Dawkins or Dork-ins?

Under pressure to add some new content to my blog! I’ve been so busy enjoying cultural activities this week that I haven’t had any time to reflect on them.

Since several people have asked me what I thought of Richard Dawkins’s lecture (The God Delusion, Birmingham Library Theatre, Weds. 11th Oct.) – part of the Birmingham Book Festival, I thought I would answer their question first.

Richard Dawkins began his lecture as little more than a farce. He took easy shots at organised religion (naturally in it Judaeo-Christian form), by quoting from the King James Version, which would make anything sound archaic. Of course, he quotes portions of the Old Testament that show it in the worst possible light, and he delights in the laughter of the audience.

It gradually becomes clear that Dawkins is trying to show that all human beings, including religious ones, decide their morality on other grounds than their holy book. Christians simply cherry-pick quotations that support their chosen morality, ignoring anything that seems to contradict it (including much of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). The point is that we do not need the Bible to decide what is right and wrong.

(Interestingly from my point of view, Dawkins does not address the more fundamental question of how we can have right and wrong in a world without God and without meaning. Nor does he suggest what meaning might mean in a world without meaning… Sadly, I did not feel empowered enough to stand up and ask either of these questions.)

However, even without my intervention, Dawkins singularly failed to disprove the existence of God. In fact, he actually admitted that this cannot be done. He passed over chapters on the arguments for and against the existence of God, which I thought was odd for a lecture entitled ‘The God Delusion’.

Dawkins’s central premise is that consciousness (and therefore intelligence) has necessarily arisen late in the evolutionary process, and so it is impossible that intelligence could have designed the process – not having yet evolved. The complexity of the universe only has the appearance of intelligent design because it is the product of a process (natural selection) that weeds out less elegant mutations because they fail to survive.

(All of which still leaves the question undecided for me: whether an intelligent God from outside the universe may have set in motion this very elegant natural system within it. The evidence of the mechanism is not enough to prove or disprove God’s existence. That is the job of faith…)

I have not given you a very full account of the event, yet I already feel I’ve gone on for long enough! I would just add that Dawkins speaks very articulately and draws fine logical distinctions. For these abilities he is to be praised.

The heading for this entry comes from my friend Tim, by the way…

4 thoughts on “Dawkins or Dork-ins?”

  1. Hi Joel,

    I went to see Dr. Dawkins in Stratford. I was glad to have the opportunity to thank him personally while he was signing my copy of “The God Delusion” (which I have leant to Ed). You posed a few questions in your blog above. Since it’s not likely that Dr. Dawkins will have time to answer them, I’ll have a go.

    “question of how we can have right and wrong in a world without God”

    It seems to me to suggest a very bleak view of humanity to say that we can’t work out for ourselves that hurting people is bad and helping people is good. Instead, we need to have this set out for us by a “super-parent” who then reinforces his edict with the carrot of paradise or the stick of an eternity spent suffing the kind of tortures that are banned under the international convention on human rights.

    We all have a powerful sense of right and wrong. You probably think that this was put there by God and progammed by scripture. I think that it evolved among our social ape ancestors as a means of promoting cohesion among the group and thereby improving the success of that (genetically related) group against other competing groups, and was programmed by my parents and by the attitudes of people around me. Whichever it is, I’m sure the internal sense of right and wrong feels exactly the same to religious and atheistic people alike.

    “Nor does he suggest what meaning might mean in a world without meaning”

    Dawkin’s answer to this is that the meaning of a human life is to bring meaning to the world. “Meaning” is an inherently subjective concept. There can be no meaning without there being someone to experience that meaning. Without God, and without any evidence of intelligence on other planets, it is we humans that bring meaning to the universe. What that “meaning” should be is for each of us to choose. Do you feel up to the responsibility, or do you want to pass the buck to God?

    “Dawkins singularly failed to disprove the existence of God.”

    Bertrand Russell proposed that there is a China Teapot in orbit about the sun between the orbits of Earth and Mars. It’s too small to be detected by telescopes. Can you prove that it isn’t so? Do you believe that it is so?

    The God hypothesis is that before the existence of the universe there existed an intelligence so complex that it could concieve of the universe and bring it into existance. How this complex intelligence came into existance, and the medium in which is exists, are not addressed.

    Dawkins hypothesis is that parents tell stories to their children before the children have the mental equipment needed to distinguish truth from fantasy, and that these stories have taken on a life of their own. It seems to me that this is the simpler and therefore more plausible explanation for the existance of religion. It also explains why there are so many religions, and that these are associated with different cultures. The God hypothesis does not address this question.

  2. Hi John P.

    Many thanks for attempting to answer my questions on behalf of Dr Dawkins. If I may say so, your answers seem to reflect Dawkins’s thought very closely. By the same token, they also perpetuate a couple of myths about what he calls the ‘God hypothesis’.

    I am a Christian, but I do not believe in God as ‘super-parent’, nor do I believe in a sugar-coated heaven. As for a Geneva Convention-flouting hell (along the lines of Guantanamo Bay or worse), I don’t believe it exists at all. I like to think I have a more mature relationship with God than the old carrot/stick model.

    Dawkins gets a lot of laughs at the expense of Old Testament regulations, and quite rightly. This is the kind of ‘morality’ that gives us homophobia, racism, misogyny, and fundamentalism. I do not believe that the ‘God hypothesis’ requires a slavish attachment to the Bible – which is after all a human record of God’s involvement with a specific ethnic group.

    On the other hand, I do not believe we can talk about ‘meaning’, ‘justice’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a meaningful way in a universe without God. The only reason we care about these things is that we are human, with highly evolved intelligence but also a spark of the divine. Either we intuitively know there is a loving God out there somewhere, or we pretend we are capable of dreaming up meaning and morality by ourselves. Do I feel up to the responsibility of creating meaning for myself? No. Not in a world that has produced crime after crime against humanity. Our genes are too selfish to enable us to consistently love one another altruistically. We need to be inspired by the love of God.

    And as for the existence (or otherwise) of a teapot in space: it utterly misses the point. Teapots in space rarely affect my everyday life. God, on the other hand – in all the mystery and beauty that surrounds him/her – does. This reaching out for a God who can never be wholly known or described, and who exists in a different way to us, is part of what makes us human. The sheer variety of religions in the world makes sense when we see them as attempts to understand the numinous.

    In conclusion: I am not a fundamentalist, but I suspect that Dr Dawkins is. I would recommend that you read Stephen Prickett, Narrative, Religion and Science: Fundamentalism versus Irony, 1700-1999 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

  3. Hi Joel,

    Ed has offered to lend me the book you recommended, so I’ll look forward to reading that.

    “Either we intuitively know there is a loving God out there somewhere…”

    Intuition does not have a good record as a reliable way of getting to the truth. A couple of hundred years ago, white people “intuitively knew” that they were superior to black people. I believe that Dr. Dawkins denies being a fundementalist, but I will admit to a degree of fundementalism in that I believe that science and evidence provide the only reliable way of finding out about the world.
    I know that most religion is benign, and gives a degree of pleasure to those experiencing it. But once you accept the principle of Intuition as a way of determining the truth, this enables anyone who believes anything to “intuitively know” that it is right and true, and thereby justify any action.

    “Do I feel up to the responsibility of creating meaning for myself? No. Not in a world that has produced crime after crime against humanity.”

    I’m not sure I see the connection between these two sentences, or if I do, it would send me in the opposite direction. The world has produced crime after crime against humanity, and I feel able to judge that this is a bad thing, and that we should strive to help one another to make the world a better place. But if the world was created by an all-powerful God to his own design, then he must take some responsibility for the way it has turned out, and so I would not feel inclined to turn to him for moral guidance.

    “This reaching out for a God … is part of what makes us human”

    Not me. I know we’re not going to see eye to eye on this. I think we have to accept that there are a lot of ways of being human.

  4. Hi John,

    Agreed – we aren’t going to see eye to eye on this one. I’ll give Ed the Stephen Prickett book to give to you anyway. You might also be interested in an essay by C. S. Lewis, called ‘Religion and Science’.

    You say ‘I believe that science and evidence provide the only reliable way of finding out about the world’. Absolutely. But we aren’t talking about the world, we’re talking about a God who is not limited to this world, or even this universe.

    I think you’re right aboutthe subjective dangers of intuition, by the way. But when it comes to the supernatural, I believe that intuition is all we have. Whether or not one believes in God, there are things one can only know intuitively. This is not to claim that we can arrive at absolute truth by means of intuition, of course. (I would not want to proclaim any message solely on that basis – and this is why I think the evidence about the historical Jesus is vital.) Nevertheless, our knowledge, especially about God, will always be tentative at best. This is the point at which fundamentalisms go wrong, because they want to make definitive statements.

    What do I mean by ‘supernatural’ in this context? I have already alluded to meaning and morality, which I don’t think can be explained by nature alone. Without a higher standard to aspire to – albeit tentatively – what is to stop us killing each other? Racial superiority has regularly been defended on evolutionary grounds; Hitler claimed that the Aryan race was more highly evolved than the Jews, and therefore applied the Darwinian principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’ in the form of the Holocaust. His argument seems to make evolutionary sense. Hitler made his own morality from a starting point within nature, but the result was something unworthy of humanity because (I would argue) our instinctive revulsion at his actions is evidence of our belief in a supernatural standard of morality.

    Again, I cannot stress enough how tentative this understanding is. I am speaking of hints and pointers from which we can only try to draw some provisional conclusions.

    By the way, I am roughly quarter of the way through Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and loving it. When he talks about the natural world and the beautiful simplicity of evolution as a mechanism, Dawkins is masterful. I just feel that with The God Delusion, he has stepped outside his area of expertise.

    May I add that I have enjoyed this debate. Perhaps we can carry it forward face to face sometime?

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