Monday, January 07, 2008

The God Delusion

Another book I bought for myself and read is Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, his argument against religion, especially the Abrahamic religions. He doesn't spend any time on Native American or African religions, Hinduism, Shintoism and so on. This make sense. He is talking about the religions he knows.

I was not impressed by the book. He lost me early on when he talked about the Arian heresy, which was a major intellectual conflict within the early Christian church. Dawkins mentions the terms 'substance' and 'essence,' and then dismisses them as if they have no meaning and are just some kind of religious babble.

These are terms which are basic to western philosophy. They come from Plato and Aristotle. 'Substance' is the physical stuff that things are made of, the substratum of existance, and 'essence' or 'form' is what gives a thing an individual shape and character. The substance of a dog is its physicality; the essence of a dog is its dogginess.

(Substance and essence are actually more complex than I make them. Check Wikipedia if you want more detail. You can also find out about Arianism there.)

Now, you may believe that Plato and Aristotle and everyone influenced by them is full of it; but these terms still have meaning, and there is a lot about Western and Middle Eastern thought between 500 B.C. and modern times you will not understand, if you don't understand them.

I don't have much respect for a guy who dismisses ideas without understanding them, especially ideas that came from Plato and Aristotle. Plato was a fine thinker and a great, great writer. Aristotle was a giant in many fields. According to Ernst Mayr, no one surpassed Aristotle as a student of embryology until the 19th century.

Western culture was soaked through by Platonism until recently, and I am not sure it's gone.

I suspect that Platonic idea of form or essence underlies our modern ideas about DNA, which sounds very much like a Platonic form, as many people describe it, including (I think) Dawkins.

Our drive (in physics, for example) to discover the 'true' nature of reality which underlies the reality we experience, sounds Platonic to me.

Plato did not understand change or maybe I should say, he didn't think it was important. Aristotle did, maybe because he studied embryology; and his distinction between in esse and in posse is still useful, at least to me. In esse is what is thing is. In posse is what it has the potential to become. A fertilized human egg is human in posse, but not in esse. This is a very useful difference. If Christianity had retained Aristotelian metaphysics, the pro-life movement would have no intellectual basis.

On the other hand, I think Dawkins raises two interesting questions in his book.

Why do we accord religion a respect we do not accord other ideas? Why can't religious ideas be analyzed and discussed and even dismissed the way other ideas are?

And why do we allow religious ideas a leeway that no other ideas are allowed? Especially, Dawkins asks, who do we allow parents to do things to their kids for religious reasons that might otherwise be considered neglect or abuse?

Why is it okay for the Amish to end education for their kids at 14, when state law says kids must stay in school till 16? (There is an answer to this question, since there was a court case.) Why is it okay to teach kids weird, unscientific ideas, which may limit their ability to survive and advance in modern society?

Doesn't the rest of society have an interest in making sure that kids are well educated?

I guess the final question which Dawkins raises (and does not answer well) is, what is the function of religion? And how does it fit into modern societies?


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