Monday, January 16, 2012

Souring on Dawkins

I'm not sure I can finish The God Delusion. Or rather, I'm not sure I feel like finishing it. Dawkins begins with the premise that the only sensible position on the existence of God is agnosticism, because although science cannot yet prove whether or not there is a God, we should be able to prove it someday. Then he proceeds to write an entire book attempting to prove, scientifically, that there is no God.

Why spend an entire book proving something that can't be proven? Why spend that much effort trying to deny comfort to the faithful? I think he spends far too much effort in the wrong direction, which is why I prefer the efforts of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dan Savage, Greg Epstein and Penn Jillette. The point is not that everyone needs to disbelieve in God. Faith is faith--it defies logic and it defies science. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

I could vote for someone who believes in fairies, for example. However, if that person insists that the fairies talk to him, and he does what the fairies tell him, that's a different story. It's one thing to believe in God if God, to you, is a benevolent force in the universe that may answer prayers, or if you believe that God is love. It's another thing to believe that the Bible (whichever bible you follow) is the word of God and must be taken literally, or if you believe (as George W. Bush asserts) that God acts through you and that gives you the right to start wars.

It is the laws of God, not the existence of God, that we should argue against. Belief in God is fine insofar as it brings comfort to people in distress or a useful metaphor for teaching children right from wrong. God becomes dangerous when people use God for dangerous things. When one's world view is limited by a belief in God, that is bad. The same can be said for money, however, and I don't see Dawkins arguing against the existence of money. Money exists; perhaps God does to. Neither is the problem. People are the problem, and people can be the solution.

Likewise I see nothing wrong with studying sacred texts. In fact I find them incredibly useful much of the time. I find it unlikely that any problem I might face has never been faced before by any human, or in fact by many people. So I often find it helpful to consult the writings of the past to see how those problems have been solved before. Sometimes I find wisdom in literature, or in talking to an older person, or in reading history (or more likely, watching a documentary on TV.) But the Torah, the Talmud, and the other Jewish sacred texts were written for precisely this reason, and so I often find wisdom there. I don't take any of this literally. I don't believe any of these texts were written or dictated by a deity. But where I find wisdom and useful advice, I use it.

Of course it's essential to take all of this in context. The dating world changed drastically between the time my mother was dating and my own teen years, so it would have been foolish for me to do exactly what my mother did when she was young. But this doesn't mean I couldn't learn from her: of course I could. I just had to consider her stories in their own context and discuss with her how the things she learned from her experience applied to my own situation. I suppose it's a bit harder to do with the Torah since I can't sit down with its writers, but I can take the stories in the Torah in their context and find useful lessons in them.

The stories only become dangerous when one suggests that women can't run their own lives or gay people can't get married because of them.

I guess what I'm saying is that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. God is okay, for those who find comfort in the concept. And texts are harmless, in and of themselves, just as matches are harmless as long as they remain on the shelf. Careless reading is as dangerous as playing with matches, and that is where our arguments with the faithful lie. Believe in God if you wish. It's believing in the Bible that I would fight against.

So why did Dawkins waste his time?


  1. Great post.

    I think that Dawkins makes the mistake of viewing God as a "someone", and then arguing against the existence of that "person". However, religious progressives do not necessarily view God this way - God can be seen as a concept, a metaphor, a presence. God can be seen as the voice of conscience or as transcendant love. God can be seen as the exaultation of spirit one feels when gazing up at the night sky. God doesn't have to be defined as something which could be disproven.


    1. Exactly. And one might then say that belief in God is not harmful, in that case, to science or reason, which is why I suggest that Dawkins would better spend his time arguing against fundamentalism than God's existence.

      Although in Good Without God, Epstein argues that if God can be anything, then God isn't anything, really. That argument had a profound effect on me.

    2. I would draw an analogy with a concept like justice. To some, justice means that everyone should get what they earn. To others, justice means that everyone should get an equal amount. To others, it means everyone should get what they need, and so on. I have my own views on what justice is and my own views on what God is, but in both cases, I know that my conception of the concept isn't the only one. That doesn't mean that there isn't a true meaning, or that the concept is meaningless.

      (all credit to John Rawls for this argument)

    3. I also agree with you that the emphasis on belief instead of action is a problematic. I think the emphasis on belief limits the discussion in another way too - that is, belief and disbelief aren't the only ways of thinking about God. I'm agnostic, I don't believe in God but nor do I believe there is no God. However, I hope that life has a purpose and there is transcendant meaning to the world. This is a theological position that is completely left out in the belief / disbelief dichotomy.