London: Black Swan, 2007
420 pp., $9.99 (paperback).
The God Delusion is a provocative title; billions of people the world over believe in the existence of a god or gods. But Richard Dawkins insists that his book’s title isn’t hyperbolic. The Penguin English Dictionary’s definition of delusion is: “a false belief or impression,” and he dedicates the first third of the book to showing why it is delusional to believe in God (27).
Throughout the centuries, religious thinkers have put forth many arguments for the existence of God, and Dawkins devotes a full chapter to thoroughly refuting the most influential of these arguments. For example, he points out that the first three of Thomas Aquinas’s five “proofs” involve an infinite regress. Consider his second proof, which Dawkins summarizes as “Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God” (100–101). However, Dawkins points out that this argument relies on the assumption that God is immune to regress: We supposedly can’t ask who created God, how that entity came to be, and so on.
Dawkins’s argument against the existence of a god rests on two main premises: First, natural selection thoroughly explains how intelligent life came to be; and, second, a supernatural, intelligent creator is “statistically improbable” (183). Despite how central it is to his argument, Dawkins doesn’t spend much time defending the theory of evolution (though he did write a separate book on the subject, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution). In The God Delusion, he argues that our knowledge of natural selection indicates it is more probable that intelligent life developed from inanimate matter than via an intelligent creator. A world created by design, Dawkins writes, “is ultimately not cumulative.” It implies a jump from inanimate matter to advanced life in one fell swoop, “and it therefore raises more questions than it answers” (169). Unfortunately, Dawkins does not point out that there is no evidence for God from which to derive statistical probabilities, and his argument erroneously gives weight to arbitrary claims.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its focus on the fundamental clash at the heart of the issues it explores: reason versus faith. Unfortunately, even here Dawkins makes epistemological concessions. He writes, “What I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence” (319; emphasis added). On the other hand, “fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief” (319; emphasis added). Dawkins’s use of the word “believe” to refer to the conclusions he has accepted as a result of studying the evidence, while stating that fundamentalists “know” something they have accepted without evidence, is a confusing inversion of terms. (His use of “know” for the fundamentalists may have been sardonic, but his use of “believe” for scientists is a concession to skepticism.) One of his strongest points in the book is his key distinction between those who rely on faith and those who rely on reason as their means of knowledge: The faithful rarely accept evidence that contradicts their beliefs, but rational people do. He points out that science books are often corrected when new evidence becomes available, but “that conspicuously doesn’t happen with holy books” (319).
Many look to religion as the source of morality, an idea that Dawkins rejects entirely. He explains that most of us “as a matter of fact don’t get our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty” (280). Supporting this, he recounts awful stories from the Old Testament, including some that condone rape, murder, and genocide. He points out that most religious people don’t turn to these stories for ethical guidance or model themselves on such biblical figures as Abraham, who offered his wife to foreign rulers, or Moses, who led his people in committing genocide. Dawkins also points to studies that found no correlation between lower crime rates and increased religiosity, and he notes a few studies in the developed world that suggested the opposite.
He paints a horrifying but realistic picture of the evils of modern religion. He cites many examples of cruel acts committed in the name of religion and insists that we should take such religionists, including Islamic terrorists, at their word when they say they prosecute jihad because they want to be righteous in the eyes of their God. In response to claims that such extremists pervert the faith they proclaim, he pointedly asks, “How can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert?” (346).
Although he correctly identifies many problems with religion, Dawkins’s discussion of morality has an underlying flaw: his tendency to conflate morality with altruism, a common mistake among “new atheists.” Dawkins treats altruism—the idea that the essence of morality is serving others—as though it is morality. In truth, altruism is only one moral theory among many, and it has no basis in fact (i.e., no facts support the principle that people should sacrifice for others). He assumes that the only alternative to altruism is “callous and selfish hedonism” (259). Although it is true that hedonism is one alternative to altruism, it is not true that it is the only alternative. For example, there’s rational egoism, the ethical theory that each person’s life is his own to live as he sees fit, that each should pursue his own life-serving values and is the proper beneficiary of his achievements, and that no one can have a right to force anyone to act against his own rational judgment.
Dawkins suggests two theories on the source of morality. First, he suggests that morality evolved in a Darwinian fashion. He tries to support this by pointing out that certain behaviors, including “kin altruism” and “reciprocal altruism,” would have been survival advantages in the world of early humans and, thus, would have been passed on by natural selection. This exemplifies the book’s tendency to overemphasize the role of evolution and genetics in a way that implies determinism. Research and debate abound regarding how much of our personalities are inherited, but it’s surely a mistake to assume, as Dawkins does, that all of our traits are and largely to ignore the role of personal choice.
Dawkins’s second theory is no better. Here, he claims that morality is defined by a shifting consensus, which he refers to as a “moral zeitgeist.” In other words, morality is relative to one’s time and place. The main problem with this explanation of morality is that it implies cultural relativism, which obliterates morality. Given his advocacy of reason, it’s strange that Dawkins doesn’t even consider the possibility of a morality based on reason and derived from evidence about the requirements of a flourishing human life.
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Dawkins is at his best when illustrating his points with biological examples, and this is when his fascination with and knowledge of the subject are clear. For example, some creationists claim that organs of “irreducible complexity” (those rendered useless by the removal of any single part) weaken the case for evolution. However, Dawkins explains that according to evolutionary theory, eyes developed from simple organs to the more complex ones humans have today. So although removing a part from a human eye would damage or destroy one’s vision, simpler eyes with fewer parts than the human eye do exist and are useful to the animals that have them:
A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus . . . has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus “pinhole camera” eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours. (150)
Dawkins comes across as evenhanded and objective when speaking about biology, but he’s counterproductively snarky when discussing religion. For example, while arguing that religion is not outside the realm of scientific inquiry, he snidely remarks, “Why any circles worthy of the name of sophisticated remain within the Church is a mystery at least as deep as those that theologians enjoy” (84). Before properly refuting St. Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence (i.e., the notion that because God is the most perfect entity conceivable, he must exist), he calls it “infantile,” despite mentioning that at one point it convinced Bertrand Russell, a philosopher whom Dawkins respects (104). Such snarkiness doesn’t affect the truth of Dawkins’s arguments, but it does diminish their persuasiveness. A reader who is genuinely questioning the existence of God could understandably be put off by his approach.
Although philosophically flawed and at times repetitive and anecdotal, The God Delusion presents interesting arguments against God and religion and generally in favor of a worldview informed by science.
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