Friday, April 20, 2012

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The word ‘delusion’ in my title has disquieted some psychiatrists who regard it as a technical term, not to be bandied about. Three of them wrote to me to propose a special technical term for religious delusion: ‘relusion’. Maybe it’ll catch on. But for now I am going to stick with ‘delusion’, and I need to justify my use of it. The Penguin English Dictionary defines delusion as ‘a false belief or impression.’ Surprisingly, the illustrative quotation the dictionary gives is from Phillip E. Johnson: ‘Darwinism is the story of humanity’s liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself.’ Can that be the same Phillip E. Johnson who leads the creationist charge against Darwinism in America today? Indeed it is, and the quotation is, as we might guess, taken out of context. I hope the fact that I have stated as much will be noted, since the same courtesy has not been extended to me in numerous creationist quotations of my works, deliberately and misleadingly taken out of context.

Whatever Johnson’s own meaning, his sentence as it stands is one that I am happy to endorse. The dictionary supplied by Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.’ The first part captures religious faith perfectly. A. to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from delusion it is called Religion.”

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[ “If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.”, William James modestly remarked in The Varieties of Religious Experience –J.S.]

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A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the none-religious included – is hat religious faith is especially vulnerable to offense and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death, that I never tire of sharing his words:

Religion. . . has certain ideas at the heart of which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!” If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say ‘I respect that.”

Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe. . . no, that’s holy?. . . We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard Dawkins creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you are not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.

Here’s a particular example of our society’s overweening respect for religion, one that really matters. By far the easiest grounds for gaining conscientious objector status in wartime are religious. You can be a brilliant moral philosopher with a prize-winning doctoral thesis ex[pounding the evils of war, and be given a hard time by a draft board evaluating your claim to be a conscientious objector. Yet if you can say that one or both your parents are Quakers you sail through like a breeze, no matter how inarticulate and illiterate you may be on the theory of pacifism or, indeed, Quakerism itself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from pacifism, we have the pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are euphemized to ‘Nationalists’ and ‘Loyalists’ respectively. The very word ‘religions’ is bowdlerized to ‘communities’, as in ‘inter-community warfare.’ Iraq, as a consequence of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, degenerated into sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Clearly a religious conflict – yet in the Independent of 20 May 2006 the front page headline and first leading article both described it as ‘ethnic cleansing’. ‘Ethnic’ in this context is yet another euphemism. What we are seeing in Iraq is religious cleansing. The original usage of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia is also arguably a euphemism for religious cleansing, involving Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians.

Religion is also privileged in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government. Whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be prominently represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio or television. I’m not suggesting that we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor?

Here’s another weird example of the privileging of religion. In 2006 the United States Supreme Court ruled that a church in New Mexico should be exempt from the law, which everybody else has to obey, against taking hallucinogenic drugs. Faithful members of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they can understand God only by drink hoasca tea. Note that it is sufficient that they believe that the drug enhances their understanding. They do not have to produce evidence. Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that cannabis eases the nausea and discomfort of cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy. Yet, again the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that all patients who use cannabis for medical purposes are vulnerable to federal prosecution. Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they believe they need an hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet when a church claims an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such is the power of religion as a talisman.

Witness also the ‘sympathy’ for Muslim ‘hurt’ and ‘offense’; expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion-formers when the distinguished author Salmon Rushdie was put under a death sentence for writing a novel. If the advocates of apartheid had had their wits about them they would have claimed –for all I know truthfully- that allowing mixed races is against their religion A good part of the opposition would have respectfully tip-toed away. And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe on religious liberty.

In 2004 James Nixon, a twelve year old boy in Ohio, won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words ‘Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!’ The school told him not to wear the T-shirt – and the boy’s parents sued the school. The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn’t. Instead, the Nixon’s lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. Their victorious lawsuit was supported by the Alliance Defense fund of Arizona, whose business it is to ‘press the legal battle for religious freedom.’

The Reverend Rick Scarborough, supporting the wave of similar Christian lawsuits brought to establish religion as a legal justification for discriminations against homosexuals and other groups, has named it the civil rights struggle of the twenty-first century: ‘Christians are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian. Once again, if such people took their stand on the right to free speech, one might reluctantly sympathize. But that isn’t what it is about. ‘The right to be Christian seems in this case to mean ‘the right to poke your nose into other people’s private lives.’ The legal case in favor of discrimination against homosexuals is being mounted as a counter-suit against alleged discrimination! And the law seems to respect this. You can’t get away with saying ‘If you try to stop me from insulting homosexuals it violates my freedom of prejudice’ But you can get away with saying ‘It violates my freedom of religion.” What. When you think about it, is the difference? Yet again, religion trumps all.

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[ If we look on a man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature that the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that the result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it. This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.

The vast literature of proofs of God’s existence drawn from the order of nature, which a century ago seemed so overwhelmingly convincing, today does little more that gather dust in the libraries, for the simple reason that our generation has ceased to believe in the kind of God it argued for. Whatever sort of being God may be, we know today that he is nevermore that mere external inventor of ‘contrivances’ intended to make manifest his ‘glory’ in which our great-great grandfathers took such satisfaction, though just how we know this we cannot possibly make clear by words either to others or to ourselves. I defy any of you here to fully account for your persuasion that if a God exist he must be a more cosmic and tragic personage than that Being.

The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together, and great world-ruling systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow up. Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulate verbalized philosophy is but its shadowy translation into formulas. The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by m quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change this faith.

Please observe, however, that I do not yet say that it is better that the subconscious and non-rational should thus hold primacy in the religious realm. I confine myself to simply pointing out that they do so hold it as a matter of fact.
– William James; The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture III, ‘The Reality of the Unseen’- j.s.]

1 comment:

  1. With counterpoints from James' "Varieties of Religious Experience". Going from the last to the first, the second in the series of books I read while recuperating from a liver Transplant in the Hospital and a respite house in Boston.