Bruce (pooperman) wrote in convert_me,

Book Reviews and a Conversion Announcement

This post is an attempt at a simultaneous assessment of the following 4 books, listed in the order I read them:

1. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris
2. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett
3. Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward
4. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

(Given the scope of the post, you will perhaps forgive its length.)

You will notice that #3 stands out as a sort-of balance to the "trinity of modern atheism" represented by #1, #2, and #4. I have the distinct advantage over the 4 authors above in that I alone among us 5 individuals (if you consider them not today, but rather when they wrote the book listed) have read all 4 books. Ward's book was published last but at about the same time as Dawkins' book (so, logically, the other three simply couldn't have read it before writing their own books), but in addition to giving no indication that he read Harris he more importantly demonstrated that his knowledge of Dawkins and Dennett could only have come by a very superficial read of the two books listed, if he read them at all.

Let me state at the beginning that, in general, I enjoyed all 4 books immensely, and recommend them to your attention if you get into this sort of thing. Of the 4, I would say Dennett's book is easily the best, and Harris' book is easily the worst (although in spite of this I did enjoy it).

Here is my overall impression of these books.

1. Harris

Harris, I think, is almost solely responsible for religionists who charge that modern atheism is "shrill" in its dismissal of their beliefs. Harris' book is entertaining, in a sophomoric kind of way, and one gets a few belly-laughs out of it if they are not offended by what he's saying when he highlights some of the more-ridiculous examples of religious belief.

Harris' stated objective with this book, however, is not simply to make fun of religious belief, but to cultivate an attitude of intellectual and social intolerance to religion. I probably stated that too strongly, but I think it doesn't miss the mark by much. Where Harris goes wrong is early in the book. He focuses his ire on religious attitudes founded in overly-literal interpretations of specific scriptural texts, and cites some verses that, on their face, are truly abysmal and horrific depictions of what God has supposedly asked His followers to do. Now, these specific attitudes certainly deserve all the ire that can be focused on them. However, where he goes wrong is in ascribing religion in general to these specific attitudes:

"Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world... The first thing to observe about the moderate's retreat from scriptural literalism is that it draws its inspiration not from scripture but from cultural developments that have rendered many of God's utterances difficult to accept as written... That is a problem for 'moderation' in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of divine law... The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved; it is, rather the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt... The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us."

Basically, Harris' has ceded--on behalf of religion, apparently--the hermeneutic of scripture to the fundamentalists. What Harris fails to understand is the scriptural basis for a more-moderate and more-metaphorical (as well as through the changing lens of historical contexts) interpretation of much of scripture. Also, Harris presumes that the literal approach to scripture is more-primitive, more-fundamental--that the "first" believers in these ancient religions understood and interpreted the texts in a straightforward and unquestioningly literal way. One only need look at specific examples of characters within scripture, at least the OT, who boldly question, sway, and even physically wrestle with God over things He's said, in order to at least cast doubt on this assumption. It is entirely possible (and, IMO, probable) that the literalism that Harris' is bemoaning is a modern evolution of faith and that the more-metaphorical/symbolic approach to scriptural exegesis is more primitive and foundational. Keith Ward addresses this quite well in his book.

There is a good chance, IMO, that Harris has this completely backwards. It is entirely possible that religious moderation is more primitive, and that literalism is a more modern corruption of religion--a corruption from the outside, not from within. What is the source of this corruption? It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of science and the increasing rhetorical value of the "objectively true" that science (and, more to the point, engineering) has infected the religious mindset and caused some of the religious to prematurely devalue the indirect truths and insights of a beautifully-complex metaphorical image and to seek to replace these images as images with a direct, parsimonious, and straightforward representation of Truth, without sacrificing the images themselves. The literalists have, I think, slit their spiritual wrists with Ockham's razor.

This erroneous assumption is made in the first chapter of Harris' book, and sets the tone for the whole book. In spite of that, I enjoyed the book, however my enjoyment was tempered throughout by the fact that, while he was attacking people who deserved to be attacked, he was unjustly ascribing their mindset as how we should view religious attitudes in general.

2. Dennett

This is an extremely well-written book. Dennett's attitude towards religion in this book is very respectful--almost to a fault.

Dennett explores the historical evolution of religion, through a paradigm of naturalism (which really shouldn't be, but often is, confused with some ridiculous form of materialism), and begins by comparing the idea of God to a parasite (a lancet fluke) that affects the brain of an ant, causing it to continuously climb up stems of grass so that it is positioned to be eaten by a cow or sheep, such that the parasite can fulfill its reproductive mission inside their digestive system. This is perhaps objectionable, in that--from the ant's perspective--the arrangement is not so good for everyone involved. However, Dennett quickly qualifies himself and says that he will not assume from the start that religion is a malignant virus, that in fact it might be benign or even beneficial.

Just a couple of ideas I want to bring up, mostly in relation to Ward's book:

In Chapter 8, Dennett begins to explore "the belief in belief". In his evolutionary narrative, he shows this to be a relatively modern adaptation, not to be found in the earliest of primitive religions. One may point to the canonical processes circa 300-400 AD and the introduction of the notion of "orthodoxy", or one may go a little earlier than that and state that thinks like the gospel of John (e.g. the ever-famous 3:16) established the importance of belief and of a believing attitude.

The importance of belief led to another, even more-modern, evolution of religion in that it was not only important to believe, but how one believed became important. "Mere" belief that scripture was true symbolically/metaphorically, and that the individual could, through disciplined study and perhaps help from those who interpreted the scripture before him, understand the symbologies and metaphors of scripture and other religious literature, or that scripture contained beautiful "insight" if read properly was not enough. In some circles, it became necessary to believe the stories to be literally true, in the sense that they actually must have happened exactly in the way they were recorded.

This is the literalism that Ward describes in his book, and in his one mention of Dennett he claims that "Dennett does not hesitate to tell us that early humans took their religious beliefs literally. They really thought that there were invisible persons who moved the clouds and made it rain. Presumably Dennett has some magical way of accessing the minds of humans who lived tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago." As we can see, Dennett shows that this type of literalism (as contrasted with the non-literalism of the childlike attitude that Ward describes very convincingly as the difficulty of discerning the "real world" from the "world of the imagination", which is more like how Dennett describes the early humans' beliefs in these persons who moved through the clouds and made it rain) that Ward complains about--the kind of modern fundy literalism found when someone believes in a less-than-10,000 year old universe because of their straightforward biblical mathematical techniques yield such a number--was a modern, not primitive phenomenon.

One of the best things about Dennett's book is the very end where he shows how a naturalist like himself is not necessarily obligated to moral relativism:

"We don't have to assume that there are no moral truths in order to study other cultures fairly and objectively; we just have to set them aside, for the time being, the assumption that we already know what they are. Imperialist universalism (of any variety) is not a good way to start... The idea of a transcendent value is rather like the idea of a perfectly straight line--not achievable in practice, but readily comprehended as an ideal that can be approximated even if it can't be fully articulated... This book is intended to be an instance of just such an ecumenical effort, relying on the respect for truth and the tools of truth-finding to provide a shared pool of knowledge from which we can work together toward a mutually comprehended and accepted visions of what is good and what is just."

If one reads Ward's book, they will see an obvious similarity in this treatment of the idea of transcendent value.

3. Ward

I was pleasantly surprised by this excellent book. Based on a few out-of-context quotes from the book, I was skeptical that it could be of any real value. Ward does, early in the book, come up with a strawman definition of "materialism" ("the view that reality is whatever science says it is, and our means of access to it is by highly sophisticated abstract theories, by means of theorising, and ... by means of the senses"), which is fine inasmuch as any definition may be, however that he attributes this mindset to Dawkins and Dennett shows that he lacks a good understanding of both Dawkins and Dennett (specific examples of this will be found in the other two sections of this post).

In fact, every time he took a swipe at Dawkins or Dennett (which really isn't that often), I came away feeling that he either hadn't read either, or that he had and was deliberately misrepresenting them in order to pick a fight with them--which would indeed sell more books. That said, I have to be honest and admit that the main reason I started reading this book is that it was promoted as a strong refutation of Dawkins and Dennett, and I wanted to see if Ward pulled it off. He didn't pull it off, but he did succeed in getting me to read it--so good on ya, Dr. Ward.

If you subtract out the few passages where he addresses Dawkins or Dennett, you are left with almost the entire book. Overlooking these passages, this was really a good book. Ward takes on the role of defense attorney in the trial discussing the title question, "Is religion dangerous?", and utilizes that position of defender to his advantage. For, in a defense (as contrasted with a prosecution), one need not soundly prove the contrary (in this case, prove that religion is the opposite of dangerous). One only need establish a reasonable doubt regarding the fundamental claim of the prosecutor. In this respect, Ward has done a wonderful job, and in fact he did go a decent way towards the former in producing a semi-convincing argument saying that religion was not only not-dangerous, but historically has been the basis of much good.

The people who will have the most problems with Ward's book, actually, are not atheists like Dennett or Dawkins. The people who will howl the most, if they take the time to read and understand Ward's work, will be the religious fundamentalists. Ward is a religious liberal (to a fault, perhaps--at one point he was uncomfortably tolerant of young earth creationism, though still in firm disagreement with it). While not at all a moral relativist, he would definitely be accused of moral relativism by religious fundies. Many fundy religionists and atheists alike will complain of Ward's definitions of religion and God--that they are too watered down:

" Think for a moment of mathematics. That is certainly a construct of the human imagination... Yet a good many mathematicians believe that they are not just inventing mathematics. They are discovering it by using their imaginations as creatively as possible... So in religion there may be an appropriate form of intellectual imagination that gives access to a reality that cannot be known by the senses... Suppose there is a transcendent suprasensory reality, such as God. Only the mind could give access to it, and imagination, carefully controlled by reason, might be an important element of mental creativity. If you also suppose that the supreme spiritual reality is personal in character, you might expect that it would take an active role in helping to shape and guide the imagination. It might not simply override imagination, but interact with it to develop greater insight into its nature [and its] ... spiritual reality."

Like the good Platonist that he is, Ward reifies basically the whole of ideality, including mathematical forms like numbers and the spiritual realm like morality and goodness and evilness and God (although he manages not to reify Harry Potter and invisible pink unicorns, and I'm not sure how he pulled it off, or if he in fact did). While I won't disagree with the descriptive utility and efficacy of mathematics and even spiritual images, I have some problem (and I'm not really sure what that problem is, to be honest) with granting "reality" and "existence" to things like this. Ward (reasonably but mistakenly, IMO) claims that Kant does the same, but in doing so I think Ward dissolves a useful contradistinction between the "real" and the "ideal" that Kant developed in his metaphysics. Ward is intelligent enough, however, to admit that Kant's God is definitely not the God of Christianity or Judaism or Islam. I still bristle a bit when people insist on reifying the ideal, but I found myself by the end of Ward's book with a newfound respect (though still a disagreement) for this point of view.

4. Dawkins

Dawkins' book has the strategic advantage of being the last one of the four I read, so its rhetoric is freshest on my mind (though only by a few days compared to Ward's book). My reading of Harris and Dennett is over a year old. As such, as I write this it is probably affecting me (and in a positive way) more than any of the other books. My experience of it started out rocky, but through Dawkins' relentless techniques, by the end of the book I found myself pretty much agreeing with him on just about everything.

In the very first chapter of the book, Dawkins explicitly frames his target "God", the one that is a "delusion", as supernatural. He uses the word, "supernatural", as "the opposite of natural", which is interesting. Within the first 10 pages he rules out Einstein's and Spinoza's pantheistic God ("Pantheism is sexed-up atheism."), as well as a whole slew of apparent religious beliefs that don't qualify by his definition be called "religion" at all. He even goes so far as to ask a favor of physicists: "I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason." WOW! Stop riding the fence, Dick--I'd like to know where you stand! (Correct me if I'm wrong, but did you just call Einstein an intellectual traitor?)

Apparently, Ward didn't make it this far in Dawkins' book (although to be completely fair, the two books were published in the same year, so this is not so much a criticism as it is a good guess at a point of fact) when he asks, "Has Dawkins never read any philosophy? Is he not aware of the weaknesses of materialism? ... Does he really think that Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel were all unthinking simpletons?" This quote was apparently important enough to place on the back-cover of Ward's book. I hope it sells a lot of books for him! :-)

In fact, in the very first chapter, and then repeatedly throughout the book, Dawkins basically exempts Ward's God and religion from scrutiny, except perhaps towards the end where he criticizes "moderate religion" for enabling the evil fundies. Ward's liberal theology would, if push came to shove, be called atheism by Dawkins--or distinct enough from the theism that is Dawkins' target that it brooks no quarrel with it. Dawkins makes reference to a handful of theologians (e.g. Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford) with whom he really has no problem.

This, in fact, was my only problem with the book. The "religion" that Dawkins is attacking is wholly uninteresting to me--and it certainly has nothing to do with a much more interesting religious mindset represented by Ward. While I agree with Dawkins that his target is certainly worth attacking, I can't help but thinking he could have thrown a bone or two toward a rational religious perspective, perhaps giving them the tools to open up an attack on a second front. In fact, he does basically the opposite. Towards the end, comparable to Harris' "myth of religious moderation", Dawkins tells moderate religious types that they are fostering the violent and irrational religious types. He has a point, and I'll have to mention this in order to support his point: Ward's book, which was a fine example of rational, moderate religion, focuses its ire not on the modern religious fundamentalists who are corrupting his rational religion with politics and irrationality, but rather on Dawkins and Dennett and people like them, who attack religious fundamentalism from the outside. There is a chance that Ward's book is a ruse--that his apparent attack on Dawkins and Dennett was bait to get the religious fundies to read his book, and then they would be exposed to rationality within religion, turning his book into a clever surprise attack from the inside. Sometimes I'm just too much of an optimist, but if this is true, then good on ya, Dr. Ward. I hope it works.

Towards the end of the book, Dawkins takes up the very controversial stance that teaching children to believe in religious dogma--as contrasted with, say, presenting children with a variety of religious dogma and giving them the tools to evaluate it rationally and decide for themselves what to believe--is a form of child abuse. At first, admittedly, I cringed. But eventually, his arguments won me over. In context of my own life, I reflected on the duty I have, as a father relative to my son, of how best to equip him for his intellectual and spiritual future. To be honest, this scares the daylights out of me. I can only hope I'm up to the task.

In the final chapter, Dawkins offers up a positive affirmation of something resembling religious belief: an analysis of imaginary friends of children and of internal, apparently "other", voices heard by adults (not to be confused with, but resembling, multiple personality disorder). tcpip posted a link (which now looks broken) some time back regarding this idea and its possible relationship to creative and artistic personalities. Dennett's book addresses this topic as well. I thought that there was a very respectful nod to religion when Dawkins admits "It is time to face up to the important role that God plays in consoling us; and the humanitarian challenge, if he does not exist, to put something in his place." I think Dawkins makes an admirable attempt at this, and also something similar with regards to inspiration.


I think one of the most-inspiring things to come from these books was actually Dawkins quoting Carl Sagan. Sagan was being pressured to offer a "gut feel", in lieu of a stated belief, regarding the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. His response blows me away: "But I try not to think with my gut. Really, it's okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in." Wow. Perfect. I have similarly bemoaned the notion that we are called to believe anything in the absence of evidence, even if you consider yourself a faithful Christian.

I find myself, at the end of this process, at a critical junction in the contexts of this community and will now make an announcement. For those who have skipped over the bulk of this in a "tl;dr" attitude, searching for a synopsis (I don't blame you) I will separate it and bold italicize it, and even let it peak out from behind the LJ-cut:

I hereby announce that I have been converted to atheism.

The spell has been broken.

Dawkins describes me perfectly in the last chapter of his book: "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the majority of atheists I know disguise their atheism behind a pious facade. They do not believe in anything supernatural themselves, but retain a vague soft spot for irrational belief. They believe in belief." I think that Dawkins would describe Ward in similar terms. This has been my motif, so it is a fairly big step for me to actually embrace the title of "atheist" publicly, stepping out from behind my pious facade.

I am an atheist per Dawkins' definition--I do not believe in the existence of the supernatural (I do, however, believe that the natural is super (-; ). At the very least, I see it as highly unlikely. What may be confusing about this is that I will continue to embrace language and flirt with ideas that sound religious. For example, I do like Ward's notion of a "spiritual dimension" to life, accessible through the pathways of the rational, imaginative, and creative mind analogous to how mathematics is accessible through similar pathways. I will flirt with platonistic language about mathematics without wholly embracing a platonist realism regarding mathematical forms, and likewise I will flirt with spiritual language (e.g. I have a soft spot for Rudolph Steiner at the moment) without wholly embracing religion. I see both a rational and an emotional aesthetic in such an approach to my intellectual life.

In terms of morality, I want to approach it with the assumption of a transcendent value, which on its face seems religious. I think Dennett covers this adequately, however, and shows how the idea of a transcendent value can occupy the intellect as a presumption without simultaneously embracing the supernatural, all the while keeping our intellectual honesty intact.

So, I will be an atheist who will sound, from time to time, a lot like a theist. If there is any confusion about how I should be labeled (note that I began in this community as someone who didn't want to be labeled), please refer to this post (until I change my mind again...). ;-)

As a final note, I want to say that--ironically--Ward was central (although Dennett and Dawkins obviously played a strong role, as well as a handful of key people in this community, of course) to converting me to atheism. Thank you to felephant for the book recommendation.

(My humblest apologies for the self-indulgent length of this post.)

Tags: atheism, conversion, dawkins

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  • Convert Me Challenge

    Hi everyone! This is my first time in this community so I hope my post is acceptable. My question must have been asked before but hopefully not in…

  • Atheism and Islamophobia

    Australian news website, New Matilda posted an article by Jeff Sparrow noting that progressive atheists don't do much to shout down the New…

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    eracerhead recently claimed that atheists were a persecuted minority. While it is unquestionable that they are, in the States anyways, a…