domenica, gennaio 06, 2008

The Red Dragon vs. Dawkins vs. God

So today I feel good enough to go back to work, which I guess means I feel good enough to write about The God Delusion. It's just that there's so much to write, and so much of it damning*, that one feels a little intimidated starting.

Luckily D. S. Wilson, an evolutionist who has a better eye than Dawkins for observation, wrote this lovely long article mapping out some of the fancier objections to the book. It hit home because I find the idea of memes fatuous - a transformation of a metaphor into a field of armchair-without-a-library-card study; exactly the sort of thing a biologist would come up with because he figured rightly it would give him the academic currency to let him comment on fields outside of his remit and make lots of money writing pop science books and filming series for Channel Fucking 4 that could air right before Celebrity Big Brother. And oh yes, the sort of idea that would let him ignore the possibility of group or multi-level selection, something not even his hero Darwin did.

So, you say, except you don't because one doesn't talk to a computer, and you are too classy for run-on questions, you don't like the book because he's ignoring well-argued dissenters in his field and promoting his own ideas about 'cultural trends as replicators' - to the degree of comparing religion to a useless parasite with a life of its own despite evidence to the contrary (as it's not hard to see any organized religion promotes the good/survival chances of at least one group in society - but then we're talking groups, which Dawkins just won't do) - in a pop book that's going to make thousands of unwitting readers think they've got the gospel* truth about evolution in their hands because he rightly if obviously points out what an asshole the God of the Old Testament is, writes about Bertrand Russell's teapot , and wisely if ethnocentrically restricts his criticism of religion almost completely to Judeo-Christianity and Islam?

Well, there are other reasons too.

First: his dismissal of non-oppositional magisteria is perfunctory. Totally unsatisfactory, for example, in terms of discussing the regulation of group morality, which obviously requires different mechanisms from personal morality. But then, Dawkins can't talk about groups, oh no. And he has the gall to say Gould was probably insincere about it, when Gould is now too dead to defend his sincerity. I have no idea what the men's relationship was, but that's a very small thing to write.

Maybe, in ignoring NOMA, Dawkins took the opportunity to ignore the humanities altogether in The God Delusion; not much of an excuse, but he's in need of one. His choice to overlook fundamental motivations for conflict in favour of presenting religion as an almost ubiquitous meme-y motor of human irrationality, chauvinism and greed is one that needs some defending that it doesn't get here - explaining that Hitler and some other assholes being atheists doesn't make all atheists assholes does not cut it.

I doubt Dawkins could name any significant historical conflict whose base causes were religious, or wherein religion played anything but a secondary role that provided direct material and reproductive benefit to at least one well-defined group of people. I doubt that both because he gives us reason to doubt his grasp of history in this book, and because I doubt such conflicts exist. I'm not just talking about wars; I'm also talking about the oppression of women and minority groups. But then, Dawkins doesn't talk about groups, oh no.

Now, I believe in cross-disciplinary work and I think a biologist should feel free to spout off in public about the humanities or about social issues, despite how badly that's gone in the past. Particularly a biologist like Dawkins, who also says he's a humanist. But what serious humanist could give such overwhelming importance to religion as a root of human misery when the great hecatombs of the last century - the world wars, the Chinese/Cambodian/Soviet economic plans, the murder of ancestral Jews, to name a few - weren't even putatively religious? What sort of competent observer could comment on the Middle East without at least mentioning the pattern of political religiosity rising only after it becomes apparent non-religious parties are corrupt or autocratic? And what sort of naive, historically dunderheaded denialist can confidently state, as Dawkins does, that without Catholicism and Protestantism, the British occupation of Ireland would have been settled and accepted after a few generations of intermarriage?

But moving on.

Dawkins makes some points about the gap between modern, humanistic, progressive norms of morality and Biblical and Koranic morality; I won't say good points in the context of this book, because they're less about problems with the idea of God and more about problems with the texts in question. Anyways, the idea of a 'moderate' Muslim, Christian, or Jew who doesn't treat these texts as literal truths is one he feels is hypocritical and dangerous. He calls such religious moderation the top end of a slippery slope leading to extremism, as it makes a virtue of faith or unreasoning belief.

I'm baffled as to what convinced the man 'faith' is an adequate scale along which to trace the convictions of madmen who blow up hundreds of office workers in the name of Islam and those of the millions of Muslims who, apparently, don't. I'm further baffled by how he can honestly promote this idea when he dismisses 'slippery-slope' arguments against abortion and euthanasia. People's lives and group morality are not slippery slopes. They're a series of decisions that are more or less influenced by insanity or ignorance. Neither marijuana nor God are gateway drugs.

Further, he cannot accept that changing, progressive social/moral norms give such moderates an honest, non-hypocritical basis for 'cherry-picking' from thier sacred texts. He neglects this possibility so completely that I suspect it's because the existence of such cherry-picking would mean moderate Christians, Jews and Muslims had some specific group norms that were adjusted to be beneficial in the society in which they live. And when we get talking about groups again we're dangerously close to talking about group selection, if there's even a chance of benefit to be had from it.

Anyways. Why cherry-pick, Dawkins argues; if parts of a sacred text are wrong or morally revolting, throw it out. Fair enough. For example, I'll never be a real Christian or fully trust Christian institutions because Jeebus talk has been used too often as an excuse for the oppression of women and minority groups. I can't think about how turning the other cheek is a beautiful moral idea without thinking about how priests have been telling their baby-machine female parishioners to do that to their abusive husbands for the last thousand years. Even the best of Christianity has been hopelessly morally abused by special interests trying to increase their own numbers at the expense of their rival groups - dear oh dear, there's the groups again.

However, as a creature who imagines the world outside of her understanding - like all of us have evolved to do - I will not be denied the joy of contemplating the Prime Mover, and if I throw out one way of doing so I will come up with another. I'll even give it the capitals Dawkins wouldn't, when he swiftly passed over the inescapable fact of there having been one; I'll call her the Unmoved Mover and risk waxing lyrical thinking about how a universe as staggeringly beautiful and complex as ours could be born from whatever neat-o thing she did to start it up, and I'll believe, 'if she did that, she fucking rocks'. And from the moment such a thought pops up, the human brain being what it is, she'll take on the attributes of someone who rocks: she already has a gender, and soon she'll look like my mum in the 60's, but with a rat-tail, and she'll be able to cure me when I have alcohol poisoning.

As a middle-class European I'm one of the richer and more leisured people on the planet, but even I don't have the time or the money to learn any more about science than what I get from paperbacks and Channel Fucking 4 series that air before Celebrity Big Brother. Most of us don't. We have technical or creative careers that we have to juggle with children, spouses and a web of other priceless, time-consuming social interactions. Even if science someday quantifies the Prime Mover, I doubt my ability to understand that quantification. However, it makes no sense that I should therefore ignore the Prime Mover, when my - our - brains have the capacity to get satisfaction and inspiration from pondering the beauty and sheer unlikelihood of existence, in love, gratitude, and 'what the fuck?'-itude. And it makes no sense to forbid ourselves from anthropomorphizing the Prime Mover, if that helps with the pondering.

And if far more people than one is comfortable with channel that awe for the beginning of existence itself through Christian/Jewish/Muslim/whatever institutions, and if far more people than seems right turn to religion in fear and anger instead of in wonder and love . . . Well, that's not really what Dawkins is writing about here.

If he'd restricted his book to arguing for the primacy of scientific education over religious education, I'd have agreed with it whole-heartedly. If he'd settled for arguing that atheism is the right life choice because it makes sense and because it's less liable to abuse by special interest groups, I'd have thought he made a damn good point. If he'd concentrated on the idea of the religious indoctrination of children amounting to a form of abuse, I'd have been fascinated. Maybe even convinced. Until being baffled by his hypocrisy, when he takes pains to point out elsewhere in the book that his own Anglican childhood (even an attendant 'embarassing' bout of inappropriate sexual interference from one if its clerics) did him no harm at all.

But he didn't. He argued for the primacy of his version of meme-y evolution over other people's serious views of evolution by comparing religion to a parasitic virus, and by appealing to his audience's anger with the recent violence of monotheistic societies, instead of, say, by using evidence or consistent argument. And that sucks. It's opportunistic, unprofessional, and rotten historiography. And therefore while I believe it pisses the Prime Mover off, I know it pisses me off.

Verdict: Fuck The God Delusion, it's for self-important humanities-illiterates. Try Darwin's Cathedral or Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. I love Steven Mithen. Now he's good at the cross-disciplinary shit - pity his editor doesn't understand commas. I reckon I'll write about him later. This is probably enough pop science for the week though - tomorrow I'll write about Joseph Conrad or Britney Spears or something.

* Hah hah hah!

4 commenti:

SATAN ha detto...

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mistress La Spliffe ha detto...

Weren't you a little girl frenching a deer before?

Baywatch ha detto...

wow. such thorough review. you were nice to give him the time of day. i listened to him rant for 30 mins on his recent book tour (via radio), and any sympathy I had for him quickly dissipated. he was such a total ninny. mithen sounds promising though. i love that interdisciplinary shit.

Mistress La Spliffe ha detto...

I felt like there was so much fuss about the controversiality of it all that I needed to point out that aside from that it's a crappy, self-serving book. I hate it when crap hides behind controversiality. Like that time Madonna frenched Britney.