Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion boldly states that faith is evil (p347). It is evil because it “actively debauches the scientific enterprise” (p321).
If debauching cultural enterprises is a criterion of evil, we want to argue that there is a higher cultural enterprise than that of modern science, and since science is playing a part in debauching it, science too is evil.
Good and evil
What underpins Dawkins’s thesis are these ideas about evil and good. To be dogmatic is evil. To be open to new ideas about reality, to be willing to change your ideas when there is good evidence for doing so is good – perhaps the highest good.
If dogmatism is not itself the greatest evil, it is framed as the source of those greater evils. His reading of terrorist actions coming from groups like Al Qaeda attributes them not to political differences in the global play of power, but to religion. He quotes Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (p345) And he makes the following observation in relation to the bombings in London of 2005: “Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such madness.” (p343) Faith, as the source of evils like this, is itself evil.
We will leave to one side this very dubious reading of our political and historical context. It is tangential to Dawkins’s argument. His more important point is about the closing of the mind – something that understandably strikes the thinking person as tantamount to evil, regardless of whether and how it might be connected to ongoing political atrocities.
What Dawkins sets up is a dichotomy between science as the pursuit of openness and religion as an insistence on closure. Of course he is right that at certain points in history institutionalised religion became a repressive force closing people’s minds and obstructing the quest for the truth, but to tar all of religious history with this brush is unjust. Some of the great openings of the human mind in history have had a religious character and a religious impulse. If there is one idea in the West that is the key to a modern understanding of ourselves, it is, perhaps, the idea of equality. That idea emerged through the teachings of Christianity – teachings persuading people to stop seeing humanity as divided into tribes, some elect and some damned, and to see all human beings as essentially equal.
In a society based on a rigidly patriarchal family, where the child was forever the servant of the father, only the open-minded would have had ears for the new idea of a child-centred notion of divinity (“Suffer little children…” Matthew 19:14) that would liberate both the sons and the daughters in a universal brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. Just as it took a certain open-mindedness to entertain the idea that the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matthew 19:30).
Religion at times has contributed greatly to open-mindedness. At other times and in other contexts and after an ossifying institutionalisation, the effect has been the opposite. But exactly the same is true of science. If the essence of evil, as Dawkins suggests, has to do with the closing of the mind and the regression of thinking, science in its current form in the secular West is the greater evil.
The closure of the scientific mind
At one point Dawkins pictures the human condition as one of imprisonment, and he borrows the idea of a burka (showing how science and insensitivity can go hand in hand). We are born into a burka, and the narrow slit we are able to see through corresponds to the very narrow band of electromagnetic radiation that our eyes can detect. (p406) By nature we can see, and therefore comprehend, only a tiny slither of reality. Science, though, liberates us, enabling us to find ways to detect the full spectrum so that we can begin to comprehend a huge array of things from the nanoscopic to the galactic that were previously invisible and shrouded in mystery.
Of course science opens the mind to previously undreamt-of phenomena. But it becomes a force for closure when it arrogates to itself the last word on what is true and what is false.
Dogmatic science insists that to talk about the truth you must talk scientifically. You must develop a theory which is empirically grounded and rationally valid, just as Dawkins’s favourite theory of evolution is empirically grounded and rationally valid, judged by the strictest criteria of formal logic, assisted by principles of argumentation such as Ockham’s razor.
Intellectual history could be described as being driven by a will to truth. For the modern scientist, the pre-modern course of that history was simply a series of failed attempts to be scientific. The story of creation is assumed to be the essence of the religious narrative – a story that demonstrates the failure to explain anything satisfactorily before the proper scientific method was established.
Modern science is the ultimate achievement and the endpoint of that will to truth. The burka is now well and truly off. There are still many things we don’t understand, but making good that lack is just a matter now of filling in the gaps. There is no need for an intellectual revolution of the sort that inaugurated modern science. All the groundwork has been done. The edifice of science is secure. It will stand for eternity as the sole repository of everything deserving to be called the truth.
But what if science is deluded in thinking that it is the sole judge of what can have a claim to truth? What if we scientists, who can see so clearly the delusions of our religious enemies, are failing to see that we too are deluded?
The science delusion
The delusion could be given a number of names. Since the scientific framing of truth is known in English-speaking philosophy as positivism, it could be called the positivist delusion. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it the science delusion.
The delusion has four aspects:
1. The truth is an object of contemplation. This is the spectator theory of truth – a deluded theory. When Christ said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John. 14:6) it was deemed perfectly acceptable to frame the highest truth as a path to be charted to come to something. The truth was not just something to be observed and acknowledged as a rationally compelling theory, but to be lived.
The deluded approach to truth is nicely imagined in Dawkins’s talk of the burka. The truth is something that we observe while peeping out through a hole in a barrier that stops us interacting with the object of knowledge. There is a truth of sorts here, but no way and no life beyond a life trapped in the burka of science.
Science develops as the pursuit of a truth with dubious relevance to everyday life. To the scientist studying evolution, the truth about man is the baboon. But when we need to make a vital decision in life, it never makes sense to ask: What would the baboon do? Although the Bloodhound Gang have suggested otherwise, with their pop song containing the lyric:
You and me babe ain’t nothin but mammals,
So let’s do it like they do on the Discoveree Channel.
Religion, for all its delusions, tried to keep together the ideas of truth and life. Science thoughtlessly lets them fall apart, and ignores the problem created by that terrible epistemic rift – a problem seen in the way the tremendous leaps made in science in the West have been accompanied by the spreading of the most superficial forms of everyday life.
2. A second aspect of the science delusion is naturalism – the idea that it is the laws of nature that have truth, and nothing else. In effect, Dawkins is arguing for a consistent naturalism. All talk of anything beyond the theoretically constructed and law-governed realm of nature should be dropped, or, if retained, it should be made obvious that it is merely literary talk that makes no claim to truth. Nature is true. The supernatural is nonsense.
The delusion here functions as a blind spot – an ignoring of an entire realm of life that is beyond nature: culture. The ignorance is all the more striking since this is the realm to which science itself belongs. Science takes nature as its object, but it is not itself nature.
If we look at life with the blinkered view of the naturalist, we see the cycle of birth, copulation and death (as the poet described it). If we remove the blinkers and pay more attention to culture, we will see such things as baptism, love, marriage and funerals in addition to the cycle of nature. The miracle of culture might have occurred first when an unscientific descendant of the ape was moved to bury his or her dead, defying the evidence visible all around that nature leaves the dead to rot where they fall.
There is no genetic advantage in burying the dead and developing an elaborate funeral ceremony. Just as there is no genetic advantage in the emergence of science – the emergence of a life that ruins itself in the useless investigation, for instance, of whether nature is made up of four separate elements or whether it can be reduced to one – a form of life which is quite independent of the one developing more efficient clubs and slingshots and spears.
Naturalism is not a threat to culture as such, but it is a force helping to split culture into a will to truth that loses connection with everyday life, and an everyday life that ceases to have any connection with the will to truth – a way of life that embraces the baboon within and wonders what the point of things like baptism and marriage are. The civilised baboon needs to see a pay-off of some kind, like a tax break, otherwise the old artefacts of culture, like the institution of marriage, come to seem pointless.
Dawkins says: “An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges is procreation.” (p253) But, we would suggest, the more intelligent couple is the one reading about love, not sex – a love for which the phrase “till death do us part” still means something. Dawkins has difficulty here. He feels the need to use words like “weird”. He presents the issue in the following terms: “Isn’t the total exclusiveness that we expect of spousal love positively weird? (p215) Rather than the fanatically monogamous devotion to which we are susceptible, some sort of ‘polyamory’ is on the face of it more rational.” (214)
To explain the “weird”, “irrational” and “insane” character of love, Dawkins refers us to evolutionary psychologists, for whom love is “a mechanism to ensure loyalty to one co-parent, lasting long enough for them to rear a child together. From a Darwinian point of view…it is important to stick with one’s chosen partner through thick and thin, at least until the child is weaned.” (p215)
Culture is here reduced to nature. Reason is seen only in what can be explained as an utterly natural phenomenon. Human love is rational insofar as it serves the purposes of the baboon within. A love that sees beyond the time that the children have been weaned (to say nothing of the love of the childless) remains superfluous, excessive and irrational on this account. Something whose passing ought not to trouble us much.
Science, which severed its links with the baboon some two and a half thousand years ago, contributes now to the baboonification of humanity. The civilised baboon now becomes the ideal for everyone who has not devoted their lives, in that very unbaboonlike way, to the selfless pursuit of scientific truth.
Religion, for all its delusions, kept alive, for a while, the sanctity of those aspects of human life – of culture – that exceeded the logic of the baboon. There is a historical task here for a humanity that is still able to be ashamed of its resemblance to the baboon – a task that modern science is debauching.
3. The third aspect of the delusion is a one-sided universalism: the idea that only universals can be true. Science prides itself on its empiricism – on attending to the evidence provided by the particular things that can be observed – but the particulars matter only as things that lend some element of proof to the abstract universals of reason. Science promotes universality in a way that leaves particularity in limbo.
Online there is a nice conversation between Dawkins and a Catholic priest (Father George Coyne) who has great respect for science, who accepts the theory of evolution and who believes it is possible to combine an interest in science with a membership of the Roman Catholic church. Dawkins looks puzzled and asks the characteristic question: “If you want to keep religion, why not believe in the aspects of religion that are universal? Why choose the Roman Catholic church?”
The particularity of the tradition appears utterly irrational to the scientist, even though every scientist is embedded in an equally particular tradition of thought. The fact that it is a particular in search of the purely universal in no way erases its particularity. In science, what we see is not the overcoming of particularity but the waging of a war against it – a form of life locked in self-denial.
As some of the Romantic philosophers suggested, the deeper significance of Christianity, when shorn of all its metaphysical delusions, might be its recognition that the universality that really matters is one alive in the particular. More generally and more simply one might say that the religious traditions, deluded though they are, kept alive for a while the sanctity of very particular aspects of cultures whose genius is seen not in their universality but their particularity.
4. The fourth delusion of science is the empiricist delusion. This is the source of the evil of science – its dogmatism. Empiricism holds that the theory must match the facts. The facts are the test of truth. In other words, if the theory doesn’t describe what is, it isn’t true. We can say that a theory is false if it doesn’t match the facts, but we can’t say that the facts are false.
If we cast our minds back in a very unscientific way to the time when we still lived in caves, we might recall something of the grandeur of the human project. The great task was not to perpetuate what was, but to struggle towards what ought to be. The whole project assumes that reality – what is – can be false, and that something unreal – what ought to be – can be the real truth about the world. The great leaps in human civilisation have involved leaps of an imagination that, as if by a miracle, is able to see beyond an unsatisfactory reality towards a realm that is better, but as yet unreal.
If our cave-dwelling ancestors had been more scientific, agreeing that the ought is an idle fiction and that only the brute Neanderthal facticity is true, no progress beyond the cave would ever have been made.
Dawkins’s treatment of the issue of morality is telling. Christianity tries to find rhetorical means to persuade people to overcome a narrow egoism and to concern ourselves much more with the plight of others. For Dawkins and the scientists, the rhetoric is entirely vacuous unless it is backed up by research into genetically determined drives. Evidence of altruism is found in baboons, but it is limited to close genetic kin. Hence, the scientific hypothesis: our Good Samaritan urges to help complete strangers are “misfirings” of instincts established in our pre-historical past (pp252-4).
The religious tradition, quite rightly, saw in the exception a new rule to be followed – a new ideal to live up to. Science sees only a misfiring of the old instincts. There is nothing to live up to. There is just the genetic and neurological hard-wiring, fixed in the jungle and destined to be repeated ad infinitum. And so ideas about how we ought to live are only allowed to be true to the extent that they correspond to the long-established trends.
Orthodox Christians describe themselves as “slaves of God” (δούλοι του Θεού). The modern scientist could be described a slave of what is. It is an open question which is the worst form of slavery.
Science, which prides itself on being open to new theories (providing they pass the test of scientific validity), turns out to be dogmatic about reality. Nothing can conceivably invalidate the brutality of the real.
Dawkins’s book illustrates the tension here within science itself. The book preaches an obedience to what is, but it is itself rather disobedient. The book is not a work of science that attempts to understand religion, but part of a crusade aiming to crush it. Even for Dawkins, the point ultimately is not to understand the world, but to change it, and the zeal with which he goes about this borders on the religious.
Dawkins talks for the most part as if the scientific inspiration that really matters is the sort offered on the Discovery Channel, but the success of his project to eliminate religion relies on our finding inspiration in a particular view of society. That view surfaces towards the end of the book in this passage:
Aren’t you glad to be alive in a world where you can publicly explain something to people, not as your opinion or belief but as something that they, when they have understood your reasoning, will feel compelled to accept? (p410)
This is only a hint, but what it points to is an image of a more rational society united by a shared respect for the sort of abstractions that make up scientific theory. It implies a radical egalitarianism at odds with all the sectarianism we see throughout the world.
And this vision of a post-religious society is one that has no basis in science. There is no scientific proof that a thoroughly post-religious society would be better than the older form. He does his best to persuade us that it would be better (mentioning, for instance, that religious belief in the US correlates with higher crime rates p262/3), but there is no, and there could be no, convincing scientific proof.
His vision, though, is an old one – identical to the one advocated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 1770s. But a lot has happened since then to raise doubts about the project. One of those is the persistence of religion despite the rise of a scientific culture so anthithetical to it. Dawkins puts the failure down to the scientific message not having been driven home hard enough. A doubtful interpretation. It is more likely that the problematic nature of the scientific project (its alienation from life, its valorisation of the baboon, and its inability to provide anything to hope for) leave people looking around for ways to fill the gaping holes. The problematic nature of the scientific project is partly to blame for the persistence of its antithesis.
The burka belongs to a form of life in which what ought to be is more important than what is. Regardless of how deluded other ideas are, we need to appreciate that there is something here that addresses an existential cultural need. Both science and the kind of Kantian rationalism that Dawkins endorses have failed to address that need.
Dawkins wants to argue that the great risk to culture now is religion. If only everyone accepted that we are all descendants of the same group of baboons, and worshipped nothing other than the rigorous methods of science, things would be better. For some of us in crisis-ridden Western societies, where the predominant culture is secular, science is more of a threat than religion. Although the immediate problems are economic, the underlying crisis is cultural: an inability to see beyond the current state of affairs. There is a crisis of vision in the West, and a crisis of the spirit, if one can still use that word.
Dawkins talks as if science is the achievement of understanding. But science has now become an institutional complex far greater than any church, and what supports it is not understanding. Hardly any of us understand the slightest thing about what is going on at the cutting edge of science. Science always was divorced from life. Now it is divorced from the general understanding even of the relatively well-educated. All we have is a blind faith that someone somewhere understands the theory. And the blind faith that insofar as science (including the science of economics) is leading us somewhere, the direction is the right one.
The faith in science is only marginally less thoughtless than other forms of faith.
The crisis of the spirit is society’s reliance on little more than the faith of the necessarily ignorant – a faith that is thoughtlessly locking us into the perpetuation of a crisis-ridden social order.
In our horror that society still repeats the law of the jungle we look for something that points beyond it to a higher order, as the old and now completely discredited religions once did. Science tells us: “Look not; the jungle is the truth about society; your dreams of a post-jungle society are idle, consoling dreams and nothing else.” Herein lies the evil of a science that dogmatically insists that what is cannot be criticised – a science complicit in the perpetuation of barbarity.