“The God Delusion”: Review

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press).
(Now also in paperback, published by Black Swan

delusion_1.jpgWhy did I read this book?

When I was an agnostic, I spent a lot of time reading books on atheism, trawling through atheist websites and listening to what atheists had to say.  As I mention in my testimony (see “Who Produced It?”), I’d already found substantial historical and rational evidence that Jesus was The Son of God. However, I was concerned that I might be missing some substantial atheist counter-argument. Surely there was something that would blow all this out of the water?

I was surprised at how little I found of substance. The counter-arguments seemed to have more to do with attacks on the failings of organised religion and a selective interpretation of parts of the historical and rational evidence for Jesus. This lack of substantial counter-argument was a significant element in my move from agnosticism to Christianity. 

I was therefore very keen to read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins when it was released in 2006. Perhaps, I would find the substantial counter-argument there.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary biologist with an international reputation. He has genuinely advanced our knowledge of this subject in his long and distinguished academic career. However, in 2007, he is now better known as the public face of atheism in the UK. It’s probably fair to say that he is one of the “intellectual engine rooms” of contemporary atheism – a subject he is clearly passionate about. His passion is demonstrated by his creation of The Richard Dawkins Foundation – set up specifically to further the cause of atheism (see www.richarddawkins.net). His book “The God Delusion” was published in September 2006 and is currently (June 2007) enjoying a new lease of life in paperback. It currently sits at number 4 in the UK paperback best-sellers list – an impressive achievement for any work of non-fiction. This achievement is all the more impressive, given the subject matter.

The aim of the book is to set Dawkins’ stall out for atheism and to convince others of the overwhelming case for an atheistic view of “life, the universe and everything” (quoting Douglas Adams, to whom the book is dedicated).

Please find below, a review of what I found.

Hostility to Religion

Dawkins spends a substantial part of the book denouncing and declaiming “religion” – both the organised stuff and personal faith. His view is that it’s all really a very bad thing and we’d be better off without it. However, what should be clear is that the pros and cons of religions (human beings’ attempts at relating to God or gods) have nothing to do with whether there is or is not a God.

Religions can be viewed as an expression of mankind’s struggle for the last 30,000 years to understand the infinite. However, human beings have finite intelligence and are imperfect. Hardly surprising then that our religions (or any of the other institutions, political structures etc we create) are also finite and imperfect.

Whether religion is a force for good or bad in the world can be argued both ways. A I've mentioned, Dawkins spends a significant part of "The God Delusion" describing in detail the undeniably "bad" aspects of religion through history to the present day. Religious apologists can also point to the undeniably "good" aspects of religion through history. This all tends to develop into a sterile debate where one side tries to "outfact" the other. Through all this, what cannot be known is whether we would be better off without religion. How could we possibly know?

Religion has been an integral part of human existence for at least 30,000 years and clearly still is. What evidence do we have to say that the world would be better without religion? The only possible frame of reference we have is with a few of the 20th century dictatorships (Germany, USSR, China) where mass-atheism was encouraged or enforced. Were the horrors of these regimes the result of atheism or humans’ seemingly limitless capability to be inhuman to other humans? There are valid arguments for both views. Dawkins’ argues that these regimes were not even truly atheistic – with some justification. However, this only further underlines the point that we have no genuine frame of reference to say that the world would be better off without religion. With no substantive examples of a truly atheistic society – either now or in the past - how can we possibly know?

On page 1, Dawkins invites us to imagine a “utopian” world with no religion. One thing that we can say (based on evidence from history) is - beware of utopianists. There have been many attempts to create perfect societies in the past. In almost all cases, these experiments have created hell on earth.

A Darwinian Basis for Religion and Morality

As you might imagine, Dawkins is on firmer ground here. His argument is that religion has provided humans with evolutionary advantages and that religion is a by-product of other evolutionary developments in the human mind. Dawkins provides similar arguments for the development of morality.

Personally, I found these arguments perfectly reasonable and plausible. However, these arguments are theories and cannot be proven definitively. It is just as possible that all religion is an expression of mankind’s need to connect to God – a need that has been hard-wired into us by God. It is also perfectly possible that our sense of morality is also hard-wired into us by God.

And anyway, even if there is an evolutionary basis for religion and morality, this doesn’t disprove the existence of God.

A Darwinian Basis for the Non-Existence of God

Dawkins spends a chapter in the book rubbishing various theological arguments for the existence of God. How well he fares is debatable. Terry Eagleton’s review of “The God Delusion” in the “London Review of Books” gives a more detailed overview of this (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html).

Dawkins also spends time going after the soft targets of Intelligent Design (as applied to life on Earth) and fundamentalist Creationism.

As an alternative to all this, Dawkins offers his own (Darwinian) theory for the non-existence of God. To quote directly:

Page 31
…I shall define the God Hypothesis [the view taken by “believers”] more defensibly: there exists a super human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion.”

Darwinian evolution has been a powerful model to help us understand the development of life on earth. However it is a model and, like all models, it has its limitations. In that sense it is no different from, say, Newtonian physics or Euclidean geometry. We discovered in the 20th century that there are parts of the universe where Newton and Euclid do not apply. Is it not therefore possible that Darwinian evolution is similar? Do we know the universe so well that we can say confidently that Darwinian evolution applies in all its parts? Also, how can we say that Darwinian evolution would apply to a creator God? If God created the universe He is, by definition, outside it. If I build a wall in my back garden, I’m not part of the wall. If God is not of the universe, why then would the “rules” of the universe apply to God?

In summary, it would seem to me that Dawkins’ “No God Hypothesis” is as full of holes as some of the theological arguments for God that he rubbishes.

Intellectual Arrogance

Richard Dawkins shares the presumption of many people, that humans have the intellectual capacity to know everything – and to fully understand everything. The view is: we don’t know everything now, but scientific endeavour pushes the boundaries of knowledge and understanding forward, so we will know and understand everything at some point in the future. The more modest, alternative view is that complete knowledge or understanding will never be reached as there will always be another question to answer. However, with both views, at no point does anyone ever suggest that there may be things that even the most brilliant human minds just don’t have the intellectual capacity to know or understand.

To me, this seems like monumental human arrogance.

In fairness, it would seem that this arrogance is a by-product of our in-built desire to understand ourselves, the world and the universe. But…We only have finite brains. Our intelligence works in specific ways. We only have limited senses.

So, are there things in and beyond the universe that we are incapable of understanding? Are there things that we can, at best, only partially understand? In relation to God, is it possible that we can never fully understand or prove / disprove His existence by intellectual argument, logic, theology or some other “ology”?

Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep trying.

Dawkins’ is of the view that humans have the intellectual capacity to disprove the existence of God. In this respect, he is no different from many theologians from the past who also believed they could prove the existence of God by intellectual argument. Is this not typical human intellectual arrogance?

Dawkins and Jesus

Dawkins devotes six pages (92 to 97) to assert that the Gospels – and Jesus’ deity - are fiction. After reading this, the politest thing I could say was “could do with more research”. For someone steeped in the intellectual rigors of the scientific method, the superficial, selective, one-sided, outmoded views trotted out by Dawkins in these pages is really quite astonishing.

I suppose that, as someone who has developed a course and a website called “Jesus: The Evidence”, you would probably expect me to say this. You would also expect me to say that there is compelling, hard evidence suggesting that Jesus is the Son of God – despite what Richard Dawkins says. You might expect me to say it – however it doesn’t make it any less true.

Writing this review, I was reminded of the passage in John’s Gospel (14.6) where Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. As we know, to the shame of Christians and Christianity, this one statement has been used in the last 1,700 years as the justification for all kinds of religious persecution, forced conversions, racism and genocide. However, I then thought that for humans in the 21st century, we could perhaps view the meaning of Jesus’ statement as something closer to the following:

Suggestion

In “The God Delusion” Richard Dawkins encourages believers to read the book and, as a result, turn to atheism. I too would encourage believers to read this book. If this is the best counter-argument to belief in God, then there’s a good chance that your belief will be strengthened after reading it.

However, might I suggest you get it out the public library. You don’t want to be spending £20 (or whatever the paperback costs) and find yourself inadvertently funding The Richard Dawkins Foundation.