The God Delusion: a [37G] Book Report

Featured image used with the permission of Flickr user Rob Boudon.

Featured image used with the permission of Flickr user Rob Boudon.

Welcome to the latest installment of the [37G] book report series. This week we highlight Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. , a methodical and sustained attack on religion on both theological and practical fronts. It is interesting in its tone, which straddles the space between the rhetorical bite of Christopher Hitchens and the more scientific timbre of Daniel Dennett, though it is infused with more than a little dry, British wit. 

Like all works of this kind, it is hard to know its effectiveness in turning someone against religion, but I find it hard to believe that someone could make it through this book and not be shaken in their faith. This is a testament to Dawkins’ efforts, as the installation of the “skeptical meme” is often a key first step in undermining religious belief. To this end, The God Delusion is a resounding success. In what follows, I will highlight the key threads that run through the book and will work to distill the essence of it for you, dear reader. Whether this is a recap of something you are already familiar with, or this is a taste for those who have not yet read it, I hope you’ll enjoy the following [37G] book report.

*Side note: for the first time, I will be making the notes I have written available here. Check them out if you want a more inclusive list of memorable quotations I found within the book!

Putting the Pieces in Place

Dawkins approaches the subject of religion – and its inevitable criticism – by first establishing what it is he plans on attacking. Dawkins wastes no time in clarifying what it is he aims to destroy, and he does so by eliminating several possible avenues of escape for the theist. There will be no obfuscation, no clever word play, no last-ditch re-defining of terms. Dawkins is after theism and the commonly understood religion accessible to the average person. Discussing the nature of God, Dawkins says:

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’. (p. 33)

He then succinctly clarifies the three commonly held “theistic” worldviews:

Let’s remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation… A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. (p. 39)

His conclusion is, when juxtaposed to the previous quotation, blunt: “Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.” (p. 40). These definitions culminate in the God Hypothesis:

(T)here exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (p. 52)

Dawkins believes that God, so defined, is untenable, and states that:

This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product if an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily evolve late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion… (p. 52)

This is an important step, and I am glad that Dawkins has taken the time to nail down the concepts that will be discussed over the length of the book. This setup phase is often ignored, and usually ends with two people arguing past one another, unaware that they are no longer having the same discussion.

Game…

With the relevant pieces in place, Dawkins now begins to analyze them, one by one. Dawkins sees his efforts as pragmatic, as well as philosophical. This is not just an intellectual exercise, but an effort to stymie the advancement of the religious mindset. As such, Dawkins focuses on the traditions with which he is the most familiar, and which he sees as the greatest threat to the world: the Abrahamic traditions. This is not to say that his criticisms should be thought of as limited to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, however: “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” (p. 57)

One of the first obstacles that must be overcome is the notion of “principled agnosticism”. This worldview holds that the question of God’s existence is unknowable in principle. Dawkins, on the other hand, believes that the question of whether or not God exists in within the bounds of scientific discussion, because a world with a God is fundamentally different from one without such an entity overseeing affairs. This is especially true if God is the interventionist God described in so many religious traditions, wherein we find miracles and other instances of divine intervention happening as a matter of course.

Even if we cannot determine with certainty whether or not our universe is godless, Dawkins argues that it is still far more probable that there is no such being, noting that “(t)he fact that we can prove nor disprove the existence of something does not put existence and nonexistence on an even footing.” (p. 72) He continues:

…it is a common error…to leap from the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and his non-existence are equiprobable. (p. 74)

We will take a look at the specifics of his argument that God is improbable in the next section. For now, I’d like to highlight why this is one of the more interesting sections of the book. Dawkins is countering the principled agnostic’s position, one that is not overtly religious but that is often used to (inadvertently) provide cover for the theist.

Principled agnosticism is the view that the question of God’s existence is unknowable in principle, and if it is true then we can keep the discussion off of the table entirely. This differs from epistemic agnosticism, or what Dawkins calls Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, which holds the we simply do not have sufficient evidence to make a determination right now, but that it is entirely possible to come to a conclusion as more information is obtained. If principled agnosticism is the proper view to hold, then the result is that there is no assault that the theist must weather. However, if principled agnosticism is the wrong position to take regarding the existence of God, then we can begin discussing the probability that God exists.

Dawkins aims to demonstrate that there are plenty of good reasons to believe God’s existence is far more improbable than the 50/50 chance so often assumed to be the case. If Dawkins is successful, then this forces the theist’s hand; if they do not play, then the atheist has effectively won by default. Dawkins is (rather obviously) of the opinion that the odds are long for the theist, and the remainder of the book aims to shift the odds decidedly in the atheists’ favor.

Set…

Chapter three deals with the common arguments for God’s existence, whether ontological, cosmological, experiential, Pascal-ian, or moral. There isn’t much new here, but it does serve as a quick refresher on these commonly advanced – and ultimately unsuccessful – proofs of God’s existence. Chapter four, titled “Why there Almost Certainly Is No God”, reveals what Dawkins believes to be the most damning argument against God’s existence: improbability. Here his background as an evolutionary biologist shrines through.

Countering the oft-advanced, pro-theism arguments from design and from chance, Dawkins believes that natural selection is the only plausible argument that has been advanced that can account for the complexity and biodiversity that we witness in the natural world.

Chance and design both fail as solutions to the problem of statistical improbability, because one of them is the problem, and the other one regress 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. (p. 147)

To summarize Dawkins’ position, that which is complex within nature has evolved through the slow, process of evolution. This process breaks down the vast improbabilities that confront the random assembling of complex organisms and spreads it out over unfathomable timespans and innumerable iterations. Each step forward is imperceptibly small and - most importantly - not random, but they culminate in the diversity we experience today. Since the most complex things we know of have come from this evolutionary process, something that is more complex must have evolved for significantly longer periods of time, given that the odds of a functioning entity as complex as a field mouse coming into existence purely by random chance are so astronomical as to be dismissible as statistically impossible. The analogy used throughout this section of the book equates creation of complexity by random chance as equivalent to a hurricane rolling through a scrapyard and leaving behind a fully functional jumbo jet in its wake.  

Dawkins continues on, noting that any creation is less complex that its creator; a cornerstone assumption of the argument from design. If this holds true, then God - a being capable of devising the all of the complexity within the universe - must be more complex than its creation. Per the previous paragraph, any significant level of complexity we have come across arises from evolution, so how can a being so complex have failed to come about by evolutionary means? A being that is more complex than all of creation is not a simple solution to the problem of complexity – rather, it highlights the improbability that such a being could arise in the first place, because God did not have the benefit of evolving!

The theory of natural selection is genuinely simple. So is the origin from which it starts. That which it explains, on the other hand, is complex almost beyond telling: more complex than anything we can imagine, save a God capable of designing it. (p. 180)

Invoking a designer to explain the complexity and intricacy of life fails because it relies on an even more improbable premise: God. This is interesting because it changes the argument from design from a weapon for the theist into a threat to the theist. It is also an argument that demands a response, should the theist wish to retain intellectual integrity. Having forced them into the game, Dawkins now forces the theist to play without one of their most intuitively attractive cards.

Match.

In many ways, the rest of the book is an exercise in thoroughness, with a consistent level of dry British snark sprinkled in along the way. Dawkins bounces from topic to topic, striking down commonly held beliefs or arguments with almost casual aplomb. He discusses the roots of religion and morality in chapters five, six, and seven, dismissing the supposedly divine origin of religion, as well as the idea that religion is necessary to morality. A cursory summary will serve our purposes for these chapters.

Problematic Origins

Dawkins adds an interesting scientific twist to his coverage of the origin of religion, insofar as he takes the time to question religion as an evolutionary by-product. As a man fully committed to evolution, and in the face of the extravagant wastefulness of religion, he is effectively required to answer these questions: “What is it all for? What is the benefit of religion?” (p. 192) Dawkins admits that no definitive answer yet exists, though he does explore various plausible solutions. Without making any unsupported claims, he admits that he leans towards the idea that religion is the by-product of other processes that have evolved over time: “(t)he religious behaviour may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful.” (p. 202)

On a side note, I appreciate the caution used throughout this chapter, and throughout the book. Dawkins is, after all, a scientist, and a man bound to the evidence. I think it is often seen as a weakness to qualify ones’ statements, which is unfortunate. Being cautious (but not overly cautious) prevents one from drawing conclusions not supported by the relevant evidence, and I find it refreshing in the face of unfounded and unjustified religious pronouncements.  

Issues of Morality

Moving on to moral matters, Dawkins spends time examining the origins of human morality, as well as its continued evolution. Normally I would summarize these arguments, but given the more casual nature of these chapters, I think highlighting some of the more noteworthy quotations will serve our interests here. Enjoy some of Dawkins’ more poignant points!

Even if it were true that we need God to be moral, it would of course not make God’s existence more likely, merely more desirable (many people cannot tell the difference). (p. 264)

∞ ∞ ∞

Discussing the non-theists’ lack of an absolute moral foundation, Dawkins counters that “…picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is ‘morality flying by the seat of its pants’, so is the other.” (p. 269)

∞ ∞ ∞

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. (p. 297)

∞ ∞ ∞

Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism. (p. 315)

As with the previous chapters, Dawkins wants there to be no haven wherein religion can take shelter. To quote the Operative from the movie Serenity, “if your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to.” At this point in the book, Dawkins’ is in full swing as he carries out a philosophical scorched-earth policy.

End Game

If the first seven chapters can be seen as setting fire to the fields, then the last three can be seen as salting them. Chapter eight is titled “What’s Wrong with Religion” and is a reflection on the trouble that religion so readily sows. He argues from several angles, but they fall into two vaguely-defined categories: philosophical and pragmatic.

Philosophical Considerations

Dawkins explores the former category by highlighting the way in which religion muddies the waters of public discourse. He talks about efforts to interfere with the classroom (creationism v. evolution), the bedroom (homosexuality), and the doctor’s office (abortion), among others. He also personally takes issue with fundamentalist religion: “As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise.” (p. 321) Ultimately, Dawkins sees religion as a justified meddler, and one with a propensity for causing discord.

From a philosophical perspective, Dawkins balks at the concept of faith itself. Religious faith is a vague concept that is seemingly unassailable, and yet it is the root of much evil in the world. He also sees moderate religion as an enabler for religious fundamentalism:

Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that [ruining education for thousands of students]. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue. (p. 323)

Dawkins views this unquestioning faith as dangerous, and I agree with him whole-heartedly. I can think of few things in the world more frightening that someone whose conviction is unassailable, especially when that conviction is bolstered by something as ill-informed as religion.

Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no arguments. (p. 347)

Pragmatic Considerations

Chapter nine is thought-provoking because it aims to divert attention away from the current spate of sexual abuse scandals and towards what Dawkins sees as the real evil of religion – the fact that we, as a society, permit the indoctrination of children with religious ideology.

I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell. (p. 358)

This is not to say that Dawkins downplays the devastating effect that sexual abuse can and does have. His main point is that countless millions have suffered under the psychological terror inspired by religious beliefs, a number that far outruns that of children sexually exploited by clergymen.

Dawkins also notes the absurdity of labelling children as belonging to a particular religious sect. He states that:

I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labelled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals. The very sound of the phrase ‘Christian child’ or ‘Muslim child’ should grate like fingernails on a blackboard. (p. 381)

I think Dawkins is right to point out how strange it would be to call a child a Democrat or Republican, and yet we as a society see nothing wrong with placing religious labels on that same child. I also agree that we should be in the business of teaching children how to think, not what to think. (p. 367) If religion can truly justify itself to the modern mind, then it should do so on its own merits, not through the indoctrination of small children.

Looking Forward

The God Delusion ends with something of a pep-talk, alternating between being understanding, chiding, and ultimately supportive. Dawkins notes that “It is time to face up to the important role that God plays in consoling us; and the humanitarian challenge, if he does not exist, to put something in his place.” (p. 394) For all of its ridiculousness and divisiveness, religion has and does serve positive purposes for people, and the irreligious would be amiss to deny the power of religion in this respect.

That is not to say, however, that we must pander to the religious as we try and bring their religion down around their ears. Discussing the idea that religion provides meaning and purpose for people, Dawkins says, “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point.” (p. 403) Dawkins believes that the atheist worldview is worth adopting, in the sense that growing up is worth the cost of leaving one’s childhood.

The atheists 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. (p. 405)

This is a fitting tone with which to end the book. Dawkins has not pulled any punches throughout The God Delusion, and there is no reason for him to have in the last chapter. In many ways, he has approached the topic of religion as a problem to be solved, even if many people do not yet realize that the problem exists. For those who do understand the objections to religion, Dawkins has gone to substantial effort to show them the errors that riddle their worldview. The result is a book that is at times biting, but fundamentally good-spirited. The end of religion is not, after all, the end of the world.

It is, rather, the beginning of a better world. 


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