Daily Archives: September 17, 2006

Thinking About The God Delusion

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One of the nice things about doing a signing at a bookseller’s trade show is that afterward you get to wander through the tradeshow floor and admire all the marvelous books that publishers are giving away to booksellers, and maybe snag one or two for yourself. I had to be careful to limit myself to just a few, on account I brought only my backpack with me, not a packing box; even so I walked out of there with five books. One of them is Richard Dawkin’s latest book The God Delusion, in which the eminent public scientist enthusiastically takes a cudgel to the very notion of God, representing Him as unneccesary, something of a bother and a definite public health hazard.

And by “Him,” we’re specifically talking about Yahweh, the god who is the God of half the people on the planet. Indeed, Dawkins is cheerfully rude about Yahweh — he calls Him psychotic, in point of fact — and appears to relish the idea of getting the religious host entirely bunched up about it. One portion of his book has him airing some e-mail he gets from some of the more idiotic and intolerant religious folk; as I was reading it I wondered if he was merely excerpting a blog entry he did somewhere along the way. Much of the book has the informal “whacking the idjits” feel of a blog entry, just in printed form. Perhaps this is an intellectual atlas of stature: When you’re student, grad student or associate professor, you vent in your blog; when you get tenure, you get to vent in a book.

I think The God Delusion is a very good and interesting book, but I have an ambivalence regarding Dawkins’ delight in trashing God and religion. As far as things go, I suspect Dawkins and I are in the same boat regarding the existence of God, which is to say we’re agnostic about it, roughly to the same amount we’re agnostic regarding invisible pink unicorns. On the other hand, unlike Dawkins, I don’t tend to believe the concept of religion itself rises to such levels of risibility that those who follow one must be apprehended largely as credulous dolts. Even if I believed they were, as long as they kept their credulous doltery out of my way, I would be fine with it. My quarrel with religion, when I have one, is when those who practice it wish to impose it on me, often in ways counter to the expressed beliefs and goals of the religion they espouse, or counter to the Constitution of the United States, the wisdom of the freedoms and rights granted therein I find myself progressively astounded by as the years go on. Enjoy your religion, folks. Just keep it to yourself, if you please.

Also, there’s the nagging question in my mind of how much, on a purely practical level, the human condition would change if our species were somehow magically innoculated against the idea of God. In the book, Dawkins posits the idea that religion is a byproduct of some useful human evolutionary adaptation — a byproduct that has gone awry, much as a moth spiraling in toward a flame is an unfortunate byproduct of the evolutionary adaptation that allows the moth to navigate by starlight. In this particular case, Dawkins speculates religion might be a byproduct of an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation that makes children susceptible to guidance by parental (or elder) authority.

(Dawkins is careful to say that he’s just throwing out that particular possible explanation as an example, and that his real allegience is to the idea of religious belief as a less-than-advantageous offshoot of a more useful evolutionary adaptation, but I have to say that I find that particular idea intriguing — I’m projecting onto Dawkins here, but when I read this hypothesis of his I couldn’t help think about the idea that mentally speaking, dogs are child-like wolves; that is, as adults they have activities (wagging tales and barking being the obvious ones) that wolves outgrow. Grey wolves and dogs are the same species — taxonomically dogs are a subspecies. Would Dawkins suggest that religiously-minded humans are to agnostic humans as dogs are to wolves, i.e., mentally suspended at a pre-adult stage in some critical way? Again, to be clear, this is my supposition of Dawkins’ possible implicit argument; don’t go blaming him for my trying to model his thinking process. But this is what my brain lept to, and I wonder if Dawkins had left that there for the biologically-adept to pick up.)

If Dawkins posits that religion and religious belief are merely an evolutionary byproduct, then the problem is obvious: Even if we flush God down the toilet and send the religions of the world swirling down with Him, the biological root cause of the God delusion is still extant, and will inevitably be filled by some other process, just as getting rid of all man-made open flames won’t keep a moth from circling another sort of artificial light source, be it a lightbulb or a glowstick or whatever. God knows (sorry) that entirely atheistic authoritarian schemes have exploited the same human tendency toward obedience, and Lysenkoism, for one, shows that you don’t need a religious doctrine to pervert science. Getting rid of God intellectually doesn’t change the human condition biologically. It will simply create an ideological vacuum to be filled by something else. Which it will; nature abhors a vacuum.

Perhaps Dawkins is an optimist about humans and their ability to plug up the God hole with a more pleasant and useful alternate scheme; I regret I would not share such optimism. Indeed, if an agnostic wanted to make an argument for the continuance of religion, it would be the (no offense) “devil you know” argument: Most religions give at least lip service to the idea of love and peace, so clearing that out of the way is not necessarily a good thing from a practical point of view. Say what you will about Jesus, for whom I have nothing but admiration even without the “son of God” thing, but one of the things I find him useful for is reminding people who allege to be following His teaching just how spectacularly they’re failing Him, in point of fact. The Book of Matthew is particularly good for this, I’ve found.

I don’t doubt Dawkins could make a perfectly good rebuttal for this (possibly along the lines of if we’re going to look at it practically, the cost-benefit analysis suggests that religions do more damage than the thin line of agnostics/atheists berating religionists to live up to their role models could possibly ever hope to repair through public shaming), but for the rest of us it’s worth thinking about: one may argue that a belief in god or the practice of a religion is bad, but what suggestion do we have that what follows after God and religion will be any better? This may or may not be an argument against eradicating God, or at least attempting to do so, depending on one’s taste; it still ought to be considered.

Moving away from this particular aspect of the book, one thing Dawkins notes is that here in the US, being an atheist is the worst possible thing you can be; people would apparently prefer you to be gay than godless (which means, of course, pity the poor atheist homosexual, particularly if he wants to marry his same-sex partner). Dawkins notes that the Atheist-American community (which would apparently include agnostics in the same manner that the gay community accepts bisexuals) is a pretty large community (22.5 million strong, according to the American Atheists), but that it’s politically pretty weak, in part because atheists and agnostics in the United States don’t have the same sort of strong lobby that, say, the Jewish community has.

I find this an interesting point. Personally speaking I have yet to feel marginalized or discriminated against because I am an agnostic. Part of this, I’m sure, is because I also happen to be a white, educated, heterosexually-bonded non-handicapped male of above average financial means, and those facts matter more in this society. Another part, I’m sure, is that I simply don’t care what other people think about my agnosticism, and I also know my rights, so in general an attempt to marginalize me probably wouldn’t really work. Another part is that, in fact, I haven’t been marginalized or discriminated against for my unwillingness to adhere to a religion. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t happen; I’m saying it hasn’t happened to me. It may be possible that if I were to run for public office, my agnosticism would become a campaign issue; what I think would be more of a campaign issue is that I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Which is to say I would have an uphill climb even before my agnosticism were an issue.

I’m an open agnostic — ask me, I’ll tell you — but I don’t spend a lot of time defining myself through my agnosticism, and I pick and choose my battles. Teaching creationism (disguised as “intelligent design” or otherwise) in classrooms? Fight worth having. Getting worked up about “In God We Trust” on the coinage? Someone else can shoulder that load. I suppose this triage might upset some certain segment of folks who self-identify as agnostics and atheists, but honestly, if I’m not going to get worked up about God’s vengeance, I’m not going to get worked up about their pique.

Also, as previously suggested, I worry more about the religious when they want to impinge on my rights from the point of view of a US citizen than the point of view of an agnostic, because my rights as the latter are predicated on my rights as the former. This is an important distinction to make, because there are more US citizens than US agnostics/atheists, and because as it happens, when the religious-minded wish to impinge on my constitutional rights, they also usually end up impinging on the rights of others who are not the same religion as they, or if they are of the same religion, have beliefs that do not require they try to shove them on others. Therefore, I have common cause with religious people who, like me, do not wish their rights abridged by some noxious group of enthusiastic God-thumpers who believe their religious fervor outweighs the US Constitution. And I’m happy to make that cause with them, and I’m not going to go out of my way to say to them “thanks for your help, even if you are a complete idiot to believe in that God thing.” I’ll just say thanks.

I think that should be sufficient for anyone, including Richard Dawkins.