The God Delusion: Does it fail?
This letter is particularly for Mr. Dawkins, though of course anybody is open to answering the points I make.
Having recently finished "The God Delusion" I at first thought it to be a grand book, readily capable of being handed out to the vast number of people I know who are still believers. On further reflection, however, I cannot help but see severe limitations.
As a bit of background, I attended a Bible College on the intention of becoming a pastor. However, through study in philosophy and science, in particular the work by George Smith "Atheism: The Case Against God", I deconverted. That occurred 5 years ago this month and I have dedicated myself to the ending of absolutist and religious thought where I can. One thing, among several, has remained constant from my days as a believer and that is the fervent desire to have my arguments possess merit and get to the heart of the matter under discussion. As a consequence, I was as much of a critic of Christianity as an adherent and endeavor to do the same now as an atheist.
My first point pertains to what, exactly, "The God Delusion" is supposed to accomplish. If it is a call-to-arms for atheists and humanists, then it succeeds quite well, not only in being spiritedly written but in bringing to attention certain aspects of religious dogma that should make us all upset. However, I do not think this is the sole reason, nor even a primary one. What is primary seems to be an atheist or scientific apologetic and/or argument against believing in the supernatural. If this is, indeed, the primary reason, then I must unfortunately refer to it as a failure.
The book serves well those who are "on the fence" and have already delved into philosophy and possesses a certain mindset that is open to the often acerbic style of the writing, ala Harris. Now, this is not to say that we should treat religion with kid-gloves. I am much perturbed by the general pass that is given to religion as to its shortcomings and think that it should be attacked more forcefully than it generally is. However, name-calling and the large section purporting to show how unbelievers are more intelligent doesn't get us anywhere. As to the last, it is simply irresponsible, as I have now lost count the number of adolescent atheists who are trumpeting that chapter as a means for the continuation of their own already over-bloated egos.
But as I said, for those who have already studied, the book does fill in some gaps. Though to this it must be said that the arguments are not new, but simply presented in an engaging style. This is needed for new generations of learners. If the intention is to argue the case against religious thinking, however, then new arguments that are not about tangential theological opinions and that do not arrogantly dismiss such great thinkers as Thomas Aquinas are needed.
The reason I say the book ultimately fails in its primary objective is two-fold: one, problems of definition, and the other with a misunderstanding of epistemology.
Concerning definition, the book implicitly allows for the theoretical legitimacy of “the Bible" as a source for epistemology and morality. The conclusion presented is that it is lacking and indeed, that morality isn't truly even gotten from “the Bible”. However, both of these points miss the issue, that being there is no such thing as "the Bible." It is a historical fallacy. There is no single book called this, rather it is the title given to a collection of books that has changed through the last several hundred years, cobbled together out of committees and ordered by kingly decree.
At face value there is no continuity between the disparate books other than vague history and in fact, this is why the entire field of theology was created; to make sense out of the seeming contradictions. I use the term "seeming" here not because I think there aren't contradictions, but because theology has largely answered any that have been brought up. This goes to the heart of the large section devoted to the piece-meal treatment of the bible given in "the God Delusion." Anybody, and very many have done so, can pick and choose among the various scripture verses and find those that are objectionable and, from a certain perspective, contradictory. In fact, a great many Christians do this and an entire movement, called Dispensational Theology, came about precisely because certain ideological shifts noted between the two so-called "testaments" were difficult to reconcile. But that's just it, it is quite clearly possible to still read the entire bible, note seeming contradictions, and still remain a strong and fervent believer. This is because the believer is committed to "the Bible" as defined as a singular book, handed down through cultures by the Almighty. By implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of this definition, any argument you use against the bible is moot. This is because once the definition is accepted, any criticism is rightly viewed as simply a different interpretation and, has been shown throughout church history, the particular interpretation that is being espoused could very well be wrong. In fact, I know of several ways out of the claimed quandaries created in the text, as taught to me by theologians and biblical professors who clearly know far more about the so-called scriptures.
By delving into battles of interpretation and asserting a particular method of analysis, the text and those who use similar arguments, are caught up in the delusion and arrogant assumption that there is only ONE way to interpret “the bible.” In fact, the very fact that there IS NO ONE WAY to interpret the text is precisely one of the damning criticisms that can be leveled against believers. By missing this, criticism can rightly be made that what Dawkins and others are doing is simply bringing their own background to the text and interpreting accordingly. The fact that all believers are doing the same is exactly the point!
Now before I go on to the second issue, let me make something clear. There is some credibility to the argument presented, but it is only when one assumes the premise that is not a part of christianity, that being humanity as a free and capable moral agent. Once one believes this, then pointing out moral conundrums is indeed powerful. But this of course, goes to the point I'm making. Argumentation is not going to be effective, especially against those who actually have studied the religious material, if the core beliefs are not attacked. The problem of "the Bible" is not the book itself, it's the belief that there exists such a book. The onus is on the believer to provide evidence that there is such a thing and to show where a singular transcendent message exists. The very fact of the existence of multiple denominations should point out that the myth of the unity of the bible is just that, a myth.
The second criticism follows from the first, though it can be dealt with separately. Much criticism has been written for trying to make "spiritual" claims sound like scientific ones. The criticism usually is of two forms: the first being the NOMA criticism of Stephen J. Gould and the second being that "spiritual" claims operate under different criteria than scientific ones. While the first is clearly absurd, since the text clearly stipulates that any type of NOMA thinking is to be dismissed, the second actually does have merit and is close to the criticism that I have.
It is stated that religions are making claims about the way the world is and that therefore they can be lumped together with scientific claims and thus are beholden to the rigors of critical analysis and the need for evidence. This completely misses the epistemological core of religious absolutism and the believer is thoroughly justified in bemoaning the intellectual trickery that is being made here. In point of fact, though the believer wouldn't state it this way, religion does not make claims about the world. Indeed, when seen for what they are, doctrines don't make claims about anything, except themselves. Religious claims are not rational, but nor are they ir-rational. They are, in fact, NON-rational.
Scientific claims are based on the assumptions that the human specie is not only capable of knowing something, however tenuous, but that the claim is inherently capable of being proven wrong. Neither of these assumptions are part of the religious epistemology. Doctrines and theological opinions are not based on human knowledge, they are stated facts about the information "God" has bestowed upon man. In addition, these doctrines and the source they are taken from, i.e. "the Bible," are infallible. Theological opinions are of a different nature than scientific ones. They deal with the spiritual reality that is both a part of and yet separate from, the material one. As such, evidence as defined by the scientific method and the ability of theological claims to withstand rational criticism, is not at issue. This is due to theology being founded upon a completely different epistemological system, that of faith. In fact, this should be obvious, since theological claims are absolutist at core and the scientific epistemology is not capable of supporting even in theory, absolutist claims. Thus, what is needed and what has been provided by religious apologists, is the epistemological doctrine of faith. Anybody not understanding this should take the time to read Gordon Clark’s “Thales to Dewey” and “Introduction to Christian Philosophy.” (If these are casually dismissed, then they weren’t read thoroughly.) I am not claiming that these statements are correct, but merely pointing out that the assumptions of the religious mind do not allow the argument presented to stand. Religious statements are not scientific, they are faith-based and NON-rational. That is their weakness and the true source of their danger.
So what is left? Not much. For anybody who has a modicum of religious philosophy and theological training, the arguments presented fall short and in fact, only encourage the thinking that the unbelieving masses do not understand what believers truly stand for.
Despite my criticism, I am encouraged nonetheless by the efforts in this book, among many others, of scientists and lay-philosophers to begin taking religion seriously and point out its glaring problems. There is a great need for more of this and it also serves as an encouragement for those who are sitting idly by and not standing up for the rightly stated, last great minority, atheists.
If I am at all wrong with any of my criticism, I hope to be proven so, as I am well aware of my own short-comings as an intellectual. At the very least, I hope some sort of dialogue can ensue as we are all dedicated to the same thing, the end of religious thinking.
Every one of your relationships to man and to nature must be a definite expression of your real, individual life corresponding to the object of your will. -Erich Fromm