Friday, April 6, 2012

Reading The God Delusion

Because of an ongoing conversation with my friend, James, (see earlier post), I recently decided to read The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, which is currently the most widely read popular argument against religion. This post covers some of my reactions to Dawkins’ arguments.
Dawkins justifies the use of the term “delusion”, which is almost certainly used hyperbolically, by arguing that religion not only holds on to beliefs absent evidence to support them, but even when those beliefs are clearly and verifiably contradicted by direct evidence.  Dawkins acknowledges that his use of the term is not technically correct (although it was a shrewd bit of marketing), except when applied to people who claim to have had a real two-way conversation with God or Angels, who may very well be suffering from delusions.
Some aspects of religious dogma, such as young earth creationism, could certainly be called delusional as Dawkins uses the term. Additionally, belief in supernatural miracles or a personally and existentially intercessional God is not only problematic from a rational basis, but, in the Christian tradition, requires a belief that God is transcendentally good, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent yet intercedes only arbitrarily and controvertibly in human affairs.
These, and other inconsistencies in religious practice, provide the basis for Dawkins “delusional” claim, but I don’t need Richard Dawkins to point out the contradictions in Christian dogma as if he’s providing some revelation that I, in my small-mindedness, failed to consider. I’m fully aware the contradictions exist, even though I may still be enlightened on specific details. The examples of such contradictions argue against dogmatic fundamentalism, not against theism in general or Christianity in particular.
I am not completely panning Dawkins work. Dawkins arguments may be particularly germane to a person who bases their faith solely on a rigid belief in religious dogma instilled as a child, and who has never seriously examined or challenged that dogma. I have no idea how prevalent this type of faith is, but readily concede that it exists. Additionally, as I’ve already mentioned, pointing out self-evident flaws in religious dogma may be beneficial to someone who takes a more open-minded approach to faith, as it would be the rare person, indeed, who is aware of them all.
However, because of the sophistry of his argument (of which, more below), The God Delusion cannot be considered more than a compilation of the deductive arguments against God. Combined with the self-satisfied conceit of the tone, and the ridicule directed at religion, The God Delusion should only be read by people who have either carefully examined and are fully comfortable with their religious faith, or those who have already rejected religion and are anxious to have someone tell them how intelligent and enlightened they are (and how stupid almost everyone else is by comparison).
Dawkins does his argument disservice by ignoring the philosophical underpinnings of faith, and focusing instead on ridiculing religion as a “delusion” – indeed, he claims that religion has no connections to philosophy, and is merely superstition. Further, he contradicts himself by (rightfully) pointing out that the Bible, as a historical work, is grossly deficient, then digging into the minutiae of the Biblical canon and applying a literal interpretation to demonstrate that the Christian God (conceding the infinitesimal chance that he does exist) is an entity so vile that to worship him entails a moral abdication.
Dawkins provides an out for “enlightened spirituality” by stating up front that he does not argue against what he calls Einsteinian religion, or metaphorically finding God in the wonder of the natural universe. Instead, he argues against the supernatural God or gods. From the rest of his argument, while it is quite clear that he rejects supernatural explanations for existence in all their forms, he simplifies his argument by wrongfully equating “supernatural” with “mystical” and “magical”. Obviously, it’s much easier to equate a belief in magical beings (when that belief is held in the face of clear contradicting evidence) as delusional than it is to call the philosophical opinion that the nature of existence cannot be fully explained through natural processes the mark of deficient thinking.
My response to his argument is to ask, what about atheism? Is it any more rational to reject the possibility of God, or does atheism require its own delusional thinking? More importantly, is that delusion more fundamental and, by extension, more devastating to the validity of the Atheist argument?
The validity of a belief in God, in my opinion, rests on a core assumption about the nature of existence, which Dawkins ignores; namely, on the nature of consciousness and how the “individual” is conceived.
In this discussion, I’m going to use the following definitions from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
1.       On the question of the nature of consciousness, there two competing philosophical schools:
a.       Dualism:  Generally holds that the conscious mind or conscious mental state is non-physical in some sense (i.e., embraces the concept of the “soul”).
b.      Materialism:  Asserts that consciousness is merely the product of natural processes (e.g., the firing of neurons) and rejects the concept of the soul.
2.       Atheism can be categorized as follows (Anthony Flew, 1984):
a.       Positive Atheism:  Affirmative belief that God does not exist.
b.      Negative Atheism: A lack of belief in God (which differs from agnosticism only in degree).
c.       Further, atheism can be “wide” or “narrow” in scope (and, presumably, somewhere in between), from rejecting monotheism to categorically rejecting of the existence of God and gods in all their manifestations.
Dawkins arguments clearly embrace the philosophy of wide and positive atheism. There is no place for equivocation, he argues (in his words) against “God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.”
RenĂ© Descartes (“cogito ergo sum”) laid out the principles of dualism in the 17th century with the “mind-body distinction”. They are:
1.       I am aware of myself as a distinct individual (“the mind as a thinking, non-extended thing”).
2.       I am aware of myself as having a physical body that extends into and interacts with the physical world.
3.       It follows, that if the sense of self and the physical body are distinct entities, that consciousness can exist outside of the body.
It’s important to realize that, until the 19th century, philosophy was viewed as the central science. Descartes described science as a tree, in which the roots are metaphysics, the trunk is philosophy, and all other sciences (including the natural sciences) branch off.
Modern science is not structured this way. Instead of the metaphysical informing our understanding of the physical, the natural sciences are viewed as standing on their own. To the extent they interact with philosophy, it is to inform philosophic inquiry.  Largely, this inversion of the method of scientific inquiry has been a good thing for scientific progress (for example, it leads to the “scientific method”), and also led to the broad adoption of analytic philosophy, especially in the west. Metaphysics, on the other hand, is now largely left to religion and mystics, and is viewed by many scientists, including Dawkins, as irrelevant superstition.
I believe there are significant ethical and moral problems with strictly adhering to this model. Undoubtedly, it informs modern conceptions in the United States about the “separation of church and state” and the restrictions on religious expression (which, in my opinion, is a mixture of progress and regression). However, in this post I want to focus on how this view informs the atheist views on the nature of existence, consciousness, and the individual.
Positive atheism, in the Richard Dawkins vein, sees a natural explanation for everything. Even when that explanation is not known, he assumes it exists and will one day be known. There is no place for the supernatural in Dawkins view.
The anthropic principle lies at the heart of Dawkins’ argument. Simply put, the anthropic principle is the self-evident conclusion that, because we exist, the laws of the universe that we observe must support that existence. From the anthropic principle, Dawkins fleshes out his argument by contrasting analogies of the crane (the naturalist view of the universe) and the skyhook (the supernatural view of the universe). A crane is built by progression from a firm foundation; a skyhook must be put wholly into place. If God is the skyhook, where did he come from?
The answer, of course, is the same answer that has been given by theologians for centuries. God came from nowhere, because he is, was, and always will be, without beginning or end. To know the nature of the universe is to learn something of God, because the universe is part of His fabric. The Christian view of God is inconsistent with Einsteinian religion only in that it embraces a personal God who is directly involved in our existence.
This response is hardly scientific or conclusive, but if you subscribe to the dualism view of consciousness, it is consistent with the anthropic principle. The one thing we can be absolutely certain of, as Descartes pointed out, is our own conscious existence.  The one thing we know about the universe is that it supports conscious existence (everything else, even our vaunted scientific knowledge, is just an interpretation of what we perceive). It is reasonable to believe (not know; I don't argue that God's existence is a "fact" or that attempts to "prove" his existence are worthwhile) that all of reality is built on the foundation of an ultimate consciousness.

As a positive atheist, Dawkins necessarily embraces the materialistic view of consciousness. That is, his awareness of existence results only from the physical processes within his brain, and his sense of individuality is, in fact, an illusion created by the mind for the benefit or the myriad cells composing his body and the genes that he carries. So you feel like the same person every morning when you wake up? Nope, not true. You are a completely different person every second of every day; your brain synthesizes your memories to give you a sense of consciousness.
Now, as an insight into the nature of the brain, this is enlightening. Imagining the implications as an intellectual exercise can be entertaining. As an explanation for the nature of human existence, it is far from edifying.

If you truly believe that your very existence is a delusion, your willingness to give into that delusion should be limited to the extent required to ensure your survival and the propagation of your genes. Ego is part and parcel with our concept of ourselves as unique individuals and, as such, should only be allowed to express itself in those extreme survival situations. Certainly, the fact that someone believes in a silly concept like “God” shouldn’t offend that ego. Yet, Dawkins is but a more well known example of countless atheists who are not simply satisfied with their rejection of God, but insist that theirs is a better philosophy that should be adopted by all.

One explanation for the irrational expression of ego by supposedly enlightened atheists is the simple fact that humans often react instinctively, and those instincts are practically impossible to control. That explains retorts; it doesn’t explain the existence of atheist organizations that are as insular as any religious cult.

Another possible explanation is that their reaction is to offenses against logic, which they view as an existential threat. However, a belief in God is illogical only if you completely reject Descartes’ conception of consciousness. If proving the materialistic view of consciousness (or some yet to be proposed improved theory) is even possible, it is far beyond our current level of knowledge, so we’re left with two equally plausible theories. We should certainly pursue knowledge, and be willing to change our perspectives in the face of compelling evidence. However, as I already noted, the one thing that each of us can be currently absolutely certain of is that we exist as distinct, individual consciousnesses. It certainly seems much less illogical to rest your understanding of existence on that one indisputable fact than it is to rely on outlandish hypotheses, as entertaining and intellectually compelling as they may be.

The only other possible justification I can think of for the intensity of their beliefs would be a reasoned conclusion that it’s not a belief in God, necessarily, that poses an existential threat, but religion itself … an argument that Dawkins, and many atheists, in fact make. That argument is, however, so laughably prejudiced and uninformed about human history that it defeats itself just by being made. The claim that atheists are more “enlightened”, and therefore less susceptible to the baser aspects of human nature, can be readily rebutted by simply visiting an atheist message board and watching the vultures eagerly and angrily pounce on anyone who dares to question their deeply held beliefs.

That leads us to what I think is the most likely conclusion – that positive Atheists hold their beliefs so strongly not because of reasoned enlightenment, but because of unreasoned ego. So, not only do they claim to embrace the fact that their very existence is a delusion, they are, in fact, deluding themselves that they believe what they claim to believe.
Don’t believe me? Simply take a look at the documented prejudice against atheists Dawkins refers to in his book. Jokes about “no atheists in foxholes,” offense at prayers e-mailed out following 9/11, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there are real examples of prejudice at the link, but they are greatly outnumbered by the petty complaints that would make even the most hypersensitive grievance-monger roll their eyes. Visit any atheist message board and marvel at the circular indulgence of cosseted egos with corseted intellect – the very traits atheists claim to find so repugnant among the religious – and ask yourself if this is a product of people who truly embrace the materialist view of consciousness. Ask yourself also, as you read the arguments about the atrocities committed in God’s name, if the world these “enlightened” individuals envision is actually an improvement.
People are insular by nature. We do not like having our most closely held beliefs challenged. You will find the same intolerance for Christian beliefs within a group of atheists that you will find for atheism within a group of Christians. This doesn’t argue for the correctness of either belief system, but it does argue against dismissing religion as delusional. It also undermines the argument that religion is incompatible with modern, secular society.
I realize this is argumentum ad absurdum. It is only directed at Dawkins argument that belief in God is a “delusion”, his contention that religion, not human nature, is source of many of history's injustices, and his advocacy of atheism as an enlightened improvement on ancient superstitions. Other aspects of his argument I find both entertaining and informative. Atheism is certainly a valid point of view, one that certainly has a much stronger empirical basis than any religion, and the inevitable conclusion if you are fully convinced of the materialist view of consciousness. On the other hand, dogmatic atheism, which is only a degree beyond positive atheism (and far closer to Dawkins’ beliefs than he’s willing to admit), is as “delusional” as dogmatic theism, far more culpable for crimes against humanity (at least in the 20th century), and is based on assumptions about the nature of existence that are not only no more valid or provable than Descartes' insights more than 300 years ago, but directly contradict what our own lying brains tell us.