The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Now they tell us

In last week's (12.07.09) THE ARTS, the review section of that fine Scottish newspaper the Sunday Herald, there's a review by Chris Dolan of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God - What Religion Really Means. It's an enthusiastic review. Not having read Armstrong's book, I can't comment on what Dolan has to say about it. But he devotes almost half the review to slagging off Richard Dawkins, whose works I have read, so I'll comment on that.
Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is, for those caught in the crossfire, intellectually unsatisfying. How can one of the greatest scientific minds of our era be so simplistic? Because - according to The Case For God - Dawkins is a biologist. Had he been a physicist he would not have stumbled so imprudently into his illiberal prejudices. Physicists have long resigned themselves to the unknowableness of the world while "some biologists", Armstrong observes, "whose discipline has not yet experienced a major reversal, have remained confident of their capacity to discover absolute truth".
I've typed that out in full, just so that people can point at it and laugh. Onward:
The God Delusion is deficient on two counts. First, it attacks a very particular form of religion, claiming it to be representative of of any experience of spirituality or transcendence. In fact there are very few Creationists [...]
That would be the same book [i.e. The God Delusion] whose very first chapter is titled 'A Deeply Religious Non-Believer'? The book that says (about creationist drivel being taught in state-supported schools): 'The implication that the scriptures provide a literal account of geological history would make any reputable theologian wince. My friend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, and I wrote a joint letter to Tony Blair, and we got it signed by eight bishops and nine senior scientists.'? Yup, same book. I could go on, but I won't. Dolan does:
The second deficiency [...] is a blind faith in the Supreme Truth of Science. If only! [Blah world wars Holocaust Aids blah can't even cure the common cold blah poverty blah now they're saying tomatoes cause Alzheimers blah blah.] And science is no more immune to opinion, fashion and political bias than any other endeavour of humankind. (Evidence of that, I would suggest, is Dawkins's 1976 The Selfish Gene, ushering in the Thatcherite era. The clue is in the title.)
If there's one infallible sign of not having a clue about, and not having read, The Selfish Gene, it's this smug, stupid remark. The clue is, indeed, in the title, but it has whizzed past Dolan's head.

Armstrong - according to Dolan, anyway - blames literalist fundamentalism on the Enlightenment, when religious people mistakenly tried to 'mimic science's objectivity':
For millennia before, no-one had taken any religious text as being literally true - or "gospel", in the modern sense of the word.

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A very quick look into a copy of 'The God Delusion' would set Dolan straight. On p.246 of my Black Swan edition Dawkins has a footnote that corrects the 'misunderstanding' (Dawkins' phrase) that the selfish gene theory is incompatible with 'goodness'. The examples of compassion given on that page make it clear that he's writing about altruism. The footnote refers to the Preface to the latest edition of 'The Selfish Gene.' So, has Mr Dolan read the book he lambastes? Did he read it carefully? If he did, he would have taken the footnote's corrective statement seriously and either changed his tune or (better) looked at the edition referred to and then changed his mind about Richard Dawkins' views on morals.

Well, not directly about altruism but the moral sense that elicits feelings of compassion which in turn give rise to altruistic behavior. That's the philosopher in me who demands conceptual precision.

The pathetic special pleading of those who lead religion's rearguard against the latest wave of militant atheist criticisms leave me in apoplectic fits. All the same, I do believe that Dawkins' book is ultimately unsophisticated, because he has no adequate account of the origins of religious consciousness. I was left with the feeling that he just thinks people were somehow hoodwinked into believing.

And Dawkins is an elitist. This was evident in the TV documentary series that accompanied the release of his book. The full depths were revealed in a more recent studio discussion in which he aired opinions about IIRC, single mothers which wouldn't've been out of place at a Tory conference.

Whatever his merits, Dawkins is a flawed champion of atheism. ;)

George, it doesn't matter what edition you look at, because Dawkins's point is the same in all of them. (The only changes he's made are additional prefaces and notes - the main text is the same as in the first edition.)

Thanks Ken, I was wondering about that. I have had no chance to check the Main Text. I have the first paper edition but never finished it. So let me admit that I'm incompetent at the sort of reasoning used in the approach of mathematical biologists like Hamilton. Even the prisoner's dilemma leaves my mind 5 seconds after each attempt to learn it. I chalk that up to a bad high school education in combinatory math, probability, and biology. Their union eludes me, and that's what one needs to follow the argument in 'The Selfish Gene.' So I gave up.
My point though, was this. Even if the reviewer had never read 'The Selfish Gene' but had sufficiently studied 'The God Delusion,' he would have seen that footnote and realised that his attack was baseless. I suspect dishonesty, since his charges strongly suggest (but don't prove) that he has read Dawkins.

Even the prisoner's dilemma leaves my mind 5 seconds after each attempt to learn it.

That made me laugh. I have quite a few cases like that - Mendel's peas and crosses, for one.

Re Dolan - I doubt he's read a line of Dawkins, and on the evidence of the review, I don't think he claims to have. He's just summarising Karen Armstrong.

I'm intellectually closer to the New Atheists, but politically closer to Liberation Theology.

I agree with the spirit of what JMcL63 said. Religion won't go away with intellectual debunking. Changing human conditions change ideas. Russia was religious in 1905, not 1917.

Right Ken, Mendel's Laws are just as big a blank to me as the P.D. Also, I cannot remember which of those A,C, G, T (and U?) things go with each other and how. But the funniest demonstration of my biological incapacity was my inability to remember which chromosome was male, X or Y. My wife solved that problem once and for all, by screaming at me: Look at that 'Y'! Don't you see that little thing hanging down there? That mental block was removed right then, once and for all :)

"A deeply religious non-believer"?

That chapter title alone provides an instant teeth grinding effect.

Also it amuses me when they wheel out the "reputable theologians" - a minor species of inconsequential liberal fluff being dragged alongside the elephant sized vortex of "faith" - if not an outright oxymoron . . .

X and Y ... it is the other way round in the birds.

Victor, I evidently wasn't clear enough - it's Dawkins who is refering to 'A deeply religious non-believer' and 'any reputable theologian', hopefully not to teeth-grinding effect when you see what he means.

"All the same, I do believe that Dawkins' book is ultimately unsophisticated, because he has no adequate account of the origins of religious consciousness. I was left with the feeling that he just thinks people were somehow hoodwinked into believing."

I think you can label the book unsophisticated in that I think Dawkins has written the book in the simplest terms and language he can manage.

Some parts of it seem stronger than others and the whole section about probability and how much more unlikely a god as complicated as would need to be to be able to create the universe being more unprobable than the improbable events that otherwise led to all of
life existing etc didn't really strike me as a knock out argument.

That said I think the vast majority of his line of thinking about religion isn't far wrong.

Can't remember to well Dawkins thoughts on origins of religions, I generally take the view that evolved as a means to explain a seemingly unexplainable universe and into a form of social control.

I take the instinctive rather than overly thought out view that from observing the vast amount of religions flung up in human history that clearly they are all made up, or small possibility of one absolute bastard of a god that likes to piss about, the Bill Hicks prankster god, as they are often rather contradictory even when they have a shared heritage and that if 99% of them are wrong then probably so 100% of them are also.

When I said "unsophisticated" I meant theoretically unsophisticated. That is to say: his account of religion seemed to me to be suffering from critical weaknesses which have been precisely the point at which people have like Eagleton have levelled their attacks. The fact that these numpties make these attacks in the name of theology in no way absolves Dawkins.

Religious consciousness has been and remains probably the single most important form of consciousness in the history of our species. It is certainly a pivotal feature of today's political landscape. The paucity of Dawkins' account of the genesis, maturation, and now the decline of this form of consciousness is neither a strength, nor something we should be lightminded about. What I am saying here is that we need to revive the rationalist humanist viewpoint which goes beyond seeing religious consciousness as some kind of intellectual wrongheadedness. That's about the size of it. ;)

Hi JMc--I have two points. First, I should think that science is NOW "the single most important form of consciousness" that we have. And if it's not, then it ought to be. I think you will agree. But second, I have no idea of what you mean by the "rationalist humanist viewpoint" of your final sentence. I would like to agree but at this moment I've almost no idea of what you are trying to say. Do you mean Bertrand Russell's notions? Noam Chomsky's? or what? Both say some great things, but I'd like some details of YOUR beliefs.

Ok I see what your getting at, though I don't think it is the most important aspect of what Dawkin's is saying. It would be of great interest to have a 100% satisfying theory regarding religious consciousness, why we as a species are prone to these delusions.

I think also though that science or our ability to reason is the most important form of consciousness we have. It is this that has taken us from primitive hunter gatherers to living in hideously complex civilisations and will hopefully one day take us to living in one that is sustainable and if not some paradise on earth at least something like more equitable, decent, less exploitative and hierachical than what we live in now.

Good afternoon Topper--I too would like an adequate theory of religious consciousness, but I have no idea if there is one or how to use scientific method to investigate the matter. And for the record, I haven't read Dawkins's books, mainly because I don't need to be convinced. I use its bibliography.
I certainly am keeping my fingers crossed and would keep my feet crossed all day if I could. That is, I hope your wish will be fulfilled.

Ha! Thought it sounded strangely familiar! Must read properly before foaming next time . . .

George, I agree with you about science, naturally enough. My point was simply that religious consciousness has been and remains the quintessential consciousness of our species in its pre-civilised epoch. This is an empirical fact and also tells us something about the nature of consciousness it seems to me.

And as for my "rationalist humanism"? Well that's Marxism. I was a bit coy about styling myself a student of this school because all too many of its practicioners and followers have paid little more than lip service to either the rationalism or the humanism, at great cost to themselves and many others besides. Marx's own formulation remains an admirable starting point. It is worth noting that Marx's full formulation is less the conspiratorial bludgeon it has been made to appear by the reduction of his insights to the familiar crude slogan. ;)

Thanks for that great quote JMc. I remember reading part of it before. I'm talking about the fine, powerful paragraph on religion as illusion. I doubt if that fact has ever been better stated. I'll try to find time to read the entire text in German. The translation is powerful enough, clear and pungent.
Yes, I'd certainly agree with you that the early Marx was a rationalist humanist. I've read parts of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. But I don't know what to think about his reaction to Bakunin and his shutting down of the First International. For a more recent, critical approach to all this and to the "great cost" you rightly mention, you can't beat Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary. I have the excellent edition in English by Peter Sedgwick. It footnotes all the now-forgotten names and events. The result is a very rich and rewarding read.

bruce hood's "supersense: from superstition to religion" talks about why / how the feeling that there is 'more_than_this' is an emergent property of the human brain.

(that takes your from faces in clouds to ' old guy in a dress on your case all the time')

which is a different arguement than whether religion is a good thing or not

Maggie, ever since the British biologist Lloyd Morgan first used the term 'emergence' for traits that are claimed to arise oput of 'lower level' items (usual biological) philosophers have tried to explain it with precision. So far the jury's out. Nobody has explained how emergence differs from epiphenomenalism in a way that satisfies many others. Here's the main problem. If some property is emergent, can it in turn be said to have instances that causally affect events on the level from which it has emerged (or 'lower')? If not then we're stuck in epiphenomenalism (the idea that emergent entities are causally powerless). This is a hot but unsolved topic right now. So I don't know if I ought to be an emergentist about mind. This issue is usually called the problem of 'downward causation,'

I don't know what to think of Marx, Bakunin and the 1st International either George. That is to say: I've not read widely enough to have much insight into the rights and wrongs of the situation; except, well: the Nechayev business strikes me as something Marx, his allies and followers had every good reason from which to dissociate themselves as thorougly as possible. I also think that it's dumb in the extreme for marxists and anarchists still to be falling out over the whole affair; dumber even than all the breastbeating about Kronstadt with which the two traditions browbeat each other. This is all history. We should treat it as such, in study and in discourse both. ;)

Yes JMcL63. I'm not very widely read in such things either. A few crucial books besides sources, lots of conversations, and one great college course in Russian Intellectual History. Nothing systematic after the latter. But I'm sure you are right about the extremes of Anarchism, nutcasses like Nechayev. I know little about Bakunin.
I despise the rigidly dogmatic and authoritarian streak in many nonhumanist Marxists, some of whom I know quite well. They aren't receptive of criticism. I'd never fall for that. Hence we have two extremes, with Marx perhaps moving from Libertarian Socialism towards authoritarianism. I don't know enough of the history. But yes, the bickering should stop on some common ground, with e.g. capitalism and religion as common enemies. As one Stalinist told me about another person, "Same enemies, different goals." That's not true either, since both types of leftist are divided internally and I'm not sure where I (or the person complained about) stand within the Lib. Soc. subspectrum! I'm definitely some version of your Rationalist Humanist. I feel that political theory is today so theoretically unclear (I'm an analytical philosopher) that talk of, say, freedom, rights, and value should be sharpened quite a lot. That said, I know the religious enemy when I come across an example: this morning some idiots in Texas who want to read god in person into the foundation of the USA. NOT people's ideas of god but that fictional entity itself. See today's Guardian online. It's all so exasperating that I try to avoid activism except in neatly circumscribed fields, most currently healthcare and torture. I tend towards council communism, but within that movement there are subsubspectra! I had better stop before I become totally muddleheaded. Politics is a mess. Give me a good book instead.

George, sorry that's me being careless with my language.
Hood (Director of Bristol Cognative Development Centre) discusses why people might wear someone else's cardigan, but not if that person was a murderer.
He seems to be saying that people,children, creatures have certain inbuilt, hereditary responses to certain things, that can be reinforced or educated out of one. He observes that children and Alzheimer's sufferers are more superstitious than adults.

He suggests that our (the mind's) provisional solution to copping with the great unknowns of the world leads to our tendency to see faries at the bottom of the garden.

As for bakunin, I thought he was a passable Geographer, but I may have got him confused with someone else.
I was exposed to Professor Bernardo de la Paz (what ever his interlocutors intentions) at a tender age so party lines have never been my thing.
Never the less keep up the good works folk + Ken of course.

I not really well read enough to comment to authoritatively here but what I led to believe about Bakunin is that he was fairly phrophetic about how badly wrong things might well end up, following quote taken itself from Chomsky on Anarchism rather than direct source.

"No state, however democratic not even the reddest republic___can ever give the people what they really want, i.e. the free self-organisation and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the psuedo-People's State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine rulimg the masses from above, through a privelaged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves...." "But the people will not feel better if the stick with which they are beaten is labeled 'the people's stick'"

Certainly seems to ring true.

As for bitter splits between marxists and anarchists I even less sure of the innerworkings but just from general observations from everyday life the bitterest arguments often seem to come with those you happen to share common ground with rather than those who might be considered a common enemy. I know personally I've developed petty dislikes over relative trivialies, something I try hard to wean myself off.

Hi Topper---I read that fine collection of Chomsky's too, and that quote was in my mind when I wrote the stuff above. But since that quote is all that I have read directlyby Bakunin I was wary of using it. So thanks for the good work.
Professor Chomsky uses that quote to show how prophetic Bakunin was, and I trust Chomsky's sharp mind here. In fact, that quote was quite a revelation to me. I have personal experience of the authoritarian side of Marx's descendents and do not like it. I consider myself a follower of Chomsky here, having been influenced by some of the essays in the very book you read. If one keeps one's eyes and ears open (a big, wide open mouth helps too) one is never too old to learn.

Maggie---The geographer was the anarchist Kropotkin, not Bakunin, and he had quite a good reputation in Europe. I believe he wound up in the UK. All I know about him is that the was possibly involved in some attentat and that he wrote a book that is still widely read. The title eludes me right now. Oh yes, I think he escaped from exile in Siberia, but don't hold me to that.

Kropotkin escaped imprisonment at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg on the back of a racehorse named Barbara which had been purchased for that specific purpose by his comrades. (It was Bakunin who escaped exile in Siberia)

A very enjoyable biography of Kropotkin is "The Anarchist Prince" by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic.

Thanks for that, Mr./Ms. well-named Wobbly. That's a great story. I thought that Kropotkin was somewhere in Siberian exile, not in St. Petersnurg. I will see if the book you mentioned is in the Uppsala University library. I read a bit about Kropotkin in Norbert Weiner's autobiography (first volume). His father, a scholar of Slavic languages at Harvard University, knew Prince Kropotkin and Norbert met him. There's a funny anecdote.
By the way, in late Czarist Russia, the title Prince had nothing to do with a family connection with the royals. It was usually some kind of honorific title given for who knows what type of good deeds in service of Mother Russia.

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