Saturday, July 17, 2010

IN DEFENCE OF RELIGION

"So you're saying that absolutely nothing in my life has any intrinsic meaning; and you're telling me to STOP worrying?"




Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Lord Rees, OM, PRS, on the subject of his latest book "Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning." Later I asked him whether he believed in God, to which he cheekily quipped; "Well I certainly don't believe in Dawkins!"

Atheism is the new black. For some reason, despite ceasing to be edgy circa 1945, Atheism is currently en vogue with the intelligentsia. Much of this popularity must be attributed to Richard Dawkins. Strange really, when one considers the long list of Atheists that preceded him (Hemingway, Diderot, Sartre, to name but some) all of which had something more interesting to say. 

I can't say I like Dawkins. Maybe its his inflated ego. Maybe its because he's a popularist and, as such, must pander to the idiot mass to whom he preaches. Primarily I feel it is because he diminishes the most subtle and thoroughly nuanced debate in human history to something basic and trivial. Dawkins is rather like the student who proclaims that there is no great genius in Shakespeare: one cannot help but feel that when someone rapidly discounts an idea that has captivated brilliant minds for centuries, that person is probably missing something.  

The following youtube video is a short example of the inane simplicity to which this debate is reduced:




At least from the youtube comments it seems most people believe that Dawkin's trounces O'Reilley here. I am inclined to think otherwise. Dawkins treats contentious ideas as if they were undisputed (that we have a scientific understanding of how life began; that truth values are universal). Furthermore, he resorts to sophistry to attempt to win the argument (his mustache analogy at the end of the clip). O'Reilley is justified in considering the belief systems of dictators as relevant to their actions. To suggest this is analogous to considering their facial hair for the same purpose is absurd and misleading. The chief point I wish to address however, is Dawkin's assertion that Atheism does not require faith.

Any belief that an individual holds requires either justification or faith. Most beliefs require both. A Christian's 'justification' for a belief in God might come from the Bible, personal experience, or various philosophical arguments. The average person's justification for believing that the world we perceive is real rests on the same things (excluding the Bible in most cases). To whatever extent our sources of justification are 'beyond proof,' faith comes into the argument. Even the most basic propositions require some degree of faith. Descartes believed there was only ONE proposition that didn't; Cogito ergo sum.

Dawkin's tries to avoid faith clinging to his beloved atheism by asserting that faith only applies to positive beliefs; "the onus is on you to say why you believe in something." Otherwise stated: the opposite of a 'belief in something' is not a belief, because if it were a belief it would be a belief with no object. This assertion is false. A belief in a lack of something is still a belief. The object of the belief is not nothing; the object is the data set from which the 'something' is excluded. One either believes in [a,b,c,d,e,f] or [a,b,c,d,e]. Either way the belief requires faith. Harking back to the earlier example; if faith did not equally apply to negative existential propositions our default position regarding the existence of the world would be one of extreme skepticism.

A belief is only free of faith to the extent it is justified. If you ask the average Dawkin's fanboy why he is an atheist he will probably cite science in some way. Evolution will likely be mentioned. First of all, theism is by no means incompatible with science. In attacking creationism, Dawkins and co. give themselves an easy 'straw-man' target hardly worth attacking. Secondly, science is highly specialized and esoteric. As a result, even the beliefs of a world authority on evolution are likely to be heavily dependent on the testimony of others. The average person's belief in scientific theories is likely to be wholly grounded in testimony, often to the point that they don't even understand what they claim to believe. (Just ask someone if they believe in string-theory or quantum mechanics.) Yet somehow these people have the unmitigated arrogance to consider themselves members of some intellectual club.

Richard Dawkins is the Michael Moore of the God Debate. And, like Moore, his dogma spills readily from many lips of his proponents. These people wear Atheism like a badge. They commit the fallacy of equating beliefs with intelligence. Intelligent people are, of course, more likely to believe certain things. The mistake is to think that believing those same things makes one intelligent. It is not what you believe that counts. It is why.

Dawkin's speaks of a need to be humble. The true position of humility is agnosticism. As various religious tenets are successfully challenged the best position is probably agnostic-atheism. Remember the scientific method espoused by Popper! "A hypothesis can never be proved, only disproved." It is reasonable to believe that God most likely does not exist. But one should always have the humility to accept that there are things about the world we do not know, and after all, one could be wrong. Unfortunately this is not a very controversial position. No one writes a best seller called "God Doesn't Exist (Maybe)." This is a pity. The world would be vastly improved if fence-sitting became more popular.

2 comments:

  1. I don't think you could get much more wrong with this post without making up outrageous obvious lies... oh wait.

    Firstly you're saying that atheism is merely a fad. Because it happens to be in the spotlight a little bit now it is invalid.

    You are also saying that because you think Dawkins has an "inflated ego" that he's wrong. You too have an inflated ego, but I'm sure you're right about things sometimes.
    Ego and how much you happen to like or dislike a person has no bearing on whether they're right or not.
    His method of argument (sophistry as you pointed out) also have no bearing on the correctness of his claims unless he uses logical fallacies.

    You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is.
    You think it an assertion of "god does not exist".
    This is just wrong.
    You are wrong.
    It's a very common error, but it's still wrong.
    Atheism is the LACK of belief that a supernatural god exists.
    It does not claim that no god could exist, that it is impossible for one to ever be. It is the rejection of the claim "a god exists". This is the only logical default position until evidence is presented that proves god's existence.
    You require no faith to hold to this position, in fact you require a lack of faith.

    Remember that faith is a belief which is not based upon truth or evidence. It is a blind acceptance of a position.

    You do not require faith to reject someone else's claim.

    If you read/watch everything Dawkins says he will never specifically say "god does not exist" or "it is impossible for god to ever exist". He will only ever say "I do not believe a god exists" or "the existence of a god has not been proven" or "there is no evidence to support the existence of a god.
    None of these are claims that require evidence.
    The assertion "there is no god" does require evidence, the assertion "I do not believe in a god" does not.

    Creationism is literally in the bible which is why "Dawkin's fanboy"s often go after them. To undermine the very first chapter of a holy book is to undermine what is supposed to be an infallible text.

    You point out, fairly, that many atheist advocates do use appeals to authority in their arguments. This is a bit stupid of them, but when compared to the number of fallacies made by religious apologists it's insignificant.

    Dawkins does not assert that god does not exist. He rather attacks the actions of religious people, creationists (which is all too easy), and arguments for the existence of god.
    Dawkins describes himself as an atheist but not a "strong atheist".

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  2. I tried to comment but blogger replied with some error. It was such a long and well thought comment that I feel empty inside at the thought it was all for nothing, since I couldn't post it.
    I'm sorry, really. But I can't write anymore.
    Good day
    - the guy from /mu/

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