Monday, October 25, 2010

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins, and the new atheists in general, have a reputation for nastiness.  Having read Dawkins' book “The God Delusion”, I say such a reputation couldn't be more ill deserved.  Before reading the book, the title sounds antagonistic, but after finishing the book, it only sounds like a well reasoned and entirely appropriate conclusion.  Even after the first few pages I had to revise the mental image I had of the man, he is much more kind and took a more balanced approach to his subject than I had anticipated!  Of note, I found the sections on the origins of morality (page 219 gives an interesting example of Arabian babblers, little brown birds that compete for costly and dangerous roles) and the inspiration of nature (page 362) to be particularly interesting.  I also enjoyed the frequent references to primary sources in science, literature, and religion.  There is a lot to recommend reading this book.

It is not the only, nor probably the best, reason for a person to leave their religion, but Dawkins summarized the very basic reason why I left religion (page 282):
Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief.  The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning.  The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book.
Despite my honest belief, I came to realize that I valued reasoning over axioms.  It is simply the more responsible approach.  And when that reasoning does not lead to one's professed axioms, deconversion is virtually inevitable.  These are my own words from early 2001 (note the similarity to those of Dawkins' above):
There is nothing wrong with believing a doctrine, the will to believe requires no justification, but if a doctrine is considered inviolable against the inquisitive nature, the very thing that suggested its possibility in the first place, then any further possibilities that are suggested will have to either accord with it or be rejected, although it may be more appropriate to question the primacy of the doctrine itself.
Dawkins makes reference on several occasions to an idea that Dennett put forth: belief in belief.  For some time after I wrote that, and even now, though I do not believe as I did before, I do at times believe in some form of belief.  It isn't that I dislike belief, so much as that I earnestly value reasoning.  (And as it is wont to do, reasoning often stands at odds with cherished beliefs.)  Anyone one who feels the same will find a kindred spirit in this book.

4 comments:

Aratina Cage said...

I think I'm a little more strident in that I dislike belief in gods and I dislike belief that belief in gods is worth having in practice, but then I tend to see god beliefs as an extension of monarchical servility amongst believers and a danger for our national and global society. Such thinking does not sit well within a democracy, and I believe we see the outcome of it reflected in the growing wealth disparity in the USA and the world.

Keir said...

I should clarify that I meant belief in the general sense of the word; as something more akin to an “awareness of the numinous or the transcendent”. But I would formulate my opinions differently now. After reading Dawkins I read Hitchens, who pointed out that “There can be no serious ethical position based on denial or a refusal to look the facts squarely in the face.” And this, for me, is the starting point for anything worthy of my belief. I think ethical beliefs are possible, so long as they account for the facts.

Aratina Cage said...

I like that way of putting it.

Another thing I wanted to say about this post is that we are both lucky to have grown up around relatively progressive Christians--that is to say that their beliefs and their beliefs in belief were characterized by being mostly harmless. I was just reading up on how for some people who were raised by creationists or in a creationist community, simple facts that I took for granted were earth-shattering for them, like the fact that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago, not 6,000 years ago. Can you imagine being raised to by such people? I couldn't.

And you know, I don't think the kind of Christians we were were the kind who rejected evidence or facts. If anything, I can honestly say that I never felt I needed to reject reality to make it conform to my beliefs. I don't believe you ever did either, nor did our caretakers. I suppose I would describe this kind of Christianity as a kind that builds itself up rather than a kind that tears reality down.

Still, I don't know how I ever squared my anti-monarchist/anti-authoritarian mindset with belief in a god other than not really considering it. That divine king aspect of Christianity is the one thing that grates on my nerves during Christmas as it pervades even the best religious Christmas carols.

Keir said...

I agree, we were lucky. There were a lot of different people we grew up around, most were progressive Christians, some were not religious at all. And I cannot recall ever being denied the freedom to explore and choose my own beliefs. As you point out, it could've been a lot worse.

I exercised that freedom when I realized that, contrary to what they say, Christians do not have a special window on truth that no other religion or belief system shares. As I saw it, other approaches to knowledge (many of which deny any supernatural causes) seemed to account for the evidence of reality better than or at least as well as Christianity did. And that was the death knell for my belief. Christianity didn't deserve its special status. Now I categorize it along with other interesting mythologies that have long and complicated histories. If our society could only improve the education and standard of living for everyone I am sure most others would come to the same conclusions as I. (Sadly, I recently heard the national life expectancy just decreased for the first time in years.)

But some people never abandon faith in a diety. (Surely they must consider themselves near the apex of progressive Christianity, verging on some sort of interfaith philosophy.) I think the only thing holding them back from letting go of their delusions is fear. Fear of being alone, fear of responsibility, and the fear of helplessness that hides behind egoistic pride. It takes a mature person to consider that they may be wrong (especially when it isn't obvious they have anything to gain by doing so.) Perhaps it is a sociobiological limitation on their part. But I digress...