Tuesday, March 17, 2009


“God created man in His own image and then man returned the favor.”
(I have no idea of the source of this quote.)

“Because what can be known about God is evident among them, for since the creation of the world His invisible attributes – His eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen, being perceived through the things He made, so that they are inexcusable. Because though they knew God, they did not give Him glory as God or give Him thanks, but became empty in their reasonings and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for a likeness of an image of corruptible man and of birds and animals and snakes” (Romans 1:19-23).

I had finally finished reading chapters 5 and 6 of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – “The Roots of Religion” and “The Roots of Morality.” I settled in to watch the Friday night news and commentary on PBS. I love to watch Bill Moyers’ program; he interviews such fascinating people. This evening he was interviewing Karen (pronounced KAHren) Armstrong on her ideas about religion. Ms. Armstrong is somewhat of an expert on comparative religions and talked of the similarities between all religions and how they are all based on the “Golden Rule” – not, however, as Jesus stated it, but in a negative form. She talked a lot about “compassion” and how all religious folks should get along. She, however, seemed to have little compassion for “fundamentalists,” those who take their own religion as exclusive.

As Bill and Karen blathered on, I felt my eyes glazing over until she mentioned that we have created our own God, to which Mr. Moyers agreed. Religion to Karen and Bill seems to be something we have invented for some psychological reason. It sounded to me like they were simply religious Atheists. All of a sudden I found myself more in sympathy with Richard Dawkins than with these folks. At least Dawkins admits his lack of belief in God. He doesn’t hide it under pious jargon.

However, I believe that all three persons fall into a different category – that of Romans 1. They had a reasonably clear perception of who God is, but deliberately chose to “exchange” it for something less -- a god of their own making, whether this god is the mental idol of Karen and Bill, or the god of Darwinian Natural Selection (DNS) of Mr. Dawkins. (This is probably a god of the other two as well.) We, I believe, are all religious.

In chapters 5 and 6, Dawkins speaks a bit less confidently than in the previous chapters. He must answer two questions posed by Theists. The first in chapter 5, “Why are people religious? He admits that Darwinians have a bit of a problem here. “Knowing that we are products of Darwinian evolution, we should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favoured the impulse to religion. The question gains urgency from the standard Darwinian considerations of economy” (page 190).

In other words, the Atheist must explain why DNS didn’t just eliminate something as “wasteful” and “extravagant” as religion. Dawkins discusses two possible answers: either religion has a direct advantage to “gene survival” or else it is a “by-product” of some other, useful function. He wastes little time (and paper) discussing possible direct advantages, such as the “placebo effect” (it just makes us feel good). He spends most of this chapter discussing the by-product view.

Dawkins uses the analogy of the moth drawn to a flame. This apparently suicidal behavior is a by-product of the moth’s internal system of navigation by celestial lights (sun, moon, stars). Artificial light interferes with this highly evolved characteristic and causes what is perceived to be irrational (suicidal) behavior in the moth. In the same way religion is a by-product of some internal mechanism in us. The problem is to find out what the original useful function is or was.

Dawkins spends many pages on hypotheses and ideas to explain. It is here that he must admit uncertainty. In fact he seems to be as uncertain and unclear about this as the religious folks he derides. He asks “could” questions and mentions an “intriguing possibility” (page 215). He knows that there is a Darwinian explanation; he just doesn’t know what it is! It almost seems here that Dawkins is exercising faith, the faith that he elsewhere derides as “belief without evidence” (page 232).

At the end of chapter 5, we have to conclude that Dawkins has not answered the question. Perhaps we need to consider Paul’s answer quoted above.

Chapter 6 seems to follow naturally. “Why are we good?” is the way Dawkins states the question. Most of us believe that morality and religion are in some way tied together, so Dawkins must explain this away for us, after a few pages describing the immorality of his attackers. It is in these first pages of chapter 6 that I find myself siding with Dawkins. Why do those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ express themselves in such “unchristian” ways (page 242)?

Dawkins in this chapter, as in the previous, seems uncertain. He does not come across well as an anthropologist or a moral philosopher. He goes on and on about various views but boils them down to “kinship and reciprocation as the twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world” (page 249). Kinship, of course, means that we take care of our own for “gene survival.” Reciprocation means we have a sort of a trade off with others – a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” morality. He seems to approve of this pragmatic approach to morality, except in the case of religion. Here, being good “to gain God’s approval …” is “just sucking up." He fails to see that if morality is primarily for one’s own advantage, why then should religious motivation for the same reasons be condemned?

It seems that Mr. Dawkins, while attempting to deal with one question, “Why be good?”, is evading some equally, if not more, important questions.
• If there is no God, then what is good? Who determines?
• What is evil?
• Why is there evil? Dawkins says, “Perhaps naively, I have inclined toward a less cynical view of human nature …”

One other matter: In dealing with psychological answers to the problem of religion, Dawkins makes clear that he is a “dyed-in-the-wool monist” (page 209). “Like most scientists,” he says, “I am not a dualist” (page 210). Though he mentions this position almost incidentally, this is the heart of the problem. If mind and matter are the same, or if as Dawkins says, “mind is a manifestation of matter,” than all tendencies in humans to believe in design and teleology are merely “childish.”

Dawkins doesn’t here carry these thoughts out to their logical ends, but he is not only, because of his monism, denying the existence of God, but also the humanness of man. It would seem to me that he is left with a mere material being, without a spiritual aspect – a simply more developed ape. Any moral system then is useless.

On page 262, Dawkins reverts to his gnosticism. He says that he is “not claiming that atheism increases morality …”, though he seems to think so. But that’s probably because Atheists are more intelligent than the rest of us. Perhaps so. In the next chapter he’s going to demonstrate that “people who claim to derive their morals from scripture do not really do so in practice.” I’m afraid I may find myself in agreement with Mr. Dawkins although I don’t believe I will agree that it is a “very good thing” (page 267).

Christianity is not in itself a moral system, even though it has to do with morals. Christianity is rather a rescue system. Because we are not moral, God sent His Son to redeem us from sin’s penalty.

Bill Ball

1 comment:

Canadian Atheist said...

Good post. Nothing really sticks out to me to comment on. Besides the sin part, but we can save that for another day. :)