Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Pagan response to Dawkins, part 2

Dawkins' view of religion really is rather odd. He appears to think that because people believe in stuff, they have a separate compartment in their minds that is set aside for religion, where reason and empiricism are not allowed to penetrate.

He also tends to regard religious ideas as contagious memes, rather as if they had an objective existence like a computer virus. Of course, the meme is a useful metaphor, but it's not objectively real (much like deities).

Pagans tend to take the view that they had an experience, and it might have been a hallucination, or it might have been a projection, or it might have been a manifestation, but much of the time to realise that it's not what the experience actually was, but how it was experienced that is important, and what its effects were. We did a ritual - do we now feel better as result? Good, then it worked. Those of us with a more empirical cast of mind might spend time tinkering with it to make it work better; and those of us with a reasoning-about-things cast of mind might spend time wondering how it worked; but most people are just happy that it worked. That's not to say that we should not be on our guard against doctrinal no-go areas creeping in (because they are in some traditions, especially "hard" polytheism) but for the most part Paganism is gloriously doctrine-free (except for the doctrine that we don't have doctrines).

Anyway, on to the specifics.

On pp 125-126, Dawkins says "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious". This is a twisted view of what mysticism and mystery is. For one thing, mystics have historically been persecuted by the Christian Church because their connection with the Divine bypasses official channels; for another thing, the mystics are generally much more loving and humane than the Church, because mystics identify with the whole of existence, whereas the Church wants to bring everything under their dominion. And mysticism, for the most part, is like the "Eisteinian religion" that Dawkins praises in chapter one. The Mysteries are something that can only be experienced and not described. The ancient Greeks had two words describing the Mysteries: aporrheton (that which may not be spoken, the lesser secrets) and arrheton (that which is inexpressible, the greater mysteries). The reason that mysteries are revealed in sequence is because the mind is unprepared for the greater mysteries and can only approach them via the lesser ones. Unfortunately the Christian Church suppressed all the Pagan initiatory mystery traditions as competing paradigms. Had they taken the advice of Symmachus (as New Atheists could also benefit by doing), things might have been better:
We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.
Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)
Dawkins goes on to say that "one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied by not understanding". This is definitely not true of the majority of religions. It is certainly true of a large swathe of Christianity, but not of Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Sufism, etc.

On page 163 he describes natural selection as if it were a force with agency; I know it's a metaphor but he'll just give the creationists a loophole by talking like that; he should be more careful.

Chapter 4 should be entitled "Why there almost certainly is no Creator" (rather than "Why there almost certainly is no God") because he is only talking about the concept of the Creator, and not other concepts of the Divine.

On page 166, in listing characteristics of religion, he only lists the negative behaviours associated with (fundamentalist) religion. Later, he (quite correctly) goes on to say that our capacity for morality is nothing to do with religion and transcends it; I would say this was also true of our capacity for immorality.

On page 168 he quotes a comedienne as saying "religion is basically guilt with different holidays". Very funny, but this is not true of the joyful and life-affirming traditions which do not dwell on guilt, such as Unitarianism and Paganism.

On page 174, he sets out to show how religion is a by-product of other propensities of the human mind. A very interesting idea, as religion (like language) must have evolved from other cognitive functions. However, he maintains that religion is a harmful by-product of these other functions. The example he gives is that it's good to believe what your parents tell you, because they have lots of information about which plants are good to eat and which are poisonous; but the downside is that you will also believe all the weird stuff they tell you (i.e. religion). There are two things wrong with this argument: firstly, not all religion is about obedience and gullibility; and secondly, there are lots of positive aspects to religion which must be beneficial by-products of other cognitive functions. Dawkins' working definition of religion is far too simplistic.

Why can't religion (in the sense of connection with the world around you) be seen as a positive emergent complexity arising from smaller components? Surely the mystics' capacity to love their fellow beings (an extension of genetic kinship) is a positive by-product? Or the heretic's quest for truth and following their own conscience?

On page 177, Dawkins cites JG Frazer's evolutionary theory of folklore and mythology, which is largely discredited (NB this is not the same as Darwinian evolution). Humanity has not proceeded in an orderly fashion from animism to polytheism to monotheism to atheism; beliefs do not evolve by natural selection. Dawkins also uses the analogy of language evolving from a single source (sometimes called Proto-World) and diverging; however this theory is largely discredited among linguists. If he's going to stray into other academic disciplines, he should at least check the current state of research in those disciplines. Nevertheless, language is quite a useful analogy for religion; but Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic model of the spread of ideas is much more helpful than the evolutionary model.

On page 180, he suggests that the cognitive predisposition to dualism gives rise to religious thinking. I agree that there is a cognitive predisposition to dualism (anthropological and psychological research has shown that this is the case, for example the work of Emma Cohen), but I disagree that it gives rise to religious thinking; rather, it gives rise to supernatural thinking (but then Dawkins assumes that all religion believes in the supernatural). But what about all the monistic religions like pantheism, most of Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Unitarianism?

On page 188, he cites JG Frazer's Golden Bough as evidence of the diversity of human irrational beliefs. This is rather a circular argument, because that is precisely the use to which Frazer intended his work to be put (he would have been shocked and dismayed at all the Pagans who mine it for rituals). Also Frazer's comparative method has long been discredited in anthropology as too selective (he developed a theory and then went around looking for examples to back it up, which is precisely the opposite of the scientific method, as Dawkins should know).

On page 189, Dawkins says that languages evolves. As already stated, evolution is not a helpful metaphor for language (or religion) though another biological model, the growth of rhizomes, is a useful analogy.

On page 190, he says that reason is the enemy of Christianity. Very true; however I seem to recall that Pope John Paul II declared a truce in his encyclical about reason and faith. Reason is not regarded as the enemy in Paganism or Unitarianism or Judaism, however; indeed in the case of Unitarianism it's one of their three key concepts (reason, freedom and tolerance).

On page 191, he describes the theory of memes, which is interesting but by no means accepted by all theorists of culture. As stated above, I find the rhizomatic model more persuasive.

On page 199, he defines faith as "belief without evidence". That is how I always used to define it, until I came across this marvellous quote from Alan Watts:
"Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be."
On page 203, he describes the development of cargo cults, and wonders if they are a good model for the evolution of religion. Well, at least cargo cults are logical and based on empirical observation, at least the way Dawkins describes them!

On page 212, he quotes the various obnoxious fundamentalists who have written to him to tell him he'll burn in hell etc as typical examples of religious adherents. I don't think these obnoxious bastards are typical of religion in general at all. Besides, I've come across some pretty obnoxious atheists (e.g. on a discussion board, there was one who wanted to ban all talk of religion; the other more sensible ones asked how the ban would be enforced) but I don't thereby assume that all atheists are like that.

On page 220, he compares the naturalist model of altruism as having some evolutionary advantage with the authoritarian idea that people are moral because God is watching and he'll get you if you misbehave. I completely agree with the quote from Einstein on page 226, that "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." The idea that altruism has evolved is reassuring, because it means it's innate and internal rather than cultural and external; but where is the element of choice if everything is genetically determined? I find something heroic in the idea of doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do, and not because someone (God) or something (genes) is making you do it. Our genes presumably predispose us to be bad as well as good, so we still have a choice, surely? Consciousness is an emergent property of life, not pre-determined.

If altruism as a by-product of some other cognitive function is benign, why not some aspects of religion, such as feelings of being connected to other people (human, animal and plant)?

On page 227, he quotes the horrible views of Ivan Karamazov. I hope, though I have no evidence, that Dostoevsky was setting up Karamazov as a straw man to highlight the horribleness of his ideas.

On page 232, he mentions absolutist morality. Not all religious adherents are absolutists in matters of morality (think of the famous quote from Jesus about the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law); Dawkins doesn't appear to be saying that they are, but some readers might infer that view.

On page 237, he acknowledges the worthwhileness of liberal Christians like John Shelby Spong and Richard Holloway. If he can appreciate them, why doesn't he realise that lots of religious adherents are like them, and more of them every day?

On page 245, he talks about the autocratic behaviour of Yahweh in insisting that the Ba'al-worshippers among the Israelites be killed. Yes, the Bronze Age priests of Yahweh were a thoroughly unpleasant bunch of murderers - but he doesn't stop to ask why the worship of Ba'al was so persistently attractive. Could it be because Ba'al is an immanent nature deity, associated with trees?

On page 251-252, he discusses the thoroughly unpleasant doctrine of substitution or atonement; however this disgusting and pernicious doctrine is only found in Western Christianity, and not in Eastern Orthodoxy.

On page 254, he starts quoting more frothing mad fundamentalists as typical of religion. This is simply not the case.

On page 257, he talks about the intolerance of the Abrahamic religions towards other faiths. This is certainly true of large swathes of Christianity, but not all of it. For example, St Francis preached against the crusades, and many Christians (such as John Shelby Spong) are coming to appreciate the wisdom of other faiths. Islam became intolerant as a result of the crusades. Judaism has only become intolerant again recently, due to specific historical circumstances. Such intolerance is not usually found among polytheistic or pantheistic religions, because they have a theology that can cope with other views of the Divine.

On page 259, he admits that internecine struggle is often caused by factors other than religion, but that religion is often used as a label for the perpetuation of conflict. True, but if religion didn't exist, some other identity marker would be used instead, like language, skin colour, territory, etc. (all of which have been used as excuses for the perpetuation of conflict).

Is it inevitable that conflict will arise as a result of different religious views? Maybe, but I suggest that it is often a convenient excuse for a desire to label an out-group, and if there wasn't another religious group to pick on, another label would be used instead (like colour, sexuality...).

On page 261, he discusses the indoctrination of children. The vast majority of Pagans are opposed to the indoctrination of children and against the establishment of Pagan schools; and even those who are bringing their children up as Pagans are not inculcating them with a dislike of other faiths, or of atheism.

In a 2005 survey by Covenant of the Goddess (an American Pagan organisation), 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said 'another faith'; and 12% said 'none'.

[Part 1 of A Pagan response to Dawkins]

1 comment:

Michael L. Gooch said...

If you find spiritual beliefs contrary to science, then spiritual beliefs are viewed as measly superstitions and fallacies. This popular view is simply wrong. Science and religion operate under vastly different parameters. In my management book, Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today’s Business Leaders I devote an entire chapter in this ‘business’ book to the connection of business success and aiming for a higher calling. In spite all of the majesty and awe that the scientific world inspires, science is not designed to answer the questions that religion asks. Nor should we use religion to fill in the ‘God of the gaps.’ Religion should embrace science as it improves our ability to explain how God put things together. Indeed, elites of organized religions hate the efforts to seek a scientific context for the appreciation of spiritual phenomena. They seek to control humanity with doctrine and dogma. Science in its intellectual, methodical, peer-reviewed processes can deepen our wonder and amazement at the power of God. Instead of warring factions, the two sides should encourage each other. I saw a newspaper headline recently that read, “Darwin vs. God, Round 2007: Kansas Declares Darwin Winner.” This is wrong on many levels. Splashy headlines are one thing; gross irresponsibility is another. I cannot stress it enough. God and science are not at odds. They never have been. Francis S. Collins, the scientist who lead the Human Genome Project, stated it best when he said, “Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced.” Michael L. Gooch, SPHR Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today’s Business Leaders