Thursday, June 21, 2007

Whence and Whither God?

I finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins a month ago while I was in South Carolina. I'd been working on it for a while. It is a lively and engaging and challenging read, and I recommend it to skeptics and believers alike. In this book, Dawkins systematically dismantles religion and faith, and I am still reckoning with all of its implications.

I did not set out to read this book. I seem an unlikely person to pursue an atheist's opus on unbelief. I grew up Catholic, a pious child. As a boy I was very attached to the knowledge that my name meant "heard by God," and that the prophet whose name I bear was called into God's service as a young boy. That story profoundly affected me, and I greatly desired that it would happen to me. I wanted to hear the Voice of God, and be given a sacred mission.

I was never really a "Jesus" person. After all, he was basically just a hippie, and I knew plenty of those. Peace, love, blah, blah, blah. That message was everywhere. It was God who called my namesake, God was the All-Powerful One, God was the Father and the King. And so I made God my surrogate parent and friend and mentor. And I needed all: I was a lonely, insecure kid - the second child of divorced parents. My older brother suffered from childhood leukemia - at that time a disease with dire prospects.

Though I was no saintly kid, I prayed a lot for all sorts of favors, big and small. But more importantly, I tried really hard to hear God's Call to Duty. I even remember telling my parents that I did, because I so desperately wanted it to be true. Faith lifted me above the earthly, the temporal, the mundane. Religion gave my young life special purpose and meaning. I even considered becoming a priest, and I endured some teasing for this desire. Of course, all of that happened before I developed an interest in girls. So much for that idea.

As I grew older, I drifted away from the church. I found its system of beliefs and rules arbitrary, the behavior of its agents hypocritical, and some of its doctrines downright appalling, especially in the areas of sexual behavior and preference. In spite of disillusionment, however, I still clung to deist beliefs long into adulthood. I was also drawn to alternative forms of spirituality such as mystical Christianity, New Age, Buddhist, and Native American belief systems. I broke and remade relationships based upon this continual striving for truth.

Gradually, my "religion" gave way to a kind of pragmatic agnosticism. My prayers seemed silly, and reason provided me more answers to the cosmic questions that puzzled me. But I couldn't become an atheist! The atheists I knew were among the most headstrong and disagreeable people I knew. I needed room for doubt and for faith - I could not completely turn my back upon spirituality, upon mystery, upon the human soul. And so I thought that I would live out my life in this state of unknowing.

Fast forward to earlier this year. Some friends and I were discussing Jesus Camp and a New York Times article which referenced Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. One of our number had already read Dawkins' book, and he loaned me his copy. It ended up being a book club of sorts: five of us were reading the book at about the same time. That was pretty exciting! I'd never experienced anything quite like it. The book, the film, and the article together sparked one of the most fascinating email threads I have ever read. Two members of this makeshift book-club led a forceful, beautifully-reasoned, but above all respectful debate on this most difficult of philosophical questions. It filled me with pride to know such men, and humbled me, and I resolved to finish the book in order to find a deeper understanding for myself.

Basically, The God Delusion can be broken down into four main parts. The first section is a series of pithy barbs hurled at religion. I found myself engaging in mental arguments with Dawkins and disagreeing with him on many points. In retrospect, this was probably the weakest part of the book, at least from a purely logical point of view. But I must admit that I was hooked: his writing style is stimulating and funny, and I found plenty of common ground with the author. And there is no small number of examples of religious excess to point out.

The second section is a close examination of the arguments that have been used to "prove" the existence of God. I actually covered some of these classical proofs in my freshman philosophy class! I recall being stymied and seduced by the Ontological Argument. Dawkins deftly exposes the fallacies in this and many other arguments. How come my professor didn't do that? Bastid.

He takes on the simplistic ideas of creationism, currently enjoying something of a renaissance here in the United States. In the creationist's view, wherever there are gaps in human knowledge, that is where God must be. The basic problem with this worldview is that as human knowledge expands, the gaps shrivel, and this has been a rather steady progression. Every phenomenon scientifically explained today was at one time a mystery. So why should science be content to cease its inquiries now? To Dawkins, mechanically filling these scientific unknowns with "God" is intellectually lazy. To be fair, not many serious theologians subscribe to this "God of the Gaps" hypothesis anymore. But its hold over fundamentalists is still strong.

He then posits that the existence of God is a scientific proposal about the universe to be proven or disproven. I had trouble with this idea at first. "God is outside the laws of nature, and belief in him is predicated on faith, not facts," I told Dawkins smugly. I win! OK, I just demonstrated that I talk to people who can't hear me. What does that say about my religious beliefs?

At any rate, Dawkins wasn't so easily cowed. He reasons that, as the supernatural entity that we call God can communicate with humankind telepathically through prayer, and can re-order the laws of the universe based upon these communications, there ought to be observable phenomena that point to his existence. In Dawkins' assessment, we are left with a highly improbable being. He is careful in this section to leave some room for doubt about the certainty of God's non-existence. But his message is clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that demonstrates the existence of God. None. Zero. This simple statement hit me in a profound way, a way that I had not felt before.

In this part of the book, he also spends time demonstrating the elegance of a scientific view of the universe. He contrasts the paradoxical complexity of creationism, which actually poses more questions than it answers, with the vast mountain of evidence that edifies Darwin's simple yet powerful Theory of Evolution. This line of reasoning is convincing, and provides a smooth transition into the next section.

In the third part of the book, Dawkins delves into his area of expertise - evolution and biology, and offers up some explanations as to how and why human beings evolved to have such a strong predisposition to believe in God. To him, this trait is not in itself a very useful adaptation on its face: belief in unobservable beings and events does not seem to help an organism survive and reproduce effectively, and can consume many resources that could be better spent directly on survival.

So where does God come from? In his view, belief in God is a by-product of other evolutionary adaptations. It is interesting to me that this part of his argument does not preclude the existence of God at all. It merely attempts to build an explanation based upon observable facts about the human brain and upon human behavior. The primary adaptations that he points to are a child's natural submission to absolute authority, and a trait dubbed simply "hyperactive agent detection device." Both of these are are strong survival traits: listening to adults unquestioningly is likely to keep a child alive until adulthood, while perceiving actors with the potential to harm oneself serves an individual throughout life.

The final section offers suggestions as to what might take God's place. Where should God go? Not to the children! Dawkins makes an impassioned plea to end the religious indoctrination of children. I think he'd argue that the manipulation of the children in Jesus Camp is simply an extreme example of what he sees as the typical religious training of young people.

So if God is banished from our children, and divorced from our public consciousness, what of the communities that are formed on the basis of religions? He suggests that our religious institutions remain as social networks and traditions. Ultimately, it is in science that Dawkins finds sublime beauty and rapture, and in reason that he finds universal moral truth.

While reading Dawkins book, I came across an unlikely debate between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton. Hitchens, who also has a new book tauting atheism, took the role of the unbeliever, and Sharpton naturally took the mantle of God. As I perused it I couldn't help thinking that Dawkins addresses a lot of the points that Sharpton raised (and won) in the discussion. Which I guess only proves that Hitchens is still a twit. But I digress...

So that's it. Here I am. I have an overweening fear of death. And I find no solace in faith. Religion still feels like an instrument of control and the ultimate casus belli. I want to believe in a soul. But science is dubious of such claims. The universe is huge, and indifferent to us. We're stuck in this corner. We'd better deal with it: find a moral philosophy that does not rely upon an arbitrary set of texts and rules. Because I agree with Dawkins on this point: right now, God isn't really helping us master our more base tendencies. He's been pretty useless.

Functionally, I'm still agnostic. But this book has me asking questions again. I guess that's all you can hope that anyone else provide for you: the means and desire to ask questions.


GeistX said...

Damn it. I need to finish this book. I'm half-way. Its been slow reading for me, well because I can only stay with books for so long and I read 12 at once and kind of cycle them, but also because I'm making notes in the margins.

Knight of Nothing said...

I'm a terribly slow reader, but I got a very satisfying reward for my efforts with this book. The temptation in writing this review was to rehash everything Dawkins wrote. It really is a rich text with something interesting on every page. Good luck!

J G-W said...

Hurray, you've finally published this essay!

A splendid, thoughtful piece... And one in which I learned much about you that I never, ever knew, Master Samwise. It makes me hungry for more.

I actually jotted down some notes on Dawkins' book as I was reading it, with the intention of hammering out an essay of my own on it. I never got around to it, as I've always just had too many other writing projects that have been more important to me. Maybe I'll get around to it, and then I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on my thoughts about Dawkins.

I started out hating Dawkins' book, and ended up loving it. As I've mentioned to you, I was fascinatined to realize that Dawkins' most damning refutation of the God hypothesis simply doesn't apply to the concept of God I was raised with. I am speaking, of course, of the "crane" argument, the idea that any Deity complex enough to create our universe would himself have to be the product of an evolutionary process. There's been a very interesting discussion in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought about Mormon theism and modern scientific cosmology. None of the Dialogue discussion takes account of Dawkins or his arguments, but it is all very relevant. I'll have to get off my ass and write that essay, so I can explain a bit more fully what I mean. Maybe I'll have time... Let's see, in September? In the meantime...

Emotionally, I'm inclined, as you are, to find atheism a bit on the Scroogey side. Denial and naysaying bores me. I'm much more into possibility, potential... Creation! And fundamentalism/creationism... Maybe if I were lobotomized I could go there. Until then... Happily, those are only two of myriad ways we can approach the largest questions in life... I agree that the weakest part of Dawkins' book is the beginning, where he delights in smashing straw men to smithereens. "Have a little fire, Scarecrow!" Who the frak cares?

The end of your essay made me think of another book I read some time ago, by a local Evangelical minister named Greg Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil. Don't let the Evangelical credentials of the author scare you. He's actually a really cool, very thoughtful guy with whom I had a very interesting email exchange about homosexuality and the church. And don't let the dorky title fool you (and don't be put off by the even dorkier subtitle "Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theology"). The book is actually very little about Satan, and might much more appropriately be titled "God and the Problem of Evil." It is the best book I've ever read on the subject of theodicy. I'd be very interested to discuss some of the issues you raise at the end of your essay after you've had a chance to read this book. I have a copy and can lend it to you if you wish.

But for me, the various theories and explanations we have about God pale in comparison to the actual experience of God. I can't help but be fascinated by your account of your childhood yearning to hear the voice of God, to hear him speak to you. I won't ever think of you quite the same way again, after reading that, and I will be thinking about it again and again in coming days...

Knight of Nothing said...

Thank you for writing, John! I'd love to hear more about what you have to say about Dawkins. Like I said to Shawn, there's so much to talk about on every page that it was difficult for me to narrow my essay's focus. As it was, it got a little rambling (then this happened, then this, then this... etc).

I'd also be interested in checking out Boyd's book. Maybe I can borrow it from you one of these weekends. Remind me.

I didn't know the tale of my childhood yearnings would cause such a sensation. A couple people have remarked about it. I was understandably shy to admit such feelings, but I didn't think it to be far outside of the 'normal' experience of other Christian children (especially after watching Jesus Camp). But if thinking of me in a different way is good, then I'm glad I worked up the courage to write about it.

I think Dawkins' ultimate goal is to remind readers of the marvels of the universe as we understand it, and get us to discard the bizarre superstitions and especially the dangerous prejudices that too often accompany religious belief. So t's very interesting that you see few contradictions between Dawkins main goal and Mormon theology and cosmology. I wonder what Dawkins would say about that... Perhaps you should submit your essay to him!

J G-W said...

I've had friends who said that from a very young age, they just decided that there was nothing to religion, and they abandoned faith at the first opportunity. So I don't assume that all children necessarily have the kinds of spiritual yearnings you described.

I've never heard you tell much of your childhood, and I thought your description of it in this essay was interesting and poignant. As I said, it makes me hungry for more.

I actually thought about writing Dawkins! But I have to assume he is unlikely to be interested in convergences between Mormon theology and scientific cosmology, since he only accepts systems based on empirical evidence. (And of course he discounts revelation as a source of data!)

Mormon views of science are complex -- the subject deserves an essay of its own. Like I said, I'll have to write that essay.