Tuesday, January 02, 2007

More on the religion debate

H. Allen Orr, a real, live working biologist who can also think and write well (Boston Review, New York Review of Books, New Yorker) has a review of Dawkins' God Delusion in the current NYRB.

It's a solid piece, but I can't help being somewhat disappointed by it. It makes a lot of valuable points, but I don't think it takes Dawkins on as strongly as the case merits, and it doesn't do much to point the way forward as to what might be a better way for science to engage with religion.

In my opinion, Dawkins' recent book as well as his recent work on inanities like memes merits a full-on challenge to his intellectual seriousness and his appropriateness for his position as public spokesman for science. The sad fact is, as Terry Eagleton pointed out in his review of The God Delusion, that Dawkins looks a looks a lot like proponents of Intelligent Design in this work: uninformed about the basics of the fields he's working in (sociology, psychology, theology, pop culture) but with a strong agenda behind him (condemning all religion; reducing culture to a function of biology).

The point of much of Dawkins recent writing seems less to enlighten or even to sway his opponents. It seems to be written to rally the troops provide (disingenuous) talking points. In short, Dawkins has been writing a low sort of propaganda.

Orr more or less makes this clear to us, but he doesn't lay into Dawkins quite as vigorously as he ought to. This may be in part a political move: Perhaps Orr doesn't want to make enemies with Dawkins as he has with others in the Dawkins camp like Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett.

What with Dawkins writing propaganda and Orr playing politics, it should be crystal clear to us that this is nothing but a political dispute, not a scientific one.

The trouble is that some of the folks involved in this deeply political discussion, making deeply political statements, have little esteem for or skill at politics. One can contrast Dawkins' book, which essentially calls for science to take on a series of battles where it has nothing whatsoever to win, with Stephen Jay Gould's earlier Rocks of Ages.

While, as Orr pointed out at the time, there are some problems with Gould's idea that science and religion have "non-overlapping magesteria," his basic idea--that science should continue doing what it does best and leave to religion those things--like morality ("ought" questions) and meaning provision--that science has nothing to say about anyway--would be a brilliant diplomatic move. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that Caesar says he can have," was Orr's complaining summary.

What Orr didn't realize was that this lopsided deal was precisely the point. Gould was advising science to make conciliatory sounds, grant to religion those things that science can only speculate about anyway, and keep everything that's important.

Later when reviewing Dawkins' book of essays, The Devil's Chaplain, (which employs many of the same arguments later used in the God Delusion) Orr began to reconsider Gould's solution in contrast to the indiscriminant pugilism of Dawkins.

Orr's pithiest assessment of Dawkins' recent effort: "Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur. I don't pretend to know whether there's more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins's general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case."

Unfortunately, the scientific blogosphere, which is often as self-congratulatory and unthinking as the partisan political blogosphere, has been doing all it can to defend Dawkins.

The main argumentative strategy seems to be to behave as if Dawkins has only one point in his book--There is no God--and that all quibbles go to this point. In fact, Dawkins tries to do a lot of other things in The God Delusion. After all, what's the use of a book that refutes what is essentially an insupportable proposition?

Dawkins also tries to assess religion in the world (Is it good or bad?; What's it good for?; What bad has it done?), and to explain it (where did it come from? Why does it persist?). These later questions are the interesting ones, and here his effort to answer them is severely lacking from a number of different points of view.

Orr's review is coming under a lot of attack at scienceblogs because he has dared to attack the master, but Terry Eagleton has probably been the main whipping boy.

Eagleton is actually a very clever fellow, and a fairly judicious reviewer. But he's Catholic--I don't know if he believes (my bet is yes)--but he's Catholic to the core. A very sophisticated Catholic, though.

But, the way to read Eagleton's review is not to wonder about whether or not he believes in God or whether he is making a case for the existence of God. That's just not particularly interesting.

What is interesting is how Eagleton answers the other questions "Why do we believe?" (as most of us do); "What good does it do us?"; "What good does it do society?"; "What's the relationship between religion and fellow feeling?"

These are interesting questions that Dawkins has no good answers to. Eagleton's got some good ideas, though. And it is here that we begin to see the failings of Dawkins' book. He once again, uselessly, proves to everyone who already disbelieves that God doesn't exist. And he has no good explanation of why so many should continue to believe in spite of all the evidence.

Even David Lodge does a comparatively good job on this topic in his novel Thinks:
Some of Darwin's closest associates, for instance, whored after spiritualism . . . Wallace, Galton, Romanes, they all went to seances, consulted mediums . . . as if having destroyed the credibility of the Christian religion they were desperate to find some substitute for the Christian heaven . . . .One has to remember there was alot of death about in those days, much more than now, ordinary childhood illnesses could be fatal, childbirth, too . . . it wasn't so much a desire for their own immortality that led Galton and Co. to spiritualism, it was the longing to meet their dead loved ones again, especially if they died young . . . .
Does God exist is just NOT an interesting question. Dawkins success in answering this question is about as exciting as a demonstration that air does exist. The real question is, why does religion exist in spite of God's absence? Dawkins has little to tell us, and that's too bad, because there is little reason other than self-congratulation to read such a book as this.