Friday, April 2, 2010

TGD: Chapter One - Religion and Respect

This post covers the entire first chapter of "The God Delusion". The first chapter is really just an introduction, so I can breeze through it. Starting with chapter two we get into the meat of his argument and I'll slow down so I can deal with it in more detail.

In "The God Delusion", Mr. Dawkins is making the case against religious belief in general. It's a sizable task and we'll see how good a job Mr. Dawkins does with it. He uses the first chapter to set the terms of the debate; to explain exactly what he's arguing for and what he's arguing against.

This chapter is broken up into two parts. The first part deals with what Dawkins refers to as "Einsteinian religion".

"Einsteinian religion" refers to any belief system that equates the natural universe, or the laws that govern it, with God. Such belief systems don't have a supernatural component. Mr. Dawkins has no problem with this sort of religion; he considers it another form of atheism. His only problem is that when people with this sort of belief system use words like God and religion they confuse the debate. He wants the reader to know that this isn't what he has in mind when he's making the case against religion.

As you might have guessed, Albert Einstein believed in this sort of God, although he was hardly the first person to think along these lines. That honor belongs to Baruch Spinoza, the father of modern pantheism.

Personally, I wonder what Einstein would think about someone lumping his beliefs in with atheism. I suspect that Einstein's use of the word God was intentional. I suspect that Einstein understood that his belief system, like all belief systems, depended on certain metaphysical (i.e. non-scientific) claims. I'm not sure that Mr. Dawkins grasps that fact.

However, since I'm not a pantheist myself, I won't argue the point any further.

The second part of this chapter deals with the amount of respect that (supernatural) religious beliefs are given in modern, secular countries, especially America. He argues that, in general, we give religious beliefs far more respect than they deserve. He points out that it is generally considered rude to criticize another person's religious beliefs, no matter how ridiculous they are. He also gives several examples where countries will grant privileges to people based on their religious beliefs.

I don't agree with Mr. Dawkins about this, but I think he does make some good points. Specifically, there does need to be room for people to be able to speak critically about other people's religious beliefs. No ideas should ever be considered completely exempt from scrutiny. Personally, I welcome Mr. Dawkins' criticisms of my beliefs and I have no problem speaking critically about his beliefs. In the proper context, critical discussions like this can be beneficial to both parties.

The thing is, you really, really need to have the proper context for a conversation like this. For a person with deeply held religious beliefs, those beliefs are often part of their core identity. For this reason, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that people will get offended when you mock their religious beliefs. This is why criticizing people's religious beliefs is often considered off limits, at least in the public sphere. This is why governments will, at times, bend over backwards to respect people with different religious beliefs.

In my mind, the solution isn't to show less tolerance to people's unusual religious beliefs, but to extend that tolerance to cover nonreligious people. Just as wise governments go out of their way not to offend people's religious beliefs, they should be equally respectful toward people without religious beliefs. (For example, the government shouldn't erect a large cross on the land they own on top of a giant hill in the middle of the city, but that's another post).

Having said that, I'm glad that Mr. Dawkins feels free to mock religious beliefs. This series would be much less interesting if he felt the need to be polite and deferential whenever the topic of God came up.

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