Dawkins and me
Richard Dawkins and I have crossed swords in the past. At the time of the tsunami in 2004 Martin Kettle wrote an article in the Guardian called “How can religious people explain something like this?” which posed the difficult challenge to all religious people of how to explain such an “act of God”, given that it is hard enough to “explain” people’s inhumanity to each other.
I wrote a response, which the Guardian published much to my surprise, along the lines of the fact that we have to accept that such tragedies are essentially incomprehensible from any perspective. This provoked a response from Richard Dawkins who wrote:
Dan Rickman says "science provides an explanation of the mechanism of the tsunami but it cannot say why this occurred any more than religion can". There, in one sentence, we have the religious mind displayed before us in all its absurdity. In what sense of the word "why", does plate tectonics not provide the answer?
Anyone who knows me will acknowledge that I rarely summarise anything, so I took this as a great compliment! Note, by the way, how Dawkins shifted the ground in his response (is his “why” the same as my “why”?).
In any case, I decided that I should carry on my rather one sided debate with Dawkins by reading “The God Delusion” – this being justified of course on a “da mah lehashiv” (know how to answer an unbeliever – see Avot 2:19).
In one sentence, Dawkins has written a pretty poor and damaging book. The rest of the article will explain some of the reasons why I say this.
His central theme is based on “logical positivism” i.e. the idea that the only meaningful statements are those which can be “proved” scientifically. This leads to a rejection as “meaningless” not just of religion but all metaphysics – i.e. anything which addresses the ultimate nature of the “human condition” and the world. Karl Popper (a well known philosopher of science) has argued, against this, that such statements may be meaningful; however they are not testable or provable statements.
A metaphysical statement represents an idea about the world or about the universe, yet there exists no evidence or argument so compelling that it could rationally force a change in that idea, in the sense of definitely proving it false. This is not a defense of the irrational – for example, mystical systems which are based on the falsifiable (and falsified) Ptolemaic model of the solar system can’t be defended against this sort of critique.
Herein lies a central issue in this debate. Dawkins takes a hard line view that all human knowledge is subject to rational analysis and falisifiabiilty. Ironically he uses some arguments in his book that I have seen in kiruv articles, of course trying to prove the opposite case. For example, he uses an argument based on probability that atheism is more likely than theism. This is as nonsensical as the counter-argument. Probability theory is based on repeatable events such as tossing a coin and to apply it to the existence, or otherwise, of God is simply incoherent.
Like some theists, Dawkins is sure that his case is irrefutable. Such certainty leads him to his central charge that all religious people are either bad or mad.
With regard to the “mad” – presumably the majority - he says he is well aware of the psychiatric connotations of the word “delusion” and this is why he uses this provocative description. The psychiatric definition of delusion is as follows:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).
This hardly supports Dawkins case.
The “bad” are those who gain power and authority from religion, e.g. those who teach children religion at an impressionable age, which Dawkins sees as “child abuse”. Whilst there is no doubt that people use religion for power – L R Hubbard who founded Scientology is quoted as saying that “If you want to get rich, you start a religion” - such an extreme critique is hardly constructive.
Dawkins is doing something very harmful here, namely trying to make dialogue impossible between religious and non-religious people. Interestingly, there is a further parallel with some in the religious camp who see dialogue with non-believers as dangerous. At a time when all the major religions have (yet) again entered the political process, this is of great concern. To prevent extremists on all sides from creating ever greater divisions between people, we need greater understanding not less.
Dawkins undermines those who would build bridges in his section on “How 'Moderation' in Faith Leads to Fanaticism”. The quotes he places around the word 'moderation' speak for themselves. Dawkins’ position implies cannot acknowledge that moderation exists with regard to a religious viewpoint.
The empirical facts which contradict this appear to be of no concern to Dawkins. He reveals his intolerance of any religious teaching through his emotive language e.g. p348 "Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools, that duty to God exceeds all other priorities ... taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors... who lined them up in their madrassas ... [teaching them] every word of the holy book [so they become like] demented parrots [as they nod their agreement]" (my emphasis).
In addition to this, for Dawkins religion clearly means Anglicanism and he reflects some of the attitudes of his upbringing with his frequent references to the vengeful God of the “Old Testament”. His critique of Judaism cites the work of an academic called John Hartung who has written some (at best) deeply unsympathetic and poorly researched articles on Judaism which argue that Judaism is racist towards non-Jews who are an “out group” it considers not to be human beings. I am not aware of any rabbinic response to this particular aspect of Dawkins’ book and it is of concern that such a widely read book spreads half-truths and misinformation of this nature about Judaism.
In general, how does on respond to Dawkins’ critique of religion? It seems to me that the answer, in part, involves trying to develop a more reasoned approach to our history, culture and faith.
Over the past few years we have seen popular take up of unhistorical, fundamentalist books on Judaism which cannot readily be defended rationally, as much as they have their uses in terms of providing an introduction to primary texts and Jewish practice. At the same time we have also seen an explosion of academic books on Judaism which are part of the western intellectual, enlightenment based, tradition and which in many cases provide fascinating insights into the historical development of our culture and religion. Much more research could and should be done and is held back by lack of funding.
As a “centrist” synagogue we should focus our attention to this area and provide educational opportunities for our members which give access to some of this fascinating and intellectually well founded research. In this way perhaps we can restore the vision of Deuteronomy 4:6
...for this [the statutes and ordinances] is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'