27 October 2006

Is Dawkins Delusional?

By Rusty Rockets

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary theorist and ethologist, is no stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to matters of faith, but his latest book, The God Delusion, seems to have ruffled even more feathers than usual. Dawkins time in the media spotlight has made him an attractive target for would-be giant slayers (particularly those with a theological axe to grind), and his new book's loose and conversational tone seems to be reason enough for critics from all quarters to be nothing short of brutal in their appraisals of his latest work. So, is there merit to Dawkins' anti-religious tirade, or are the critics right?

Somewhat removed from his usual rigorous scientific investigations (which may leave some fans a little bewildered), Dawkins' The God Delusion is a continuation of his personal mission to show people the light - the light of reason, that is. In the book, Dawkins dives straight into the thick of it, arguing that God is, in fact, within the realms of scientific examination, and should come out from behind the religious frippery and be exposed to the same intellectual rigors as any other hypothesis. If science is open to logical scrutiny, then why should religion be exempt if it too is laying claim to the ultimate truths of our existence? "Why shouldn't we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn't [Bertrand] Russell's teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, equally immune from scientific skepticism? A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?" demands Dawkins.

But many of Dawkins' scientific colleagues consider the analysis of religion to be, as Blackadder says, a blunt pencil... pointless. Where's the logic in trying to disprove the existence of something for which there is no empirical evidence? If anything, religion is a matter of faith that can only address the realms of human nature, of which we have a limited understanding anyway. Religion is outside the realms of science, the naysayers contend. Stephen Jay Gould was all too happy to relegate science and religion to their respective corners. He eloquently refers to science and religion as two magisteria that: "do not overlap, nor do they encompass all enquiry." In an essay entitled "A Darwin For All Reasons," Gould wrote:

"The Darwin bashers and boosters can both be refuted with simple and venerable arguments. To the bashers, I can assert only that Darwinian evolution continues to grow in vibrancy and cogency as the centerpiece of the biological sciences - and, more generally, that no scientific truth can pose any threat to religion rightly conceived as a search for moral order and spiritual meaning."

Dawkins takes umbrage at this, saying it is implausible that any questions relating to "ultimate meaning" would involve science taking a back-seat. He draws attention to one so-called ultimate question: Why does anything exist at all? Dawkins concedes that while such a question is likely beyond the realms of science, there is no reason to believe that a theologian can bring any more expertise to such deep cosmological questions than a scientist, or indeed anybody, can.

As Dawkins attempts to reason away religion's monopoly on matters considered both within, and beyond, the realms of science, he highlights the habitual manner in which society "bends over backwards" to allow religion to thrive unnecessarily. Sure, you can extol the moral virtues of religion over science if you want. But if, as Gould argues, we are to believe that religion really is the moral flipside to science, then do we; "really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad?" asks Dawkins. After citing several moral ambiguities from the Bible, and questioning which set of morals from which religion should be followed, Dawkins concludes that religion is superfluous to society, offering nothing to its followers that could not be found without its existence.

But if this is the case, how does Dawkins explain the prevalence and robustness of religion? Interestingly, he claims that religious belief is handed down from parent to child, just as genes are. This process, analogous to natural selection, is a cultural information theory that Dawkins developed some 30 years ago. The study of memes, or memetics, is controversial, but is one way to explain the cultural evolution of ideas.

Like genes, memes are subject to natural selection, so that while some memes may survive outright, most would remain because they have some "merit" or consistency with the rest of the meme pool already present. Some examples of religious memes that may survive natural selection in individuals brought up to believe in God (thereby having a particular meme pool geared toward the survival of religious memes) may include such things as: surviving your own death; belief in God is a supreme virtue; and that faith is a virtue. Somewhat tenuously, Dawkins also contends that "beautiful" music, art and scripture are in themselves "self-replicating tokens of religious ideas."

Dawkins' rant against religion becomes a tad repetitive after a while. He rages that a worldview known to foster fanaticism and promote intolerance toward minority groups, such as homosexuals, is tolerated by society. Parents who indoctrinate their children into a religion should be charged with child abuse. "I thank my own parents," he writes, "for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think." Not content to merely land some telling body-blows on religion, he also kicks it in the head, sets about it with a tire iron, ties it to a chair and pours gasoline over it. Then he flicks the match, claiming that ethical behavior can be attributed wholly to natural selection, making religion morally bankrupt.

Judging by the critical responses to The God Delusion so far, it looks like the world isn't quite ready to go cold turkey on its religion addiction. Interestingly, when it comes to the crunch, there seem to be a hell of a lot of agnostics out there. Alternatively, what some have described as Dawkins' "smug" and "superior" approach to his subject, may be irking some people. Personally I didn't have a problem with his tone, but perhaps it grates on people whose core beliefs Dawkins so abrasively challenges. To this end, perhaps the biggest failing of The God Delusion is that it is preaching, well... to the converted.