Thursday, October 26, 2006

The God Delusion

This is the title of a new book by Richard Dawkins, reviewed by Jim Holt in the Oct 22 New York Times. Abstracting from that review:

"Dawkins’s case against religion follows an outline that goes back to Bertrand Russell’s classic 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” First, discredit the traditional reasons for supposing that God exists. (“God” is here taken to denote the Judeo-Christian deity, presumed to be eternal, all-powerful, all-good and the creator of the world.) Second, produce an argument or two supporting the contrary hypothesis, that God does not exist. Third, cast doubt on the transcendent origins of religion by showing that it has a purely natural explanation. Finally, show that we can have happy and meaningful lives without worshiping a deity, and that religion, far from being a necessary prop for morality, actually produces more evil than good. The first three steps are meant to undermine the truth of religion; the last goes to its pragmatic value."

"If God is indeed more complex and improbable than his creation, does that rule him out as a valid explanation for the universe? The beauty of Darwinian evolution, as Dawkins never tires of observing, is that it shows how the simple can give rise to the complex. But not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat). It is far from clear which explanatory model makes sense for the deepest question, the one that, Dawkins complains, his theologian friends keep harping on: why does the universe exist at all? Darwinian processes can take you from simple to complex, but they can’t take you from Nothing to Something. If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God.” Of course, it can’t be known for sure that there is such an explanation. Perhaps, as Russell thought, “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”

"This sort of coolly speculative thinking could not be more remote from the rococo rituals of religion as it is actually practiced across the world. Why is it that all human cultures have religion if, as Dawkins believes he has proved, it rests on a delusion? Many thinkers — Marx, Freud, Durkheim — have produced natural histories of religion, arguing that it arose to serve some social or psychological function, such as, in Freud’s account, the fulfillment of repressed wishes toward a father-figure.

"Dawkins’s own attempt at a natural history is Darwinian, but not in the way you might expect. He is skeptical that religion has any survival value, contending that its cost in blood and guilt outweighs any conceivable benefits. Instead, he attributes religion to a “misfiring” of something else that is adaptively useful; namely, a child’s evolved tendency to believe its parents. Religious ideas, he thinks, are viruslike “memes” that multiply by infecting the gullible brains of children. (Dawkins coined the term “meme” three decades ago to refer to bits of culture that, he holds, reproduce and compete the way genes do.) Each religion, as he sees it, is a complex of mutually compatible memes that has managed to survive a process of natural selection. (“Perhaps,” he writes in his usual provocative vein, “Islam is analogous to a carnivorous gene complex, Buddhism to a herbivorous one.”) Religious beliefs, on this view, benefit neither us nor our genes; they benefit themselves. "

"But the objectivity of ethics is undermined by Dawkins’s logic just as surely as religion is. The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, in a 1985 paper written with the philosopher Michael Ruse, put the point starkly: ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate,” and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.” In reducing ideas to “memes” that propagate by various kinds of “misfiring,” Dawkins is, willy-nilly, courting what some have called Darwinian nihilism."

"He is also hasty in dismissing the practical benefits of religion. Surveys have shown that religious people live longer (probably because they have healthier lifestyles) and feel happier (perhaps owing to the social support they get from church). Judging from birthrate patterns in the United States and Europe, they also seem to be outbreeding secular types, a definite Darwinian advantage. On the other hand, Dawkins is probably right when he says that believers are no better than atheists when it comes to behaving ethically. One classic study showed that “Jesus people” were just as likely to cheat on tests as atheists and no more likely to do altruistic volunteer work. "


  1. Anonymous1:39 PM

    If we are hardwired by evolution to trust our parents because that is evolutionarily "good", Dawkins must then explain the origin of this "beneficial" force that calls survival good, and non adaptation bad. Since it is a sum of intelligent observations...wouldn't the result of that had to have come from intelligence?

    Dawkins sees too much purpose in the universe to truly be blind to God.

  2. Well, indeed, I suppose that Dawkins is taking non adaptation - which leads to non survival - to be 'bad' in the sense that we wouldn't be around to be talking about all this if we hadn't adapted. But I don't see how this has anything to do with intelligent observations or coming from intelligence..

  3. Anonymous3:14 AM

    "Didn't they seek in universe to understand skies and grounds were closed then God created everything in a moment?" from Quran.

    These laws of physics (entropy and all) are all created by God which have made universe, So its clearly wrong to decline God existence by laws of its own creation in first place.
    Darwinism isn't against god existence.