Wednesday, December 12, 2007

You mean, there is no God?

Kuldip Dhiman

The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins. Bantam Press. Pages 406. £8.50.

The basis of a belief in God, in most cases, is fear of damnation, of hell, not love. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal suggested that no matter how statistically improbable the existence of God might be, there is safety in believing that he exists. Why? Because if he does not exist, we lose almost nothing; but if he does, then the penalty could be quite severe.

In his latest book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, the author of path-breaking books like The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, argues that the widespread belief in God is there because it has proved to be useful in our evolutionary past. Why should this be so? The answer is that evolution does not care for the ultimate truth; it cares for survival of the individual gene. If there are two beliefs, one true and one false, and if the true belief is detrimental to our survival, and the false beneficial, then natural selection would favour the false one.

Before he launches his attack on the widespread belief in God, Dawkins makes it clear that his attack is against the notion of God as a supernatural creator sitting somewhere up in the sky, and controlling the affairs of the world. Dawkins argues that the belief in such a God is untenable, and the arguments given in favour of his existence are flawed and self-contradictory.

Let us take up the creator argument. The 18th century philosopher William Paley argued that a watch, for instance, could not assemble itself randomly. There has to be a maker behind it, and this maker has to be more complex and intelligent than the watch itself. Living organisms are more complicated than watches; so there must be a creator behind them, and this creator has to be greater, more intelligent than living organisms.

So far this argument seems cogent, but this is not so. If we accept that there has to be a maker of everything, and the maker has to be more intelligent than the product, then someone more intelligent and powerful being must have made God, and someone must have made that powerful being, ad infinitum.

Often, the most popular defence of the existence of God is the one of personal experience and mass visions. Dawkins explains that the human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don't present to our brains a faithful picture of reality. The simulation software in the brain is especially adept at constructing faces and voices. And that is why, under certain circumstances, we are susceptible to seeing 'divine visions' and hearing 'voices'.

Reading this book, a reader might ask, if there is no God, won't people become immoral? Religion and morality are often seen as coextensive, and to most of us religion is nothing but morality. This is however not true, for a person could be moral without being religious in the traditional sense. Equally, a person could be very religious in the traditional sense but not moral. In fact, people get away with almost everything in the name of religion.

The origin of morality can be traced to the human evolutionary past. And who could know this better than the author of The Selfish Gene. There was great opposition to the 'selfish gene' metaphor. Because if the gene is selfish, then why do we see moral behaviour and altruism? If only the critics had read The Selfish Gene a little more carefully they would have seen that though at the gene level we are selfish, good behaviour, altruism, etc., are there because they ultimately benefit the gene in the long run. The gene is certainly selfish, but the individual arising out of it need not be. Dawkins carries the discussion here in more detail. His guess is that our moral sense, like our sexual desire, is indeed rooted deep in our Darwinian past, and it is perhaps older than religion. "If this is true," he speculates, "then research on the human mind should reveal some moral universals, crossing geographical and cultural barriers, and also, crucially, religious barriers." Latest research by other investigators is already lending support to this hypothesis.

In this exhaustive volume, Dawkins discusses many other related issues like 'memes', religious bigotry, exploitation, and terror with his usual clarity and logical precision. This is an important book, but it may not be read by people who actually need to read it. The author deserves credit for being brutally frank and unsparing in his criticism of many beliefs that dog us even today.

Does he succeed in the end to prove that there is no God? No, he does not, because the believer can ask if there is no supreme creator, how did this world come into existence. After all, can something come out of nothing? The scientist has no answer to this. We reach the usual impasse. However, Dawkins does succeed in showing that the reasons religious people give for a belief in God are flawed and these reasons are a root cause of so many wars, and violence that has tormented humanity over the ages.

Not all would agree with Dawkins. There is already a book called The Dawkins Delusion. Evolutionary theory sounds deceptively simple, but understanding it is extremely difficult. A belief in God is far simpler and reassuring. We believe what we want to believe, and we can easily interpret facts to justify our belief system.There is a passage in How the Mind Works, in which the evolutionary theorist Steven Pinker says that as he was watching the dexterity of a spider at a museum, he said to himself — Looking at this, how can someone not believe in natural selection? Just then he heard a woman next to him say — Looking at this, how can someone not believe in God?

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