Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"The GOD Delusion"

I'm looking through my list of posts and seeing I have a lot of half completed stubs waiting for publication; more disturbing there's several pieces I thought were posted still sitting there. So I'll try to clear out that backlog this week, and we'll look at it not as late for this year's holidays, but early for next.


Recently finished Richard Dawkins' book "The GOD Delusion". I will have to re-read the book with highlighters and a stack of Post-its to find exact quotations, pages, and arguments, but I want to capture the core of my thoughts while they are fresh. Here is my overview of the book:

Let me be clear: this is not a comment on Dawkins' intelligence - the Scarecrow was the smartest of Dorothy's little band - but rather a comment on his argument style which tends towards the straw man, ad hominem, reductio ad absurdum, and generally bad logic.

There are enough fallacies in the book to help an entire Freshman logic class earn A's, if they could find but half of them. We are informed that asking why god created the universe is the same as asking "Why are unicorns hollow?", and that belief in god is equivalent to belief in the tooth fairy. This is argument from absurdum and straw man at the least, bordering on ad hominem.

He spends a chapter attacking the "Unmoved Mover" theory of god on the premise that saying that tracing everything back to god merely begs the much more complex question of where god came from, then the next chapter talking about the wonders of the big bang since, well, it's just always been there. The much more complex question of "where did all this supercondensed matter come from" is ignored.

He carefully limits down the definition of religion to mean exclusively the Judaism/Christianity/Islam trio, and those only in the supernatural, ritual, non-naturalistic sense and then proceeds, working from this definition, to explain why all religion is crap.

You know, except maybe for some of those parts he ignored.

My favorite is his refutation of prayer's power to heal by comparing it to a Bob Newhart skit. Considering he dedicated the book to Douglas Adams, I am not certain if this was meant as an attack or support.

And that's the most upsetting aspect of this book; he casts the debate as a binary issue and puts all religion on one side. Dawkins' writings on evolutionary biology and the possible origins of morality, reputation, and even belief in gods was fascinating; I accept his explanations and am thrilled by the beauty and complexity of them. Simultaneously I cheer him on as he decries Creationists, er, "Intelligent Design Advocates", pro-lifers, and fundamentalists of all stripes. But this position does not exist in his world; it is impossible to genuinely pray for health and recovery as I'm wheeled to the MRI. I'm either with him or with them.

His position is downright religious in that regard.


  1. I'm moving this discussion over from Facebook. Matt posted there:
    "The Big Bang theory is not an infinite regression. There is a point at which we know we can no longer observe the universe, and there is a whole pattern of observable evidence pointing to a big explosion many billions of years ago, spewing out matter away from it. All theories about the universe's origin and ultimate end, are mostly speculation ... Read more inferred from either a.) the observation of the laws of entropy, gravity, and motion or b.) the observation of quantum mechanics. And no credible cosmologist would assert that any one of them are "true"."

    Again, I'm not questioning the science or the theory; I'm suggesting the two are NOT incompatible, and the arguments are of similar enough form that one cannot be argued against by using the other.

    If I said, "There is a point at which we know we can no longer observe GOD...All theories about GOD's origin and ultimate end, are mostly speculation" you would accuse me of fallacious logic.

    If your argument is that eventually big bang theory hits a point of agnosticism but you believe in the theory up until then, fine as long as I can say the same about god. The "unmoved mover" terminates in a point of agnosticism, absolutely, I'll never claim otherwise; but the alternative is saying that one unprovable theory of the origin of the universe is better than another, and that's indefensible.

    Matt continues:
    "He explains his scope, and what he's attacking specifically within the first few pages. I think ultimately this is sort of a nit-picking point if you don't like his book. What about his over-arching premise? Which is that religious belief is delusional and irrational, and specifically that the belief in an all powerful creator being, and/or the belief in a god based on gaps in our understanding, is delusional. *That's* something to argue about."

    Matt, I didn't say I dislike the book. I loved the evolutionary science! I just have problems with his attempt to use that science to disprove religion.

    And again your argument contains the connotation that ALL religious belief is delusional (ad hominem). It is possible to be both rational and religious.

  2. Re: Big bang first.
    These are not equivalent arguments. For one, you've failed to establish an evidenciary likelihood of God, the evidenciary likelihood of a first cause, or the evidenciary likelihood of a first mover.

    Where science is "agnostic" on something, is where there is no clear evidence of something. This is different than religious agnosticism. There are two orders of difference in logic between the arguments for the big bang as a theory, and the unmoved mover as a *postulate*.

    Cosmological theory of a big bang is overwhelmingly supported by evidence. Red shift, the speed and shape of the universe, mathematical regression, the laws of entropy, etc. We have evidence everywhere in nature of the cosmos pointing toward a common origin explosion of the *observable universe*.

    The reason why we have to say that the ultimate cause of the observable universe or its ultimate end, is mostly speculation inferred from other disciplines, is that there is no current known way to acquire *evidence* of what was before the big bang, nor do we have clear evidence of the ultimate fate of the universe (though, currently, the best explanation currently inferred through our understanding of thermodynamics: is heat death).

    Hence no cosmologist will assert that any of explainations inferred about the origins or end of the universe are "true" because they're very incomplete "working theories" which have many elements which are likely to be disproved as our understanding increases.

    now to the second argument:
    There's no connotation in my second comment, that's the point of his book. That religious thought is ultimately delusional, but specifically that *God* is a delusion, a mistaken reasoning. His argument, not me giving an ad hominem.

    Also, that it is possible to be both rational and religious is true. It is also possible to be contrary. Humans aren't perfectly rational, and there is persistent belief in plenty of things without evidence. This is a common endemic flaw in human cognition, it extends to all sorts of things, not just religion. Delusion is a persistent mistaken or unsupported belief. This applies to baseball fandom or urban legend, or fast food preference, as much as it does to religion.

    Now I have given a connotation that I think all religious belief is delusional, which is not entirely true.

    I would like to separate out what I am particularly speaking about when I am referencing religion:

    Religion primarily consists of two elements.

    1.) An orthodoxy of explanatory material about the origins of life, mankind's place in life, and an individual's place in society.

    2.) A series of rituals which provide contextual meaning and relevance for the social contract which allows the orthodoxy to disseminate itself and justify itself. (This is a rough definition, As I will attempt to show, its possible to have the rituals without the orthodoxy).

  3. I actually think religion has had largely positive effects from a social evolutionary standpoint. It allowed for people to form larger groups on the basis of ideology rather than genetics and hence move from warring bands, to villages and chiefdoms, etc.

    It's an evolutionary stepping stone in human relations. It provided us reasons not to kill each other, on the basis of common ideology. To seriously illustrate this point: Natives who convert, aren't slaughtered. The ones that don't, are slaughtered.

    Which illustrates the problem of religion as a commonality: When religions compete, its only a unifying factor for those encased within the umbrella of non-competing ideologies. So you get inter-religious conflict, intra-religious conflict, etc.

    But it is possible to have the common rituals, etc., without the orthodoxy. Most of Finland for instance, is atheist, but they still have church weddings, officiants at funerals, rites of passage, etc. This is a sort of "public religion" which is what is the most cementing portion of the socially cohesive qualities of religion.

    Its pretty much pointless for me to even argue against this quality, as its endemic to human socialization, even if I did disagree with it.

    What I see as delusional, is the first order. The orthodoxy, the persistence of supplying moral and universal truth, from the argument of "because I said so." Because, eventually, the arguments for every religion come down to "because this is what our religion says to be so."

    This is not an iterative process which increases human understanding of the universe, its a resistive process which stands in the way of our understanding, and works also to divide us ideologically.

    So it is in that way, which I see religion as a delusion.

    Matthew ^_^