Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The God Delusion - A deeply religious non-believer

Dawkins first chapter proper of "The God Delusion" takes a look at people he says are "deeply religious". It seems he is calling himself a "deeply religious non-believer". ( I looked at the Preface here)

He groups the "deeply religious" into two categories - those who "deserve respect" and those who don't.

He starts off with two stories. One of a boy who looks up at the sky and the wonders of the universe and has a "religious experience" that lead him to "God" and the Anglican priesthood.
He then considers another boy, who "could have been me", looking up at the stars being dazzled by the constellations, and having another experience which might have lead to another conclusion: that "all was produced by laws acting around us".
He states of the experience, "A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists."

Obviously he can't (or doesn't think it is useful to) deny this experience which many take to point to God. But says, "It has no connection with the supernatural". He doesn't mount an argument here, except seeming to suggest we should realise it is just the "laws acting around us".
Maybe he doesn't realise, but to me this raises a number of the questions: "Why should there be laws and not chaos," and "Where do these laws come from?"  And since they do exist, do they somehow exist in their own right, or are simple the order with which God created and sustains the universe.
In connection to the "religious experience", Christians wouldn't be surprised:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. (Psalm 19:1-3)
Interesting enough, Scientists of previous generations, were in encouraged by their Christian world view to look for order and understand the order in which God had set up the world. I also know a biology scientist who said they were blown away by the wonders they saw as they delved deeper into the intricacies of the human body during their research and studying.

He later quotes Carl Sagan about religion's perceived short coming in this area:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said." ... instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god ...". A religion, old or new, that stresses the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
It is interesting that Dawkins and Sagan both missed what the Bible has to offer on this. I think there is an assumption that because in Christianity, humans are seen as the highest creation, that it means our universe is little (since we are little), but the Bible points in the other direction. Creation is all about God, and the size and magnificence of the universe is saying something about God.  As David says,
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens. ...
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? 
Psalm 8:1,3-4
That's why many Christians are encouraged to go into science as we learn how marvellous a creation God has made, it does drive us to awe and reverence as Sagan suggests, but the Bible encourages and expects it.
The transcendence of God in Isaiah 40 is also an encouragement to the Israelites in captivity in Babylon that they shouldn't fear the nations and their power, since they are "drop in the bucket" compared to God. And Psalm 147: "He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name." When we then find out there are more stars then we ever imagined it should blow our minds about God.
Why are Dawkins and Sagan mistaken here about Christianity? Firstly, I imagine their lack of acquaintance with a lot of what the Bible says. Also maybe it's their stereotype of religions, and also their assumed origin - that all there religious are about local deities that owned a certain group of people, and were just a projection of that culture. I think Dawkins may come to this topic later.

He then starts to talk about a number of non-believers, especially scientists, who use the word God, or seem "religious", but don't actually believe in God in the Theistic sense. His goal it seems, is that he doesn't want religious people to think these famous scientists are on their side. Einstein for example. It does seem clear from his quotes that Einstein is not a Theist: in Einstein's words, "not a personal God".  But I'm not sure Dawkins does enough to make it clear whether Einstein is a Deist, pantheist or, really an Atheist.
He then says of these scientists etc.
They may not believe but, to borrow Dan Dennett's phrase, they 'believe in belief'.
I think I have heard this phrase before, but often it seems to be a criticism of Christians or the religious in general, that they believe in belief - meaning, they believe in things you can't prove, or that by believing in something it becomes real, or real to them.
To real Christians this is funny. Belief is not necessarily good or bad. But believing in belief is good? As if believing in something for the sake of it doesn't seem to have any value. Christians would say they believe things because they have become convinced (through reasoning, evidence, analysis, experience etc), that what they believe is true.
Again Paul argued from evidence why the Corinthians believers should believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15), and Peter, not long after Jesus death, resurrection and ascension, when speaking to a crowd of visitors to the Jewish feasts, alludes to facts they knew, to help prove his case,  " ... Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2)

He later goes on to show the big deal over Einstein's beliefs and many letters written from other people upset with what it seems Einstein had said. It is a pity he doesn't quote the strongest opposition, but the weakest which confirm his suspicions. One "believer" says, "As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith, not knowledge".  Now, there is some truth in this but not what people think. If we take it to mean faith without good reason - then no. But if we take faith to mean trust, dependency, then there is a sense in which it is true.
When we trust something or someone to do something, then we are depending on their reliability regarding the matter. If we sit on a chair then we are depending on it. Before we do it, we don't have the "knowledge" as to whether it will break and collapse, or hold our weight. But we might have good reasons to "believe" that it will. We might trust a friend to do something, but whether they are they reliable or not is the question, are they deserving of trust.
The only sense it might be good to "trust", is to give a friend the benefit of the doubt, to enable the friendship to grow. You choose to trust despite
There is also a sense in which Christians don't have "knowledge", and have "faith", if we take "knowledge" to mean seeing the final results. A good example is heaven, and any rewards we might obtain there. We don't actually see it, but we might have faith in God, that he is faithful to his promises. Do we have good evidence that both God exist and that he can be trusted to keep his word? There are a lot of assumptions people might see in this of course - but the question is evidence, and reason, do we have good reason or not. We may have good reason, but we don't actually see what we are hoping for yet. Dawkins would say no of course, but Christians might argue we have good reasons - we then have to look at the evidence - but that is another chapter for Dawkins.

Dawkins then makes clear his working definitions of Theism, Deism and Pantheism. Theism has a God who creates then is still "around to oversee and influence the fate of his creation" as well as do things like answer prayers, punish sins etc. intervenes and performs miracles.
Deism in his words has a God who sets "up the laws that govern the universe", but doesn't interview after that.
I and many other Christians would probably says that in Theism and probably Deism, God should be thought of also "sustaining" the creation, in the sense that the "laws" which are God's order continue to exist and have effect. In Deism God's only interaction is "natural" in the sense of continuing to order it.

Pantheism here is defined has God as a synonyms for nature and the laws that govern it. In his terms "Pantheism is sexed-up atheism". I would suggest that Pantheism in regard to Eastern religions, implies there is no separation between God and the universe, instead of with Theism and Deism, God is separate and distinct. He seems to be following a more western philosophical version, especially since he mentions Spinoza, though he seems unaware of "religious" versions of it. I think this makes a difference when we come to discuss some of the religions in the next chapter.

I still wonder why he wants to even elevate some sort of "religiosity". He quotes Einstein again, "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious." Dawkins adds "In this sense I too am religious".
What Dawkins seems to not like is anything supernatural. To him if he can have his version of religious feelings without a supernatural being is good, or to be respected. It leaves me wondering. Why should these feelings be normal? Could it indeed be a clue that we were made for something more?

He then moves on to that which shouldn't be respected. He makes a preliminary comment that many will be offended, "but it would be a shame if this stopped them from reading on." He then comments that there is an expectation in much of society that "religion" should be respected, with which he obviously disagrees. I would follow him here. "Religion" should be open to criticism. He might also be identifying what we might call "Political correctness". An interesting question is where political correctness comes from? Is it, as Dawkins might be implying, that religion needs special status, because it is about things you cannot prove or disprove.
This need for "respected" might be a fruit of "post-modernism" which tends to lead to "philosophical relativity". Post-modernism in regards to epistemology (knowing or finding out things) would say we can't find the truth on anything since everything is subjective (this might be too much of a caricature of "post modernism", as one person said, describing it as anything but as a caricature or hopeless simplifications is like trying to wrestle jelly underwater). And Philosophical relativism that results, would say there is no absolute truth, there is just what is true for me and what is true for you, so you can't say I am wrong.
Both these actually fall down, and don't seem to be as popular in peoples thinking. It seems that these ideas were gaining prominence in the later 20th Century, though maybe not so as much now.  One history lecturer I know implied this thinking was on the way out, especially in light of the popularity of TV shows like CSI, where you can use "evidence" to determine the "truth".
To me and other Christians, this relativity which needs respect seems an affront to Christianity, which claims to be absolutely true. It tends to stem from people wanting their own preferred personal version of the truth, which is really made in their own image, not some "Truth" with a capital "T" from out there.
I can understand why Dawkins thinks this "respect" is bad as he sees people wanting to keep being Christian and be free of criticism despite, in his view, the evidence opposed to it. If these "versions" of Christianity are devoid of a historical crucified and risen Jesus, then there are not real Christianity.

I do find, especially in Australia, that there isn't much respect for religion, or it might be that there isn't respect for Christianity. It does seem some other religious, notably Islam, seem to need to be "respected", at least in sections of the media.
I do agree with Dawkins that any "world-view" or religion should be open to criticism. And any climate which rejects careful investigation is at odds with Christianity.  Yet the Bible also predicts this will happen when people choose a different path: people will gather around them others that say what they want to hear. Give western society's drift from Christian belief for the last 2 centuries it is not too surprising.

He continues to list situations where he sees religion as having a privileged place. I don't really see this now in Australia. It often seems the opposite.
Interesting - he brings up the issue of "hate speech", and that religion has an unfair place in being excused from restriction here. But there are places were a "versions" of the laws restricting it are in place, for example in Victoria, Australia. But the problematic part of the law, is that it is as broad as restricting scenarios where one has only caused offence, and that matter of motive is irrelevant. Or worse are the blasphemy laws in counties such as Pakistan, which are often used to abuse and hurt minority groups.
On this point he gets close to saying religion has a freedom of speech that it shouldn't, though he doesn't use the words "freedom of speech".
It is interesting that his main point seems to be that we should be free to criticise religion (he cites Salman Rushdie, and the recent uproar about a Danish cartoonist that raised the ire of many Muslims), but he gets close to contradicting that here.
Is he concerned more about freedom of speech, including the ability to debate and critique religion or is he concerned for limiting freedoms of religion?

To summarise, I do generally follow his section on the problems with "respecting" religion. We need to be able to critique it and discuss it without threat. On the other hand we should respect people as people, but not necessarily their ideas, including religions etc. I do find puzzling his request for the respect he desires for the religious "non-believer", or respect for their "religiousness", yet he doesn't expected the same for "believers".

My next post looking at the next chapter "The God Hypothesis" is here.

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