Dawkins – Four Years Later

The status of atheists today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago. – Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (p. 4)

I’m glad to see atheistic scientists are not given to shrill hyperbole like religious folk. – xulonjam

A couple of years back, I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I wrote out some of my thoughts on another board which contained many skeptics and atheists. I found my files on this and thought I’d update it a bit and interact somewhat with the objections of the skeptics. I had been thinking of it for a while and I hope this is helpful and/or provocative of discussion. Besides, nothing says “engaging the culture” like interacting with a four year old book which it seems most people have forgotten. This first post is more of a slap-dash of several posts while the rest (maybe three more posts) will hopefully be more cohesive. The word “skeptic” is my shorthand for those who argue against faith. I use it very broadly and non-technically. It makes no distinction between the atheist and the agnostic or even the “I don’t give a flip” people who nonetheless wished to discuss what I said. I use the word with no connection with any “official” group who calls itself “Skeptics”.

On the original board, I started with the above quote to which one skeptic wrote, Is it the same as that against homosexuals in the 50s? Mostly, no. But the common wisdom that there is no prejudice or persecution against atheists is a flat out fallacy and this is closer to the truth than the common wisdom. After toying with challenging that there is a “common wisdom that there is no prejudice against atheists”, I responded I did not say atheists do not have to take heat for their convictions (is there anybody with convictions who does not have to take heat for them?). Plus, I agree that all other things being equal, an atheist will not win an election against a “religious” person (the “proof” Dawkins gives of his statement). Hyperbole, absolutely. The term “shrill”, I believe, does describe the tone of his “poor, poor persecuted us” introduction.

And the introduction is shrill persecution complex. He laments that all things religion “must” be handled with kid gloves and that his documentary on the empty churches in England will “never be shown on American television” (a prophecy that was false even before his book was published here). The point of the pity party is to stack the deck. He has placed so many false images in people’s minds that it would be hard not to get through the introduction already convinced of whatever line he feeds you. Anybody who dares argue with the book has been already dismissed as poisoned. Unlike the words he wishes to put in my mouth, I am not offended that he dare to question my faith, nor am I demanding (as he says I am) that he treat Christianity with kid gloves. But faulty argumentation is faulty argumentation (on whichever side it is used).

And the argumentation is very faulty. First, a caveat: Dawkins has written a popular book. There is a distinction between “popular” books and “technical”. Popular books have more leeway for what in technical writing might be considered imprecise. The way evidence is mustered is also more informal (fewer footnotes, popular rather than technical quotes). Still, popular books can be logically sound. Dawkins majors on an ad hominem type of fallacy called poisoning the wells. It seems Dr Dawkins cannot mention a religious person without a sneer. There is almost inevitably some snide, dismissive comment. Dawkins has no problem slamming a bunch of unfriendly quotes together, the force of which is to say that all Christians (or Jews or Muslims, as he makes no distinction between these groups (He offers a fourth group, Mormons which at least shows he has the insight, against many in Christendom, to know that Mormonism is not a Christian group)) are exactly like this. The result of this is that after focusing on shrill and unfriendly pronouncements by “Christians” he will evoke the rubble where the twin towers used to be, as if it’s all the same kettle of fish

Further, his dismissive disrespect carries on to scientists with whom he disagrees. I am not talking about “religious” scientists. Dawkins addresses what he calls NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magesteria p.55) which means the realms of science and theology do not overlap. Dawkins disagrees that science cannot prove the existence or non existence of God, as you would expect. He further dismisses Theologians from any discussions having to do with anything (he expresses similar disdain for Philosophers). But this is how he describes scientists who accept NOMA: they, Bend over backwards in their (religious people) direction by espousing NOMA … What we might call The Neville Chamberlain school of evolution (pp 66,67)

Even when he mentions an admirable religious person, he also explains why his religion was irrelevant to what made him admirable. So, on page 271 he says, Although Martin Luther King was a Christian, he derived his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience directly from Gandhi, who was not, ignoring, of course that both Gandhi and King based their philosophies on Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5-7) a Christian document.

The form of argumentation Dawkins uses shows his claims of being a dispassionate scientist who is able to calmly and rationally figure out what is going on to be patently false. He writes with the bigotry and with as much “just believe what I say, I’m the authority” as any overbearing religious “authority”.

Time to define terms: by “delusion” Dawkins means that – more than an illusion or fairy tale – belief in God is one that persists despite clear evidence that God does not exist. This evidence is what he hopes to muster in this book. Dawkins defines The God Hypothesis (his term for God) in this way ( p.31) There exists a super-human supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. To my mind, this is adequate in a very general sense (surprisingly so), from the word “who” on, but I think is too homo-centric previous to that word. God is just like us, only bigger? It turns out that “super-human” is a very important consideration for him. The book repeatedly returns to the idea – a given to Dawkins mind – that God (if he exists) is both a product of and subject to the same natural forces as we are.

In my original series, an argument broke out over the definition of God. With some saying that we cannot even start discussing whether god exists without first coming to a mutually acceptable and precise definition of God. I disagreed. One wrote: Given this, the main question of this thread “Does god exist?” doesnt make much sense, until you know the answer for “What is God?” to which I replied, I disagree. The “what is God” question actually is a way to beg the original question. It strikes me as feigned ignorance. He came back with, How can you discuss this if you don’t have the pertinent definition or if the parties involved in the discussion all have different definitions for it? My response: This question, “Does God exist” is confused by the question “what is God” to the extent that it must be considered as a separate question. As of now, I believe it is impossible to come to any agreed definition of “god”. Given that, it begs the question to say that we cannot answer the question of the existence of god until such time as we all agree how to define god. But I did refine what I meant by God saying: by “god” I do not mean some alien or other human race who has better technology than I. neither do I mean anthropomorphized physical forces which I do not understand, both of which have been offered not as definitions of god but as atheistic explanations for what other people might call god. I know that religions have worshipped many beings and some theologies have majored in descriptions such as the “omnis”, but for here rather than get bogged down in minutia, I am content to define god as a being who created the universe. One quibble with my definition is that I prefer to say this being is personal (conscious and thinking), as an impersonal force is no different than anthropomorphized physics.

Back to Dawkins: Dawkins presents this definition claiming to be more fair to religious people, and I think it is compared to how other Atheists have defined a religious person’s god. One of the issues is how one describes something unlike anything one has experienced. You pretty much are stuck with the realm of metaphors. Then there is the tendency to key on one metaphor or to make the metaphor “walk on all fours”, the story of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind.

As I said, while I appreciate that the definition keys on the concept of a Creator, the first part of Dawkins’ definition strikes me as inadequate, making God more a “super-human” than his own self. In fact, later on in the book, he describes hypothetical alien life forms in these terms as well (implying his definition may have been tailor made for his later points). Perhaps he is being influenced by von Daniken or more likely hoping his reader is.

In a discussion concerning the search for extra terrestrial life, he inexplicably takes this left turn, How should we respond? A pardonable reaction would be something akin to worship (p72) Is he admitting that he would worship the higher evolved civilizations? I doubt that, he is making some attempt to explain away religious people by evoking Arthur C Clark’s statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. OK, fine, but he goes on: The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us gods, just like missionaries were treated as gods (and exploited the undeserved honor to the hilt) when they showed up in stone age cultures. (p 73) How did he get, in the space of two paragraphs, from the search for extra terrestrial life to religious people are ignorant worshippers of easily explainable phenomena to missionaries are opportunistic exploiters of stone age people? The only story of which I am aware of someone being treated as a god is Captain Cook, an explorer not a missionary, who was killed by the natives when his deception became evident.

In Dawkins’ book, he addresses the idea that some people claim that science and religion are Non-Overlapping Magestria (NOMA). He disagrees and as I mentioned is not too kind to scientists who accept NOMA. Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Stephen Jay Gould get particular negative attention for affirming NOMA. Dawkins is clear that I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology is a subject at all (p57) and that religion has nothing … to contribute to human wisdom (p57) so ultimately in Dawkin’s view there is no magesterium for religion at all and everything is science’s magesterium. Personally, I do not affirm NOMA, at least the way Dawkins describes it. Science is incapable of proving God because its methods are inadequate, and its commitments cut God out by definition. In a previous conversation with an atheist, I asked what would convince him that God exists. He described a process of meeting God in a laboratory, strapping Him in a chair and attaching probes which will prove His claims. Exactly what machines has science developed which will detect God? Exactly what is it about this atheist, or anybody else for that matter, that will make God turn Himself into some dancing bear for his entertainment? Frankly, if there is a God and He showed Himself to any scientist, I doubt there will be any presence of mind left sufficient to strap Him into a chair.

To deal with the seeming limits of science, Dawkins addresses agnosticism. He quotes, with great approval Carl Sagan’s response in an interview in Skeptical Inquirer (Fall 1987). The interviewer asked Sagan for his “gut feeling” concerning other life in the universe. He replied But I try not to think with my gut. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in. Nice statement, but given other examples of Sagan’s evoking of the odds against there not being alien life forms among the “billions and billions of stars” and his well known claim that alien contact would occur in his lifetime, this quote strikes me as essentially an affectation (gotta play the tune for the skeptics) or at best the recitation of the unattained ideal. Dawkins implication that he also lives by this ideal seems quite off the mark.

In his discussion of agnosticism, Dawkins helpfully distinguishes two types of agnosticism (p47). There is lack of knowing which is either permanent (PAP – Permanent Agnosticism in Practice) or temporary (TAP – Temporary Agnosticism in Practice). TAP is the legitimate fence-sitting where there really is an answer, one way or the other, but we so far lack the evidence to reach it (or don’t understand the evidence or haven’t time to read the evidence, etc.) PAP is appropriate for questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather, because the very idea of evidence is not applicable. The question exists on a different plane, or in a different dimension, beyond the zones where evidence can reach. He goes on to say, Some scientists and other intellectuals are convinced – too eagerly in my view – that the question of god’s existence belong in the forever inaccessible PAP category … The view I shall defend is very different: agnosticism about the existence of god belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer. (p48)

In the ellipsis in the above quote, Dawkins makes what I consider to be a totally bogus claim, that those who take the PAP position often make the illogical deduction that the hypothesis of god’s existence and the hypothesis of his non-existence have exactly equal probability of being right. I have never heard this deduction being made outside of Dawkin’s statement here which stands unsubstantiated. It is a claim he makes as far as I can see for the purpose of introducing probabilities into the question, which he then tries to muster overwhelmingly to his answer (later article on this, but note he says either God exists or he does not. It is a confusion of the issue to introduce odds and probabilities). The result is that he calls himself an agnostic, which he makes sound like he is so far more honest and noble than those who claim certainty concerning god’s existence (p51), but available evidence and reasoning may yield an estimate of probability far from 50 percent (p50). Again, I have never heard anybody claim 50/50 chance of god’s existence. What I have heard is people say there are two possibilities (as Dawkins himself says). There are two choices, not two chances. That said, I have noticed skeptics use a similar process by which whatever one may imagine and label “god” is equally unfalsifiable and thus equally likely (Dawkins does this with both the Cosmic Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster) as if there are no means of distinguishing or testing, or reasoning through beliefs.

I think the TAP/PAP distinction is helpful, but has issues. Dawkins, being a good scientist, places pretty much everything into the TAP category. (For that matter, who “makes the call” that something no longer is considered TAP but PAP? With great justification, don’t ask me to call it, but I would also question Dawkins ability to make the call. Science, by its very nature thrives at refusing to give in to agnosticism, and that is an admirable quality of scientists.) For Dawkins, whatever we might now be agnostic about, he feels certain science will grow and evolve to discover and embrace knowledge of it. I don’t know how Dawkins justifies his certainty that god is not “on a different plane, or a different dimension” sufficiently to place his existence into the PAP category.

In my world view, the existence of God is in the TAP category because (and only because) God reveals Himself, but not by allowing people to strap him into scientific chairs. He reveals himself in personal and not scientific terms. Afterward, the revelation changes you. So, of the scientists I know who are Christians, the physicist sees God at work through his telescope, the biologist sees Him in the cells through his microscope and the Sociologist sees His image in the societies he studies.

I suspect that Dawkins probably would kick my friends out of the “scientist and other intellectuals” club because of their Christianity, which brings me to a major problem with the scientific claim that it will someday settle forever the existence of god question through scientific means. In the claim there is the inherent assumption that scientists are honest and sincere clean slates who will weigh evidence impartially and fairly no matter where it will lead them. This is a false assumption. Dawkins clearly demonstrates his falseness to this ideal in the question of god. Humanity is basically misotheistic (mis=hatred + theos=god). This is a strange claim given the universal evidence of religion through its history, but here is equally universal evidence to the chafing under religion, the universal witness to not living up to one’s religion no matter how devout one is as well as the cynical use by some of the religions for personal empowerment. Hatred of God can be observed universally including my own heart.

Dawkins hypothesizes that should evidences for biblical events turn up the methods we should use to settle the matter … would be purely and entirely scientific methods (p59) He doesn’t explain why this is true but it is natural he would feel this way given his commitment to dismiss all evidence which is not “scientific”. He goes on to say that should this happen religious apologists … would trumpet it to the skies” despite their current PAP claim. Of course, we all know what self-serving, intellectually dishonest hypocrites those theologians are, but there is a second side to Dawkins hypothetical situation, the reaction of Dr Dawkins himself. I do not muster “scientific” evidence for God, but if I had a “scientific evidences only” friend and such evidence were to show up, what is wrong with me repeating it and asking for a response? In Dawkins case, he places a lot of weight on the scientific evidences basket and it now exists “What do you say now, Dr Dawkins?” is not “trumpeting” but a legitimate question. I feel certain the response will be as self-serving and hypocritical as any theologian’s. “I remain unconvinced. There could be something wrong with the proof”.

Skeptics regularly misapply Occam’s Razor to this question. A universe without a god is certainly simpler than one with a god, so there is no god. But Occam’s Razor is an approach to data, not an excuse to cut out “complicating” data. Skeptics, in fact, go with the “anything but god” answer. They employ their imaginations to come up with some “natural” explanation which makes anything close to sense and conclude “and so we don’t need a god.” It is almost always written like that and ostensibly, what they mean is they do not need god as an explanation, but is closer to the truth as written. So, Dawkins (pp 91,92) refers to the vision of Fatima, witnessed by 70,000 people, when the sun tore itself from the heavens and came crashing down upon the multitude. Naturally, being a materialist, there is no category in his thinking for the possibility that it was a religious vision, but either it was literally true that the sun hit the earth or that it was false. It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people saw the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage (they had been persuaded to stare at the sun, which can’t have done much for their eyesight). But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated. He doesn’t know what happened, he cannot deny something was witnessed by seventy thousand people, but rather than consider there is something other than a “natural” explanation he places it (temporarily, of course) into the TAP category and notes that anything but god is a better explanation.

My description of Dawkins and his writing is perhaps overdrawn. These are the writings of a zealot, not a scientist. He does not hide that this book is a call for all atheists to rally, and for religious people to join him in the liberating airs of atheism. What he offers in religion’s place is science which through its commitments to rationality is able to explain things without God. Not everything, not now, but that is temporary. My point at the end is that he is not the “clean slate” observer he claims himself to be, only looking at the facts as they are and only commenting on what he has shown rationally to be true. He has commitments which affect his view of things, and in fact he will allow his commitments to color his presentation of “facts”. “What is truth?” is only a sardonic rhetorical question that regularly precedes the ritual washing of hands. – William H Gass

Two final observations, and, again, forgive the slap-dash nature of this article. One skeptic on the original board wrote: These are two different questions:
Do you think there are powerful forces at play in the universe that we do not understand?
Does God exist?

I think most of us here would agree with the former statement. The latter statement anthropomorphizes the unknown so that it may fit within the confines of our (currently patriarchal) society. The quest for understanding stops when one, bound by human limitations, is sure they have all the answers.

To which I responded, You’ve made some great leaps. Being an atheist, your “questions” and their explanation somewhat demand the atheist’s answer. The answer to the first question is clearly ‘yes’. The answer to the second question is either yes or no and whatever need I may or may not have to anthropomorphize has no bearing on it.

Finally, I had to note that the skeptics were quite quick to not interact with Dawkins’ specific argumentation saying “well, that is not exactly good, but he has a point in that…” I wrote, It seems to me, based on the reaction I’ve seen here, that the relationship between atheists and Dawkins is not unlike that between conservatives and Ann Coulter. They are happy and entertained that someone who agrees with them is smacking down their opposites without conscience, but when specifics of the rhetoric are being analyzed they distance themselves. “This person doesn’t speak for the rank and file. She is a fringe element.”

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2 Responses to Dawkins – Four Years Later

  1. B says:

    On the homosexual quote, maybe Dawkins is simply referring to “skeptics” being “in the closet”: A don’t ask, don’t tell kind of policy that is damaging to both the skeptic and society at large when pluralism is not allowed on the scene. I enjoyed your post. Nice thoughts.

  2. xulonjam says:

    That could be. The intro had a great deal of “we are SO persecuted” so I took it as more of a persecution thing rather than a more passive “we have to stay in the closet” comment.

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