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The God Delusion


Neon Genesis
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Is anyone interested in doing a chapter by chapter online book study of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion? There have been many religious responses to Dawkins' book both from fundamentalist Christian and progressive perspectives but most of these books seem to be a general overview of the New Atheist movement as a whole rather than specific critiques of Dawkins' work. I think Dawkins brings up many good points about the dangers of religious extremism but I also think he's dead wrong about many things and makes a lot of embarrassing errors. I think it would be interesting to have a chapter by chapter dissection of his book from a progressive perspective. What does everyone think?

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Guest billmc

I actually read about 2/3 of Dawkin's book, NG. I would be interested in discussing some of it if I still had the book. But I'm not too sure I want to line his pockets further by buying another copy. :lol: Maybe I will check for it at my local library.

 

IMO, Dawkins is a decent writer. I suspect that what he is trying to do is to bring an understanding of atheism to the "layperson" much as Sagan tried to do with Cosmos. But...

 

The kind of God that he argues against is much the same as the kind of God that I have rejected. He picks out the very worst images and interpretations of God found within the Bible and within Christianity and then seems to think that all Christians believe in this God or that because this God is, in his opinion, at the center of Christianity, Christianity should be attacked and discarded by everyone.

 

When I was growing up, no one loved me like my grandfather did. He always had a smile on his face when we were together and I loved riding around town with him in his '64 Chevy pickup. He always knew right where the bumps in the road were and when we hit them, he'd say, "Bumpity bump!" and gently slap my knee. We would laugh together and just enjoy the time we had. I miss him terribly. My own father, on the other hand, insists that my grandfather was a real bastard, a mean old man. I can't help but wonder if we are talking about the same person. My experience of my grandfather is so much different from my father's experience of him. And my experience of God is quite different from the way Dawkins describes him and, often, different from the way the Bible describes him (God, not Dawkins).

 

I am sympathetic towards Dawkins because I, too, went through my atheistic stage. And I agree with quite a few of his conclusions. But he claims that there is no baby when the bath water is thrown out and I find that there is still a baby there, albeit a different one than presented to me in my younger evangelical days.

 

Anyway, I'll see if I can borrow the book.

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Guest billmc

So should we do like one chapter a week?

 

I suppose that's up to us and any others who want to participate. This is a fairly thick book and not an "easy read." Of course, I can't keep TGD signed out of the library indefinately so I may just scribble down some thoughts as I reread the book and then post them at the pace of this discussion.

 

Do we want to wait and see if a few others want to join us or launch in?

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So is one chapter a week ok with anyone who wants to participate? I'll start the discussion today and try to update it every Friday.

 

Chapter One-The first chapter is about respect and religion. In the first chapter, Dawkins writes about the bigotry many atheists still have to go through because atheism is still largely considered unacceptable by Christians in many places. He brings up a poll which showed that more Americans were willing to vote for a gay president than they would an atheist president. I think the bigotry many Christians show towards atheists is a serious problem that needs to be worked on and more Christians need to address. There was a recent case this past year when an atheist tried running for public office. Even though he won the election, some Christians tried to get him banned from serving public office because the state has an archaic law which forbids atheists from running in public office. Most people probably thought it was just one of those obscure out-dated laws nobody would bother paying attention to that would be too much trouble to remove from the books but nobody would take seriously yet they seriously tried to get this guy who won the election banned from serving public office simply because he didn't believe in God. I've read many horror stories about atheists who have lost friendships, who's spouses have divorced them, and who's family has cut them off from any contact simply because they stopped believing in God.

 

My own parents who are fundamentalist Christians might possibly do the same to me whenever I eventually come out of the closet. My sister who is a liberal Christian and doesn't believe in hell is the only one who knows I'm an atheist and she accepts me for who I am, but my family and my friends from my parents' church would probably hate me when I eventually come out to them. I don't know how far they'll take the hatred but I know they believe atheism is a sin and that you go to hell if you don't believe in God. I think Christians need to change the way they speak about morality and non-believers because I think a lot of the hatred for atheists comes from these misconceptions that you can't be good or have a purpose in life without God and that all atheists are evil mean people who want to take away religious freedoms and we also need to wean many Christians off of this belief that their religion should be given special privileges over other people and I think progressive Christianity is a good start in this process but I think we still have a long way to go to encouraging tolerance.

 

At the same time, I also think anti-religious atheists need to be careful of putting religious people in stereotypical boxes and antagonizing more potential allies. Dawkins rightly states at the beginning of the book that he doesn't think there's such a thing as a root everything to an all anything when he talks about his displeasure with the title of a documentary he participated in (The Root of All Evil?). But Dawkins turns around and proclaims that if only there was no religion in the world, 9/11 never would have happened. Dawkins claims to be against simplifying root causes to problems but he himself turns around and simplifies the problems with religion by blaming every bad thing religion does on faith. Perhaps in some cases faith in bad ideas really is to blame for religious-fueled conflicts, but in most cases there's more than one side to a problem. To believe it's impossible for an event like 9/11 to happen if only there was no religion strikes me as naive. It ignores other possible influences on the 9/11 terrorists like politics, lust over oil, and the conflicts over power and control in the middle East. There's no guarantee that if we get rid of religion, that means all our problems will go away as proven by the tragedies caused by the atheistic communist regimes (which Dawkins addresses later in his book). Even if everyone stopped believing in religion, people will simply latch onto other ideologies to use to justify their immoral atrocities whether it's communism or the Tea Party movement. I think the real danger here is not religious faith but it's unquestioning loyalty to a dogmatic ideology whether it's religious or secular in nature.

 

Dawkins then moves on to discusses naturalistic pantheism and the religious beliefs of Albert Einstein. While Dawkins shows a great deal of admiration and respect for Einstein and his deep respect for the natural universe, I think he comes across a little too dismissive of pantheism. Dawkins' main criticism of pantheism is that it might be too confusing to most people because most people see God as a supernatural sentient being. While in some sense I can see his point, language in general can be confusing and anyone can be easily mislead by a sentence you say and people can easily misinterpret what you speak. I do agree with him that people should speak their ideas as clearly as possible but the pantheistic definition of God is only confusing to most people because most people in the West presume that the traditional theistic view of God is the only god concept which has existed. But as history shows us, the first religions were actually animistic and saw nature and the gods as one. It's only later that the gods became separate from nature and took on separate forms in different supernatural realms. While it may be confusing to believers in the West, pantheism would fit in just fine in the East among non-theistic religions like Buddhism and animistic religions like Shintoism which are more popular in the East. I don't think we need to dump pantheism entirely just because the West is unfamiliar with it and might get confused. What we need to do is educate more people in the West about different ways of seeing God which I think progressives like Karen Armstrong are trying to do with their works.

 

The last half of chapter one is about the presumption many religious people hold that religion is somehow special and undeserving of any criticism. As more nations in Europe start bringing back blasphemy laws and bringing in hate speech laws, I think this is a very important issue that really needs awareness raised to. There was a recent case in the UK where an atheist was arrested for leaving atheist tracts in the airport simply because some Christians thought the tracts were offensive. The tracts did not cause them any sort of physical harm but they had the atheist arrested simply because they didn't like what some tract said. Lars Vilks, one of the men who drew the Danish Muhammed cartoons, was physically attacked when he was giving a speech on freedom of speech at a Swedish university and his house was burned down while he was away simply because of a cartoon he drew that some people didn't like. While I don't believe in insulting people for the sake of being insulting and I believe in respect, I also believe in the freedom of speech and I believe freedom of speech should include hate speech. The double edge sword of freedom of speech is that you also have to allow speech that you might find offensive because what one considers hate is subjective and can be used to justify any sort of criticism of religion no matter how mild the criticism is. I agree with Dawkins that we need to treat constructive criticism of religion the same way we treat constructive criticism of any other belief we hold like we do with politics.

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Guest billmc
Dawkins writes about the bigotry many atheists still have to go through because atheism is still largely considered unacceptable by Christians in many places.

 

I've noticed this alot also. It's an ironic and little-known fact that the first Christians were considered to be "atheists" because they only believe in ONE god.

 

My own parents who are fundamentalist Christians might possibly do the same to me whenever I eventually come out of the closet.

 

I sure hope not. They should know your character regardless of your belief system or lack thereof. Plus, I would hope that parents would love us unconditionally. But we all know that such is not always the case. In contrast, I have a dear friend who is a non-denominational evangelical but whose mother is a die-hard Catholic and has rejected her Protestant daughter. Bigotry is rife in religion.

 

At the same time, I also think anti-religious atheists need to be careful of putting religious people in stereotypical boxes

 

I agree. But folks like Sam Harris lambasts liberals and progressive also because he feels that we "tolerate" the religious right and that, in not attacking them, we are sanctioning their message and approach.

 

To believe it's impossible for an event like 9/11 to happen if only there was no religion strikes me as naive.

 

Ditto here. Mankind seems to have always had a proclivity for claim the sanctioning of the Divine in order to justify our own evil or selfish acts. IMO, 9/11 wasn't against Christians, it was against American imperialism and colonialism, something that, unfortunately most American Christians probably support.

 

What we need to do is educate more people in the West about different ways of seeing God which I think progressives like Karen Armstrong are trying to do with their works.

 

It would sure help the world see that there is more than one way to interpret God.

 

The last half of chapter one is about the presumption many religious people hold that religion is somehow special and undeserving of any criticism.

 

I would say that most Christians' faith is based in fear, but I would say that the most vocal Christians' faith is. Their religion guarantees them that they won't go to hell. Therefore, they will not allow it to be critiqued or evaluated against any other belief system or worldview. To them, their eternal destiny is at stake. So the very ones that should at least read Dawkins book to try to understand his point-of-view are prohibited by their fear and "owning of the truth" to do so.

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I agree. But folks like Sam Harris lambasts liberals and progressive also because he feels that we "tolerate" the religious right and that, in not attacking them, we are sanctioning their message and approach.

 

 

 

 

I think there are some cases where moderates do enable fundamentalists like when Obama supports the National Day of Prayer in spite of it violating the separation of church and stare or Obama's wishy-washy approach to LGBT rights (though I think that has more to do with Obama being a politician than his faith), but I think atheists who buy into the myth that fundamentalist Christians are the only true believers are also guilty of enabling the fundamentalists because they're letting the fundamentalists define the debate. One could also argue that as long as extremism exists in the world, than none of us are doing enough to stop it regardless of our faith or lack thereof and we could all use a push to try harder.
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Since you're using a library copy of The God Delusion, billmc, would it be better to do two chapters a week instead of one? Here's my views on chapter two. In chapter two, Dawkins sets up his definition of the God Hypothesis. Dawkins declares the God Hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis which is provable or disprovable as any other. He argues that the belief of God as an old bearded man in the sky is a strawman and he claims he isn't arguing against a strawman god, but then he turns around and defines God in a very narrow strawman style. His definition of God is the popular fundamentalist view of God as a supernatural sentient being who is complex and intervenes with the universe through miracles and prayers. He doesn't even consider other religious concepts. Dawkins simply brushes Buddhism and Confucianism aside as being unimportant because to him those aren't real religions, they're philosophies. I find it to be a double standard that other than Christopher Hitchens, most of the New Atheists have no problems with liberal versions of Buddhism and Sam Harris is even supportive of it, yet they accuse liberal Christians of enabling extremists even though Buddhism has its own fanatics. Dawkins should watch the documentary A Year In Tibet if he thinks otherwise. But even though he claims to not be arguing against a strawman, he uses Zeus and Satan as examples of the God Hypothesis that he considers just as unrealistic as Yahweh even though neither fit under his definition of God as a creator god as Zeus is not a creator god nor do Christians worship Satan.

 

Dawkins gives a very simplified and historically inaccurate overview of the history of Christianity. He claims the God of the bible is the most evil villain in all of fiction and lists the usual complaints about God. While I agree with most of these criticism and all of these elements can be found in a literal reading of the bible, he ignores the other passages which contradict the violence and sexism, such as the powerful women leaders in the Hebrew bible like Esther and Deborah and the women leaders in Paul's early church. Dawkins claims Christianity was spread by the sword but while it's true Christianity persecuted non-Christians, it didn't become more powerful and violent until after it was adopted as the state religion of Rome after Constantine's conversion. Before then, Christianity was spread by evangelizing the gospel and Christians persecuted other Christians they considered heretics to, so it wasn't just a simplified good pagans versus evil Christians battle Dawkins paints it as. He also claims Paul invented the religion of Christianity which is blatantly false. Christianity began as a Jewish sect and Paul himself was a convert to an already existing Christianity and Christian tradition believes it was Peter who established the church, not Paul. He also never includes the fact that the first Israelites were polytheistic pagans from Canaan or mentions anything about the JEPD theory and the Q gospel.

 

I agree with Dawkins' criticism of the Trinity doctrine. As Dawkins points out, nowhere in the bible does Jesus say he is God in the flesh. I don't see how Trinitarian Christians can claim their religion is monotheistic while believing both Jesus and Yahweh are God. It's clearly polytheism disguised as monotheism and frankly I think it counts as idol worship to worship a human as God. According to Karen Armstrong in her book The Case For God, the Trinity was created to stop Christians from claiming to be able to understand the truth about God, but I feel it backfired as many Trinitarian Christians think that if they can just find a quote of Jesus that supports their political beliefs, they can justify whatever immoral policy they want as long as they claim to have God's authority on their side. I think the vast majority of the problems of religion persecuting heretics and infidels could be solved if more people simply respected the separation of church and state and understood that America is a secular nation, not a Christian nation. As Dawkins rightly points out, America was founded to be neutral to religion, neither endorsing or banning it, but respecting the freedom of and from religion for all citizens. But so many Christians are either ignorant about the separation of church and state, or they know and don't care about it and tell blatant lies to justify why America should be a theocracy. But whatever you believe or don't believe about God and religion, it is immoral for anyone to force their beliefs or lack of beliefs on other people. The government has no business interfering with religious freedom and religion has no business abusing political authority to take away our rights. I think it is important to upheld the secularized nature of our constitution and educate people about the separation of church and state by fighting back against lies spread about the U.S.'s supposed Christian origins.

 

Dawkins then returns to the God Hypothesis by taking out agnosticism. He misunderstands what agnosticism is by trying to paint it as a half-way point between theism and atheism. In reality, agnosticism literally means without knowledge. A-theism means without beliefs in God. Agnosticism is about knowledge and atheism is about the lack of belief, but beliefs and knowledge are not the same thing. You can believe something is true without knowing it's true and you can disbelieve in something without knowing it's not real, as Dawkins admits himself that he doesn't know for certain that there is no God but he merely disbelieves in it. It is impossible to prove a negative and so none of us can know for certain that God does or doesn't exist and so we're all agnostic and it is possible to be both agnostic and atheist as well as agnostic and theist. Blaise Pascal in fact was an agnostic theist and admitted there was no evidence for the existence of God, but he believed it was more profitable to believe in God than to not believe in one. Dawkins proclaims that God is a scientific hypothesis which can be proved or disproved but he does nothing to back this claim up. He merely asserts that God is a scientific hypothesis. But the concept of science didn't exist when the first believers invented the concept of God, so how can Dawkins claim it's a science when science didn't exist then? God is only a scientific concept if you take religion literally but a literalistic interpretation is not the only way to read the scriptures and is a later addition to the faith. But contrary to his simplistic definition of God, God is not easily defined and there has never been a universal definition of God. For pantheists, God is the natural universe and its existence has already been proven to them. For deists, the idea of a provable god is an oxymoron and defies their very definition of God. Polytheists believe in multiple deities and not all of them fit in Dawkins' definition of God as a supernatural creator. With so many god concepts, I don't see how Dawkins can point to one single definition he chose and claim it's all intended to be a literal science.

 

 

But Dawkins isn't interested in symbolic interpretations of the bible. In the section of Noma, he dismisses the idea of working together with theistic evolutionists to combat creationism as hypocritical (although it was an atheist, Stephen Jay Gould, who coined the phrase NOMA) because Dawkins' real battle is against all of what he considers superstitious, not just creationism and he considers theistic evolution to be just as superstitious. Yet he admits himself that if he were to admit in a court battle against the intelligent design movement that evolution influenced him to become an atheist, then evolution would lose. I think we still clearly need religious allies to defend evolution. I think the Dover trial was so successful because Ken Miller, who was an evolutionary biologist and devout Catholic didn't try to paint evolution as a war against religion but as battle over our freedoms. I think it's tragic of course that an admission of atheism could cost a victory in a court battle and people still distrust atheism, but with atheism as the most hated minority in the U.S. at the moment, I think we need all the allies we can get to defend science and secularism.

 

Fundamentalist Christians work together on their political battles like Prop 8 even though they think each other are wrong and going to hell for not sharing the same beliefs, so I don't see why it would kills us for atheists and Christians who value secularism to work together on issues we share in common with each other and I think it's unfortunate that so many atheists and Christians on both sides refuse to see how much we have in common with each other and prefer to focus on what divides us. In one section, Dawkins debunks the petition view of prayer as being unscientific, but again, this oversimplifies the view of prayer. The popular theistic view of prayer might be disproved by science, but there are other views of prayer and spiritual meditation that don't require faith in an interventionist god to have meaning to people. One example is centering prayer which is more of a form of meditation than supernatural prayer and anyone can participate in it whether they believe in a supernatural god or not. Dawkins argues that if science were to prove Jesus did literally raise from the dead, all Christians would toss NOMA out the window and no Christian would then argue that religion and science are separate magisteriums. Yet even in that case, if science proved the resurrection of Jesus was real, it was still proven using the scientific method and God would still have created science, so in that sense, NOMA would still be valid, I think.

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  • 2 weeks later...

After setting up his definition of the God Hypothesis in the previous chapter, in chapter three, Dawkins takes most of the classic arguments in favor of the existence of the Christian god and attempts to debunk them. In the section on the Ontological argument, Dawkins ponders why we should believe God's existence has been proven by a mere word game like the ontological argument. I agree with Dawkins on this one that I don't think God's existence or nonexistence can be proven through philosophy or theology. These types of arguments either for or against God tend to be nothing more than word games and whether you believe their claims or or not depends on how convincing the philosopher makes the word game sound. The only thing I think can prove for good either the existence or nonexistence of God is solid evidence. Without that evidence, the "weak" position, that God's existence has neither been proven nor disproved for certain makes the most sense to me.

 

In the section on the argument from admired scientists, Dawkins takes on what is essentially an argument from authority. Some believers use this argument that since Newton and Galileo believed in God, this means God is rational to believe in, therefore God is real. As Dawkins points out, this is an argument from authority and does nothing to prove the existence of God. Newton also believed in alchemy but that doesn't mean chemistry is wrong and alchemy is right. But then Dawkins contradicts himself by turning the argument around and invoking his own argument from authority. He cites a survey that was conduced in 1998 that shows the majority of American scientists are non-believers as proof that religion and science are incompatible with each other. If the argument from authority doesn't work in favor of religion, then neither should it work in favor against religion. Furthermore, the survey Dawkins cites is a bit dated. But according to this recent survey on scientists and their views of religion, the vast majority of scientists are actually believers. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/28/AR2010052801856.html Only a few of the scientists they interviewed were opposed to religion and even the majority of atheistic scientists they interviewed identified themselves as spiritual. Dawkins may be forgiven given that this is a very new survey that just came out this year, but it debunks his dated survey from over ten years ago that claims the opposite.

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Sorry I haven't jumped in earlier, but I've been struggling with reading this book. It is not that I find his arguments incomprehensible (which I don't) but that I find his attitude and arrogance very offending. As N.G. pointed out, Dawkins repeatedly sets up straw men to attack after saying he won't. He belittles those he disagrees with rather than allowing for honest differences of opinion. He claims that religious defenders misinterpret quotes from respected individuals, but then claims insider understandings of the respected individuals and their quotes without much more than his own say-so as to what makes his understanding better than that of others.

 

When I've been reading this book I find myself feeling like I do when I take some of the ridiculous surveys on the internet about "which [choose your category] are you?" The questions which are asked as multiple choice don't give choices which match my own feelings/beliefs/understanding/whatever. When he sets up a dichotomy of belief or disbelief he narrows the question so much that if pressed I would have to agree with him most of the time that I cannot believe the straw man he's knocking down, but since it is just a straw man and not really relevant to my own struggles for understanding I don't feel like I'm getting much from him.

 

I guess it is helping me to better understand some of the arguments people have made over the centuries, but I don't usually go back multiple centuries for insights about my modern (or is it post-modern) beliefs about the nature of God and Jesus and what it means to me. I find I agree with a lot of John Spong's writings and often feel inspired by them, but I don't usually go back to Jefferson, Constantine, etc. as sources for how I view God and religion.

 

I like your reference to the survey about scientists who acknowledge at least spiritual leanings. I think a lot of this gets back to the survey methodology. I don't think the shift in ten years is as much a change in attitude as a difference is question. If an atheist trying to show that scientists are not religious asks the type of straw man questions Dawkins uses then I don't doubt that it would show that most are not religious. If, on the other hand, a survey was trying to find out if scientists felt there was value in spirituality, meditation, religious customs and traditions, or other more general attitudes associated with religious beliefs then it would not surprise me to find that one or more such things are important to large numbers of scientists.

 

I did have one point in particular in your post which I wanted to ask about.

 

Dawkins claims Christianity was spread by the sword but while it's true Christianity persecuted non-Christians, it didn't become more powerful and violent until after it was adopted as the state religion of Rome after Constantine's conversion. Before then, Christianity was spread by evangelizing the gospel and Christians persecuted other Christians they considered heretics to, so it wasn't just a simplified good pagans versus evil Christians battle Dawkins paints it as.

 

Do you have any references for this? It is clear that there was disagreement among early Christians just as there continues to be today. However, I am not aware of reports that early Christians persecuted other Christians until after the co-opting of Christianity by Rome and Constantine. It has been my understanding that even the idea of heresy wasn't around before this establishment of official recognition of the church by Rome.

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I'm not really bothered by Dawkins' personality. It's more of his bad history, his oversimplified views of religion, and double standards that I disagree with.

Do you have any references for this? It is clear that there was disagreement among early Christians just as there continues to be today. However, I am not aware of reports that early Christians persecuted other Christians until after the co-opting of Christianity by Rome and Constantine. It has been my understanding that even the idea of heresy wasn't around before this establishment of official recognition of the church by Rome.

Sorry if I didn't make myself clear in my previous posts. What I meant was that after Christianity became the official religion and formed the orthodox church, they persecuted other Christians who disagreed with them, so it wasn't as if it was a simplistic black and white battle between the good pagans and bad Christians. When religion becomes intertwined in politics, often times the "heretical" believers are just as much victims as the infidels.
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