Michael Battalio

Sunday, August 31, 2008

This I Believe (part 4)

This is part four of my “This I Believe” series. I’m going to be spending most of the time delving into my struggles in deciding what it is I actually believe. I have had trouble over the last several years defining exactly what it is I prescribe to as a worldview. I consider myself a man of science, but I also consider myself a man of faith. So, where am I exactly? I hope to figure some of it out here.

This entry into the series will focus on “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, specifically a critique of some the more ambiguous points. A kind of editor’s note: these are undeveloped ideas and just about each paragraph is a separate thought. If I have more time, I will explore these ideas more thoroughly later.

Dawkins argues that a free, omnipotent God controlling every atom and answering every prayer usurps the role of science. He feels that science must be able to explain everything, and that a supernatural power that is not ruled by science lessens the meaning of science. In effect, the argument defines science as something that can have no holes, that must be omniscient, that must explain everything without any supernatural causes (GD 147-8). That argument is no better than making Science a kind of God. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the wording he uses is what bothers me. It is almost as if he is making science a religion, which is a bit worrisome in itself.

Dawkins argues that a grand designer would be so complicated that he would need an even more grand designer to design Him. He has something there, but he’s trying to constrain religion, which is difficult to do. Religion has God conveniently boxed up as an omni-present, omnipotent, omniscient being. By definition, there is nothing greater than He. If he's everywhere, he's always existed. He doesn't need a creator. If he is all powerful, it doesn't matter how complicated He needs to be. He's all powerful. If he's all knowing, it doesn't matter how much knowledge it took to create the universe. But his argument does reveal that argument by design can be a circular argument, i.e. if the world is so complex that there is no way it cannot be designed, then there must be some complex being that designed it, but if there is a being more complex than the universe, who designed Him. Et cetera. (See the paragraph on the Kalam Cosmological Argument in part 3 of this series.)

Dawkins is also unnecessarily hostile towards religion. Several times throughout the book I found myself feeling insulted by his derogatory comments on religion, and here I am reading the book because I might agree with him. He is correct in saying that I only am so easily insulted because I have been raised religiously, and I should try to remove the chains of thought that a religious mindset had lock me to. But that does not change that the feelings I have toward religion are there now. There's nothing I can do about those preconceived notions, much less the preconceived notions of others who are merely reading his book out of curiosity. If his goal is to make atheism more accepted and make theism seem less ominous, he is being self-defeating. He would do better trying to cater to those individuals who are being introspective instead of being belligerent.
However, his hostility might serve a purpose. By attacking God, Dawkins is attempting to cut down the barriers that many, including me, have against crossing God's infallible commands. Although I felt resentful occasionally, every once in a while I did have to step back and say, "Wait, he does have a point." The God of the Old Testament is, to quote Dawkins: "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Turning one into a pillar of salt just for turning one's head around out of curiosity seems a bit harsh of a punishment. I do have a hard time combining the God of the Old Testament to that of the New.

There is an element of the straw man in the book as well. Dawkins tries to take the best elements of science to dispute the worst elements of theology. To quote Marilynne Robinson, "If religion is to be blamed for the fraud done in its name, then what of science? Is it to be blamed for the Piltdown hoax, for the long-credited deceptions having to do with cloning in South Korea? If by 'science' is meant authentic science, then 'religion' must mean authentic religion, granting the difficulties in arriving at these definitions." One cannot defeat the egregious errors of religion and ignore the errors of science. While true that science did eventually uncover the Piltdown hoax and the fraud of cloning in South Korea. Religion is also attempting to flesh out the inconsistencies in its own beliefs.

One of Dawkins most interesting propositions is that of the "meme." A meme is a gene of culture essentially. It's a bundle of cultural beliefs that are passed on, so to speak, from generation to generation. A key distinction between genes and memes is that memes don't necessarily help the holder of that meme survive; it is just the meme itself that is surviving. Dawkins supposes that memes are why religions have remained so strong despite the lack of proof. For example, a religion is aided in it own survival if one of its beliefs is that God or some other higher power punishes disbelief. The religion will survive if punishment is sufficiently awful. Hence why Christianity and Islam have become so prevalent. Who would want to be thrown to the eternal fire? Or who wouldn’t want 72 virgins when they die?

I believe Dawkins’s largest fault is his bias. Dawkins does not speak with a single theist; just as Strobel did not speak with a single atheist. Many of his critics, both agnostic and religious alike, point out that Dawkins does not take on some of the greatest writings of religion, instead focusing on dismantling it from the edges, as opposed to facing some of its best literature head on.

Confused by my logic? Leave me a comment. Next, a comment on the lack of respect in the argument over religion.
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