Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion

Review by Benjamin J. Samuels, 2008

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. 406 pages.

Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins opens his preface by inviting us to imagine a world with no religion. He would like us to believe that in such a world, all of the headline-making ills of society and geopolitics would disappear (1-2). In truth, Dawkins isn't so na´ve. If anything, he understands that amoral evolutionary forces, and, at times, immoral competitive impulses animate and guide individuals, groups and nations. And yet, all the same, Dawkins would place his human hopes on a self-awareness and morality achieved through a purely scientific worldview, one that, Dawkins contends, even allows for a spirituality of wonder (11-19). The God Delusion is an aggressive, passionate and indictment-seeking manifesto against religion and theistic belief. It predicates itself on the idea that religion isn'tquaintly meaningful, na´vely comforting, orsimply foolish, but extremely pernicious, and therefore must be challenged, exposed, denounced, and if possible, extirpated – at least, through the genteel art of intellectual persuasion. For Dawkins, the God hypothesis is "a scientific hypothesis like any other," subject to verification or falsification (50). Dawkins employs the word "delusion" in the title because it characterizes, "a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence" (5). In The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to provide the contradictory evidence.

Dawkins' book can be subdivided into three main sections: one, debating the existence of God; two, exploring the evolutionary origins of religion; and three, casting a moral judgment on the morality of religion. The first four chapters comprising the first section challenge the existence of God. Dawkins devotes a sizable chapter to rehearsing and rebutting several well known arguments for the existence of God, including the ontological argument, and arguments from beauty, personal experience (which we will take up below), and authority (75-11). To this, he adds a chapter on arguments against the existence of God entitled, "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," the non-absolutist title presumably intended as further demonstration of his open-minded rationality (111-160). Dawkins writes for a popular audience and not as a trained philosopher or theologian, and thus presents ideas about God less as sophisticated arguments than as simple notions, which he attempts to refute with simple rebuttals and summary dismissals.

For example, consider the subsection entitled, "The Argument from Personal Experience." Although Dawkins doesn't dispute the phenomenon of people having religious experiences, Dawkins doesn't ever present an actual philosophical argument about the epistemological reliability of religious experience which he can then rebut. He simply says that people claim their so-called religious experiences as proof of a supernatural God and then summarily discounts any and all religious experiences, whether individually or group witnessed; at best, they are misinterpreted optical or aural illusions. He writes:

This is really all that needs to be said about personal "experiences" of gods or other religious phenomena. If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings. (92)

In the second section, chapter five, Dawkins begins by providing a meager survey of evolutionary theorists who find survival advantage in religion, but quickly changes course. He writes: "The general theory of religion as accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful – is the one I wish to advocate." He then proceeds to liken religionists to a "gullible child," infected by a "mental virus": "Once infected, the child will grow up and infect the next generation with the same nonsense, whatever it happens to be." (188) Here Dawkins displays his self-admitted antipathy for religion by not doing full justice to the scope of evolutionary thinking on proposed real benefits and advantages of religion.

In the third section, chapters six through nine, Dawkins adumbrates his moral indictment of religion. He accuses religion of subverting scientific progress, fomenting prejudice and fanaticism, creating emotional hardship, and of malevolently indoctrinating children, which he sees as an egregious form of child abuse. Although Dawkins concludes his book by implicitly admitting that religions plays a positive role in people's communal and personal lives, he champions cultivating and achieving these supportive and meaning-making elements such as consolation and inspiration through completely secular means (347 ff.).

The God Delusion is a popular representation of the New Atheism movement of the late 20th and early 21st century. It is worth reading to be culturally conversant with current trends in intellectual and religious debate, but don't expect it to honor sophisticated religious thinking or even to illumine the contemporary religion and science dialogue. It is in no way a model of philosophical, religious, or scientific analysis. To the contrary, it is an ardent work of rhetoric. It is a work of politics of science more than of philosophy of science written by one who conceives himself as living in a world in which science and religion are hotly at war.