‘If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down’-Richard Dawkins
‘Coming out of the closet’
Having read Dawkins’ polemical book several times now, I have managed to bring myself to write a review. The God Delusion is the culmination of his ‘coming out’ as a militant atheist and prehaps the most popular and influential attack on religious thought and sentiment to be published in recent memory. Previously Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, was already very well known in the public square. He has published several highly acclaimed popular science books such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable and was formerly Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Although he has never hidden his passionate atheism, his books have generally been science centred but had the odd atheistic outburst smuggled in here and there.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past four years, you will be aware of the recent outpouring of bestselling atheistic literature around the world. Dawkins, amongst other influential public figures, has spearheaded a recent intellectual/political movement called the New Atheism (more information on this can be found here). Philosopher of science Michael Ruse observes ‘since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen amongst religious sceptics’. Professor Dawkins is now known as the worlds most famous and outspoken atheist and The God Delusion has been hailed by many as being the ultimate critique of religion. In reviewing the book Joan Bakewell writes ‘ a spirited and exhilarating read…Dawkins comes roaring forth in full vigour of his powerful arguments’…I beg to differ.
Faith: Dangerous, Evil and False
The God Delusion is a rhetorically powerful book…It really is. Dawkins’ book strikes one as an emotively vociferous crusade to inform his fellow human beings that all religious faith is an intellectual folly and a moral evil. His case is broadly put against all religions and all concepts of a transcendent deity but most of his critique is centred on Christianity and the God of monotheistic faiths. Dawkins aims his fire strongly at fundamentalist religion but holds the view that extremism thrives at the periphery of moderate religion and therefore all faith must be condemned. For him, all faith is blind and it rejoices in the absence of evidence. Science and faith are diametrically opposed and religion is false, irrelevant and lacks any explanatory power whatsoever. On top of all this he also wants to make respect for belief in God socially unacceptable. Richard Dawkins is not happy with God.
In the preface to the paperback edition, Dawkins acknowledges that the ‘surprise bestseller of 2006’ has been widely received by most people. His book has indeed been venerated by many but has also received substantial criticisms. In the preface he attempts to briefly counter some of his critics but unfortunately focusses on the trivial objections to his overall approach and attitude rather than rebuttals to his central arguments. Interestingly his writings have divided atheists, some praising his fearlessness and intellect whilst others trying to avoid association with the professor. On the other hand criticisms from many theists have been thoughtful and analytical resulting in some 30 books being published in response to his book. In a display of breath-taking intellectual arrogance, Dawkins states ‘ Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument’…Really!?
In Chapter 1 entitled: A deeply religious non-believer, he explores various concepts of God and sets out to define him in order to make his case further along in the book. Distinguishing between the ideas of a personal creator God who interacts with mankind and the God of Einstein and Spinoza (an abstract impersonal force), he centres on the God hypothesis and maintains that the existence of the God of monotheism is a scientific question which can be tested and falsified. Dawkins finds himself strongly disagreeing with Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion are completely separate things that have nothing to say to each other.
Giving the deity an almighty thrashing
It is important to realise that Dawkins is a biologist and his expertise are in science but here, and in most of the book, he steps outside his own areas of expertise into deep philosophical territory. For many scientists, as we shall see, this is a dangerous thing to do. In chapter 3 he attempts to dismantle the traditional arguments for the existence of God that have often been used by various philosophers and theologians down the centuries. What follows is an extremely superficial and philosophically naive examination of the arguments ranging from the cosmological and ontological to the argument from religious experience. As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel writes ‘Dawkins dismisses, with contemptuous flippancy, the traditional arguments for the existence of God…I found these attempts at philosophy, along with those in a later chapter on religion and ethics, particularly weak’. He attacks various straw-men (misrepresentations of an argument) and looks at several obscure arguments that very few people in their right mind would even use. Here he is completely out of his depth and several times Dawkins threatens to make a good point before descending rapidly into mockery and ridicule.
The argument that is almost certainly rubbish
In chapter 4 Dawkins brings out the big guns with what he considers an argument that proves God almost certainly doesn’t exist: The ultimate boeing 747 gambit. It is an argument from improbability. He writes about natural selection as a consciousness-raiser and critiques the intelligent design movement to a large extent to refute the idea that we are designed by a creator. Dawkins then takes a look at the fine tuning of the universe and appeals to the multiverse theory to show that God is not required in matters of cosmology either. At the end of the chapter he then summarises his main argument in several points. In short he argues that to appeal to a designer raises an even bigger problem then it solves namely, who designed the designer? This is a fancy way for saying: Mummy…who made God? The other central aspect to his argument is the notion that the universe is extremely improbable and therefore God would be even more improbable than the universe itself. This is a very curious argument indeed.
Next the professor turns to looking at the roots and the origin of religious thought and tries to give a naturalistic explanation for the origin of religion. This I felt was one of the better parts of the book as Dawkins relies on his own expertise slightly more. There is a lot to be said for his ideas in this chapter and even if he put across a convincing case he would fall foul of the genetic fallacy by trying to invalidate a belief by showing how it originated. Dawkins advocates the “theory of religion as an accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful”, but provides little evidence for this idea. Next on his list is morality and he examines the idea that we need a belief in a higher power to be moral creatures and again seeks to find a wholly naturalistic explanation for our moral compass. He believes that our capacity for moral judgement has an evolutionary origin resulting from our altruistic genes.
The bible is a nasty book and you’re a child abuser
It turns out that the venerable Dawkins thinks that the Bible is a nasty book…it is surely evil. Here the reader is treated to a relentless rant about numerous verses in the Bible that he finds displeasing and concludes that if God is a God at all, he is certainly not a nice one. Not being satisfied with the ten commandments, he then states a few different commandments that he ‘happened to find on an atheist website’. He then adds several of his own commandments- ‘Enjoy your own sex life…and leave others to enjoy theirs in private…’. Hitler and Stalin followed swiftly by abortion, embryo research and euthanasia are then given a light treatment by Professor Dawkins. He holds the view that religious parents who label their children Catholic, Muslim, Protestant or anything else is the equivalent to child abuse. In passing I hear in the news recently that Dawkins wants to help set up some atheistic schools around the country. Of course, he would prefer to call them freethinking or humanist schools because they will merely teach children how to think freely…that God doesn’t exist.
Overall the God Delusion is a bit of a flop. There are many things that I agree with Richard Dawkins about such as the dangers of fundamentalism and that people should not adopt a worldview blindly. This book, despite what many people would have you think, is an extremely weak attempt to show that God is a delusion. Dawkins wants to show us that all religious faith is complete bunk but fails to give any reasons to believe this is so. It is desperately under researched and Dawkins provides very few references and footnotes for his sources throughout the book. Although a scientist, his attempts at philosophy, theology and logical argumentation leave much to be desired and the book is littered with misunderstandings. I invite anyone who finds this book convincing, to print out a list of logical fallacies from the internet and to see how many of them can be spotted throughout the book. By the end, there will be a list as long as your arm! If you are looking for a scholarly and well argued book about atheism, this is certainly not it. An additional downside to it, is that his passion and anti-religious attitude often gets the better of him and many times he resorts to mockery and name calling eg. faith-heads, insane and delusional.
On the other hand the God Delusion is a highly entertaining read and Dawkins is a brilliant writer and talented communicator of ideas. Despite its fatal weaknesses, I recommend this book mainly because it’s well written and is moderately thought provoking and informative. For believers, it also serves as an object lesson. I do realise that in this review I have made several criticisms without pointing out what exactly is wrong with the arguments. This will be done in detail in a separate series of posts that will follow soon. The reason being that he is highly influential and often taken very seriously. Bad thinking needs to be exposed when necessary.