Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Monday, August 13, 2007

The God Delusion: The First 100 Pages

This month's selection for The Skeptics' Book Club is a book I'd long been thinking I ought to read (and have been told so), so I'm kind of glad to have this excuse to make the time to do so: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

I probably don't have to explain what the book is about, or who Dawkins is; I'm sure everyone reading this knows all that already. (And if somehow someone doesn't, well, you can click on the links in the previous paragraph.)

As the title of this post implies, I haven't finished the book yet (though I expect to do so before the book club meeting). However, I decided to go ahead and make a post about as much of it as I've read so far, for two reasons: first, because I'm sure I'll have more to say about the rest of the book--and better a few reasonably-sized posts than one really long one--and second, because, uh, it's been way too long since my last post anyway.

So. First of all, let me mention what I'd heard about the book before I read it--the same, I'd imagine, as everyone else had heard about it. In general, theists said that it was a venomous attack on religion, which Dawkins clearly didn't even really understand at all. The godless, on the other hand, said that the supposed venom was grossly exaggerated.

I really wish I could say that the theists were completely wrong here.

Okay, first of all, on the charge of Dawkins not understanding religion: eh, I dunno about that one. Granted, I'm only a hundred pages in, and maybe he makes some major mistakes later on, but so far there's only one thing I've run across I'd really classify as inaccurate or unfair. When discussing the inadequacy of scripture as proof of God's existence, Dawkins points out the contradictions in Biblical accounts, and then laments the ignorance of Biblical literalists who--he assumes--are unaware of them. "...[T]here are many unsophisticated Christians out there who...take the Bible very seriously indeed as a literal and accurate record of history and hence as evidence supporting their religious beliefs. Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth? Why don't they notice these glaring contradictions?"

In my experience--and since Mormon doctrine does include a highly literal interpretation of the Bible, I do have experience with this--Biblical literalists aren't all that stupid, or that ignorant. Yes, they--not all of them, I'm sure, but many--do read the Bible, and they're aware of the contradictions. However, they are also aware of rationalizations that apologists have come up with to reconcile those contradictions (or are capable of coming up with such rationalizations on their own). As I remarked in a previous post, there almost always are ways to paper over an apparent contradiction, if you're creative enough, and maybe willing to bend words a little. Of course, the apologetic "explanations" may strike non-believers as ad hoc and rather desperate, but the fact remains that Biblical literalists aren't necessarily ignorant of the contradictions in the Bible--and nor are they necessarily any more "unsophisticated" than Christians who feel free to interpret the Bible more liberally.

(Actually, there is one other point in the book that puzzled me, and that I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention. At one point Dawkins refers to "the three 'great' monotheistic religions (four if you count Mormonism), all of which trace themselves back to the mythological patriarch Abraham". Guh? The three main religions Dawkins is referring to are, of course, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam...but what possible reason would there be to count Mormonism separately? Sure, many Protestants don't consider Mormons true Christians--but many Protestants don't consider Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses true Christians either, and Dawkins doesn't propose counting them separately. Sure, Mormon doctrine does have some very significant and fundamental differences with the more mainstream Protestant doctrine--but again, the same is true of Catholicism and the Jehovah's Witnesses, and he doesn't propose counting them separately. Sure, LDS church leaders may like to repeat that Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion in the world--but there's little or no evidence that that's true, and many other religions make the same claim. [EDIT: It's been pointed out to me in a comment that it's not really the church leaders who make these claims--the claims are made, and are often repeated by church members in talks and lessons, but they originate from other sources, not from the church leadership.] Besides, if we're just going by raw numbers--well, to pick on the same two examples I've been using up until now, both the Catholics and the Jehovah's Witnesses outnumber the Mormons. So why single Mormonism out as a fourth "'great' monotheistic religion"? I am honestly baffled.

All right, and, for the sake of completeness, there is one other slight inaccuracy I could remark on. Dawkins dismisses a little too categorically belief in God as "an old man in the sky with a long white beard", implying, though not stating outright, that nobody really literally believes in that. In fact, though, some people do believe in God as literally a white-bearded man in the sky--Mormons at least arguably among them; they even have a name for God's home planet or star (Kolob). But this isn't at all important to Dawkins' points, so it isn't worth dwelling on.)

That aside, though, I didn't see--so far, at least--any signs that Dawkins really had any fundamental misunderstanding of religion. He may have gotten some details wrong, but nothing crucial to his arguments, and nothing that isn't forgivable in someone speaking outside his area of expertise. So on that charge, I'd say (at least, again, judging from the first hundred pages) he's mostly innocent.

But on the charge of his mocking and derisive tone: uh, yeah. Let's not kid ourselves. It's there.

"I shall not go out of my way to offend," Dawkins writes at the end of the first chapter, "but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else."

And then thus begins chapter 2: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

I daresay anyone who believed in the God of the Old Testament might find that sentence just a shade offensive.

This is by no means the only example of inflammatory language. He says that "[w]hat impresses [him] about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along." I've already reproduced above his rather insulting characterization of Biblical literalists. He calls St. Anselm's ontological argument "infantile" and casts it "in the language of the playground", with the argument's proponent, in his relation, resorting to the nonsensical taunt "Nur Nurny Nur Nur".

I am not accusing Dawkins of going against the sentence he ended his first chapter with. He did say he wasn't going to handle religion with kid gloves, and I am willing to believe that he is not going out of his way to offend. He has strong feelings about religion--and, I would say, justifiably so--and so if he's not intentionally restraining himself he tends to write about it in strong language and in jeering scorn. That's understandable.

And, to be fair, I should quote the sentence preceding that last sentence of the first chapter: "It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book." The "unparalleled presumption of respect for religion" is what he had just spent the last seven and a half pages explaining: the fact that religion gets a bye that other practices and belief systems don't enjoy, that society demands that broad allowances be made for religious belief that are not made for any other cause. Therefore, any attacks on religion are perceived as offensive far out of proportion to their real content or intent.

He has a point, and it is something I tried to keep in mind. How, I thought, would language comparable to what Dawkins writes here come across in another context, other than religion? Well, I suppose Dawkins speaks no more harshly about religion than typical pundits do about those of opposing political views. But except in extreme cases such pundits aren't generally attacked as being wildly offensive.

However, there's another factor that I think must be kept in mind here. Political pundits, when they write diatribes against the other side, aren't really trying to win over their opponents. In general, they're writing for people who already agree with them. They don't expect to make converts, and they're not really worried about offending people.

Dawkins, on the other hand, is trying to make converts--or "de-converts". He explicitly says as much in his preface: "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." He acknowledges, of course, that it may be hard to motivate believers to read his book in the first place: "Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this". What he doesn't seem to recognize is the possibility that a believer who does read his book may be so offended by his ridicule that he refuses to take in the message--or may even become more entrenched in his beliefs, as a reaction against Dawkins' mockery.

Again, I am not doubting that Dawkins was being genuine about his intentions in that last sentence of the first chapter. I believe him when he says that he didn't go out of his way to offend. I believe him that any offensiveness is simply because of his refusal to "don kid gloves".

But I think maybe he should have tried those gloves on for size.

I'm not saying Dawkins' outrage is unwarranted. I agree that religion does a lot of damage; I agree there's a lot there that's worthy of ridicule. But ridicule doesn't win converts--and by Dawkins' own admission, that's what he's set out to do. I don't think this is the way to do it. Like the political pundits, he's going to end up--or, since the book was published last year, perhaps I should say he probably already has ended up--just encouraging those who already agree with him. Or, to use a phrase that originated in a religious context...preaching to the choir.

I made a post a long while back on Mormon missionary methods. Now, I may not believe in Mormon doctrine--and I may have serious doubts that Mormonism is really the fastest-growing religion like its leaders some of its members claim--but there's no doubt that Mormonism has had a lot of success with its missionaries, and with a century and change to hone their methods they've had plenty of time to figure out what works. And one of the biggest things that is stressed to Mormon missionaries is to "build relationships of trust"--to win people over by expressing interest in their activities, but also by starting out with talk of common beliefs. Among themselves, Mormons do plenty of ridiculing of other churches' doctrines (and vice versa, of course). But the church knows better than to send its missionaries out to mock potential converts. If a Mormon missionary is engaging a Catholic in conversation, he's supposed to first discuss their commonalities--faith in God, belief in the Bible, and so forth--and when he does discuss what sets the Mormon church apart, he's supposed to do so in a way that still shows respect to his interlocutor's beliefs. Certainly a good Mormon missionary would never go up to a Catholic and tell him his religion was full of "tasteless kitsch" and that the priests were just "mak[ing] up the details as they go along". Any missionary who tried that would just get a door slammed in his face.

And I fear, from the backlash I've seen against Dawkins, that that, in a figurative sense, is just what happened to him. He went to the religious and told them how unsophisticated and silly they were, and they responded by refusing to listen to him and calling him rude. Now, again, I think Dawkins is right; religious beliefs are pretty silly, when you look at them without the lens of indoctrination in the way. But that's not the best approach to use to try to win people over.

Now, one might say--and many have said--that, well, someone has to be blunt and direct; someone has to tell it like it is. And yes, maybe someone does. But that someone shouldn't expect to win many believers to his side. And anyway, others are already doing that; from what I've heard, other major atheist writers--Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris--are even more abrasive than Dawkins. It can also be said that religion doesn't deserve respect; that--as Dawkins says in the prologue--it's already respected far more than it should be. Also true, but, again, if your goal is to win people over, you're not going to do it by insulting them.

I'm not saying I haven't been enjoying the book. Dawkins makes some good points, and some interesting arguments. And really, I wouldn't be having such a problem with it if it weren't intended--according to Dawkins--to turn believers into atheists. As a sermon to the choir, it's excellent. As a missionary tract, though, I have a hard time not seeing it as doomed to failure.

Ah, well. As I said, I'm still enjoying the book, and we'll see what I think of the other 274 pages...


At 8/14/2007 5:18 AM, Blogger adversecity said...

I'd say the bulk of the complaints about Dawkins' book are about the second part of his agenda: showing religion to be useless/pernicious.

The proving God doesn't exist stuff has, been cited, but not a whole lot of heat has been generated when the question is whether he has duly considered Pascal's wager.

At 8/14/2007 10:36 AM, Blogger tom sheepandgoats said...

You can tell me if the following report is true.

I'm told that Dawkins makes much of the fact that the geneologies of Jesus differ in Matthew's gospel and Luke's. He sees that as a blatant contradiction and is amazed people don't see through the Bible on that account alone. Just count the names, for crying out loud! he says. There are 25 or so in Matthew, over 40 in Luke.

What he does not mention, or perhaps recognize, is that one gospel traces Jesus' lineage through Mary and one through Joseph. Of course they differ, though they both include David as common ancestor. And Matthew's tracing goes back to only Abraham. Luke's goes back farther.

If true, this is not encouraging. It shows the author understands little the things he is making brash statements about.
The facts regarding the geneologies are relatively easy to uncover for anyone interested in doing so.

So that's my question to you, who are reading the book. Does he carry on about the geneologies as I've stated?

At 8/14/2007 11:34 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

No, I wouldn't say he "carries on" about the differences in the genealogies. He mentions them, yes, as one of the contradictions in the Bible, but only briefly, and he doesn't put any special weight on them.

I don't think resolving this contradiction is quite as "easy" as you make it out to be, though. It's not the case that one gospel traces Jesus's lineage through Joseph and one through Mary (at least, not according to the KJV, the NIV, or any other standard version of the Bible I'm aware of). Both lineages are explicitly traced through Joseph. Matthew 1:16: "...And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, which is called Christ." Luke 3:23-24: "And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli..."

That's not to say that this is necessarily an irreconciliable contradiction, of course. The Mormon explanation (according to the "Bible Dictionary" that comes with LDS editions of the scriptures) is that "Matthew gives a legal descent and includes several adopted children, such adoption carrying with it legal rights, while Luke gives a natural descent through actual parentage". I'm sure apologists of other religions have come up with other explanations.

I've already said in my post that I think Dawkins does show some misunderstanding of religion in his supposing that Biblical literalists must be unfamiliar with the apparent contradictions in the Bible--they're not unaware of them, but they've found ways to resolve them to their satisfaction (such as the explanation regarding adopted children above). But this isn't really all that important to his arguments, and no, I wouldn't say he "makes much of" this particular contradiction.

(I should concede, however, that I still haven't read the whole book yet--though I'm further along than I was when I wrote the post. I can't positively guarantee that Dawkins doesn't return to this subject later on, and make more of a fuss about it then. I doubt it, though; it's completely incidental to his point, and it seems likely he's already covered it in the third chapter as much as he's going to.)

At 8/14/2007 12:16 PM, Blogger Qalmlea said...

A more relevant complaint about the genealogies would involve the "immaculate conception." According to that belief, Jesus wasn't descended from Joseph anyway, so the genealogy would be irrelevant. But even for that they have their rationalizations. Pretty much, they'll rationalize ANYthing.

At 8/14/2007 2:43 PM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Mormonism is not Christian, insofar as non-Mormons understand it. As I understand it, it's like saying Christians aren't Jews - or if you claim Mormons are Christians, like saying Christians are Jews. Mind, I don't know; but I'm sure that's what Dawkins has in mind. And it's the fourth great monotheistic religion because ... well, because hardly anyone really understands that Hinduism is monotheistic (sorta kinda) and is "greater" than Mormonism, in numbers if nothing else.

And Dawkins' experience with believers is mostly in Europe. I have a feeling lots of English "believers" really don't know much about the book...

But the bottom line is, Dawkins has no desire to coddle believers. If he starts off by being conciliatory, most believers will just ignore the rest of what he says. If he pisses them off, maybe they'll pay attention. More importantly, he was the first to write - if Hitchens is ruder, which he is, he also is following Dawkins, so telling Dawkins he should have let Hitchens do the barking is counter-productive. Also, have you read the yelping the astrologers are doing over Dawkins? He's ruder to them, really.

But then, I personally loved his tone. After all, until very recently atheists were all "I respect your beliefs, OF COURSE, but maybe you haven't thought of ..."

At 8/14/2007 3:30 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

The stuff you talk about early on re: the literalist Xians who never crack open the book and notice the inconsistencies, while they may not make up the bulk of theists, in my experience, there sure are enough of them to warrant knocking them down a peg or two. The ones that do notice the contradictions show amazing mental powers to come up with convoluted apologetics, so I'm impressed with them to a certain degree.

Anyway, I think I'd consider Mormons to be Xian, but it's borderline. Mormonism's relationship to Xianity is kinda similar to Xianity's relationship to Judaism.

Re: St. Anselm's ontological argument - I'm not very familiar with it; however, I just looked it up on Wikipedia and it looks like something that only a Sci-Fi android would actually take seriously.

At 8/14/2007 3:56 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Mormonism is not Christian, insofar as non-Mormons understand it. As I understand it, it's like saying Christians aren't Jews - or if you claim Mormons are Christians, like saying Christians are Jews.

Some non-Mormons consider Mormonism to not be Christian, but not all, by any means. And, as I said in my post, by and large the same people who claim that Mormons aren't true Christians also claim that Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses aren't true Christians--and they outnumber Mormons, too. So why not propose treating them as separate religions? I don't see any good argument for counting Mormonism separately that wouldn't apply just as strongly to Catholicism and the Jehovah's Witnesses, too.

At 8/14/2007 4:05 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

But the bottom line is, Dawkins has no desire to coddle believers. If he starts off by being conciliatory, most believers will just ignore the rest of what he says. If he pisses them off, maybe they'll pay attention.

No, they won't. That's my point. If he offends them, they're not going to listen to what he has to say; people don't work that way. I'm not saying he ought to be conciliatory and bend over backward to grant them points--I agree with his condemnation of NOMA; after all, I've posted something similar myself. But he can't be as derisive as he is and then expect believers to take his points to heart and convert to atheism. If he were just trying to encourage atheists to stand firm, I'd say he's doing a great job of that. But if he's really serious about trying to convert theists, he may have to do a little coddling...

At 8/14/2007 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It can also be said that religion doesn't deserve respect; that--as Dawkins says in the prologue--it's already respected far more than it should be."
You responded well to this. I would have added that while the religion may not deserve respect, the people who believe it, at least sometimes, do.

At 8/14/2007 6:49 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I enjoyed your thoughts and would dispute the claim of the last poster that 'sometimes' people are worthy of respect.

A couple tidbits as far as growth is concerned, LDS Church leaders make no claim as to being the actual 'fastest growing religion.' Such claims are usually made by those outside the church but are referenced at times in various press releases, see here and here.

You've piqued my curiosity enough with his mention of Mormonism that I might have to check out a copy from the local library.

At 8/15/2007 12:54 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

A couple tidbits as far as growth is concerned, LDS Church leaders make no claim as to being the actual 'fastest growing religion.' Such claims are usually made by those outside the church but are referenced at times in various press releases

OK; it seems you've got me there. I've heard those claims over and over again in talks and from teachers in Sunday School and priesthood classes, but I can't find any General Conference talks in which they're made, and this page officially disavows them. So it seems you're right; the members who make these claims are getting them from other sources than the church leaders; I'll edit the post to correct that.

You've piqued my curiosity enough with his mention of Mormonism that I might have to check out a copy from the local library.

I don't know that I'd recommend checking it out just for that reason--he only makes two brief mentions of Mormonism, both of which I've already related in my posts. I would recommend checking it out--but not just because of the references to Mormonism.

At 8/15/2007 7:40 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I misread your initial claim about Smith's use of View, my apologies.

I did some additional searching and found the following on his visit:

"Early in 1827 the Reverend [Ethan] Smith apparently visited Palmyra, because by December 31, 1826, the Wayne Sentinel posted his name for letters remaining in the Palmyra Post Office (Wayne Sentinel, January 5, 1827)."


At 8/15/2007 7:41 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Dah, wrong thread!

At 11/03/2007 6:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm putting together some thoughts, from a Mormon perspective, in reaction to Dawkins' book, and posting them to my blog. Here are links to my thoughts on the first two chapters of the book:

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