SPidge Tales

Monday, January 22, 2007

The God Delusion: My Book Review

Book Review: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They will believe in just about anything.” Chesterton

In “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins sets out an epic quest to vanquish the forces of theism any and all places they may be found. To the sophisticated theologians who he in advance sees reading his book and smugly adding, “But I don’t believe in an old white bearded man in the sky, either,” Dawkins is quite refreshing in saying upfront that he doesn’t believe in any God, no matter how traditional or postmodern He is conceived. In this, he freshly brings to my mind his English writing forebear, ex-atheist and Christian convert, C.S. Lewis. Lewis recoiled at those who wished to look ‘deeper’ than the outward sign of baptism to find ‘true’ Christians, a task that in the end renders the descriptive word ‘Christian’ into a meaningless colloquialism for ‘good person.’ Likewise, Dawkins has no time for those who would turn the word ‘God’ into a synonym for any force or perceived power that they believes guides their life, as if broadening the word ‘God’ would undercut Dawkins’s critiques of belief in the Deity. If language is to help us, it must not be reduced to nonsense. For the sake of understanding, let’s leave words in their plain meaning of descriptive explanation of concepts, and avoid finding the deeper and truer senses of words that render them useless.

Following his clarification of terms, Dawkins sets out to disprove God through a study of science, particularly his own field of evolutionary biology. His task leads him to offer a hypothesis of how we could have evolved to become believers in deities, an explanation of why he believes we (both non-believers and believers) do not take our moral advice from the Bible, and a dissection of why he believes religion to be not just a harmless false pastime but an active evil needed eradication.

Imagine yourself in the middle of the desert. You come upon a pocket watch. Could this watch have come together by chance? No way. There is obviously a designer who put the pieces together to form the watch or at the very least gave the instructions to those who did build the watch. This is the basic argument from design; when we look out into the world, the places and organisms seem too complex to have come into existence without an intelligent designer.

The sun appears to go around the earth, but we now know this is not the case. Perception is not always reality. The perception of design is another falsehood. It may seem that complex organisms must come from intelligence, but in fact, Dawkins says, intelligence in an endpoint of development, not the starting point. The basic question is; is Intelligence the force propelling creation (theism)? Or, is any and all intelligence we see the end product of a process that goes according to natural scientific laws without and intelligent design (atheism)?

Dawkins here is recasting the old grade school atheist’s question; “well, if God exists, then who created God?” He can’t comprehend, despite his intelligence, witty writing style, and vast evolutionary biology knowledge, that religious people believe that there is a Being who has always existed and it is He who is behind the whole of creation we see. That is not the part of his book that needs real quibbling with. It is in his exposition of morality that he falls far short.

Dawkins points to old Levitical and Deuteronomical laws and regulations that we rightfully don’t follow today in order to point out that we don’t get our morality from Scripture. Our modern morality, he says, comes from purely Enlightenment sources. He unfortunately fails to see that Enlightenment moral principles are the attempt to adopt Christian morality and dress it up as if it came from their own analysis based on reason. Yes, Dr. Dawkins, our morality really does come from Scripture. We do not arbitrarily pick and choose it based on time specific Old Testament (or New Testament) laws, rules, and regulations. For example, the practice of masturbation, called onanism by those who want to show off their vast vocabulary with a biblical phrase, is not condemned by Christianity because of the sin of Onan. Onan, because of cultural custom, was required to marry his dead older brother’s widow Tamar. Any children begotten would be considered sons and daughters of his dead brother. Not accepting this, he chose to spill the seed outside of Tamar. His “sin” was not masturbation, but not living up to his cultural duty; a cultural duty we now rightly regard as a societal anachronism. Christianity condemns practices such as what is wrongly called onanism—and other practices such as fornication and idolatry—not because of specific condemnations scattered throughout Scripture (though they may be present), but because of general theological themes present throughout the Bible. The Church does not condemn gay marriage because of that famous “homosexuality is an abomination” phrase that rightly should be seen in its historical context of other laws requiring such absurdities as the stoning of indolent children. It condemns gay marriage because of the beautiful theological truths present, for example, in the Genesis creation stories that teach how man and woman are created for each other, and man is not complete without his companion. The Church may also condemn practices not appearing Scripture, such as abortion, nuclear war, and drive-by shootings, because she reads the implicit theological messages the Bible is richly filled with.

Dawkins is passionate in his crusade to usher the world into an enlightened age devoid of theistic belief, but, like the 1960’s predictions of the Death of God, the writings of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and friends will fade into obscurity and people mystifyingly (to the cultural elites) will remain religious, until the next generation of atheist prophets pop up again.


Blogger SeanPatrick said...

I posted this same book review on Amazon, and I got a good critical comment from one reader. He commented on a few things I said by quoting them and responding. Below, I share his comment plus my response:

"He can't comprehend, despite his intelligence, witty writing style, and vast evolutionary biology knowledge, that religious people believe that there is a Being who has always existed"

He comprehends this idea fully. He considers it to be unsatisfactory and highly improbable (see chap. 4).

"Our modern morality, he says, comes from purely Enlightenment sources."

This is *not* his argument. Dawkins claims that morality is rooted in the deep Darwinian past. It is not merely pre-Enlightenment or pre-Christian; it is, as primatologists have concluded, pre-human.

"Yes, Dr. Dawkins, our morality really does come from Scripture."

Certain moral ideas have been transmitted via the Judeo-Christian tradition. That does not mean they originated there. Also note how ethnocentric your viewpoint is. The same sort of ethical ideas have been transmitted indepedently by other cultural traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism. (E.g.: Confucius formulated the Golden Rule six centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born.) Also see Aristotle's _Nicomachaen Ethics_.

My response:

I agree with your final point. Teachings such as the golden rule are present in most ancient cultures. I think the Nichomachaen Ethics is the greatest ethical treatise ever written. Aquinas picked up on Aristotle and said we can know right and wrong through the natural law, the law written on our hearts. I should have clarified the point I was making. C.S. Lewis, in his "Abolition of Man" book, says that there is a basic common morality to all people, what we call the natural law; what others call the Tao: Aristotle's idea that all things have a purpose of end, and it is our task to seek that out. By living virtuously, we will find happiness. I certainly support this idea. I do not believe, like Ockham, that morality is divine command, where right and wrong or only so because God arbitrarily made it so.

Unfortunately, this Aristotelian morality is not the morality Dawkins subscribes to our suggests that we should subscribe to. Dawkins accepts a utilitarian view of morality along the lines of Mill, Bentham, and--truly unfortunately--that modern monster Peter Singer, who believes it's wrong to eat a hamburger but okay to kill a newborn baby. He thinks animals are somehow equal to humans and should count as persons, but some persons such as unborn, handicapped newborns, and terminally ill old people, should not count as persons and can be killed for the "greater good."

1:45 PM  

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