Friday, April 06, 2012

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins

Ok, maybe I'm five years and more late with this review, but it's Easter, so it seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts on one of the most controversial books of this millennium.

And why has it been so controversial? Well, no to put too fine a point on it, it cuts through the bullshit by which many, many people make a living. But more than that, it implicitly sticks the boot into a system of social control - an essential prop of the capitalist system. Not that Dawkins would put in those terms, of course. And therein lies The God Delusion's limitations.

Amongst those prepared to consider it rationally, there can be little doubt that Dawkins is an extremely talented writer. From his earliest published work The Selfish Gene (1976), he has demonstrated an ability to explain extremely complicated subjects in a way comprensible for lay readers, without over-simplifying great scientific theories.

One essential component of this capability is Dawkins' schooled and elegant materialism, and it is a real pleasure to read his descriptions of evolutionary processes, in response to religious misrepresentations of Darwin. Similarly, he is able to shoot down pseudo-scientific and philosophical claims for the existence of a god or gods with a skill and depth of knowledge born out of almost constant debate with religionists over the years. These elements are covered in greater detail here.

So far, so rational, and so enjoyable. But when he leaves home territory and comes to the social and political, Dawkins parks his materialism and becomes a philosophical idealist. He is not exactly alone in this - materialist explanations of society are currently unfashionable, and you have to seek them out. More than that though, you need to reconcile yourself to the idea that the Marxists were right all along.

And there's a strong suggestion Dawkins has investigated Marxist perspectives on religion. Though he sketches a crude outline of a Marxist position, he is clearly familiar with the idea that, as he puts it: "religion is a tool used by the ruling class to subjugate the underclass". But even though he appears to agree that the idea has merits ("It is surely true that black slaves in America were consoled by promises of another life, which blunted their dissatisfaction with this one and thereby benefited their owners."), Dawkins backs away from the social, and instead confines his search for a "Darwinian" - that is purely biological - explanation for the persistence and prevalence of religious belief and practice.

This leads him to some reactionary - not to say irrational - conclusions. For instance, when describing the July 2005 London bombings, he lays the blame solely at religion's door, despite acknowledging that many had been expecting what was called 'blowback' after Tony Blair's decision to involve the UK in the conquest of Iraq - a war which Dawkins himself opposed. Nevertheless, he contends that the bombers did what they did because they were religious, and were looking forward to a life in Paradise as reward for their 'martyrdom'.

It is worth spending some time unpacking this thought. If religion was the sole cause of the London bombings, then why don't many more Muslims do a similar thing? For that matter, shouldn't many more theists literally fight in the name of their god? No, specific Muslims set explosions off because they were deeply moved by the suffering of their co-religionists in the Middle East, and in the absence of a mass working class movement they saw terrorism as a way of possibly bringing that suffering to an end. Of course there were personal factors in play as well, but the religious feelings of excitement and floatiness Dawkins cites from a failed Palestinian suicide bomber were surely the body's way of coping with what - in purely biological terms - is the ultimate irrationality.

At times like this, Dawkins stops being a scientist of any kind, and manifests as a smug, quite posh and very comfortably-off man, shaking his head in disbelief that others can be so deluded. And this lack of comprehension is exactly why he can put forward no practical proposals for overcoming religion and its obscurantism.

Like Dawkins, I was raised an Anglican. But unlike him, for a while I was really into it. And so I understand the attraction religion holds for many, many people. I also completely identify my own experience with that famous Marx quote, which in its more complete form reads: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people." 

But then Marx went on to say that: "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."

See? So much more beautiful - and potentially useful - than saying 'Stop being so deluded!' over 406 pages.
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