Saturday, September 22, 2007

The God Delusion

I've been meaning to post this essay for some time, but never got around to it. This is the latest installment in a long-going discussion between me and some of my nerd buddies about God. At one point, we each read British atheist Richard Dawkins' recent book, The God Delusion and have been offering our own takes on it. Knight of Nothing posted about it, then GeistX. (Well, actually GeistX confessed to having only read half the book when he wrote his review, so I guess his is only half a review.) Here's my take on it.

First, my general impression of the book, and of Richard Dawkins. He spent the first few chapters of his book blaming all the evil in the world on religion. And nobody, including (or especially) the truly devout of any faith would find it at all difficult coming up with any number of examples in world history of religion gone horribly wrong. Using these as proof that belief in God is delusion (rather than proof of human faithlessness) doesn't seem terribly bright. Instead of trotting out all the worst behavior, you need to show that the best, noblest, and most compassionate behavior is incompatible with belief in God. And the fact that Dawkins didn't seem to get that didn't leave me terribly impressed.

He then pulled the same prank with scholastic arguments in favor of the existence of God. Yes, yes. There have been lots of really, really bad arguments over the ages used to "prove" the existence of God, and demonstrating the fallacy of a thousand bad arguments still doesn't make your point. You need to disprove the best arguments, not the worst. And I think that's where Dawkins fell short.

Finally, his argument about the basis for morality -- namely that morality is universal, that it clearly does not come from the Bible or from belief in God -- is not an argument against God. Mormons call that universal ability to discern right and wrong "the Light of Christ," which our scripture says is "in all things" (D&C 88:13), and in all human beings, regardless of what they believe or don't believe. Other people of faith call it simply "conscience."

These first few chapters consisted of Dawkins blowing up straw man after straw man, and then proudly flexing his muscles over them. If I had stopped half way through, I would have been left with a very unfavorable impression. It was only after I'd managed to hold my nose and wade through his initial arguments that things finally started getting interesting. Once Dawkins got off his high horse and started talking about what he truly loves -- Science -- I began to discover some grudging respect for him. By the end of the book, I decided that I truly liked the man, even if I disagreed with his views, because I believe he is truly a man of compassion, if a bit annoying.

What intrigued me most about the book was his evolutionary or "crane" argument against the existence of God. And this argument should be particularly interesting to Mormons. Because the meat of Dawkins's argument was that something as vast and complex as the Universe could not be designed by something that was itself not far more complex than the Universe. In other words, a God capable of designing the Universe would himself have to come into being as the result of a long evolutionary process. This, Dawkins persuasively argues, is the only kind of God who could possibly exist. This very notion, of course, is at the heart of the Mormon conception of God, and is the key to understanding our relationship with him.

This alone, while interesting, remains theoretical without proof. And for devout Mormons (as well as for many other people of faith) the proof is in revelation. I will note that Dawkins had no argument at all against revelation other than sheer mockery. It was the "bah humbug" argument against revelation. Revelation "may be," to quote Scrooge, "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato." After making fun of a number of people of his acquaintance who heard things "go bump in the night," and got scared into belief in God, Dawkins essentially says, You may say you've received a revelation, but you can't make me believe it. My response is, don't believe in it then.

For Mormons, personal revelation plays a central role in our faith. Joseph Smith taught that we cannot be saved without it. So every Latter-day Saint expects to be the recipient of direct revelation from God, and many, though not all, have received such revelations. Most who have had this experience, as I have, would say that it is unmistakable, impossible to confuse with the call of an unfamiliar bird in the Australian wilderness, or an optical illusion of a face in the curtains, or the result of indigestion caused by a crumb of cheese.

It is possible to doubt or disbelieve such experiences. That's why, ultimately, we call it "faith." The term in the New Testament that is translated as "faith" could probably more appropriately be translated as "trust." And ultimately, whether to trust human reason alone versus some experience of transcendence -- no matter how intense that experience is -- is a matter of choice. Or, more appropriately, it is a matter of conscience.

For me, the decision to trust that revelation flowed from the fact that the revelation itself could best be described as an experience of the purest, most intense, most unconditional love. And I realized that to embrace it, while risky, would lead me into the path of that love, while to ignore it or turn away from it would leave me diminished and cut off. I chose to accept the risk and trust. I have never regretted it.

Mormons believe that we existed in the beginning in God's presence, and that we voluntarily agreed to enter a realm in which our memories of previous life with God would be blotted out and our awareness of God's existence would be muted. The reason for this was that we could not, in essence, learn the lessons we needed to learn with God constantly looking over our shoulders. We could only learn to stand on our own two feet and develop a mature moral consciousness in an environment which was essentially "godless".

By cultivating conscience, and by listening, we might eventually recover the awareness of God we once had -- through revelation. The path of revelation can lead us from light to greater light. Each new step in the process by which God reveals himself to us requires some new sacrifice, some higher level of risk and trust. And an unmistakable sign that the path is genuine is that we in fact more and more begin to resemble God in the trait that defines him so fundamentally that John the Evangelist described him by saying he is it: Love. So everything hinges on conscience.

In other words, whether or not we believe in God, the primary test of this life is to see how well we lend ourselves to that aspect of human nature which Dawkins himself agrees to be universal. So my answer to Dawkins is, believe what you wish, but do not neglect justice, mercy, and compassion. If you are willing to give your life for these things, if you spend your days concerned with "the least among us," the transcendent knowledge will eventually be added, if not in this life, in the next.

I believe Richard Dawkins to be a man of compassion, so I wish him well, and I trust he is in the path we all ought to be in.


-L- said...

Sounds like an interesting read. And I really liked your thoughts here. Thanks for the post.

Whenever people speak negatively about people of faith (as deluded or just plain stupid), I always feel a little fatalistically incapable of responding. It seems like so much work to explain how I both understand their skepticism and still appreciate the importance and value of faith (even while hopefully being intelligent about it). Maybe this is why I'm not a very good missionary.

J G-W said...

When I was in high school, one of my best friends was an atheist. Every day we would sit down for lunch together and debate the existence of God. It probably took months, but eventually we ran out of arguments and got tired of the debate. Neither of us ever convinced the other. Reading Dawkins reminded me of those old arguments.

When I think about the people who've had the greatest influence on me in terms of faith, I realize that it's not the things they said or the arguments they made, it was their lives and their love for me that had the greatest impact.

So I'm less interested in debating than in making room for faith. People of faith aren't stupid or deluded, they're just committed in a different way... I think that's all you can really say in the end.

Knight of Nothing said...

Hey John, I've been turning over in my head what you've written. Something never quite sat right with me when you complained about Dawkins knocking down straw men, and it finally dawned on me, obvious though it may seem to others: these aren't straw men.

Significant parts of our country are controlled by religious fanatics, and the world stage is dominated by religious and ethnic conflict. It bears repeating that in this supposedly enlightened age, religion and superstition are still very potent means of social control. The will to power is very strong in mainstream religious thought. So I think Dawkins and others deserve a lot of latitude to knock down these "straw men."

I realize that all of this isn't the religion or faith you adhere to or advocate, but you must admit that the religion of power is far more prevalent than the religion of love.

As far as Dawkins' arguments in his book... He does talk about some of religion's societal benefits through its social institutions and traditions that mark life's milestones (birth, coming of age, marriage, death). And then he goes on to say that religion's positive qualities in no way make its claims about the nature of the universe or the existence of a deity true.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Dawkins. I really appreciate your elegant words about the need for personal revelation and trust, things that I struggle with in my life (and which are mentioned in passing in my own essay about the book). And I loved your reply to -L-.

J G-W said...

KoN - Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.

What I meant by "straw men" is that Dawkins is using examples of false religion to make his case against God.

This notion I've written about elsewhere, and that you alluded to -- that there are two religions in the world, a Religion of Power and a Religion of Love -- again is an old concept that comes from religion itself. It is clearly expressed in the New Testament. Paul writes of it when he speaks of "the Powers and Principalities" of this world versus the Church of Jesus Christ. As hackneyed as it's become in this culture, one of the more graphic representations of this contrast is also found in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, in the contrast between the Whore of Babylon and the Pure Bride of Christ. As I've posted elsewhere, the way you can tell the Religion of Love is perhaps most eloquently stated in the 121st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants. Dawkins isn't the first or only one to bear witness against the Religion of Power. This is a work for the faithful adherents of the Religion of Love!

The aspects of religion which Dawkins seems to like, the aspects that offer "societal benefits," are the ones I'm ambivalent about. If religion is socializing you into a system of dehumanizing power, then who cares about its "social benefits"?

If, on the other hand, a religion, let's call it "the true religion" for the sake of argument, opens your eyes to a new reality, enabling you to see the world as it is and empowering you to resist evil and work for peace, love, and justice, I'm all about that.

MoHoHawaii said...

As a nonbeliever, I'm not a big fan of The God Delusion.

I think Sam Harris does a much better job at getting to the core issues in his concise and readable Letter to a Christian Nation.

J G-W said...

Some of the same friends who have been reading God Delusion have also ready Sam Harris' book. Perhaps I should read that as well.

Lincoln Cannon said...

I agree with many of the thoughts you've posted regarding Dawkins' book. In particular, you're right to point the compatibility of Mormon theology's eternal progression with Dawkins' argument about complex intelligence coming into existence through processes over time.

I've begun posting some of my thoughts on this book to my blog. Here are the first two entries:

J G-W said...

I was wondering how other LDS readers might react to the book.

Thanks, I'll check out your posts.