Sunday, March 11, 2007

Dawkins, Dennett, and their cohorts

Go Away, God By Sam Kornell, March 8, 2007 Assessing Recent Attempts to Alienate the Divine and Elevate Atheism by Sam Kornell, a regular contributor to The Independent.
During the last year or so, a bushel of books has been published about why we should do away with God — or at least consider it. Among the most famous are The God Delusion, by the biologist Richard Dawkins, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Despite popular acclaim (both are bestsellers), neither book has met with much enthusiasm among reviewers, who have accused the authors of preaching atheism as though it were science, capable of refuting the infinitely elastic claims of theology.
Of the two, Breaking the Spell makes the subtler claims. Dennett argues that religion, by unwritten proclamation, enjoys an amnesty against criticism unknown to any other field of human thought and behavior — an unwarranted amnesty. He then goes on to show how logically and even spiritually impoverished religious faith has become in much of the country, pointing to the spread of market-based evangelical churches, where God’s purpose seems to be aligned with the crassest self-help books: Here’s how God can help you with your finances and love life.
Dennett also points out the phenomenon, which he refers to as “belief in belief,” by which many self-identified people of faith now operate. That is, belief in religion entails accepting certain doctrines as true, whereas belief in belief only means accepting that certain doctrines are desirable. By adhering to the second, one avoids the messy and difficult task of actually engaging one’s faith, and gets instead wish fulfillment: You want to be part of a higher meaning; you say you are; you are. But religious faith and spiritual searching are not so easy, and Dennett rightly deplores the vacuity of proclaiming one’s “spirituality” — as though it were a tool of self-promotion — without actually grappling with the difficult issues religion and spirituality pose.
As for The God Delusion, Dawkins essentially offers an overview of theological debate from Thomas Aquinas to Nietzsche, pointing out that the pro-God-ists have taken a lot more hits in the last few hundred years than they’ve dished out. The match likely culminated with the mid-19th-century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who finally just stepped off the canvas: Yes, he said, to believe in God we must defy reason; but we want to believe in God; therefore, we must make a leap of faith, bounding over the chasm reason presents, to land safely in the warm embrace of blind conviction.
But then Dawkins, and to a lesser extent Dennett, did something that critics did find easier to deny, or at least reject, which was to argue that most religion (Buddhism being a notable exception) is fundamentally opposed to the flourishing and progress of the human species, representing a way of thinking built around ignorance, illogic, and unreason, and dedicated, for the most part, to spreading these attributes as far and wide as possible, at the tip of a sword if necessary.
Critics responded by pointing out that religion hasn’t an exclusive claim on slaughter and tyranny — look at Stalin and Mao, they suggested, who were both secular mass murderers of millions upon millions. Yes, the critics said, God and dogma have caused a lot of terror and torment, but were there no gods and no religious dogma, the endless immolation of every living thing would still be the predominate rule of human existence. Engaging in the hypothetical history required to indict religion in contrast to secularism is bound to be a fruitless task, they said; as the poet T.S. Eliot once observed, to ask whether we would have been better off without religion is to ask a question whose answer is unknowable.
But there is a more interesting dynamic at work in these books. What Dawkins and Dennett seem to be doing on at least some level is reacting — with the anger of an unbeliever who has been unremittingly proselytized his whole life by people and institutions who believe they know something he doesn’t, and who, in their warm pity, want to let him in on the big secret. “But look at your big secret!” they each say. “It’s a ridiculous pile of anachronistic nonsense and ignorance, dated and unnecessary, and, in fact, illogical. It’s nasty and exclusive — when it’s not evangelical. If it’s Biblical, it can only be adhered to in bits; most of it is too bizarre, amoral, immoral, irrational, and untrue (6,000-year-old earth; Noah’s Ark; etc.) to countenance. The same goes for the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita. You believe in God in spite of history and discernable reality, not because of it!”
Within this tête-à-tête between belief and non-belief lays the crux of the issue at hand: proselytizing. There are very few of us who enjoy being proselytized, and Dawkins, Dennett, and their cohorts are getting in a couple of digs at the entrenched movement of religious society against the unconvinced. The digs are by and large legitimate — as any undergraduate religious studies major can tell you, the intellectual subtleties of St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant notwithstanding, reasoned justification for God ended around about the time of David Hume, in the mid 18th century. When Nietzsche said, “God is dead,” he didn’t mean God had died, he meant that, morally and reasonably speaking, God’s existence could no longer be argued for — and he was right.
Yet people want to believe in God, and for many of them, doing so is ennobling and enriching. Christ’s fraternity with the poor, Muhammad’s invocation of God’s compassion and forgiveness, the mysticism of the Upanishads — these are things that help us inhale life’s tremors and exhale equanimity. And they can help us to understand and appreciate that which is alien to us. So perhaps Kierkegaard was right: Even if it takes blind faith to do it, embracing one’s desire to embrace God is perhaps not such a bad thing. Of course, as Dennett points out, to take such a course of action would be to believe in belief, not to actually believe. For actual belief, I like to think of Philip Roth. Roth summarizes, in his gloriously funny book Operation Shylock, Jewish religious faith thusly:
 God sent Hitler because God is crazy. A Jew knows God and how He operates. A Jew knows God and how, from the very first day He created man, He has been irritated with him from morning ’til night. The goyim smile: God is merciful, God is loving, God is good. Jews don’t smile — they know God not from daydreaming about Him in goyisch daydreams but from living all their lives with a God who does not even stop, not once, to think and reason and use His head with His loving children!
Now there’s a God I can sign onto. But I’d rather not. The Santa Barbara Independentvoices home » opinions » voices

No comments:

Post a Comment