27.1.08

LOOKING FOR A SIMPLER EXPLANATION. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins attempts to offer a simpler explanation than "God's Will," which he argues involves complexity of a form that could not be concealed from observers. This Book Review No. 6 will not attempt to address all the controversies Professor Dawkins participates in (some of which led him to lead off my paperback edition with a collection of rebuttals to common complaints about his claims.) His work is more persuasive the closer it hews to his work on cosmology and biology, where he is able to lay out the logic. On cosmology, he argues that the relative rarity of habitable planets, while inspiring the conceit of special creation, can also be understood to imply the existence of other habitable planets, only at distances beyond our capability to observe. On biology, he is able to demolish the false analogies of randomness that some innumerates apply to evolution: the accumulation of small advantages with repetition suffices to explain complex structures such as people, or their eyes. Thus, quoting Carl Sagan (pp. 40-41) "if by 'God' one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God." That God might ultimately be understood with a sufficiently powerful mathematics, and Professor Dawkins is accordingly scathing with most agnostic positions on the existence of a God.

Professor Dawkins continues with a challenge to the various socio-cultural arguments for a God (or for religious belief, more generally), and finds them wanting. Here he's on less solid ground than he is on the origins of the universe and of sapient life on one planet per billion suns, although his work might be instructive for combatants in other cultural struggles. (It's rare that Ayn Rand can be accused of putting things more succinctly than another thinker, but her denunciation of the doctrine of Original Sin, by which people become capable of reason, morality, creativeness, and joy, is more pithy than Professor Dawkins. See "the speech" in Atlas Shrugged.) On the other hand, one might want to apply Professor Dawkins's formulation "child of Catholic parents" rather than "Catholic child" to other labels: "child of Communist parents" to "red-diaper baby" as a possibility. And think through carefully the parallels: if infant baptism and upbringing in religious traditions border on child abuse, do the common schools get a free pass, where pledges of allegiance or instruction on multiculturalism or the choice of basal readers are concerned?

Or dig into some of the professions of faith he lists at pp. 231-232, including "heretics, blasphemers, and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism)," or "faith (belief without evidence) is a virtue," or "everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with a higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect." That Professor Dawkins elsewhere gets in a dig at "francophonys" suggests he wouldn't mind having some of the post-modern, post-structural, post-intellectual rot given the same respect as an idol of a control tower in the South Pacific.

There's one place where Professor Dawkins's unfamiliarity with Midwestern culture introduces a humorous moment. He inquires about the "semiotic iconography of cheese" when it is immediately clear that an angry letter characterizing Madison's Freedom from Religion Foundation as "cheese-eating scumbags" is as unfamiliar with Wisconsin culture as it is with reasoned discourse. The foundation is more of those Overly Earnest People who would not be at all comfortable at a football game, let alone wearing a cheese-wedge hat, which is where the reference comes from.

Cross-posted at the Fifty Book Challenge.

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