I am a great fan of Richard Dawkins. I have read all his books. I saw him last week on the Colbert Report, and he seems to be a very nice, twinkly, grandfatherly sort of man. He had the air, while going through the unusual process which is a Colbert interview, of someone trying to join in wholeheartedly, if with imperfect understanding, in a child’s game.
So it is not completely surprising that his newest book, The God Delusion, starts off like an extended example of l’esprit de l’escalier — the things he would have responded to the maddening things people say to him, if only he weren’t such a nice guy.
“Lots of scientists believe in God,” people must have said to him. His response? “No they don’t! No they don’t!”
When Einstein talked about God, as he often did, he didn’t mean God. Repeat ad lib with the names of other scientists. This is not all that convincing. In fact,t here is a point at which Dawkins claims that Stephen Jay Gould just flat didn’t believe what he wrote in his book about God and science, but must have been being conciliatory. Stephen Jay Gould is another of my favorite writers, but no one would call him conciliatory. Dawkins must be projecting his own twinkliness, or perhaps just desperately trying to get around the fact that, well, lots of scientists believe in God.
Not that it matters. If he could claim that, say, the Pope was really an atheist, that might have some strength to it as an argument. But scientists are not ipso facto experts on God, and whether or not they believe in God doesn’t actually constitute evidence for or against the existence of God.
Dawkins even claims that fear of being persecuted for atheism causes people in modern times to pretend to be religious. I live in the Bible Belt, and the nearest an atheist could come to persecution here would be the fear of being prayed for against his or her will. That argument — with the possible exception of politicians, for whom being strongly committed to any religious viewpoint including atheism can be dangerous — is silly.
Another maddening thing people seem to have said to him is that “You have to respect people’s beliefs.” He quotes H. L. Mencken on this, to the effect that we have to respect a man’s religious beliefs to the same degree that we have to respect his belief that his wife is beautiful. Mencken wrote Treatise on the Gods, which I quite enjoyed. If you have read it, though, you know that Mencken’s views on religion, and indeed on respect, are very far outside the norm.
This argument has some virtue, though. It is true that we in the U.S., even in our laws, do tend to take the position that something required by a person’s religion trumps all non-religious matters. Employers have to give Friday afternoon off for prayers, but would not consider doing so for a person’s fondness for taking naps on Friday afternoon, though it may be just as sincere.
And we do have an almost ridiculous devotion to respecting religious beliefs. I am sitting here right now trying to think of an example, and cannot, because I fear that a wandering member of the group I choose to describe as ridiculous will be offended, so I guess that proves it.
This extends, of course, to atheists, but that would ruin Dawkins’s other argument, so he ignores that fact.
So that is the first chapter of The God Delusion. I confess that I went ahead and read the second chapter, but I will be waiting for the others in my read-along to catch up and comment before I say anything about that.