Sunday, June 17, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 1 - A deeply religious non-believer

My intention with this short series of blog posts is to discuss Richard Dawkins latest book The God Delusion (see picture). I think that The God Delusion is a good book, and I think that it is a book that should be read, especially if you are interested in science and religion and the relation between the two. You can accuse Richard Dawkins of a lot of things, but I have never seen anyone claiming that he is a bad writer. Indeed his clear and lucid style is some of the best I have ever read. If that is not reason enough for you, then consider the impact that this book has already had. Go to YouTube and search for Dawkins and you will see that he has been invited to every imaginable talk show to discuss his latest work. Here, for example, you will find a heated discussion with the renowned Bill O'Reily (not a very pleasant man if you ask me).

I would not claim that The God Delusion is a very original book. Most of the arguments and discussions in the book have appeared elsewhere before. However, The God Delusion is a comprehensive book which I think covers most the relevant arguments and discussions concerning science and religion. One influential (fundamentalist?) blog that I read recently complained that atheists cannot decide whether to attack religion because they think it is false or because they think it lead to evil. My response is that, religion should be criticized because it is plausibly false and because it is a source of evil. It is not a good defense to point out that your stance can be criticized from several different perspectives.

In the first chapter of his book Dawkins defines what he means by God. After all, God is defined in very different ways depending on who you ask. For example, there are many people who see God, not as an omnipotent, omniscient man in the sky, but rather they claim that God is the natural laws, or God is in everything. Personally, I think that semantics (the meaning of words), in essence is a democratic endeavor. I think that a word means what most people think it means. If you are not happy with that then come up with a new word. In any case, Dawkins makes it clear that he writes about the God as he is defined in the religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam i.e. the God in the Old Testament (Yahweh).

Why should we respect a religious hypothesis more than any other hypothesis? That is the next issue brought up in The God Delusion. In my relatively short career I have only yet been part of one article submission. The way it works is that when you send in your article to a peer reviewed journal, the editors will read it and possibly send it right back with a "we won't publish this crap" note attached. If you are lucky the editor thinks that your article has a chance of being published in their journal. If so, the editor sends the article to two or three reviewers, typically your worst critics. The reviewers read the article and send their comments back to the editor. They also say whether they think the article is good enough to be published in the journal or not. After all these turns which usually takes two or three months (sometimes more), you get your article back along with all the criticism and ad hominim attacks (which occur every now and then) and more often than not with a negative response. Then, for a couple of weeks, you feel devastated and contemplate whether you should perhaps start working with garbage disposal or something else that suits your mental capacity better, and then you get back on the horse and send your article to a less prestigious journal.

Dawkins writes:

"A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts - the non-religious included - is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other."

I could not agree more. To criticize religion in the same fashion that scientific discoveries are criticized is completely taboo. I think this is strange because as I see it believing in a God is no different from believing that a classically conditioned memory trace sits in the Purkinje cell in the Cerebellum. Of course there is one important difference. Religion is often much more a part of a person than is for instance a scientific hypothesis. It is probably easier to really hurt someone by criticizing their religion than by criticizing something else, and I think one should take this issue into account, though not to the extent that we do today.

To illustrate the reactions that can occur when religion is criticized, Richard Dawkins, writes about the Muslims reaction to the cartoons that were published in Jyllands Posten. Sure they were probably tasteless and all that, but compared to the way Richard Dawkins was depicted in South Park (season 10, episode 12), it is nothing (I am a big south park fan by the way). In response to the cartoons in Jyllands posten one (fundamentalist) Muslim responded in a tragicomic fashion:

"Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion'."


Lim Leng Hiong said...

I think one main reason why religious criticism offends so easily is because of the strong cultural and social traditions that integrate the heart of religious groups. Millions of people have invested their personal lives into these belief systems for many generations. The socio-emergent properties of large social groups tend to be highly conservative and resist alternative viewpoints.

rasmussenanders said...

I agree with you.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi Anders,

You write very well. I would like to exchange blog links with you.

I write a science blog called Fresh Brainz, mainly regarding evolutionary biology and some neuroscience as well.

Best regards!

Anonymous said...


Hmm, I also wrote a review of TGD from, albeit from a somewhat different perspective - I hope you might find it of some interest (but who can tell? :-) )