I'm not sure the source, or where I heard it, but one of the maxim's I'm working to live my life by goes something like this:
If you can't intelligently argue both sides of an issue, you don't understand your position.
With that in mind I grabbed a copy of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins from The Bookman when I saw it on the staff recommendations shelf. Having grown up in a Christian home I wanted to encounter arguments for why religion isn't a belief I should be carrying anymore. Not because I'm done with religion, but because if I'm scared of encountering those views then my faith is built on shaky ground in deed.
In today's look at The God Delusion, I'm not going to give any final verdict on religion or my relationship with faith. I will share arguments that I found compelling or interesting. These are the arguments I'm continuing to think about as I work through faith.
Before we embark on the arguments I'm thinking about let's talk about what "religion" if any, Dawkins would say he's okay with. Before we even do that, let it be clear that he says he's not even comfortable with the word "religion" because it carries supernatural assumptions with it1.
For Dawkins, if we're talking about awe at the forces behind the way things work that we cannot yet grasp, that's his religion. Plain marvel at the universe, much as almost any of us have done when confronted with a dark night and the many stars that gaze at us, yet remain invisible in city light pollution.
One of the first points that got me thinking hard about how we treat religious beliefs was Dawkin's arguments around the special unassailable place that religion is allowed to occupy2. Religion is allowed to operate outside rational thought, and many mental gymnastics are used to keep that place sacred. That's how we get terms like NOMA3, which is strictly enforced when science is contrary to religion. Of course if there is any shred of scientific evidence on the side of religion this evidence is taken and used while ideas like NOMA get tossed out the window because there is now "proof".
For Dawkins, religion is simply a theory, a set of beliefs, that can be proved true or false. Unfortunately unlike other opinions, the burden of proof is placed on those disbelieving religion not those trying to prove it correct4. This is the opposite of other hypotheses presented in the world, because religion holds that "special" unassailable place that it doesn't deserve.
At the end of the book Dawkins addresses the "God of GAPS" idea. This would say that there is a God shaped hole in us that must be filled by only God. It is also used when there is a gap in any scientific theory as the place that God must fit. In some cases it's pushed so far that religious leaders say they don't want the gaps filled.
...one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding. 5
Tying fairly closely to that last point is the closeness of religious arguments and conspiracy theorists.
Fundamentalists know they are right because the have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of he holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book.6
For most conspiracy theorists they take evidence or lack of evidence as proof towards their point. Evidence that contradicts their views is obviously part of a cover up. This mental wrangling makes it impossible to have a rational argument with them. The Death of Expertise summed this up well:
Conspiracy theorists manipulate all tangible evidence to fit their explanation, but worse they will also point to the absence of evidence as even stronger confirmation.7.
If this is how religious people conduct any discussion about their belief's, it's impossible to have a rational discussion with them. Any gap in your argument gets a response of "see God", and then what?
Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival...But the flip side of trusting obedience is a slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses.8
Dawkins equates religion to a mind virus infecting children, which felt almost offensive to me. Then I had to remember that he may say I've been infected by my parents. To stick with his viral metaphor, I've been inoculated to reject his terms. I think it feels offensive to me, because I want the best for my children and he says I'm doing them active harm by infecting them with my religion.
Even finding his viral statement offensive, I do agree with his arguments that there are no Christian children9. Dawkins effectively argues that children aren't equipped to evaluate the views they're being taught10. I don't say that my children are Conservatives or Liberals or NDP children, to use Canadian political parties. If I recognize that they can't make those decisions why would I think that they have any better grasp of religion?
Dawkins draws a difference between an adult, after a rational education and thinking, choosing to become religious. The adult weighed the options and made a choice that an adult brain is capable of. As a parent he would say that we need to teach our children to evaluate the value of information and the quality of information and let them make decisions about what's right based on that11.
What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit this sin of a remote ancestor?12
We see the concept of "traitor's blood" in many novels and movies. That a child is tainted and disdained because of an action taken by their parents. While we can sit back and know that this isn't true, religion espouses the same belief. Christianity specifically does this with the idea of original sin.
Why is this okay?
The final theme that presented itself throughout the book was that of the cost people pay when they stop believing in religion. Parents disown them, spouses leave, their entire support structure evaporates. Sitting on the Christian side of this, none of those behaviours feel like the right thing to do according to how I understand faith and yet, I wonder what the cost would be to myself if my religious leanings bent that way?
Would I be risking my marriage of 18 years? Would my support structures suddenly walk away from me?
In many ways it's scary to think about, and that also makes me wonder about the indoctrination angle of religion. It's common in cults to be disowned if you "leave". If, as religious people say, they're not part of a cult then why don't they act differently in the face of someone changing their beliefs?
Ultimately, I don't have answers for many of the questions presented here. I have more questions and more thinking to do and that is the point of reading to better myself.
The group I think should read this most is those that have religious beliefs. As I said earlier, if that thought frightens you, then there is even greater cause to read it. I have no plans to cease my church attendance, but I have more thoughts on how I raise my children and on what terms I'll engage in a discussion about the truth of religions in general.
I didn't find all his arguments compelling. In particular his "anthropic" arguments, but it's also possible I simply couldn't get my mind past the idea that it all had to start with "someone" or "something".
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Non-overlapping magesteria. This is the belief that science and religion don't overlap. So religion speaks to spiritual matters and science to physical matters. ↩︎
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The Death of Expertise Page 55 ↩︎
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Insert any other religious belief system, just as he does ↩︎
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Going back to The Death of Expertise, this capacity is becoming a rare commodity and it's only getting rarer. ↩︎
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With are also based on traits that actually have nothing to do with a person in particular ↩︎
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