March 2007 -- BOOK REVIEW: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 416 pp. $27.00.
Friedrich Nietzsche may have spoken prematurely when he proclaimed, “God is Dead!” Enter Richard Dawkins to complete God’s interment.
For a book authored by an atheist, The God Delusion projects a rare respect for religion, in that it takes religion seriously. Seriously enough to evaluate its claims about the universe in scientific terms, seriously enough to weigh its commandments in moral terms, and seriously enough to consider religion’s actual effects in the world today.
Why another book attacking religion? Can’t believers and non-believers just get along? After all, the majority of religious people aren’t violent or tyrannical. So, do we really need another book documenting the horrors of which religion is capable, or marshalling arguments for God’s nonexistence? In a word—yes.
For one thing, The God Delusion is singular in maintaining that there is an inescapable connection between religious moderates and extremists—that the former, in fact, pave the way for the latter. Following Bertrand Russell, Dawkins argues that faith—believing without evidence, as a virtue not to be questioned—provides the justification for all manner of atrocities. And he makes a good case.
The God Delusion maintains that religious moderates pave the way for extremists.
The explanation least given for 9/11 is that Osama bin Laden and his ilk really believe what they are saying. During last year’s Muhammad cartoon riots, when Muslims chanted slogans like “Behead those who insult Islam,” many media outlets spoke about free speech; but, at the same time, they expressed sympathy for the “hurt and suffering” that the cartoons had caused Muslims. In what other context would calls to violence have been given such a pass? “The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices,” writes Dawkins, “but ask a religious person to justify their belief and you infringe ‘religious liberty’.”
It is precisely the automatic respect and immunity to criticism that is granted to religion that The God Delusion hopes to dispel.
The God Delusion is more than a compendium of reasons “why God almost certainly doesn’t exist.” It argues why religious claims must be subject to reason in the first place. The usual counter-arguments—such as agnosticism, or the idea that science and religion have “non-overlapping magisterial authority”—are demolished first. Then, specific religious claims are put to rational analysis.
In one the strongest sections of his book, Dawkins subjects claims for the existence of God and for specific miracles, such as the Virgin Birth, to the full rigor of scientific inquiry. If this section fails to refute any argument offered for the existence of God, I am unaware of it. Even the religious may be interested—if, for example, they are irritated by Pascal’s Wager, and want to know what, precisely, is wrong with it. (Dawkins’s answer is that if God does exist, you had better hope that you chose the right God from among the thousands on offer, and also that He prefers dishonest faith to honest doubt. Or else you’ll be in trouble.)
Dawkins appropriates the creationists’ “argument from design” and uses it as a powerful argument against the existence of God. The usual argument is that complex life developing from chance would be like a whirlwind assembling a functional 747 from a scrap yard. True, but life does not develop by chance: evolution through natural selection is a non-random, highly ordered process. Moreover, religion posits that God—a Being so vast and complex as to have been able to design the whole universe—has no cause. How, then, to explain His complexity? “God,” writes Dawkins, “is the ultimate 747.”
Part of Dawkins’s reason for writing The God Delusion is to promote atheism as an intellectually and morally justified position. This is necessary because the religious, while demanding respect, apparently do not reciprocate that attitude toward atheists. Dawkins cites some truly shocking facts, e.g., George H. W. Bush declaring that he did not consider atheists to be citizens, and polling data indicating that fewer than half of Americans would vote for an atheist. He asks what our reactions would be if, in these cases, one replaced “atheist” with the words Jew, Catholic, or Muslim?
He also makes a compelling case that the religious labelling of children is a form of child abuse. A child is too young to understand what religion is, and so cannot rightly be called a Catholic or Muslim. Moreover, few consider the mental damage that occurs when children are terrified with fears of hell and damnation. Dawkins describes “Hell Houses” operated by evangelical Christians in the United States, created solely to scare people, especially children, out of their minds with tales of eternal torment.
Religious labelling can have other harmful consequences, as well, not least of which is that it lays a foundation for collectivism. The “Troubles” in Ireland had little to do with religious beliefs as such, but collective religious labels allowed group-against-group political grievances to be passed on mindlessly from generation to generation, as Catholics murdered Protestants in “retaliation” for injustices done to other Catholics by other Protestants, all long since dead and gone.
A perennial argument for religion is that, regardless of its truth, it provides a basis for morality. Dawkins is unimpressed. Whether or not a belief in God encourages moral behavior has no bearing on its veracity. He dissects the Bible to make a case that, whatever the source of morality may be, the Bible surely isn’t it. Those who have not read the “Good Book” closely will probably be surprised by some of the things it contains. I do not remember my religious education class of yore mentioning that Lot offered his daughters to the Sodomite mob for rape, if it would only ignore the visiting angels. Nor was it pointed out that Moses’ slaughter of the Midianites is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
The idea that any ancient book is an absolute and unvarying guide to morality doesn’t reflect reality. Our understanding of ethics has evolved for thousands of years (and is hopefully still progressing). It is sobering to realize to what extent eugenics was supported at the turn of the last century, or that even Abraham Lincoln, one of the most enlightened men of his time, denied that blacks could ever equal whites.
Religious labeling lays a foundation for collectivism.
Unfortunately, The God Delusion does not do enough to replace the religious basis of morality. It offers some Darwinian reasons and research to explain the universality and value of human compassion and of uniquely human sexuality, including romantic love. However, this evolutionary explanation is insufficient. If compassion is universal, how do we explain the hideous violence of primitive societies? And if our moral sense has been constantly progressing, how do we explain the regressions to barbarity witnessed during the twentieth century? Or the fact that many places, such as Saudi Arabia, seem not to be progressing morally at all?
What is missing in Dawkins’s account is an appreciation of the power of philosophy. While humans can and largely do operate on implicit moral premises, difficult choices can be solved only by reference to an explicit moral code, with the clarity that it provides.
That is certainly what attracts many to religion. The God Delusion does not mention that the recent religious resurgence has been in no small part a reaction against the pervasively nihilistic, amoral relativism that so many see as inextricable from atheism. Regrettably, the book does little to refute this falsehood and largely ignores the power—and desirability—of moral clarity. And though there is some truth to the claim that the moderately faithful pave the way for extremists and fanatics, it is also true that some of the fiercest opposition to totalitarian Islam comes from committed Christians, while the predominantly secular, relativist, postmodernist left shields Islam from criticism.
Such omissions prevent Dawkins from addressing satisfactorily the cases of Hitler and Stalin. While he presents compelling evidence that Hitler was probably not an atheist, his only argument with respect to Stalin is that there is no evidence that atheism motivated Stalin’s horrors. This doesn’t answer the argument that, sans religion, humanity may fall prey to far worse moral codes, or into nihilistic relativism.
Like the late Carl Sagan, Dawkins flatly denies the idea that a world built exclusively on reason must be a dull, joyless, barren place. He shows to what extent our perceptions are restricted and our minds straitjacketed by the limitations of our physical senses alone. Without reason and science, we are forever shrouded by “the ultimate burka,” never seeing more than a tiny glimpse of the wonders of the universe. Science liberates us from this burka. This “Einsteinian religion” may have no supernatural judges, no miracles, no afterlife, but it offers us greater vistas and splendors than those depicted in all religious books in the world.
Ultimately, The God Delusion reflects the paradox typically faced by those committed to an exclusively rational worldview. Fiercely condemning superstition, faith, and irrationality, and passionately aware of the beauty and power of a rational, scientific view of the world, it nonetheless finds itself troubled by questions of ethics and by how humanity fits into the vastness of the universe. Still, its criticisms of religion are all well-grounded, and most of its prescriptions extremely sound. In this time of pragmatism, where the question “Is it useful?” seems to override the question “Is it true?,” it is exhilarating to read such an honest case argued forthrightly from basic principles.
However, if Richard Dawkins hopes to bury religion once and for all, he will need an ethics every bit as rigorously grounded as his science, and a vision of human purpose and possibility more compelling than that provided by mystics. Happily, most readers of this magazine will know where to turn for that.