The God Delusion is a fairly recent nonfiction work by the prolific evolutionary biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins. Published in 2006, 30 years after he rose to prominence with the work for which he is best known and which I highly recommend, The Selfish Gene, there is only a little biology to be found on the pages of the The God Delusion. Drawing from well-documented anecdotal evidence and swelling with reason rigorously applied, the book is an orderly and unapologetic assault on belief in God, organized Abrahamic religion, and a culture that sheepishly looks the other way when confronted with either.
A common criticism of Dawkins is that he’s just so nasty when he dissects religiosity; why, ask the faint of conviction, can’t he just leave well enough alone, or at least be respectful when he can’t? Having read several of his books, I can safely declare that Dawkins is actually eminently reasonable. He is deferential to individuals he respects, admits when he’s at risk of speculating more than analyzing, and draws distinction between harmless naivete and menacing intent. He successfully identifies real harms derived from faith-based world views and religious institutions and makes a case for his politely and eloquently expressed incredulity and outrage at them. A careful reading of the The God Delusion should convince the thoughtful believer, explicitly his target audience, not only of atheism but of his brand of powerful evangelistic atheism. Rather than respecting faith, we should all become foot soldiers in the war to eradicate it.
Dawkins’s ambition benefits from his rigorous yet casual style. He rightly begins by identifying the bizarre and undue respect that is afforded religious thought and no other unfalsifiable belief system. He amusingly quotes H.L. Mencken: “We must respect the other person’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” With this presumption of respect in mind, Dawkins declares his plan for the the book: “I shall not go out of my way to offend, nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.”
And don kids gloves he certainly does not. On the very next page we find this delicious rant:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
But a broader analysis of what Dawkins terms ‘The God Hypothesis’ doesn’t exclusively dwell on this sorry character. The thesis of the book is soon laid down: if we define God to be a supernatural force that with deliberate and premeditated will designed and built the Universe, then God “almost certainly doesn’t exist”. To be sure, a clear definition is crucial since many theists and their apologists like to have their cake and eat it through a sort of definitional equivocation that Dawkins calls “intellectual high treason”. But if we define God any less powerfully than Dawkins does, the term loses not only the meaning that most who employ it mean to imply but also the sense in which the term differs from natural processes that can be understood, in principle, from scientific analysis. In other words, God is nothing more than a surprisingly popular delusion, a claim about a third of the book defends.
Dawkins lays out and dissects, with varying degrees of well-earned ridicule, the most popular arguments for the existence of God: Aquinas’s five proofs; Anselm’s ontological argument; arguments from beauty, personal experience, scripture, and admired religious scientists; Pascal’s Wager; and even some half-baked application of Bayes’s Law. All this is to prepare for the arguments against the existence of God. While touching upon arguments like the anthropic principle, the “big one”, which Dawkins calls the Ultimate 747 (in honor of the remarkable complexity of the Boeing 747, the most complicated machine ever built), says that the nature and genesis of any being sufficiently complex to design and build the entire observable Universe are harder to explain than the Universe itself. The problem is complicated, not simplified, by positing God:
To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition in self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.
Dawkins turns the argument from improbability, a favourite of creationists and intelligent designers, on its head. Too often the religious beg the question when attempting to convince skeptics that they seem to think that the ‘irreducible complexity’ of the eye, for example, proves that God must have designed it. Nevermind that natural selection has explained exactly how an eye might evolve: such an argument fails even to note that God is significantly more irreducibly complex than the eye! That observation is, again, the central argument of the book: God doesn’t exist because it is more probable that he doesn’t.
At this point, the book shifts gears and attempts to explain religion. An evolutionary biologist and the originator of the theory of memes, Dawkins sees religion as a side effect of our highly specialized brains. One interesting hypothesis is that perhaps children evolved to be especially receptive to advice from their elders because, for example, those who heeded warnings not to swim with crocodiles had more offspring than those who didn’t. But discerning the veracity of advice is a skill much harder to evolve, so perhaps the “slavish devotion” to religion many of us exhibit after youthful indoctrination is a misfiring of this trust.
Whatever the explanation, this memic theory suggests that religion did something useful for our species (or itself) or it wouldn’t have survived thus far. And it follows that those religions which do endure the test of time will be those which have a hard time falling out of the popular imagination. Timid, permissive religions don’t excite the imagination the way that hellfire-and-brimstone ones do, so it makes sense that the most popular religions are those which provoke strong emotion; else, why bother? Once entrenched, religions which emphasize the virtue of ineffable mysteries will be more resilient to the falsifying effect of the inevitable advance of scientific understanding. Observe the defensive assault on science emanating from the more hysterical wing of the American Christian right: it is the same fear motivating the belief that explains the backlash against those who would aggressively question it, making for a stable bubble of delusion. This tragic state of willful ignorance is abetted by those who would demand that we simply respect at all costs.
Another interesting angle is the in-group (read: xenophobic) appeal religion has had historically. Recall the first and greatest commandment to the Israelites, that they should have no other gods before Yahweh. Dawkins darkly compares Joshua, the Israelite who took Jericho (if he were to tell it) with God’s approval — through military superiority and genocide — to Hitler, who took Europe (if he were to tell it) with God’s approval — through military superiority and genocide. Only our changing morality through time and unthinking fealty to ancient religious tales allows us to see the former as a hero and the latter as a villain. So holy writ is obviously out as an absolute source of morality, but an interesting experiment reveals how influential religious and cultural affiliation are.
Israeli psychologist George Tamarin presented more than a thousand Israeli schoolchildren between the ages of eight and fourteen with the story of Joshua’s battle at Jericho and asked them whether they felt Joshua had acted properly in leveling the place. The majority of children thought that he had done right in order to prevent the Israelites from assimilating with the people of Jericho. Even those who were ambivalent or disapproved did so for in-group reasons: perhaps the Israelites should have spared the town from total destruction so some of the spoils could have been theirs. In one extreme case, a girl claimed Joshua only acted improperly because he risked catching the curse of the impure Arabs from simply entering their lands. A good scientist, Tamarin also ran a control experiment. A different group of nearly 200 Israeli children was told the story of the battle of Jericho except ‘Joshua’ was replaced with ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ was replaced with ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Suddenly three quarters of those sampled disapproved of “General Lin’s” behaviour. Latent morality was subverted by religious group loyalty.
Anecdotes like that go a long way toward explaining Dawkins’s hostility toward religion. But just to be sure, he’s explicit about it in the context of religious fundamentalism:
As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect… Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.
Indeed, it seems that Dawkins’s main grievance with religion — aside from things like its tendency to limit rights (especially for women) and encourage violence, which themes he does explore — is its uncanny ability to pervert children. Dawkins insightfully calls the religious indoctrination of children, particular about nasty things like hell, what it is: child abuse.
I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell… If hell were plausible, it would only have to be moderately unpleasant in order to deter. Given that it is so unlikely to be true, it has to be advertised as very scary indeed, to balance its implausibility and retain some deterrence value.
Truly, compelling children to believe in something as divorced from reality as God or hell is abusive indeed. That it is often done through scare tactics is abhorrent. Dawkins would like to see this change, and invokes the notion of raising consciousness. The feminist movement, he argues, was successful in part by raising awareness of the some of the chauvinism baked into language and culture. For example, we’ve seen the steady abandonment of words like ‘businessman’ and ‘mankind’ coincide with the general improvement of the role of women in society. Dawkins would like to raise our consciousness about the psychological abuse of children at the hands of the believing and a culture that condones it:
I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labelled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals. The very sound of the phrase ‘Christian child’ or ‘Muslim child’ should grate like fingernails on a blackboard.
Dawkins closes by pointing out how people can lead worthwhile and satisfying lives without any religious component. He claims that religion, at one time or another, has been thought to satisfy four basic human needs: explanation (why is there anything?), exhortation (how ought we to live?), consolation (how do we make sense of painful experiences?), and inspiration (why bother with anything?). Having neatly dispatched religion as a source of the first two, Dawkins takes significantly less time addressing the last two, citing the significance of personal taste in discerning them. He holds up science as a much better source of consolation and inspiration. It is difficult to argue that the sheer wonder of science and the body of knowledge it has produced isn’t a vibrant source of inspiration to anyone who understands it. Consolation is somewhat harder to understand, but his argument revisits the nastier side of religion (the promise of hell, the denial of earthly pleasures to avoid it) to demonstrate that religion doesn’t really console in many cases. Of course the idea of pleasant immortality can surely console in times of suffering — this is one of the main draws of religion after all — but given that it is a false consolation, Dawkins argues that it is actually perverse. Scientific understanding of the actual nature of reality and the escape from delusion it supplies is comfort indeed.
The God Delusion does a lovely job of explaining why there is almost certainly no god, that belief in this illusory concept is damaging to this generation and the next, and why science is both an escape and a superior alternative. Well-organized and wittily composed, Dawkins is at his finest in this unfortunately all-too-necessary analysis of one of the most significant and widely held misunderstandings of our day. I think it impossible that his stated purpose of the book, that of converting believers and agnostics to the joys of scientific atheism, hasn’t been achieved by many readers. And atheists should be entertained and edified by the insightful construction of an argument for the position they already hold. Do yourself a favour and read The God Delusion.
Published 2006, 420 pages.