Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Trio of Book Reviews: a.k.a. Check Ye Spirits at Thy Door, No. 1

Conscience: the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking--H. L. Mencken

I'm just finishing a trio of books on religion, or on religious subject matter. The first, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I bought when it came out in hardcover a year ago, and only got around to reading now. The other two are by Christopher Hitchens: his recent God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and his 1995 book on Mother Theresa, Missionary Position--Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice. I'll start with Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins is on my short list of favorite authors. I first read him about 15 years ago, after finding him quoted often in Robert Wright's review of Evolutionary Psychology, The Moral Animal. The excerpts of Dawkins's writings, then confined to The Extended Phenotype, River Out of Eden and The Selfish Gene, were compelling, and I bought the latter book as soon as I was done with Wright's. On the strength of that book, I eagerly devoured every next thing Dawkins wrote: The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, the Ancestor's Tale. These books do a masterful job of showing us what evolution is, how it works and what its implications are. He writes with great clarity and has an engaging and passionate voice, and I recommend all of these books most eagerly.

Dawkins, like the man to whose theory he has devoted so much of his career, Charles Darwin, is someone whom influential religious people love to hate (and, it bears saying, love to encourage their followers to hate). Though neither Darwin nor Dawkins in all his books before this present one spend any time, really, talking about gods and spirits, any fool can see that the mechanism of evolution, exposed by Darwin and illuminated by Dawkins, cuts the legs from the very idea of the supernatural. When we understand how biology works, our imaginary friends are shown to be redundant--and worse, they add a further layer of gummy improbability which must be declared by fiat to be immune from scrutiny (it can't work any other way). Religious resistance to evolution is not an opposition to the logic and evidence of it per se, but rather a desperate demand that a cherished worldview be left unassailed.

I always loved that Dawkins didn't waste time on this silly morass. Religion as a cultural phenomenon may have to be dealt with, but that's not his field or his concern. He is a biologist, a scientist, and his passion and mission is to explain the still-misunderstood (or very often completely unknown) observations and methodology of science to the unwashed masses. Religion, in this context, seems best dealt with by simply not dealing with it: just go on about the business of biology and the supernatural world naturally assumes its proper character, marginalized and irrelevant.

So I was naturally interested to see what Dawkins had to say when I learned he was to address religion directly. But I was also disappointed that he was bothering to state plainly what had been eloquently implicit hitherto. I guess there are a lot of people among the large percentages who claim some generic religious beliefs who in reality are not clinging very tightly, and maybe that group will have the dirt of mythology shaken effectively from their roots by Dawkins' prose. But I think I would have a better chance convincing the religiously-waffling to tackle The Selfish Gene than I would a book called The God Delusion. People who are not avowed atheists will often resist a challenge (let alone a shotgun blast) to the very idea of faith, while nobody who's not already a confirmed religious nut will automatically turn their back on biology. After all, science when popularly presented is often just a description in layman's terms of what has been observed in the world. (What those observations cause you to lay awake at night pondering is another matter.) I'm glad he's not pussy-footing around to placate the faithful, but I think the greater imperative is to reach them at all.

This is exactly why the church was on the attack about Dawkins' writings (and Darwin's) even before he called a spade a spade and declared their god to be a mental malfunction. But I no sooner dove into the book than I decided that I was just not the audience he was aiming at--I had moved beyond this point; three decades ago, even. It's not that I could have written this book, or that my own convictions could be so eloquently enumerated; but by the time I was 15 it was already clear to me that this elaborate supernatural world was a weird cultural phenomenon wherein we agreed to treat as real a thing we all knew obviously wasn't. So with me Dawkins is preaching entirely to the choir already; I don't need persuading about this subject matter, and I'm not interested in learning how to waste my life beating down the faithful. I'm not unhappy to talk about the subject with others, but I don't think anyone will make headway about so emotionally-laden a subject without laying a groundwork of long-standing, and approaching the subject with respect and affection for those to be disabused. Just yelling at people about their futile and harmful stupidity will change exactly zero minds, and make us all seem like Fred-Phelps-like sociopaths (tho I can't always help myself). Other tactics must be employed.

Not that he is wantonly abrasive. Dawkins is not gratuitously combative (though he pulls no punches in person or on the page), but his modus operandi is not to gently take one's hand and lead one thru a low-threat field trip of the scientific method and its products. And while that directness is admirable, especially in science but here too, his no-nonsense approach is not tailored to the religiously-squeamish.

In the end, I'm not sure to whom I'd recommend this book. I'm always eager to steer people toward Dawkins' writings, and I think he has in his career done a great service to humanity; I agree with and find resonance with most everything in here, but I think I'd point people toward The Selfish Gene, or Climbing Mount Improbable or Unweaving the Rainbow or The Blind Watchmaker. In addition to being wonderfully well-written, these books also open our minds to the wonders of the world which science has revealed to us, which is a brilliant argument both for the scientific method and for the world itself. These latter books are positive books, books which help us learn and grow. However much I'm sympathetic to Dawkins's goals and convictions, The God Delusion feels like a defeat in a way, as he has been sidetracked from his mission to answer this deadly silliness. And the only people I'm afraid will give it the time it needs are those who don't need it.

I'll include a few nice quotes.

A list of some mainstream Christian beliefs:
  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried for three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but 'ascended' bodily into 'heaven.'
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

On the 'design' argument:
Time and again, my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name of God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word 'God' carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence. To suggest that the original prime mover was complicated enough to indulge in intelligent design, to say nothing of mindreading millions of humans simultaneously, is tantamount to dealing yourself a perfect hand at bridge. [Much, much less probable even than that, I'd say.] Look around at the world of life, at the Amazon rainforest with its rich interlacement of lianas, bromeliads, roots and flying buttresses; its army of ants and its jaguars, its tapirs and peccaries, treefrogs and parrots. What you are looking at is the statistical equivalent of a perfect hand of cards (think of all the other ways you could permute the parts, none of which would work)--except that we know how it came about: by the gradualistic crane of natural selection. It is not just scientists who revolt at mute acceptance of such improbability arising spontaneously; common sense balks too. To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.

Martin Luther was well aware that reason was religion's arch-enemy, and he frequently warned of its dangers: 'Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.' Again: 'Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.' And again: 'Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.' Luther would have had no difficulty in intelligently designing unintelligent aspects of religion to help it survive.

On the Argument from Consolation:
There must be a God, the argument goes, because, if there were not, life would be empty, pointless, futile, a desert of meaninglessness and insignificance. How can it be necessary to point out that the logic falls at the first fence? Maybe life IS empty. Maybe our prayers for the dead really ARE pointless. To presume the opposite is to presume the truth of the very conclusion we seek to prove. The alleged syllogism is transparently circular. Life without your wife may very well be intolerable, barren and empty, but this unfortunately doesn't stop her being dead. There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point.


CyberKitten said...

Excellent review. I pretty much agree with every word.

I read The Selfish Gene in my 20's which made me a confirmed Darwinian (I was already an atheist at that time - actually I've *always* been an atheist). His biological writtings are truely outstanding.

Like you I did think it was a shame that Dawkins felt the need to refute such drivel in such a direct way. I'm sure that he has far better things to do with his time. He was totally preaching to the choir which made the book a bit boring to be honest [grin].

Glad I read it though!

wunelle said...

Me, too. Definitely. I think his body of writings is a huge gift to humanity, and this one belongs in that body.

Anonymous said...

Ooops - I see these comments are posted after November 5, 2006, when Richard Dawkins inadvertantly defined himself as a creationist. Don't believe me? Check out this feed (and do a Ctrl-F on "Boeing 747"):,9171,1555132-7,00.html

Yes indeed, medieval peasants would worship modern man (the creators of the "miracle" 747 jet) the same way modern man worships God who created the miracle of the universe, the laws of physics and chemistry, and last but not least, DNA and living organisms.

You'd think RD would have been prepared for this, thought it through (for all the decades he has been a so-called atheist) or at least would be smart enough not to put his foot in his mouth and reveal his true identity. But his analogy depicted medieval man worshipping the creator of an object showing evidence of Intelligent Design. In other words, RD is using Intelligent
Design (Creation) as his basis for reasoning. Yep, people do tend to worship objects that show strong evidence of intelligent design - just ask RD and any other creationist.

wunelle said...

Hmmm. You're talking about a different Richard Dawkins apparently. The one I'm reviewing here has published very eloquently and at great length. There's no mistaking his views.

Anonymous said...

Check out the URL I provided. That same debate with RD and Francis Perkins was the cover article of Time Magazine a while later. I have that issue somewhere (I think it was Jan 2008). The same discussion is on the web (again, check out the URL).

wunelle said...

I read the snippet. Indeed I've read the discussion between them. But I can't see how you reach your conclusion.

If you want to ignore all he has written (I assume you've not read any of his books?) and label Dawkins as a creationist, why bother with this speech at all? Why not just declare it to be so?

It amounts to the same thing.

Anonymous said...

By the way, sorry for calling Francis Collins "Perkins". I always have trouble remembering his name.

The only reason I have been discussing this is that you had said, "Dawkins himself", as if in awe of this man. Yet he revealed himself as an ordinary human with a foible that betrayed atheists everywhere by using Intelligent Design as the basis for his rationale. Doesn't it say something to you that even a scholar like RD can't seem to get around using a miracle to disprove a miracle? Don't you think it a little bit ironic you found yourself thinking about that "Tao video" in terms of miracles?

wunelle said...

What you're taking from this interview just makes me think we're looking at different quotes. I see nothing of what you're referring to.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I was still referring to Dawkin's comments from the 2006 debate with Collins. Ignore my comment about the "Tao video" - I was cross-threading. We should really consolidate this topic on miracles - I am the same "anonymous" from the other thread commenting on the weird Sagan music video.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

"Yep, people do tend to worship objects that show strong evidence of intelligent design - just ask RD and any other creationist."

I'm curious: please show me an exact instance where Richard Dawkins is worshiping objects that show evidence of "intelligent design." What do these objects look like? What could they possible be? I can't wait to feast my eyes on the objects of Dawkin's worship.

Have at it, Hoss. Your move.

-A. Random