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Monday, February 15, 2010

The God Delusion and disproving God's existence: Dawkins' bias

Some time ago, I posted on a book by Alister McGrath, who criticized Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I received some comments on that post. One of those comments said that I had mistakenly said that Dawkins claimed to have proved that God doesn't exist. The commenter was correct, and I was mistaken. I apologize.

I have since read The God Delusion, and wish to comment on what Dawkins actually said in the book.

First, as Dawkins admits, this is a book of advocacy. "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." (p. 5) There's nothing wrong with advocacy, but it should not be confused with unbiased scholarship (if there is any such thing).

Dawkins shows his bias occasionally. He claims that several prominent thinkers, including some of the founding fathers (38-9), were atheists, although they called themselves deists.

One of the most remarkable statements in The God Delusion is this: "I simply do not believe that Gould could have possibly meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages." (57) See this Wikipedia article on Gould's book. What Stephen Jay Gould wrote was that religion and science each have a valid place, and are useful for different things. Dawkins doesn't bring any evidence to support his belief that Gould didn't mean what he said. Why should Gould have written a book with a central claim that he didn't believe? Gould was a scientist with impeccable credentials, and also perhaps the most important communicator of science to the public in the US at that time. His stature, and experience, were surely such that he had no need to write something he didn't want to. That would almost be the equivalent of someone saying that Dawkins really is, say, a closet Buddhist. It's hard to imagine anyone saying that Gould wrote a book that he didn't believe in, and, I'm afraid, claiming that he did shows Dawkins' strong bias. Here is a short excerpt from Gould's book:
I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values-subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.* Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballentine, 1999, pp. 4-5.

And here is a quotation from an essay by Gould, written earlier, that presents the same idea:
I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion…If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. Stephen Jay Gould, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" Natural History 106:16-22; 60-62, March, 1997. Quote is from pages 61 and 62.

I can't believe (because of my own bias, perhaps) that a tenured scientist who had the ear of the public, had written several well-received books, and had written that he is not a religious man, should have been so afraid of stating atheistic beliefs, that he wrote positively about the validity of religious thought.

Why would Dawkins say that people who claimed not to be atheists were, in fact, atheists? Well, one reason, of course, is that, just as some conservative Christians claim that all the Founding Fathers had beliefs compatible with theirs, either in spite of the evidence, or without examining it, Dawkins wants to show that the beliefs of prominent people were compatible with his. He wants this to be true so badly that he makes unsubstantiated claims. In fairness, there is another reason that has some validity, namely that atheists may be afraid to be labeled as such, especially in the US. Dawkins mentions that. But I don't accept that as an explanation for Gould's book, nor do I accept that all Founding Fathers who said that they were deists were actually atheists, but were afraid to say so.

As this Wikipedia article on Deism puts it (accessed February 2, 2010): Currently there is an ongoing controversy in the United States over whether or not the country was founded as a "Christian nation" based on Judeo-Christian ideals. This has spawned a subsidiary controversy over whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, deists, or something in between.

Note that the article does not even mention that they might have been atheists.

So Dawkins is biased. That's common, in books of advocacy, and forgivable, but it means that Dawkins' claims in this book should be treated with considerable skepticism.

I close this post (I expect there will be a few more on this subject) with a confession, or retraction. In an earlier post, I said that Dawkins claimed that he had proved that God does not exist. For the few who read this blog, including the previous post, I'm sorry. I was carried away by my own bias, and shouldn't have been. Dawkins did not really say that. He does say that he has good evidence that God does not exist, but does not make the stronger claim.

Thanks for reading.

*Lest there be any doubt, I disagree with Gould. I believe that, if we could interpret scientific and Biblical evidence correctly (and we have problems with both) they would agree. I can't prove that, but I believe it.

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