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Harpers Folly
Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins

What was Harper
s magazine thinking when they printed this outrageous review of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion by Marilynne Robinson?
(November 26, 2006)


    

     As a follow-up to my review of Richard Dawkins
The God Delusion and Sam Harris Letter to a Christian Nation (Comment 16), I must respond to the review of Dawkins book by Marilynne Robinson in the November issue of Harpers, and I will do so at some length. It is certainly a curiosity that a seemingly liberal and outspoken magazine like Harpers would offer a piece like this one. The first sign that there is an a priori prejudice involved is the title: Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins. This is not a review, properly speaking. It is a smug and pretentious defamation of science and scientists, and Richard Dawkins in particular.

The definition of scientism is The belief that the principles and methods of the physical and biological sciences should be applied to other disciplines(Random House Webster's College Dictionary). In my experience this word is never employed by science itself but by those outside science who view it with a jaundiced eye. (See Forum 11 for an example.) It is almost invariably pejorative, accusing science of being an ideology which regards itself as the only legitimate way to investigate and uncover reality. Perhaps it does, and perhaps it is, but the terms use invariably implies the claim that there is another way of knowing, and while I have encountered ways of knowing which include mystical journeys in spirit and past lives psychotherapy, the claim is usually made with an eye to religious revelation. Now, Robinson never directly discusses religion as a legitimate alternative to science—or scientism—but her feelings are clear throughout, and she does make this one admission: “The reader may assume a somewhat greater admiration on my part for religion in the highest sense of the word [in comparison with “science in the highest sense of the word” which she is about to discuss], though I will not go into that here.” So there is little doubt where she is coming from.

Robinson is a clever and sophisticated writer (as winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction she would have to be), but her scornful treatment of Dawkins himself hardly does credit to those talents. The “full force of his intellect…verbal skills…and his human learning (is also) capacious enough to include some deeply minor poetry.” While Dawkins, in offering a smattering of the latter, may be invading Robinson’s territory, Robinson can never be accused of invading Dawkins’ scientific one, for her treatment of science is so deeply buried in prejudice it is beyond recognition. She accuses Dawkins of having his own version of Darwinism. What that may be is not quite clear, since while Dawkins champions classic “natural selection” as the working principle of evolution, he is hardly ignorant of the nuances of that principle and appeals to nothing that I am aware of as being outdated, much less some lunatic fringe viewpoint. Perhaps she is referring to quantum theory (which in any case Dawkins does discuss), for she seems to have a special use for that dimension of science which I will detail later.

The Demon Science

Robinson is anxious to fault science for some of its products—mainly, of course, nuclear weapons—and scientists for being willing to make them. Her point is not as well taken as she thinks. Science as a method of investigation and path to knowledge about the world and ourselves is untainted by how some people may use the technology proceeding from it. There is nothing in The God Delusion which makes a blanket defense of  technology, although many uses of science have been of immeasurable benefit to humankind (and religionists have often been fighting them every step of the way). Science may hopefully save us from our planet being ruined by overpopulation (driven in great measure by religion), and give us longer, disease-free lives (against opposition to cures in defense of certain views of morality, or the fate of souls in a petrie dish). Nuclear science gave us nuclear energy which has the potential to rescue us from the perils of fossil fuel burning. Difficult side effects may attend to anything, but they can be overcome; and good things may have the potential to be misused, usually by people driven by anything but rational motives. That hardly means we should have remained in the Dark Ages to minimize such potential. And it is only science, in uncovering our real natures, which opens new avenues (certainly religion has long failed) to provide the means to disarm our capacity to put good things to bad uses.

Religion, on the other hand, discovers nothing and postulates fantasies that directly promote (usually via their holy books) war, division and inhumanity, not to mention mental instability and anguish.

One of Robinson’s clever phrases is “the tectonics of culture” which, according to her, are “suddenly active, and all the old rifts and stresses and pressures that seemed to have fallen dormant have awakened at once.” I don’t know what she has in mind here, for each age has its rifts and stresses which would hardly lead its denizens to regard their time as an age of dormancy. Perhaps she has in mind a certain past religious naivete, when belief in the supernatural was widely respected and atheists hid fearfully in the closet, because she offers as an instance of such awakened rifts The God Delusion, which has arisen out of the clamor to “denounce the great Satan, religion.” Certainly from the standpoint of our day, the pressures and stresses, whether domestically in the U.S. or internationally in the Islamist movement, are the direct products of religion. Those tectonics are active precisely because of the instability caused by faith and monumental superstition carried to fundamentalist extremes. The God Delusion is not a part of the phenomenon, it is a reaction to it. Would Robinson regard an increase in the prosecution of criminals as an “instance” of the phenomenon of criminality?

The Demon Scientists

Robinson makes an ill-disguised attempt to brand Dawkins as something akin to a racist, and she does it with misleading quotations. (The fact that she doesn’t detail page numbers for any of her quotes makes it difficult for the reader to check up on whether she has misrepresented anything.) As part of a context in which Dawkins criticizes the divisive ‘in-group’ mentality in most religious settings (Catholic vs. Protestant, mainly), he also notes that Jews are discouraged from “marrying out.” Robinson quotes the latter and then says,

…and [Dawkins] complains that such “wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness (is) a significant force for evil.” It is of course no criticism to say that he values the traditions of Judaism not at all, since this is only consistent with his view of religion in general.

This is dirty pool. First of all, here is what Dawkins actually says:

Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness – its deliberate and cultivated pandering to humanity’s natural tendency to favour in-groups and shun out-groups – would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world.

Here he has moved beyond Judaism itself and is addressing the in-group mentality of religions in general, which does indeed nurture divisiveness (and even hatred of other humans for believing in a different fantasy than one's own), and this characteristic feature of religion is indeed a significant force for evil, as we can see for ourselves by simply looking around the world. Robinson presents it as though Dawkins has made a direct racial attack on Jews and Jewish culture as a whole. Would she have said, so-and-so is guilty of not valuing the traditions of African-Americans because of some criticized feature of in-group behavior? Unfortunately, the accusation of anti-Semitism is a handy tool for demonization and she uses it more than once, never honestly.

She even manages to involve science in the promotion of the Holocaust through the pseudo-scientific Nazi eugenics theories which provided a rationale for Jewish inferiority and eradication. Would anyone label Dr. Mengele a “scientist”? Such people were driven by political ideologies and anti-Semitic traditions (having religious roots) that would never be encompassed by Dawkins’ concept of science, let alone of ‘morality.’ If science, as demonstrated by Hitlerian eugenics, is “vulnerable” to cultural prejudice—just as religion is, she fails to note—it is equally ‘vulnerable’ to correction, since such eugenics have been discredited, not the least through advances in scientific understanding and the general enlightenment of outlook prompted by humanism, which tends to go hand in hand with scientific advance. Thus, contrary to Robinson’s claim, science has proven to supply a correction to the culturally prejudiced, including those by whom it may have been coopted in the past. (We should also note that it is precisely science which has revealed that there is no genetic basis for racial differentiation; this, unlike anything religion has ever come up with, is our avenue to correcting such prejudices.)

Bad Science Vs. Bad Religion

This is one respect among several in which Robinson’s attempt to equate “bad science” with “bad religion” founders. Bad religion has never corrected itself, because religion is incapable of that kind of self-examination and flexibility. Just ask the Vatican. Bad science, on the other hand, will eventually be found out, because scientists are always searching for an improved science; self-correction is built into the scientific method. Religion, on the other hand, boasts of immutability and infallibility. When a scientist corrects previous theories, he wins a Nobel Prize. When a theist 'corrects' a religion, he’s burned at the stake as a heretic.

In a tortured piece of logic, Robinson tries to justify the 19th century case of the Catholic Church in Italy seizing a child of Jewish parents to forcibly raise him Christian because they had discovered that he had been baptized several years earlier by a concerned babysitter! The implacable logic of the Church was that now, intended or not, with a sprinkle of water he was among the saved and had to be removed from his parents’ heretical environment. This is a far more egregious example of disrespect toward the Jewish heritage than anything Dawkins is accused of. Yet Robinson tries to defend it by pointing out that had the child continued in his Jewish culture and community, he might have been caught up in the Nazi Holocaust some decades later, a Holocaust which was the product of science! (Nazi eugenics, remember?) Perhaps one could turn this sort of argument to use against Robinson’s criticism of scientists for manufacturing nuclear weapons. They undoubtedly, in their MAD wisdom, prevented a World War III in the latter part of the 20th century between the West and Communism, since neither side could bring itself to let loose such weapons because of the planetary devastation they knew would ensue. Unfortunately, religion is not deterred by such pragmatic considerations. When you believe God wants you to conquer the world no matter the cost, that after death Paradise awaits, so what? Communists were not big on martyrdom, not the least because they were atheists. We are much less likely to find a mechanism to ensure civilization’s survival in dealing with religious fanatics. After all, an imam gave Osama bin Laden permission to kill up to 10 million infidels in his holy war against the West, a goal that could only stand a chance of being achieved if his religious ‘scientists’ get hold of nuclear weapons. Robinson claims that “science’s capacity for doing harm is unequalled.” Rather, it is the political and religious fanatics’ capacity to turn science to their destructive ends which possesses a capability of that scope. I am no supporter of the NRA, but in this case it is true to say that “science doesn’t kill people; people kill people.” Science contains no such directives. Religion is replete with them.

In her attempt to equate bad science with bad religion, Robinson has recourse to the laughable. As a parallel to the fraud, hypocrisy and charlatanism religion has committed in its name (she declines to list them, from early Christian forgery of documents to modern televangelism and much in between), she offerswait for itthe Piltdown hoax and “the long-credited deception having to do with cloning in South Korea”! Then she offers this gem:

If by “science” is meant authentic science, then “religion” must mean authentic religion, granting the difficulties in arriving at these definitions.

But in authentic science there are no difficulties, because science is a method, a set of principles of a universal and objective nature. The fact that mistakes can be made, or that some scientists can be less than ‘scientific’ (or even indulge in dishonesty) in the application of that method, is beside the point. And it was other scientists who exposed the Piltdown hoax. There is no such universality to religion, neither in method nor in principles. Every religion, every sect, believes it has the ‘authentic’ revelation and interpretation of its timeless and unimpeachable holy books, and they are all mutually exclusive and contradictory. There are no universal laws of religious faith possessing objective controls, as there is in science. And since those judgments of authenticity usually include the belittling, damning and destroying of those who believe differently, I fail to see how Robinson can have the audacity to defend the very idea of ‘authenticity’ where religion is concerned. But then, perhaps she defines the term according to her personal set of dogmas.

Dawkins and the Cambridge Theologians

After laying this groundwork of defamation, Robinson now enters upon the world of science herself, to find in it a support for her own anti-science stance, or at least against science as alleged charlatans like Richard Dawkins champion it. She starts by accusing him of virtually being ignorant of “the physics of the last century or so,” by which she means the field of quantum theory. She immediately retracts this by directing the reader to the final chapter where Dawkins does address quantum theory. The allegation, of course, still stands, somewhat like the objected-to remark by an attorney which the judge directs the jury to disregard.

She calls attention to

his use of physicality and materiality as standards for determining the real and objective existence of anything, along with his use of commonplace experience as the standard of reasonableness and—a favorite word—probability. He does this despite his awareness that the physical and material are artifacts of the scale at which reality is achieved. For us, he says, “matter is a useful construct.”

This and other material she quotes shows that Dawkins is anything but ignorant of the physics of the last century, belying her lead-in statement (which the jury should indeed disregard). But we can now see where she is leading the reader. First of all, Dawkins himself, she says, must acknowledge that “the image of deeper reality invoked by him” may in fact mean that the human brains innate sense of dualism (our tendency to subjectively distinguish between mind and body which Dawkins has offered as one explanation for religious belief) is something which “prepares us to believe in a ‘soul’ which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body.” But there is a big difference between “a fluid matter (which) momentarily comes together” but still can support through that fluidity and change of material a continuing sense of ‘I-ness’—between that and matter housing what religion maintains is a distinct supernatural soul created separately by God and destined for eternity with the same identity as the body it had on earth. Nothing Dawkins proposes justifies such an outlandish parallel as Robinson would like to foist on us.

Robinson declares that she does “not wish to recruit science to the cause of religion,” but that, it seems to me, is exactly what she is trying to do, and here she reaches the crux of her critique. Like everything else, she only intimates it, because she never comes right out to fully connect religion with what she is saying. She accuses Dawkins of a kind of Polyanna (my word) attitude toward everything:

Dawkins acknowledges no difficulty. He has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information.

Well, Dawkins is certainly confident, evincing little doubt in his various positions, especially in regard to the existence of God. (Note, however, that he titles his key chapter, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”—perhaps there’s a bit of wiggle room being allowed here!) But Robinson thinks to perceive a fly in the ointment, and here is where she does indeed draw on science to discredit Dawkins’ thinking, which she claims “cannot properly be called scientific.” To discuss what Robinson is getting at, I will need to quote an extensive passage from her, which will also lay out the basis of Dawkins’ argument against the existence of God (the hiatuses are hers):

He reasons thus: A creator God must be more complex than his creation, but this is impossible because if he existed he would be at the wrong end of evolutionary history. To be present in the beginning he must have been unevolved and therefore simple. Dawkins is very proud of this insight. He considers it unanswerable. He asks, “How do they [theists] cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?” And “if he [God] has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know,” and “a first cause of everything…must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).” At Cambridge, says Dawkins, “I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology.” Dawkins is clearly innocent of this charge against him. Whatever is being foisted here, it is not a scientific epistemology.

Evolution is the creature of time. And, as Dawkins notes, modern cosmologies generally suggest that time and the universe as a whole came into being together. So a creator cannot very well be thought of as having attained complexity through a process of evolution. That is to say, theists need find no anomaly in a divine “complexity” over against the “simplicity” that is presumed to characterize the universe at its origin. (I use these terms not because I find them appropriate to the question but because Dawkins uses them, and my point is to demonstrate the flaws in his reasoning.) In this context, Dawkins cannot concede, even hypothetically, a reality that is not time-bound, that does not conform to Darwinism as he understands it. Yet in an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins remarks that “further developments of the [big bang] theory, supported by all available evidence, suggest that time itself began in this mother of all cataclysms. You probably don’t understand, and I certainly don’t, what it can possibly mean to say that time itself began at a particular moment. But once again, that is a limitation of our minds….” That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology. The faithful are accustomed to expressions like “from everlasting to everlasting” in reference to God, language that the positivists would surely have considered nonsense but that does indeed express the intuition that time is an aspect of the created order. Again, I do not wish to abuse either theology or scientific theory by implying that either can be used as evidence in support of the other; I mean only that the big bang in fact provides a metaphor that might help Dawkins understand why his grand assault on the “God Hypothesis” has failed to impress the theists.

Now we can take it apart. Robinsons claims that Dawkins’ arguments against the theologians are not scientific epistemology, that this is not scientific reasoning being brought to the question. What, then, is it in Robinson’s estimation?

Dawkins and his reasoning/evidence is time-bound, in that the concept of evolution is dependent on the workings of time, and time only came into existence with the known universe following the Big Bang. Therefore, the Creator’s ‘complexity’ cannot be tied to a process of evolution which entails the time factor. We cannot disallow a complex God by requiring him to exist and operate by the material universe’s processes. Robinson admits that the language she is using is not appropriate to the question, but she must do so because Dawkins uses it and to demonstrate the flaws in his reasoning. But right there, she has thrown a light on her own, and religion’s, flaws in reasoning. Dawkins—and herself by default—use such language and concepts because they are the only thing we have. We have no way of knowing, let alone claiming with a priori certainty, that there is another type of complexity possible, through other types of processes not involving time, or that complexity can exist in this other pre-physical/material domain without any processes of evolution at all. To maintain this is simply to declare it by fiat, which Dawkins rightly criticizes. What Robinson is doing, once again like all her apologist compatriots, is defining God arbitrarily (without remotely understanding it) as something that exists and functions ‘outside’ or ‘above’ everything that we can possibly know or even conceive of. She is faulting Dawkins—and calling him a faux or pseudo or hysterical scientist—for not doing the same as she! When Dawkins challenged the Cambridge theologians he was asking for some kind of evidence, some theoretical conceptual argument, as to how God could function as creator, since this would by any logical or experiential measure require some form of complexity. He offered them, as an example, the only complexity known and demonstrable by science: the principle of evolution from simplicity to complexity, which necessarily entails the factor of time. Every process from the Big Bang onwards has moved on that one-way path. To postulate complexity as pre-existing without any such process of development goes against everything we have learned. Dawkins was simply asking the theologians to explain or describe God’s brand of complexity, if not by Darwinian evolutionary principles and the input of time, then by some other process or concept. Of course, they could not. They would have no basis on which to do so (other than simply religious faith). If Robinson, appealing to ‘proper scientific epistemology’ is going to disallow time-based evolution as legitimately applicable to the question of God’s complexity, she has at least to offer some alternative source or reasoning for a pre-existing complex God who could create the universe—not simply declare it to be, or to be hypothetically possible (which, of course, is her only available option). In her world, anything could be hypothetically possible, no matter how lacking in evidence or conceivability—particularly if it had the blessing of religion.

But on what basis can she, or any theologian, occupy such a position? Dawkins is indeed imposing science on an unwilling theology—unwilling, because theology has never had any sort of epistemology to appeal to! Epistemology is the study of the origins, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge. But there is no study here, since there is no possibility of understanding what is being attributed to God. What are the theological origins and methods? The words of an ancient holy book? Personal experiences of God’s voice in believers’ heads? (These the Cambridge theologians actually put forward!) A lack of understanding (those gaps that are ever narrowing) of how the world works which invite God as an explanation? Because religious beliefs are traditional, ingrained, and the conviction that we need them and want them compels us to perpetuate them? These are the very fallacies that Dawkins exposes and dismantles in his book, fallacies which theologians, along with Robinson, never acknowledge to the slightest degree.

Robinson’s claim for a different brand of complexity for Godan entity who never has to follow any rules or reasonis the central, if only, plank in the platform she creates to stand on. She thinks to have caught out Dawkins in some blatant error of reasoning. “In this context [science’s Darwinian outlook tied to a time-bound universe], Dawkins cannot concede, even hypothetically, a reality that is not time-bound, that does not conform to Darwinism as he understands it.” True, he cannot, because nothing in the universe’s experience would bring one to consider it possible. This is not to say that “possible” it could not be—although we have nothing but arbitrary fiat based on wishful thinking to suggest that it actually is. Yet Robinson is guilty of a far greater error of reasoning in suggesting the reverse of the coin, that we ought (yes, ought, since Dawkins is ‘guilty’ of not doing so) to concede the possibility of a supra- or pre-universe reality not time-bound, inhabited by an innately complex God, because she has no tangible reason for insisting on that concession. Other than, of course, traditional beliefs that were set down in a primitive, pre-scientific phase of human evolution, beliefs for which modern science (including Dawkins in this book) has provided a host of insights and evidence to explain their development as human phenomena with no perceptible link to reality. Dawkins is far more justified in refusing to concede a God-inhabited hypothetical reality outside time and the rules of complexity than Robinson is in postulating the actual existence of one. He is justified by the only objective measure we have: our knowledge and experience of the universe as uncovered by science.

Of Dawkins Robinson demands facts and evidence. Of herself, she merely demands hypotheticals and speculations. She imagines that this is a fair and balanced match-up. (This is exactly what Daniel Dennett means when he says debating a religionist is like playing tennis with someone who lowers the net for their shots and raises it for yours.)


Robinson goes on to illustrate the skyhook she is hanging from. Does she even attempt a reasoned justification for her position?

That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology.

Perhaps she is claiming that ancient axioms like this are self-evident, and don’t require anything resembling objective evidence or justification; that they didn’t suffer from the lack of accurate knowledge about the universe which modern science has given us (in stark contrast to the ‘science’ and philosophy developed by the ancients themselves, long consigned, for the most part, to the dustbin of dead ideas). In her critique, she has failed to address the drubbing Dawkins (and others) have given to all the standard ‘proofs’ for the existence of God. She is no better than the theist debater who, outmatched by scientific arguments at every turn, declares from his boxed-in corner that God simply is the way we declare him because he follows no rules of logic or evidence that we are a party to.

I would liken it to sailors stumbling upon a desert island where they find two stranded people: a man and a baby. Some of the sailors declare that the man must have given birth to the baby, even though this contradicts everything we know about birth. (Perhaps they have been led to this declaration by some words in their holy book.) Other sailors who search for evidence that a woman was recently on the island, who perhaps drowned when trying to swim to civilization, or that the baby was dropped from a plane in a box, are criticized and ridiculed by the first group for not conceding the possibility that this man and this birth are unique, not subject to the universal rules that experience has always obeyed. (To complicate things, the stranded man cannot be medically examined or questioned.) Robinson and the Cambridge theologians would have us believe—indeed, have us assume as a given, perhaps based on some outlandish ancient theories about procreation—that a man can give birth to a baby. Theoretically, I suppose it would be ‘hypothetically possible’ that this particular man gave birth because he was a unique mutation, or perhaps he was really an androgynous alien in disguise, or the island’s volcano spewed out molecules which just happened to form a man with a self-fertilizing womb, but anyone who would seriously put forward such alternate ‘explanations’ would be considered bonkers—that is, in any other area but religion. That, too, is Dawkins’ point. And it is indeed why, in Robinson's snide words, that Dawkins’ “assault on the ‘God Hypothesis’ has failed to impress the theists.”

Quantum Theory: Gods Newest Gap

But there is more to all this than meets the reader’s eye. Robinson does indeed have an Ace up her sleeve, but she produces it only by implication. That Ace is quantum theory, and with it she is in fact doing what she says she does not wish to, “recruit science to the cause of religion.” The trouble is, she never lays it out for rational consideration. It is left to cast its shadow over other parts of the piece. Let’s see if we can bring it into the light.

Robinson has spoken of “the fact of quantum theory and certain of its implications,” which she has accused Dawkins of ignoring. According to her, he has produced work that has not been “informed” by this dimension of the physics of the last century. (As I said earlier, she then points to his final chapter, which belies her statement.) It follows that she must regard quantum theory as providing a justification for postulating God’s existence. Those “implications” apparently give us a rationale for locating him in a world which is not limited by the laws of the one we perceive, laws which Dawkins has appealed to as disproving any likelihood of God’s existence. The key phrase embodying her implied position is this:  

…especially (Dawkins’) use of physicality and materiality as standards for determining the real and objective existence of anything.

She is eager to agree with him that physicality and materiality are features of “the scale at which reality is perceived,” the scale on which we live, observe and experience, one of very narrow limits within the range of all that there is, and following laws which the inner world of the quantum does not seem to. In view of her treatment of Dawkins’ argument against a complex Deity (the long passage I quoted above), it seems evident that she is suggesting the world of the quantum as the dwelling place of God where that argument need not apply. Since the scientific rules of our physical/material experience do not seem to be a part of the quantum dimension of reality, indeed if physicality and materiality themselves are features only of our outer world, and since she insists on the legitimacy of postulating a complex God that does not need to obey the rules of materiality and evolution, an intended association of the two seems evident. Thus, God does not lie ‘above’ or ‘outside’ the perceivable rule- and time-bound universe, but inside it—so far inside that his and its modes of behavior are unlike anything on our outer scale.

Now, I am not going to label myself a scientist, much less an expert on quantum theory (any more, I imagine, than Robinson is, which is perhaps why she does not attempt to spell out her implications), but I can draw on a limited knowledge of it, together with a life-long respect for science and the analytical thinking it promotes, unencumbered by the distortions created by religious faith. In regard to the world of quantum theory, Dawkins says this in his book:

Our imaginations are not yet tooled-up to penetrate the neighbourhood of the quantum. Nothing at that scale behaves in the way matter—as we are evolved to think—ought to behave….Quantum mechanics, that rarefied pinnacle of twentieth-century scientific achievement, makes brilliantly successful predictions about the real world. This predictive success seems to mean that quantum theory has got to be true in some sense; as true as anything we know, even including the most down-to-earth common-sense facts. Yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make, in order to deliver those predictions, are so mysterious that even the great Feynman himself was moved to remark: ‘If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.’ [p.363-5]

One of the popular impressions (which I share) about quantum mechanics is that the behavior of entities at the sub-atomic level is subject to an “uncertainty principle.” There, things seem to occur at random, following no predictable pattern by the standards of the larger scale—our ‘real world,’ as Dawkins refers to it in the above quote. Some scientists, as I recall, speak only of indeterminate, or ‘potentials’ of behavior at that level; in certain experiments, a ‘choice’ of behavior is only effected by the act of observation from outside, from our world. If the world of the quantum is unreachable by our larger-scale conditioned minds, could we not be peering into the domain of God? Some religiously-oriented scientists have actually proposed this, though it is not always clear what type of ‘religious orientation’ they are holding; it perhaps includes a good measure of the Einsteinian variety (without a personal God), as discussed in my review of The God Delusion.

But if Robinson thinks to claim that inner domain for a God of more orthodox nature, she is opening up a can of quantum worms. If the essence of quantum behavior is randomness and the essence of the physical is predictability, with laws of nature that can be comprehended and depended upon, this may be a paradox we lack understanding of (as yet), but it exists nonetheless; we can observe it. Paradox or not, the random unpredictable world of the quantum produces the non-random predictable world of our large-scale materiality. This is as much a this-universe process as anything else, regardless of whether we know, or even can know, how it works. By locating God in this as yet ill-understood inner world, Robinson is simply guilty of yet another recourse to “the God of the gaps” fallacy. We don’t understand the nitty-gritty of quantum mechanics, so that’s where God resides and does his work.

This, however, removes God from the supernatural. He becomes part of the natural world and amenable (once we further unlock the quantum dimension) to scientific investigation. This would certainly destroy the “separate magisteriums” position, and scientists (rather than theologians) would be responsible for defining and revealing God—requiring Robinson to considerably revamp the tenor of her critique.

But slotting God between the quarks is not the same as observing God directly. It is still the postulation of something for which there is no direct evidence, but only an interpretation convenient for theists. Scientists, on the other hand, can to some degree uncover the quantum; that is how they know of its randomness and the fact that such randomness produces predictability. No scientist has simply postulated randomness as an explanation for predictability because it is convenient. But ‘God’ as an explanation for how randomness produces predictability is no explanation at all, since we still must define God and his nature within that inner world. If he is simply synonymous with it, then he is not a personal, self-conscious God, but only the personification of the non-conscious workings of the quantum level. If the essence of the quantum is random unpredictability and God is a part of that world, he must by nature act and think in random ways. (He would be far more “hysterical” than science or Dawkins!) He might be innately complex, but how can a random-behaving entity produce creation through a personal, conscious decision? If he is not bound by the quantum behavior of his world, then he is not a part of it, but must lie ‘outside’ that inner world—and thus we are back at square one, with no conceptual explanation of how this works and no basis on which to “concede” its possibility.

Robinson might insist on the qualification she expressed earlier, saying that all this reasoning, and the language employed to present it, contains ‘our-world’ features and may not properly apply to the workings of a quantum God. Maybe so, but that leaves us with no means of evaluating or even discussing the subject except to declare it by fiat, and thus we have returned to another square one.

The Science of Ethics

Robinson now moves on to Dawkins’ treatment of ethics and the Bible. She does not attempt any rebuttal to his judgment of the Old Testament as “barbarous and abhorrent,” except that she is anxious to discredit one particular claim: that ancient Jewish attitudes in regard to the Ten Commandments were directed only at fellow Jews, that “Love Thy Neighbor” was not some universal directive to love one’s fellow man and woman of any ethnic group but only one’s own countrymen. This is the sole topic concerning which Dawkins draws on the work of John Hartung in the latters study, “Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality,” despite Robinson’s misleading declaration that Dawkins’ treatment of “these texts” (referring to his views on the Old Testament and New Testament in general) “depends to a striking degree” on Hartung’s paper. This is another dishonest tactic, associating as much as possible with a source one thinks can be discredited in order to taint everything. There is also a subtle attempt to once again conjure up the specter of anti-Semitism, pinning it on Hartung as well. Studies which call into doubt the idealized picture of Old Testament morality—and it happens in regard to questioning biblical history as well, or pre-Exilic Hebrew monotheism—are “murky waters, the kind toward which Darwinism has often tended to migrate.” So now all of science, particularly its dirty old grandfather, is to be tarred with the same anti-Semitic brush for the sin of questioning the Bible’s purity and integrity.

Robinson attempts an exegetical refutation of Hartung’s and Dawkins’ contention that ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ in the Bible’s ethical teachings “was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly-defined in-group”:

“[quoting Dawkins]‘Love thy neighbor’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew’.” As for the New Testament interpretation of the text, “Hartung puts it more bluntly than I dare: ‘Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul would be taking his plan to the pigs.’ ” Pigs being, of course, gentiles.

First she tries to rescue ‘Love Thy Neighbor’. She starts by admitting that Leviticus 19:18 does allow for the narrow interpretation: “[it] does indeed begin, ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people’,” then thinks to counter this with Leviticus 19:33-34: “ ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien....You shall love the alien as yourself.’ ” But Robinson is putting her own spin on these verses, claiming that, in light of them, “it is wrong by Dawkins’s/Hartung’s own standards to argue that the ethos of the law does not imply moral consideration for others.” This is an implication of universality, but the text offers no such thing. That becomes clear when the entire passage is quoted (the hiatus was hers):

Leviticus 19:33-34 [NEB]: When an alien settles with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. He shall be treated as a native born among you, and you shall love him as a man like yourself, because you were aliens in Egypt.

The passage merely says that when a foreigner comes to live with you—in other words, becomes a countryman (an immigrant)—you are to extend the same treatment to him as you give to your fellow Hebrews. The standard is whether the one to be loved is a countryman, anative born among you, or an equivalent, not simply any human being. It may represent, in this special case, opening a gate in the fence surrounding the in-group, but it hardly represents an ethic tantamount to universal brotherly love. In any case, the Old Testament is too full of conquest, genocide, vitriol against other peoples of the region for their worship of false gods and their enticement of Hebrews to such practices, as well as dire warnings to a series of foreign conquerors who will be utterly overcome once the Messiah arrives to set Israel and its God over all lands, ever to imagine that any Hebrew text advocated universal love toward all humanity.

In a similar vein, Robinson is also unaware that Jesus in the Gospel of John preaches no general principle of Love Thy Neighbor. His admonition to his apostles to love one another is an in-house rule, not a universal moral dictum; 13:35 shows that he is simply advocating love among his followers, who are part of an in-group elect, so that all will know that you are my disciples.

But her actual appeal to the New Testament is an outright blunder:

Jesus provided a gloss on 19:18, the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. With specific reference to this verse, a lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story that moves the lawyer to answer that the merciful Samaritan—a non-Jew—embodies the word “neighbor.” That the question would be posed to Jesus, or by Luke, is evidence that the meaning of the law was not obvious or settled in antiquity.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is found only in Luke (which she seems to realize) and is generally considered by critical scholars of the New Testament to be Luke’s product, not spoken by Jesus. And why did Luke find this “gloss” necessary? Because Luke was part of a gentile Christian community and in his Gospel (probably written in the early 2nd century) he regularly features elements that reflect and serve gentile interests. Moreover, the fact that he felt constrained to place such a ‘lesson’ in Jesus’ mouth would indicate the opposite of Robinson’s conclusion: that Jews in general were still not inclusionary by nature and that the meaning of the Law was, for them, indeed settled—with an in-group understanding. Luke's Jesus had to correct that position.

There used to be a traditional line of Christian thinking, extending into modern scholarship, that the Jews of the pre-Christian era held the concept of themselves as God’s agent of universal atonement, that they were undergoing their historical sufferings in order to redeem both Jews and gentiles. The so-called Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53 was the prime text supposed to contain this selfless philosophy. More clear-eyed critical scholars of the latter 20th century showed that this was not the case, that the texts have been forced into this interpretation. (See, for example, Harry M. Orlinsky: The So-Called ‘Servant of the Lord’ and ‘Suffering Servant’ in Second Isaiah, and R. N. Whybray: Isaiah 40-66.) It began with certain early Christians who thought to read their own universalist theory of salvation about the sacrifice of Jesus back into Jewish literature and thinking; it was part of their wish to see the entire Hebrew scriptures as a presaging of Christ. But it was and is entirely unrealistic to expect that the ancient Hebrews would have had such an outlook, and it is no criticism of them that they did not.

As for Hartung’s “pigs,” does Robinson not know the source of this characterization of gentiles and outcasts? Hartung is simply echoing Jesus himself. Matthew (7:6), as part of his Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus say: “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine…” Commentators have tended to worry over this passage and wonder how such in-group attitudes can fit with the standard picture of a universalist Jesus. Reginald H. Fuller (Harper’s—ironically!—Bible Commentary) suggests: “It must be an expression of the exclusiveness of the narrowly Jewish Christian community that formulated (this Matthean) tradition.” (Perhaps an authentic dissing of the Jewish heritage; it slips in in more than one New Testament commentators treatment of Christian morality.)

In view of Robinson’s naïve attitude toward scripture, it is too easy to turn her own scornful remark about Dawkins back on its speaker:

In general, Dawkins’s air of genteel familiarity with Scripture, though becoming in one aware as he is of its contributions to the arts, dissipates under the slightest scrutiny.

The one thing worse than ignorance is pompous ignorance.

The Evolution of Morality

Strangely, Robinson is even offended at Dawkins’ view that humanity’s moral consensus (the Zeitgeist: spirit of the times) is ever evolving and improving, and has noticeably done so over the last couple of centuries. (Perhaps because such a view undermines the timeless quality of biblical ethics.) She accuses Dawkins of a “consistent inattention to history,” disagreeing with his statement that Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism was not as far outside the Zeitgeist of his time as it would be in our own day. She appeals to a curious entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica which describes anti-Semitism in pre-war Germany as “a theory of nationality and a fad…(which did not) exercise much influence” until it was brought to the fore by Hitler. This is errant nonsense. Anti-Semitism, reflected in everything from the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France to the turning away of Jewish refugee ships from American shores in the 1930s speaks to a continuous endemic prejudice against Jews whose roots go back through centuries of Christian persecution of the unfortunate Jew as a Christ-killer. (Robinson would likely be keen to deny the latter.)

Her tactics are clear in disputing another of Dawkins’ examples of sub-standard (by our measure) ethics in regard to race in the quite recent past. Dawkins quotes T. H. Huxley, a respected English biologist contemporary with Darwin, who judged the black man to be mentally inferior to the white. Robinson objects that Huxley was not in the vanguard of his time, that he was dismissing “standards that had long been salient among his contemporaries.” She specifically allots such salient higher standards to the emancipationists (in both Europe and America) of the latter's Civil War period:

The vanguard in the period in which Huxley wrote [1865] were those Christian abolitionists whose intentions he dismissed as, of course, at odds with science.

Oh? Robinson is being perversely selective here. Not only does she not offer any contemporary writer to back up her claim, not only does she fail to quote writings of the time that directly took exception to such as Huxley’s alleged “atavistic” denial of current standards (Huxley would have been buried under an avalanche of such protest if he lived today), but she conveniently ignores Dawkins’ arresting quotation from Abraham Lincoln, surely the leading emancipationist of his time and certainly a Christian. Lincoln makes no direct appeal to science in stating his opinions about racial equality, saying this in an 1858 debate with Stephen A. Douglas:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races [no indication that this opinion is determined by Lincoln’s view of ‘science’] which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality…while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. [p.267]

Those italics (my own) would indicate that Lincoln and Huxley did indeed represent prevailing standards of the day.

Robinson equally ignores other examples offered by Dawkins to show that in regard to our sense of morality, our treatment of animals, our behavior in war and even concerns for our own troops in battle, the Zeitgeist has indeed moved on dramatically. (Compare public concern for the few thousand Americans killed so far in Iraq with the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers in repeatedly fruitless charges against enemy trenches which should have earned their commander, Douglas Haig, the gallows after World War I; he was neither removed nor faulted.)

The fact that Robinson would go to these lengths to dispute (and mendaciously) such an evident phenomenon as modern moral progress—concurrent with overall progress in science and humanism—is telling, not only for her prejudice against Dawkins, but for her skewed world-view as determined by her religious sympathies. The Harper’s editor who approved this piece either shared in those sympathies, or was asleep at the switch.

Not surprisingly, Robinson takes exception to Dawkins’ contention that atheism does not produce wars (as opposed to the many religious wars in history). He asks: “Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?” She fails to supply a single example of a war inspired by atheism, but nothing daunted, she proceeds to redefine “war” (lamenting its traditional meaning as “a peculiarity of language”) to encompass any internal “violence against religion,” such as in the French Revolution, or under the Soviet Union and China. Her semantic inventiveness is certainly in evidence here…

In three of these instances the extirpation of religion was part of a program to reshape society by excluding certain forms of thought, by creating an absence of belief.

…but so is the transparency of her contortions. Her examples belong rather to the realm of persecution, attacks on ‘heretics’ in the service of a political ideology, and in fact are paralleled by countless examples of that very thing in religious settings. Considering that Dawkins made his statement in the context of international relations (proceeding out of his examination of the dubious claim that Hitler was an atheist, in which he offers several revealing quotes recording Hitler expressing Christian sentiments), it is hardly kosher for Robinson to artificially inject a different category entirely. But it is typical. From it, she draws “the kindest conclusion…that Dawkins has not acquainted himself with the history of modern authoritarianism.” One can only cringe at such unctuous hypocrisy.

Tolerance and the Children

But worse is yet to come. As her parting shot, Robinson accuses Dawkins of “a bold attack on tolerance” for criticizing society’s practice of permitting people to rear their children in their own religious traditions. Dawkins has been at pains to point out the injustice of indoctrinating children in beliefs and practices which they are not in a position to evaluate for themselves, imposing artificial and socially divisive identities on them, as well as prejudices, fears, and irrationalities from which they may consequently never be in a position to gain freedom. Amid stark examples of such objectionable effects, Robinson seizes on one case in particular which Dawkins allegedly “turns a cold eye on”: the Amish. Here, again, misrepresentation abounds. Dawkins’ diatribe is actually against those who defend the enforced indoctrination of children as a desirable feature of a supposedly valuable “cultural diversity” within society. On that altar, for example, the Amish are said to be justified (and the court system allows it) in barring their children from a high school education, from taking part in modern civilization, medicine, and amenities like electricity. Trapping these children “in a 17th century time-warp” in order to maintain that “cultural diversity” and their parents’ right to so restrict their lives Dawkins rightly finds reprehensible, but Robinson labels it an attack on tolerance! She goes so far as to defend the poor disparaged Amish by calling attention to their “pacifist way of life (which) hardly burdens the planet,” as though that would justify the children’s enforced fate. And she faults Dawkins for “not even mentioning” this.

Perhaps Dawkins failed to do so because he was too busy mentioning—Robinson never does—the disastrous and crippling effects on Christian and Muslim children who are brought up to believe everyone outside their own faith is a damned infidel, who are taught that society must be returned to medieval ignorance and superstition, who may be trained to be suicide martyrs and chant death to other nations. The faint voice of Amish pacifism is buried under a torrent of bigotry, hatred, exclusionism, war and destruction—none of it the product of today’s atheism or science. This is as shamefully dishonest a book critique as I have ever encountered. In that, Robinson maintains the honored tradition of most apologetic discourse.

In her final paragraph, she notes Dawkins theory of “memes…mind viruses highly analogous to genes.” Here she puts her most distorted spin on Dawkins’ material, claiming the implication that “there are more than sentimental reasons for valuing the diversity that he derides.” She first suggests that if genes tend to work for their physical survival and achieve it because their effect on the organism they are a part of is somehow “fit” (implying ‘good’), then perhaps we need to accord the same respect to memes. Ideas that have survived and spread must also be considered good.

To quote Dawkins, “this sounds terrific—right up until you give it a moment’s thought.” The male instinct to rape, for example, an idea or physical impulse (take your pick) which has survived through primate history and is still going strong today, is hardly to be lauded, by either geneticists or memeticists. But is it not part of the human diversity of behavior? Should we not, according to Robinson, strive to keep it alive? She makes it sound like scientists such as Dawkins wish to suppress all diversity in human culture or belief. Instead, they want to be selective, to judge what is good and what is bad, to weed out the harmful from the beneficial, which would still leave a diversity to satisfy the heartiest appetite. Besides, is religion a champion of diversity? Do American Christians regard other religions as their equal, do they value them for the richness of diversity they give to the human spiritual tapestry (a scientist might call it the genome of the human spirit)? They are more likely to advocate Robinson’s “narrowing” of diversity through genocide, persecution and forced conversion. (Remember Ann Coulter’s we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them all to Christianity?) It is execrable for Robinson to impute to Dawkins motives and tendencies of thought on a par with “the worst errors of eugenics at the cultural and intellectual level.” The ‘worst’ he advocates is education, the teaching of critical thinking, the cessation of indoctrination of children at young and vulnerable ages, and the publication of books like his own that anyone can read and evaluate for themselves.

Serving as a bookend with the opening title of the piece, these are Robinson’s final words. The reader can judge whether the form of diversity Robinson champions to stabilize culture is something that could be called stable, or promises to build future stability.

It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science.

As for the perils of the latter, she refrains from quoting Martin Luther’s advice on the matter, as presented by Dawkins: “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.” And “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has…[it] should be destroyed in all Christians.” But she need not worry. She can never be accused of having succumbed to the temptations of either reason or science. Her own eccentricity and arrogance have much more hallowed origins.

*

Earl Doherty
(with a few suggestions from my good friend Richard Young, who was as incensed at this sham review as I was)



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