Dawkins' Demons

Reviewed by David Novak

The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, 2006, 406 pages.

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Because Richard Dawkins’ best-selling book, The God Delusion, is so vituperative, continually insulting its subject with rhetorical overkill, it is quite tempting for an unsympathetic reviewer to presume, “Methinks he doth protest too much,” and merely speculate about what the personal motives of the author really are. But, by taking that tack, one would miss the reasonable argument Dawkins does make against what he perceives to be the common errors of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Being an argument (however badly presented), the basic assertions of this book deserve a reasoned response, even though its overall tone is more likely to elicit an emotional reaction–either a positive reaction from those who love Dawkins’ atheism or a negative reaction from those who hate it.
The very title of Dawkins’ book reminds one of another famous dismissal of religion: Sigmund Freud’s 1927 book, The Future of an Illusion. Yet, whereas Freud hoped that his intelligent readers would outgrow whatever illusive, childish religious beliefs they held, being none the worse for the wear, so to speak, Dawkins sees a need for delusional religious beliefs (which for him are all religious beliefs) to be consciously and intentionally rejected through the recognition of how pernicious their hold on human beings has always been. Such a delusion is apparently dangerous even for children; hence Dawkins regards it as “preposterous” to “indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents.” Religion is too dangerous to be allowed to simply wither away in one’s more rational adulthood; rather, it must be uprooted ab initio.
Dawkins’ objections to religious beliefs and those who continue to hold them are intellectual and moral. Being arguments and not just invectives, his intellectual objections are more interesting than his moral objections are, and they do deserve most of the attention of a serious review of his book. But, as we shall see, the political objections one can infer from his book are even more interesting and, perhaps, even more important.
Intellectually speaking, Dawkins thinks that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other.” That hypothesis, in Dawkins’ characterization of it, is: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” Dawkins finds this hypothesis wanting on scientific grounds, refusing to simply bracket it as a metaphysical assertion beyond the pale of scientific discourse to either confirm or refute. Here I think he makes an important point. Metaphysics, certainly since Aristotle, has been built on the back of natural science—physics in the original sense. Metaphysical assertions gain their validity insofar as they offer more exalted explanations of physical phenomena than can be offered by ordinary scientific criteria. Today, we call such meta-scientific assertions “models” or “paradigms.” Metaphysics functions as a meta-language for natural science. It is beyond the mere description of natural phenomena, yet it has no independence of them. Taken this way, metaphysics is not concerned with what is transcendent, like the God of the Bible, for example, a God who is taken to exist both before and after the duration of the universe he created. “I am the first and I am also the last” (Isaiah 48:12). This God is in no way the key referent in a scientific hypothesis.

Anyone who does assert the “God Hypothesis,” though, must be prepared to answer Dawkins’ objections to its cogency. Yet such metaphysical excesses have been criticized by philosophers going back at least two centuries to Kant’s rejection of proofs of the existence of God inferred from the data of our experience of the world. So, what in present public
discourse is so perturbing Dawkins, who is identified on the jacket of this book as the “Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University”?

All this very much disturbs “orthodox” Darwinians like Dawkins, who are convinced that Darwin destroyed any such argument once and for all by his biology. Yet an argument that seems to have been ejected from the front door of the House of Darwin is now being returned through the back door by those who claim to be bona fide residents of the same house. This is not just an attack from an external enemy, like the “fundamentalists” who reject Darwinism tout court; it is treason from within. And, isn’t this a new and audacious attempt to re-introduce the old “proofs of the existence of God” that Kant was supposed to have permanently banished from all rational discourse about nature over two centuries ago?
Without attempting to judge the merits of Intelligent Design, it seems that the dogmatic, at times hysterical, response of orthodox Darwinians to its very utterance in public causes one to wonder whether they really do have conclusive arguments against it so as to permanently refute it. Nevertheless, it is the hold this argument has on otherwise intelligent people that seems to trouble Dawkins so. He no doubt considers that hold to be due to the pernicious hold religion has on too many people today.
Intelligent Design seems to be an argument for an immanent God. That is, it seems to be an argument for the existence of a cause who shows himself, or at least shows his specific operations, within the world of human experience, which is the world natural science attempts to accurately describe and whose causal workings it attempts to explain. As such, Intelligent Design seems to be saying much more than simply asserting that God created the world in general. Instead, it seems to be saying how God created the world specifically. But, since Intelligent Design (and its various cognates) states something about the world, it is indeed a hypothesis. And, since it seems to be invoking at least a god, we now have a theologically inspired hypothesis at that, thus calling into question the famous retort of the scientist Pierre Laplace, quoted as a kind of slogan by Dawkins, to Napoleon’s query about the place of God in the world constituted by modern science: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”
Nevertheless, Intelligent Design is not a re-statement of “creationism,” which is the view that the Bible literally describes just how God created the world within a time frame that by every scientific indication is too short, even for the proponents of Intelligent Design, and which comes too late in the history of the universe proposed by modern physics. And, whereas creationists speak from biblical authority, the proponents of Intelligent Design speak in mathematical equations, which is the language of science since Galileo. Accordingly, Dawkins has attacked a much more subtle opponent, and he knows it.
Theologians or religious philosophers who are not biblical literalists and who are unlike today’s creationists should answer Dawkins’ arguments or risk the charge that they are too terrorized by them to speak up against them. Taking up Dawkins’ challenge, such theologians (among whom I count myself) can either argue for the hypothetical value of Intelligent Design or something like it, or can show that their “God-talk” (the original meaning of theo-logy) is not the proposal of any scientific hypothesis at all. Such theologians need to show how their theological opponents are guilty of what philosophers call a “category error” by confusing the language and logic of theology with the language and logic of natural science. Such “hypothetical” use of the name of God, usually called “natural theology,” is philosophically superfluous and, on theological grounds, it might well be guilty of taking the name of the Lord in vain. Furthermore, the “God of the philosophers” that Dawkins attacks is anyway not a God “appropriate for worship,” which is how Dawkins himself defines the word “God.” Worship, as distinct from individual contemplation, is a public activity that takes its vocabulary from the historical accounts of the relationship between the subjects of worship, who are the worshiping community, and the object of worship, who is God. Natural theology, though, only gives us contemplation. For these reasons, then, I enjoyed Dawkins’ putdown of some of these natural theologians, but without buying what he proposes in their stead.
We could say that statements about God are not scientific hypotheses at all, since we are not speaking of God as a cause operating within the natural order, which is the sole order about which natural science can speak with any cogency. And, even when we do speak of God as the creator of the universe and all it contains, we are not speaking of a God whose existence has been inferred from human experience of orderly nature. Instead, we are speaking of a God who commands our community, through his historical revelation to our community, to acknowledge his creation of that natural order in which our historical relationship with him takes place. So, all that this asserts about the world is that the world is a creature, ever dependent on its creator, but in specific ways beyond our ken inasmuch as there is no evidence for creation from within what we normally or ordinarily experience in the world—a point best made when God finally reveals himself at the end of the book of Job.

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