Saturday, February 03, 2007

Dawkins vs. God, Dawkins vs. Paine

Bout 1, Dawkins wins.

Bout 2, it’s not so clear.

I’m in the midst of Richard Dawkins’ excellent “The God Delusion.” It’s a very well written book, and a devastating critique of theism, particularly the Christian variant, and lays waste to creationism and ID.

I plan to comment in more depth after I finish it, and likely will have a number of criticisms. But for now, I want to take on an idea that appears in the book and seems fairly common in contemporary humanist and skeptical writing. This is a minor issue at best in Dawkins’ book, but something that’s of great interest to me, and also has implications for how we approach the debate over religion. It’s first of all a philosophical debate, and I think many modern skeptics, including Dawkins, seem to be missing this.

Dawkins ranks various sorts of ideas on religion, or degrees of belief in god, as: theist, deist, pantheist, atheist. Theist and atheist are the two extremes, the positions he’s testing. But what of deism and pantheism? Dawkins and other authors seem to regard pantheism (e.g. Einstein’s god) as a sort of watered down atheism, and deism (e.g. Thomas Paine’s god) as a sort of watered down theism, with a somewhat distinct difference between the two. I disagree with this on two grounds.

First, I am not so sure how distinct the difference between the deist and pantheist position is; having studied Paine’s “Age of Reason” quite carefully I can’t see it. (This deism-pantheism similarity holds at least with respect to Einstein’s variety – the case may be different with some pantheisms which are closer to straightforward theism, e.g. some New Age doctrines.) But this is an issue of relatively low importance, I think.

More importantly, I think that this analysis looks at these ideas as primarily metaphysical propositions, and thus misses something more fundamental: they are epistemological positions as well. And here, if we retain the theism through atheism ranking, the sharp divide is between theism and deism. “Age of Reason,” which I think is the definitive deist work, has tremendously much in common with the great (and also perhaps defining) atheist work, George Smith’s “Atheism: The Case Against God.” The sharp divide is over the roles of reason and faith, and both books crush the notion that we have any tools of acquiring knowledge other than reason, broadly defined to include rational analysis of the evidence of the senses. I don’t think that Dawkins and other modern critics of religion sufficiently appreciate this, nor its importance. They are, understandably, out to discredit religion, but empirical scientific arguments are insufficient to do this. To take on a metaphysical proposition requires a philosophical attack; in other words, fundamentally, religious ideas are not the empirically falsifiable hypotheses Dawkins seemingly thinks it is, and they must be discredited fundamentally on philosophical grounds: in epistemology, including a defense of reason and an attack on faith, and in metaphysics a clear demonstration of the contradictions in the notion of god.

It is clear that deism, as in Paine’s work, succeeds completely on the first point. It isn’t clear to me that Paine’s deism is so vulnerable on the second point, either. But regardless, the first point is sufficient to establish that deism shouldn’t be classified as akin to theism. This is fundamentally a battle for human reason, and deism is on the right side of that debate.


I don't think it is important to debate whether God exist or not. I happen to believe that he does. However, what's important is to allow the choice to believe or not. Faith or no faith, no religion or ideology and their tenets should be forced on anyone.

In my opinion, it is a big waste of time and energy to continue the argument over the evolution theory or the creation theory. I am a believer in the Genesis account, however, I don't think it is necessary to brow beat my fellow Americans to believe in it to. I have a great respect for the field of science. In my opinion, the evolution of the scientific mind and scientific knowledge is much more important than the big bang theory.

As an American citizen, I am very thankful that I have the freedom to practice my Christian faith without fear of persecution. And, I am thankful that those who do not believe have the same freedom to express their disbelief.

The problem that I see is that there is a wing of Christians that have made their faith a political platform and they want to use government power to enforce their agenda or worldview on all Americans. The same can be said about atheist, Darwinists, environmentalists, socialists, communists, and the other ists.

As a believer, I totally disagree with using the US government as an instrument or a vessel to further the cause of Christ. James Madison said that government was a necessary evil. And to me, it is a sin and a shame to use this evil as a bully pulpit to compel any American to subscribe to the Christian belief and its doctrine.

The writers of the constitution were brilliant in writing the US Constitution that adhered to one ideology, and that one is LIBERTY. They recognized that not everyone will have the same belief, the same mindset, the same morals, or the same philosophy. This is why the writers guaranteed in writing the freedom to believe in what you want without fearing the hand of government force, as long as the liberty of others are not trespass against.

The United States is not a Christian Nation, its is a nation that allows the freedom to worship God. Also, and equally so, it is a nation that allows the freedom not to.
Thanks for your comment. Keep them coming.

I fully agree with you that individuals must be left free to determine their own beliefs, for many reasons, but the primacy of the individual's rights is reason enough.

But I don't agree at all that debating evolution vs. creation is a waste of time. It is a very important scientific issue, and it has been promoted to something even larger -- a battle over the very definition of science, i.e. a fundamental epistemological debate.

Why we believe what we do is, in some respects, more important than the content of our belief. Belief on the basis of faith tends to make us impervious to reason and evidence. If our minds and beliefs can't be changed by reason and evidence, then there's no systematic way for us to improve our knowledge, get rid of incorrect ideas and replace them with better ones.

This, in turn, makes it so much harder to combat socialism, statism, and similar destructive doctrines.

You probably can agree that a high percentage of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians believe that morality compels them to try to get control of government and use it to force what they suppose is God's will on the rest of us. It's a dangerous thing, and it calls for an intellectual battle.
"But I don't agree at all that debating evolution vs. creation is a waste of time. It is a very important scientific issue, and it has been promoted to something even larger -- a battle over the very definition of science, i.e. a fundamental epistemological debate."

In reflection, I agree with you that evolution vs. creation debate is not a waste of time. However, that debate, in my opinion, should be in the public square, not in the chambers of government.

I find it very alarming that there are sects of activists in all ideological camps that want to politicize every issue. When I said it was a waste of time to debate evolution/creation, I meant doing so with the government as the moderator and final authority.

To me, intellectual debate over any subject should take place in the auditorium of civil society. In this setting, the influence of reason will be based on the articulation of logic, fact, and evidence, not force.

I find it very troubling that global warming advocates are just as bad as religious fundamentalists. Neither allows intellectual challenge to their position. And both want to make their proposals federal law without debate. If their cause merits any standing, they don't need government force to make it legit. But, their cause is weak, because their ability to influence with reason is weak. That is why they turn to the power of government to force their belief on the opposing majority.
I agree with you.

Ideas have consequences, and good ideas will win out over less good ones, so long as we all have the freedom to decide for ourselves. The idea that some of us shouldn't be free to choose, that others will use gov't to "choose" for us, is particularly destructive, because implemented, it condemns us to live in chains, and with bad ideas and poorly functioning systems.

This is a lesson we all need to teach anyone who considers using gov't to force their ideas on others.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not everyone is entitled to their own facts. The existence and nature of God are facts, but right now they are unknowable facts, just like our belief or disbelief that there is life in a distant galaxy may be right or wrong in fact, but there's no way we can tell.

Whether evolution by natural selection occurs on this planet is a knowable fact, and at this point seems to be a known fact. Even Saint Augustine cautioned against adhering to faith in the face of known science. At least, where science provides an account, spiritual accounts should be recognized as the allegory that they almost certainly are.

God can not be imagined providing visions that explain DNA mutations to a primitive shepherd or craftsman in a way the ancient person would understand. If God communicates with man, it is allegorical, not meant to convey scientific or even moral realities, but some semblence of spiritual beauty.

As between Deism and Pantheism, there is a middle ground of Pandeism. Pandeism is the idea that rather than God creating a universe and then not providing any interaction with it, and rather than God being just another name for an eternal universe, God created the universe by becoming it. So, Pandeism says, God created the universe and God is the universe, and all revelation or mystical experience is not an intentional act of God, but a side-effect of us all being part of God. Pandeism, at least, follows to the end the approach of using reason and science to determine, as much as it can be determined, the truth about God.
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