Opinion on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion
By Morris J. Augustine, Ph.D
Regarding Richard Dawkins’ recent best selling work, The God Delusion, I regret to have to offer the opinion that the author totally ignores the immense amount of good that religion does and that his work is basically an emotional attack on the worst aspects of religion. He does not prove what he sets out to prove: that religion is almost certainly a false and very harmful delusion. I do genuinely regret this, because I agree wholeheartedly with him that those worst elements of religion that he describes so well do in fact richly deserve to be spotlighted.
So why do I so bravely declare that The God Delusion rests on a fundamentally flawed position? The answer is fairly simple: Dawkins treats the existence of God as a theory that must be proven—as a scientific hypothesis or falsifiable theory that must be proved with more or less empirical evidence. Since he thinks that it cannot be done he concludes—by means of an equally indemonstrable hypothesis—that God is a delusion and religion is bad.. He never once mentions Freud, since much of Freudian theories of God as an illusion based on an absent father went out of fashion decades ago—but Freud’s “illusion” of God and Dawkin’s “delusion” are unpacked in a very similar manner: people are alone and afraid so they jump on the God bandwagon, feel safe and are tus comforted by acquiring lots of similarly deluded friends.
So where is the error? Very simply, religion is not an intellectual theory or proposition that stands or falls on a simply rationally valid proof. Since Einstein’s theory of relativity and Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle, the Enlightenment’s notion that only rational proven truth is valid has gone into eclipse. But religions go back to the very beginnings of humanity. Most probably, before they had learned to speak humanoids were dancing sacred dances and almost certainly drawing sacred drawings. Why did they do these things? To demonstrate the meaning and beauty of birth, life, and the horror of death that they deeply felt but could not yet explain in words.
The well-known sociologist of religion of Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, Robert N. Bellah, (who also happens to have directed my doctoral thesis) in a yet-to-be published lecture, put his answer to Dawkins in this way
Religion for him is a cognitive system, a kind of science, but bad science with bad consequences. . . . For the social scientist religion is not primarily a theory at all: it is the many ways humans have sought to find meaning, to make sense of their lives. As such it is an inescapable sphere of life, like economics or politics. Because there is much wrong with our economy. . .shall we get rid of economics.? Because there is much political corruption . . .shall we just abolish politics?
To understand the truth of Bellah’s point of view all we have to do is to think quickly about the relatively new disciplines of History of Religions, Comparative Religions and religious anthropology and sociogy. From James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1930), to Mircea Eliade’s Patterns in Comparative Religion two decades later and his monumental A History of Religious Ideas, to Bruno Bettelheim’s work, and on into the still more sophisticated work of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz of the Princeton Institute of Higher Studies, social science and philosophy has slowly developed a sophisticated notion of what religion really is. Geertz’s definition of the nature of religions gives us an accurate understanding of what religion is,
Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long lasting moods and motivations in men [and women] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
This is a description of already well-established religious systems that pervades a group or a whole society of people in any age. Members have already long since gotten together to engage in what Bellah calls “memetic activity” such as rituals, dancing, music, and painting. After humans learned to speak, tales were added to verbally fill out the picture of what the world really is, what we are, and what we should and should not do. Such creation myths were symbolic—not so far removed from the dances that preceded them—but they contained the most “scientific” or rational understanding of the world and human beings available at the time. They were not delusions; they were the best symbolic truth, and the best knowledge of nature, available. They gave whole cultures meaning and value.
Perhaps Geertz’s most valuable insight is that the moods and motivations created to support the “general order of existence” supported a system of morality that the tribe or society had long since—by long experience—found to be the best way to live life in their particular climate with their particular history. Young girls learned how to become women by mimesis of their mothers and elders, as boys learned to become men. They learned when is it necessary to kill animals and men. They learned why should fathers not have intercourse with their daughters. Now, can these questions, even today, be answered by science? Can scientific, falsifiable hypotheses about them be empirically proven? Don’t we still have to have faith in our elders? Here Dawkins’ essentially ad hominem (and ad feminem) arguments against religion are exposed. Actually, religion is a system –of mimetic acts, symbolic, mythological stories, and more recently rationally argued theoretic propositions; all of these go together to create a community. It is one system of acts and principles among many such systems, from monetary to military and literary systems. The religious community is not bound together by pure theory, or purely rational argument. They always rely ultimately on faith. In spite of Dawkins’ arguments against Aquinas’ “proofs” for God’s existence, both Aquinas and the leaders of every other major faith all acknowledge that religion is never based on reason alone. And this faith is always grounded in the very highest moral ideals available to the community where a religion is born and thrives. They are by no means the same—but they have a core of sameness: love-compassion; mercy; help for the poor, sick, aged and downtrodden. These highest of moral ideals and the nature of the Ultimate always support each other; the rituals music, meditation and the like elicit moods and motivations that wed moral ideals and the notions of the Ultimate together in a very believable fashion.
Dawkins goes on about the barbarism of the Hebrew Scriptures. He may have read them but he does not know them. The prophets taught justice, the Father-God’s deep love for all his creatures, especially his Chosen People. God taught mercy and forgiveness, faithfulness in marriage; he condemned in strongest terms the oppression of the poor. Yes, he taught that his people had to fight for their life and kill in order to preserve their nation and their culture. The noble Jewish tradition has never ceased to teach these marvelous ethical principles. The prophet Mohammed spoke and wrote to a desert tribal people of the glory of Allah’s, of his love and mercy; he demanded that his followers practice mercy towards the poor and downtrodden, kindness to the stranger. The holy Koran is full of the highest kind of moral teaching. How can Dawkins seriously claim otherwise? Jesus’ love was God’s love, he forgave sinners, did not resist even death in order to continue teaching the Kingdom of God where love, mercy and justice reigned. Of course in the course of centuries these three and the other religious traditions have taken on some less that admirable moral baggage, but their basic exalted messages remain the central motivation of their followers.
Yes, the Jewish, the Christian, and the Islamic prophets lived in an age where the supernatural was seen as real; miracles were thought to happen regularly; life was thought to continue after death. But many of the very best theologians in each of these religions and others do not take all these things literally. They square scripture’s teachings with their own contemporary scientific worldview. Each does it in his or her own way. This has happened in every age. Slowly slavery came to be condemned, in spite of what the scriptures say, usury or taking interest for money loaned is now accepted by Christians and Jews. Times change, understanding grows, and religions evolve! Why follow Dawkins into a world where only rationally provable things are believed? Can he prove that all abortion is okay? That all stem cell research is good? How about cloning humans? Does his science give him the answers to all these questions?
Religion relies on faith, but this faith is in almost every age bastioned by the most naturally known empirical truths available. For a long period of time—the eleventh and twelfth centuries— the Islamic world was the most rationally, medically and scientifically advanced in the world. China held this honor in other periods, so did Western Europe. But almost never were these sciences seen to be in conflict with the prevailing religion or religions. Dawkins capitalizes on the famous exceptions: Galeleo, the Inquisition, fundamentalist Christianity and Islam today. Religion is not preserved by the divine from error, evil, greed for power and stupidity.
Of course there are atheistic historians of religion too. Many, perhaps most, are like Geertz, deeply respectful of the basic goodness and beauty of the religious social system, but not ready to make a commitment to any one particular faith community. Others, like Bellah, have made such a commitment, but only after a period of rejecting the religion in which he grew up. He listened to arguments by very intelligent men and women as fully committed to the world of reason and science as to religion. Such people did not, and still do not, turn a blind eye to the negative aspects of most religious communities.
So what impels Dawkins—wonderful thinker, lecturer and writer that he is—to wander off into areas that he is so ignorant of? He mentions polytheism and monotheism, but brushes off roughly half of the world’s religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, with hardly a word—perhaps because he does not want to wrestle with the uncomfortable fact that neither Brahman in Hinduism, nor the Buddha is ultimately theistic. He implies that Mother Theresa is somehow dishonest and worse, because she obeys the pope in condemning abortion. (292) He sees Martin Luther King as hardly Christian because he (ridiculously) claims that King got his pacifism from Gandhi (he neglects to mention that Gandhi himself admired Christianity to the point of at one time considering conversion). He argues that Hitler was somehow true to his youthful Catholicism (274)—never mentioning that the Nazi intellectuals who defended Hitler’s utterly unchristian teachings and policies, were deeply influenced by Nietzsche’s atheism, and by his argument for the necessity to get “Beyond Morality.” Yes, Pius XII did not issue a condemnation of Nazism, but he did write the Encyclical letter for Pius XI condemning it when he was the papal legate to Germany. And he sheltered and saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Such rather ludicrous and warped half-truths go on and on, but it’s time to talk of the positive side of Richard Dawkins.
This writer is a best selling author (perhaps the best of several who write in the same anti-religious vain), a sought-after lecturer, and extremely intelligent and pleasant to listen to. More important, he is telling very important truths. The world should know clearly about the absolutist nature of popes, cardinals, imams and fundamentalists of every religion who preach and practice horribly immoral things. The last pope did all he could to hide the nasty truth about priestly abuse of minors; he chose bishops whom he knew would, often criminally, move abusive priests and—all too often—malign their victims. Perhaps the new pope may have been influenced by writers like Dawkins to finally remove men like the abusive founder of the Legionnaires of Christ’s founder, Marciel Marcial Delogado. And perhaps, as men like Dawkins turn up the heat, who knows but maybe this pope might even allow men or women who have spouses with HIV-AIDs to use condoms—and admit that birth control is the most moral way for parents to be able to feed, cloth and educate the several children they already have—and help save our planet from further abuse? Such are the new ways and truths that push forward the evolution of religion. With Dawkins help, surely the vast majority of good and devout Imams will be sensitized to the fact that allowing fundamentalist teachers in some Islamic schools to incite credulous youths and others to oppress or murder innocent people because they are supposedly anti- or un-Islamic.
There is no space here to discuss Dawkins notion of the supernatural—but the matter is discussed above in this web-site (www.kyotocosmos.org/four.htm). We must conclude with a final thought: the fundamentalist, absolutist elements of the various great religions of the world could not thrive were the vast majority of those committed to these religions more carefully educated that naturally known truth and fact can and should be harmonized—as it has been through most of history—with the marvelous truths of faith. Everyone has to have a worldview; everyone wants to be committed to truth, justice, goodness and mercy. Only those believing young people’s minds who have not been led to square their faith with the wonders of science, the full beauty of our natural cosmos, the beauties of art and literature will fall for the evils of absolutist, fundamentalist religion that Dawkins so carefully documents. Those who are led to bring their treasures of their religious faith with these other treasures will, in my opinion,be blessed with the best of both worlds.
In conclusion, it is not much of an exaggeration to argue that Richard Dawkins is himself creating a new religion: one must believe that there is no God. He offers no real proof to the contrary, so in the end one must rely on faith. Like all religions Dawkinism is allied with the very highest moral principles. He teaches his disciples what is evil and what is good. This makes his message surrounded with the aura of goodness and so attractive to his disciples. He even offers his own Ten Commandments (263-64). His scripture—to be taken on faith as inspired truth—is growing steadily. Reason is very important, empirical proof is highly valued—but don’t ask him to prove that Dawkinism can be rationally proven. Just believe.