Monday, May 19, 2008

The God Delusion reviewed (Part 1)

So I managed to get my hands on a copy of The God Delusion (Thanks, Roy!) and I've finally read it. Right now, you are thinking, "miller, are you normally late to parties?" Yes. Yes I am.

Overall, The God Delusion is well written. Richard Dawkins isn't a famous popularizer of science for nothing. However, for me, it wasn't very informative. Dawkins doesn't really say anything I didn't already know. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a broad overview of the issues that concern the atheist movement (keeping in mind that not everyone agrees with Dawkins).

The Courtier's Reply

One of the major reactions to The God Delusion, echoed in countless reviews, was, "Dawkins focuses too much on fundamentalist views of God, and ignores sophisticated theology." PZ Myers famously called this reaction "The Courtier's Reply". Here's the money quote:
Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
The Courtier's Reply is disdained by mainstream atheists, though reasons vary wildly. If you've never noticed, PZ doesn't actually refute the Courtier's Reply in his famous post--he just makes an analogy to ridicule it.

But it is deserving of ridicule, because there is something very wrong about it.* Dawkins does not ever mention [insert sophisticated theologian here] because it would not fit in with the rest of the book. You cannot put "The Argument from Beauty" and Godel's modal ontological argument next to each other. That's right, Dawkins has a section on "The Argument from Beauty" ("Without God, how do you account for Shakespeare?"), which I feel is a self-refuting argument. Dawkins' audience isn't a bunch of philosophers--it's a popular audience.

Dawkins' purpose, after all, isn't to make the end-all refutation of God. His purpose is to effect real change, among real people. As such, much of his writing focuses on things that are down to earth. Even his discussion of the ontological argument was filled with anecdotes, at the expense of including any actual refutations (despite how easy it is to refute). If Dawkins ignores sophisticated theology, it's because such theology is not really all that important to the common person. Furthermore, what need is there to attack the best of religion? Isn't it the worst of religion that needs to be changed the most?

In any case, Dawkins does not focus on fundamentalist religion. If you were looking for a critique of biblical literalism, only the bare bones are there. Good thing too, because I find Bible talk to be boring. His primary focus seems to be on ordinary positions in the middle. Apathetics. Agnostics. Liberal and moderate believers. People who don't believe themselves, but think belief is good for others. (It's been a while since I've used a comic strip to illustrate a point, but here goes!)

i'm certain i've read this 'faith=sandcastle' thing somewhere before years ago, but can't find a source.  sorry if i am ripping you off, dude in the past with no religion!

Whether Dawkins' arguments against all these different positions are valid is another matter. For the most part, he manages to cover all the basic points.

And yes, Dawkins mentions sophisticated theology too, only to say that it's obscurantist. Dawkins' opinion seems to be that it's all just meant to look real advanced and sophisticated when there's not really anything there. Ironically, this is also a good description of the Courtier's Reply itself. Usually, the person who gives the Courtier's Reply will simply drop a name ("[such-and-such] is way more sophisticated than Dawkins") without including anything of substance. That's all you can expect from a short review in the popular press.

Similarly, that's all you can expect from Dawkins in his short, popular book, especially since its range is so broad.

See part two, in which I am more critical of Dawkins.

*Note that most of my argument against the Courtier's Reply is based on the premise that we're talking about Dawkins' book. Some misguided atheists like to declare "Courtier's Reply!" in a variety of situations as if that were a complete and self-evident refutation of all of theology. Not all of theology is always irrelevant!


Anonymous said...

I know someone who, upon seeing the movie, The Titanic, could not believe that anyone in real life would risk her life to save her lover, like the girl in the movie. It was clear from talking to her that she had never been in love, and would never understand until she had fallen in romantic love. I think that atheists, if they want to convince others to be atheists, have never had a religious experience with God.
I think it is a delusion to think that there will ever be many more atheists than there are now, unless there is a religion without god that largely replaces some religions we have now. (I am thinking of religions where people go into trance-like states from meditation or even drugs like peyote.) People stay with their religion not just because of logic, any more than they fall in love just because of logic. In many, many people’s lives there is or has been a time when they were extremely, almost absurdly, happy believing in God, even if only for a day or a week, and they want that feeling to stay or to come back. Or they are at least content when otherwise their lives would be full of despair. (Have you ever faced imminent death, lost your family to disaster, spent a long time in prison or a prison camp, been in extreme poverty, or other extreme hardship? Even losing one loved one counts, if that was very hard for you.) They try very hard to believe, and for most everyone, it takes a strong effort to fully believe. They don’t want anyone to convince them it’s wrong, anymore than someone who is madly in love wants someone to convince them they are better off without that other person.

miller said...

Anonymous, I was about to chew you out for using "delusion" in the opposite direction when I had just criticized Dawkins for using the same word. But then I remembered that I haven't published that part of my review yet.

You do not need to be loveless to believe that love is not a cosmic force, but rather, a force that only exists within people's minds (perhaps the most powerful place it can exist). Similarly, a religious experience should not compel anyone to believe in a cosmic force. Indeed, if you actually talk to atheists, many of them will tell you that they have had religious experiences.

One last point: I think your argument is incompatible with the "Courtier's Reply". If I were to agree with you, I'd be forced to believe that only emotional appeals (meaning, ridiculing religion without any substantial criticism) could possibly be effective. But the Courtier's Reply basically says there isn't enough substantial criticism. So what do people want: substantial scholarly arguments, or pure emotional appeals? I suppose people simply want atheists to shut up. While we're at it, let's also stop all public discussion of politics--no good could possibly come of that either.

miller said...

You are also assuming that all religious people have had religious experiences, which is not any more true than saying that no atheists have had religious experiences.

Anonymous said...

The point was simply that few people will become atheists, no matter what the logic. And few people who have had religious experiences will try very hard to keep others from having them, even if they have lost their religious beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Relax, I didn't mean to start a flame-war. I wasn't angry when I wrote the stuff above. I don't believe I made an argument for or against God, or said whether I was religious or not or had a religious experience myself. Maybe I should have used little smiling faces :). The word "delusion" was too strong, but that was just taken from the title of the book you were writing about. If you have never faced great tragedy, I do not mean to imply that you should have.

miller said...

Oh, no, I'm not really angry either. :)

At first I was slightly offput by the fact that you used "delusion" but then I realized that I hadn't even published the part in my review where I criticized it. It was an ironic moment for me.

And look, I'm a "moderate" atheist (if there is such a thing), and I have sympathy for the view that there is little point to trying to deconvert people. But saying that all efforts are futile because people will never be logical--well, I encounter this attitude not just with respect to religion, but with more classic skeptical topics as well. Among other things, it assumes our only goal is to persuade the believers.