Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The God Delusion 5

This is number five in a series of posts working through Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion chapter by chapter.

In chapter five he asks the question, 'If natural selection leads to 'useless' things dying out over time why are there still religions?'

He answers his own question by suggesting that religion serves as a 'meme' rather than a gene. It is a pattern of behaviour, easily copied and therefore much reproduced over time, surviving through merit (by which he means ability to survive in the meme pool and nothing more) or compatibility (there's a lot of it about). So he says that Christianity doesn't survive in Islamic countries because of incompatibility, although he doesn't address the question of why Islam survives in Great Britain.

Dawkins is scathing about faith. He doesn't even think it is a virtue. I wonder if, say, his daughter were to be kidnapped, he would exercise scientific detachment at the possibility of her return, or faith and hope.

I began to be irritated by this chapter. Not because Dawkins isn't a good writer. It is cracking and readable prose. Not because he isn't a good scientist. I learned a lot. It is his insistence, again and again, on attacking the worst excesses of religion as if this somehow wins him the battle. If he had some bitter complaint against a fellow biologist he would be sure to have read all that person had written on the subject under dispute before taking on a debate. Here he argues against poor theology and, surprise surprise, proclaims himself the winner. I wouldn't want to rubbish biology simply on the basis of the inability of my biology teacher to communicate important truths to me in 1968.

Dawkins sees the outbreak of cults all over the world as a sign of religion's easy propagatability. He sees four common things about cults:

1. They spring up quickly.
2. The origination process covers its tracks (so it is hard to get at the fact behind the faith).
3. Similar cults can spring up independently.
4. Cults have similarities with other, older cults.

But is this evidence of a meme replicating or an inbuilt longing for something spiritual? St Augustine said our hearts would be restless until they found their rest in God.

Terry Eagleton, in the London Review of Books, and quoted in this article on the excellent Damaris Culture Watch web-site, says:

'Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don't believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster . . . critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.'

Which sums it up for me so much better than I could. Dawkins needs to quit wrestling the paper tiger - he's totalled it pretty much - and take on some heavy weights. In the TV programme from which the book has er, evolved, his conversation with former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, was by far the best bit.



Too true and very nicely put.

david said...

Rod Liddle's programme on Channel 4 this evening might add something to the debate:
The Trouble With Atheism
Monday 18 December at 8pm
Thursday 21 December at 2.20am (early hours of Friday)
Rod Liddle argues against those who turn to atheism for a rational and moderate approach to today's problems, and says that atheism has high priests and dogmatic beliefs, just like fundamentalist religion.

Anonymous said...

An old post still worthy of a comment.

I find Sam Harris to be as well informed as many theologians and without the bias. If you found Dawkins unweorthy, try Harris.

What annoys me about people of [religious] faith is their erroneous belief about those who do not share their persepctive - that we cannot possibly understand hope, faith, and morality.

Hypocritical at best.

St said...

Thanks anonymous friend and welccome, belatedly to the party. We've moved on a bit since this post I'm afraid. Hope you read on.

I think the most you can say is that what annoys you about some people of religious faith is that some of them believe it is difficult, or even impossible for etc etc...

You can't generalise as you do. It's what Dawkins does and it's illogical and unscientific.