Not Saussure

September 26, 2006

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (II)

Filed under: Books, Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 9:36 am

Andrew, over at Definition Britain, takes issue with some of the things I said about Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion, or, rather, about Joan Bakewell’s review of it. I told him I’d expand on the subject, so here’s my latest rumination. I’ve still not read the book — I’d better do, after all this, and give my considered opinion later — but I think I can see, both from the review and the Amazon blurb” TARGET=””>Amazon blurb, where he’s coming from.

‘While Europe’, Amazon tell us,

is becoming increasingly secularized, the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether in the Middle East or Middle America, is dramatically and dangerously dividing opinion around the world. In America, and elsewhere, a vigorous dispute between ‘intelligent design’ and Darwinism is seriously undermining and restricting the teaching of science. In many countries religious dogma from medieval times still serves to abuse basic human rights such as women’s and gay rights. And all from a belief in a God whose existence lacks evidence of any kind.

All perfectly true, and it’s perfectly understandable why someone who spends so much of his time quite rightly fighting religious fundamentalists about their loopy views on evolution should see religion in terms of fundamentalism.But, it seems to me, this leads him into exactly the same mistake perpetrated by American anti-communists 50-odd years ago; they looked at the horrors Stalin’s Soviet Union was perpetrating in the name of dialectical materialism and concluded that a lot of the problem with ‘Godless communism’ was that it was Godless rather than that it was communist. It would obviously be insane — and a logical fallacy — to argue that because atheist regimes like the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China ‘abuse’ or did abuse ‘basic human rights’ on a massive scale, atheism inevitably leads to the abuse of human rights. Fundamentalism — whether religious or secular — may well so do, but that’s to do with the way people tend behave when they know they’ve got right on their side. Doesn’t much matter, it seems to me, whether it’s God or ‘scientific socialism’ that tell them they’re right; the results are much the same for the poor bugger on the receiving end.

What if you believe in God but you’re not a religious fundamentalist? Joan Bakewell says

When sophisticated believers claim disarmingly that “we don’t take Genesis literally any more,” [Dawkins] rails “That is my whole point!” It’s as much a pick-and-mix philosophy as believers accuse atheists of.

Well, that’s the Roman Catholic Church, among others, you’re talking about. They certainly don’t take Genesis literally, have never read the Bible as literal truth in the way you’d read your washing-machine manual and disagree with Christian fundamentalists almost as much as does Richard Dawkins (though for different reasons, obviously). There’s certainly no necessary contradiction that I can see in believing that God created the universe and the rules by which it runs, and that these rules include the mechanisms of natural selection. The short answer to a fundamentalist who wants to argue creationism with you is that if someone’s reading of the Bible leads him to conclusions that fly in the face of the available evidence, then it’s quite possible he’s misreading it, since while the Bible may well be infallible, human understanding certainly ain’t.It needs more argument than this — so I suppose I’d better go and read the book — but Dawkins can’t just dismiss the objection that some — many — people who disagree with him don’t actually say what he thinks they ought to be saying by telling them they should be saying something different so he can disagree with them more easily. I’d buy that if, and only if, someone can convince me that evangelical Protestantism is the only valid form of religious, or even Christian, belief.

Certainly, my point is open to the objection that you don’t need God to explain the workings of natural selection and the rest of the universe, and I’d completely agree. But to my mind that misses the point, since we’re talking about two different levels of discourse. Science doesn’t admit, quite rightly, unnecessary and unverifiable hypotheses in scientific statements. But since we don’t spend all — or even much — of our time making scientific statements, I don’t see what the problem is.

Scientific statements are a way of describing an aspect of the world, but that doesn’t mean that aspects of the world that can’t readily be accommodated by scientific statements aren’t worth making statements about. You can’t, for example, demonstrate the proposition that the novels of Charles Dickens are better than those of Jeffrey Archer in the way that you can demonstrate a scientific hypothesis, but that doesn’t make it a meaningless or irrational statement.



  1. Good to see that religious believers are not taking ‘In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth’ literally any more.

    Nobody believes God created the world any more, other than a few fundies.

    Comment by Steven Carr — September 30, 2006 @ 2:03 pm

  2. It’s hardly anything new; if Richard Dawkins had asked, for example, the Catholic chaplain at Oxford, ‘What is the Catholic position concerning belief or unbelief in evolution?’ he would have been told something to the effect that

    ‘The question may never be finally settled, but there are definite parameters to what is acceptable Catholic belief.

    ‘Concerning cosmological evolution, the Church has infallibly defined that the universe was specially created out of nothing. Vatican I solemnly defined that everyone must “confess the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing” (Canons on God the Creator of All Things, canon 5).

    ‘The Church does not have an official position on whether the stars, nebulae, and planets we see today were created at that time or whether they developed over time (for example, in the aftermath of the Big Bang that modern cosmologists discuss). However, the Church would maintain that, if the stars and planets did develop over time, this still ultimately must be attributed to God and his plan, for Scripture records: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host [stars, nebulae, planets] by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6).

    ‘Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him.

    ‘Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. Pope Pius XII declared that “the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God” (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36). So whether the human body was specially created or developed, we are required to hold as a matter of Catholic faith that the human soul is specially created; it did not evolve, and it is not inherited from our parents, as our bodies are’

    and that

    ‘The Catholic Church has always taught that “no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits. . . . If nevertheless there is a disagreement . . . it should be remembered that the sacred writers, or more truly ‘the Spirit of God who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men such truths (as the inner structure of visible objects) which do not help anyone to salvation’; and that, for this reason, rather than trying to provide a scientific exposition of nature, they sometimes describe and treat these matters either in a somewhat figurative language or as the common manner of speech those times required, and indeed still requires nowadays in everyday life, even amongst most learned people” (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus 18).

    ‘As the Catechism puts it, “Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things the of the faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are” (CCC 159). The Catholic Church has no fear of science or scientific discovery.’

    (Or he could have just used Google!)

    He needn’t necessarily have agreed with this, but it would have stopped him from writing a book attacking, as far as I can see, a straw man for the most part.

    Comment by notsaussure — September 30, 2006 @ 2:27 pm

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