Criticisms of The God Delusion, and what comes next

The last eight months have seen many critical reviews of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and the most consistent criticisms, once you get past dull relativism, unthinking accusations of ‘fundamentalism’, and seemingly unending debates over what ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ mean, boil down to two points:

We’re told RD hasn’t addressed the sophisticated theology1 behind the belief in a divine being. He instead concentrates on the points that are easy to shoot down – Aquinas etc.. This argument appears to implode, however: this supposedly sophisticated theology is incredibly difficult to find. It’s continually referred to, but is never actually clarified. When asked to provide these arguments, we’re usually told it’s too complicated. I consider myself intelligent enough to understand such things (and would quite like to know if there really is a deity in the sky, actually), and even if you disagree there are plenty of atheists who’d be happy to read these sophisticated arguments. There is no reason that an intelligent person shouldn’t be able to understand the arguments for the existence of a deity – theology is not quantum physics and does not require twenty years of mathematical training. If it’s out there, bring it on. Another common answer is that you can only understand once you’ve read everything ever written about every religion ever. Dawkins hasn’t read Such-and-Such on grace, or So-and-So on how shiny angels are – who is he to say anything about theology! This is well answered by the Courtier’s Reply.

It’s worth mentioning that the hints of this sophisticated theology diverge massively from the popular understanding of religion. I’ve had people argue that something must have created the universe, and, although this is your standard god-of-the-gaps argument, it’s still far more reasonable than claiming you have contact with a magic sky-fairy who answers your prayers. The average Catholic doesn’t believe in an Agent that started off the Big Bang, they believe in an intercessory deity who turns wine and crackers into blood and flesh. The God Delusion was attacking this popular notion of religion that’s believed by billions. It wasn’t a deep philosophical tome. Even so, the supposedly sophisticated arguments don’t appear to stand up to scrutiny. Saying ‘god is simple so could have spontaneously popped into existence’ is no use if you don’t actually have any evidence to back it up. Tom Hamilton has interesting commentary on this latter argument, as well as the necessity of stepping into these areas of argument. If only more commentary was as intelligently written as his, the dialogue would be far more productive.

I think it’s possible to argue most believers to a point where they stop being logical about the existence of deities, and they’ll admit it. It’s nigh-on impossible to change a believer’s mind, but you can reach a point where the argument becomes, simply put, ‘I just think it because I do’. Religion is like every pseudoscience out there in this regard, and the psychological investigations into this phenomenon are fascinating. And this is where the second major objection appears: it’s just rude. Of course there isn’t really a god, but why upset people? Referring to divine beings as the equivalent of fairies at the bottom of the garden offends, so you shouldn’t do it. I’ve had commenters on this site tell me I should couch my language in ways such as ‘while I can see you have incredibly deeply held beliefs, I have a small problem with one particular aspect and I’m sorry if this offends you but I consider it important.’ This gets increasingly pathetic. It’s insulting to me, and it’s insulting to anybody religious who is perfectly capable of having adult discussions.

If an atheist starts insulting you and telling you you’re stupid, damn right s/he’s being rude and there’s no reason you should put up with it. But Dawkins / Harris / Dennett etc. don’t do this, no matter how often we’re told otherwise. Even if they did, there are thousands out there who don’t, yet are no less strident in tone. They are at pains to emphasise that it’s the idea that is being attacked, not the person. Saying somebody don’t know something is not the same as saying they are stupid, neither is ignorance a criticism. If you get offended when I tell you there’s no reason to think your deity exists, that’s your problem, and saying ‘maybe so, but I am offended nevertheless so shut up’ is simply a way of stifling debate. Surely this is obvious. Even if there were a way to phrase objections so that people weren’t offended, and this I doubt, it would be making a massive, pointless exception for religion when it comes to debate. We’d probably just be called patronising, too. The tone with which religion is discussed in The God Delusion is no different from any political discussion, and a thousand miles away from the excesses of art criticism, which we regularly ingest as valid commentary. That somebody believes something strongly is no reason not to attack it, but not them, when there is good reason to do so.

From this point there are other objections: the argument that religious ‘moderates’ provide a shield for extremism by being perfectly pleasant in their belief in fairies is certainly one of the more controversial areas; questioning the ‘rights’ of parents to inflict their religious beliefs on their children is another; saying that faith is sweet and harmless and good for society also comes up (although I find that one deeply patronising). But it’s the above two that are the most frequent.

The above introduction was longer than I intended, and was originally only meant to serve as a lead-in. If you have problems with Richard Dawkins, and thought The God Delusion was an insulting title, I bring you Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here’s an excerpt:

There are four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.

Blimey.

While some religious apology is magnificent in its limited way—one might cite Pascal—and some of it is dreary and absurd—here one cannot avoid naming C. S. Lewis—both styles have something in common, namely the appalling load of strain that they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible! The Aztecs had to tear open a human chest cavity every day just to make sure that the sun would rise. Monotheists are supposed to pester their deity more times than that, perhaps, lest he be deaf. How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to “fit” with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? How many saints and miracles and councils and conclaves are required in order first to be able to establish a dogma and then—after infinite pain and loss and absurdity and cruelty—to be forced to rescind one of those dogmas? God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.

Christopher Hitchens writes so damned well that I have to be careful not to get carried away by his eloquence. He’s occasionally come out with statements that have pushed it even for me. It sounds like a good read – I’ll certainly be picking up a copy.

  1. ‘theology’ throughout means the ‘research’ into the existence of deities, not the study of religious belief in general []