Dawkins' delusion

Dawkins' delusion
Interior details, Catedral Neuva de Salamanca

At the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, I was on holiday in Greece. Although I can transliterate the Greek alphabet (eventually), I do not speak nor read the language, and the increasingly inexplicable scenes which unfolded on the TV news were all the more bewildering for that language barrier. I understood that skyscrapers were collapsing in New York City, and not a lot more than that. It wasn’t until the 13th that I was able to get hold of an English-language newspaper—a copy of the European edition of the Guardian, arriving a day behind its publication date—and learn the full story. A month later, another copy of the Guardian that I picked up carried short comments by various eminent people on what immediate effect 9/11 had had on the world. Amongst the commenters was Richard Dawkins. Some of us have long thought that religious was harmless nonsense, he wrote, but now we know that it can actually be very dangerous nonsense. Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, emerged in 2006, and many key aspects of his standpoint in the book are clearly recognisable from that brief and early reaction. Curiously, however, much of the moderation has gone.

I had a point of view on the book before I’d read so much as a page. Although most of the opinions I heard were positive, coming mainly from fellow scientists, my predisposition towards Dawkins’ core thesis was not. My biggest objection to his position that religion is actively harmful, was that the negative manifestations of religion—bigotry, holy wars, and so on—were not unique to religion, and can and do occur in contexts in which religion has only a passing relevance, or less. But perhaps I was getting ahead of myself.

Without a doubt, one positive outcome of reading The God Delusion was that it led me to consider my own point of view on religion, more than I had done for some time before. For the sake of understanding my perspective in this review, perhaps I should briefly lay out that position as I see it now. Like Dawkins, I consider myself a de facto atheist, although strictly I could be construed as agnostic since I cannot rule out the possibility of a God existing. The existence of God is certainly an interesting question, but it isn’t one that I think about much; and nor do I explicitly aim to live by the moral standards of any religion. I don't really consider myself “spiritual”, but I value the creative, the esoteric, the emotional and the nonlogical—even illogical—elements of human nature which give us our individuality. I was raised as an Anglican Christian, but my tacit faith faded from my later school years onwards.

My Christian upbringing conveniently raises one of Prof. Dawkins’ big pet hates: “labelling” children with “the cosmic and theological opinions of their parents”. For Dawkins, the fact that children are generally assumed to have the same religious beliefs as their parents is little short of a scandal, akin to systematic indoctrination while one is still highly impressionable. But religious habits and ideas are just a tiny proportion of the spectrum of information that one inherits from one's parents during the early years, largely because there are few other people around to contradict them. Later, through school and perhaps university, we meet others with different “labels”, we discover that what we previously took as true without question may be a little more complicated, and we adjust. Just as I do not share my theological beliefs with my ten year-old self, neither, fortunately, do I still retain the same (largely inherited) dress sense. Your starting point will probably affect your long-term perspective to some extent, yes, but how can this be avoided? And is it really such a bad thing?

Dawkins attempts to use probabilistic arguments to show that there is “almost certainly” no God. He begins by restating in various ways the “Mount Improbable” thesis which he has been championing for years. This essentially says that the process of evolution by natural selection can result in complex organisms, which are very unlikely to have appeared in one big spontaneous jump, because the process can work towards that goal in smaller steps which are individually far less improbable. The principle is easily illustrated with dice: on average, it will take 36 attempts to roll 12 with two dice, but only an expected six attempts would be needed to roll a six with one die. So, by taking one die at a time, and rolling until a six is obtained and then moving on to the next one and rolling it alone for another six, the total number of rolls to get two sixes will average 12, rather than 36. Rolling a six on one die and then, independently, on the other, is the easy route up Mount Improbable to rolling a 12. (Whilst simple and instructive, I have my doubts about the real-world importance of this model, because it assumes that the process can be performed in a linear series of independent steps, and it makes no provision for the changing effects of external selective pressure. For me a factor of at least equal importance is the number of individuals in the population, through which a load of different mutations can be “tried out”. But hey, I'm not an evolutionary biologist.)

By comparison to the steady progress of evolution, Dawkins argues that the existence of a creator would be even more unlikely than the appearance by chance of any of its creations, and therefore that improbability of outcomes is a poor basis for arguing in favour of intelligent design. Leaving aside the possibility that a godlike creator may itself have arisen through some kind of evolutionary mechanism, this argument appears to be susceptible to rebuttal using a version of the “anthropic principle” which he uses elsewhere to argue why the universe is set up the way it is. The anthropic principle, which in one form states that conditions observed in the universe must allow the observer to exist, is a tautology of deceptive power. It may seem unlikely that you will win the lottery tomorrow because the odds against are millions to one, but if you do win then that probability becomes irrelevant. The outcome is always certain after the fact. The conditions must have existed for life to begin because it did. Likewise, whatever the odds against God’s spontaneous existence, they are an irrelevance if he does exist.

Frankly, the pseudo-probabilistic approach gets Dawkins tangled in all sorts of vague discussion about X being more probable than Y, which really takes the whole discussion nowhere. Things feel much more robust when he sticks to his area of real expertise, which is of course evolution, and simply lets the facts speak for themselves. But that is something he very rarely does in this book, ostensibly because he is taking aim specifically at the most aggressive and fanatical of religious people and ideas, who are presumably considered to be too far gone to listen to subtle intellectual argument. So instead Dawkins goes to the complete opposite extreme, gleefully enumerating inconsistencies in the Bible and tearing chunks out of religious hypocrisy and apologise. Unfortunately, more than any of the book’s other failings, these long passages of self-indulgence undermine the valid points interspersed around them. Despite Dawkins’ claim, in the preface to the paperback edition, that he is not fundamentalist in the way that those he criticises are because he, unlike them, could change his mind, these segments give off the air of someone who rarely hears his opinion criticised by anyone whom he regards as seriously credible. This is rather reinforced by the letters page on Dawkins’ web site, which divides communications to the site into the good (supportive), the bad (unsupportive) and the ugly (rants). But in the bad section it says, “Most letters fall into either ‘the good’ or ‘the ugly’ section, but sometimes a letter of criticism is slightly civil. We give these writers a point for marginally good manners.” So, despite Dawkins’ high profile, are we to surmise that not a single critical letter has been received which carried any kind of constructive rebuttal, their success merely amounting to basic etiquette? Or is he simply not listening?

So, amid the unsatisfying attempts to “prove” that God does not exist, and strident denunciations of the biblical canon, what can the reader really take away from the book? Well, that of course depends on the reader, but a reconsideration of one’s point of view on religion is a natural constructive outcome. Prof. Dawkins is of course right that atheism does not imply nihilism, and that being religious does not make one good in a broader moral sense. But likewise, faith does not entail fanaticism, and I remain convinced that 9/11, like secular acts of terrorism, is a political act first and an ideological one second. Religion can (unfortunately) be used as a tool for achieving political ends, but it is not the only one—just read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I think Dawkins is right to complain that people and governments are sometimes willing to cede moral or legal ground to religious belief for no concrete reason, but this “undeserved respect” can be thought of as a form of relativism, and as such is again not entirely specific to religion. And here we arrive back at my original predisposition. After reading the book, I was simply not satisfied that religion was as exceptional in its negative corollaries as its author would have us believe.

Logic and reason may be vital in my day job and Dawkins’, but Lord knows they’re not everything. Who wants logical art, music, or relationships? Pulling apart scripture and proselytising in favour of “science” (an oddly abstract entity in Dawkins’ hands) is all very well, but surely any self-aware scientist can see that it feels both horribly glib and emotionally barren. In the end, what the book lacks is—dare I say it—soul.