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Thursday, March 15, 2007

"The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

I saw this book in the bookstore months ago and knew that I would be reading it sooner of later but that I was backed up on my reading. Well, yesterday I picked it up and began reading and let me tell you that so far it doesn't disappoint. I've read up to page 23 but already the author, (Richard Dawkins) has made some intriguing points. This will be the first of many posts on the book.

First of all I want to share a great quote from Carl Sagan on the matter of a supernatural "God:"

Carl Sagan put it well: '...if by "God" one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying...it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.'

This quote pretty much sums up my attitude about and toward a "God." However, I would add the following: My personal view of a "God" is most closely to that of a pantheist (if I have to delve into definitions). I try not to put limits upon such a force. Even though I do not believe in a supernatural "God" I do believe in an Unfathomable "God-force."

I think that such a force is so Enlightened that it is not limited to a permanent body (as my friend David alludes to in my cross-post at my Buddhist blog). That all sentient beings and non-sentient things have a piece of this "God-force" within "their" very DNA and molecular structure. I call myself a "Buddhist" to make it easier for people that think in structured, dualistic 'religious' terms. However, as a "Buddhist" I see that there really is no such thing as a "Buddhist" or "Buddhism" as both are always changing--as are all things according to the Buddha. Being a student of "Buddhism" I promptly looked up "Buddhism" in the index of the book and found this lonely reference.

And I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.


I do not believe in a "God" that can be conceivable to the average theist either and I would submit that Dawkins believes the same. That his belief in science is a 'religion' but as the below quote explains, he purposely does not call himself 'religious' because that word is loaded with centuries of preconceived ideas.

He seems to be a pantheist:

Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs it's workings. ...Pantheism is sexed up Atheism. He then goes on to quote Einstein's religious beliefs and agrees with them: 'To sense behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.' In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that 'cannot grasp' does not have to mean 'forever graspable.' But I prefer not to call myself religious because it is misleading. It is destructively misleading because for the vast majority of people, 'religion' implies 'supernatural.'

James: After reading this quote I sank my teeth into the first, real meaty issue of the book. That being the idea that anything religious deserves an abnormal amount of respect and even a state of untouchability. He gives a couple of great examples regarding this issue:

I have previously drawn attention to the privileging of religion in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government. Whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be prominently represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio and television. I'm not suggesting that we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, family lawyer or a doctor?

James: This is an excellent point. Abortion for example is a medical issue and not a religious issue. Sure religions have a right to be against abortion but why should a religious belief influence our laws that are supposed to be independent from any religion? Especially if we believe in a separation between church and state? Religions have a right to be free from governmental imposition of beliefs but the government has a right to make decisions based on science, reason and sociological data rather then on faith, based on what an arguable, mythical, "man in the sky" tells us to belief or do. History has tried many, many times to run government by religion and it has made a serious mess of things. That was one of the major reasons that the American revolution took off and was so successful. If religious groups are going to be invited to discuss and decide major government and political issues then they should lose their tax exempt status.

Here's another weird example of privileging of religion. On 21 February 2006 the United States Supreme Court ruled that a church in New Mexico should be exempt from the law, which everybody else has to obey, against the taking of hallucinogenic drugs. Faithful members of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they that they can understand God only by drinking hoasca tea, which contains illegal hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine. Note that is sufficient to believe that the drug enhances their understanding. They do not have to produce evidence. Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that cannabis eases the nausea and discomfort of cancer sufferers undergoing chemotheraphy. Yet the Supreme Court ruled in 2005, that all patients who use cannabis for medical purposes are vulnerable to federal prosecution (even in the minority of states where such specialist use is legalized). Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they 'believe' they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet, when a church claims such an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such is the power of religion as a talisman.

James: This is going to be a great book.

~Peace to all beings~

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29 comments:

Paul said...

I think if you like Dawkins, James, then you'll love Sam Harris' "The End of Faith". Perhaps you've already read it?

At any rate, Dawkins is right that religion is priviledged in our society. One only has to note how the mere attempt to remove some of its priviledges provokes many religiously minded people to cry foul and insist that such attempts are blatantly anti-religious rather than, as they are, mere attempts to level the playing field.

I am of the opinion, however, that religion shall never go away. I believe that religion is deeply embedded in human nature -- almost as deeply embedded as the sex instinct. It will therefore always be only a minority of people who divorce themselves from it.

Consequently, I think the real problem is not how to abolish religion -- for we shall never do that -- but how to make religion benign.

Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

(DISCLAIMER: I should note that I don't believe in God, not in any conceivable sense of that phrase, so my comments are not meant to support the beliefs Dawkin's critiques. Rather, I find it very interesting that those like Dawkin's, who rabidly critique the beliefs of others, really don't want to put the nature of their own beliefs under the same critical lens. I even recommend a few really good books. That is all.)

Try reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God. From that, you realize the "God delusion" that Dawkin's and his type rail against is really a recent thing, a perversion and inversion of the idea of God that's been going on for about 300-400 years.If you're reading Amrstrong, you might as well check out her amazing biography of the Buddha, simply called Buddha. It really expanded my understanding of and appreciation for how the Buddha's yogic training prior to his enlightenment informed his teachings.

I think many of Dawkin's points resonate well with the Buddha's teachings, since they problematize faith and belief in many of the same ways. This only goes so far though, because Dawkin's and his ilk have a resounding faith in the truth of science-- science as a form of knowledge, rather than a method of its construction. In this way, I don't think he's any better than the people he critique, whose belief in God rests upon a faith in the truth of belief.

To me, it makes me think of a semi-popular athiest statement to a monotheist: you are athiestic about all these other gods; I just go one step further than you. I think the athiest faith in the truth of science is patterned on the same belief in God they presently critique, or the other way around.To me, the athiestic movement Dawkin's represents still holds on to one more god, one more gaurantor of the consistency of how things are, that of scientific or at any rate reasoned truth. Letting go of that will signify something huge. A good book in this vein of thinking is The Genealogy of Morals, especially the third essay, "What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?"

---

"At any rate, Dawkins is right that religion is priviledged in our society. One only has to note how the mere attempt to remove some of its priviledges provokes many religiously minded people to cry foul and insist that such attempts are blatantly anti-religious rather than, as they are, mere attempts to level the playing field."

You know, it's funny that you say that, the same thing happens, perhaps more resoundly, when male priviledge in this society is undermined.

david said...

I think you have to also keep your "cosmology" clear in this kind of discussion.

The universe is the field of infinite possiblities. So a deity may very well exist as a "man in the sky" or Lakshmi, Vishnu, whatever you like. Our existence is no more preposterous than a deity's existence.

Nothing prohibits a deity from being as self-deluded as we are. Gods or "a God" don't get a pass on impermamence.

We might have a delusion of God, but reflexsively God might have the delusion us.

"James" said...

Paul:

I have not read that book yet but it sounds quite intriguing.

Excellent point on "leveling the playing field." And I agree that religion shall never go away. I think that religion has it's place in society and that it shouldn't ever be "eliminated." However, I do think that it is over emphasized. It has too much influence in our political process.

Joe:

Thanks for recommending the books. I'm always interesting in new books especially in this vein as it's very interesting to me at this point. I do not believe in a "God" that can be conceivable to the average theist either and I would submit that Dawkins believes the same. That his belief in science is a 'religion' but as the below quote explains he purposely does not call himself religious because that word is loaded with centuries of preconceived ideas.

He seems to be a scientific pantheist:

Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings.

...Pantheism is sexed up Atheism.
He then goes on to quote Einstein's religious beliefs and agrees with them:

'To sense behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousnes. In this sense I am religious.'

In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that 'cannnot grasp' does not have to mean 'forever graspable." But I prefer not to call myself religious because it is misleading. It is destructively misleading because for the vast majority of people, 'religion' implies 'supernatural.'

"James" said...

David:

Good thoughts here. I especially like what you said here:

Gods or "a God" don't get a pass on impermamence.

We might have a delusion of God, but reflexively God might have the delusion us.


My personal view of a "God" is most closely to that of a pantheist. I try not to put limits upon such a force. Even though I do not believe in a supernatural "God" I do believe in a Unfathomable "God-force."

However, I think that such a force is so Enlightened that it is not limited to an permanent body as you allude to. That all sentient beings and non-sentient things have a piece of this "God-force" within "their" very DNA and molecular structure.

Joe said...

"However, I think that such a force is so Enlightened that it is not limited to an permanent body as you allude to. That all sentient beings and non-sentient things have a piece of this "God-force" within "their" very DNA and molecular structure."

Sounds to me like you're talking about tanha itself. I don't know if it makes sense to talk of it (referring to "it," mind you, should remind us of the fact that tanha, the Four Noble Truths, the Six Perfections even, are all just words) in terms of being Awaken or not though.

david said...

Thanks James,

You are right, any entity; a God, a chicken, a person with a delusion of seperation has no absolute indentity or container. I think that is essentially what the Buddha is teaching.

I like the Tibetan teaching of this pantheistic view of "God" as perhaps "unity consciousness", or bliss or nirvana. These are just words so they all have conceptual limits.

I think true understaning of "god" is in a sense enlightenment. The point at which self and other is utterly non relational. Nirvana is not another place it is right here and now.

When one attains Buddha-hood, we realize the infinitude of our and all other existences, sentient and non. We will fully realize that we were always in nirvana, and even the moment now that we delusionally feel is not nirvana will be re-awakened as if it was an experience of bliss.

That's the only way I can share my understanding (as a relational deluded being) of "everythingness" or if your like "God".

"James" said...

Joe:

Just so. In believing in a separate "God" we immediately begin to suffer as we create a dualistic delusion of difference between "us," "it" and "them."

Seeing the inter-being of "all things" brings us true liberation.

David:

"Unity consciousness" is a beautiful use of inadequate words to describe the indescribable Higher Self.

MethoDeist said...

Being a Panendeist, I see God as generally incomprehensible but can be experienced in many different ways. I see existence as an emergent aspect of God but not the totality of God yet God cannot be understood in personal or impersonal terms so God is seen as Transpersonal. This differs from Pantheism in that God is more than just existence and from Panentheism as God is not only personal.

In this way existence is all interconnected and connected to God as well. Just as the universe is always in change so is God. God and existence (and us by default) are both in a co-creative/co-evolutionary process that is ongoing.

Ultimatley, I try to avoid definitions but if I have to, I define God as infinite consciousness and/or the univeral spirit and leave it at that (well try to anyway).

Not a standard view of the word "God" but still one based on faith.

I don't pray for God to intervene but I do pray for gratitude and strength. I do believe that individuals such as Buddha, Jesus and many others (including just as women who were probably killed for speaking up in patriarchal societies of the past and still some now) have achieved higher levels of consciousness that in turn allow them a greater understanding of reality and the infinite.

Essentially, they tap into the infinite consciousness and expand themselves in the process. They are still fully human and influenced by there culture but come upon universal truths that can help individuals and humankind expand and evolve.

I prefer the approach that Buddha outlined as I find it the simplest and most reasonable and the results of practicing dharma require no faith.

Dawkins makes many good points but in the end he is attached to his beliefs and falls into fundamentalism just the same as other fundamentalists. And as we know here, attachment to any belief can bring about many problems for ourselves and others.

I see nothing wrong with belief and faith. Certain aspects of Buddhism are based on faith such as reincarnation (past lives) and polytheism. I know that not all Buddhists or forms of Buddhism have these elements but some do. However, we must realize that these aspects are based on faith and beyond evidence so seeing these beliefs as factual or trying to force these beliefs on others through coercion or legislation is foolish, wrong and immoral.

Ultimately, I think that contemplation is good and healthy but we can let our cravings and attachment get in the way. As Buddha tried to show, the question of God is fine but can get in the way of being aware and in turn we miss the moment and the real beauty of our existence which is life (experience) itself.

Sorry for the overflow on personal information regarding theology but I thought it might be OK in this instance.

MethoDeist

"James" said...

MethoDeist:

No need to apologize for expressing your beliefs here. I've always wanted this blog to be a place to discuss such issues. :)

Now. I've never heard of panentheism but it sounds very intriguing. I will be looking into it further. I like learning new things and that's what I love about our online sangha community.

I try to avoid definitions too but sometimes they are necessary to lead ourselves to realize the indescribable.

I would agree with you that Dawkins falls into attachment and fundamentalism as others do. In the end, one has to let go of all definitions. It is, however, an interesting discussion. Mental pornography I guess that I admit I indulge in too much. Hehe...

In the end, yes you're right that the discussion of "God" is irrelevant to mindfulness of the present moment.

Excellent comments.

Greenwoman said...

Hi James. Fascinating post. Haven't read the book myself...

I consider myself a mystic and I don't try to define anything. I just feel there's a "Great Mystery alive in all things..." and I leave it at that. I know how it feels. I know when it takes action in my life. I know when I am deeply connected with it....and that's something that indefinable to others...it's an internal sense of true and that's all I need.

"James" said...

GW:

Well said. :)

Paul said...

The reason I think Sam Harris's "End Of Faith" might interest you, James, is because in the book Harris both sharply attacks faith and adamantly defends spirituality or mysticism. That's an interesting combination, I think, and I'm guessing from what I've read of your blog that it might well be in line with your own thinking to some extent.

"James" said...

Paul:

I think that will be my next book. I like the balance that you say he strikes.

Lans Hobart said...

First, let me say that I totally agree with the assertion that, in this country (US), religion is given a disproportionate amount of power and leeway. The US was founded on the concepts of religious freedom AND the separation of church and state. We have to include both of these when we weigh what religious organizations can and can't do.

More importantly though, I think most religions spring from the same thing: man's attempt to understand the true nature of reality. We all examine this multi-colored rainbow that is ultimate reality but we tend to shade it. It's as if we were wearing colored glasses as we look at the rainbow because we can't fathom the whole thing in it's entirety. The glasses filter out part of the whole, amplify another part and distort still more. As a religion grows, that which was amplified is made more important and deemed more correct. That which was filtered out is not known and deemed incorrect and the distortions grow and get even more distorted.

Here is where the conflicts lie. Religion A saw X, but not Y and Z1. Religion B saw Y, but not X and Z2, etc...

This leads to religious fundamentalists (Generic sense, not Christian sense) who believe it must be 'my way or the hi-way.' This leads them down a path away from freedom of religion, which is not very beneficial.

H.H. The Dali Lama has said on numerous occasions that if your religion is working for you, there is no need to become a Buddhist and that you should stay with your religion. This may be in part to his realization that we are all looking at the same ultimate reality through our own colored glasses. I think if more religious leaders could adopt and attitude like this, we would all be better for it.

PeterAtLarge said...

Here's another thing Carl Sagan said about God and science. It's a quote I keep coming back to, because it seems particularly apt these days: "In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better that we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more sublte, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." Perhaps it already did, 2,500 years ago. Perhaps it's called Buddhism.

"James" said...

Lans:

I totally agree that most religions have the same goals in mind. The rose colored glasses analogy is a good one. No matter how selfless we think that we are, we still have our own perceptions.

I agree with the Dalai Lama on that statement. I would like to see more religious leaders coming together in meetings and conferences. I am a big supporter of inter-faith dialogs. I think that helps deflate religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.

Peter-at-Large:

I have been pleased how Buddhism has embraced science so much. The Dalai Lama seems to be very interested in the two. Very open to science influencing Buddhism. He has said that if science shows something in Buddhism to not be relevant (and I'm paraphrasing here) then Buddhism must adapt.

Joe said...

" have been pleased how Buddhism has embraced science so much. The Dalai Lama seems to be very interested in the two. Very open to science influencing Buddhism. He has said that if science shows something in Buddhism to not be relevant (and I'm paraphrasing here) then Buddhism must adapt."

Yeah, but by the same token you must remember, if our experience shows something in science to not be relevant, then our understanding must adapt likewise.

I think this really points to a tricky aspect to science as something strictly separate and perhaps "more accurate" than the buddha-dhamma. We heed the Buddha's teachings not because we believe them, but because we are confident (some would phrase it, "because we have faith") that the Buddha knew what he was talking about when he said we can become really and truly happy. We must always test the Buddha's teachings, but not necessarily in the conventional scientific sense of the term. Testing in this sense is very much a social practice, and by some definitions quite antithetical to personal experience as an epistemological foundation.

What we must test with is our personal experience; we must test the Buddha's teachings with our experience and nothing else. In this sense, we make a mistake if we accept or don't accept the Buddha's teachings on the basis of scientific reasoning, in the sense that science is a socially constained, socially performed path to a still yet conventional knowledge.

I would be skeptical of people who try and argue the validity, if only the reasonableness of the Buddha's teachings via scientific reasoning (broadly defined). In the end, we seek our own salvation, for ourselves, by ourselves. No amount of science or religious dogma trumps our experience, but we must nonetheless be critical of our experience too.

They call him James Ure said...

Yeah, but by the same token you must remember, if our experience shows something in science to not be relevant, then our understanding must adapt likewise.

Yes, that is an important part of the equation. Thank you for pointing that out.

I whole-heartedly agree with you that the Buddha's teachings are equal to science. I see them as two sides to the same coin. Just as all things are inter-connected.

Experimenting with the Buddha's teaching through personal experience is the key test for the Dharma practitioner. Thanks for reminding us. :) I bow to you:

_/I\_

Anonymous said...

Fully sick mate...!!!

Anonymous said...

A bit of Aussie philosophical lexicon...!!!

Anonymous said...

I love steak. I eat cows. I love Jesus, He is GOD!

Anonymous said...

Buddhist have such whimsical idealogy of the world. What did sagan offer in his comments before he died to bring truth to the world? Answer? Absolutely NOTHING! He was a dreamer that was so vain he died in his own sin. The Lama will bow before Christ and will have to defend his sinfulness without the Redeemer acknowledging him. You can run your mouths all you want, but YOU WILL DIE and Jeusu was offered for a ransom FOR you, if you have faith in HIS resurrection. Now, you may NOT like it, but Dawkins vanity offers you nothing but an eternal nothingness. Don't smart yourself into a hole filled with foolishness by modern day gurus who NEVER walked on water or healed the blind or was resuurected from the dead and witness by many. There is a reason Jesus stares the imagination of even the MOST self righteous.......HE WAS and IS God! You have eyes and ears! See and hear CREATION! Only a fool doesn'T!

They call him James Ure said...

Anonymous:

I couldn't disagree with you more but I still wish you peace and happiness.

shanemac said...

Anonymous -
Jesus might of attained enlightenment, and his teachings were his interpretation of these experiences (remember how Jesus wandered the desert – and spoke to god and the devil (Brahma and Maya ?spelling?) Well Buddha had a meeting with these two as well – the only difference was when Brahma told Buddha how things were – Buddha challenged him, he did not take god’s word for it. Everything is open to interpretation – but to follow the bible on faith is a little silly (actually – a lot silly) the Buddhists posting here make a lot of very sensible, honest, insightful, peaceful, and intelligent posts. Your remarks are indicative of the Judeo-Christian fundamentalist that is tearing apart the US.

Nikki Magennis said...

How fascinating to find this discussion! I am concurrently reading 'The God Delusion' and 'The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying'. Just because I like to keep myself thoroughly confused ... : )

Anyway, I'm wrestling both with Dawkins' anti-agnosticism and with Sogyal Rinpoche's writings on various issues including supernaturalism and reincarnation. I find myself somewhere in the middle. As usual!


Just wanted to say thanks for having an open place where these things can be discussed intelligently and respectfully.

They call him James Ure said...

Nikki:

You're very welcome. I enjoy providing this blog for discussion and meditation.

I too fall in the middle between Atheism and super naturalism. I think mostly I fit into the nontheist category.

Anonymous said...

pJesus was a buddhist who spread God, i.e., Truth/The Nature of Reality(Buddhism) in terms of the mythology of the sand religion based power structure that was and is Judaism. Don't get caught up in the shiny exoteric; you'll fail to see that the truth lies in the esoteric. If you want to find "God," question IT. Grow some balls. And I don't literally mean that you grow balls...

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