book review

The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, 2006, 406 pages Reviewed By

I t may be hard to believe, but there are people out there who sincerely believe that without religion there would be no war, no 9/11, no invasion of Iraq, no Arab/Israeli conflict, no Irish troubles--indeed, no troubles of any kind--a virtual paradise on earth. Yet it's true; Richard Dawkins, in a work of breathtaking arrogance, believes that religion may be the vilest creation ever devised by mankind. Sneering hatred for religion drips from every page of this book.

These days, attacks against religion by media pundits actually serve two purposes: first, they are proxy attacks against Islam, which is politically incorrect for people in such circles to criticize; and second, they are thinly disguised attacks against mainstream values, which range from quiet tolerance and respect for religion to outright religious enthusiasm. Equivocating Christianity and radical Islam has even become somewhat of a fad lately, especially at opinion outlets like the New York Times, and in popular books like American Theocracy. Not least among reasons for this is a desire to intimidate and insult Christians, who in their hard-won tolerance for diverging viewpoints and their unwavering support of Israel are opposites in so many respects not only to the fanatical Islamists but to the mainstream Left as well.

Since it is blasphemous for these pundits to criticize Muslims for 9/11, they lump Muslims with Christians and attack all religions; and indeed, in this book, vicious crimes by Islamic terrorists are seamlessly interspersed with supposed "injustices" of Christians defending their beliefs, such as the belief that homosexuality is wrong, and with apocryphal stories of atheists being threatened or criticized for their beliefs. Reviewers who share his ultra-left wing secularist views call the book "brilliant", or the work of a "powerful intellect," while many others think of him as just another arrogant, bigoted atheist who gives the rest of us a bad name.

Lack of historiographic perspective

Even a cursory study of the Bible shows that it is a priceless source of cultural history. The Bible is the story of how a primitive, politically insignificant desert tribe made the transition from superstition to a modern culture based on concepts of universally-applicable laws and principles that have transformed the world. The God in the Bible starts out as a vengeful, vindictive spirit who smites his enemies and enumerates list upon list of rules--indeed, the first five books of the Old Testament (known to Jews as the Torah) could be said to depict not so much a religion but an early version of the California Criminal Code. Gradually, the belief system of the Israelites evolves as they struggle to understand and cope with violence, injustice and suffering. Along the way they learn to speak in allegories and create poetry. One by one, great leaders appear and help them gradually claw their way to a culture based on laws (the "Ten Commandments") and principles ("Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's"). You don't have to be a Bible-thumper to appreciate the majesty of this story. To ridicule it as Dawkins does shows an imagination as impoverished as it is mean-spirited. Dawkins even attacks Mother Teresa, calling her "sanctimoniously hypocritical" (p.292) for expressing her views on abortion (for Dawkins, opposition to abortion is a mortal sin).

Much of Dawkins' antipathy toward religion arises not from theological considerations but from his perception that their views on political and cultural matters (such as abortion) are different from his own. This and many other comments in the book make it clear that much of Dawkins' antipathy toward religion arises not from theological considerations but from his perception that their views on political and cultural matters (such as abortion) are different from his own. Dawkins has since claimed elsewhere that he doesn't care whether religion is beneficial, only that it is false. But if that's the case, why did he use so much space in the book trying to argue that religion is harmful? Why not criticize any of the dozens of other false beliefs that people hold--astrology, or belief in homeopathy or alternative medicine, for instance, which can be genuinely dangerous? The answer is that the political and social beliefs of astrologers don't threaten his worldview.

Fear, along with a sense of victimhood (which is a unifying factor in many special interest groups), is one of the few emotions that can produce such anger as is evident in this book. One may rightly criticize creationism and argue that it should be kept in religion classes where it belongs. But to criticize Christianity because of ancient events like the Inquisition and mythical Biblical tales like the story of Abraham, while dismissing the very real crimes of secular leaders like Hitler and dogmatic atheists like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot is frankly dishonest; and the implied claim that secularism is more benign than religion is preposterous. How nutty do you have to be to accuse the Amish of child abuse and being "inhumane" for bringing up their children with Amish beliefs? A scientist of all people should be able to get a grip.

Speaking of Stalin and Hitler, Dawkins says (p.278): "I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism." Dawkins would do well to read up on the tenets of dialectical materialism, the ideology that underlies the social and political philosophy of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, who together murdered over 100,000,000 people in the 20th century.

It is rare to find a book that is so so humorless (despite the claims of some other reviewers) and so unpleasant to read. As an atheist and practicing scientist myself, I am horrified by people using atheism to ban Christmas, hide the Ten Commandments from public view, and to rip out the cultural roots of Western society.

If you enjoy writers making fun of the Old Testament, read the genuinely funny Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain instead. If you're interested in understanding why people believe in religions, whether religions are necessary for societies to survive, or what social roles are played by religions, read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James or The Golden Bough by James George Frazer instead. William James, who was the brother of famed writer Henry James, made a serious, literate, and fascinating attempt to understand religion. Both books offer a far richer perspective than The God Delusion; despite the fact that neither of these men were scientists, their approach is far more scientific and open-minded than Dawkins's.

The value of religion

Religion asks two important questions that are of vital significance to every thinking person: (1) How can we construct a valid universal ethical system in the absence of a higher authority? and (2) How does one deal with death? When you're lying on the cold ground breathing your last breath, you will discover that science has few answers that matter to you; without some religious framework, regardless of whether its factual basis is true or false, you will have no way to understand it. Whether or not the cosmological tenets of any particular religion are factually true, religion also provides a framework for people to think about larger questions beyond the everyday trivia that can relentlessly grind a person into an uncaring, vicious animal.

There are other questions so vast that we humans are not intelligent enough to ask them. These, too, belong to religion. The existence of a God may be such a question. Ants at a picnic probably see no evidence for the existence of humans, even when they are being systematically stomped on by giant, wrathful feet. They lack the cognitive faculties for recognizing that something like a human could exist, and that death is an absolute finality. The concept of a cold, godless, windswept eternity is equally impossible for them to grasp. But even an ant would not be arrogant enough to ridicule another ant for its religious beliefs, naive as they might be. The idea that there could be some concepts in the universe that no human mind can ever grasp seems to have been impossible for Dawkins to imagine.

One early scholar compared the world to a tune played by God on a musical instrument. Beings composed only of sound waves, no matter how "bright" they were, could never conceive of the possibility that the entire universe is only an epiphenomenon of someone playing on a cosmic zither. Such concepts may well be beyond our ability to comprehend, let alone measure.

In other words, even if every word in the Bible were false, it would not affect questions of whether a God exists, or even whether the concept of a deity is in any way meaningful. Thus, in this sense, Dawkins is attacking a straw man (or perhaps, one might say, a straw deity). Unfortunately, he seems unaware of that possibility.

Dawkins' big insight is this:

Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. (page 31)

While the statement is probably true for a creative intelligence in nature, God is supposed to be outside of nature--that is, outside the real world. In such a realm, if it existed, anything might be possible.

Dawkins uses the above 'insight' as a springboard for a series of arguments and pseudo-arguments intended to convince us that "belief in God" (a concept that he believes to be meaningful but false) is not only unjustifiable but harmful. Accordingly, he also believes that the concept of God is understandable to the rational mind and therefore refutable. It is an unfortunate commentary on our times that unsophisticated arguments such as those found in this book (as well as in the many books by followers of creationism) are what passes for theological discussion these days.

Dawkins's philosophy is very much like that of his friend Daniel Dennett, a fellow atheist whose claim to fame is that he doesn't believe in the existence of subjective consciousness. We are all just animated objects, says Dennett, but don't realize it. If Dawkins really wanted to impart his scientific wisdom to society, he would make a point of learning about religious experience and try to nudge people away from the crutch of religion by reminding them of the magnificence of the natural world, as Carl Sagan did. The polemical Christianity-bashing, the condescending tone, the dishonesty, the petulant America-bashing, the lack of imagination, and the unabashed vitriol found in this book are singularly unbefitting for a scientist, whose role is to dispassionately search for the truth. Imagination and open-mindedness are the lifeblood of science. In advocating a strikingly closed-minded and unimaginative brand of fundamentalist atheism, Dawkins demonstrates how far this once-respectable scientist has strayed from the ideals of his profession.

Update (Dec 1, 2007): Mark Steyn has just written an excellent article describing how the radical atheists have more in common with Muslim fanatics than Christians do.