Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion

The God Delusion. By Richard Dawkins. Mariner Books, 2008. 463 pages. $27.00.

Review by Jonathan Heaps, 2012 | Review by Benjamin L. Thompson, 2009

Review by Jonathan Heaps, 2012

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is a book implicitly written in two parts. The first four chapters plot points in a more or less religion-shaped constellation. The latter six chapters challenge, deride, and (perhaps most interestingly) locate that constellation and its component parts in the explanatory context of evolutionary science. The latter half is perhaps where Dawkins’ expertise, as Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, are best on display, though Chapter Four does touch a neuralgic point. The fruitfulness of evolutionary thinking and Natural Selection inspired theorizing on questions pertaining to religion makes thrilling reading for the intellectually curious. Unfortunately, the first three chapters are likely frustrating for the student of religion, whether a religious believer or not, because Dawkins’ presentation is so overshadowed by his own incredulity. In arguing for the conclusion that religion ought not be given creedence in modern life, the conclusion sometimes transforms into a methodological strategy.

The God Delusion begins by distinguishing between supernatural religion and Einsteinian religion (34). In The God Delusion, supernatural religion means theisms of the primarily Abrahamic variety, including what Dawkins considers their watered down Enlightenment variation, deism (40). Einsteinian religion is a respect and awe for the order of the universe. True, Dawkins will grant, the universe and its order merit a kind of respect and awe typically reserved for religion and typified by Einstein’s several quotes to that effect (36). However, given the inevitable (and often willful) confusion with what Dawkins considers the anti-evidential commitments of the supernaturalism, Dawkins wishes his scientific colleagues would stop employing the term “religion” to describe their awe or “God” to describe its object. There is no refuge in agnosticism for Dawkins, since he believes it lends credibility to the unmerited special treatment for non-sense supernaturalism (41-50). Further, he argues that intransigent agnosticism, or Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP), is rationally unmerited in the case of God and ought to be dumped for what one might call “atheism from improbability.” True, the non-existence of something cannot be proved, but it can be shown to be highly unlikely, and that is precisely what Dawkins sets out to do in the following eight chapters.

What god does Dawkins intend to show is an improbable being and very probably a delusion? He states it in the form of what he calls, “the God Hypothesis”: There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us (52).

In Chapter Three, an unfortunate low-point in Dawkins’ book, he offers a handful of historical and contemporary “arguments” for God’s existence in support of the “hypothesis.” These range from a terse misreading and dismissal of Aquinas’ “Five Ways” (100-103) to personal reports of religious experience (112-117) to the peculiarly arbitrary mathematizations of Stephen Unwin’s The Probability of God (132-136). It is a rag-tag bunch and Dawkins inability to take any of them seriously is evident in his failure to present any of them seriously. Fortunately, The God Delusion next turns Dawkins’ prowess as an elucidator of evolutionary process on the refutation of the God-as-designer at the heart of the “God Hypothesis”. Chapter Four begins with the image (attributed to Fred Hoyle) of a junk yard full of airplane parts and compares the probability of life originating on Earth to the likelihood that a hurricane would tear through the junk yard and assemble a functioning 747 (137-138). The Intelligent Design proponent sees this improbability and thinks that there are two possible explanations; either a staggeringly improbable event has occurred or an intelligent being designed and created living things. Dawkins argues that this is a false alternative. “Chance is not a soution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was” (145). The alternative, as Dawkins sets it up, is between Intelligent Design and Natural Selection’s “graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity” (139). Beginning with the particular organs of living beings and cinematically pulling back to cosmogenesis, Dawkins argues that gradual accumulations of probability overcome the radical improbability manifest by highly complex living beings and cosmic orders. This gradual accumulation is precisely the sort of explanation that makes Darwin’s insights so laudable in Dawkins view. In contrast, the God-as-designer hypothesis is at best a heuristic place holder for explanation (e.g. God of the gaps), but really a kind of pious non-explanation. The God who designs all the complex formations of matter and energy that constitutes living things and their cosmic environs cannot be less complex than its creations, and thus itself requires a designer and origin. God-as-designer fails to conclude explanatory regress.

Satisfied that he has spelled out the uselessness of the God-as-designer hypothesis for explaining the world known via science, and evolutionary science especially, Dawkins turns the tables on religion. From Chapter Five on, Dawkins offers hypotheses to explain religion and what it supposedly brings to human life and understanding as natural phenomena. In good scientific form, Dawkins notes how probable or improbable he considered each hypothesis at the time of writing. Religion in general is explored in light of Dawkins’ suggestion that it is what he calls a “by-product misfiring” of our childhood need to believe instantly and without question the instructions of our parents and elders (202-203). The sort of disembodied intelligence attributed to God is likely, The God Delusion suggests, a by-product of a sense-making strategy called “the intentional stance,” if not from the break down of the bicameral mind (212-213). Morality, a province often attributed sovereignly to religion, is tackled next, mostly by examining behavior in animals that sufficiently resembles consistent habits of human cooperation and altruism to suggest a Darwinian root to such behaviors, rather than some religious (or rationalistic) absolutism (245-254). After having its genetic, biological, and instinctual groundwork laid by evolutionary processes, Dawkins argues in Chapter Seven, human morality has historically developed, though not in a straight line. The texts that religious people cite as morally formative are in fact abhorrent narratives of primitive violence, discrimination, genocide, and ethnic prejudice. Historically accurate or not, we would be well served to view these texts as anthropological artifacts and never base our actions on their example or putative “commands” (383).      

Instead, we ought to raise our consciousness (a consistent theme in The God Delusion) up to the level of our times and follow, not the arcane Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible, but a more contemporary set of precepts readily available by Google search and modified in accord with the individual conscience (299-300). Dawkins believes that the moral zeitgeist evident in these new commandments, such as “test all things,” justifies his hostility to religion. Religion subverts diligent and ruthless inquiry by making certain books and traditions holy and unquestionable, invulnerable to evidence in precisely the manner that scientific texts must not be (319). It invades the private sexuality of consenting adults and imposes arbitrary and dubious metaphysical categories on the biological products of that sexuality (326-336). Dawkins briefly chides the moderate religious as harboring extremism by fostering the unmerited respect (argued against in Chapter One) through the propagation of evidence-resistant beliefs. Indeed, the great scandal for Dawkins is that we allow parents and cultural figures to foist these beliefs on children. It is on par, in his thinking, with abuse of other kinds. He cites several rather upsetting cases both of such indoctrination, such as “hell houses”, and indoctrination’s consequences, such as terrible, anxiety-induced dreams about perdition (356-360).

Attemping to review Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion puts this writer in an awkward position. On the one hand, I share Dawkins’ commitment to rationality, where by rationality I mean the reticence to judge until sufficient evidence has been marshalled and weighed and once it has, to not dither in declaring yes or no. Or, as is always the case in the empirical sciences, probably or probably not. I suspect I disagree with him rather seriously about what counts as evidence and his physicalist ontology is at the root of our disagreement. However, we would be fundamentally in agreement about the means and method of adjudicating our disagreement, namely through philosophical reasoning and dialectic. We are agreed that the suppression of intelligent questions is always moral failure. At the same time, I am a Christian in the very sense that Dawkins cannot countenance. For example, I believe that the doctrine of the Trinity, in a sense that escapes conceptual comprehension, let alone proof, is true. What is worse, I would argue that the relevance of any evidence to Trinitarian theology is only manifest subsequent to affirming the doctrine’s truth, not the other way around. Perhaps it is obvious then why my very act of reviewing might over shadow whatever praise I have to offer in the areas in which Dr. Dawkins and I agree. Obviously, I am no mere Einsteinian, religiously speaking. The intelligibility of the universe, and our puny world in it, does fill me with awe when I take the time to notice, as it does Dawkins. Still, I go ahead and spoil it insofar as my reverence extends further, to explicitly religious belief in a Triune God. However, I might mention that I would not be much of a Christian if I thought that being a Christian entitled me (or my beliefs) to any special kind of social consideration or respect.

Nonetheless, in Chapter Ten of The God Delusion, one finds Dawkins articulating a tension that I find as much in my religious thinking as my efforts to comprehend the world explained by science. Dawkins describes our everyday experience as located in the Middle World, suited to our evolutionarily developed means of engaging our biological environment. Those means only see a sliver of the light spectrum. They imagine mostly in middle-sized objects moving at middle speeds. And yet, with some great effort, I can know that the table of common sense, solid enough on which to rest my books, is also a spacious and dynamic structure of sub-atomic particles (which themselves might be composed of no more than something like vibrations), all dancing their tenuously aggregated, but highly predictable dance. I cannot see that table, but if I burn the cognitive calories, I can understand it. I can transcend my biological self to achieve a scientific self that grasps explanations, not just biologically advantageous descriptions. The designer God that Dawkins debunks in The God Delusion merits debunking. Dawkins forces us to overcome our conceptualism, in which we assume that things precede their orders. It is subtly consciousness raising in this sense. The evolution-informed thinking Dawkins promotes holds the order of natural selection to be the origin and refuses the notion of a big thing that gives form to lesser things. The latter is what Continental philosophers call Onto-Theology, which is to say it treats God as a being among beings. Questions persist, however. Why, we might still ask, is there order? Why does universe exist as susceptible to not just biologically advantageous description, but more or less probably true explanations? This is a question that Dawkins would find intelligible, but that rightly falls to philosophers and theologians, not scientists qua scientist, to answer.

Review by Benjamin L. Thompson, 2009

Since its release in 2006, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, has garnered international acclaim and also disdain, as one of the most controversial contributions to the ongoing debate between science and religion. Indeed, Dawkins, who is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, has successfully dragged the debate into the public spotlight, or perhaps he has dragged the spotlight onto the debate. Either way, it is a combination of his passion, his prestige, his prose, and most especially, his lack of propriety that drove this book onto the New York Times bestseller list.

It is evident that Dawkins believes his background in science allows him to draw strong conclusions about religion. In The God Delusion, those conclusions are less than favorable, to put it mildly. In fact, as the title indicates, he claims that belief in a personal God constitutes a delusion. Following philosopher Robert Pirsig’s observation, Dawkins reaffirms that “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion” (28). Thus, Dawkins not only thinks religion is nonsense, but that it is an overwhelmingly pernicious, and even very evil, force in the world. Just in case charges of equivocation were ever brought against him, he clarifies his position further: “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been invented” (57). Importantly, then, Dawkins rejects any notion that science and religion rule over separable, non-overlapping domains of inquiry. For him, there is simply not enough room within a rational worldview for both.

According to Dawkins, the book is designed with at least two purposes in mind. First, ironically enough, he aims to proselytize believers to the fold of unbelievers. In the preface, Dawkins states, “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who opened it will be atheists when they put it down” (28). He even dedicates the book to the memory of Douglas Adams, his “cleverest, funniest, most open-minded, wittiest, and possibly only convert” (142). Second, Dawkins also aims to “raise consciousness” regarding the illusory, or rather, delusory character of theism. In particular, there are four “consciousness-raising” messages, which Dawkins seeks to propagate: 1) Atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled; 2) natural selection and similar scientific theories are superior to a “God Hypothesis” in explaining the living world and the cosmos; 3) children should not be labeled by their parents’ religion, and terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make people cringe; and 4) atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind (23-26).

Dawkins’s case against religion coincides with these four consciousness-raising messages and follows a rather predictable course: 1) discredit the traditional reasons for supposing that God exists—that is, God understood as an intelligent, supernatural creator, who answers prayers, performs miracles, etc.; 2) provide arguments supporting the contrary hypothesis, that God does not exist; 3) call into question the transcendent origins of religion by showing that it has a purely natural explanation; and 4) show that we can have happy and meaningful lives without worshiping a deity, and that religion is not only unnecessary for morality, it actually produces more evil than good. The first three steps are designed to undermine the veracity of religion, while the last goes to its pragmatic value.

Accordingly, the first few chapters of The God Delusion are devoted to philosophical matters. Dawkins provides a cursory evaluation of the main philosophical arguments in favor of God’s existence, from Aquinas through pre-Darwinian arguments from biological design, along with the traditional arguments against them. In the fourth chapter entitled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” Dawkins presents the centerpiece argument of his book. The God Hypothesis, he observes, is nearly “ruled out by the laws of probability.” Dawkins’s demonstration involves a variation on a standard creationist argument. By cleverly tweaking arguments about the improbability of getting complexity from pure chance (the Boeing 747 argument used by Intelligent Design theorists), Dawkins deduces a conclusion opposite to that of the traditional creationist conclusion: “The temptation [to attribute the appearance of a design to an intelligent designer deity] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable” (188).

Dawkins, however, does not claim to disprove God with absolute certainty. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6, leaning toward 7: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there” (73). He suggests, therefore, that a theory of the universe without God is preferable to the theory of a universe with a God.

In the next section, Dawkins begins by exploring the roots of religion and seeking an explanation for its ubiquity across human cultures. He advocates the “theory of religion as an accidental by-product—a misfiring of something useful” (218), as for example the mind’s employment of intentional stance (the “first-person” subjective feeling of conscious awareness that leads us to a sense of an active, centered self). Dawkins suggests that his theory of memes, and human susceptibility to religious memes in particular, can explain how religions might spread like “mind viruses” across societies (218). (Dawkins coined the term “meme” three decades ago to refer to bits of culture that, he holds, reproduce and compete in a way analogous to genes.) Each religion, as he sees it, is a complex of mutually compatible memes that has managed to survive a process of cultural natural selection. On this conception, religious beliefs benefit neither our genes nor us; they benefit themselves.

Dawkins then turns to the subject of morality, maintaining that we do not need religion to be good. Instead, our morality has a Darwinian explanation: altruistic genes, which are selected through the process of evolution, give people natural empathy. He asks, “would you commit murder, rape or robbery if you knew that no God existed?” and argues that very few people would answer “yes,” thus undermining the claim that religion is needed to make us behave morally (259). In support of this view, he surveys the history of morality, arguing that there is a moral Zeitgeist that continually evolves in society. As this consensus moral worldview progresses, it influences how religious leaders interpret their holy writings. Thus, Dawkins argues that morality does not originate in the Bible, but rather that our moral progress informs what part of the Bible Christians accept and what they now dismiss. Late in his book, Dawkins defends a faith-free morality and provides his own, secular, Ten Commandments. The list includes, “Do not indoctrinate your children” and “Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else)” (298-99).

The book concludes with the question whether religion, despite its alleged problems, fills a “much needed gap,” giving consolation and inspiration to people who need it. According to Dawkins, these needs are much better filled by non-religious means such as philosophy and science. He suggests that an atheistic worldview is life-affirming in a way that religion, with its unsatisfying “answers” to life’s mysteries, could never be. An appendix gives addresses for those “needing support in escaping religion” (421).

If the best defense is a good offence, then Dawkins has surely succeeded in defending atheism, by means of an aggressive attack on religion. Despite its antireligious argument, moreover, The God Delusion is a fabulous resource for those interested in the debate between science and religion. It certainly raises consciousness in just the way Dawkins aims to do. The book is captivatingly written and organized; Dawkins pulls the reader through the pages with his incredibly lucid prose. He even somehow manages to bring a couple of fresh arguments to the table, which is impressive in light of the antiquity of the issues being debated.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the illumination Dawkins provides, with apparent effortlessness, of some of the more enigmatic concepts of evolutionary biology; it is obvious where his strengths are. The book’s greatest weakness is directly related to Dawkins’s intellectual profile: the lack of good information on the subjects of philosophy, religion, and theology. Although the slack caricatures of the various religions he considers undoubtedly strengthened the framework of his own internal argument, in the long run, I expect that this corner-cutting will substantially weaken the book’s efficacy for the consciousness-raising necessary to appreciate the world through an atheist’s eyes. Thus, his failure to take seriously those he is interested in converting will almost certainly have at least something to do with why they will not become atheists upon finishing his book.