Part 1: Atheist identity politics
Part 2: Contra-theistic philosophy
Part 3: Scientific speculation
Part 4: Anti-religious and anti-accommodationist polemics
Thanks to the Deacon at Subversive Christianity, I'm re-reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion now with my full attention. And I'm rediscovering just how really terrific a book it is.
Halfway through this careful reading, it's becoming clear that the book is about four things: Atheist identity politics, basic contra-theistic philosophy, scientific speculation about why—given the obvious falsity of the "God Hypothesis"—people still maintain religious belief, and anti-religious polemic.
Dawkins is explicit about what kind of book he's writing, and particularly for whom he's writing:
I suspect—well I am sure—that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness—raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. (p. 1)
It is the thread of identity politics, and a position on atheist identity I substantially agree with, which causes me to take offense when the book or the author is disparaged, either through direct insults such as "halfwit" or the sort of tendentious nitpicking that places a gossamer veneer of supposed "criticism" over insults.
It's not my intention here to rebut each such disparagement in detail; the intellectual bankruptcy of theistic criticism of this book is obvious, and reminiscent of historical attacks on the identity politics of other oppressed groups: especially women, racial minorities, and gay people.
Sidebar: It's worth noting that atheist politics are, while similar to, substantively different from other civil rights struggles where identity politics has played a substantial role. Other civil rights struggles were and are struggles for equality; atheist politics is explicitly a struggle for superiority, at least intellectual superiority: Atheism is better than theistic religion. One cannot be surprised when even religious moderates take umbrage at such a project.
Because all theology is entirely free of substance, criticism of religion must have at its core an attitude of mockery. Dawkins quotes Jefferson: "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus." It is not that even the most sophisticated theology is mistaken in some subtle sense, but that all theology is so blatantly ridiculous that it staggers the rational mind that anyone could even begin to take it seriously.
I'm coming around to the view that my own outrage is inappropriate, and more a reaction to my own expectation that theistic thinkers should respect the substance of atheist arguments; given the lack of substance in their own thought, I think my expectations are unrealistic and my outrage misplaced: It's foolish and unproductive to be outraged when one can expect no better.
Atheism has both a sense of self-identification and a descriptive sense. One task of any work in identity politics is to proffer a definition of the descriptive sense and encourage people who fit the description to also self-identify with the term. Dawkins presents his view of what atheism is, makes it intellectually and morally palatable, and makes the alternatives (specifically theistic religion, agnosticism, accommodationism and religious moderation) intellectually and morally unpalatable. This is exactly the sort of task we would expect from a work on identity politics, and Dawkins delivers superbly.
We can easily read a specific position about atheist identity from the book:
- If you reject the God Hypothesis, you can call yourself an atheist.
- If you reject the God Hypothesis, you should (in the polemic sense) call yourself an atheist.
- If you call yourself an atheist you should be uncompromisingly anti-religion
The first intellectual task for item 1—and the topic of the first chapter—is to separate out a collection of beliefs and traits that have been traditionally associated with theistic religion and appropriate them as rational beliefs not dependent on the God Hypothesis. Dawkins does so by reference to the atheist trope of "Einstein's 'God'". Wonder and awe of the universe, an appreciation of its myriad mysteries, a rational humility at the limitations of our tiny, finite minds in apprehending and solving these mysteries: All of these are rational, sensible, scientific attitudes; they do not at all depend on an acceptance of the God Hypothesis. In later chapters, he covers more the more complicated notion of ethics without the God Hypothesis.
The second task (unsurprisingly covered by chapter 2) is to state the God Hypothesis:
[T]here exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.Dawkins presents an alternative view:
[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
It's very important to understand Dawkins' God Hypothesis in the context of identity politics. The most severe criticism of The God Delusion is from H. Allen Orr. Orr asserts that Dawkins fails "to engage religious thought in any serious way." In one sense, this is a blatantly false charge. Dawkins does indeed engage religious thought in a serious way, substantively addressing the arguments of (among others) Aquinas, Anselm, and Pascal. These religious thinkers are, of course, not the whole of theology, but they ain't chopped liver either.
Orr's criticism is, however, in some sense accurate:
You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).But just because you're accurate doesn't mean you're right.
The question is not whether or not Dawkins does address these topics, but whether he should do so. If Dawkins were really, as Orr titles his review, on "A Mission to Convert"—especially those with "serious" (snort) theistic belief systems—then perhaps he should have. But Dawkins specifically disclaims this intention. Sure, Dawkins would like it if "religious readers who open [this book] will be atheists when they put it down." (p. 5) But he also recognizes that this intention is "presumptuous optimism."
Orr asks for too much, and he does so in the intellectually dishonest manner (so loved by creationists, Dawkins' personal nemeses) of tossing out sound-bite questions that require long substantive answers and then objecting to sound-bite responses as frivolous. No single book—indeed the life work of no single author—can address every form of religious bullshit ever promulgated. No single book can address in "serious" detail the "methods [of childhood indoctrination] that took centuries to mature." (p. 5)
And are these sound-bite questions even relevant? As Aloysius succinctly puts it:
Asking people to pay more attention to sophisticated theology is like asking them to spend an afternoon reading your Buffy fan fiction which finally and for all times works out a consistent theory of souls and dimensions in the Buffyverse.
Read as atheist identity politics, though, these issues are irrelevant: You can call yourself an atheist just by virtue of rejecting the God Hypothesis; if you're interested in learning about more "sophisticated" theology, well, Dawkins is happy to share his opinion of such theology with you (as expected, he has nothing kind to say), but it's not Dawkin's job to rebut them; it's up to such sophisticated theologians to actively persuade you.
aware that critics of religion can be attacked for failing to credit the fertile diversity of traditions and world-views that have been called religious. Anthropologically informed works, from Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough to Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained or Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust, fascinatingly document the bizarre phenomenology of superstition and ritual. Read such books and marvel at the richness of human gullibility.
But that is not the way of this book. I decry supernaturalism in all its forms, and the most effective way to proceed will be to concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar to my readers—the form that impinges most threateningly on all our societies. (p. 36)
If a reader is unsatisfied that Dawkins has not disproved every conception labeled as "God" ever written by anyone anywhere, well, too bad. That's a task Dawkins disclaims. If you want to find out one way to call yourself an atheist, and one intellectually sound conception about what it means to be an atheist—to "decry supernaturalism in all its forms"—then this book will satisfy you.
 I'll have to write more on why identity politics are important. Stay tuned.
 It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that Einstein and other scientists, as well as more-or-less secular philosophers (notably Spinoza), use the word "God" to label beliefs that really have nothing to do with the God Hypothesis; the word has a strong hold on our language. For an interesting take on the hold that "God" has on our language and minds, see Greg Egan's notion of "The God Who Makes No Difference" in his novel Permutation City.
Dawkins' own application to Einstein of the label "pantheist" is, in this vein, a bit of a misnomer; many self-described pantheists not only label "everything" as "God", but also attribute typically theistic properties to this everything, notably a distinct consciousness and teleology. But this objection is just a semantic quibble: Dawkins is eminently clear about what he means.