Richard Dawkins' New Book
Over on blogs dealing with the struggle of science, in the form of evolutionary theory, vs. religion, in the form of Intelligent Design, such as The Panda's Thumb, there's a lot of discussion about the new book from Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. There are a couple of attacks being made on the book (well, one of the book and one on the title of it!) that I want to discuss.
First off, the title. Apparently, a lot of mental health professionals have objected to the word "delusion" in the title, because, in a clinical sense, a delusion is a false belief that results from some form of mental illness, and, as such, the title implies that all theists are mentally ill. Because, you see, by psychiatric definition, believing that aliens speak to you through a device in your teeth is a "delusion" and means you're mentally ill, but believing that an immaterial omnipotent being (or his Jewish son) is speaking to you isn't.
Why not, you ask? What's the difference, since neither is any likelier than the other to actually be happening? How do psychiatrists determine one is a delusion and the other isn't?
Guess what! They don't. The difference is that religious beliefs are defined, a priori, as not being delusional. Well, mostly. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says about delusions:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).That is to say that if you believe in X, and lots of people in your "culture or subculture" believe the same thing, you aren't mentally ill. But if you hold belief X and "almost everybody else" disagrees, with absolutely nothing about you, your mind, or your brain different, you are suddenly mentally ill. Whether you are mentally ill is actually a function of what other people think or do, not at all a function of anything going on inside you. Whether you are mentally ill or not is dependent on what other people do.
Can you imagine if you defined, say, heart disease that way? "A clogging of the arteries resulting in reduced blood flow to the heart inconsistent with the amount of clogging of the arteries in other member's of the person's culture or subculture." You may be on the verge of a heart attack, but because you live in America, land of the clogged artery, you're not sick. If you lived with the fishermen in China, though, boy, you'd be in trouble!
Yeah, that'd work out real well when both have heart attacks. Sure.
Worse, the criteria used to diagnose a delusion gives us no objective way to discriminate between a valid, non-delusional belief and a delusional one:
* certainty (held with absolute conviction)Let's test it. I know a guy who is an evangelical Christian. He believes in young-Earth creationism "with absolute conviction," cannot be swayed by the undeniable evidence in favor of the theory of evolution and the age of the Earth being much greater than 6,000 years, and instead clings to and implausibe and bizarre belief that means that an immaterial, omnipotent being created a world containing a bunch of false evidence that it existed much longer than it appears. The criteria for a delusion, objectively applied, can't discriminate between a 'good' belief unsupported by evidence (a religious one) and a 'bad' belief unsupported by evidence (a non-religious one). Why? Because there is no discernable difference between any two beliefs unsupported by evidence. That's why they had to define one into existence to exclude the beliefs they don't want to label "delusional." It's a cheat. They just throw out the criteria when the results don't suit them.
* incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
* impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)
Also, I don't think we can accept the logical implications of such a definition. Do we really believe that Himmler wasn't delusional in his beliefs that there was a vast Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany and rule the world when he was Nazi Germany's Reichsfuhrer-SS, but only became mentally ill when Nazi Germany fell and the German people repudiated Naziism? I think most people, and most psychiatrists, would say that Himmler's beliefs were pathological delusions whether or not they were shared by his "culture or subculture." Also, along those lines, does this mean that people who think they are vampires aren't delusional as long they are part of the vampire "subculture?"
Removing the subjective language in the definition of delusion that lets psychiatrists avoid including religious beliefs essentially by fiat and makes the definition so inclusive as to be worthless, we are left with delusion as "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained." Belief in a God or god(s), as well as creationism, are rooted in "incorrect inference[s]" about external reality when lack of understanding of the natural world led early humans to infer that "god(s) must have done it."
As such, complaining by the mental health community about Dawkins' use of the word "delusion" in the title of his book is disingenuous at best, since the only reason belief in God isn't a delusion by psychiatric definition is because psychiatrists made an exception just so it wouldn't be. "You shouldn't say belief in God is a delusion because it isn't by our definition, which we arrived at by deciding it wasn't" is just another of saying, "Belief in God isn't a delusion, though it meets the criteria for a delusion, because we say so. So there!" What utter posh.*
Secondly, the book has been criticized for failing to deal with the finer points of theology, and Dawkins for not being well-versed enough in theological arguments and study in his arguments against the existence of God. Bull. One doesn't have to study all the intricacies of astrology to know that astrology is bullshit. The fact of whether or not one can predict the future by looking at the positions of the stars and planets is disprovable without engaging each and every piece of bullshit ever written in support of it. And, I'd bet, the critics would not agree that it is necessary to study all the claims and all that has been written in support of Jediism (the religion based on the Force from the Star Wars films -- it's real, Google it and see, there's already been a schism resulting in various sects, and I'm not making that up) before rejecting it, now, would they?
Theology is a bunch of people writing about things that don't exist and needn't be addressed in its finer points until and unless it's proponents can actually present compelling evidence for their claims. But, instead, most theology assumes the existence of God and is thus irrelevant to the question of whether God exists, which is what Dawkins is discussing. Except for the parts of theology where they try to prove that God exists, but unlike Dawkins (supposedly) I have read a lot of theology and there aren't any such arguments that aren't logically and fatally flawed and haven't been successfully refuted many, many times. If there were, trust me, I would know, you would know, and Dawkins would know too, and theists wouldn't trot out the same tired old arguments time after time.
The fact is that questions of how many angels can dance on the head of pin have no relevance to the more basic question of whether God exists. Theological word games in which theologists and philosophers attempt to logic God into existence by clever tricks don't force God into existence, not matter how much they may try. In the end, theology has nothing new or worthwhile to say on the subject, its arguments have been successfully refuted many times by many other authors, and it is not necessary to deal with each theory about fairies before saying fairies don't exist. It's ridiculous for the critics to claim otherwise.
* I have the same problem with the clinical term "magical thinking," which basically means believing that the world works in illogical, noncausal ways. For instance, believing that stepping on a crack will break your mother's back is a form of magical thinking. Obviously, stepping on a crack has nothing to do with whether your mother receives violent spinal trauma. In exactly the same way as with delusions, psychiatrists avoided the problem that a lot of religious thinking, like the belief that sitting in a chapel asking for help from a nonexistent immaterial being will make an ill loved one well, is indistinguishable from magical thinking by simply exempting such thinking when it is based on religion.