Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Revisiting The God Delusion

It was December 2006, I had just finished* university and was going to visit my dear sweet mother in Southern Queensland. To get an idea of this journey, this involved taking a late-night 3 hour train journey to Sydney, spending a few hours sitting in an internet cafe before flying ~1500km to Southern Queensland on an early morning flight. Having some time between check-in and boarding, I browsed the airport book store and there I stumbled upon it.

One of my house-mates pulled me into this whole discussion, bringing me into scepticism, into the creation / evolution controversy, and ultimately the God debate. Dawkins' book was one that he mentioned and so upon seeing it I promptly snapped up a copy. I still remember reading the first chapter on the plane, Dawkins' rhetorical style was engaging and thought-provoking. Over the coming weeks I worked my way through the rest of the book, and by the end I had been transformed.

For several months after reading the book I was on a high, I couldn't help but admire the intricate nature of the biological world. I noticed an aspect to reality I had never contemplated before, and all this came with the confidence that for years that started to wane with being an atheist. Questions of morality and meaning, staring at the potential of behavioural nihilism as defined by (now I know to be ignorant) theists - The God Delusion gave answers that the theists claimed they had a monopoly on.

Fast forward about 2.5 years, subsequently I've explored the subject much more and spent a great deal of time injecting myself into the debate thanks largely to web 2.0. I've read several more books by the "new atheists", yet I still held Dawkins' book above the rest. My copy had been lent out so unfortunately I couldn't revisit it, and since the book has made such a profound impact on the debate it was only natural that my recollections of the book would be clouded by the positive and negative feedback by atheists and theists alike.

One of the most common objections I saw was how unrefined Dawkins' argument was; that he went to great lengths to disprove the old testament God which wasn't the god of the modern theist, and that his arguments missed the mark. 2.5 years of complaints about a caricature of Gods that doesn't really exist, that his philosophy was wrong, that he made simplistic arguments akin to straw man attacks.

So last month I did something I should have done a while ago, I revisited the book again; this time in the form of an audiobook. It didn't take long to finish, the portability of the format combined with the engaging style once again drew me in. I remembered just why I considered it such a profound piece of work. It is incredibly polemic, outrageous, offensive, blasphemous, yet unlike Hitchens' God Is Not Great there was substance behind the rhetoric.

This is not to say I agree with everything in this book, there were still many parts I found as bad upon second reading as I did the first. His central argument concerning statistical improbability, while it may be a fairly sound argument, can be dismissed by the theist on the same grounds as a theist knowing that God really really hates fags. Not that a theist can really say that God hates fags, but it's hardly going to be convincing.

Furthermore this line of argument can lead to a misunderstanding of natural processes. Take abiogenesis. Dawkins talks about it in The God Delusion purely in terms of probability, using the notion that in a universe of this magnitude that even an incredibly unlikely set of circumstances for our earth would be probable enough in a universe of this size. It may be so, but those picking up The God Delusion without knowing much on the subject of abiogenesis would feel that the argument for abiogenesis is down to chance. Indeed, this is what Antony Flew objected to when renouncing his atheism.**

So where was the objection to the old testament God? There wasn't really, mentions of the old testament were in the context of the argument of morality. Not to reject the notion of the God who killed the first-born Egyptians, but to demonstrate that the morality of modern-day Christians does not come from the bible!

His attacking of this notion of a particular god that isn't what theists believe in? The book centred on the very notion of gods, it was the underlying substance Dawkins ripped apart. It would be like ripping apart homoeopathy on the very foundations then having that argument dismissed because it left out just how it was mixed***.

Upon reading it again, I didn't have that same transformative experience. Rather I was left with a greater appreciation for what the book is. It really was worth revisiting and I'm glad I took the time to do so. Now that I've made further inquiry into topics raised in the book I can appreciate it all the more. Dawkins talked about one of the goals in the book being consciousness raising, and in my case he has succeeded.

*Technically this isn't true, I still had work placement to go but this was in effect the transition point between being a student and entering the work force.

**This was before The God Delusion was released, and when explained that abiogenesis has scientific merit Flew claimed he was misled by Dawkins.

***Ben Goldacre, you've gone much out of your way to appease the arguments of those who don't deserve a response, much less will listen to you.

1 comment:

aliendreams said...

You made me want to revisit that book, also. In my mind, I sort of dismissed it once I put it down, despite at the same time also being engaged by the style. I remember I saw it as arguing against a very specific kind of believer, the american evangelist sort of believer. I’m surely not as versed as you are in the literature of the “new atheism” but I think that’s just its main problem: it just spends too much time trying to refute the fundamentalist 20th century protestant american and his straw-man arguments. Despite not agreeing with most of Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves”, I enjoyed it because it didn’t follow this trend, if I remember it right. My 5cents, for the nothing they might be worth: Dawkins would have more to gain if he just ignored the evangelists and presented his case. His style is good enough to win over many people who even if they don’t convert to atheism, won’t at least be put off by what I’ve been reading in reviews about the “patronizing tone” of his latest book (still to get it). He is a very good communicator and seems (to an outsider) an excellent biologist. Educate and win over the non-fundamentalist and the man waving the bible on the street will end up being shoved back into his corner.