Richard Dawkins, the well known evolutionary biologist and popularizer of evolutionary science, has caused a stir with his book “The God Delusion” in which he argues that there is no evidence for a God and that religions have had and have a pernicious influence in history and politics. Terry Eagleton, a catholic literary critic, and Richard Schröder, a protestant professor of philosophy/theology and lawyer, raise a number of valid points against Dawkins’ thesis. These valid points refer largely to ethical and historical inaccuracies in Dawkins. However, the main point which could be made against his thesis is that he places too much emphasis on the role of natural selection. Some recent findings (Kauffman, Wolfram) have cast doubt on the belief that natural selection has the overriding importance usually assumed. It cannot be excluded that evolutionary patterns fit into certain”molds”, i.e., that outcomes of evolution are to a certain degree predetermined by the laws of nature. – Werner Heisenberg, the famous physicist, argues for tolerance for views other than ours.
In the following I discuss the book by Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, two criticisms of the book by a catholic and protestant theologian, as well as the views of Karl Marx on religion and recent developments in evolutionary biology questioning the overriding importance of natural selection in evolution (the basis of Dawkins’ thesis). All quotes from others are in italics, bold by me. Some sections are based on posts published originally in my blog: Science, Politics and Art to which I refer the reader for complete texts and comments by others.
Comments on Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
Monday, March 5th, 2007 Richard Dawkins, the well known evolutionary biologist and popularizer of evolutionary science (The Selfish Gene) has recently published a book that has been on various bestseller lists for months  . It argues against the necessity of assuming the existence of a personal God, and draws attention to much harm done by religions in history and now. In the following I comment on some points made in the book.
Dawkins’ war against religion may seem
somewhat quixoticto those who do not believe in a personal god and live or lived in countries where religion is unimportant. However, this is of course quite wrong, considering the dangerously evil influence fundamentalist religion has in the United States (Dawkins’ aptly named American Taliban and the rulers influenced by them), and the Middle East, to mention only the two most obvious cases. (see for example http://blog.une.edu.au/klausrohde/2010/01/19/haiti/ and http://blog.une.edu.au/klausrohde/2010/03/13/man-cannot-destroy-the-earth-only-god-can/ ). One can only hope that these people listen to what Dawkins has to say, although this may be wishful thinking. After all, criticism of religion has a long history (just remember Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstauffen), but religions still flourish, and in many parts of the world, it seems, more than ever.
Turning now to Dawkins’ arguments. He
bases his arguments largely on the role of natural selection, which has led to the evolution of complex systems. Hence, he concludes, a God hypothesis supposedly needed to explain such complexity is superfluous. It seems to me that aGod hypothesis is not needed whether natural selection is the predominant factor shaping evolution or not. The theoretical investigations of Stuart Kauffman suggest that the overriding importance of natural selection in evolution is doubtful. He concludes thatmany traits of organisms have evolved not because of natural selection but in spite of it. Stephen Wolfram’s extensive computer simulations of many systems have shown that simple “rules” in programs lead to complex characters. Is it likely that some genetic programs behave similarly?Natural selection acting on a very large number of mutations gradually leading to complex characters may be only one component in the process leading to complexity,and not necessarily the most important one. Many mutations may lead to complexity anyway. Further evidence against the overriding significance of selection is theprevalence of nonequilibrium conditionsin nature . The role of interspecific competition and natural selection, in such systems, is not as great as in equilibrium systems; historical events are important, and competition may go this way or that (diminishing the evolutionary impact of competition and therefore of natural selection). All of this does of course not rule out that natural selection plays an important role as well, but it does mean that this roleneeds much further investigation.
Concerning the historical and social impact of religions, there can be little doubt that it has often been disastrous, to mention only the crusades, inquisition, forced conversion of natives in many continents leading to many millions of deaths. But I cannot quite agree with Bertrand Russell who said that the only good produced by religion (I assume he meant the Christian one) is the Gregorian calendar and one other minor achievement, which has dropped from my memory. After all,
much charitable work, Bach’s cantatas and passions, much religious art (the Isenheim altar), architecture (the mosques of Cordoba and Isfahan, the blue mosque in Istanbul, the medieval cathedrals) and writings were inspired by religion. Richard Dawkins is of course right when he says that historical conditions made other inspirations at the time difficult. Mozart might well have been inspired by the Big Bang (after all he was a Freemason). But the same can also be said about the evil influence of religion.Is religion perhaps only a most effective way of establishing group coherence (as indeed suggested by Dawkins), and has it been the only available choice over much though not all of history?Groups tend to stick together much more closely when they feel threatened. Islam over centuries was almost a model of tolerance (at least towards other monotheistic religions); fundamental Islam has arisen at a time when Moslem countries felt overpowered and exploited by Western countries (much of this due to aggression driven by fundamental Christianity). The large Buddha statues in Afghanistan survived for centuries in a Moslem country; they were destroyed only now. Why? – So, assuming that Richard Dawkins’ crusade against religion succeeds,is it possible that some other mechanism of group coherence will take over?Could it be a virulent racism (some of which we have had already) or a national/cultural chauvinism that preaches conversion of others to one’s own supposedly superior language, culture and values in general (much of which has been abundant in history as well)? In this context,Dawkins’ emphasis on religion might even be dangerous, if (and I repeat if) it deflects attention from other important issues. Would it be perhaps more useful to concentrate on social and economic inequalities and try to suggest recipes for their amelioration?One can foresee the displacement of large populations due to global warming and virulent upheavals as a consequence. Keeping an eye on religions may be less fruitful, under such circumstances, than on social and economic inequalities.
In toto: this is an inspiringly and wittily written book, one must hope that the Taliban of any hue will not only read it but change their beliefs when reading it!
As to the moral of the future, suggested by Dawkins to be universal love including not only humans but animals as well, this is the moral philosophy based on compassion, of the atheist Arthur Schopenhauer and atheistic Buddhism.
Terry Eagleton: Lunging Flailing Mispunching. The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins.
Friday, April 6th, 2007 I have commented on “Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion” in an earlier post. Considering the number of faithful in the various monotheistic religions, it is to be expected that his book will be violently opposed by many. We can only hope that it will not have the consequences which the Satanic Verses of Salmon Rushdie had. Here I present extracts from a review of Dawkins’ book by Terry Eagleton,
John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at Manchester University.According to the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, “He began his career studying the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Then he switched to Marxist literary theory in the vein of Williams. More recently Eagleton has integrated cultural studies with more traditional literary theory. He was, during the 1960s, involved in the left-wing Catholic group Slant and authored a number of theological articles as well as a book Towards a New Left Theology.
Here are some extracts of the review by Eagleton  . I leave judgement to the readers, but include some comments by me in parantheses.
“God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist . He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of object s. This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. ” (I certainly always thought that a personal God in monotheistic religions is one who created the world and maintains it. If not, what then is the difference between pantheism and monotheism? I certainly would be very sympathetic to pantheistic views. Is, what Eagerton says here, really the view of the Pope and Catholicism, or is it the view perhaps of a small group of “leftwing” catholics? And is it really acceptable in theology to claim that “God does not in fact exist”? That seems to me atheism or perhaps better theological homeopathy: God is so diluted that she does not exist anymore.)
“Nor does he (Richard Dawkins) understand that because God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying that he did not have to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us. Dawkins’s God, by contrast, is Satanic. Satan (‘accuser’ in Hebrew) is the misrecognition of God as Big Daddy and punitive judge, and Dawkins’s God is precisely such a repulsive superego. ” “Dawkins thinks it odd that Christians don’t look eagerly forward to death, given that they will thereby be ushered into paradise. He does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide.” “The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough. The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people. It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.” “The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever.”
“On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.” (Are these horrors really due to science and technology, or are they the result of economic conditions, colonisation, perhaps religious misconceptions, etc.? Certainly one cannot blame the invention of fire for the burning of witches and the inquisition). “He is like a man who equates socialism with the Gulag. Like the puritan and sex, Dawkins sees God everywhere, even where he is self-evidently absent. He thinks, for example, that the ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland would evaporate if religion did, which to someone like me, who lives there part of the time, betrays just how little he knows about it.” (Yes, I agree with this and pointed this out in my earlier post. Overemphasis on religion, ignoring economic, social and other aspects may not be helpful and sometimes even dangerous).
“These are not just the views of an enraged atheist. They are the opinions of a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist. Reading Dawkins, who occasionally writes as though ‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ is a mighty funny way to describe a Grecian urn, one can be reasonably certain that he would not be Europe’s greatest enthusiast for Foucault, psychoanalysis, agitprop, Dadaism, anarchism or separatist feminism. All of these phenomena, one imagines, would be as distasteful to his brisk, bloodless rationality as the virgin birth. Yet one can of course be an atheist and a fervent fan of them all. His God-hating, then, is by no means simply the view of a scientist admirably cleansed of prejudice. It belongs to a specific cultural context. One would not expect to muster many votes for either anarchism or the virgin birth in North Oxford.” (I cannot comment on this, having no firsthand experience of the cultural context).
“There is a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste, and The God Delusion springs from, among other places, that particular stable. At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann. The secular Ten Commandments that Dawkins commends to us, one of which advises us to enjoy our sex lives so long as they don’t damage others, are for the most part liberal platitudes. Dawkins quite rightly detests fundamentalists; but as far as I know his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism. Instead, as the obtuse media chatter has it, it’s all down to religion. (Yes, I agree in part:Dawkins has ignored the economic and social causes of much of the problems,which may often be more important than religion: see my earlier post).“Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false;…”(In summary, I think that some of the criticism of Eagleton are quite justified, but some of the main points, such as, what or who is God, seem to me fairly obscure. As a scientist, I am more impressed by the logical and clear exposition of Richard Dawkins. And what about the many horrible events in history and now that were really entirely or largely due to religion? No word on these by Eagleton. – One main point made by Eagleton is that Dawkins is ignorant of much of Christian theology and nuances within it, and should therefore keep quiet about it. Does one really have to be a theologian to comment on the principles of a religion? If we accept Eagleton’s requirement, we would have to abolish all critical comments on anything except our own narrow field of expertise, i.e., leave everything to the experts. I believe this would be a disaster, because it would open the door to suppressing all opinions that are not considered to conform to what a self appointed “elite” thinks is true. We would probably still be in the dark ages, if a few dissidents had not established new versions of the “truth” against the “experts” of the time).
The God delusion according to Karl Marx
Sunday, September 16th, 2007
In two previous posts I have commented on Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, and the response by Terry Eagleton  .
Terry Eagleton is a leftwing catholic influenced by marxism. Therefore, it may be of interest what Karl Marx thought about religion. I do not take this from the original Marx, but from the English translation of a book by the German historian Ernst Nolte  . He writes on page 550:
“..Marx is far from declaring, as was often done during the Enlightenment, that religion and philosophy are a delusion and fraud perpetrated by priests. The much-quoted words about religion being the opiate of the masses do not in any way stress the poisonous nature of opium. True, religion is merely the “realization in fantasy of human nature”, but it is nevertheless man’s sole legitimate existence as long as this existence possesses no genuine, that is, earthly, reality: “Poverty in religion is simultaneously the expression of real poverty and the protest against real poverty. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, it is feeling in a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of nonspiritual conditions”. ….”And it is precisely for this reason that the classless society can be essentially atheistic, because, instead of combating and supplanting religion, it makes religion’s legitimate intention a reality, thereby rendering it superfluous”.
Obviously, Richard Dawkins is in the tradition of the Enlightenment and (much earlier) of the Emperor Friedrich II of Hohenstauffen (13th century). Religion still flourishes in spite of all the arguments against it, which suggests that some deep seated need for it exists, as suggested by Marx, among many others. Whether this need is due to poverty as suggested by Marx, is open to discussion. I don’t know what Terry Eagleton thinks about this, but I doubt that he would agree. Perhaps religious beliefs are based on evolutionarily old “instincts” as satirically discussed and illustrated in my book Satire, Politik und Kunst  .
The Origin of Life
Saturday, March 24th, 2007
An argument frequently used by adherents of “Intelligent Design” is the improbability of life having arisen spontaneously. Citing Stuart Kauffman  , page 287: “Improbable features of current organisms imply improbable origins. If the probability that a protein catalyzes a given reaction is 10 to the power of minus 20, and if a minimal contemporary organism such as a pleuromona-like organism has on the order of 1000 or 2000 enzymes, then the probability of their joint occurrence by chance is, say 10 to the power of minus 40 000. More likely that, as Hoyle says, the whirlwind assemble a 747 from scraps in a junkyard.”
However, the detailed investigations of Stuart Kauffman suggest that
life is not improbable, it is “an expected, emergent, collective property of complex systems of polymer catalysts.”“ It “crystallizes” in a phase transition leading to connected sequences of biochemical transformations by which polymers and simpler building blocks mutually catalyze their collective reproduction”. And such a “collectively reproducing polymer system is relatively probable”.
A blog is not a suitable place to discuss the theory in detail, the reader is referred to: Kauffman (pages 287-341) where a detailed account of the mathematical theory and evidence for the hypothesis is given, and where experiments are described to test for the in vitro creation of self-reproducing biochemical systems.
Even if not all aspects of the hypothesis should turn out to be correct, it is important that a problem such as the origin of life can be theoretically and experimentally examined and should not be left unexplained by referring it to “
Intelligent Design”, ultimately a meaningless phrase which does not explain anything.
Richard Schröder: Abschaffung der Religion? (Abolishment of religion?). Wissenschaftlicher Fanatismus und die Folgen (Scientific fanaticism and the consequences)
Richard Schröder is Professor for philosophy/theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin and a lawyer, who – as a Christian in a Christian family – grew up in the former communist German Democratic Republic. In his book Abschaffung der Religion? , he makes a few very valid points in his criticicism of Dawkins, in particular pointing out that Christianity is not the bloody religion as claimed by Dawkins, but that temporary aberrations such as inquisitions, forcible conversions, witch hunts and crusades developed relatively late in history and were overcome from within the churches. The basic message of Christ is indeed one of love and forgiving.
He contrasts this with atheistic communism, with which he had firsthand experience and which was responsible for the death of many millions in the former USSR, Cambodia, China etc.His discussions of these aspects and also of the various kinds of atheism and proofs of God’s existence are full of historical detail and provide excellent reading. Schröder also points out that many developments of modern Western philosophy and science are a direct consequence of Christian beliefs.- However, his discussion of genetics, for example of Dawkins’ definition of a gene and of organisms as “containers” for “selfish” genes whose function it is to secure the survival of the fittest genes (and not the other way round) border on the ridiculous. Dawkins is not only a popularizer of evolutionary science but also a first class scientist, and it is somewhat surprising that a theologian/philosopher (although one with a good second hand background in science) ventures to tell Dawkins how a gene should be defined. His conclusion that Dawkins views are bad metaphysics and pseudoreligion ispartlybased on this misunderstanding of evolutionary genetics. I saypartly, because the pseudoreligion part is based on Dawkins’ claim that atheism is positive and optimistic. Schröder asks: how can this follow from a Darwinistic interpretation of nature, in which genes have survived because of their “selfishness”? But even here evolutionary genetics can give an answer: Dawkins would claim that altruism may well have a survival function.
Werner Heisenberg: tolerance; Max Planck: religion and science have the same aim
Werner Heisenberg, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, whose contributions to the development of quantum physics are second to none, has the following to say in his “Physics and Philosophy. The Revolution in Modern Science”  .
After pointing out that modern science is confronted with two doctrines going back to Hegel and Marx, and uncompromising belief, he says (pp.191 ff)
‘the narrowness of the doctrines is felt by those who have really understood modern science…”….”on the other hand, the phenomenon of uncompromising belief carries much more weight….
The majority of the people can scarcely have any well-founded judgment concerning the correctness of certain general ideas and doctrines….Therefore, the word “belief” can for the majority not mean “perceiving the truth of something”, but can only be understood as “taking this as the basis for life”…. Belief can sometimes be upheld to a point where it seems completely absurd…..From the scientific tradition of the nineteenth century one would of course be inclined to hope that all belief should be based on a rational analysis of every argument….and that this other kind of belief, in which some real or apparent truth is simply taken as the basis for life, should not exist….’However:’…….Even the most important decision in life must always contain this inevitable element of irrationality…..Therefore, it cannot be avoided that some real or apparent truth form the basis of life; and this fact should be acknowledged with regard to those groups of people whose basis is different from our own.’ Max Planck, the discoverer of the quantum, states in “Das moderne Bild der Naturwissenschaften”, 1961, that “religion and science meet on the question of the existence and nature of a supreme power which rules the world: their answers….. are comparable, at least to a certain extent. They agree in affirming, firstly, that a world order based on reason exists independent of man and, secondly, that the nature of this world can never be known directly: it can only be sensed indirectly, seen through a glass darkly, as it were.” ……”Religion here uses its symbols as aid, science its computations. Nothing, therefore, prevents us from identifying the world order of science with the God of religion, as indeed our urge for a a uniform view of the world demands.”…….”Wherever we look, however far, we will never find any contradictions between religion and science.”…”Religion and science, far from excluding each pother…..are complementary”……”But the two paths are not divergent. They run parallel. They meet at the same goal, far off in infinity”  .
My conclusion is that Dawkins has underestimated the positive contributions of religions to human culture, in the arts, philosophy, literature, music and architecture. Religions may well have the function to bring about social coherence (as stated by Dawkins himself), and what would take over if religions should be abolished?
Dawkins’ emphasis on religion might even be dangerous, if it deflects attention from other important issues. Would it be perhaps more useful to concentrate on social and economic inequalities and try to suggest recipes for their amelioration?- He considers the concept of God a scientific hypothesis that can be tested by scientific means. But, as pointed out by theological critics, God is more than that: a source of love. And as pointed out by Heisenberg, there will always be an irrational element in decision making of most people, because it cannot be expected that they all can form well-founded judgments based on the correctness of doctrines and general ideas. From a scientific point of view, I believe that the role of natural selection, the very basis of Darwin’s interpretation of evolution, may not be as important as he claims it is. According to Kauffman  , many traits of organisms have evolved not because of natural selection but in spite of it. Stephen Wolfram’s extensive computer simulations of many systems have shown that simple “rules” in programs lead to complex characters. In other words, it may not be necessary to assume lengthy processes of selection leading from simple to complex characters.These findings suggest that evolutionary patterns may fit into certain “molds”, i.e., that outcomes of evolution are to a certain degree predetermined by the laws of nature(see discussion in     ), a suggestion that might be tested in the not too distant future by examining evolutionary patterns on other planets (if they have life). This opens the way to a Spinozistic interpretation of nature, in which a primary cause (which everybody is welcome to name God) is at the base of and determines all the rest. Of course, this does not imply the existence of a personal God who takes responsibility and care of us.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. Bantam Press, London Toronto Sydney Auckland Johannesburg.
Kauffman, S. (1993). The Origins of Order. Self-organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York Oxford.
Wolfram, S. (2002). A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media.
Rohde, K. (2005). Nonequilibrium Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Eagleton, T. (2006). Lunging Flailing Mispunching. The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins. London Review of Books 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006.
Nolte, E. (1965, original German edition 1963). Three Faces of Fascism. Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism, R.Piper and Co., Munich.
Rohde, K. (2005). Satire, Politik und Kunst. Lulu. http://www.lulu.com/content/378808
Schröder, R. (2008). Abschaffung der Religion? Wissenschaftlicher Fanatismus und die Folgen. Herder, Freiburg, Basel, Wien.
Woodley, M.A. (2007). On the possible operation of natural laws in ecosystems. Rivista di Biologia – Biology Forum 100, 475-486.
Rohde, K. (2008). Vacant niches and the possible operation of natural laws in ecosystems. Rivista di Biologia-Biology Forum 101, 13-21.
Woodley, M.A. (2008). A response to Rohde: Natural laws, vacant niches and superorganisms. Rivista di Biologia – Biology Forum 101, 171-194.
Rohde, K. (in press). Natural laws, vacant niches and superorganisms. A response to Woodley. Rivista di Biologia – Biology Forum
Werner Heisenberg (1989). Physics & Philosophy, The Revolution in Modern Science” (Penguin Books, first edition 1962).
Max Planck (1961) in: Das moderne Bild der Naturwissenschaften. Hrsg. Christian Velder, Max Hueber Verlag München. English translation in “Man and Science” 1964, Max Hueber Verlag München.
Related knols (on ecology/evolution):
(on NKS, Stephen Wolfram):
The various sections, except those on Schröder, Heisenberg and Planck, are based on posts originally published in my Blog: Science, Politics and Art .