Friday, March 9, 2012


Arguing about God on Internet forums is a largely pointless activity, guaranteed to lead to annoyance and frustration, and one I don’t usually dabble in. But the other day I got caught up in such a discussion over at Longrider’s blog. I made the mistake of trying to make two points at once, or rather, one observation which I didn’t expect to be contentious as the lead-in to another which was no more than a question, though a difficult one to express, and to understand.

There were two commenters who attempted to engage. The first did so intelligently, but he didn’t quite seem to grasp the point of what I was asking, and in any case he retired early on the not unreasonable grounds that he’d had this sort of argument before and they never got anywhere. I intend to follow his example after this post. The second was a weird creature who interlaced references to irrelevant people and concepts with random abuse in block capitals. Both signs of a less than towering intellect, so that wasn’t going very far either. Then our host on the blog stepped in and asked us politely to return to the topic, from which we had strayed to some extent. Politely, we obliged.

The observation I made, which I thought uncontentious, was that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist. He is frequently bombastic, importunate and rude, dragging the stupidity of believers into places it wasn’t invited. Although he has a sharp intellect and an extensive knowledge of his field, which is itself broad, not everything he says in defence of his beliefs is filtered through that intellect. Some of it much more primal. It seems to me a perfectly reasonable use of the word militant. Not only that, but a criticism of his dialectic style was given in the original post, albeit tangentially, and I originally commented to defend him from a misconception that had arisen.
The question I asked was, in essence, the following:

The idea that there exists, or should exist, some power, creative, guiding, saving, explaining, is present in the human mind. This idea usually conceives, implicitly or explicitly, that this power is outside the mind itself. At the very least, almost everyone seeks some kind of moral order, both personal and social, and recognises that it is good that there should be such a thing. Most people seek, or imagine, something more than that, that there life has meaning, and not uncommonly, that that meaning, that purpose, that moral order, is created, or actively imposed, from outside man.

This is not an invention of ‘organised religion’; the fact that large and powerful organizations can exist which take advantage of it merely proves how important that perception is to us.

This is why it is important to explore the question, because ‘god’ undoubtedly exists in the human mind, and is an important part of what we are. Where, then, does it come from? Is it a product of the way the human mind is constructed, does it arise within the mind, as a result, perhaps, of our ability to recognise and reflect on our mortality, but not to understand it or to change it? Is it just a by-product of what we are?

It’s quite possible that one day it can be fully explained through a much more complete understanding of the nature of the mind and the genetics behind it. Not explained away, or some plausible story constructed, but actually explained, by identifying the physiological mechanism that brings it into being. But not yet. We are a very, very long way from being able to explain it properly.

There is another possibility, that it actually does reflect something outside ourselves, that thing we sometimes call god.

The question I asked was, has Richard Dawkins given a convincing explanation of why this last hypothesis is the least parsimonious?

I could have put it in other ways. Has he proved to his own intellectual satisfaction that this last possibility is not true? It isn’t quite the same question, though it’s close enough, and I wish I had asked it that way, because although the question is difficult to frame, there is in fact a simple answer: no, he hasn’t.

His book, The God Delusion, is an attempt to address precisely the question I asked, as I originally asked it. He sets out to consider what causes the sense of a greater, guiding power to arise within mankind, and to take such an important personal and social role, and he considers the possibility, naturally enough, that it could be because there is something outside us which has placed knowledge of itself within us, or that we are capable of identifying. Does he show, at least to his own satisfaction, that it can’t be true? In fact he doesn’t, not completely, and he recognises this fact, although he does conclude that it is very unlikely indeed.

In the first draft of this post I wrote that I imagined Dawkins, privately, to be completely convinced of his position, despite the minimal reservation he expresses in the book. But, oddly enough, right on cue, comes this debate, in which he states his position as that of an agnostic, almost but not quite convinced intellectually that there is no sentient creator, but unable to rule it out entirely. The last little bit is belief. It reveals a greater intellectual honesty than I have seen him bring to these discussions before, and is precisely what I was wondering about. Those who claim that ‘Dawkins has proved there is no god’, are talking through their hats, and have themselves failed to understand his arguments and where they lead.

He rejects any attempt to consider god as an old boy on a cloud with a beard and a set of scales, or any variation thereof, because once you posit an omnipotent being that can arbitrarily change reality or our perception of it, it all comes down to how much that being wants to be noticed. Human reason cannot detect such a being. It isn’t the only concept that can be, or has been, posited, that is more or less defined to in such a way as to lie outside the scope of our reason, but it is probably the only one that actually matters. Some people find the idea obviously preposterous, others feel they have actually experienced him. But there’s no point arguing about it intellectually.

He doesn’t consider the god of the creationists either because it isn’t worth arguing about. Creationism is not an intellectual position, it’s just a belief, and one which, unlike the old man on the cloud, is now easily refutable by observation, at least to the extent that it attempts to justify itself by reason.

The god of most believers is not accessible to scientific enquiry and genuinely curious atheists/agnostics know this. The moral systems derived from those beliefs are a matter of debate, ultimately inconclusive and often circular, but productive nonetheless, and necessary. The concepts and limits of right and wrong are defined and redefined constantly by a continuous social negotiation, and if you don’t contribute others will decide what you should and shouldn’t do (even more than they do now). Insofar as the actions of believers have consequences for other people they will be judged in the same way as actions derived from any other source of will or motivation.

Arthur C. Clarke postulated the existence of a china teapot orbiting the moon. The details don’t matter much, the point was to show that there are intrinsically implausible things, things that are almost certain not to exist, but whose non-existence we cannot directly prove. But the difference between the teapot and god is that it is not in the nature of man to imagine there to be a teapot orbiting the moon, or to make spontaneous psychological investment in the existence of that teapot. Clarke’s teapot doesn’t matter to us. God does. We would really like to know whether he is out there, what he is, and what we need to do about it. And as yet, although many people have answered the question to their own psychological satisfaction, and many have not, intellectually there is still no completely definitive answer.

The purpose of this post was to explain the question I’m trying to ask. Inevitably (because I’m me) I have ended up rambling about other things which seemed relevant or appeared to shed some light, but the post is intended as an intellectual enquiry, not a defence of any theological position.

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