ghost. Many religious thinkers have thought of God as a "perfect being" or a "greatest possible being" - scholarly jargon for a certain philosophical concept of God. It appears that scientific evidence can neither confirm nor disconfirm such a being, but that there still might be rational ways to decide whether such a being exists. (See here, here and here for some further discussion of ideas like these.) Also, many believers in a supernatural creator might be able to keep believing in God even if they learned God was not a supernatural creator - as long as they still could believe in a God who was ideally good and worthy of our highest love. Their faith would be badly shaken if they learned that God is not the creator, but they could continue believing in a supreme being.

The evidence needed to show that there is a God depends on what idea of God you have in mind. For a supernatural creator, you would need to find traces of a supernatural creative act (such as design in nature that can't be explained naturally). Many of us don't think there are such traces. However, for a perfect being, there wouldn't have to be any supernatural design at all. The evidence would have to rest on value judgments more than on facts. And for a God who pervades nature, the complexity of God might be the same as the complexity in nature, so Dawkins' complexity argument against God would be useless. (That argument is useless anyhow, as I've shown elsewhere.) Clearly it's not enough to just say "there is no supernatural design, therefore there is no God." Things just aren't that simple. Again, for the details, start with the links in the previous paragraph.

Dawkins, responding to the claim that he should learn theology, once said: "Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?" [1] The flaw in Dawkins' response should now be clear. Whether God is real or not, there is a difference between belief in God and belief in leprechauns. The difference is in our background knowledge about these two sorts of alleged beings. Most people have a fairly good idea of what leprechauns are. You don't have to learn more about them to figure out that there's no evidence for them. However, most people do not have a very clear idea of what God, as presented in religious teachings, is supposed to be. They might need to read up on something before making a rationally supported judgment about the existence of God. (These same comments apply to variations of the leprechology remark that put fairies, monsters, etc. in place of leprechauns.)

This same problem affects the "Courtier's Reply" argument of PZ Myers [2]. The Courtier's Reply tries to compare God to the emperor's invisible clothing in the traditional story of "The Emperor's New Clothes." The essential point of the Courtier's Reply is that you don't have to read up on theology to decide whether God exists, any more than you have to read up on the emperor's clothes before deciding that they don't exist. This analogy fails for the same reason that Dawkins' leprechaun reply fails. We all have enough knowledge about clothes to enable us to tell, if we met the emperor, that he has no clothes. We don't need to read anything new before doing that. However, we do not all know enough about God to make a rational decision about the existence of that controversial being. To make that decision, we might well need to read the writings of religious thinkers - whether or not we find those writings believable.




[1] Richard Dawkins, "Faith and facts", Letters, The Independent, 17 Sep. 2007. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.

[2] PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply," in Pharyngula (blog), 12/24/2006. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), pp. 11-15, 18-19, 31.


(Post slightly updated 3 Apr 2010.)

posted at: 22:53 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 12 Jan 2010

What Is an Atheist (and Are You One)?

These days many people claim to be atheists. What is an atheist? Are you one?

Atheism is the belief that there is no God. It is different from agnosticism, which is the position that you don't know whether there is a God. Agnosticism is a suspension of judgment; atheism is a type of belief. Atheist belief may be certain (a belief that there definitely is no God) or merely probable (a belief that there probably is no God).

To decide who is an atheist, you first have to know what the word "God" means. What exactly is it that the atheists are denying?

This question is not easy as it seems. The problem is that there are many different ideas of God in human thought. Serious, informed thinkers (and some less serious and informed ones as well) have held a spectrum of different ideas about God. The mental picture of God that you grew up with is not the only possible idea of God.

Some atheists seem to think that the only idea of God is the Biblical idea, and that the word "God" means a supernatural creator of the world. Although many people believe in this idea of God, those who regard it as a definition of the word "God" are on the wrong track. Some philosophers have arrived, through reason, at ideas of God that can be true even if there is nothing supernatural. Some religions have taught that God is not the creator. According to some concepts of God, God is not very humanlike, and is not even what we usually think of as a "person." I've written elsewhere (here, here and here) about various ideas of God, so I won't try to list all the ideas again here.

What do all these ideas of God have in common? The differences can be great. However, most ideas of God (at least most of the well-thought-out ones) have a common core. In one way or another, most of these ideas portray God as a greatest possible being. They depict God as a being or reality that is greater, better, or more perfect than anything else. What is more, these ideas portray God as having mindlike properties of some kind - mental, spiritual, or moral properties. These ideas don't just equate God to something physical, like matter or energy. Instead, they portray God as being a bit more like a "someone" than a mere "something." This is true even of ideas that deny that God is a "person" in the usual sense of the word.

Pantheism is one form of belief in God that is different from the supernatural-creator idea. In its basic version, pantheism equates God to nature or to the physical universe. Some critics claim that pantheism is only a disguised form of atheism, but they are wrong about this. Some forms of pantheism might amount to atheism, but other forms amount to a real belief in God. However, pantheism is not the only possible form of belief in God that denies that God is a supernatural creator. As I pointed out elsewhere, there are other such beliefs. (See here and here.)

The God of real religious thought is very different from the "God" of Biblical fundamentalism. The God of the fundamentalists is a very humanoid, and sometimes very mean, fellow who makes a habit of violating the laws of nature. Other, more reasonable religious thinkers long ago rejected this idea of God. Some of these other thinkers still consider God a supernatural creator - but that isn't the most important part of their understanding of God. These believers could continue believing in God even if it turned out that God was not a supernatural creator.

Some atheists try to define "God" as a supernatural creator of the universe. Then they try to debunk God by proving there is no supernatural creator. The big problem with this line of argument is that it doesn't tell us much about God! At most, it hits one concept of God: the idea that God is a supernatural creator. Even if this atheistic line of argument worked, it would not disprove God. At most, it would disprove the supernatural-creator concept of God. Some sincere believers in God rejected this concept long ago - but they didn't have to give up believing in God.

The atheist trick of defining God as a supernatural creator pins the "atheist" label on anyone who accepts a different idea of God. By claiming that God must be a supernatural creator, the atheists are playing with words. They are defining into existence a whole bunch of "atheists" who might not be atheists at all. This atheist ploy is much like defining the word "dog" to include the concept of being lime green in color. Once you buy into that definition, you can say that lime green dogs are the only real dogs - and anyone who disbelieves in lime green dogs is actually a disbeliever in dogs. (This covers a lot of people, even people who have dogs, because lime green dogs are rather easy to disbelieve in.)

It's easy to label anyone an "atheist" if they disagree with your particular idea of God. However, the fact that you have stopped believing in the Bible, in religion, or in the supernatural isn't enough to make you an atheist. You don't have to become an atheist just because you don't believe in these things. There is another option: rethink your idea of God - and think for yourself.

Some people who think about religion call themselves "atheists" just because they don't believe in a supernatural creator. If that describes you, then you might not really be an atheist at all!

posted at: 20:25 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 14 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 11: A Summary of the Papers, and What It All Means

This post is the last in a series that I call "The Anti-Dawkins Papers." Together, these posts form a critique of the main ideas in Richard Dawkins' atheistic book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here. (Actually, the papers aren't against Dawkins; they are only against some of his ideas.)

Will I add more to the critique after this post? Is this really the last of the Papers? Those are open questions. (Update: I've written more about Dawkins' ideas elsewhere. See the note at the end of this post.)

In the previous ten posts, I refuted the main arguments from The God Delusion. Here are summaries of what I did.

  • In post 1 I showed that Dawkins' concept of God is hopelessly inadequate. Dawkins' definition of God describes only one idea of God among many possible ideas. Therefore, The God Delusion is not really a line of argument against God at all. Even if the arguments in the book were right, the book would be a refutation of one traditional concept of God - not of the idea of God as such. In post 1 I also showed that Dawkins' attack on Gould's NOMA concept is unjustified, and that Dawkins' grasp on philosophy, at least as deployed in this book, is weak.
  • In post 2 I refuted Dawkins' central argument: the argument from improbability. (Actually I did not do this in the post, but in a paper to which I linked from the post.) The argument from improbability is Dawkins' best atheistic argument; he even suggested that it might be "unanswerable" (p. 113). Since that argument is the central argument of The God Delusion (see pp. 157-158), its downfall effectively guts Dawkins' case for atheism. So much for unanswerability! After disposing of this argument, I also undermined Dawkins' critique of agnosticism.
  • In post 3 I addressed Dawkins' criticisms of personal religious experience. I showed that Dawkins' examples of religious experience were stunningly poor examples. I pointed out that real spiritual experience also exists, and can be a good source of knowledge whether or not there is anything supernatural. Also, I suggested that religions might grow out of legitimate spiritual experiences, and then become irrational when those experiences are forgotten and misunderstood.
  • In post 4 I showed that Dawkins' argument against design in nature is surprisingly weak. I gave links to some of my writings that describe an alternative view. According to this alternative view, evolution is exactly as science says it is (with no Intelligent Design theory or other aberrations), but there still can be real design in nature.
  • In post 5 I showed that Dawkins' ideas about the origins of religion are irrelevant to the truth of belief in God. Even if religion comes from lowly evolutionary sources, it may still turn out to be partly true. Also, I offered my own suggestion for a source of religious belief.
  • In post 6 I took on Dawkins' claim that religion causes evil. I pointed out that his many examples of religious evil are examples of "bad" religion (as defined in the post). These examples show that "bad" religion causes evil, but they tell us absolutely nothing about "good" religion (also defined in the post). Also, I showed that Dawkins' polemic against faith works only against unreasonable, morally insensitive forms of faith.
  • In post 7 I pointed out two places where Dawkins grossly misrepresents the ideas of opposing thinkers. These examples don't bear directly on arguments about God, but they raise doubts about the credibility of the book.
  • In post 8 I showed that the higher percentage of atheists among scientists and other educated people proves nothing about the truth or rationality of atheism.
  • In post 9 I rebutted Dawkins' claim that science rules out miracles. I did not argue for the reality of miracles, but I showed that some miracles might be compatible with science.
  • In post 10 I exposed Dawkins' harsh anti-religious rhetoric for what it is: a form of discourse which, if used in other circumstances, might be considered hate speech. Also, I pointed out some bad reasons why people might find The God Delusion convincing.

From the arguments in these posts, we can conclude that Dawkins has failed to make a convincing case against God. We are back where we started before Dawkins wrote his book: with the question of God's existence wide open. Belief in God remains a reasonable option for thinking people; so do atheism and agnosticism. Dawkins may have succeeded in debunking fundamentalism, religious extremism, and other unreasonable forms of belief - but you do not have to be an atheist to see that these are wrong. (Incidentally, those interested in rational approaches to spiritual issues may want to peruse my website, and especially the documents of mine that I cited in these posts.)

On the dust jacket of my copy of The God Delusion (the edition I cited in post 1 and used throughout the posts), a quote from Steven Pinker challenges those who hold some particular beliefs to "see if you can counter Dawkins's arguments." Well, we've done it! We have shown that the most important arguments in The God Delusion are wrong. Even if you don't agree with my counterarguments, the fact that it's possible to find substantive rational objections to Dawkins' arguments shows that he has not conclusively settled the question of God. Dawkins has not delivered any unanswerable final stroke in the debate over God's existence. Instead, he has just added his two cents' worth to that debate. (And a nasty two cents' worth it is!)

Despite the nastily self-assured tone of his book, Dawkins is not a voice of reason (or of Reason). As far as religious thought is concerned, he is only another purveyor of opinion in the age-old debate over the existence of God - and his arguments for his opinion aren't even convincing. It's time for rational thinkers to reject The God Delusion and move on to more rewarding pursuits.



Note added after posting: In the time since I posted "The Anti-Dawkins Papers," some criticisms of my arguments have shown up on the web. So far, the criticisms I have seen have not been convincing. I'm answering these criticisms, as time permits, on a separate rebuttals page. Also, I've written more about Dawkins' ideas since I wrote "The Anti-Dawkins Papers." These new writings are in the atheism category. Those interested in my views on religion in general are invited to explore the religion category as a whole.


Post updated 2/7/2011


posted at: 03:07 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 13 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 10: Hate by Any Other Name?

This post continues my critique of the ideas in Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find the whole critique here.

Until now, I have concentrated on factual and logical problems with The God Delusion. However, one of the main problems with the book is neither a factual nor a logical problem, but an ethical one. I am referring to the book's extremely mean-spirited tone. (I am not the first to comment on this mean-spiritedness [1].) Early in the book, Dawkins says he wants to remove the respect traditionally accorded to religion (pp. 20-27). This part of the book even bears the title "Undeserved respect" (pp. vii, 20). In the rest of the book, Dawkins does not merely remove the undeserved respect. He spews a stream of hostile and corrosive rhetoric, mercifully interrupted by stretches of more level-headed material. If language as hostile as that in The God Delusion were found in a book on race or ethnicity, it might well get condemned in some quarters as hate speech.

I will not try to point out all the instances of vitriolic or insulting language in The God Delusion. There are far too many instances for that. Instead, I will just point out a few telling examples.

  • Dawkins quotes from a speech by noted religious physicist Freeman Dyson, made while Dyson was accepting an award (pp. 152-153). In between the lines of Dyson's speech, Dawkins inserts made-up words that Dyson never said, making it look as if Dyson were speaking insincerely. Dawkins admits that the added italicized words are not Dyson's, but still he puts them into Dyson's mouth, making Dyson look insincere. This attack on the brilliant Dyson is not simply a criticism of Dyson's beliefs. Instead, it amounts to a below-the-belt personal attack. Later, Dawkins seems to be trying to cover himself when he characterizes Dyson as "way above being corrupted" (p. 153). However, this quick disclaimer does little to reduce the suggestive power of the fabricated words, or the impressions of Dyson that those words leave in the reader's mind.
  • In his discussion of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA concept (which tries to reconcile science and religion), Dawkins surmises that Gould really did not believe NOMA at all, and was merely "bending over backwards to be nice to an unworthy but powerful opponent" (p. 57). In other words, he is suggesting that Gould lied. Again, a below-the-belt attack - but this time against a deceased man who cannot even answer back.
  • At one point (p. 108), Dawkins suggests that those involved with theology "are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true." In other words, if you are on the other side of the debating table from Dawkins, there's a good chance you are living in a fantasy world. Rational argument indeed!

These few examples are enough to expose the ratty tone of the book's rhetoric. Just imagine these examples multiplied many times over. The book leaves the impression that if you think differently from Dawkins, then you are insincere or cowardly at worst, ignorant and confused at best - and perhaps senile to boot (p. 98 n.). It is sad to see such rhetoric in a book whose author is known as a distinguished scientist.

Perhaps the most hateful aspect of The God Delusion is its constant carping on the evils of religion. I have dealt with these examples of bad religion collectively in an earlier post. There I showed that these examples prove nothing about the existence of God or about the goodness of religious thought in general. These examples only show that some particular religious beliefs are desperately wrong. (You don't need to be an atheist to figure that out; you just need to watch the evening news.) However, the failure of Dawkins' polemic against religion is not its worst defect. Even though it does not succeed in proving anything, Dawkins' insistent ranting about the evils of religion has the potential to whip up rage against ordinary religious people.

Imagine what would happen if the author of this book were not an atheist criticizing religion, but a member of a particular faith criticizing another faith. Suppose, for example, that a Christian wrote a book against Judaism with the same degree of hostility and ridicule that Dawkins uses to attack religion in general. Suppose further that this Christian author hinted that unconverted Jews constitute a danger to humanity. What would we say about such a book? Many of us would consider it a work of hate. The author of the anti-Jewish book might try to defend himself by saying: "But I wasn't attacking Jews, I was only attacking their beliefs!" That argument would not wash well with many of us. Anyone who portrays adherents of a belief as menaces to humanity is attacking the people, not just the belief. That kind of criticism goes beyond mere criticism of ideas.

Dawkins does almost the same thing as our imaginary Christian. The main difference is that he attacks a different group of mostly good people. (The two groups - religious believers and Jews - even overlap.) Dawkins doesn't only attack religious criminals, such as al-Qaeda or child-abusing priests, though he does criticize these (see especially pp. 303-304, 315-318). Instead, he portrays all religion as a menace (chap. 8) - and he does so in a way that suggests religious people are vehicles of that menace. (He even likens religion to a contagious virus (pp. 176, 186-188).) In effect, he portrays religious people, not only religious ideas, as a problem for the world. Why should Dawkins get a free pass? Why are we afraid to call The God Delusion a hateful book? As I pointed out in my earlier posts, the book is full of faulty arguments. What makes this book significantly better than, say, a fiery Christian polemic against Judaism that uses weak arguments as talking points?

I suspect that many readers give The God Delusion more respect than it is worth because they are afraid to question the opinions of a well-known scientist. However, this fear should not stop them from using their reason. Personally, I am a lifelong supporter of science, but even an ardent admirer of science must admit that scientists are not perfect. Occasionally a scientist messes up just as badly as anyone else could. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Philipp Lenard became a follower of Adolf Hitler and served as "Chief of Aryan or German Physics" for the Nazi Party. [2] The tragic stories of eugenics and of lobotomies provide other examples of scientific error. These errors eventually got corrected, but not in time to prevent harm. I am not suggesting that Dawkins would embrace errors as gross as these. I am only pointing out that his scientific credentials do not guarantee that his ideas always are right. Critical thinking is necessary in this imperfect world. You need it even when reading a book by a "big" scientist.

Another reason people might take The God Delusion seriously is that Dawkins is a good writer. It's true that he's a good writer, but of course this says nothing about the truth of his ideas. It is unfortunate for humanity, but nevertheless true, that people who hold lousy ideas sometimes write well.

Still another possible motive for undue reverence toward The God Delusion is the sheer density of information in the book. This book is packed with scientific and historical information and ideas. The reader may get the feeling that the book is full of new insights, perhaps even revelations. However, this does not tell us anything about the book's truth. A good science fiction novel can create the same feeling, and can be just as full of ideas and information. That doesn't mean that the plot of the novel is factually true. (The difference, of course, is that the science fiction novel is not meant to be true.)

I suggest that we abandon any undue reverence toward The God Delusion, and start telling it like it is. The God Delusion is not a book that a rational thinker should believe. For reasons discussed here and in my earlier posts, the book does not succeed in building a credible case for atheism. It's still possible for a thinking person to be an atheist - but if you are going to be one, you need to find better reasons than the faulty arguments and misguided rhetoric in The God Delusion.



[1] See, for example, Alvin Plantinga's comments on the nastiness found in The God Delusion. (Plantinga, Alvin. "The Dawkins Confusion." Books & Culture, March 1, 2007, [], accessed 5/10/2009.)

[2] Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, [], accessed 7/8/2009.

posted at: 23:59 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 09 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 9: Of Science and Miracles

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' ideas about religion as found in his book, The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

In this post I will take on one of Dawkins' claims about miracles. This post is not an argument for belief in miracles. I am only trying to show that the topic of miracles is not as simple as Dawkins makes it seem.

The line of thought in The God Delusion is unfriendly to miracles. Dawkins even claims that "miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science" (p. 59). What "definition" does Dawkins have in mind? Is there a hard-and-fast definition, written down somewhere, that dictates the "principles of science"? No, there is not.

Science is a set of methods that have proven extraordinarily useful in understanding and controlling the natural world. Scientists follow certain working rules because those rules have proven useful. However, science does not bow and kneel before any a priori list of inviolable principles. If a miracle ever happened, no so-called principle would bar scientists from studying it! If scientists ever did confirm that there was a miracle (in the sense of an event that violates natural laws), they would not say "Well, we have conclusive evidence for this miracle, but we still can't believe it happened, because believing it would violate The Very Principles of Science Itself." At least scientists who have thought it over would not say that! If scientists ever gained conclusive evidence for a miracle, they would have to accept that some natural laws have occasional exceptions. However, science would not collapse. Science would not even have to change in any fundamental way. A thoughtful scientist might say "Well, there's an exception to one of our known natural laws. Now we know that this particular law isn't invariably true. Instead of holding all the time, it only holds statistically - it's usually reliable but can be violated on occasion." Scientists already know of statistically true natural laws. The law of entropy in thermodynamics is not invariably true, but only statistically true. The allowed violations of the law of entropy are not miracles; instead, these stunningly rare violations have a known physical basis. However, the statistical nature of the law of entropy does show that a natural law doesn't have to be 100 percent right to be useful. In layman's terms, stuff happens!

Science does not resort to miracles to explain puzzling facts. This scientific policy has proven itself useful, and is indispensable as a working rule. (If we explain something odd by assuming it's a miracle, then we might be missing some other, non-miraculous explanation that we haven't thought of yet.) But does science really rule out miracles?

Imagine a miracle that only happens once, with no advance warning and with no closely similar miracles before or after. Such a once-off unrepeatable miracle would be no threat to science at all! As far as science is concerned, such a miracle probably would be undiscoverable. Here's why. If scientists found apparent evidence for such a miracle, they would favor the simplest, least extravagant possible explanation for the evidence. (The working rule of scientific method called Occam's Razor says this is the appropriate thing to do.) However, any non-miraculous explanation would be less extravagant than the hypothesis that a miracle had occurred. Therefore, scientists would not conclude that there was a miracle, even if there was no other apparent explanation for the evidence.

What does this mean? It means that if a single unrepeatable miracle really happened, scientists would have no intellectual obligation to believe that it happened! Scientists would be justified in acting as if there were no miracle. A once-off, unrepeatable miracle would pose no threat to our scientific knowledge. It would not even touch our scientific knowledge. The miracle would not have to be incorporated into our scientific knowledge, even if it really happened. Science can simply ignore the possibility of such a miracle.

It's all too easy to forget that science deals with repeatable phenomena and with hypotheses that are testable through scientific methods. Science does not necessarily encompass all possible phenomena, and ignores hypotheses that cannot be scientifically tested. An unrepeatable event can be of scientific interest, but scientists will try to explain it using laws that have repeatable consequences. Ignoring some phenomena and beliefs may be the correct thing for scientists to do, even if they risk missing something that way.

Science does not trade in miracles. That is as it should be. However, science does not force us to believe dogmatically that there are no miracles. A once-off miracle might not be scientifically confirmable. Note that we cannot say this about a repeatable miracle (for example, if certain prayers were answered dependably). Such a miracle might well be subject to scientific testing. (Dawkins gives an example of this sort of testing in his section on "the Great Prayer Experiment" (pp. 61-66). In that case, the miracle turned out not to be there.) However, an unrepeatable miracle might be impossible to pin down scientifically.

This is not an argument for belief in miracles. As readers of my writings may have noticed, my own view of spirituality does not require miracles, if a "miracle" means a violation of natural law. I only want to point out that the relationship between science and miracles is not as hostile as it seems. Science can operate perfectly well without an absolute assumption that there are no miracles. If you believe in miracles, that doesn't automatically make you an enemy of science. Whether miracles really happen is a separate question.

posted at: 17:03 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 06 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 8: Are Scientists and Other Smart People Atheists?

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' ideas about religion as found in his book, The God Delusion. You can find the whole critique here.

Dawkins' claim that most good scientists are atheists (pp. 97-103) does not provide one shred of support for atheism. The majority of scientists might be atheistic, or appear to be atheistic, for reasons having nothing to do with the truth or falsity of atheism. I can think of four such reasons without even trying very hard.


Reason 1. Academic politics.

This explanation for scientific atheism is crashingly obvious to those of us who have observed the rise of other persistent academic fads, like postmodernism. If the top layers of the scientific profession contain lots of atheists, then it might be hard for religious scientists (even liberal ones) to move up in their fields. Over time, this process of selection would make atheism more and more common among scientists. This mechanism alone could explain the abundance of atheists in science.

Of course, this explanation will work only if there was an initial surplus of atheists to start the process. It isn't hard to see where that surplus could have come from. There could have been a temporary surge of atheism among scientists in the wake of some scientific discovery that seemed to support atheism. Evolution is one candidate for such a discovery. (Evolution doesn't actually support atheism, but it rules out some simplistic beliefs about God, and it seems to support atheism. See here and here for relevant ideas. Also see my e-books God and Darwin - Buddies! and God, Son of Quark.) Another possible source for the initial surplus of atheists is pure chance. For example, the top universities might have happened to recruit more atheists than usual for a short time. (This is what mathematicians call a statistical fluctuation.) No matter how the atheistic trend got started, it easily could have become self-perpetuating and stubbornly hard to reverse.

Reason 2. Philosophical ignorance and "philosophobia."

In my personal experience, I have found that many scientists are frighteningly ignorant of philosophy. Some even speak as if they held preposterous beliefs about philosophy - like the belief that philosophers think the physical world is only a dream. A few scientists are downright hostile to philosophy in spite of knowing little about it. Worse yet, most scientists are not skilled in the kind of reasoning used in philosophy - the subtle, nuanced analysis of ideas and shades of meaning, so different from the visual thinking and physical intuition that pervade most scientific reasoning.

This ignorance about philosophy might seem to be a simple case of overspecialization. It might seem to have nothing to do with religion. However, this ignorance easily could trap scientists into becoming atheists or agnostics. Here's how that could happen.

Scientists are highly educated. Because of this, they know that many traditional religious beliefs are wrong. The most obvious example of such a belief is the doctrine that God created each living species through a special supernatural act. When people become educated enough to reject a lot of beliefs like that, they will lose faith in the old-time religion they grew up with. What outlook will they adopt instead? There are only two real choices. Either they will abandon religion, or they will try to find a more rational type of spiritual belief. How can one find those better forms of belief? Only through philosophical reasoning - the kind of fine-grained qualitative thinking, often about unvisualizable concepts, that is typical of philosophy. You don't have to be a philosopher to figure out rational alternatives to the old-time religion. However, you do need to be able to think like a philosopher. Scientific reasoning, with its emphasis on pictorial thinking about visible things, is not the right tool for this job. When confronted with ideas like the various personal and impersonal concepts of God, scientific reasoning will simply draw a blank. Scientists who no longer believe what they were told to believe, but who can't think philosophically, will not find any rational alternative besides unbelief.

For this reason, a scientist who can't think philosophically is likely to feel that religion is wrong, period. Without the background to think out better answers, what else can a scientist do?

Reason 3. Atheism of convenience.

Maybe the statistics about atheism among scientists aren't as accurate as they seem. Dawkins hints that people of earlier times (including scientists) may have pretended to be religious for political or social reasons (see p. 98). This seems like a very reasonable assumption. However, in today's scientific community, atheism and not religion is the fashion. Thus, the opposite deception might occur. I wonder how many scientists pretend to be atheistic for the sake of their careers, when really they are believers!

This mechanism could not account for all scientific atheism. I think most scientists are more or less honest about their beliefs. However, this mechanism could increase the apparent number of atheists in science.

Reason 4. Mislabeling.

I wonder what scientists and those who observe them really mean when they label scientists as atheistic. If they take "atheism" to mean disbelief in a personal God or in a supernatural God, then a scientist might be labeled an atheist and still believe in a full-fledged supreme being! (See my earlier post on alternative ideas of God.) Perhaps some scientists are not really atheists, but are just skeptical of traditional ideas about God. Also, I wonder how many "atheistic" scientists really are agnostic instead of atheistic. Do the scientists, with their typically inadequate philosophy backgrounds, fully understand the difference?


These four sociological mechanisms, acting together, easily might explain why scientists tend to be atheists or to be labeled as atheists.

These sociological mechanisms don't affect only scientists. They also could explain Dawkins' observation that educated and intelligent people in general are more likely to be atheistic (pp. 101-103). To explain that fact, we don't have to assume that the idea of God is so irrational that only dumb people fully accept it. (Dawkins doesn't quite make that assumption in The God Delusion, but his selective carping on the stupidest examples of religion strongly suggests it.) The fact that scientists and other educated people tend to be atheistic does not prove anything interesting about the real world.

Incidentally, professional philosophers (like other educated people) could be affected by these sociological mechanisms. Can reason 2 apply to them? Philosophers, by definition, are not ignorant of philosophy. However, they still can suffer from a kind of partial "philosophobia," because present-day philosophy is so deeply fragmented into subdisciplines. One easily can imagine a philosopher of science or a philosopher of mind being ignorant of the philosophy of religion, and thinking there must be something fishy about it because it has to do with religion.

posted at: 00:15 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 25 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 7: Dawkins Misrepresents Some Opposing Ideas and Thinkers

This post continues my critique of the ideas about religion found in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find all posts in this critique, including the present one, here.

There are many things wrong with the line of argument in The God Delusion. Besides the faults I discussed earlier, there are two passages that misrepresent opposing thinkers so grossly as to strain belief. I will take up these two passages in turn.

1. Some Silliness about Dualism

One of the ideas that Dawkins criticizes is dualism - the view that the mind is something distinct from the body (pp. 179-180). This criticism is not surprising, since dualism is unpopular in academic circles today. Dualism was more popular among scientists and philosophers in the past. The great philosopher-scientist Descartes was a dualist, as was the Nobel Prize-winning brain scientist John Carew Eccles [1]. Even today, "property dualism" (a mild form of dualism) remains under consideration among philosophers.

In light of these facts about dualism, consider the following two utterly amazing statements by Dawkins (p. 180):

"Dualists readily interpret mental illness as 'possession by devils' []"

"Dualists personify inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity, seeing spirits and demons even in waterfalls and clouds."

When I first read these incredible statements, I thought, "Which dualists could Dawkins have in mind?" The answer came quickly: not any philosophical dualist I've heard of! The most prominent dualist philosopher of all time was Descartes. Descartes believed that humans were the only animals with non-bodily minds. To accuse Descartes of "personify[ing] inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity" is sheer claptrap. The same can be said about other serious dualistic thinkers besides Descartes.

What Dawkins calls "dualism" in this passage is not dualism, but animism. [2] Animism is a feature of some tribal religions. Animism is dualistic, but it is not a reflective or philosophical form of dualism. Scientifically aware dualists are not animists. You can like dualism or hate it, but either way, confusing dualism with animism is simply nonsense.

I don't pretend to know why Dawkins made this mistake. I wish I could give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he just goofed and used the wrong word, taking "dualism" to mean what's usually called "animism." Alas, his characterization of dualism on the previous page (p. 179) shows that things are not so simple. He knows the approximate definition of dualism, but he confuses dualism with animism anyhow. The resulting passage in the book makes dualists look far more foolish than any rational criticism could make them appear.

This confusion is rhetorically convenient. If real philosophical dualists believed in waterfall spirits, then dualism would be oh-so-easy to debunk!

2. Nonsense about a Major Psychologist

In another place (p. 50-51), Dawkins makes unsupported statements about the noted psychoanalyst C. G. Jung.

First, Dawkins makes it sound as though Jung were an unshakable believer in a supernatural creator. Dawkins repeats a famous quote, attributed to Jung, about the existence of God: "I do not believe, I know." From this quote, Dawkins infers that Jung was a theist and was 100 percent certain that there is a God (p. 50). (Earlier, Dawkins defines a theist as a believer in a supernatural God of a certain sort (p. 18).)

There are two things glaringly wrong with this reading of Jung's statement.

First, Jung almost certainly did not believe in the kind of God that Dawkins is trying to disprove. Jung's idea of God is not the God concept of theism as defined by Dawkins. Anyone who has studied Jung knows that Jung regarded God as having a psychological reality, in the sense that belief in God arises from a deep part of the unconscious mind. According to Jung, the God images of myth and religion arise from the conscious mind's contact with unconscious parts of the psyche (what Jung called the "archetypes"). These unconscious parts of the mind are not actually the gods of religion and mythology. Instead, they are elements of our inherited mental capacities. Their presence in us makes us tend to believe in God or gods and to have religious experiences. In Jungian psychology, "God" is "real" in the sense that the part of the mind upon which God-images are based has an objective psychological reality. It's safe to suppose that this psychological reality is what Jung had in mind when he said that he knew God was real. To suppose otherwise is to ignore the entire thrust of Jung's psychological theory.

Whether Jung personally believed in the supernatural is a difficult question. Like many scientists in his time, he was interested in so-called paranormal phenomena, but he tried to understand these as parts of nature. However, this distracting side issue has little bearing on his idea of God. Jungian psychological theory, and even Jung's idea of God, could exist perfectly well without the "supernatural" as Dawkins understands that word. Jung's concept of a psychological God, found in the depths of the human mind, is very far from the supernatural concept of God that Dawkins is trying to refute!

As if this confusion were not enough, Dawkins does something even sillier: he reads Jung's "I know" as meaning that Jung was 100 percent sure there is a God (p. 50). Why 100 percent sure? Why not assume instead that Jung was confident to a high level of probability, but less than 100 percent? This is what scientists normally mean when they say they "know" something. They do not usually mean they are 100 percent sure. So, why does Dawkins take Jung's "I know" to mean that Jung was absolutely certain? I don't claim to know the answer to this, but once again the confusion is rhetorically convenient. Jung's psychological theory, with its strong strain of spirituality, is a threat to Dawkins' antireligious world view. It's easier to make Jung look foolish if you paint him as a 100 percent confident True Believer.

I'd like to know exactly what Dawkins was thinking when he accused Jung of "holding a belief without adequate reason to do so" (p. 51). Has Dawkins studied Jung's clinical and historical research on the psychological basis for the God concept? I don't know, but based on what I know of Dawkins' ideas, I have serious doubts. If Dawkins is accusing Jung of unreasoned belief without first looking at Jung's reasons, then Dawkins is making an unreasoned claim. Jung, on the other hand, was trying to be scientific. Whether Jung succeeded is a separate question, but he did build up an interesting body of supporting information for his ideas.

Dawkins then attributes another belief to Jung: "that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang" (p. 51). Dawkins states this in a context that makes Jung seem silly. The truth about these so-called exploding books is far more complex, and far less helpful to Dawkins.

As far as I can tell, Dawkins' exploding-books claim is based on a well-known story found in one of Jung's books [3]. The story, in summary, is this: Jung and Sigmund Freud were in a room when Jung began to feel an odd physical sensation. Then Jung and Freud heard a loud popping noise in a bookcase. After the first noise, Jung felt strongly that there was going to be a second noise, and said so. Then there was a second bang. Jung's feeling that there was going to be a second bang is the only spooky thing about this incident. The bangs themselves, which seem to worry Dawkins, could have had many possible natural causes, such as accumulations of flammable dust from old books, or overloaded weak bookshelves. (A confirmed skeptic like Dawkins is not likely to be troubled by Jung's odd feeling of things to come, for a skeptic always can dismiss strange events as coincidences.)

If this really is the incident Dawkins had in mind, then he has reduced this incident (with two witnesses!) to a mere belief of Jung's. He mentions the affair in an inaccurate way that makes Jung seem foolish. Why? History supports the view that Jung did not merely believe in the noises; he heard them. So did another observer, Sigmund Freud, who is known to have had a skeptical streak. You don't have to be deluded to witness peculiar events. You don't even have to be religious.

Why does Dawkins portray Jung's ideas and experiences in such a bad light? Again, I don't know why (for I am not Dawkins). It's possible that Dawkins' misreading of Jung is just a random mistake. However, we must not forget who C. G. Jung was. Jung was a psychoanalyst who was not only scientifically inclined, but also took the spiritual side of human nature seriously. He thought the findings of psychology lent some credence to human spirituality. Jung saw grains of truth in the world's religions and mythologies, and he collected some facts in support of his position. If Jung was right to any degree at all, then his ideas represent a threat to Dawkins's fire-breathing antireligious crusade. Once again, the mistake is rhetorically convenient!

3. Concluding Personal Opinion

These gross misinterpretations of some of Dawkins' opponents - the dualists and Jung - helped to convince me that The God Delusion is off the map intellectually. It is good policy not to believe anything said in The God Delusion without first investigating the facts for yourself. Of course, that is good policy when reading any book tagged as "nonfiction." It is especially important for a book as problem-ridden as this one.



[1] Curtis, D.R., and Anderson, P. "Biographical Memoirs. John Carew Eccles 1903-1997." Australian Academy of Science. (accessed June 25, 2009).

[2] The word "animism," like many philosophical terms, has been used to describe more than one idea. Here I am using the most common meaning: the belief that natural objects are inhabited or controlled by spirits.

[3] Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe'; trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Rev. ed. (pbk.) N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1989. The story is on pp. 155-156 of that edition.

posted at: 01:48 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 24 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 6: Does All Religion Cause Evil?

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find all posts in this critique, including the present one, here.

One of the main lines of argument in The God Delusion is the argument that religion leads to evil. The book is chock-full of descriptions of the evils of religion. However, these examples, dramatic as they are, prove absolutely nothing about the existence of God. The examples do not show that belief in God leads to evil. They only show that certain beliefs about God lead to evil. You don't need to hold these particular beliefs to believe in God.

It is silly to jump from the premise that religion has caused evil, to the conclusion that belief in God causes evil. A careful observer of religions should be able to figure out that belief in God, by itself and without other beliefs, does not force you to do evil. What causes the evil is not belief in God, but certain beliefs about God. Specifically, the evil comes from two kinds of beliefs about God: beliefs that imply that people should harm others, and beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them.

Here are a few examples of beliefs that imply that people should harm others:

  • The belief that God has ordered us to force our religion on others.
  • The belief that God has ordered believers to kill infidels.
  • The belief that God has ordained cruel laws and punishments.
  • The belief that God has ordered women to obey men.
  • The belief that God has told us to beat our children.

Here are two example of beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them:

  • The belief that sinners or unbelievers go to an eternal hell. (Dawkins is right when he shows this belief can cause horrible unnecessary misery right here on earth (pp. 317-322).)
  • The belief that committing a sin makes God want to punish you, or otherwise puts some kind of spiritual stain on you. (Guilt about sin is one of the greatest of all evils inflicted in the name of religion. It lies at the basis of many of the other evils. I'm not talking about the simple moral belief that wrongdoing should be avoided. I'm talking about the theological idea of sin with all that it entails.)

Dawkins' book contains references to these beliefs and more. However, you can believe in God without accepting any harmful beliefs of these two kinds. It is these other beliefs that cause problems - not belief in God as such. Belief in God is not the cause of the evils that Dawkins points out. At most, Dawkins has built a case against religion as it exists today, with its many and sometimes strange beliefs. He has not built a case against the simple belief in God as such. That is something different.

Dawkins has failed to build a case that belief in God is evil. Has he built a convincing case that religion is evil?

Dawkins' examples of the evils of religion form a strong case against bad religion - that is, religious beliefs that deny fact (as creationism does) or that deny sensible, humane moral feelings (as jihad does). His examples do not form a case against good religion - that is, personal views of the meaning of existence that do not try to overrule testable fact or decent morality. Dawkins' book is not friendly to distinctions between good and bad religion (see, for example, pp. 301-308), but the difference is real. Some liberal, moderate personal interpretations of religion are examples of good religion. Whether or not these good interpretations are right, they are not causes of evil behavior, provided that they actually respect fact and real morality. A belief system that respects ordinary human decency (including the rejection of murder and cruelty) cannot approve cruel or murderous behavior, because its moral outlook frowns on such behavior. A belief system that respects scientific facts (including evolution) cannot endorse superstition, because its very essence is to deny superstition.

Do genuinely moral and fact-respecting forms of religion exist? Yes! Many religious believers already are following this kind of religion. They may claim that they belong to some traditional sect or other, but if so, they interpret the teachings of their sect in a humane and realistic way. I have known many Christians and Jews of this kind. I am confident that they have counterparts in all the other major religions. I have known Christians who focused almost exclusively on the Golden Rule and on the universal love that Jesus symbolizes. They believed in a good God, ignored the nasty stuff in the Old Testament and in Paul's writings, and did not really believe in hell. A skeptic might accuse such people of being selective about their scriptures (compare the example of nonviolent Muslims on p. 307). However, this complaint, even if true, pales beside the fact that these believers put kindness and reason ahead of authority and dogma. In any case, selective reading of scriptures can make sense if you do not believe your scriptures are literally true.

Dawkins also claims that faith is bad, even in liberal religions, because if people are encouraged to believe things on faith then they are more likely to become extremists (pp. 301-308). This argument ignores the obvious fact that faith does not have to be unquestioning blind faith. There also is such a thing as informed faith. Informed faith respects science, reason, and humane moral sentiments. It does not challenge these, but only takes stands on questions that science, reason, and ethics cannot answer. Examples of such questions might include the ultimate meaning and purpose (if any) of existence. Taking an optimistic stand on this question might be a desirable thing to do from the standpoint of human life, even if we don't know the answer. [1]

Faith might not even be necessary for belief in God. I've argued elsewhere that there are ways to know about God without faith. The God we find this way might not fit Dawkins' overly narrow idea of God, but still it is a supreme being.

Dawkins shows a tendency to carp on bad forms of religion and to downplay more plausible and rational forms. His book is full of examples of crazy or strange religions: cargo cults, militant sects, and the rest. Suggesting that these represent religion is like suggesting that a newspaper horoscope represents the science of astronomy. Just as there is good science and bad science (or pseudoscience), so also there is good religion and bad religion. Dawkins focuses on bad religion and thinks he is building a case against good religion too. You can't prove much about religious beliefs in general by focusing on the bad examples.

Has Dawkins built a convincing case against religion? No. Has he built a convincing case against ignorant and cruel forms of religion? Yes - but thoughtful believers already know these forms are wrong, without being lectured by an atheist.



[1] The philosopher William James made essentially this same point about faith, and argued it very well. See "The Will to Believe," in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover Publications, 1956).

posted at: 00:58 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 22 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 5: The Causes of Religion Cannot Prove Religion False

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

In this post I will comment on Dawkins' ideas about the causes of belief in God.

In Chapter 5, Dawkins points out several causes that might make people tend to believe irrationally in God or religion. Some of the causes have to do with evolutionary biology, mostly focusing on religion as a "by-product" (p. 172) of evolved tendencies or behaviors. Other causes are cultural; they have to do with the spread and persistence of beliefs and ideas in societies. By proposing these explanations of religion, Dawkins is trying to counter the common view that religion must be right because it is so widespread (see pp. 2 and 159).

It's interesting to watch how Dawkins prejudices the debate by using biased language to describe these phenomena. He uses the term "misfiring" to describe situations in which something in the brain starts to perform a new function that supports religion (p. 188). Regardless of this word's scientific connotations, it clearly suggests there is something wrong. (Why not use "redirection" or some other, more neutral word? Elsewhere Dawkins acknowledges that "misfiring" isn't always a bad word (p. 221). He sure doesn't insist on that point when he discusses religion.) When the alleged cause of religion is cultural, Dawkins often describes it in terms of the spread of "memes" (pp. 191-201). This post isn't the place for a debate on the merits of the meme concept in general. However, it is interesting that Dawkins uses language that paints mental pictures of the automatic spread of a disease germ. He even compares religion to a virus (pp. 186, 188). By using these loaded metaphors, Dawkins marginalizes the fact that the spread of an idea involves conscious, and sometimes even thoughtful, decisions by human thinkers. If you voluntarily decide to change your religious beliefs, that is your decision. The fact that you can make this one decision for yourself is more important than any amount of talk about how beliefs spread. The possibility that human behavior is predictable does not make this fact less significant [1].

Dubious language aside, Dawkins' argument about the causes of religion is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a God. His suggestions about evolutionary and cultural causes for religion are interesting, and may even be wholly or partly right. Dawkins' proposed causes of religion may indeed help to explain why religion is so widespread. However, these claims about the causes of religion have little bearing on the truth of belief in God. Why? Simply put, people sometimes arrive at correct beliefs for the wrong reasons - so the mere fact that a belief has irrational causes doesn't imply that the belief is wrong.

As Dawkins and many others know well, some widely held religious beliefs are grossly wrong. The idea that the world was created in seven literal days is one example. It is easy to imagine that beliefs like these gain their force from irrational causes like the ones Dawkins discusses. However, the vagaries of evolution and culture sometimes cause us to hold true beliefs, too. Evolution created the features of our brains that enable us to recognize that one plus one equals two. The fact that evolution prompts us to believe this does not make 1+1=2 false! Cultural processes, like evolutionary ones, don't just perpetuate false beliefs. They also perpetuate true beliefs. Probably you haven't personally verified every single "fact" that your teachers taught you in school. Perhaps you accepted most of these "facts" when they were taught to you - yet most of these alleged "facts" really are facts. (Dawkins recognizes that children absorb truth, as well as error, from authority figures; see pp. 174-176.) The fact that authority or irrational tendencies tilt us toward certain beliefs does not make those beliefs wrong. To think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy - a logical mistake in which a thing (or a belief) is assumed to have the features of its source or cause.

If we want to find out how much of religion is true, we must examine specific religious beliefs to find out whether they are true or false. Finding out why we tend to favor these beliefs is not the same as finding out whether the beliefs are true. If we find that we are holding a belief for a stupid reason, then the belief still might be true. After all, people sometimes hold true beliefs for the wrong reasons. The important question is not "Where did it come from?", but "Is it right?"

In one especially funny place (pp. 184-186), Dawkins compares religion to falling in love. He suggests (mentioning Dennett as a source for the idea) that religion may be a side effect of the evolved mechanisms that produce romantic love. My first reaction when I read this was: Well, duh! Many mystics have known of the kinship between religious and romantic experience. This is not a new discovery, nor is it an argument against religion. Mystics of many different traditions know that emotions related to sex and love can be harnessed to produced unusual states of consciousness and spiritual insights. The Tantric tradition, especially its Hindu branch, offers some extreme examples of this. The romantic poets of all nations and traditions offer other examples. If Dawkins thinks the link between sex, romance and religion is a new discovery, he has some studying to do. Likewise if he thinks this link is evidence against religion.

Dawkins' arguments about the causes of religion cannot help to discredit religion. To think that they can is to commit a logical fallacy, and to ignore a basic fact about evolution and culture: "irrational" forces sometimes shape organisms so that the organisms hold true beliefs.

Dawkins' supposed causes of religion might form part of the reason why people believe. However, I'd like to offer another possible cause for the stubborn persistence of belief in God. (I've already said something about this subject, and the origin of religions, near the end of an earlier post.)

As I've explained elsewhere, certain subjective personal experiences seem to offer deep insights into reality that ordinary experiences do not provide. (I'm not talking about Dawkins' silly examples of so-called "religious" experiences (pp. 87-92); see here for the differences.) Often these deeper experiences show the world to be a unity, or "one," in an unexpected way. These experiences can reveal an awesome goodness and beauty in the universe - a goodness and beauty so perfect that one's immediate emotional reaction is one of soaring love. What is more, some of these experiences are accurate in a certain sense: they contain true insights even if they also contain an element of illusion.

A spiritual experience of this sort might prompt a person to believe that there is a single ultimate reality underlying the universe, or a supreme good that encompasses all other goods, or a supreme beauty of which all other beauties are visible manifestations. In other words, these experiences can lead people toward belief in a supreme being of some kind. This being isn't the same as the supernatural God that Dawkins likes to bash (defined on pp. 12-13 and p. 31), but it is a supreme entity nonetheless - and an entity that is not just "dead" matter, but is full of meaning, value, and other "mindlike" qualities.

If people have these experiences and understand them, that is real spirituality. If people have these experiences and misunderstand them, the result might well be belief in a dogmatic supernatural idea of God. A person with a limited background of ideas to choose from might confuse a perceived supreme good with a ghostly spirit of some kind, or with a mythical humanoid creator figure. This would be especially likely to happen in the early days of the human race, when mythological and supernatural explanations were the rule.

As I've argued in God: the Next Version and elsewhere, some real spiritual experiences actually do disclose a being worthy to be called "God." It isn't hard to imagine how people who have heard secondhand of these experiences might invent distorted supernatural beliefs about God. Eventually, when the original experiences are forgotten, confused or malicious people might hijack the resulting belief systems, and invent tragic perversions such as fundamentalism and fanaticism in the name of an imagined superbeing. The best response to these perversions is not atheism, but an effort to reproduce and understand the original experiences.

Many people have had legitimate spiritual experiences. Many have had them without even knowing what they had. (Perhaps they thought they only had a breathtaking moment of romantic love, or of amazement at the vastness of the cosmos, or of "being at one with nature.") If the possibilities of human nature include these spiritual experiences, that might help to explain why belief in God is so persistent.

Dawkins' explanations of religion might form part of the reason why we tend to believe in God. However, there might be another, nobler reason as well. People tend to have real spiritual experiences, and those experiences can show us a supreme being - even if we are not always smart enough to understand what that being is like.



[1] Note that I am not begging the question of the predictability of human action. Whether your decision was predictable or not, it was your voluntary decision. (Many philosophers think predictability is compatible with free will. This idea is called "compatibilism." See my own compatibilist article here.)

posted at: 21:49 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

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