Tuesday, 2 December 2008


As readers of this Blog will have noticed from my many references to the man, I am a great admirer of 'Popular Scientist' Richard Dawkins (pictured here without the penis which is normally seen growing out of his head). Polymath, genius, witty raconteur, possessed of enormous breadth of vision and empathy as well as raffish good looks, few can compare in terms of insight and understanding of the true nature of existence. His comprehension of the nuances which differentiate Theism, Atheism, Deism and Pantheism (he seems not to have heard of Panentheism. Too many syllables perhaps?) is breathtaking. And all this without actually having to find out about any of them! As he says in his book The God Delusion in rebuttal of those who accuse him of not knowing what he is talking about, he doesn't actually NEED to know what he is talking about in order to be able to talk about it:

"To expand the point, most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology etc." - The God Delusion

I'd just like to say what a pleasure it was typing that out. Touching genius is always exciting and for sheer poetry and use of language, that passage matches the best of any sacred book. Also, hats off to a man who believes in 'Reason' and 'Evidence' arguing in praise of his own ignorance. That is impressive. To reinforce his point, he moves on to rebut the accusation that he uses the 'Straw Man' method of attacking religion. This refers to the practise of creating one's opponent in one's own image - eg saying all religious people are stupid, behave like 'Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomenei' (a direct quote, I kid you not) or believe in an utterly simplistic view of God, ignoring all other expressions of religious feeling - and so setting up an easy target to attack. Well argued as this is, it seems strange to claim one isn't doing this when only half a page before one has been proudly proclaiming that there is no reason to find out what any of these people actually believe. Such is Dawkins's genius that he can understand where his opponents are coming from through a kind of miraculous mental osmosis. He doesn't have to read books. Only those he is arguing against need to do that. He just knows. Amazing. To adapt the words of Bill Hicks, that's Reason in action for you!

I am being unfair, of course. Elsewhere in the book Dawkins shows that he is enormously well read on all sorts of subjects. On Carl Jung, for instance, one of the most interesting of explorers into the psychology of religion and spirituality, he has this to say:

"It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so (Jung also believed that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang)." - The God Delusion

Presumably Dawkins didn't feel he needed to actually READ anything of Jung's to come to this conclusion. It doesn't appear that he has even read the book in which he describes this 'exploding book' incident (Memories, Dreams, Reflections if anyone is interested). But then why would he need to? After all, Jung only helped revolutionise our understanding of how the mind works and went deeply into the nature of spiritual belief in all its forms. I mean, its not as if he knew anything about it. To say that Jung had 'no adequate reason' to believe in God would seem astonishing considering his lifelong work in the study of the mind, his voluminous reading and his friendships with some of the century's greatest thinkers. At the very least he could not be accused of 'not looking at the evidence'. But no matter. Dawkins doesn't have to read any of his stuff to know what he thought. All he has to do is look in the Oxford Book of Quotations or the back of a Cornflakes packet.

He's not all wrong, though. Here he is on Newton, a fellow scientist and one, he admits, who doesn't necessarily fit into his idea that no scientist ever, ever, ever, even if he said he did, believed in God:

"Newton did indeed claim he was religious. So did almost everybody until - significantly I think - the nineteenth century when there was less social and judicial pressure than in earlier centuries to profess religion, and more scientific support for abandoning it." - The God Delusion

I love this argument, one which he extends to all artists and thinkers before the nineteenth century (including people like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci) that as only stupid people have any spirituality all the most talented people in the world could only have been pretending to be religious. In other words, they were closet atheists, just like Richard, only bullied into pretending to believe in God. So there we go. Sophocles, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, T S Eliot - all these people were just pretending. Sounds plausible to me. After all, if they were not all pretending, then they must have been psychotic and mentally ill, which is what Dawkins suggests when he defines what he means by delusion.

But lets look again at that sentence about Newton, that he "did indeed claim he was religious". Of course, Dawkins is right here. He did 'claim' it. Here is Newton 'claiming' he was religious and his views on the relationship between his discoveries and God:

"Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done." - quoted in Isaac Newton: Inventor, Scientist and Teacher

On God and Nature:

"This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being. … This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called “Lord God” παντοκρατωρ [pantokratōr], or “Universal Ruler”. … The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect." - Principia, Book III

And here he is on Atheism:

"Opposition to godliness is atheism in profession and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors." - A Short Scheme of the True Religion

Of course, Newton was only pretending when he said this. He was also only 'pretending' to be interested in arch-Hoodoo practices Kabbalah, Astrology and Alchemy (his translation of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus is one of the most famous in the world) and most especially when he wasted a lot of time and energy writing the first ever study of a Bible Code! Indeed, Dawkins would probably be deeply upset if, in an altruistic act of descent from his lofty Tower of Ignorance, he were to discover that Newton's studies of Alchemy were probably the most important single influence on the development of his Scientific ideas. Newton was in fact a militant anti-Atheist, unpleasantly so, as intolerant as Dawkins is in his non-belief. I sometimes wonder if Dawkins isn't actually Newton reincarnated, arguing from the opposite point of view to work off some weird karma.

The point I am trying to make is not that Newton's spirituality or Jung's erudition mean that God exists, only that Dawkins' argument that Belief is incompatible with Science (or even intelligence!) is totally fallacious, as is the idea that Science began in the last two hundred years. The roots of rational thought lie in ancient Greece, for instance, one of the most religious and myth-orientated cultures in the world, while cultures like the Egyptians and the Mayans achieved astounding feats of architecture and astronomy in spite of believing in a host of bizarre-looking Gods.This is not even to get on to the subject of the incredible variety of artistic achievement involved with a religious or spiritual world view. From ancient Greek theatre to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, spirituality has gone hand in hand with the most extraordinary artistic creative power. But of course, I forgot: they were all only pretending.

Its not fair to slam Dawkins so easily. He does know a lot about religion. Really. Here he is on some of the more Eastern beliefs:

"I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life." - The God Delusion

There might indeed be, unless one had actually looked into them. If he had, he would know that Confucianism genuinely ISN'T a religion and never pretended to be. It was always a philosophy, so even bracketing it with Buddhism is wrong. As for Buddhism, well clearly Dawkins is happy with ideas of Reincarnation, the Threefold Body, the Greater Consciousness of which all is part, the Six Worlds in which one can be incarnated and the legend of Shambala? Is he familiar with the Boddhisatva Vow? Or the many Saints of Mahayana Buddhism? Or is it possible that, in fact, he doesn't know anything about it at all? After all, how could one fit all that information on the back of that already crowded cornflakes packet?

I'm not even going to get into Dawkins and Einstein, whose ideas on these subjects were much subtler and informed than his successor. Einstein was certainly not a Believer in any traditional sense but nor was he a Materialist Atheist like Dawkins. Indeed he was far more humanist than Dawkins, who, if you look deeply into what he says, is actually deeply reductionist in his Darwinism and his view of human nature. Nor did Einstein believe, as Dawkins did, that Religion had made no positive contribution to our culture or civilisation, or that no religious person was possessed of any insight or understanding:

"The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling [Cosmic Religion], which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no Church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with the highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as Atheists, sometimes also saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi and Spinoza are closely akin to each other." - The World As I See It

Doesn't quite sound like Dawkins does it? Curiously enough, Dawkins doesn't quote this passage in his book (must be that damned Cornflakes packet again!). Einstein genuinely WAS a polymath and someone who was well-informed. If he rejected something, he knew what it was first. He rejected organised religion having been brought up with it. I have some respect for that. Dawkins was brought up an Anglican (a little like judging Chinese food by a bowl of plain noodles) but stopped there. Einstein actually studied ethics, philosophy, religion, mysticism, art. Not for him Dawkins' muddling of religion up with spirituality & mysticism (or even God!). The four are all interrelated, but they are not the same. In drawing a distinction between figures such as St Francis of Assisi and the average Believer, Einstein shows an awareness of the nuances of what he is talking about. Indeed, he touches upon the universal spirituality which is shared by the Mystics of all cultures - largely because he actually knows about them. Dawkins does not. Its all just one big bowl of noodles for him (we are back to the Pastafarian gag). He's going to empty them on your head no matter what and claim he's come up with a dispassionate, rational argument while he does it. Oh. And I have just realised that I DID get into Einstein and Dawkins, having said I wouldn't. How irrational is that?

But its futile criticising Dawkins for his ignorance about the things he attacks. And nor do I disagree with everything he says, as my own comments on the problems of organised Religion on these boards might suggest. I'm not a Creationist and don't belong to any Faith. Nor do I take literally every idea I have put on these posts. For me, all of these Mystical Systems are metaphors for something else - higher states of Consciousness if you like, an enhanced understanding of who we are and what we might be. They are ways of talking about experiences we have, images we can use to release insights and free ourselves from stultifying ways of thinking. All well and good. But what I don't believe is that we are only lumps of evolved meat, nor are we vehicles for genes to propagate. And if he had even a bean of intellectual honesty (something he likes to bang on about a lot) he would admit that Darwinism does not explain the source or creation of life, only how it evolved once it started. Even if it did, it explains nothing about the origin of the Universe. One doesn't need to believe in God to know that that mystery still remains unsolved (although he does say 'We're working on it' which is good to know). Sorry, Richard. I don't buy it. What we do know is that Dawkins' view is reductive and exclusive. There's plenty of proof for that. He thinks he has the monopoly on the truth. He does not.

But you are not going to win this argument with Mysticism. As I say, its futile to attack Dawkins with spiritual ideas. If one wants to run rings round him, one must take him on on his own turf - Science. This is paying him something of a courtesy, as he won't do this for someone arguing against him, but never mind. So where does Science open the box he is so determined to close up and seal? Well, lets see what he has to say on a subject which we have already discussed on these boards:

"Quantum Mechanics, that rarified pinnacle of twentieth century scientific achievement, makes brilliantly successful predictions about the real world... This predictive success seems to mean that quantum theory has got to be true in some sense; as true as anything we know, even including the most down-to-earth common-sense facts. And yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make, in order to deliver those predictions, are so mysterious the great Feynman himself was moved to remark... 'If you think you understand quantum theory, you don't understand quantum theory'." - The God Delusion

Again, all well and good. But then he goes on to say that 'Quantum Theory is so queer that physicists have to resort to one or another paradoxical 'interpretations' of it. Resort is the right word." He then trots through the main 'interpretations'. Fellow militant Atheist Everett's 'Multiple Universes' Theory is 'staggeringly wasteful' while Bohr's 'Copenhagen Interpretation' is 'not wasteful, just staggeringly paradoxical' (although he doesn't say what it is or why). In the end, he says, all of this fails to satisfy either 'human common sense or intuition' (Intuition? What? The opposite to Reason?!), but 'the more macho scientists don't care' as long as 'the mathematics work'.

And this is pretty much as far as it goes in terms of discussing it... Dawkins suddenly slips off into a conversation about how 'queer' the Universe is, the ridiculousness of psychic goats and then how terrific it is that Science is asking these questions (as if nobody else ever has). Faced with the complete rebooting of our concept of 'Reality' suggested by Quantum Science, Dawkins runs back to his cave with his idea of the 'Middle World', or the 'common sense' reality we can touch or feel. Why? Well clearly for two reasons.

1) he doesn't understand Quantum Theory (that cornflakes packet again), nor does he want to, hence his nervous ridiculing of it and

2) because it completely violates every assumption - physical, scientific and metaphysical - upon which he bases his views...


Seán said...

An excellent post. I'd like to do a critique of Dawkins myself at some point but I haven't read his book. . .

. . .

. . . oh, yeah!


Pegasus said...

Thanks, Sean. More to come! Hang on for PART TWO!

Paul Salahuddin Armstrong said...

Entertaining, interesting yet informative!

I've criticised Dawkins myself on a few occasions. His arrogant assertions are what really get on my nerves. Usually, intelligent people give other views and perceptions at least a little respect. Though they may disagree, even strongly so, they admit the possibility they just may be wrong... But not Dawkins, no, all religions, mystical, spiritual paths are evil, wrong, heresy...

One gets the distinct impression if he'd been born around five centuries ago, he would have been a member of the Spanish Inquisition! The 'unscientific' heretics must be crushed, they are a menace to civilisation e.t.c. Just like the pot calling the kettle black!

Pegasus said...


You're right.

But of course, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!