Simpson vs Dawkins

I was reading a review by Blake Simpson of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and felt a need to comment. Ideally, you should read the review before reading on, but my points will be understandable even without doing so.

Simpson accuses Dawkins of not addressing the question “what is the meaning of life?” This is a question which has no meaning without first setting up a framework to ask it in. What life? Meaning to whom? If you do put together a framework (such as religious belief) in which it makes sense to ask it, you can’t then use the question to “prove” that the framework is valid.

Simpson says that there are things outside time and space that can “never be detected using the tools of science”. I.e., religious truth can only be known by means such as revelation. A revelation may guide the person who actually experienced it, but that’s not faith any more – they know. The problem is that they “know” in the same way someone who has a drug experience or a mental illness “knows” – it is absolutely true for them, but no-one else has any reason to treat it as real. They see it for what it is – delusion.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that some revelations are not delusions, how can anyone tell (except by having a similar revelation) which of the many, many revelations humans have had is the right revelation? The various human gods are largely mutually exclusive. Sometimes it’s explicit – “thou shalt have no other gods but me”. Sometimes they directly contradict each other – any pantheist religion against any monotheistic religion. So how is a wannabe believer to choose which one is “right”? It turns out that people very rarely choose. The overwhelmingly vast majority believe what they were taught as small children to believe. And even those who claim to have had some kind of revelation overwhelmingly turn out to have had a revelation that confirms what they were taught as small children to believe.

I would pay a lot more attention to Simpson if he could articulate why I should believe in his gods rather than others such as, say, Zeus or Krishna. Arguments such as “my gods are real because my gods say they are” or “my gods are the right ones because they are better than the others”) are not good enough. Simpson did not advance these arguments in his review, by the way – I’m engaging in a pre-emptive strike 🙂

By placing his gods outside time and space, Simpson has painted himself into a corner. For gods to be at all relevant, they must have some effect on the real world, otherwise even if they do exist, they might as well not. The usual argument is that they affect the real world through people. Maybe they do – but there is no evidence that that is the case. The argument is just a weak version of revelation.

Simpson says that Dawkins’ description of Yaweh is “contemptuous, hostile, incomplete and one-sided”. Presumably he means that there are passages in sacred texts that describe Yaweh as a nice guy – er, god – and that it was unfair of Dawkins not to mention those aspects of Yaweh’s character. Hm. If you were writing a book in which you sought to convince people that murder and rape were bad, and you were describing a well-known murderer and rapist, would you feel compelled to round out your description by also mentioning that they were a good cook, an art-lover, a fair-to-middling golfer and kind to children?

It was pleasant to read a review that did not descend, as so many reactions to The God Delusion have done, into shrill denunciation and ad hominem insult. Simpson writes thoughtfully and with respect, and while remaining unconvinced he still finds much good in the book.

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