Tuesday, December 26, 2006

God Strikes Back!

Right in time for Christmas, the New York Review of Books has a critical review of Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion.' And, lest you think that the scientist writing the review is simply surfing the rising religious tide in his homeland, it's worth remembering that a similarly critical review of Dawkins was published in the NYROBs' sibling from the atheist side of the Atlantic.

I haven't read Dawkins' book but, from the sounds of things, he suffers from a similar sort of atheist certainty to that which has always irked me when expressed by Johann Hari.

The central point that both Orr and Eagleton make is that Dawkins doesn't really engage with sophisticated theology: he simply sets up a straw-god and proceeds to bayonet it. True, there are an alarming number of people who worship at the feet of that selfsame straw-god but if you are to argue, as Dawkins does, that religion is the problem per se, rather than simplistic takes on religion, it does seem somewhat inadequate not to have a tilt at the real thinkers in the opposing camp.

Eagleton also gets points poetic for his beautiful explanation of the interaction between reason and faith using the conceit of love.

Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Deft metaphors aside, I am not sure that Orr and Eagleton land quite as many punches as they think they do: from what I've heard Dawkins does a reasonable job of defending himself when he's actually debated in person. Nevertheless, the reviews make good reading.

To me, the main concern with religion is it's extremely problematic relation with power. If religion were, as it ought to be, a purely personal pursuit, it would be fine. However, almost as soon as religion was invented (or revealed) it has been used as a tool of power. As a means of oppressing women. As a means of controlling thought within societies. And as an excuse for subjugating other societies.

Clearly, as the past century has shown, getting rid of God has not even come close to resolving issues of power and people's power over others. (And here is were I think Dawkins is particularly mistaken: if you want to rid the world of human rights abuses you need to champion human rights, and foster the conditions where they flourish. Wailing about religion is simply tangential to this.) Yet, if we are to argue using the tools of reason, I am confident that I can - with a few preconditions - win the debate about whether we ought to respect human rights. If we are to argue using the tools of religion, this won't be the case - you can simply claim that God has decreed that human rights are bad, and that will be the end of the argument. We will have no ether across which we can measure the distance that our arguments travel.

That being said, the devil, for my my side of the argument, of course, is hiding in the details of my preconditions: increasing overall wellbeing say, or maximising capabilities, or liberty. Each of these requires, as far as I can tell, some small - erk! - leap of faith of its own. Enlightened self interest can get us some of the way there but it doesn't seem to me that we can reason our way to altruism or charity. Such positions must, I think, stem from another part of the the human whole. Not necessarily from god above, just not from reason alone.

The details are difficult. Definitely. Which is why, I suspect, that - short of apocalypse in the meantime - we'll be arguing these things for millennia to come.


Anonymous said...

My Christian ex-boyfriend (no intellectual, I assure you) used the same arguments to defend his faith:

"If you read the same books by theologians that I've read you'd believe in God...I just don't have those right here and won't get into the details...but trust me..."


"What about love? Love exists. But you can't prove it's existence scientifically."

And then he proceeded to prove that "love" just a word we use to label some set of feelings. Does it exist? As a concept, sure. But in reality...as slippery as "God".

At any rate, the NYROB review was pretty awful. And "getting rid of God" isn't really necessary -- he never comes 'round anyways.

Terence said...

Hi anon,

Thanks for your comment. I'm definitely sympathetic to what you're saying (well perhaps not definitely - I'm agnostic after all..it's so hard to be definite about anything).

Having said that I think that Eagleton, at least, differs from your ex in so much as that he does outline a more complex theological take on things. He doesn't defend it - simply points out that Dawkins hasn't dealt with these arguments.

Your ex is misleading you too if he claims that we can't prove love scientifically - I'm currently reading Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley and he, in passing, talks about studies of love - that which causes us to bond the way we do - in voles. Perhaps what is being studied doesn't quite get to the bottom of it, but elements of it , at least, can be examined scientifically.

hhhmmmmm....not sure if I've convinced myself with that - love's complex - maybe the subject for another post.