Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press).
Earlier this year Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting wrote a column called ‘Why the intelligent design lobby thanks God for Richard Dawkins’, suggesting the eminent evolutionary biologist is too rude, too confrontational, and too simplistic in his argument against religion.
His TV series, aired around the same time, was provocatively entitled ‘The Root of All Evil?’ More damningly, in my view, at the time of the 2004 tsunami he smugly berated those who sought comfort in the face of catastrophe in religion. Fellow-scientist Michael Ruse has publicly criticised Dawkins along the same lines. He’s been called, in this context and others, a ‘fundamentalist’, as dogmatic about the truthfulness of science, and Darwinism in particular, as the creationists are about God.
The God Delusion is his long-awaited book-length polemic against, well, God – religion in most of its forms – and defence of his ‘passionate’, as he puts it, atheism. It details every conceivable argument for why there is ‘almost certainly’ no God (especially in the sense of a Being worth praying to, but also of a ‘prime mover’ who created the universe and then retired to more lofty endeavours than human affairs). But Dawkins’ targets also include the scientific advocates of ‘NOMA’, the non-overlapping magisteria associated with the late Stephen Jay Gould, according to which it is religion’s job to deal the ‘rocks of ages’, and science with the ‘ages of rocks’, an approach he dismisses as ‘supine’. Like it or not, the inescapable conclusion of modern science is atheism, and scientists who try to avoid this are doing science an injustice. ‘Moderate’ religion isn’t much more than the petrie dish, so to speak, for extremism.
I haven’t always been Dawkins’ biggest fan. (Some years ago I wrote for Workers Liberty a summary of the scientific debates in which he has been central, coming down against Dawkins; to my surprise, he responded, roasting me alive.) But The God Delusion is a splendid book.
It may be that tactically, Ruse and others are right, and Dawkins is too uncompromising. But everything he says here needs to be said by somebody. Dawkins is utterly scathing about arguments for God, about theology as a subject (he disputes it is one), and about the Bible in particular. He rejects the very notion that religious views are any more deserving of ‘respect’ than any others, and proceeds to attack, and mock, the Bible (and the Koran, but less so – because he knows less about it, not for any other reason).
I think it is a mark of something about the contemporary world that much of the tone of Dawkins’ critique of religion would have been commonplace thirty, or even a hundred and fifty years ago, yet now the forthrightness with which he denounces the Biblical God seems slightly shocking. Secularists have given too much ground to the God Squad.
“Do these people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest idea what is actually written in it?” Dawkins asks. “The following offences merit the death penalty, according to Leviticus 20: cursing your parents; committing adultery... homosexuality... You also get executed, of course, for working on the Sabbath...” (p248). He recounts a story from Numbers 15, in which a man is ordered by God to be stoned to death. “Did this harmless gatherer of firewood have a wife and children to grieve for him? Did he whimper with fear as the stones first flew, and scream with pain as the fusillade crashed into his head? What shocks me about these stories is not that they 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... on the rest of us.” He goes on to describe the massacres joyfully undertaken by the Israelites in the name of their God.
Dawkins addresses three main areas. First, that ‘God’ is a weak explanation for the mysteries of the universe, and an obstacle to actually thinking about them. This is part of the objection to so-called ‘intelligent design’ theory: it looks for God in the ‘gaps’ in our existing knowledge (in so far as the gaps it identifies are genuine). But even if you prove something else doesn’t account for a fact, it is lazy thinking to conclude that the explanation is therefore supernatural. Religion is the enemy of independent thought, because it looks instead to ‘sacred texts’.
He shows that it is absurd to conclude either that belief in God is a reliable guide for morality (as the quotation above demonstrates), or that without God there is no basis for morality. On the contrary, that modern believers in the Bible would reject, say, stoning someone to death for adultery, shows that their moral compass comes from somewhere else.
And he is greatly concerned to advocate secular education. Drawing on the success of feminism in making us uncomfortable with phrases like ‘Mankind’, and so on, Dawkins wants us all to wince at the notion of a ‘Catholic child’ or a ‘Muslim child’. There are only the ‘children of Catholic parents’: ‘Sikh child’ is as meaningless as ‘Republican child’, or ‘Marxist child’. It’s worked with me, anyway.
In this area, as in others (the Iraq war, for instance), Dawkins is a trenchant critic of the Blair government. He recounts in detail what he calls the ‘educational scandal’ of Emmanuel College in Gateshead – a city academy which teaches creationism. He quotes at length from a lecture by the school’s science teacher, Stephen Layfield (taken down from the internet after Dawkins himself exposed it). Layfield urges teachers to “note every occasion when an evolutionary/old earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor, and courteously point out the fallability of the statement. Wherever possible, we must give the (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data...” (quoted pp 335-6). As Dawkins concludes, the school’s students “were being let down by their school, and their school principal was abusing, not their bodies, but their minds.” Emmanuel College received full backing from the government.
Dawkins does sometimes miss the point, and I will mention here just one. He challenges the argument that belief can have benefits even if the belief is wrong. But his challenge is too narrowly intellectual. He rejects what he calls the ‘argument from beauty’: that the existence of God is proven by the existence of great art, for example, because how else could there be such beauty in the universe. But the objection to Dawkins’ ‘passion’ is not only on does-God-exist grounds. It is to do with the actual, in-fact, positive role religion (as opposed to God) has played in the production of art. Indeed, in the book he pretty much puts this down to the needs of getting paid. Well, it could be that Bach just wrote church music to get paid, I suppose. But John Coltrane? All Gospel singers? I am not suggesting that religion is necessary for art; but Dawkins’ view of religion as a relentless source of evil is overstated. It is not that the need for consolation or inspiration prove the need for God, but that people’s religious motivations might - sometimes - be a source for good as well as bad in the world.
But he is right to be terrified by the growth of fundamentalist religion, not only in the ‘Muslim world’, but also in America. He quotes scary statistics about the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of many Americans, and outlines the influence of right wing Christian bigots (who think, for instance, that it is reasonable to kill a doctor to protect the life of an ‘unborn child’) – an influence which goes right up to the White House.
The God Delusion is immensely readable. I hope believers read it. If it’s too disrespectful and upsets them, well, good.
I do think Dawkins is a bit of an elitist, who has no understanding of why, in an exploitative and alienated world, people are attracted to religion - and therefore ends up with essentially "the world is unfair, people should live with it and, well, just be more like me really". The book is strong as an intellectual demolition of belief in God, but inadequate as an explanation of why religion flourishes despite being such nonsense. Only Marxism can explain that.