5: Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins
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And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
When Dawkins talks about 'religion', I think he means simply 'belief in "God" ': the opinion that the universe and everything in it including us was designed and created by a superhuman and supernatural intelligence. Confucianism and Buddhism are not to be regarded as religions because they don't include a 'God'. It's a a perfectly good definition; but it leaves us wanting some other word for all the stories, rituals, ceremonies, ethical teachings, taboos, songs and coffee mornings that account for the majority of what goes on in church.
I suggest that we use the word cultus to refer to religion in this wider sense. 'Cult' sounds too sinister and 'quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.'
Now, you can believe in a supernatural designer without participating in cultus and you can participate in cultus without believing in a designer. You might think that the universe was designed but not feel the slightest inclination to talk to the person who designed it; you might pray to a supernatural being without thinking that he or she designed the universe. Communism has a collection of songs, stories, rituals, heroes, holy days, holy places, a holy book and even holy relics. (So does the Tolkien Society, come to that.) You could reasonably describe communism as a form of cultus; but not as a religion, because it rather emphatically doesn't believe in 'God'.
Once you've spotted this distinction, a lot of Dawkins' hobby-horses begin to look decidedly wobbly. He gets extremely and repeatedly annoyed about the phrase 'Christian child'–how, he invects, can a child possibly know whether or not he's a Christian? And isn't foisting the term on him a form of intellectual child-abuse? (Clue: No.) Dawkins is pretending that he thinks that the phrase 'Christian child' refers to a child's religion–his or her opinion about the existence or lack of existence of a supernatural designer. In fact it almost certainly refers to the cultus in which the child participates. When you ask if a child is Catholic or Jewish you are asking, very innocently, which rituals he feels comfortable with–whether he looks forward to Christmas or Hannukah, whether he says 'Hail Mary Full of Grace!' or 'Hear Oh Israel! The Lord Thy God is One!' when he wakes up, whether feeding him flesh on Friday or pig-flesh on any day would be likely to upset him.
Dawkins also got awfully cross in the newspapers because some guy who played a monster in Doctor Who remarked that he would find it comforting to believe in God. Dawkins fulminated that whether it was comforting or not doesn't make any difference: all that matters is whether it is true and the minute someone showed him some proof he'd change his mind blah-de-blah. But clearly, Peter Kay had meant 'It would be a comfort to me to participate in a cultus,': Dawkins pretended that he thought he meant 'It would be a comfort to me to be convinced of the existence of a superhuman designer.'
Towards the end of the God Delusion, Dawkins reproduces A.A Milne's poem 'Binker' in full. Binker was one of Christopher Robin's 'imaginary friends'. Binker and Christopher Robin go everywhere together, but only Christopher Robin can see him. Many children imagine that they have such friends, and Dawkins is interested in the possibility that they are 'a higher illusion, in a different category from ordinary childhood make believe' and that 'at least some of these normal children who have imaginary friends really do believe they exist, and, in some cases, see them as clear and vivid hallucinations.'
As ever, Dawkins reading of the poem isn't especially sensitive. A.A Milne's 'Binker' isn't something that Christopher Robin really believes in, but a playful fib which he tells the grown-ups. He's no different from Pooh and Piglet in that respect.
So I have to say to people when they offer me a sweet
'Oh Binker wants a chocolate, so could you give me two?'
Then I have to eat it for him cos his teeth are rather new.
'What's twice eleven?' said I to Pooh,
('Twice what?' said Pooh to me.)
'I think it ought to be twenty-two.'
'Just what I think myself,' said Pooh....
Dawkins muses that perhaps people who believe in God have retained their imaginary friends into adult life; or at any rate, that the 'God' phenomenon and the 'Binker' phenomenon could be related.
I'm a lot less offended by this idea than Dawkins presumably intends me to be. When he says that I believe in an invisible man in the sky or a creationist micro-manager, I find myself hurling the book across the coffee shop and saying 'What you are talking about has nothing to do with the God of my religion. Why don't you go and talk to some Christians, you insufferably silly little man.' But when he gets to the description of the 'imaginary friend' I have to admit that I said 'Yes. Danged if it isn't a bit like that.'
In the unlikely event of any of Dawkins' groupies reading this far, I'm sure they will rub their knuckles together with glee and say 'Famous god-blothering bogger admits Jesus is a large purple rabbit called Harvey.' I don't, of course. But I concede that 'God is a bit like Binker' is a much more useful statement than 'God is a sky-fairy.'
At the very least, the idea could provide a frame of reference that would allow atheists and normal people to communicate with each other. If I said 'I have to wear this hat, because otherwise my imaginary friend will be very, very sad,' you might think me slightly eccentric (OK, extremely eccentric) but you'd hardly get angry about it. But if I said that the name of my imaginary friend was 'Allah' and not 'Binker' after all, then some people wouldn't just get angry: they'd actually demand parliamentary legislation to ban hats. (Not all hats: just the kinds of hats that Binker likes.) If Binker gave me good advise–if he told me to give money to a good cause, or have a proper rest once a week, you'd probably smile and say 'Good old Binker!' But if Binker told me to do something silly–draw on the wall with my crayons, say, or invade Iraq, you would be more likely to say 'Well, I don't think you can have heard Binker properly'.
Are atheists simply funny people who 'can't see Binker'? Or is it that they can see him, but interpret him differently? Perhaps atheistssay 'I think Binker is a product of my own mind' whereas theists say 'No, I think Binker comes from outside of me,' and add 'We think he's somehow related to the Great Douglas who wrote the universe.' (Well, most of them would. There are people who talk to Binker, who think it's important to talk to Binker, but who think that Binker is something that comes from inside themselves. This approach is particularly popular among serious pagans like Alan Moore. There are also people who say 'Maybe Binker comes from inside me, and maybe he comes from the outside. I don't know and I don't think it matters.' These are known as 'Anglicans'.) I don't see any reason why the friendless minority can't indulgently make space for imaginary bales of hay for Binker's reindeer; while the the rest of us politely explain what Binker thinks to the funny people who can't see him. Most of the time, we'd probably get on reasonably well.
Dawkins says that the phenomenon of the imaginary friend brings him about as close as he can get to understanding what it would be like to have a religion. But I submit that this isn't true.
Consider. On page 117 he quotes an interview with Douglas Adams in which Adams says he was converted from vague agnosticism to atheism as a result of reading The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins exclaims:
Douglas, I miss you. You are my cleverest, wittiest, tallest and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh–though not as much as you made me.
It is, to say the least, suspicious that this is how the poster-boy for militant atheism deals with bereavement. This is unmistakably a prayer: a ritual invocation to an imperceptible being who cannot possibly exist in the empirical universe. I am not (N-O-T) suggesting that Dawkins 'really' believes in life after death or 'really' thinks that Douglas Adams can hear him. He's performing a ritual–playing a lets-pretend game of Douglas still being alive; dealing with the fact that there is no longer a Douglas in the world by talking to the picture of Douglas in his memory. But that's awfully like what people do when they participate in cultus.
So, Professor: believing in God (the God of the Christian cultus, not necessarily the creationist micro-manager) is a bit like having a Binker; which you can identify with, just a little. It's also a bit like talking to your dead best mate, something which you admit to doing. Do we have anything else in common?
Well, there's the matter of religious–that is to say, cultic–art. Dawkins is rather confused on this issue. In the introduction to the book he quotes John Lennon's Imagine and pretends that he thinks that the song is calling for the abolition of cultus in general. (Whenever anyone asked him John Lennon said that the song was a denunciation of denominationalism and sectarianism–not personal faith.) Dawkins asks us to Imagine all the Bad Things which would go away if there was no heaven and no religion too-oo.
Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheading of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it...
Slow down. The Taliban were religious, in the sense that in their opinion, a being called Allah really exists. They were also a cultus in that they believed that you should pray five times a day, study the Koran, fast during Ramadan and so on. It is a matter of record that they had the ancient statues at Bamyan destroyed. But Professor, who put up the statues? Buddhist monks, that's who. Possibly the monks were not religious, in the sense that they didn't necessarily believe in a designer-God but they were certainly part of a cultus and they had lots and lots of supernatural beliefs which you would think were Bad Things. So what you should have said is 'Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues. Imagine no ancient statues for the Taliban to blow up.' This is absolutely emblematic of your confused attitude. When a religious organisation does something which annoys you, you take it for granted that it was Caused By Religion. But when a religious organisation does something which you quite like you don't think that 'religion' had anything to do with it. You hardly spot that there was any religion involved at all.
(The bit about the abuse of women in some Islamic societies is worth pondering, too. Is Dawkins saying that if there were no 'religion' (i.e. if no-one believed in a Designer) then:
- There would be no clothing taboos and everyone would walk around naked.
There would still be clothing taboos, but they wouldn't be enforced by law: people might look at you in a funny way if you did walk around naked, but no-one would arrest you.
There would be clothing taboos, and they would be enforcible by law, but they would apply equally to men and women. The situation which prevails in the UK at the present time, where men are allowed to publicly remove their vests but women can be arrested for publicly removing their bras arise because people think the world was created by a supernatural designer.
- There would be gender specific clothing taboos, but the legal penalty for breaking them would never involve inflicting physical pain. The situation which prevailed in England up to 1948, where the offence of indecent exposure (which can be committed by a man but not by a woman) was punishable by whipping arose because the people of the time believed that the universe was created by a supernatural designer.
All of this sounds like nonsense; and not very much less like nonsense if you assume he means that Saudi modesty laws are the product of the Moslim cultus and not from the belief in Allah alone. It looks to me as if, without thinking, he has taken the clothing taboos in modern England for granted and assumed that when Johnny Foreigner has different standards of modesty he's going against the natural order of things, presumably as a result of some queer native superstition.)
When he was on Desert Island Discs, Dawkins selected an excerpt from Bach's St Matthew Passion as one of his favourite records. He pretends not to understand why normal people thought this was a bit odd.
The interviewer asked me how I could choose religious music without being religious. You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed.
This is another blustering non sequitur. Emily Bronte believed that Heathcliff was a fictional character and presented her book as a work of fiction. Bach believed Jesus was a real person, and presented his Passion as a retelling of and meditation on events that he thought really happened. Bronte wrote a story which she hoped would surprise and excite and delight her readers; Bach composed a piece of music which he hoped would bring his listeners closer to God. The question of whether a work is presented as fiction or non-fiction as a profound effect on the way we read it. Would Robinson Crusoe be the same book it were discovered to be the real diary of a real castaway? Would you even bother to read The Diary of Anne Frank if it turned out to be a work of fiction? No, the fact that Bach believed Jesus to be a real person doesn't mean that his music can only be enjoyed by people who think the same. There would be nothing at all surprising about someone saying 'The story of Jesus dying and rising again is a beautiful story and I love to listen to it, but unlike Bach, I don't think that it is really true.' People say things of the same kind every day. I myself don't believe in Time was incarnate in a person called Krishna but I might put the Indian language Maharbarata on the short list of Greatest TV Shows Not Featuring a Police Box. But Dawkins doesn't think that the story of the passion of the Christ is a beautiful story. He thinks it is 'sadomasochistic', 'barking mad', 'viciously unpleasant', 'tortuously nasty' and incidentally, that the people who disseminate it are worse than child molesters. What is going on when someone says that a musical celebration of a perverted, insane, vicious, unpleasant, nasty story is the one of eight things he couldn't manage without on a desert island? Dawkins pretends that he thinks that Sue Lawley thinks that it's odd that someone who doesn't believe in Jesus would want to listen to songs about Jesus. I'm sure she doesn't think anything nearly so silly. What she probably thinks is odd is that someone who finds a particular story horrible should want to listen to it over and over again. It's a bit like a noted black man who's campaigned all his life for racial equality saying that Birth of a Nation is his favourite movie. It's possible, of course: maybe he admires the camera work, or finds that it helps him understand how racists think. But he wouldn't come over all wounded if Ms. Lawley asked him why.
Dawkins wants us to think that the 'God' element in cultic art is really incidental. In the past artists had to look for patrons and the church was rich: so naturally, they produced religious art. If the patrons had been different, the art would have been different too. This is another example of Dawkins' 'Heads I win, tails you lose' argument. Religious artists like Bach or Michelangelo were sublime despite the fact that they dealt with religious subjects. If they'd dealt with secular ones, they might have been even better. ('What a shame that we are deprived of Haydan's "Evolution Oratorio."') But a secular artist like Shakespeare was sublime because he was secular; it is 'chilling' to imagine Will with a Church commission because we would have lost his great plays and got something worse in return.
(Of course, it's sheer bloody nonsense to see Shakespeare as purely a secular writer. Merchant of Venice is partly about the difference between Jewish theological conceptions of Law and Christian theological conceptions of Grace; Macbeth is partly about Calvinistic pre-destination; King Lear is partly concerned with the fate of the just pagan and what 'goodness' means in a pre-Christian world; Hamlet is very much about where the dead go now that purgatory has been abolished. Perhaps Dawkins needs to have his consciousness raised by–well, thinking, basically.)
Does Dawkins think that the words are simply irrelevant to Christian music? That if you took the words he wants on his desert island:
Purify yourself, my heart,
I myself will bury Jesus.
For he shall henceforth evermore
sweetly take his rest in me.
World, get out, let Jesus in!
and replaced them with, say:
But it may be asked, what ought we to do,
If it could be proved that one species of kangaroo
Had been produced
By a long course
Of modification, from a bear?
–it wouldn't really make any difference? That Bach isn't using music to convey his emotional response to a sacred story but merely making a pleasing sound. If I thought Dawkins thought that, I would write him off as an alien, or (seriously) conclude that he was mentally ill.
But in truth methinks that Dawkins doth protesteth too much. When he says he thinks that the idea that Jesus died for the world (which is a longer way of spelling 'Christianity') is crazy and kinky he doesn't really mean it–any more than he means that my-friend-the-Bishop-of-Oxford is some kind of spiritual kiddy-fiddler. When he hears the story of the Passion told by a really great artist, he finds it just as moving as the rest of the human race. Bach's music expresses the Christian doctrine of the atonement better than Anselm's theological doctrine of penal substitution. Bach speaks to Dawkins heart better than Anselm speaks to his head. I am not (n-o-t) saying that Dawkins is 'really' a Christian because he is deeply moved by a work of art about Jesus dying for Sin. But he evidently doesn't hate the story nearly as much as he'd like us to think.
Dawkins thinks that religion and morality can both be explained in Darwinian terms. Things we think of as 'moral' often have a clear survival value: we feel that we should take care of our children because it's to our genetic advantage to do so. Other kinds of behaviour may have no survival value in themselves, but be the result of what he calls 'misfiring'. Small monkeys which unquestioningly believe big monkeys when they say 'There are crocodiles in that pool' are more likely to survive than ones which question their elders and conduct experiments. But this might leave them with a genetic predisposition to believe their elders unquestioningly when they talk about God or Patriotism or some other lie. (Dawkins doesn't think this is true, necessarily, but he thinks that it is the kind of thing which might be.)
Much of what we think of as 'moral' behaviour may also be the result of this kind of 'misfiring'. Dawkins uses the example of an infertile couple adopting someone else's child. The desire for a child can be easily explained as a mechanism for passing on our genes, even though in the particular case of adoption, it's being used to preserve someone else's. Or, because you are 'programmed' to help the carrier of your genes, you would willingly die to save your child's life, but this has the knock-on effect of you being prepared to die to save the life of someone else's child. And now comes the bombshell:
We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated to us and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile and otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfiring, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes. Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity. Nor of sexual desire...
So: I have the urge to do certain things: adopt an orphan child; help a suffering person; talk to Binker. Some of those urges, like loving my neighbour, are 'blessed, precious and noble' and I should pay attention to them. Others, like talking to Binker, are malign and I need Richard Dawkins to cure me of them.
But, but, but, but, but.... Where did the concepts of sanctity, value and nobility come from?
Well, they evolved: either the belief in nobility has a survival value in itself, or else it is a misfiring of something which does. So apparently, Richard Dawkins has evolved a second-order feeling that tells him that his urge to be kind is noble, but his urge to propagate religion is ignoble. Cool: but suppose I have a second-order feeling that tells me that David Livingstone's urge to go and bring Christianity to Africa was very noble indeed. So how do we judge between my sense of what is noble and Dawkins'? So far as I can see, we appeal to third order feelings: my feeling that feelings about religion are noble are invalid; but my feeling that feelings about altruism are noble are valid. But those third order feelings either have survival value or are Darwinian mis-firings. And when my feelings about feelings about feelings are different from Dawkins' feelings about feelings about feelings we presumably appeal to feelings about feelings about feelings about feelings?
Dawkins hasn't understood this. It doesn't occur to him that it's a problem. He happily says that kindness and altruism are noble and precious because–well, so far as I can see because they are. Because Binker told him so?
Or again: when Binker tells me to make huge statues of him, that's good. But when Binker tells me to pull the statues down that's bad. But how do we know the difference? Did Richard's Binker tell him that the Buddhist Binker was right and the Taliban Binker was wrong? Why trust his Binker any more than any one else's–especially when he whole argument is that you shouldn't pay any attention to any Binker at all?
Yet Dawkins clearly has an absolute conviction that some kinds of behaviour ought to be approved of, and some kinds of behaviour ought not to be. How else can he accuse Catholics of being worse than child molesters or complain that the God of the Bible keeps doing horrible things?
We have a man who is deeply moved by artistic expressions of religious ideas; who believes that the taboos of his nation 'just are' to be obeyed; who thinks that there is a standard called 'nobility' against which we can validly judge our urges; who makes ritual invocations to the dead; who understands what it might be like to have an 'imaginary friend', and who doesn't think that to have such a friend would necessarily be ignoble. In a rather confused way, he even thinks that the collection of stories in the Bible are worth reading and worth passing on.
But Professor: invocations, spiritual guardians, belief in morals and taboos, aesthetic responses to spiritual stories–that is very much the kind of thing which cultus
is all about. None of them have any necessary
connection with a superhuman and supernatural person who created and designed the universe and everything in it including us, although they often do in practice. Your proof, and I never doubted that it was a good proof, that we can explain why bananas are good to eat without recourse to a banana-designer
impacts hardly at all on my urge to pray, to read the Bible or to have copies of the church fathers on my shelf that I'm really going to get around to one of these days. This is why your book is so full of misunderstandings and non-sequiturs. You are trying to prove the non-existence of the wrong God.
So: there is no quarrel and me, Richard and the Archbishop of Canterbury can all go off together and have tea (real or pretend) with Binker and the Fairies? Of course not. Theists say 'It feels to us that there are things that we really should do and things that we really shouldn't do. It feels to us that the great religious stories have special significance. It feels right to make invocations to our dead friends. We feel that we are in contact with a spiritual companion–call him Binker if you want–or else we wish that we were, or else we value the experiences that were written down by people who were, or thought that they were. We think that these feelings come from outside us. We think that they probably come from a Douglas or from something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment who's outside of any universe we can measure. We think that Binker and Douglas are in some way the same and some of think that Douglas once became a person and lived a human life. This is why we sometimes talk as if there are three Douglases and sometimes as if there were only one. But we don't think that feelings are the only things which matter or that 'God' is just a sort of a mood. People who think they have been in touch with something-else-call-it-GOD-for-the-moment or have talked to Binker have tried to make maps and they've built up a fairly good picture, although it has some grey areas in it. But the map isn't the territory: we don't think that call-it-GOD-for-the-moment has a beard, any more than we think that there are green and yellow stripes on the circle line.'
And the sane, good natured atheists–the majority, I expect: Douglas Adams was one–will reply: 'Some of us have some of those feelings to. Some of us respect them. Some of us may even sometimes be happy to come to your churches and enjoy the feelings and see if you are really as good at calling up Binker as you say you are. But we don't think that the feelings have got a source; certainly not a source outside of the empirical universe. We don't. We just don't.'
And we'll reply: 'So we both have the same subjective experience of what it's like to be inside of one of these mind-things, but we interpret that experience in different ways. And that's OK. But please don't think that once you've told us how bananas evolved, we're going to start interpreting subjective experiences of God in a different way. Whatever else the argument is about it, it's not about that."
Roald Dahl claims that as a young child he lost his faith in the church as a result of being beaten by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Considered as a syllogism, this is not very convincing:
The argument from the Most Rev. Geoffrey Fisher
There exists at least one cruel Christian.
Therefore, God does not exist.
However, it's emotional force is very convincing indeed: 'If that was how one of God's top salesmen behaved, I thought there must be something very wrong with the whole thing.'
Dawkins pretends that he thinks that some Christians believe in:
The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists
Some scientists, especially in the olden days, believed in God
Therefore God exists.
I think what has actually happened is that atheists have put forward :
The Argument From Science
No scientist believes in God.
Therefore, belief in science is incompatible with the belief in God.
Therefore God does not exist
and Christians have responded by saying
At least one scientist believes in God.
Therefore, science is not incompatible with the belief in God
Therefore, God may or may not exist.
If there is to be a dialogue between theists and non-theists–and I think that there should be, long, in depth, robust argument, far into the night, with much wagging of fingers and stroking of beards–then the non-theists need a better spokesman. Otherwise, Christians will be tempted to adopt:
The argument from despised religious scientists
If there were no God, then the cleverest people would be atheists.
Here is a book about atheism.
The person who wrote it is rather silly.
If the best spokesman atheists can come up with is rather silly, then perhaps there are not many clever atheists.
So perhaps the cleverest people are not atheists after all.
Therefore, perhaps God exists.
The argument from contrariness
If I believe in God, it will irritate Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins deserves to be irritated.
Therefore, God exists.
Or perhaps, at it's simplest:
The argument from Onanism
Richard Dawkins is a tosser.
Therefore, God exists.
He's a blockhead who wants a proof of what he can't percieve
And he's a fool who tries to make such a blockhead believe