Posted by: Steve Coplan | October 30, 2006

The G@d Delusion

Judging by the reviews I’ve read of Richard Dawkins new book on “The God Delusion”, it’s not a good idea for a evolutionary biologist to tackle theology. Most tend towards the polite in deference to his standing as one of the finest minds in science, but Terry Eagleton’s review at the London Review of Books is less than complementary in the most explicit terms.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

The issue to my mind is that Dawkins is going after the wrong targets, crusading against faith when in reality he should be defending the boundaries of science and religion. Theology and science set out to address distinct sets of problems, which in their most distilled form are mutually exclusive. The purpose of science is to describe and explain natural phenomena. God, by definition, must exist outside of nature. That’s why religion is described as metaphysical. Expressed in different terms, religion asks ‘why’ the world was brought into being and what the consequences are for humanity rather than the more prosaic ‘how’ that is open to systematic evaluation. As much as we’d like to believe it’s within the realm of scientific inquiry, I am not sure whether biochemistry will ever be able to come up for a satisfactory explanation for the soul. The nature of a soul doesn’t lend itself to empirical discovery, but for my part it seems a reasonable explanation for the emotion I feel when I hear singing or how I felt when I held my son for the first time and saw a wonderful human being in his tiny little body. Science can account to some why human beings have these diametrically opposed urges to utter selfishness and for intimate human interaction but religion provides more psychologically satisfying ones.

There’s certainly some good arguments that the need to posit a divine force is rooted in development of human cognition or in terms of the need to create group-based selection techniques in the classical Darwinian sense, but pooh-poohing religion and theology as enablers of mental illness. Paul Bloom’s book on the “common sense dualism” (Descarte’s Baby) is the result of his work as a early childhood cognitive psychologist and Darwin’s Cathedral attempts to account for religion as an evolutionary impulse. More’s the shame that Dawkins hasn’t contributed the debate at a point when both the opponents of science and those with an ever narrowing definition of faith are ascendant (see Gary Wills report on ‘A Country ruled by Faith’ in the New York Review of Books for further details.

A few years ago I remember driving aimlessly through Mendocino County, and happening on a fundamentalist radio station. In defending his literalist point of view, the talk show host described his experience at La Brea Tar Pits watching scientists assemble dinosaur fossils. “They don’t know what they are doing — they take some old bones and make up a story!,” he explained. If you were entirely ignorant of such disciplines such as anatomy and paleontology or close to a century of increasingly scientifically rigorous study of dinosaurs would you come to that conclusion. Dawkins looks to have made a similar mistake. Thomas Aquinas believed that rational inquiry could lead to faith (building on the foundation of Maimonides’ attempt to reconcile philosophy and religion in the Guide to The Perplexed) and based his argument for positing the existence of a divine being on the need for there to be a primal force for ‘movement’. Aquinas is remembered as the most important theological mind of the Middle Ages because his argument allowed for religion to accommodate science, which is rational inquiry based on empirical evidence, and set the stage for a reappraisal of the obligation of faith as an ethical framework. Ironically enough, his greatest theological critic is known for the establishment of Occam’s Razor — the principle that the simplest explanation is also the most probable. Occam argued that applying reason to explain the existence of the divine is a misleading exercise, since it relies on the limited human mind to establish ‘universals’. Instead, the divine is transcendent and can only be comprehended emotionally – or through the faculty of love, as he wrote.

Related: In the beginning


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