Dawkins' Demons

Reviewed by David Novak

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

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When God does act within the world, that divine action is exceptional, not being an event than can be subsumed within a regular process in nature. Such divine action is “miraculous” when announced or interpreted by a prophet. The subject of such an event cannot be inferred from its mere occurrence, and such an event cannot be predicted by means of ordinary speculation. Indeed, in the absence of a prophet and in the absence of those willing to listen to a prophet, such an unusualevent, or “wonder” in the biblical idiom, can either be dismissed as an insignificant exception to what seems to be a general process in nature, or it can stimulate an observer to search for an explanation for the event by re-interpreting a process in nature to be more inclusive than had heretofore been assumed. Yet the wonder is not how the event happened. That can be explained by natural causes known before or after the occurrence (see, for example, the way the parting of the Red Sea is depicted in Exodus 14:21). The wonder is when it happened, to whom it happened, and who appeared then and there. The prime locus of the event is history, which is the arena of interaction between God and humans, both parties being free. Such interaction cannot be reduced to natural processes that do not seem to have the free choice to appear or not to appear at will. All such miracles are revelations of a God who is free to be present or absent.
Anything we can cogently say about God can only be based on a revelation of God we have either experienced firsthand or heard from people whose accounts of what they did experience we have no reason to distrust. For Jews, that prime experience is the revelation of the Tora at Mount Sinai and the Exodus from Egypt that made it possible for the people of Israel to experience that revelation. Not being a hypothesis but, rather, testimony, all that Dawkins could argue about it is that such experience is improbable, but not impossible, the only impossibility being logical impossibility. But such experience is by definition improbable, being highly unusual. Indeed, if we only had ordinary experience to base our lives on, we would probably die of boredom. Even the discovery of some great scientific truth is often recalled by its discoverers as a wondrous event, ever eliciting their humble amazement. The rest of us can only take their word for it, even when we do eventually fathom some of the truth of what has been revealed. Similarly, those of us who have not directly experienced revelation can still recount and even speculate about the narratives of how it happened (Jews call this agada) and attempt to fathom the truth of what was revealed for both theory and practice (Jews call this halacha).
There is another reason a biblically based theologian like myself could enjoy Dawkins’ book, or at least the Darwinian biology it constantly invokes. That is because Darwinian biology actually poses a far lesser challenge to biblically based faith than did earlier types of modern natural science. In fact, the underlying ontological assumption of Darwinian biology might actually aid theology, something that might very well surprise Dawkins. (When one publishes a book, one takes one’s chances as to what readers might actually do with what one has written.)
Until Darwin, most scientists understood nature to be governed by strictly causal laws, which brooked no exceptions. (The philosopher who expressed this ontology most impressively was Spinoza, whose greatest disciple was Albert Einstein.) Evolution, as Darwin persuasively taught us, is not the result of prior causes; rather, it is the response of a species to threats to its survival posed by its environment. But there is no way to predict how a species will necessarily respond to these environmental challenges, inasmuch as neither it nor any other species has responded to them in the past predictably and out of necessity. All we can do is examine the possibilities they faced, and then judge retrospectively which possibility the members of the species did in fact realize. Furthermore, since we cannot predict what physical challenges any species will face in the future, we cannot even predict what it will probably do in the future.
Since neither God’s revelation nor humans’ free choice to accept it or reject it is impossible but only improbable, our Darwinian understanding that the biosphere in which history takes place allows for freedom gives us just enough of an opening to act freely in it and assume that God can act freely there as well. Freedom presupposes possibility in the arena in which it is to occur. That is why freedom cannot occur in a world totally governed by necessity. And that is why, after Darwin, we do not have to resort to Kant’s dualism, where we approach nature as if it were necessarily determined, approach the interpersonal world as if we were free, and then try (implausibly for the most part) to reconcile by some sort of metaphysical postulate these opposing worlds. Thus Darwin and his disciples (even Richard Dawkins) have given us theologians all we need, unintentionally to be sure.
At the outset, I resisted the temptation to speculate as to what Dawkins’ personal motives are for his anti-religious animus. In fact, he forgoes the usual horror stories of having been traumatized by religious ogres that we are accustomed to hearing from anti- or formerly religious writers. Nevertheless, I think one can detect a political motive for his anti-religious animus. That motive can be seen when early in the book he complains about “the privileging of religion in public discussions of ethics.”
Dawkins considers himself a member of a class called “biologists.” His class plays a definite role in the political sphere. This class receives a great amount of funding for its research from society, in exchange for which, it is assumed, it contributes greatly to the common good of society. With the rapid growth of biomedical technology, the political power of its biologist practitioners (almost all of whom are Darwinians of one kind or another) has increased dramatically. Enjoying their great new political success, many biologists do not want society to place any moral restrictions on what they may or may not do. Indeed, Dawkins seems to think that evolutionary biology itself can provide us with all the morality we need.
However, where does society get the moral standards it attempts to impose upon all its citizens, even on biologists? So, for example, where does society get the notion that non-productive, permanently crippled human beings are not to be eliminated? Merely based on the fact that a species will do anything necessary for its specific survival and flourishing, could one not conclude that eliminating those who take much time, effort, and resources away from their species and give their species virtually nothing, could one not conclude that by the criteria of specific survival and specific flourishing, these unproductive, wasteful individuals should be removed from human society altogether? And couldn’t we eliminate the uncomfortable feeling of cruelty this type of action still evokes in us by persuading such individuals (when they still have the capacity for rational choice) to freely eliminate themselves as a matter of duty to the survival and flourishing of the species of which they are part? Nevertheless, many of us, even many of us who are quite secular in outlook, look with horror on such “socially efficient” practices. Certainly, Jews should look upon such practices with special horror, considering which nation in the twentieth century saw scientific justification for its abandonment of traditional moral standards, especially those standards that protected weak minorities in their midst.
Now I admit that Dawkins is right when he says that if we examine the actions of religious and non-religious people, we can conclude that “we do not need God in order to be good or evil.” Clearly, some non-religious people do good acts and some religious people do evil acts (as Dawkins loves to point out when he mentions religious terrorists). But where do we get our standards of good and evil so as to judge who is which? It would seem that we get them from moral traditions, which seem to represent at least some standards that apply beyond their own communities to all human beings, that seem to put forth good reasons for them, which seem to have analogues in other traditions (hence “multi-cultural” or “pluralistic”), and which seem to be part of an overall life system that has had intergenerational staying power. Since most if not all such traditions are transmitted by communities that regard themselves as “religious” (which means, as we have seen, they base themselves on a primary divine revelation), there should be little surprise why we tend to look to native interpreters of these religious traditions for moral guidance.
By contrast, it is not hard to see why simple associations of like-minded individuals, like “Darwinians” for example, who have not demonstrated such historical durability, who are far less comprehensive in what they teach, and who have the annoying habit of proposing their own moral governance rather than offering persuasive moral guidance, do not get from the public the moral prestige they crave and which they envy religious moralists for having more of than they do. Moreover, since responsible religious moralists in a secular society do not speak out of the religious authority of their revelation and its normative tradition, advising rather than commanding, society need not solicit or accept their particular theological claims (which are rightly made only to their own communities anyway) in order to be guided by their collective wisdom.
Adherents of traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity should be wary of falling into Dawkins’ intellectual trap by committing the category error of having their theology speak the language of natural science, and we should be wary of the dangers to our communal, cultural survival when someone like Richard Dawkins has political influence, let alone political power. That is why The God Delusion needs to be taken seriously, in terms of both what it erroneously says and what it dangerously implies.

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author, most recently, of The Jewish Social Contract: An Essay in Political Theology (Princeton, 2005). His last contribution to AZURE was “Genesis and Morality” (Azure 15, Summer 2003).

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