TGD – Chapter 2

I’ve finished Chapter 2 and I’m glad to report that Dawkins settles down somewhat in the 2nd half of the chapter and sticks to a point for more than a sentence or two.

As mentioned before, the chapter starts with sections on polytheism and monotheism where Dawkins is all over the place. The best summary I can make for these two sections, and apologies to Dawkins if this was not at all his point, but that one religion is as condemnable as the next, they’re all the same. Since he’s most familiar with Christianity, he’ll be using it as the “template” for disproving all religions. If this is the point he’s trying to make, it’s a difficult one to tease out because it’s obscured by his general scoffing at religion and Christianity in particular.

He settles down somewhat in the next section to talk about the Founding Fathers of America and makes an argument for their being more secular than anything else. He means this in the political sense more so than the religious sense, but he also spends some time to show them as perhaps Deists instead of Christians and perhaps some of them as far as atheists. I suspect his point is to try and tear down some of the foundation of Christians and I suspect for some Christians his points would do that. There is no doubt a thread of “America is the New Holy Land” and the Founding Fathers are its prophets, in American Protestantism, which is most specifically evident in the Mormons, but I feel no angst in seeing that torn down.

However, he goes one step further in that section to suggest that the American political system has turned from healthy secularism to a quasi-democratic theocracy over the centuries and the Founding Fathers would be mortified. With this I must object. Anyone who reads the daily headline knows that American politics is becoming more non-religious every year since the 60’s (at a minimum). Instead of looking at the big picture, Dawkins focuses on the near requirement that a presidential candidate be religious. While I think he stretches that point too far, I will concede that it is true that the American electorate does care about the religious beliefs of their politicians. This is still something entirely different that suggesting that America wants those politicians to implement a theocracy. The number of characteristics that the electorate want from their politicians that has nothing to do with what legislation the electorate wants advanced is longer than this blog could catalog.

The next section of the chapter is on agnosticism, which Dawkins divides into two camps: TAP, a form that remains agnostic “temporarily” while the evidence is being compiled and PAP, a form that asserts that one can NEVER know the answer to a question. He uses the example of Carl Sagan in regards to alien life and how he is agnostic to it while research is being done but that Sagan believes that someday we can have the answer to the question.

It’s a reasonable distinction, but this is where Dawkins goes terribly wrong and I fear this false premise will be foundational for the rest of the book. He asserts that TAP is the only reasonable form of religions agnosticism because God’s existence is a scientific question that can be answered. That’s complete hogwash. However, it’s a complex enough point that a full rebuttal is required and you should expect that in a separate post so as to not make the chapter summary overly lengthy.

Nevertheless, this false premise is the foundation for the rest of the chapter. He next addresses the idea of Non Overlapping MAgisterium, or NOMA for short, that science has one set of expertise that does not overlap with the entirely separate expertise that is religion. He rightly asserts that NOMA is a result of the PAP mindset, that science can’t speak to religion. He further asserts that this doesn’t make any sense for two reasons. The first is that theologians have no expertise in anything and therefore there is no magisterium for them to promote. His basic justification for this, although it is stated implicitly, is that science can answer any question and if it can’t nobody else can. The second, and now that I think of it, it’s just a correlary of the first, is that theologians will gladly use the realm of science when it meets their ends. If they can “cross over”, why can’t the scientist? Or at least that’s Dawkins question.

Dawkins finishes out the chapter with three sections, each of which are examples of this principle in his mind. The first is on the “great prayer experiment” where scientists had people pray for sick individuals to see if it was efficacious. The experiment turns out as he would hope with no benefit at all. That said, he’s less concerned with the results of the experiment than with the idea that you can make a scientific experiment out of a religious proposition. It’s a proof point to him that science can answer these questions. I’ll fully expose the errors of that in the upcoming post.

The second of these final three sections is on what he calls “The Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” where he picks on scientists who tend to agree with NOMA. This is one of his less coherent sections where the best I can do to summarize it is to say he’s encouraging scientists to deny NOMA because some religious people do from the opposite end. Over stating Dawkins point a bit, this is a war and no Switzerland’s will be permitted.

Finally, to wrap up the chapter he returns to the example of agnosticism regarding life elsewhere in the galaxy in two ways. First he shows how we’re slowly removing the agnosticism of it through SETI’s work and refinement of the Drake equation (although he reasonably admits there’s a long way to go). This is obviously another attempt to further the idea that the same can be said of God’s existence. Secondly he goes to the idea that a vastly superior alien race would seem God-like to us. Amongst other things he suggests this is a big part of the reasons native populations around the world converted to Christianity, because the western Christian’s technology seemed God-like to them. I’ll ignore that stupid canard because it’s just a distraction long-term. But then he poses this question “In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods?” And his answer is profoundly accurate:

In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and gold-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, the didn’t start that way.

He’s absolutely right (although he makes all the wrong conclusions). God is very different from that which seems god-like in the world and it is entirely God’s non-evolution that makes Him so special. Otherwise he’d just be another material creation. However God is far greater than that.

Dawkins seems to think this a compelling point for his side and suggests this will be central to Chapter 4. But Chapter 3 is first and it is about tearing down the proofs for religion.

One Response to “TGD – Chapter 2”

  1. steve Says:

    Nice summary, I’m enjoying this project. I read TGD a few years ago and forgot many of Dawkins’ arguments so it’s nice to revisit them along with some good criticism.