On The God Delusion, and discernment: Part 1

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.

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5 Responses to On The God Delusion, and discernment: Part 1

  1. Ray Heroux says:

    Dear Sir(s),

    I was a Christian who had once believed in a Supreme Being. I used to pray every night before I went to sleep. I would read my Bible each day, covering a few chapters at a time so I could absorb the meaning of these supposed prophetic words. Mr. Dawkins’ views on the subject of a delusional belief may be without warrant. However, if there is a God and the Bible is true to its own end why haven’t the events in The Revelation ever come to pass? Jesus even states that it’ll happen during the Apostles lifetime. I’ve heard many excuses over the years to explain this compelling question. One of them being, a day to God is one-thousand years to us and vice-versa. The contents of the Bible are of a metaphysical nature. Metaphysics were around while the Jews were still worshiping the moon, and in fact their rituals still reveal this. Also, it has been proven that the NT is not an actual continuation to the OT. Rather, the NT was written to support the power and stability of the newly founded so-called Christian faith. Granted, there are many strange things in our world and the universe, but to simply explain them away as the works of a Supreme Being(God) is narrow minded, non-scientific, unprovable and definitely a delusion for humankind. Any other subject that has these types of tags assigned to them in todays world would be completely disregarded except for those fanatics who refuse to accept reality. That spells ‘Delusional’ in my book!

  2. faithcatalyst says:

    I have again appreciated your writing. You will of course understand that ‘appreciate’ is not the same as ‘agree with’. If you continue to quote from The God Delusion as a means of answering criticisms of it, you are rather defeating yourself from the start. You must use your own logic, not Richard’s for his appears distinctly faulty! Nevertheless fun reading!

    Surplus-to-Requirement Arguing
    I award top marks for “Richard Discipleship” I suggest it not only misses the point but uses a quote that says nothing to the situation. The slightly unclear references to Johnson don’t really help the definition – but Richard is brilliant at this! The key issue here is “belief in God” NOT “weird and funny ways people express their beliefs in God” which is what Richard’s book is really quite a lot about (and which Christopher Hitchens’ book is all about). In the areas where Richard does attack the ‘evidence’ he regrettably shows his lack of knowledge and understanding. The point still stands. Richard’s great strength is in biology but he does leap to conclusions which raise the hackles of many of his scientific colleagues such as Alister McGrath (another Oxford prof.) and Francis Collins (head of the International Human Genome Project), and strays into areas where he is not so brilliant.

    Failure to Distinguish between Principles and Practice.
    Yes, sorry this was wide of the mark, but that’s my fault – the trouble with trying to keep comments short on a blog. The fact that there are extremists who call themselves Christians in no way detracts from the doctrines and historical background of the Christian Faith. That some so-called believers ignore, forget or disagree with the beliefs of the majority doesn’t bring down the central tenets of belief. To use such believers to prove the point only shows the weakness of thinking behind the book. i.e. the practices of fringe extremists or even specific elements of the worldwide church (Richard fires on the Roman Catholic church who do make themselves vulnerable to attack!), should not be confused with the principles of the Christian Faith as revealed in the whole Bible but specifically the New Testament. (Forgive me if, for the sake of time and space, I don’t respond here to “atheists can be nice people” – maybe another time)

    Aiming for an illusory target
    I’m not sure (in fact I’m certain) that a whole bunch of the people you list actually believe in the God that Richard writes about, because the God he describes is actually very far from the God of the Bible – but that needs a reasonable bit of intelligent Bible reading to understand. You need to actually look again at the God Richard describes and I have to tell you it is NOT the God believed in by many of those you cited.

    Ignoring Classical Scholarship
    I really do like your sense of humour suggesting that “The Courtier’s Reply” is an answer. Satire is useful for deriding the pompous but as a great fan of The Emperor’s New Clothes I fear its application here utterly misses the point. The use of the Courtier’s Reply (if I understand it), I suspect, would more aptly describe The God Delusion for there are in reality no clothes on this clothes horse. (It’s actually a good analogy that – Richard hangs out what he thinks are the religious ‘clothes’ but in reality what he is airing is nothing at all to do with the genuine article!) To deride what I have referred to as “Classical Scholarship” is to write off every form of academic study that says there are genuine foundations for belief in….. whether it be atoms, energy forces, history or whatever. The grounds of belief in traditional, biblical Christianity are well founded, and no amount of satire can detract from that – but if you don’t know about it, then join the court jesters. (I have once given a brief answer to “So what do you believe?” but if you want a considerable amount more then you can track me back.)

    Relying upon Liberal Theologians who start from an atheists position
    Come on, you can do better than that! Where does this “god works in the world in response to prayer” bit come from? I really feel sympathy with you. Anyone who believes in a Supreme Being that you can wrap around your little finger by a little prayer, really does want their head looking at. Can we have some original thinking here, not just another of Richard’s staggering poor example of the prayer experiment. Down to earth talk about prayer will take a complete page, so let’s leave it for a moment.
    You’re unhappy about my dismissing liberal theologians but you still haven’t answered, in giving Richard’s illustration, the objection to starting out an investigation with the conclusions decided before hand. If you want some serious reading on this I recommend Josh McDowell’s “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict”

    Now I have gone to the trouble to check out the writing of the atheist camp in great detail. I write in the hope that you will check the other side’s stuff as well!!! I look forward to Part 2.

  3. armchairdissident says:

    because the God he describes is actually very far from the God of the Bible – but that needs a reasonable bit of intelligent Bible reading to understand.

    Please let me assure you that I have read the bible from cover to cover, and the god described by the Bible is precisely the God described by Dawkins. It is most peculiar that people that claim to believe in the bible refuse to admit that they believe in the god described in it.

  4. armchairdissident says:

    A couple more thoughts

    The God Delusion as a means of answering criticisms of it, you are rather defeating yourself from the start.

    Rubbish. You made a claim about a book claiming that it did not say something. The only way to attack such a claim is to show that the book does say what you’re claiming. If I were to claim that the bible states that God can’t defeat Iron chariots, the only way for me to defend that claim is to reference Judges 1:19. If you were to claim that the various accounts of the birth of Jesus in the bible are identical, I would have to refer to the bible to prove you wrong. To claim that I have “defeated myself from the start” by referring to the book in question is just plain ludicrous.

    I’m not sure (in fact I’m certain) that a whole bunch of the people you list actually believe in the God that Richard writes about,

    The, pray tell, what do they believe? What God does the Pope believe condems condoms as a “mortal sin”? What God does Fred Phelps believe that condems homosexuals to death, and “calls” him to protest at military funerals? If not the god of the bible – the god amply described by Dawkins – then what the hell are we supposed to believe they believe.

    You cannot simply state, “no, we don’t really believe that”, then say things like, “the bible is the word of God”, or, “condom use is clearly a sin, because its in the bible”, because that is a blatant contradiction.

    Whether you believe that, whether you like the fact that other people believe it or not is neither here nor there. People – influential people, and a lot of people making public policy – do believe it.

    The fact that there are extremists who call themselves Christians in no way detracts from the doctrines and historical background of the Christian Faith.

    True. The extremists of today would have been considered moderates by the inquisition or by Oliver Cromwell, or by Luther.

    Forgive me if, for the sake of time and space, I don’t respond here to “atheists can be nice people” – maybe another time

    If you even think it necessary to reply, I can only conclude you have not read what I wrote. The question was not, “can members of group A be moral” vs, “can members of group B be moral”, the question is simply, “is morality purely derived from religion”.

    To deride what I have referred to as “Classical Scholarship” is to write off every form of academic study that says there are genuine foundations for belief in….. whether it be atoms, energy forces, history or whatever.

    Nonsense.

    There is a fundamental difference between “belief” in the atom, or documented history, and faith in the existence of god. The atom, just to take one example is both supported by mountains of empirical reproducible evidence, and if offers vast explanatory power. The emperor has been proven to have clothes.

    Belief that there is a god is supported by no evidence. There isn’t even any evidence as to whether the emperor exists let alone whether it actually has any clothes.

    Can we have some original thinking here, not just another of Richard’s staggering poor example of the prayer experiment.

    Perhaps you’d care to enlighten me as to what is “staggeringly poor” about it. Prayer was put to the test and it failed. According to the available evidence it does not work.

  5. faithcatalyst says:

    Sorry, I seem to have touched some raw nerves here. If it was that my response had emotive content, again my apologies. I need to be more careful. You certainly went to town on it though which means if you are serious about discussion (and truth) then I need to give more specific answers.

    Glad to hear you have read the Bible from cover to cover. That is quite unusual, for atheist or believer. I am slightly impressed. Yet reading and careful thought is sometimes very different. If you genuinely wanted to see detail of what I mean I could recommend a website to you, but I don’t want to be presumptive and push it on you.

    Richard’s description of God at the beginning of Chapter 2 : The God Hypothesis – may be a clever bit of writing but it is built on a staggering number of misconceptions which are not uncommon in the casual passer-by. My offer above still applies. Similarly his chapter 7 is a patchwork of misunderstandings. Hence my comments about Alister McGrath (another Oxford prof.) and Francis Collins (head of the International Human Genome Project).

    “God can’t destroy iron chariots”? Interesting one! That rather misses the point that God told Israel to clear the land. Rather annoying that habit He has of allowing us to do the stuff, isn’t it, even when we mess up. I spend quite a bit of my life challenging Christians to read their Bibles properly and not quote odd verses out of context. I would prefer not to extend my sphere of nagging.

    “the various accounts of the birth of Jesus in the bible are identical” Whoever said they were, but that’s a very different thing from saying they are contradictory. Contradictions are when opposites are said, not when different viewpoints are shared. Listen to two people recounting a car accident and you’ll have lots of differences, but that doesn’t make them contradictions. This is basics stuff.

    On the ‘defeating point’, if a whole load of people say about a document, for instance, that it is inaccurate and confusing, it is no point trying to defend the document by simply quoting it again. The specific things need supporting. An original writer’s misconceptions cannot be defended by merely repeating them.
    Your point about our ‘bunch of people’ is a good one. The two illustrations you give are classic illustrations of people who add on to the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say condoms are sin – the Pope infers that. The question of capital punishment was one which fitted Israel as a specific nation which any wise individual doesn’t try to apply outside of that context. (There may be other biblical or philosophical or social reasons that might be argued though).

    “Whether you believe that, whether you like the fact that other people believe it or not is neither here nor there. People – influential people, and a lot of people making public policy – do believe it.” I agree entirely with what you have said. I would still dispute that the Pope and some of the others you cited previously see God as RD does. We are all prone to getting bits wrong. The people you quote no doubt get some of it wrong, but perhaps they also get a lot right and I would still suggest they don’t see God as RD does in Chapters 2 & 7.. Yet I to to confess that I have more sympathy with you here than you might believe!
    “inquisition or by Oliver Cromwell, or by Luther.” Rather unwise to put them all together – they were very different.

    “is morality purely derived from religion” No, actually from God, because take a final arbiter away and you have no fixed basis for ethics or morality, as our world is finding out. So, yes, you can have very moral people who are religious and non-religious.

    Atoms and belief? No, I think some additional reading of modern scientists is required here. All is not as certain as was once believed. Listen to the scientists, not me. As for the foundations of the Christian faith they are as rooted in history as anything else which is founded in history – which includes everything from yesterday back. More research needed.

    “Belief that there is a god is supported by no evidence” Obvious absence of knowledge of the evidence put forward by traditional biblical Christianity is revealed here.

    “Prayer was put to the test and it failed.” Yes, precisely! The experiment was perfect. It proved that prayer is not a mechanical thing that can be played with to suit our whims and fancies, but obviously an interaction with a being who plays on His terms and not ours. The ‘prayer experiment’ failed as many experiments do, showing that the premises being worked upon were false. That says nothing about God though.

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