I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion. I have long had an affinity with Dawkins’ work. The Selfish Gene stands out. There, Dawkins outlined how evolutionary science had evolved, in particular, to be solidly grounded in the roots of game theory. That book was, in fact, my first real introduction to game theory and what it could do.

Game theory showed how selection could work to propagate successful genes. And what was the definition of successful? It was very similar to economists’ notions of efficiency. Game theory applied to evolution was a tool by which efficiency (at the level of a gene) could be applied to natural science. It led to all sorts of interesting notions including competition for resources but, more interestingly, cooperation for them.

The Selfish Gene had in it another notion: that of memes. Memes were ideas that propagated because people who had or believed them would end up being more successful and so those ideas would take hold. That notion became my first real paper in economics. In the early 1990s, evolutionary game theory was all the rage in economics. There selection occurred on the basis of successful strategies. Which strategies would survive and do well and which would not. What I did was step back and suggest what if agents came to games not hardwired with strategies — to live or die — but beliefs. They could hold any beliefs and then play games consistent with them. Which beliefs would survive?

It turned out that the beliefs that survived were those exactly consistent with the strategies that survived. Thus, from an observational standpoint, what we saw people doing could be because they were hardwired for strategies or for beliefs. Which one of these was really the truth could not be determined. [You can read more about this in "Evolutionary Selection of Beliefs," Economics Letters, Vol.49, No.1, July, 1995, pp.13-17.]

Anyhow, one of the key memes that Dawkins worried about was religion and he spends a little time re-explaining this in The God Delusion; a worthwhile discussion if you have never seen it before but otherwise it is not the most interesting part of the book.

My starting point has to be the fact that lots of people really hate this book. This is completely unsurprising for those who believe in God. It is a full blown attack on them, their intellect and their values. However, to judge it by that alone would not be appropriate. The author’s intent is clearly directed elsewhere and he is not seeking to convert true-believers.

Instead, Dawkins is targeting the fence-sitters. I am not sure whether I was one before (although the fact that I seriously balked at writing about all this on this blog gives me pause) but having read this book I am not on the fence now. But I will come to that in just a micron.

But it is these folk who are also upset by Dawkins. One set of criticisms concerns how the book is written. The answer is not particularly well. It has great moments and as I will explain in a moment does its job superbly. But there is no way I will look back on it as a classic in prose and a logical laying out of the argument. It falls short there. Put simply, Dawkins is emotional and perhaps angry. He is driven and plagued by thought after thought. Would I have preferred something better written? Absolutely. But again it is the impact on the reader I am interested in and so I don’t think that sub-optimal exposition is a reason to reject this book. Indeed, it is worth it anyway.

Another set of criticisms concerns a lack of deference by Dawkins to more professional folk who think about these things. I am not in a position to evaluate this one although it doesn’t surprise me. Once again, if Dawkins’ intent was to stimulate, it does not matter. Although again I would have preferred to have more confidence on this point.

Leaving that aside, The God Delusion is an extremely worthwhile read (and I am not alone in this view). Let’s begin with the starting point: atheism. Dawkins argues that atheists are one of the most discriminated groups of folks. It is hard to elected to public office and most do not like to call themselves atheists. Instead, they use the term of agnostic behind a veil of supposed intellectual respectability: that is, the idea of God is unprovable and so I will not judge what I can’t know.

Atheists are distinct from agnostics in that they do not abdicate judgment. Dawkins argues that science (in particular, evolutionary science) teaches us that it is extremely unlikely that there exists a complex God capable of all the things many tend to believe. It is even more unlikely that that God dictates rules and behaviour in the way people believe. It is even more unlikely that that God intervenes in the world in the highly selective way that people believe. What this means is that on the current evidence, belief that there is a God worthy of religion is extremely extremely low. Atheists are happy to say that while many agnostics prefer not to engage on that issue. This argument convinced me that, in my heart and in my mind, I am an atheist.

The key message of Dawkins is that atheists need to speak out. Why? Because others are doing so and they are winning many key debates from what is taught in the classroom to what can be tolerated as behaviour even when it does not affect others. Being quiet has not served atheists well in these debates and this book is a call to arms (publicly but certainly not violently).

This brings us quickly to a second interesting idea in the book. That the existence of God is a hypothesis that is capable of being proven or at least falsified. Now, by this, Dawkins does not mean the possible existence of a supernatural force that created this universe and set it in motion. By this, Dawkins means any particular God with all religious implications that groups of people currently hold as belief or faith.

How can the existence of God be proved? That is easy, God could reveal themself. How could it be disproved? The existence of intelligent or even life on other worlds would probably kill most current religious doctrine or require radical revisions. Is this likely to be done anytime soon? No, but it is the possibility of proof or falsification that is the issue. (This thinking has already influenced how I look at the world, click here).

The NYT puts Dawkins’ arguments nicely:

It is doubtful that many people come to believe in God because of logical arguments, as opposed to their upbringing or having “heard a call.” But such arguments, even when they fail to be conclusive, can at least give religious belief an aura of reasonableness, especially when combined with certain scientific findings. We now know that our universe burst into being some 13 billion years ago (the theory of the Big Bang, as it happens, was worked out by a Belgian priest), and that its initial conditions seem to have been “fine tuned” so that life would eventually arise. If you are not religiously inclined, you might take these as brute facts and be done with the matter. But if you think that there must be some ultimate explanation for the improbable leaping-into-existence of the harmonious, biofriendly cosmos we find ourselves in, then the God hypothesis is at least rational to adhere to, isn’t it?

No, it’s not, says Dawkins, whereupon he brings out what he views as “the central argument of my book.” At heart, this argument is an elaboration of the child’s question “But Mommy, who made God?” To posit God as the ground of all being is a nonstarter, Dawkins submits, for “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.” Thus the God hypothesis is “very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability.”

That is the meat of the book.

The remainder is gravy but important gravy. Dawkins spends time reading the Old Testament and it is horrifying how much it does not accord with current ethical mores. Although it makes me wonder, if the Bible is a created work, why were the stories and teachings written so brutally? Of course, then one only has to think about Nineteenth Century children’s fiction or The Adventures of Babar to find the answer: it was the times.

Dawkins also decries fundamentalism and what it is doing. And he is not so happy with non-fundamentalists too. Why? They are fence sitters. For my part, I can’t get as upset by people who believe in a religion but practice it in a way that does no harm to others. When it comes down to it, we can’t all be expected to read the scientific literature in a sufficient way to give us some of the comforts and lessons we need to live our lives. After all, while Dawkins may have seen evidence as a biologist, I have had it all second-hand. For that reason, I must be cast as a believer in science and to hold a scientific faith even if I regard myself as open-minded. There is only so high my horse can be.

But we can be worried about fundamentalism as distinct from other religious practices. Many are worried about that. Orson Scott Card ended his most recent book Empire with a tirade and he is a religious person. The issue there is not so much a belief in science as a concern about harm to others. Put simply, you do not have to believe in evolution to be worried about religious harm. (Click here for an interview with Card).

This becomes critical in terms of what we teach our children. Dawkins upsets many by likening foisting religion on children to some form of child abuse. The examples he cites shows it can be but he is also careful to consider how genuinely well-meaning folk even fundamentalists are. It is just that their beliefs compel them in a certain way; but Dawkins respects doing what you think is right. That is why he wrote this book. (Others agree).

But the implication of all this for parenting is simple. Dawkins argues, and this is something very much at my heart (well before I read this book), that parents need to give their children tools so that they can judge things for themselves. They should lead them to water but not give them the drink. That means exposing them to religious stories — after all, that is the society we live in — but also to the diversity of views and an understanding of probability. But the only thing they really need to be taught is how to use evidence to sort out ideas and put probabilities on what might be true or not. Dawkins is upset when children are indoctrinated in ways that prevents them from gathering and using evidence. In my opinion, this is something that he is right to be upset about. The practicalities of parental rights, however, involve many more issues and for the moment I am led to a point that parents have rights to instill values at a first instance but society can tweak some of the effects; through say, compulsory schooling and minimum curriculum standards.

Which brings me to a couple of points I want to make as an economist. First, Dawkins argues that most ethical and moral behaviour is driven not by the ‘fear of God’ so much as the ‘fear of societal punishment.’ This is surely right but it is not a definitive answer as to whether we should get rid of the ‘fear of God.’ That might be there too and it might help the system.

How we should evaluate that is as a social scientist would. Dawkins isn’t one and it shows. The key issue is whether ‘fear of God’ is a complement or a substitute to a self-enforcing system of social norms. Here is where game theory helps us once again. Social norms are sustained by ‘fear of punishment’ being balanced against any gains that might be had from deviating from appropriate behaviour. ‘Fear of God’ is a straight-out objective incentive mechanism that requires a weighing of costs and benefits. So, if a person, deviates from societal norms, what happens? In particular, what if it is the case, that the norm we are worried about is such that if one or a few deviates, it all breaks down.

The ‘fear of God’ can complement this by raising the punishment to the individual and helping sustain the system. But equally, if you know that others hold such beliefs then the chances of a large-scale break-down in societal norms from your own actions are also low. In this case, ‘fear of God’ can assist in causing that instability. It would be a substitute that undermines the system. Which is right? Who knows but it is the key social scientific hypothesis to be investigated.

There is a second role for economics in all this. Religious belief does not simply give people a story on how they came to be but also on what happens in society. In particular, it helps people understand why some people have good outcomes and other people do not. The competing theory here is social science. Economics provides another explanation for perceived good or bad luck independent of the hand of God. It gives me insights but also a set of tools by which I can go about changing the world. Dawkins does not discuss this but it is there and needs to be given its due.

In summary, this book isn’t for everyone. But hopefully I have given you enough sense of what it is about to allow some extra input in your own judgment as to whether it is worth you time. If you want a little more, I can also recommend this documentary by Dawkins on the subject as well as information here.

4 Responses to Imagine there’s no …

  1. Matt says:

    I guess you won’t be putting your religion as “Jedi” on the next census.

  2. Flashman says:

    I have no problem with Jedi. They believe in a binding universal force, one with demonstrable affect, but entirely without personification.

    (But then George Lucas ripped away the mysticism with his bloody midichlorians…)

  3. [...] I can recommend Joshua Gans’ review of Richard Dawkins latest tome, The God Delusion (aka ‘why you should tell all your friends you’re an atheist’). [...]

  4. Ismo says:

    “How can the existence of God be proved? That is easy, God could reveal themself.”

    This is precisely the claim made by mainstream Christianity. Namely, that God has revealed himself in human form, in space and time – indeed this is widely celebrated every year (aka Christmas).

    Further, this claim is open to examination and inquiry in a similar way to other historical claims – the primary documents have been accurately translated into English and are readily available (the biblical canon).

    For those wanting to examine the evidence for themselves a good place to begin is with a gospel account of Jesus and his historical claims (Mark is the shortest – and about a two-hour read).

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