The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin, Copyright 2006
416 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker
(See R.D. in an interview about the book)
(Visit Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science web site)
Dawkins has written, perhaps, the most powerful set of arguments against the alleged supernatural god ever written. Although he didn't invent all the arguments, mind you, nor did he break new ground in ontology (although he does give it a new perspective), he has the bravery, integrity, humor and explanatory skill to describe the god delusion clearly to laymen and dilettantes like us.
Dawkins leaves no quarter open for theists. If they try to escape through the door of creationism, the window of faith, the cavern of prayer, the entrance of personal experience, the portal of scripture, or the gap where god supposedly hides, they will only run into bars, barriers and blockades. No matter how much the theist tries to run or hide, he will only run into the face of Dawkins powerful arguments. At best he can only shout ad hominems, or spout the same old failed arguments, which has served as the only recourse against Dawkins in the past.
The God Delusion, no doubt, will only continue to fuel the fire against Richard Dawkins from Christian conservatives. I can hear the nasty replies now. But regardless of how offensive you think of him, his questions and arguments demand consideration. Unfortunately, religionists have gotten off scott free without having to defend their faith because, somehow, they have managed to convince the world that we should respect their faith without question. This has resulted in the common practice to refrain from questioning another person's faith and to simply respect their beliefs. Nonsense. Since when does a faith that creates division, war, and intolerance demand respect? Respecting the person describes one thing but beliefs deserve no such honor. Richard Dawkins attacks religious beliefs and demonstrates the dangers they present, especially the dangers to young children.
The book opens with the explanation of how great scientists like Darwin and Einstein viewed god, not as a personal deity but as a euphemism for nature and her laws. Unfortunately, when a theist sees the word 'god' coming from a scientist, he or she automatically imparts an anthropomorphic god onto the scientist. How many times have we heard that Einstein believed in God? (Einstein did not believe in a personal god).
The next chapters deal with the nuts and bolts of the God hypothesis and the historical arguments for his existence. These include Thomas Aquinas' "proofs," ontological arguments, Pascal's Wager, arguments from beauty, personal experience and scripture. Dawkins quickly exposes each of these arguments as vacuous. It should also amaze the reader why these arguments have lasted as long as they did (no doubt because no one dared question religious belief for the reasons stated above). Dawkins then explains why "there almost certainly is no god," by using an example of the Ultimate Boeing 747, natural selection as a consciousness-raiser, and describing irreducible complexity, the wrongful idea of the worship of gaps, and the anthropic principle.
In the Roots of Religion, Dawkins describes the possible advantages of religion through Darwinian eyes, and explores the psychological benefit religion might give. Does god belief derive from a god gene or as a result from something else? Dawkins (along with a growing number of biologists) thinks that religion came as a by-product of something else (similar to the way music derives as an emerging property from our ability to distinguish tones in sound waves.)
Dawkins then describes the questionable morality in the Old and New testaments and how our morality has shifted through the centuries by what he calls a moral zeitgeist. Dawkins explains that "We do not ground our morality in holy books, no matter what we may fondly imagine." We simply do not kill people for adultery, working on the sabbath, and many other biblical offenses. Instead we use our senses, intelligence and new information to change our social condition by revising our outlook on racism, gender, and crime. We no longer believe in slavery. Women now have the right to vote. We no longer consider adultery a crime worthy of death. We simply don't need holy books to determine our moral status. Period.
In "What's Wrong with Religion? Why Be So Hostile?," Dawkins reveals the subversion of science by fundamentalism, the dark side of absolutism, the problems produced by faith, and how 'moderation' in faith fosters fanaticism. Perhaps the critical religious reader might begin to understand just why Dawkins feels so passionately for science and against religion at this point (if he or she ever gets to this point).
Dawkins then exposes the danger to children by religious indoctrination, without their consent. Priests for centuries have irrevocably transformed children into the religion of their faith without allowing them to decide for themselves. Not only have Catholics physically abused children, especially by sexual molestation, but more damagingly through long-term psychological indoctrination into a faith that prevents against the abuses in the first place. Dawkins suggests that we should not teach children about religious dogma until their brains have developed the ability to understand religious concepts. Nor should we label children as a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Muslim until they understand what those words mean (imagine calling a four-year old child a conservative or a liberal and you get the drift). Instead, suggests Dawkins, call them the children of Protestant parents, the children of Catholic parents, etc.
Lastly, in 'A Much Needed Gap', Dawkins describes how to fill unexplained gaps in our knowledge with scientific thinking instead of fantasy filled gods and spirits which only serve to stop our thinking about real world problems.
Imagine the benefit to humankind if people began to think and reason like Dawkins. We would have no religious wars, no reason to hate other ethnic groups, and science would flourish without superstitious-driven groups halting valuable medical research (such as stem cells, safer abortants and contraceptives, for example).
Science allows us to, not only open our eyes, but to invent new eyes, eyes that can see past our extremely narrow window of wavelengths evolved through natural selection. Dawkins uses the analogy of the slit opening in a burka to represent our narrow view of the world. Science also allows us to open our minds and even our hearts to a more enriching understanding of the universe. Dawkins sees this; religionists don't. But maybe they will if they read this book.
I immensely enjoyed reading this book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in workable solutions to real world problems.
A few quotes from the book:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. [Hear Dawkin's own words reciting this description]
Thomas Jefferson . . . was of a similar opinion: 'The Christian God is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.'
[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
- The oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, and the clear ancestor of the other two, is Judaism: originally a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restriction, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.
I recounted the words of an Oxford astronomer who, when I asked him one of those same deep questions, said: 'Ah, now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the chaplain.' I was not quick-witted enough to utter the response that I later wrote: 'But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?' Why are scientists so cravenly respectful towards the ambitions of theologians, over questions that theologians are certainly no more qualified to answer than scientists themselves?
I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.
How many literalists have to read enough of the Bible to know that the death penalty is prescribed for adultery, for gathering sticks on the sabbath and for cheeking your parents? If we reject Deuteronomy and Leviticus (as all enlightened moderns do), by what criteria do we then decide which of religion's moral values to accept?
Darwin's cousin Francis Galton was the first to analyse scientifically whether praying for people is efficacious. He noted that every Sunday, in churches throughout Britain, entire congregations prayed publicly for the health of the royal family. Shouldn't they, therefore, be unusually fit, compared with the rest of us, who are prayed for only by our nearest and dearest?
If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn't he have produced something at least as inspirational as the Sistine Chapel?
[W]hat if, as my wife chillingly suggests to me, Skakespeare had been obliged to work to commissions from the Church? We'd surely have lost Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. And what would we have gained in return? Such stuff as dreams are made on? Dream on.
The human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don't present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there, or an accurate movie of what is going on through time. Our brains construct a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerve, but constructed nevertheless. Optical illusions are vivid reminders of this.
I say all this just to demonstrate the formidable power of the brain's simulation software. It is well capable of constructing 'visions' and 'visitations' of the utmost veridical power. To simulate a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary would be child's play to software of this sophistication.
The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like: 'Who wrote it, and when?' 'How did they know what to write?' 'Did they, in their time, really mean what we, in our time, understand them to be saying?' 'Were they unbiased observers or did they have an agenda that coloured their writing?'
The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.
But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What's so special about believing? Isn't it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity? What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn't the designer of the universe have to be a scientist?
Admittedly, people of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true.
That scientifically savvy philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out that evolution counters one of the oldest ideas we have: 'the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You'll never see a spear maker making a spear maker. You'll never se a horse show making a blacksmith. You'll never see a pot making a potter. Darwin's discovery of a workable process that does that very counter-intuitive thing is what makes his contribution to human thought so revolutionary, and so loaded with the power to raise consciousness.
[T]he higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes. Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman's Pipe (or a universe) would have to ben even more improbable than a Dutchman's Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.
Chance and design both fail as solutions to the problem of statistical improbability, because one of them is the problem, and the other one regresses to it. Natural selection is a real solution. It is the only workable solution that has ever been suggested. And it is not only a workable solution, it is a solution of stunning elegance and power.
[N]atural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be far beyond the reach of chance.
The creationist completely misses the point because he . . . insists on treating the genesis of statistical improbability as a single, one-off event. He doesn't understand the power of accumulation.
We could easily have had no fossils at all, and still the evidence for evolution from other sources, such as molecular genetics and geographical distribution, would be overwhelmingly strong.
It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it support their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence.
[D]esign certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is ultimately not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger question than it answers...
The theist says that God, when setting up the universe, tuned the fundamental constants of the universe so that each one lay in its Goldilocks zone for the production of life. It is as though God had six knobs that he could twiddle, and he carefully tuned each knob to its Goldilocks vale. As ever, the theist's answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained. A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks vales for the six knobs would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that's very improbable indeed....
The fact that religion is ubiquitous probably means that it has worked to the benefit of something, but it may not be us or our genes. It may be to the benefit of only the religious ideas themselves, to the extent that they behave in a somewhat gene-like way, as replicators.
Is religion a placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress? Possibly, although the theory must run a gauntlet of sceptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion causes rather than relieves stress.
I am one of an increasing number of biologists who see religion as a by-product of something else.
Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival. . . . But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility.
For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.
Religious leaders are well aware of the vulnerability of the child brain and the importance of getting the indoctrination in early. The Jesuit boast, 'Give me the child for his first seven years, and I'll give you the man.' is no less accurate (or sinister) for being hackneyed.
The idea of immortality itself survives and spreads because it caters to wishful thinking. And wishful thinking counts, because human psychology has a near-universal tendency to let belief be coloured by desire...
Even where religions have been exploited and manipulated to the benefit of powerful individuals, the strong possibility remains that the detailed form of each religion has been largely shaped by unconscious evolution.
I receive a large number of letters from readers of my books, most of them enthusiastically friendly, some of them helpfully critical, a few nasty or even vicious. And the nastiest of all, I am sorry to report, are almost invariably motivated by religion.
Why should a divine being, with creation and eternity on his mind, care a fig for petty human malefactions? We humans give ourselves such airs, even aggrandizing our poky little 'sins' to the level of cosmic significance!
To my naïve eyes, 'Thou shalt have no other gods but me' would seem an easy enough commandment to keep: a doddle, one might think, compared with 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife'. Or her ass. (Or her ox.) Yet throughout the Old Testament, with the same predictable regularity as in bedroom farce, God has only to turn his back for a moment and the Children of Israel would be off and at it with Baal, or some trollop of a graven image.
[T]he Bible story of Joshua's destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler's invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals.
The following offences merit the death penalty, according to Leviticus 20: cursing your parents; committing adultery; making love to your stepmother or your daughter-in-law; homosexuality; marrying a woman and her daughter; bestiality (and, to add injury to insult, the unfortunate beast is to be killed too). You also get executed, of course, for working on the sabbath...
What shocks me today about such stories is not that they really happened. They probably didn't. What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh -- and, even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.
'Love they neighbour' didn't mean what we now think it means. It meant only 'Love another Jew.'
It was Paul who invented the idea of taking the Jewish God to the Gentiles. Hartung puts it more bluntly than I dare: 'Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul would be taking his plan to the pigs.'
[W]ithout religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge.
Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness -- its deliberate and cultivated pandering to humanity's natural tendency to favour in-groups and shun out-groups -- would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world.
Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism.
Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion, and they have been horribly frequent in history. I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism.
By contrast, why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?
Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them -- given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by -- to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades.
Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.
It is said that Alfred Hitchcock, the great cinematic specialist in the art of frightening people, was once driving through Switzerland when he suddenly pointed out of the car window and said, 'That is the most frightening sight I have ever seen.' It was a priest in conversation with a little boy, his hand on the boy's shoulder. Hitchcock leaned out of the car window and shouted, 'Run, little boy! Run for your life!'
'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.' The adage is true as long as you don't really believe the words.
I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think.
Religion's power to console doesn't make it true. Even if we make a huge concession; even if it were conclusively demonstrated that belief in God's existence is completely essential to human psychological and emotional well-being; even if all atheists were despairing neurotics driven to suicide by relentless cosmic angst -- none of this would contribute the tiniest jot or tittle of evidence that religious belief is true.
False beliefs can be every bit as consoling as true ones, right up until the moment of disillusionment.
[W]ouldn't you expect that religious people would be the least likely to cling unbecomingly to earthly life? Yet it is a striking fact that, if you meet somebody who is passionately opposed to mercy killing, or passionately against assisted suicide, you can bet a good sum that they will turn out to be religious. The official reason my be that all killing is a sin. But why deem it to be a sin if you sincerely believe you are accelerating a journey to heaven?
[T]he selling of indulgences must surely rank among the greatest con tricks in history, the medieval equivalent of the Nigerian Internet scam but far more successful.
The atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing, while at the same time never being tainted with self-delusion, wishful thinking, or the whingeing self-pity of those who feel that life owes them something.
1 A DEEPLY RELIGIOUS NON-BELIEVER
2 THE GOD HYPOTHESIS
Secularism, the Founding Fathers and the religion of America
The poverty of agnosticism
The Great Prayer Experiment
The Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists
Little green men
3 ARGUMENTS FROM GOD'S EXISTENCE
Thomas Aquinas' 'proofs'
The ontological argument and other a priori arguments
The argument from beauty
The argument from personal 'experience'
The argument from scripture
The argument from admired religious scientists
4 WHY THERE ALMOST CERTAINLY IS NO GOD
The Ultimate Boeing 747
Natural selection as a consciousness-raiser
The worship of gaps
The anthropic principle: planetary version
The anthropic principle: cosmological version
An interlude at Cambridge
5 THE ROOTS OF RELIGION
The Darwinian imperative
Direct advantages of religion
Religion as a by-product of something else
Psychologically primed for religion
Tread softly, because you tread on my memes
6 THE ROOTS OF MORALITY: WHY ARE WE GOOD?
Does our moral sense have a Darwinian origin?
A case study in the roots of morality
If there is no God, why be good?
7 THE 'GOOD' BOOK AND THE CHANGING MORAL ZEITGEIST
The Old Testament
Is the New Testament any better?
Love thy neighbour
The moral Zeitgeist
What about Hitler and Stalin? Weren't they atheists?
8 WHAT'S WRONG WITH RELIGION? WHY BE SO HOSTILE?
Fundamentalism and the subversion of science
The dark side of absolutism
Faith and homosexuality
Faith and the sanctity of human life
The Great Beethoven Fallacy
How 'moderation' in faith fosters fanaticism
9 CHILDHOOD, ABUSE AND THE ESCAPE FROM RELIGION
Physical and mental abuse
In defence of children
An educational scandal
Religious education as a part of literary culture
10 A MUCH NEEDED GAP?
The mother of all burkas
A partial list of friendly addresses, for individuals needing support in escaping from religion
Books cited or recommended
- To obtain this book, click below:
The God Delusion
Other books by Richard Dawkins:
The Ancestor's Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (hardcover)
A Devil's Chaplain (hardcover)
Unweaving the Rainbow (hardcover)
Climbing Mount Improbable (paperback, hardcover)
River Out of Eden (paperback )
The Blind Watchmaker (paperback)
The Selfish Gene (paperback, hardcover)
The Extended Phenotype (paperback)