20070916

The God Delusion

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Betyg: 4

(Warning: core dump of brain in progress. Opinions expressed.)

A few years ago, Channel Four and Richard Dawkins did a documentary on religion. The ads for it were striking to say the least; an image of the New York skyline, with the World Trade Center still standing, and the words “Imagine a world without religion”.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams (a fan of Dawkins, and considering how often Dawkins quotes him in “The God Delusion” the admiration is mutual), we’re coming up on 2000 years since a guy was nailed to a piece of wood for suggesting that people should be nice to each other now and then. We’ve explored time and space, we’ve explained things that seemed beyond our comprehension even 100 years ago, we’ve built machines which to the man in the street are virtually indistinguishable from magic, and at least in the richer parts of the world we’ve turned diseases that used to wipe out entire regions into something you can cure with a shot. And religion, specifically the dogmatic kind which some might have expected to belong to the less enlightened times pre-Voltaire, pre-Darwin, pre-Einstein… is stronger than ever. We have (one or several, depending on how you count) war in the middle East where the battle lines are defined by which ancient book people believe in (or how they choose to interpret the same book), we have an American president who believes God speaks directly to him, we have growing support (so far mainly in the US, but we all know what happens in the US spreads) who want to teach Genesis as a viable alternative to science, people use “freedom of religion” as an excuse to let them oppress women, homosexuals or their own children, and just look at the whole Rushdie business that’s just flaring up again.

Something could be said to be wrong with this picture. And in sweeps Richard Dawkins with a cape and the DNA gene like a superhero symbol on his chest.

In his previous books, starting with “The Selfish Gene”, Dawkins apparently focused more on presenting the scientific viewpoint, but “The God Delusion” really seems to aim at being something which may be an oxymoron: the atheist bible. Look at the cover illustration, the bestsellerishly catchy title, the simple, humorous language; he’s out to convert. The scientific, rational worldview gets a good explanation, but in addition to this, the good and bad sides of religion are looked at from every possible angle – from world creation to morality, from building block of societies to personal comfort, everything gets put through the ringer. And it’s hardly a surprise that he stamps a big red “DOES NOT COMPUTE” on every aspect of it and finds that humanity would be better off without it; we’d have the good sides of it anyway, and we’d be rid of its bad sides.

The problem isn’t that Dawkins is wrong, because I don’t really think he is; he makes a strong case and for a non-religious person there’s a lot here to agree with, learn, use... and be scared by. There’s a war between rationality and superstition, he claims, and the cost of backing down even an inch could be disastrous.

(One of many frightening examples: the court case against the Pennsylvania school that wanted to teach creationis... sorry, “intelligent design“ as an alternative to evolution, where the defense’s expert claimed that godless science will never be able to understand “irreducibly complex” things such as the human immune system. Tough luck, HIV patients, you’re screwed – and guess how many kids would come out of that school wanting to be immunologists.)

No matter how much Dawkins popularizes his arguments he’s still a scientist at heart, and his basic problem with religion as a solution to anything still goes back to this: for every “why?“ you’ll sooner or later end up in front of a black box with the words “Because God wills it so“ stamped in permanent ink on top. Rather than every answer leading to another question, an expansion of knowledge, he thinks that using god(s) as an explanation implies giving up, an acceptance that “this is the way it is, we cannot know why and we cannot do anything about it”. God wants genocide, God wants televangelists, God wants female circumcision, God wants badly designed human bodies (if we’re intelligently designed to walk on two legs, why does it ruin our backs?), God wants terrorists, God wants bans on abortion and stem cell research, God wants people who never change their opinion regardless of what the facts are, and the rest of us are expected to respect it since it’s written in an ancient, questionably translated book.

For every well-founded argument, however, it still shines through that Dawkins is after that conversion. It’s everywhere, in the language (he uses just about every negatively charged adjective and adverb in the English language in connection with religion), in the way he presents his opponents’ arguments in a way that makes them sitting ducks for him to blow out of the water (can ducks really sit on water?), in the way he has a slight tendency to paint “his” side in an extra good light (yes, Richard, atheists have blown up churches – been to the former Eastern bloc lately?), in the way he snorts with contempt at the idea of “live and let live”; there are two choices, he argues, rationality or superstition, atheism or blind faith. And (I’d like to think that this isn’t because he would probably classify me as one of those sissy “Neville Chamberlain agnostics” he dislikes so much) I can’t help but wonder whether this is really a constructive approach. If you tell people they have to make a choice between the religion they’ve grown up with for generations and things which, to a lot of people, are fairly abstract ideas no matter how important they are – astrophysics, geology, evolutionary biology, etc ... how many will choose the former? Is it possible to argue logically against something which, by its very nature, defies logic?

I keep thinking of Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God”, where she makes a very good case for the growing role of religious fundamentalism during the 20th and 21st centuries not being a paradox but exactly the opposite; a very obvious reaction to the shrinking space left for religion to occupy when almost everything has a non-religious explanation, when the secular world becomes the norm. I suppose this book in a way is a reaction to the reaction; Dawkins speaks of religion as worshipping gaps – ie. the bits of the world, of humanity, of life that are attributed to God since we have no other explanation for them; as a scientist, it’s his job to get rid of those gaps. It’s all very Hegelian – thesis->antithesis and all that jazz – only to both sides, there seems to be no opportunity for synthesis, and I’m not sure whether Dawkins’ book will end up bridging the – heh – gap or widening it.

But on the other hand, should we demand of truth, of science, that it also be comfortable and non-confrontational? Maybe not. “The God Delusion” is a very well-written, thorough and convincing argument, I would recommend it both to fellow agnostics/atheists and to the religiously-minded who would like to be informed of what the “other side” (yeeeeesh) is actually arguing/thinking, but as with everything: read it with a critical eye.

Se även dagensbok.com samt diskussion på palimpsest.

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