On The God Delusion, and discernment: Part 2

February 15, 2008

This is the second part of my reply to faithcatalyst who suggested that my comments on Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion”, “lacked discernment”. Enough introductions, on to the remaining responses:

Using only skeptics for his quotes His constant use of skeptical atheists to back up his arguments is rather like a socialist going into a Conservative club, entering into a debate with a Conservative member who simply appeals to all the other conservative members to support his argument against the Socialist.

And what, precisely, is wrong with that!? A conservative is hardly going to quote the communist manifesto to support pure capitalism! If the conservative is going to quote the communist manifesto it will purely be to demonstrate the falsity of the communist idea, not the rightness of capitalism.

Does faithcatalyst really believe that one could quote – say – the pope or the archbishop of Canterbury in support of the idea that belief in god is delusional!

Deriding his fellow scientists who disagree with him Richard’s constant deriding of his own colleagues in the scientific world who clearly disagree with him, comes over as just shear arrogance and the exhibition of an utterly closed mind.

There is a gulf of difference between disagreement, and derision. The obvious example of this is the well known difference of opinion between Stephen J Gould and Dawkins, both over punctuated equilibrium, and the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria. It is absolutely true that Dawkins is – rightly – derisive of the concept of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, it is not, however, true that therefore Dawkins constantly derides Gould.

Even when dealing with the laughable concept of Irreducible Complexity and the microbiologist Behe – hardly someone who could be regarded as a “colleague” of Dawkins – Dawkins sticks to the facts that surrounded Behe during the Dover trial. If anything, Dawkins erred by not heaping derision upon the likes of Behe.

The only other point I can recall other scientists being mentioned specifically in reference to the existence of god begins on page 97, “The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists”, and in the whole section I fail to find a single instance of derision. The fact is that the claim is spurious.

Basing many of his arguments on speculation and not scientific evidence Richard works on the premise that one day everything will prove what he is now saying. The only trouble is that so much of what he is saying is not based on science – and even flies directly in the face of established science – but is pure philosophical speculation.

This is a book contending that there is no God! What scientific empirical objective evidence is there for the existence of god: None. Right, that’s the necessary scientific rigor disposed of.

At no point does Dawkins contend that, “one day everything will prove what he is now saying”. At no point. Even Chapter 4 dealing with arguments against the existence of a god is entitled, “Why there almost certainly is no God”. “Almost Certainly”. Not, “absolutely, definitely, and eventually everything will prove I’m right”.

That is not, however, to say that Dawkins is engaging in idle speculation. Ultimately there is both no objective, empirical evidence for the existence of a thing, “God”; nor is there any good reason to pre-suppose – in the absence of evidence – that such a thing exists.

Failing to know the Bible Probably the major failure is picking out bits of the Bible that he feels suit his argument and carefully omits the large amounts that run contrary to his beliefs. Those bits he does refer to, he clearly doesn’t understand.

Cite?

Just one example would do. It is an all-too-common objection amongst theists. If it is mentioned that their holy book states X, and fact X is inconvenient then it is simply, “taken out of context”, or the person objecting simply does not understand. If I note, for example, that Exodus 20:5-6 (of the “10 commandments” fame) states:

Thou shalt not bow thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me

And, if in quoting this, I have the temerity to point out that the god described in the bible is clearly self-confessedly jealous, and a evil tyrant; then I am clearly the one with reading comprehension difficulties, instead of the person who believes that this god is a “loving” god.

Appealing to the most bizarre use of illogical use of statistics to reach a conclusion. His use of statistics to prove the impossible is possible must cause many an insurance underwriter to have nightmares.

Huh? Once again I must ask: cite! “The God Delusion” is not even trying to “prove the impossible”, that’s the job of the religious! Unless faithcatalyst is talking about evolution, in which case… oh boy.

Having a Dogmatic Approach that is not open to reason Although he disclaims this, this is actually how he comes over, as a variety of his scientific colleagues have commented.

Once again, “huh?”. Just because someone disagrees with your position does not make them “dogmatic”. I refer once again to the chapter title, “Why there is almost certainly no god”. Compare and contrast this with the christian viewpoint: “There is precisely one god: and it’s male. And it impregnated a virgin and created Jesus, who’s also a god. And there’s a ghost too, that’s also a God. But they’re all the same person”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, probably don’t understand the bible, and was most likely suffering from a reading comprehension problem when I read the new testament…

So that’s it. Thankfully.


More allied insanity

February 14, 2008

Once more, our loyal allies, the Saudi’s, have demonstrated that they are sane allies.

Human Rights Watch has appealed to Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of a woman convicted of witchcraft.

WTF?! Witchcraft?! What the hell is “witchcraft” supposed to mean? Does it mean pretending to be psychic? Pretending to bend spoons with your mind? Pretending that sugar-pills are effective medicinal cures? I mean, seriously, these are bad things to do, but the death sentence? A fine and a ban from running a business for 5 years should suffice. Of course, being Saudi Arabia, this is none of them; according to Human Rights Watch:

They never even made an inquiry as to whether she could have been responsible for allegedly supernatural occurrences, such as the sudden impotence of a man she is said to have “bewitched.”

Nope, she’s supposed to have bewitched a man to become impotent. And what does bewitched mean? Again from Human Rights Watch:

Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, and “witchcraft”

… 

is not a defined crime

Seriously, what the hell is going on here?

For me, the real kicker is this though:

The confession which the defendant was forced to fingerprint was not even read out to her, the group says.

Also Ms Falih and her representatives were not allowed to attend most of the hearings.

These are genuine concerns, and if nothing else, this case highlights the fact that the Saudi law system is seriously screwed. But let’s look at the root here: she’s being sentenced to death for witchcraft!! You might as well sentence her to death for reading Harry Potter (at least according ‘Christian Answers’, although even they don’t go so far as sentencing J K Rowling to death…). Do these people really believe that there are dark magical systems that can cause a man to go impotent by summoning demons? And these people are being given some serious military hardware? That’s just scary.

 (hat tip: Greg Laden


On The God Delusion, and discernment: Part 1

February 8, 2008

I recently received a comment in reply to ‘On Offense’ in which it was suggested that my comment on Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion” lacked discernment. The commenter was very polite, so I asked if they could explain what they thought was wrong with the book. They produced a list, and I have promised to reply. So here goes.

Surplus-to-Requirement Arguing An immense amount of this book actually has little or nothing to do with belief in God being a delusion, which is what the title suggests it should be about

The title, “The God Delusion” suggests that Dawkins hold the view that belief in a deity is delusional. As a character inclined to choose his words with care, he defends the title in the Preface of the first edition; I will only quote a short section here:

(page 5) But for now, I’m going to stick with ‘delusion’, and I need to justify my us of it. The Penguin English Dictionary defines a delusion as ‘a false belief or impression’. Surprisingly, the illustrative quotation the dictionary gives is from Phillip E. Johnson: ‘Darwinism is the story of humanity’s liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself.’

It continues with the amusing note that the quote is actually taken out of context by the creationist Johnson, but nevertheless fairly reasonably sums up evolution. Dawkins clearly is contending that a belief in God is delusional, in the sense that it is the belief in God is fundamentally wrong. The book goes to quite considerable lengths to demonstrate that this is the case.

If one takes Dawkins use of the term ‘Delusion’ in the sense it was intended, then the book is dedicated to the proposition that belief in God is a delusion: it is a false belief. It is a book that also sets out why it is a false belief.

Failure to Distinguish between Principles and Practice. A lot of Richard’s writing is taking up arms against particular individuals or groups or denominations or even religions, on the basis of things they have said or done which are questionable, NOT on the basis of the specific beliefs.

I may be wide of the mark here, but I suspect this is referring principally to chapters 7~9 (“The ‘Good’ book and the changing moral zeitgeist”, “What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?” and “Childhood, abuse and the escape from religion”). In these chapters, Dawkins is taking on, in various ways, the egregious claim that morality is derived from religion. The question often asked of atheists is, “how can you be moral without religion?”, the obvious retort is, “How can you be moral with religion”.

This is not to say that no religious person can be moral or behave respectably, but it is not from religion that morality is derived, and this is the principle that Dawkins is asserting. If a person makes the claim that religion is derived from morality, and religion – or God – is the source from which all morality comes then all references to behavior in the respective holy books should be moral references. If slavery is immoral – for example – then it would be condemned in the bible, and not condoned. That we find immoral acts being condoned in the bible, and morally neutral acts being strongly condemned, we can reasonably conclude that morality does not derive from the bible.

Furthermore, if the question is, “is morality derived from god/religion”, then it is perfectly reasonable to look at the people who are self-confessedly religious and ask, “do religious people uniformly behave in a moral manner”, and the answer is a firm, “no”. Of those religious people that do not behave in a moral manner, the further question can be put: “do these people behave in an immoral manner because they are religious, or do they behave in an immoral manner because they are wicked?”.  In either case, of course, religion is not vindicated, but as Dawkins quotes, “good people will always do good things, and evil people will always do evil things, but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.

 The other question, of course, is “well, isn’t religion just harmless”.  The “why bother with it anyway” retort to strong criticism of the idea of religion. Dawkins quite clearly sets out that not only do religious people do evil things, they get away with it precisely and purely because it is religious.  This is the flip-side to the religious delusion: not only is the religious belief false, but there is the more pervasive thought that religious belief is necessarily harmless: this is equally false. 

To these arguments, the theis, of course, will normally retort, “Ah, but Hitler and Stalin were atheists”; but this a blind straw man that does not address the question, “is morality derived from religion”.  The atheist is not contending that morality derives from atheism, merely that it does not derive from religion.

Aiming for an illusory target Now Richard in defence mode at the beginning of the book strongly denies doing this, but denial doesn’t stop him doing it. A number of times I have had to say, but we don’t believe that! Every time he sets up an extremist group or an extremist belief, we have to say, but we’re not like that, we don’t believe that, so why bother to say it. But he still does it – again and again!

This, I believe, is by far the most common criticism of Dawkins book, and – in my opinion – the most indefensible. If you do not believe in the god that Dawkins has attacked, then you need to state what you do believe, and point out precisely where Dawkins is wrong. Furthermore, you need to demonstrate that no-one believes in it, because I can point out plenty who believe in precisely the type of God Dawkins is addressing

Let’s start at the top of the Catholic and CofE hierarchies and go from there: the Pope believes in the god Dawkins is refuting. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes in the God Dawkins is refuting. The Archbishop of Rochester believes in the God Dawkins is refuting. The Saudi-Arabian government believe in the God Dawkins is refuting. Pat Robertson believes in the God Dawkins is refuting. Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute, Fred Phelps, the guys at the Kansas Creation museum, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee all believe in the God Dawkins is refuting. The guys wanting to set up a creation museum in Lancashire all believe in the God Dawkins is refuting. The christians at a barbecue I went to a couple of years ago to celebrate a friend’s up-coming wedding, they all believed in the God Dawkins was refuting. The people at the King’s church in Aldershot I attended many years ago all believed in the God Dawkins is refuting. The Taleban, the head of the Muslim Council for Britain, the bishops in the House of Lords, Tony Blair, Ted Haggart; they all believe in the God Dawkins is refuting. So, if the god being attacked by Dawkins is not believed by these people, what is it that the dissenters believe in?

 It is not enough to simply state, “I don’t believe in that god”.  If that is not the god you believe in, then what do you believe in.  

Ignoring Classical Scholarship He uses poor authorities to bolster his weak arguments. Richard studiously ignores an immense wealth of scholarship, men of great learning and wisdom who have researched how the Bible came to be, why it is what it is, and these are men who can be trusted

This argument was neatly summarised by PZ Myers over at Pharyngula; he’s even given it a name:The Courtier’s Reply.

Relying upon Liberal Theologians who start from an atheists position Richard relies upon liberal theologians, largely from the 19th century who have been subsequently discredited. Anyone who starts from a presupposition that says that God can’t speak or work into His world, prejudges the issue. Reputable scientists and scholars take the evidence in front of them and draw conclusions. They don’t start with the conclusion.

{Darth Vader voice}The irony is strong with this one{/Darth Vader voice}.

Scientists and scholars do indeed start with the data – the evidence – and follow it to the necessary conclusion. So, let’s imagine setting up an experiment to determine whether ‘god’ speaks or works into his world. In setting up such an experiment, one must needs a null hypothesis: for the purposes of our experiment, it must be, “if there is a god, it does not speak or work in “his” world”. Why? Well, let’s run the experiment:

We’re going to work from the assumption that the god is something resembling the christian god, and that this god works in the world in response to prayer. So we’re also going to need to adjust our null hypothesis, “if there is a god, then it does not respond to prayer”. We can take a control group: let’s say a group of cancer patients, and a test group: another group of cancer patients. For a year, the test group is prayed for, whilst the control group isn’t. To be thorough, neither group knows whether or not they’re being prayed for. What happens when we don’t use the null hypothesis?

Well, if we take the view that, “god must respond to prayer”, then it would be easy to say that any cancer patient who, for any period of time, “felt a little better” was proof that god works through prayer, and chose to answer the prayers sent for those patients that felt better. If we have the null hypotheses, and do this scientifically, well the results are likely to be different.

With the null hypothesis, unless the test group shows statistically significant improvement over the control group, the null hypothesis holds. Far from prejudging scholarship, a decent reputable scholar would start with precisely the same principle: they would necessarily start with the assumption that god – assuming such a character existed – did not “speak, or work into His world”.

I would like to know, of course, just who the classical scholars are that Dawkins ignored, and why they are better than the allegedly discredited liberal theologians he didn’t. Simply stating that he has done this, does not make it so.

Finally, I would point out, again, the Courtier’s reply. Like Dawkins and Myers, I don’t believe that theology is a valid subject, precisely because of the problem of it does not have a null hypothesis in relation to the question, “does god exist”. Liberal, classical or conservative, they’re all talking nonsense. It’s like trying to have a serious discussion about the average level of intoxication of Leprechauns. With no proof of the existence of Leprechauns, any argument for “highly inebriated”, or “fatal blood alcohol level” are spurious.

Right! That’s it for the moment. There are still six more questions to come, which I’ll get to soon enough; but for now, that’s yer lot for part 1.