Saturday, April 19, 2008

Problems with The God Delusion, part I

I set out in Dawkins’ book thinking that I would get at least a presentation of the reasons offered for faith in God or even for belief in the reasonableness of the proposition of God. Initially, Dawkins came across as somewhat reasonable. His question was simply this (or so he said): why is the faith of believers treated unhesitatingly with respect and not critical analysis? We do we let certain religious assumptions go by without question while all other areas of human existence come under scrutiny?

I think that is a fair question, albeit asked in apparent unawareness of the other areas of human existence in which modern people (at least in Europe and the “West”) approach questions of morality and thought. I do think we need to look critically at what we believe, and if respect means unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of a belief, then I agree that we should not “respect” all beliefs without question. However, while Dawkins poses this question, that really isn’t his intent (or at least the intent he conveys in this book). The question he is really posing is, why shouldn’t we treat religion derisively? Why shouldn’t we treat it with contempt?
To demonstrate what I mean, the last paragraph of chapter 1 sets us up to expect a fair, critical analysis of religion. It’s about as clear a statement of intent as one can expect or get:

It is in light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimed for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.[1]

Fair enough, or so I thought. The first page of the next chapter, “The God Hypothesis,” starts off thus:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[2]

If this god were an actual person (as we believe Him to be), then we would undoubtedly have to see Dawkins’ first salvo as a logical fallacy—an overt ad hominem rather than a substantive claim. The beginning of the next paragraph in which the author claims it unfair to attack such an easy target rings a little hollow. Of course, he also knows that attacking one perception of God is not the same as addressing the possibility of any supreme being. He acknowledges this and proposes a definition of the God hypothesis: “[T]here exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created this universe and everything in it, including us”[3]. Very good. We have a definition, even if it’s not phrased exactly how we would like. This at least gives us a direction. He also proposes an alternative view: “[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end of an extended process of gradual evolution”[4].

These statements are useful because they frame the discussion and give it boundaries. So why does Dawkins begin with what he knows will be an inflammatory statement? If he intends to provide a reasoned discussion of these two positions, why does he start the chapter with the literary equivalent of a handful of sand in the face?[5]

It’s simple. Dawkins doesn’t intend to fight fair or play by the rules of rational argument. He wants to win, and he will present the facts (and sometimes the fictions) in whatever way he can to exploit what he considers the weaknesses of his opponents. Dawkins’ method is evident in every treatment of the reasons for faith. He presents no religious in its entirety or even in an acceptable précis. He presents the most basic description of an argument for God or faith, often highly slanted to increase its apparent absurdity, then hammers away at the absurdity he has conjured, often without any logical subtlety or lucidity. A case in point is the five “proofs” of the existence of God of Thomas Aquinas, as well as other common proofs for God’s existence. I will address these points in the next post.

Part II
Part III

1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company), p. 27.
2. Ibid, p. 31.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. What I mean by “sand in the face” is the common convention in movies (no doubt with some real-world substance) in which the bad guy will throw a handful of dust in the face of the good guy just as the bout commences, leaving the good guy at a disadvantage (that is, temporarily blinded) and unable to raise an adequate defense quickly.
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