Tuesday, March 28, 2006

God, Dawkins and Medeleine Bunting

Madeleine Bunting has an article in the Guardian (27/3/06) attacking Richard Dawkins. I'm not the kind of person who has "heroes" but if I was, Dawkins would be one of them. His books - especially The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker - are wonderfully written, and well-argued. Unlike many popularisers of science Dawkins does not condescend to his readers - he writes for a non-technical but intelligent audience and takes the reader through some rigorous argument. He also has a facility for just the right metaphor or simile. Now, Dawkins is more than capable of looking after himself, but it seems to me Bunting misunderstands his argument. She claims that Dawkins view is that Dawinism "leads ineluctably to atheism". I may be mistaken but I don't think that is what he argues. What Darwinism does - so far as this agument (about God) is concerned - is to comprehensively demolish one central argument for the existence of God: the "argument from design". It does this by showing that the complex design of biological organisms does not presuppose a creator, but can be explained by chance genetic variation/natural selection. Darwinism also disproves simplistic literalist religious accounts of creation (e.g. creationism, which thanks to Blair and his faith schools is spreading here), although that had earlier been disproved by the geologists. Dawkins is also, of course, an atheist. But here he uses arguments which are not directly derived from Darwinism. For example, his reply to the "Agument from a First Cause" it that it presupposes the existence of somehing (God) at least as complex as what it is supposed to explain (the existence of the universe) and of which it offers no explanation whatever. Bertrand Russell made a similar argument: if we have to have an "uncaused cause" it might as well be the universe itself as God. This is a good argument, but it doesn't come from Darwin. Dawkins also deploys arguments in which he uses his knowledge of the natural world, but again, not strictly Darwinist arguments: e.g. that the existence of parasites who eat their host alive from the inside out shows that a creator could hardly be supposed to be benevolent (Dawkins could also refer to epidemic diseases from cholera to Aids; or to natural catastrophes from the Lisbon earthquake to the recent tsunami). He also makes the point that atheism cannot be proven since that involves proving the non-existence of something (How can you prove that something does not exist? The burden of proof lies with those who claim that it does). By the same token, one cannot disprove the existence of the "flying spaghetti monster", but there is no good reason to think it exists. The fact is, there is no evidence and no persuasive arguments whatever for the existence of God. The appeal to "faith" is simply irrational. Bunting goes on to talk about the possible beneficial effects of religious belief. It seems to me obvious that it has often had very malignant effects (this is obviously true of the fundamentalist versions that are becoming more influential). But let's suppose it does sometimes have beneficial effects. So what? The argument is not about whether religion is useful or beneficient, or about why it is that so many people believe it (that is another argument): the argument is about whether it is true or not. If someone who, lets say, has lost a loved one, seeks some comfort in religion, then (in my view) that's fine (I suppose). But what this person believes isn't true; and perhaps the world would be a better place if we valued truth more than comforting falsehoods. For the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster go to this web-site: http://www.venganza.org/
And for Dawkins go here:


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