Richard Dawkins spent a lot of last year thinking about God. In January he hosted a TV program about God and religion: The Root of All Evil? God was a constant theme on his new official website. He wrestled with God on radio, talked about God for TIME magazine; he even read a book about God out loud in public.
The book of course, was his own — The God Delusion. Dawkins describes it as “probably the culmination” of his war against religion. Although a hefty 416 pages, it is an easy read, one might say a light read. There is little in it that Dawkins has not said before. His style is unfettered and his structure is concise.
He begins by exonerating scientists such as Einstein from any suspicion of religious belief and he decries the privileged place of religion in society. The author proceeds to argue against agnosticism on the basis that “the God hypothesis” is a scientific one, therefore empirically verifiable. Two chapters are devoted to debunking the arguments for the existence of God. The first deals with the first four ways of Aquinas — the ontological argument, and various psychological arguments. The second specifically addresses the argument from design.
Dawkins turns his attention to religion in general. He muses over possible reasons for the ubiquity of religion in human societies. He attempts to account for our moral sense using the Darwinian concept of natural selection. The next three chapters have Dawkins on the offensive: religious precepts are immoral; religious belief has caused most of the world’s problems; and the education of children in a particular faith is a form of mental abuse. The final chapter provides Dawkins’ vision of how science can provide the inspirational role that has been usurped by religion.
As a serious work, this book has little merit. There are few direct references to texts of theology or philosophy (or science, for that matter). The more rich and recognised arguments for God’s existence receive the least amount of attention — Aquinas is dealt with in a mere three pages. The conversational style is perspicuous at the price of superficiality; Dawkins sustains plenty of metaphors but few arguments. He prefers to take pot shots. People don’t really believe in God because they feel sad when they are dying. The God of the Old Testatment is “jealous…petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser…” (He goes on like this for some lines). Most of the book is taken up with personal anecdotes, facetious jokes about Christian fundamentalists, Islamic terrorists and popular Catholic piety, and horror stories about religious bigotry and zeal.
Popularity and persuasion
But Dawkins almost certainly did not intend to write a scholarly book. After all, he holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, and “public understanding” for Dawkins means just two things: popularity and persuasion.
Delusion has certainly been popular. It reached second on the Amazon.com bestsellers list and currently sits at ninth in the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction section. Still, the work must be seen in a wider context. It is a thoroughly modern book. It was pre-empted by the television series The Root of All Evil? It was hyped up online by various bloggers and by Dawkins’ official website. It stormed onto the bookshelves “full of sound and fury”; I half expected promotional caps and bumper stickers.
Dawkins’ personality and position ensured that Delusion would be popular. Is it persuasive? Firstly let’s make it clear that the type of persuasion Dawkins sought was a psychological persuasion. The author makes explicit that he wishes to raise public consciousness on four points: the power of natural selection as an explanatory tool; religious education as child abuse; the possibility of being happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled as an atheist; and “atheistic pride” as a counter to the persecution of atheists. Dawkins wants people “trapped in religion” to be able to “come out” and declare their atheism.
In this sense, the book can be viewed as a kind of self-help guide for atheists. The subtitle could be: How I Found Atheism and How You Can Too. There is an appendix of support agencies for those “needing support in escaping religion”. It only lacked personals (40-year-old atheist male, seeks soul mate…) Although Dawkins finds the idea of a personality cult “highly undesirable”, as he told the Sunday Times, his book is littered with personal anecdotes and triumphant, jovial asides paying tribute to the collective wit of Dawkins and his likeminded colleagues. We are supposed to feel privileged to get this glimpse into the subtle minds of the evolutionary elite. But is this persuasive?
Natural selection misapplied
Natural selection is an extremely powerful idea and Richard Dawkins is uncommonly adept at expressing it. Nevertheless he falls into a hopeless redundancy when applying it philosophically. Take, for example, his approach to morality. He contends that we have moral codes because they were of some selective advantage in the past. How do we know moral codes conferred selective advantage? Because we have them. This can be expressed syllogistically:
1) Morals exist because they are the ones that survive and are successful
2) The morals that survive and are successful are the ones that exist
3) Therefore, morals exist because they are the ones that exist.
So we are left with the morals that we had to have: a redundant and deterministic conclusion. (Interestingly, Dawkins is “just not interested” in the question of free will.) The same inadequate conclusion goes for his application of natural selection to all metaphysical phenomena: God, causality, truth, and existence itself. Natural selection itself cannot explain the “why” of anything.
Dawkins’ next consciousness-raiser — “there is no such thing as a Christian child” — is simply a manifestation of his anti-religious prejudice. He wonders why a child with a religious label is not as outrageous as a “Marxist child” or even an “atheist child”. Is he equally incensed that there could be an “English child”, or an “Indian child”? What about a “Jewish child”? Or an “Aboriginal child”? In essence, Dawkins is masking his real agenda — to tear religion away from cultural identity — with an emotion-charged accusation of child abuse. (He touchingly entitles one sub-chapter “In Defence of Children”.)
Does Dawkins’ book achieve its main aim? Will it foster “atheistic pride” and will it help intelligent believers to “come out”? Part of the answer remains to be seen. Another small part is clear: people who agree with Dawkins will like this book, they will probably find it funny, and they may even develop some pride. More likely they will become arrogant.
Ivory tower syndrome
But very few people are prepared to go the whole way with Dawkins. While he might see this as the lonely fate of the intellectual pioneer, it could simply be ivory tower syndrome. The Economist was one of the few sources of unqualified support — that is no surprise. But Dawkins’ closest ally, Daniel Dennett, sees some use in religion, and is not convinced that it should be “hastened to extinction.” Physicist Lawrence Krauss, writing in Nature, wishes that author would just “play to his strengths” and avoid sermonising. Marxist Terry Eagleton describes Dawkins as “appallingly bitchy…theologically illiterate” and argues that he doesn’t even speak for all atheists. In fact he only really represents the “English middle-class liberal rationalist”.
Richard Kirk gives the most scathing review, describing the book as “an exercise in contempt…an ill-edited and garrulous diatribe.” The constant criticism is that Dawkins doesn’t know his enemy — he sets a straw man in its place. But this isn’t the end of it. Dawkins sets up a straw man, and levels his lance at the hay bales in the next paddock. He then curses the stable hand for putting them there and abuses the livestock for causing the whole ruckus. This quixotic behaviour is exemplified in his central argument. Dawkins believes that the so-called God Hypothesis — that “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” — is scientifically testable. Science, in the modern sense, is the study of the natural or physical. So how can it test a hypothesis that is, by his own definition, supernatural and metaphysical?
In reality, Dawkins does not believe God is scientifically testable. But he will not admit of any epistemology outside of science. His argument can be summarised as follows: non-material reality does not exist, therefore God does not exist. It is no wonder he is “not interested” in free will, or in the reason for the existence of matter itself. He sheds no light on any real philosophical question whatsoever. He is an old-fashioned positivist, prejudiced against metaphysics, whose quarrel really should be with structuralism and deconstruction, since it is these which take his positivism to its logical — and, even for Dawkins, unwelcome — conclusion. Of course, he doesn’t bother; he merely brushes these off in passing as “haute francophonyism.”
Dawkins believes most people are deluded, but some people may begin to wonder whether Dawkins himself is all there. His claims of marginalisation and persecution sound suspiciously like paranoia, his nauseating verbiage borders on the obsessive, and he has a profound lack of insight with regard to his philosophical competence or lack thereof. He may lose more friends than he gains by writing this book. He may find himself soon sailing solo — bound who knows where? — with his own precious cargo of delusions. At least he’ll still be able to laugh at his own jokes.
Phillip Elias is studying medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.