Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Dogmatic Richard Dawkins, or Why Daniel Dennett Is Right


Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, but his rabid dislike for all forms of religion is equally as dogmatic and intolerant as are the religions he spends so much energy deriding. But he is popular among the atheists. They tend to hold him up as the scientist with the courage to expose the pre-rational thinking behind religious belief. But their scientism is no better than religious fundamentalism.

Dawkins' new book is The God Delusion, and it is reviewed by Prospect magazine, a British publication. To say they didn't like it would be an understatement, I think. Here is the beginning of the review:
It has been obvious for years that Richard Dawkins had a fat book on religion in him, but who would have thought him capable of writing one this bad? Incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory, it has none of the style or verve of his earlier works.

In his broad thesis, Dawkins is right. Religions are potentially dangerous, and in their popular forms profoundly irrational. The agnostics must be right and the atheists very well may be. There is no purpose to the universe. Nothing inconsistent with the laws of physics has been reliably reported. To demand a designer to explain the complexity of the world begs the question, "Who designed the designer?" It has been clear since Darwin that we have no need to hypothesise a designer to explain the complexity of living things. The results of intercessory prayer are indistinguishable from those of chance.

Dawkins gets miffed when this is called "19th-century" atheism, since, as he says, the period of their first discovery does not affect the truth of these propositions. But to call it "19th-century" is to draw attention to the important truth added in the 20th century: that religious belief persists in the face of these facts and arguments.
Fans will surely enjoy his attacks on religion, but for those of us who would rather understand how and why religion has survived this long when its believers are consistently confronted with its irrational aspects, there is Daniel Dennett.

I'm not a huge Dennett fan, as I tend to see him as a reductionist on too many occasions. I didn't buy into Consciousness Explained, although it was a brilliant book.

Earlier this year, Dennett published Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, a book that tries to look at why religion is still so popular, more than 100 years after Darwin. This book is on my list, so until I can read it and report back myself, here is a piece of one of the reviews, from Scientific American:
Drawing on thinkers such as Pascal Boyer (whose own book is called Religion Explained) and giving their work his own spin, Dennett speculates how a primitive belief in ghosts might have given rise to wind spirits and rain gods, wood nymphs and leprechauns. The world is a scary place. What else to blame for the unexpected than humanlike beings lurking behind the scenes? The result would be a cacophony of superstitions --— memes vying with memes -- —some more likely to proliferate than others. In a world where agriculture was drawing people to aggregate in larger and larger settlements, it would be beneficial to believe you had been commanded by a stern god to honor and protect your neighbors, those who share your beliefs instead of your DNA. Casting this god as a father figure also seems like a natural. Parents have a genetic stake in giving their children advice that improves their odds for survival. You'’d have less reason to put your trust in a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
I'm always happy when my own diety of choice is mentioned, the glorious Flying Spaghetti Monster. May his meatballs never rot.

Anyway, Dennett's book makes an attempt to understand religion that I never see in any of Dawkins recent work or lectures (or diatribes). We don't need more intolerance and dogmatism, we need to understand religion, the source of its power and strength in our psyches.

Given a choice of reading either of these books based on the reviews, I'm going to have to go with and recommend Dennett over Dawkins.


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