The God Delusion: Respect, Burden of Proof, and Spaghetti (Chapters 1 & 2) 4

This post is part of a series on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The previous post was an introduction on bias, and the next post is The Anthropic Principle and Boltzmann Brains (Chapters 3 & 4).

In my last post, I set the stage for discussing The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I’m planning to take two chapters at a time (out of ten), and then once I’ve finished, if there are any remaining topics or interesting discussion in the comments, I might write another blog post on anything that still needs discussing.

Considering this is a 400+ page book, I’m going to be skipping a lot of smaller topics here and there and instead focus on bigger ideas and honestly just what is most interesting to me to discuss. Feel free to chime in or ask questions about those missing sections if you feel inclined. In general, I’d love a lively (and polite) discussion in the comments (here or on Facebook) so bring it on! Now enough introduction and onto the book.

The Assumed Respect for Religion

Dawkins sometimes seems a bit like Mugatu, frantically running around saying, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” because he doesn’t get why he’s the only one that can see that all of Zoolander’s looks are identical. I feel for him. He thinks he sees through a veil in our culture we are blind to, namely the assumption that we should all respect everyone’s religious views even if they are ridiculous or even dangerous. He cites one particularly horrifying case (I can’t remember which country it’s from) where a man is let off the hook in a court case because it is declared to be a “part of his religion” that he can beat his wife. That is utterly horrifying, and Dawkins has a very good point.

In fact there will be a lot of times (I think) that you will hear me agreeing with Dawkins as I go through this book. I think Dawkins and I both can be tempted towards a black and white thinking where we just want to call bullshit out and stop pretending certain things make sense when they don’t. So I sympathize, and I agree with a lot of what he’s specifically calling out as well. I do think you can go too far in that direction though, to the point where you start assuming everything is B.S. that doesn’t exactly match your own views, which is something I think we’re seeing in our extremely polarized political landscape. However, I will give credit where credit is due that Dawkins seems focused on calling things B.S. that don’t appear to have any basis in reason or evidence, particularly if they are dangerous. Sounds good to me.

I should add that just today (as I’m editing this post), there was a terror attack a few miles away from me in lower Manhattan. The suspect yelled, “God is great!” before he was captured. So again, Dawkins has a crucial and important point here.

I do think he’s oversimplifying a bit though, because what is particularly hard about dealing with someone’s religious beliefs is that attacking them is simply not the same as criticizing someone’s political views, or their cooking, etc. A person’s or a family’s religious views are often inherently tied up in their very culture and identity more than anything else, so trying to take down one thing (their religion) can often equate to an attempt at demolishing the whole, or at least it’s often perceived that way by the person being criticized.

I don’t have a solution for this. Interacting with drastically different viewpoints is and always will be a messy business, and a substantial measure of grace must be involved, particularly when those viewpoints are a core part of a person’s or culture’s identity.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Teapots In Space

The discussion of atheism vs. agnosticism might be my favorite part of the entire book. I’m not sure I’ve heard a more lucid account of the fine differences of the two, and also what a starting point for truth is from a probabilistic viewpoint, etc.

One of my pet peeves when talking to atheists is that they often try to claim the high ground by saying that the epistemological starting point should be atheism no matter what, and that the burden of proof lies on the person who is arguing for the existence of the thing. But this is not the case—the ultimate starting point, almost trivially so, is a complete lack of knowledge (i.e. agnosticism). You could assign a probability of 50/50% to God’s existence here, but since you’re working from a literal void of knowledge, it’s not really worth putting a probability on it (to paraphrase Dawkins). This is only a starting point though. It might very well be the case that we can quickly move from complete agnosticism to a strong probabilistic argument, perhaps even a for-all-intents-and-purposes proof, about God’s existence (or whatever the debate is about).

So what about Russell’s Teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM)? Aren’t these examples of cases where we start with atheism (i.e. active disbelief), until proven otherwise, as opposed to agnosticism? Yes, in a sense they are, but the reason for that is they are completely ad hoc ideas (at least all the pasta-related attributes of the FSM are completely ad hoc). They don’t add to any understanding of the world by positing their existence; instead they add more things that then need explaining. For example, with Russell’s teapot, if we say it exists, we then feel pressure to explain why human tableware has made it out into space that far, or why an alien force would create it, or why it otherwise exists. It adds completely unnecessary complexity to our understanding of the universe without helping to explain anything. It’s a classic case of something that Occam’s Razor happily shaves away. There is essentially no argument for Russell’s teapot existing and a very good one for it not existing.

That brings us to God. Could God also be like Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Theoretically yes, but only if by positing God’s existence it did not help to explain anything and only added complexity to our mental model of the world. But the theist would argue strongly that that is in fact not the case and that there are plenty of things God helps explain that are potentially inexplicable on atheism. Therefore we end up in the arena of arguments for and against God or—to rephrase for clarity—in the arena of arguments for different possible explanations of what we see in the world, rather than fruitless debates on who has the burden of proof and atheism being the “default,” and other related circular debates. And I think that’s exactly where the debate should take place.

Dawkins doesn’t seem to introduce the idea of the FSM and Russell’s teapot as a way of saying the default is atheism. In fact, he seems to explicitly agree with me that the default is pure agnosticism. But then he goes on to use Russell’s teapot / FSM to show that even if you can’t prove something does not exist, that doesn’t mean it’s remotely probable or plausible that it does. That’s a very different point to make, and as I hope I made clear above, I wholly agree.

NOMA and Wrap Up

Dawkins takes to task those who subscribe to the idea of Non-Overlapping Magesteria, and once again I wholly agree. The idea that science and religion belong to completely separate and non-overlapping realms doesn’t work for at least the Abrahamic faiths. One of the remarkable things about Christianity in particular is how it is rooted in a historical claim. If a particular historical event did not happen (Jesus’ Resurrection) then the faith is false. That is some serious overlapping between a non-religious field of study (history) and religion.

One last thing I’ll note before wrapping this up. He mentions Richard Swinburne’s theodicy (a theistic explanation for the existence of evil), which is based on the idea that if we didn’t have suffering, then great moral deeds and self-sacrifice wouldn’t be necessary, and those things are some of the greatest goods in the world. While I’m sympathetic to part of that idea, I ultimately agree (once again!) with Richard Dawkins that that argument doesn’t work. The suffering is just too overwhelming. That’s why I take a much more Greg Boyd-ian approach that commits to the idea that all evil comes from another source than God, and God allowed it not because of second-order Goods that result (e.g. self-sacrifice, helping others), but because evil was a necessarily potential byproduct of creating truly free creatures. That is obviously a huge topic that must be put off for another time, but I wanted to simply note briefly I strongly sympathize with Dawkins’ horror at Swinburne’s ideas.

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