Friday, November 03, 2006

Books! Gawd and Goodman Dawkins!

It's a very familiar moment, well-known to countless men: you're sitting at a bar, elbow-to-elbow with a stranger. The first few cupfulls, you stew in the silence that is every man's right at the end of a working day ('a working day?' I hear my young friend Sebastian asking in deep confusion, 'what's that? Do days sometimes malfunction?'). But after a while, you're warmed up enough to go from contemplating to complaining, and that's when you turn to the guy seated next to you.

And it goes swimmingly, at first. You click - you like each other instantly, and the first hour's conversation makes it clear the two of you share a large variety of opinions more or less in common. There's a solace in this that's hard to explain. It - and running tabs - is what keeps people coming back to bars.

Then comes that moment. You're talking with your newfound friend, you're feeling a warmth that's not entirely chemically produced, when your seat-mate, out of the blue, starts his next sentence like this: "And then there are the damned niggers ..."

It's an awful moment. It turns your guts to stone. The entire house of cards the two of you had built - full of good will and the silent, low-key yearning for more good will. But that single moment stops all of that in its tracks.

It's impossible for me not to feel that horrid moment, when reading Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion.

Because I like him - his book is one hell of a lively ride, scabrously, hilariously written (you have to smile at a guy who calls Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva "icons of haute francophonyism"), wonderfully, snarkily intelligent from first to last. This is an entirely different kind of book from the same author's mighty, magisterial The Ancestor's Tale. That book was a giant work, scrupulously intelligent, the single greatest volume concerning evolution by natural selection written since Darwin.

The latter book is an impassioned, tossed-off screed, ironically enough the same KIND of screed you might hear in a bar, if the screed-er were one of those annoying individuals who tend not to lose their powers of ratiocination even while drinking. Such individuals are immensely irritating - just ask somebody who knows one! - but they're rare enough so that you can reasonably expect to avoid them in random bars.

Dawkins is smart enough to toss off a screed that encompasses everything from Hindu scriptural texts to the current perturbations of the blogosphere. And every single OUNCE of his smarts is conveyed in his incredibly enjoyable, energized writing style. That oft-said but seldom-true description actually applies to this book: there's not a dull page in it..

And because I agree with him - I myself am an atheist, and I vigorously hate virtually all religious practice (and unlike SO many people who claim to be atheists, I actually know the enemy's territory in chapter and verse). Dawkins' book might just be the smartest, funniest, and most consummately ruthless attack on religious practice yet written.

He doesn't leave any theological stone unturned. It's amazing, when you finish the book, to look back and remember just how much is in it. Everybody from Aquinas to intelligent design apologists, regardless of historical gravitas, gets a fanny-spanking.

Dawkins finds all the weak seams, all the weak seams that have always been there, in every religion, throughout time. He's organized (or, as he problematically puts it, 'supernatural') religion's worse nightmare: scientifically trained, religiously sensitized, and articulate as all hell.

Arguments for the existence of God, arguments for the value of organized religion, arguments for the solace of faith ... every aspect of the subject is atomized, always with the same zest and sarcastic humor, always with at least the outward protestations of fairness.

So yes: I like him and I agree with him. And then he starts his next sentence with 'And then there are the damned niggers ...'

It's not the fact that the book has flaws - it has them, as all books do (sorry Jack!). It's the fact that the book's flaws add up to a system, an agenda ... which is, if you think about it, the very last thing a supposedly open-minded examination of religion should have. Surely if organized religion is as stupid and harmful as you maintain, you shouldn't need to rig the game going in?

Dawkins rigs the game going in. When he lurches into his own version of that barroom talk-stopper, you suddenly realize you're in the presence of somebody every bit as intransigently close-minded as the religious zealots he condemns (and manages to FIND, in huge numbers, like a pig sniffing out nutjobs). In violently pre-judging that all organized religion is manipulative and evil, Dawkins shortens the work he needs to do - at the expense of his argument.

Take for example his discussion of the way devout Christians react to news of their own imminent mortality. Dawkins asks why, if these people believe in the immortality of their souls, they aren't happy at the prospect of their physical deaths:

Why don't religious people talk like that when it the presence of the dying? Could it be that they don't really believe all that stuff they pretend to believe? ...wouldn't you expect that religious people would be the least likely to cling unbecomingly to earthly life? Yet it is a striking fact that, if you meet somebody who is passionately opposed to mercy killing, or passionately against assisted suicide, you can bet a good sum they will turn out to be religious. The official reason may be that all killing is a sin. But why deem it a sin if you sincerely believe you are accelerating a journey to heaven?

You can hear the tone clearly here - the nah-nah schoolyard taunt of someone who's asking questions BUT WILL NOT LISTEN TO THE ANSWERS (with just the smallest flavor of the conspiracy-crackpot, with that 'could it be that they don't really believe' or that 'official reason' business). This is an 'inquiry' made by somebody who's decided ahead of time that no valid or thoughtworthy answers are forthcoming.

I believe whole-heartedly in assissted suicide, but nevertheless: that 'official reason' Dawkins so snidely mentions is the Bible, and the twenty centuries of moral and legal codes it spawned. A religious person who's not a crackpot (they comprise a large chunk of the world's population - I think there are about two of them in Dawkins' book - and he gets both of them on a really bad day) would probably respond to Dawkins' taunting questions by saying the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak - they do believe in a bright afterlife, but losing THIS life is fearful anyway (a less close-minded atheist than Dawkins might point out how many millions, while dying, have been spared the full measure of mental agony by clinging to some kind of religion ... Dawkins might scoff 'deluded to the end!' but surely deluded is better than pointlessly terrified). They might say that their beliefs make it a sin to lose hope.

I know a handful of deeply religious people - not Italian grandmothers with their compulsive rosary beads, but intelligent, educated people who are as wise to the ways of the world as Dawkins is. These are not deluded dupes, nor are they status-seeking hypocrites. And the fact is, their faith genuinely BETTERS them. For whatever reason, through whatever mechanism, they are able to access deeper, richer, better aspects of themselves through faith than they would be able to do without it. They are kinder, more giving, more actively GOOD because of their faith - and once you realize that despite any of this, in Dawkins' eyes they're just damned niggers, well ... a large amount of the fun goes out of his book.

And once that happens, you start to notice something else. Something not only disagreeable about the book but downright fish-stinky.

You first notice it with all the predictable Dawkins nonsense about 'memes' ... you can append your own bulleted one-phrase definition here, and they'll be as many of them as there are readers, since nobody really knows what the Hell Dawkins is talking about when he refers to them. 'Units of cultural inheritance' is the phrase Dawkins uses here, and as far as I can make out, he conceives of them as some kind of 'soft' equivalent to genes.

He faces up to the problems with this, and he gamefully defends his conception. Take the objection that "memes are copied with insufficiently high fidelity to function as Darwinian replicators."

The problem, Dawkins says, is illusory:

Think of a master carpenter demonstrating a particular skill to a young apprentice. If the apprentice faithfully reproduced every hand movement of the master, you would indeed expect to see the meme mutate out of all recognition in a few 'generations' of master/apprentice transmission. But of course the apprentice does not faithfully reproduce every hand movement. It would be ridiculous to do so. Instead, he notes the goal that the master is trying to achieve, and imitates that. Stitches in knitting, knots in ropes or fishing nets, origami folding patterns, useful tricks in carpentry or pottery: all can be reduced to discrete elements that really do have the opportunity to pass down an indefinite number of imitation generations without alteration. The details may wander idiosyncratically, but the essence passes down unmutated, and that is all that is needed for the analogy of memes with genes to work.

Not hardly. Not by a wide margin. The only way this analogy even BEGINS to hold up is if the master carpenter's teachings - the instructions themselves, not the words or gestures used to convey them - exist separate from the man himself. And they don't. They're TEACHINGS, which are acquired and disseminated - or not - by an act of will. Genetic inheritance in all its variation works works uninhibited even upon people who don't know what genes are. There's no similarly mindlessly biological equivalence going on in the act of TEACHING.

The fact that Dawkins believes there is would be telling enough all by itself, but he goes much further when he talks on and on about the Zeitgeist.

Ah, the Zeitgeist. In the entire century of its ridiculous life, it's never done anything but make otherwise intelligent individuals sound like morons. The Zeitgeist, the so-called collective spirit of the times .... how unutterably tired I am of this bogeyman. The Zeitgeist, a concept invariably adored by Cantabridgians who're proud of the fact that they don't read newspapers and don't own TVs.

Dawkins is no different. The minute he invokes the Zeitgeist, he sounds like a damn fool, a blinkered cafe-savant. It only worsens things that he believes the Zeitgeist is moving 'forward' and 'upward,' that things are steadily getting better:

we have almost all moved on, and in a big way since biblical times. Slavery, which was taken for granted in the Bible and throughout most of history, was abolished in civilized countries in the nineteenth century. All civilized nations now accept what was denied up to the 1920s, that a woman's vote, in an election or on a jury, is the equal of a man's. In today's enlightened societies (a category that manifestly does not include, for example, Saudi Arabia), women are no longer regarded as property, as they clearly were in biblical times. The Zeitgeist moves on, so inexorably that we sometimes take it for granted and forget that the change is a real phenomenon in its own right.

Not hardly. Not by a wide margin. As is always the case when I encounter somebody talking about the Zeitgeist, I'm astonished by the evasions, corner-cuttings, and boneheaded howlers that come out of their mouth. It's all the more glaring here, in a book that so fetishizes rationality.

You can see it even in this little excerpt. Notice how he's forced to retreat from 'we' to 'civilized' to 'enlightened' societies just in order to keep TALKING about it, this chimerical Zeitgeist bogeyman. So there are no slaves in the world anymore? So the lot of women is now deplorable only in a few isolated non-enlightened corners of the globe? It's always the same: get a cultural ostrich to pull its head out of the sand long enough to talk about the Zeitgeist, and this kind of crap comes dribbling out of its beak.

In another book, it'd just be a little burr under the saddle, a place to politely cough and look away. And do you know why? Because things like memes and the Zeitgeist are supportable only by presupposing an invisible, ineffable web, a means of communication and propaganda that cannot be measured or directly observed.

In other words, they're religious concepts. The God Delusion is, under all its flash and bluster, a deeply religious book.

Even in the midst of fulminating against the perfidy of worldwide religious psychosis, Dawkins can't stand alone. He can't completely abandon the idea of a phantom floating SOMETHING out there, preserving, guiding, and uplifting human life (and, it should be pointed out, only human life). Since I'm an ACTUAL atheist, I don't really care what Dawkins calls his god.

It doesn't dismiss the bulk of his book, which is sharp and delightful and well worth reading. But it does CHARACTERIZE the book, in pretty damn clear terms.

This isn't Charles Dawkins' The Origin of Species, in other words. It's more like The Confessions of St. Richard.


Sam Sacks said...

Bravo, wonderful. Articulates just my thoughts about the cult of "memes." You want to shout at these guys, "Memes are not fucking real! You cannot use them. You cannot rationally argue for a materialist universe using pseudoscience! Pompousness doesn't compensate for the fact that they are figments of your imagination!" And so forth.

Kevin Caron said...

Really enjoyed the review, Steve. Thanks!

john cotter said...

I thought the review was enormously fun to read, but I don't think you had to be as negative as you were. I mean, 'spirituality' has a whole SECTION in the bookstore, NONE of the titles in which will receive half the drubbing this fun & worthy Dawkins book has. (On your verbal, more hearteningly enthusiastic word several weeks ago, I’ve got myself a copy & I’m reading snatches of it here & there).

I see the book very much in the line of Mark Twain’s little-read (now) Christian Science, in which he flogs Mary Baker Eddy and her cult for 200 ripping pages. If only he’d been around for the scienceologists! Why not take a chisel to this stuff every once in awhile? Is it enough to sit secure in our own atheism, keeping it well to ourselves and our confederates? The phrase: “Dawkins' book might just be the smartest, funniest, and most consummately ruthless attack on religious practice yet written” Is enough of assertion that you think it’d make your review a mostly positive one. But you’re mostly negative.

I think Dawkins is RIGHT to pick on the hypocrisy of religious folks who successfully influence public policy in favor of those who believe in an afterlife, but balk at the prospects that they themselves might soon ‘live’ there. You write that, “they do believe in a bright afterlife, but losing THIS life is fearful anyway.” Fair enough – but we’re talking about the country’s ruling party here, why not demand they have the courage of their PROSCRIPTIVE convictions?

In holding Dawkins up to be every bit as much of a crackpot as the crazy faithful, you find yourself in the same camp as the creators of South Park, who’ve just penned & inked an episode wherein a Richard Dawkins character (with, weirdly, an American accent), buggers a sex-changed Mr. Garrison shouting, “I’m just a monkey! Do me like a monkey!” Austere company.

Jeff E. said...

In contrast to John's comment, I was surprised by how much Steve liked the book. Reason taking on religion is so easy, it could have easily led to a very bad book. Picking looneys to interview or slashing down straw men can be pretty boring, especially when the author's editorial comments are flavored by a gigantic personal stake in the outcome (evolutionary biologists are creationists enemy #1). I was pleased to see that Dawkins was at least funny.

Memes, the zeitgeist, and other paranormal ontology are pretty thorny, and I also hate watching Dawkins get a hard-on for his own contribution to philosophical posterity. But I think John took Steve's analysis too far when he said Steve called him "every bit as much of a crackpot as the crazy faithful." He's really only a crackpot when he's talking about his made up terms. The problem arises from the fact that Dawkins is insisting that that isn't what he's doing. Steve was pointing out that whenever Dawkins does this hypocritical bullshit, they (looney, Dawkins) are on a par.

It's not fair or worthwhile to suggest Steve ought to spend time blasting big holes in all the books in the spirituality section of the bookstore because they don't claim to be written by the patron saint of scientific rationality. "The God Delusion" claims exactly that and deserves to get spanked when it backslides.

steve said...

I find myself in no such camp, buggering no such trannies. My review IS mostly positive, a hearty recommendation - but guarded one. Despite the assumption in your 'I think Dawkins is RIGHT to pick on the hypocrisy of religious folks' ('tell me, Mr. Stevereads, do you still beat your wife?'), I also think he's right - sorry, RIGHT - to do so, as I indicate several times.

The negative comes in because Dawkins is a religious hypocrite himself, which makes the fact that he's written a book bashing religious hypocrisy a bit difficult to swallow with a smile.

But what I wrote makes it clear the book is smart and fun to read - mainly because I cleverly use words like 'smart' and 'fun to read' ...