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Review: Vulgar materialism meets the spirit world

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, Black Swan, London 2007, paperback, £8.99

14 October 2007

John McAnulty

“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is….. the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”

(Karl Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February, 1844)

Should socialists welcome Richard Dawkins book ‘The God Delusion’? At first sight this seems a strange question.  Why would we not welcome an acclaimed best-seller that debunks religion? Yet the answer is not straightforward.  Dawkins trashes religion, but he does so from a crude and dogmatic positivism and reductionism that is thoroughly reactionary.  In fact it the failure of the form of science espoused by Dawkins as an overarching explanation of our place in the world and as a guide to the goals we should set ourselves and how humans should conduct themselves that to some extent has fed the rise of religious fundamentalism.  In the end the book becomes a tiresome rant, a tirade of abuse by one dogmatist against another set of dogmatists.

A key strand in the book is an examination of the everyday belief that religion deals with matters of the spirit, that science deals with matter and energy and that the two do not conflict or overlap.  Dawkins dismisses this utterly, labelling it NOMA – Non Overlapping Magesteria. From his viewpoint the irrational mumbo-jumbo of religion has nothing to say. Why leave the question of the existence of God to the clergy? he asks, why not leave it to the gardener? (p80)  On the other hand, science is perfectly well equipped to test the idea that the universe was designed by an intelligent being and the alternative idea that it evolved. It may not be able to come to a final conclusion, but it can access the probability of each hypothesis.

The book demonstrates this by refuting some of the standard arguments for religion.  An example is the Thomas Aquinas argument of regress.  Aquinas argues that, as all the things we know have a cause, and as their causes also have causes, there must originally have been an initial cause and this would have been god.  Dawkins argues that there is no need to stop an infinite regress and, if it is stopped, no need to label the first cause god – the idea that the universe originated in a big bang is just as good. (p101)  In my view he is being somewhat unfair to Aquinas by not situating him in his time.  Aquinas’ argument was a genuine attempt to apply logic to the question of god’s existence and the logic, while flawed, is not far away from the earlier paradox of Zeno.  Zeno argued that if Achilles were to chase a tortoise, he would never catch it, as it would have always travelled some fraction further away and the fraction would never be zero. This paradox stood for centuries until the mathematics of differential calculus was established.  The views of antiquity on mathematics and science can equally be derided and would equally fail to credit the thinkers of the past for their contribution to human thought.

Dawkins then ties himself to a rather rigid and limiting view of science, closely linked to the positivist views of philosophers such as Ernst Mach.  He gives as a case study the question of the existence of other worlds and the possibility of life on these worlds and quotes approvingly from the astronomer Carl Sagan. (p94)  Sagan, asked to give a gut feeling on the possibility of life on other worlds, replied that he never thought with his gut.  This a classic example of a positivist approach, attempting to limit science to what can be directly observed.  It also a very bounded approach, lacking in imagination.  One other approach is to use Occam’s razor, and assume that the simplest approach is the correct one.  The cosmological version of this is the ‘principle of mediocrity’, which assumes that much of the universe is like our local bit.  From this viewpoint, planets and life would be commonplace, and in the case at least of planets this has proved to be the case.  As with many positivists, Dawkins then swings to the other extreme and discusses the possibility that we live in a multiverse – multiple universes existing side by side in a multidimensional reality.  This is simply science speculation, and we currently have no methods of testing this possibility.  By advancing it Dawkins departs from the positivist base on which he initially stood and weakens his position. 

The book is peppered with a range of horror stories about the activities of religious fundamentalists, divided between Islamic fundamentalists and the Christian right in the U.S. While both are equally derided, Dawkins goes to some trouble to argue that the Christian right are an anomaly, sharply at variance with US capital and its separation of church and state.   He shows pretty conclusively that Thomas Jefferson was an agnostic (p63), but ignores all the strong evidence that the U.S. founding fathers, in separating the functions of church and state, did not see themselves as acting against religion in fact what the separation did do is prevent any restrictions being placed on the development of US capitalism.  The book ascribes the strength of American fundamentalism today as due to the stupidity of the lower orders, quoting with approval statistics indicating that the educated elite are much more likely to be atheists, but does not consider that possibility that this elite might welcome religious domination of the lower orders.  This is a strange omission, when one considers that the present US administration depended on just such a strategy to secure election and that the Chicago school of philosophy, to which the majority of neocons belong, advocated keeping the masses in servitude with myths that the elite privately rejected.

The book is at its strongest when it enters battle against the creationists, disguised as advocates of the argument for intelligent design as the source of biological diversity.  While we admire Dawkins ripostes to this thoroughly dishonest and reactionary argument, we should remember that the chief desire of the creationists is to be included in the ‘debate’.  There is no debate.  Evolution is at the centre of modern biological thought and the foundation of modern rational thought. It can be observed directly in the evolution of the AIDS virus. There is no counterargument, simply bigoted nonsense, based on superstition. 

The author’s explains that natural selection, rather than so-called ‘intelligent design’, can explain the evolution of the world we live in.  He explains that natural selection is not ‘blind chance’, but rather the stepwise change of our genes in relation to environmental pressure which, over long periods of time, gives rise to new forms. Creationists use a few basic arguments over and over.  One is that there are gaps in the fossil record – of course there are – the overwhelming majority of past creatures leave no trace at all.  Their main argument is irreducible complexity.  The eye is far too complex to arise by chance and half an eye would be of no use.  Dawkins demonstrates that this idea is totally false (p149).  The ability to tell light from dark confers evolutionary advantage and gradual stepwise improvements, many of which can be seen in living creatures and in the fossil record, eventually over geologic time measured in the millions and hundreds of millions of years, lead to the human eye (and to more evolved vision systems).

The creationists today use the mechanism of the flagellar motor that allows bacteria to move as their example of ‘irreducible complexity’.  This is simply an old argument in a new guise, but Dawkins goes to a great deal of trouble to demolish the argument, and does so extremely effectively.

On balance however even this riposte to the creationists disappoints.  The positions are skewed by the perceived need to answer their arguments of the bigots and lack the detail of works such a Dawkins earlier book ‘The blind watchmaker’. 

Things are to become even more disappointing.  Richard Dawkins is justly famous as a populariser of Darwin.  In addition he represents a school of extreme biological reductionism and is associated with the ideas of ‘sociobiology’, where zealots set out to ‘explain’ human behaviour as being the direct outcome of genetics or biological pressures from before prehistory.  His role as populariser comes to the fore in ‘The Blind Watchmaker’.  His role of zealot comes to the fore in ‘The Selfish Gene’.  The name is almost self-explanatory.  Genetic reductionism is taken to the extreme and living organisms seen as mere vehicles for transferring the ‘real’ world of the gene across the generations.

In ‘The Selfish Gene’ Dawkins argues that “a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness.  This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour.”

The author eschews any attempt to moralise about society.  He proclaims his wish to build “a society in which individuals co-operate generously and towards a common good”. However that declaration turns out to be a belief that, like the Christian view of original sin, we might, through dint of intensive education, be able to rise above our irremediably selfish nature.  He goes on to remark:

“If genes really turn out to be totally irrelevant in the determination of modern human behaviour”, (which he has already defined as selfish) “If we really are unique among animals in this respect, it is, at the very least, still interesting to enquire about the rule to which we have so recently become the exception”. (p 4, Dawkins, 1999)

Stephen Jay Gould, whom Dawkins criticises as soft on religion, provided many of the refutations of this mechanical view.  He points out that the majority of genetic material is simply gibberish – blank sequences of DNA that do the organism no good and no harm either – evolution does not proceed in a measured way or even in any particular direction – periods of stability are interrupted by sudden periods of mass extinction.  In evolution co-operative behaviour is just as likely to evolve as competition. In his book ‘Wonderful Life’ Gould argues that there is strong evidence for the role of accident in evolution. He does not forget the simple fact that human culture evolves through its own laws and not simply as a result of genetic imperatives. (Gould 1989)

Dawkins theory is such that he does not so much explain co-operation between or within species as explain it away as a special form of selfishness. In the same way he sets out to explain away religion.  In a very revealing passage he applies the circular logic forced on him by his zealotry. All behaviour is determined by natural selection.  Only behaviour that advantages the organism and its genes survives.  In some way religion must convey such advantage (p192).  Having advanced such an explanation he immediately rejects it.  Religion cannot be an advantage. It wastes vast resources and leads its followers to sacrifice themselves and their genes.  He discusses theories of group selection.  Perhaps religion damages the individual but strengthens the group?  This is rejected as unproven. As a byproduct of something else?  Perhaps the extreme gullibility of children enables humans to survive more easily in that they can simply be told to avoid danger, rather than having to learn through harming themselves, while at the same time this willingness to accept instruction makes them susceptible to religion?  Perhaps the evolutionary success of love leads to religion?  Dawkins finally argues that certain evolutionary ‘mind modules’ – a design stance, a physical stance, and an intentional stance, predisposed the early human brain to religion.  His stronger argument here is fatally undermined when he outlines fully his own stance – the theory of the extended phenotype.

He argues: “An animal’s behaviour tends to maximise the survival of genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes tend to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.” (p 193)

From this point of view it is easy to dismiss religion as some sort of virus, but the price of this dismissal is the invention of a new god – the god of the gene, capable of superhuman powers and with limitless ability to explain everything – even when its not there! 

The book goes on to suggest that mental genes, called memes, and collections of such genes, called memeplexes, may explain the survival of religious ideas (p 228).  Of course, there is not the slightest evidence for the existence of such bodies, or of a mechanism for their replication.  They are made necessary by the dogmatic belief that the explanation for the evolution of human culture and society must reduce to the laws of biology. As I argued initially, one dogmatist berates others to their mutual satisfaction, but without bringing clarity to the subject. Neither offers a satisfactory explanation for the persistence of irrational beliefs in a modern world based on science.

Marxists have such an explanation.  People are not simply made by the actions of biology nor or they designed in the image of an imaginary god.  People make themselves.  They do this through their collective interaction with nature and their ability to construct a collective culture that forms the world of the spirit, simply our experiences of the material world mediated through our culture.  In this way people make god, not the other way around. By simply uttering any noun humans are lifting themselves out of the merely biological and expressing an idealist concept. For example, abstracting all the characteristics of all the trees in the world and deriving common characteristics all summed up in the word ‘tree’.  Through this mechanism human thought is given unrivalled power, enabling humans to think ‘outside their heads’ with the tools of language, culture and society.

This sort of perception allows us to understand religion.  By far the most complex demands on early humans were the demands of their new society.  They needed a theory of mind to understand the intentions and predict the actions of other members of their group.  All thinking took on an anthropomorphic slant, with hunters seeing human agency in their prey The Prehistory of the Mind, Mithin S (1996) and everyone seeing natural phenomena as the result of agency and illness and disaster as the work of evil beings.  From this perspective all deisms are not, as Richard Dawkins believes, the same.  Polytheism is a natural outgrowth of a world in which every action is seen as having human-like agency.  Monotheism is not a variant of polytheism, but as an immense cultural advance, allowing a unified view of the natural world and giving firm foundations for the growth of philosophy and science while at the same time acting to constrain their growth.

Science long ago outgrew religion, but it did not gain independence.  It developed in the shadow of capitalism and its rationalism and inventiveness turned, not to addressing human needs, but to addressing the need for profit. Indeed the advance of capital led to new forms of religion to celebrate and justify the new society. The advance of science, and the advance of capital, have led to immense progress and triumph over nature, but these have been distorted.  Because human needs were not fully met, capital continued to subsidise religion as a method of social control and to develop a limited form of science, reductionism, that told us that nature condemned us to be greedy and selfish and to prey on each other. 

The history of the modern world in the advanced capitalist countries has been overwhelmingly that of a growing indifference to religion. The more capitalism was able to appear to meet human wants and develop the standard of living, the less it seems necessary to invest in a pie in the sky belief that satisfied our needs in the afterlife. All that is coming to an end.  Despite centuries of medical advances we have medical services that fail us and routinely make us ill, food that poisons us and a population divided between obesity and starvation, uncertainty as to whether our children will have a decent education or a roof over their heads, abolition of civil rights and the threat of endless war.  Is it hardly surprising that many people seek consolation in alternative therapies, in mumbo-jumbo, in religion and in all sorts of add beliefs and consolations or that our rulers use many of these mechanisms of consolation to bind us to them. As Karl Marx said so long ago:

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. 

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” 

(Karl Marx, ibid, 1844)

Dawkins tries to defeat religious dogmatism with his own dogmatism, and to do so on religion’s own ground – by, for example, double-blind experiments that prove the ineffectiveness of prayer.  Does he believe that this will prevent one prayer escaping skyward?  In a world without compassion people want consolation.  In a world where the working class are without power they want the illusion of being able to influence events.  Science can be the handmaiden of a new society, but only through the process of social revolution and the building of a different, socialist world, free of the power of capital. 

Richard Dawkins believes that current society is the inevitable outcome of biological processes and a new society is only possible if we struggle endlessly against our own nature.  That makes his criticisms of religion impotent and his book one of those coffee-table books that gains the attention of the chattering classes for a season, reassures them that they at least are intelligent and can see through the popular illusions, and then lies forgotten until the next fad.

Rud eile


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