Yet Another Review of The God Delusion

July 11, 2008 at 11:05 am 3 comments

Since its initial release, millions of people have read The God Delusion. Some have echoed Michael Shermer in hailing it “not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature.” Others have sided with H. Allen Orr in deeming it a “badly flawed” book in which Dawkins “makes a far from convincing case” for his opposition to religion. My view lies somewhere between these two extremes.

The God Delusion is not Dawkins’ best book. In fact, it may be his worst (even so, Dawkins at his worst is immeasurably superior to most of us at our best). While his scientific discussions are, as always, insightful and illuminating, his philosophical and theological shortcomings are clear. Nevertheless, The God Delusion is a book that should be taken seriously by religious believers and non-believers alike.

Dawkins describes himself as a religious non-believer, a position that he also ascribes to Einstein, Sagan and Hawking – lofty company, indeed. Since theists are often quick to claim that Einstein was a theist too, Dawkins cites several passages from Einstein’s letters and other documents to refute their claim. Dawkins contends that Einstein was a deist, or perhaps a pantheist, but certainly not a theist. This is important because, as far as Dawkins is concerned, there is no room in the cosmos for a deity of the sort postulated by most theologians, particularly those of the three major Abrahamic religions. He states at the outset that he does not accept the idea that religious ideas should be politely excused from critical scrutiny, nor does he accept Stephen Jay Gould’s notion that science and religion are two realms of “non-overlapping magisterial” of human inquiry. Dawkins uses The God Delusion to make his case for both of these claims.

Rather than focusing on a specific deity, Dawkins aims his critical guns at all deities. He says, “I am not attacking any particular version of God. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented” (p. 36). Accordingly, the generalized God Hypothesis, which Dawkins seeks to falsify, posits, “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” (p. 31).

According to Dawkins, “the God question is not in principle and forever outside the remit of science” (p. 71). While it may be difficult to test the God Hypothesis scientifically, Dawkins reports that it was done at least once, when Russell Stannard tested the efficacy of prayer for medical patients (pp. 61-66). In the long run, though, even if the God Hypothesis should be resistant to scientific testing, Dawkins does not believe that theology is any better equipped than science is to address the God question. He asks boldly, “if science cannot answer some ultimate questions, what makes anybody think that religion can” (p.56)? His earlier reference to staunch believers as “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads” (p. 5) probably does not endear religious readers either (though it may raise a chuckle from atheists).

Moving on from his hypothesis statement, Dawkins addresses a range of philosophical arguments for God’s existence. Although he is broadly familiar with a range of philosophical ideas, he does not appear to be interested in engaging those ideas in any depth. He notes, however, that even if one accepts these arguments, they still do not prove the existence of any particular deity, they simply “prove” the existence of some creative entity.

The heart of Dawkins’ argument is entitled, “Why There is Almost Certainly No God.” He begins with a twist on the argument from design. This argument, as it is typically employed by theists, posits that the universe, particularly life itself, is far too complex to have happened by chance. Ergo, it must have been designed. Dawkins contends that this argument rests on a false dichotomy. Instead, the real dichotomy is that of design versus natural selection. He rules out chance as a viable third possibility because it is highly improbable. Dawkins explains that, far from being a random process, “natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces” (p. 121), and then proceeds to discuss flaws in the Intelligent Design argument.

Dawkins continues by twisting another favorite argument of anti-evolutionists, the so-called anthropic principle, into a new shape. The basic anthropic principle has two components. First, it is highly improbable that life would have arisen by chance. Second, the conditions on earth are too fine-tuned to the generation and sustenance of life to have arisen by chance. Dawkins’ response to the first argument, which is merely statistical in nature, is that there are in fact so many planets, perhaps as many as a billion billion (stop and think a moment about how large that number is), that the statistical probability is in fact likely to have happened somewhere. Given the vast number of planets actually in existence, even if the chances of life arising on any one planet are one in a billion, it’s still statistically possible that there is life on one billion planets. Earth happens to be one of them.

I think people often look at the statistical argument from the wrong end of the lens. They start from the probability of life arising, uncreated and undesigned, on any one specific planet, i.e., earth. From that perspective, of course it looks impossible. This is typical of the geocentric fallacy that humans have committed for millennia. Dawkins looks at the question from the correct end of the lens: earth is one of literally billions of planets, so the likelihood of life arising here is just as great (or small) as it is anywhere.

The second part of the anthropic argument is the fine-tuning argument. Dawkins’ response to this is weak. He avoids dealing with it by discussing, instead, several multi-verse hypotheses, all of which are interesting but speculative in nature. He then concedes that he does not have a satisfactory rebuttal for the fine-tuning argument (p. 158). He concludes this chapter by arguing that the gods posited by theists are highly improbable because any being capable of designing complex beings would itself have to be even more complex. This is a variant of the infinite regress response to Aquinas’ First Cause and Prime Mover arguments. It is a solid response, but not a knockout punch. Ultimately, Dawkins believes that the existence of a god is highly improbable, but it cannot be ruled out definitively at this time (p 51).

Next, Dawkins turns his attention to the roots of religion. This section includes interesting, but largely speculative, ideas about the evolution of religion. Dawkins believes that the religious instinct arose as a by-product of an adaptation that was initially suited for some other condition. His hypothesis is based on the need for children to learn from and trust their parents. Thus, because their survival requires it (especially in primitive cultures) young children absorb information readily. Unfortunately, this happens before they develop the means to critically assess data. Therefore, they are particularly impressionable and susceptible to bad teachings as well as good ones. Dawkins then discusses the meme hypothesis, which seeks to explain how ideas are transmitted between individuals and across generations and cultures. Again, this is an interesting hypothesis, but, as Dawkins notes, it is speculative.

Dawkins gets inexcusably sloppy with his terminology in this part of the book. Sometimes he refers to these speculative ideas as hypotheses – the appropriate term – and sometimes he refers to them as theories – not appropriate in a scientific discussion. As an evolutionary biologist, he really should be more careful. A pet peeve of evolutionists is the criticism that “evolution is only a theory.” What people fail to realize is that, in scientific discussions, the word “theory” is a technical term with a precise meaning. In lay terms, a theory may be an idea that rests on little or no foundation. In scientific terms, a theory rests on a body of supporting data, hypotheses, principles, etc. Evolution is a theory in this strong, technical sense because it is supported overwhelmingly by a wealth of data from diverse fields of inquiry. Dawkins undermines the evolutionists’ cause by failing to adhere to the technical use of the term, theory.

Following a brief discussion of the evolutionary bases for morality, Dawkins trains his guns on the Christian bible. He gives quite a bit of attention to spectacular, gory Old Testament tales of slaughter, genocide, racism and misogyny. He also finds the New Testament doctrines of atonement and original sin (as articulated by St. Augustine) reprehensible and asserts that the admonition to “love one another” was initially limited to relations between Jews. This latter assertion is contradicted by the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, a teaching that Dawkins does not acknowledge at all. More substantially, he takes Christians to task for their inconsistencies in interpreting the scriptures. He does not take biblical literalists seriously at all, and he challenges liberals to explain the processes by which they arrive at their conclusions. He says, “We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories . . . By what criterion do you decide which passages are symbolic, which are literal” (pp. 238, 244)? This is a great question. Unfortunately, Dawkins ignores the fact that biblical scholars can answer it, for they are trained in methods of biblical research, exegesis and interpretation. Had Dawkins actually been interested in his opponents’ answer, he could have had a fruitful and fascinating discussion about whether biblical and theological methods of study meet standards of academic rigor. Instead, he asked the question simply as a matter of rhetoric, because his whole point in this chapter is to argue that westerners don’t actually derive their morals from their holy books (p. 249).

Dawkins contends that people actually acquire moral values via evolution, personal interactions, media, education, scholarship and other human endeavors. According to Dawkins, all of these sources, and others not enumerated, form the Zeitgeist of human morality. At this point, he addresses whether atheistic morality should be preferred above theistic norms. In order to make his case, he needs to rebut the standard objections regarding Hitler, Stalin and other 20th century despots who caused incalculable carnage and devastation. Dawkins’ response is two-fold. First, it is debatable whether Hitler was indeed an atheist. After all, he used the language of Christianity throughout his life. Second, even though Stalin was an atheist, Dawkins asserts that it is unclear whether Stalin’s actions were prompted by or on behalf his atheism. He asserts, “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” (p. 278). While conceding that there are many reasons for warfare: politics, patriotism, vengeance, greed, etc., Dawkins contends that religion is an equally strong incentive for violence. He misses an important point, however, in that he discusses atheism as if it is a system of thought comparable to theistic ideologies. The sole content of atheistic “belief” is its lack of belief in God. That is its only doctrinal statement. Atheism is not an ideology. It can be a component of many ideologies, such as humanism, or naturalism, or Marxism, but it is not, on its own, a body of beliefs.

Meandering toward the finish line, Dawkins cites additional reasons for his hostility toward religion. First, he is “hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise” (p. 284). Evidence for this assertion is the ongoing American political wars over science curriculum and research priorities. He also states, “absolutism almost always results from strong religious faith” (p. 286). While I agree that religion can be, and often is, a source of absolutism, it certainly is not the only one. Communism and fascism, to name just two possibilities, are also absolutist systems of thought and government. One can’t help wondering if religion itself is the primary obstacle to human freedom, or if totalitarianism in any form is the actual obstacle that should be opposed? Dawkins does not give this question the attention it deserves. By focusing too narrowly on religion as a source of absolutism, Dawkins squanders an opportunity to discuss totalitarianism generally.

Dawkins also notes his objection to even moderate religion because he believes that it provides a shelter for breeding extremism. He puts it this way: “As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers” (p.306). Differences between moderate and extremist faith are merely matters of degree, not kind. They are not different faiths traveling along on unconnected trajectories. They are, rather, the same faith situated at different points along one continuum. Dawkins goes on to raise another objection: how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert (p. 306)? How and where does society draw the line between legitimate and illicit faith? Dawkins’ solution is to dispense with line drawing altogether and just discard all religious ideologies.

One of Dawkins’ most controversial claims is that teaching children religious doctrines, such as original sin and eternal punishment in hell, is abusive. He also believes that allowing exotic religious communities, such as the Amish, to rear and educate their children outside of the mainstream of society is immoral. Dawkins argues that the Amish oppress their children by prohibiting them from choosing for themselves whether they want to remain within the traditions of their parents. Moreover, by suspending their education far too soon (after eighth grade) the Amish rob their children of opportunities to prepare adequately for participation in a technologically sophisticated society, should they wish to do so. Thus, from Dawkins’ point of view, Amish children are imprisoned in an archaic way of life. He would be pleased if western governments would just allow Amish culture to die of attrition.

Dawkins closes the book by refuting the idea that religion fills a gap within the human psyche. He discusses some traditional roles played by religion, such as consolation in times of grief and inspiration to live a good life and asserts that those gaps can be filled by other worldviews. He concludes with his “testimony” regarding his naturalistic view of the world and the power of science to infuse his life with wonder.

While Dawkins’ writing prowess is evident throughout, this book’s quality is uneven. When reading his scientific passages, one pictures Dawkins writing furiously, eyes alight with passion, mind racing ahead to the next idea. These are the points where his prose flows. When reading the philosophical passages, one sees Dawkins plugging away at the keyboard, eyes glazed, impatient to get through this stuff and move on to more compelling ideas. These are the points where his prose becomes perfunctory. When reading passages that explicitly address religious ideas, one envisions Dawkins with his brow furrowed, his words clipping along angrily. These are the points where his prose grows pedantic and his successive thoughts don’t always cohere. At these points, he is prone to rambling and stringing together anecdotes rather than arguments. As numerous critics have noted, these are the points in which Dawkins is always passionate but not consistently credible.

Having said that, Dawkins nevertheless manages to score some significant points against religion. For example, philosophical arguments regarding God’s existence are currently at an impasse, as all of them are inconclusive. Additionally, scientifically grounded arguments for a creator, such as the one from design, can be reconstructed to lead to the opposite conclusion from the originally intended one. And mathematical arguments for a creator are moot because the universe is large enough for statistical probabilities to be rendered not only possible, but also likely. Finally, even though Dawkins’ discussion of biblical morality is slanted, this weakness is countered by the range of evolutionary evidence for morality that can be drawn from such fields as evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, primatology and others. Had Dawkins engaged his opponents’ theological and philosophical arguments in more depth, The God Delusion would have been more persuasive. As it stands, while Dawkins did not deliver a fatal blow to religion, he did give it a bloody nose.

– thechaplain
(written in October 2007)

Entry filed under: thechaplain. Tags: , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Atheistic attacks on Christianity « de-conversion  |  July 13, 2008 at 11:34 am

    […] their overtly negative views. Had I not read The End of Faith and listened to a portion of The God Delusion audiobook, I might have taken quite a dim view of Dawkins and Harris, considering them to be taking […]

  • 2. blueollie  |  July 13, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    By what criterion do you decide which passages are symbolic, which are literal” (pp. 238, 244)? This is a great question. Unfortunately, Dawkins ignores the fact that biblical scholars can answer it, for they are trained in methods of biblical research, exegesis and interpretation. Had Dawkins actually been interested in his opponents’ answer, he could have had a fruitful and fascinating discussion about whether biblical and theological methods of study meet standards of academic rigor. Instead, he asked the question simply as a matter of rhetoric, because his whole point in this chapter is to argue that westerners don’t actually derive their morals from their holy books (p. 249).

    Actually, Dawkins doesn’t ignore the fact that Bible scholars can answer these questions. The point is that Bible scholars use *the tools of logic and reason* to answer the questions of the following type: “what was the original text? What did the original say? What were the sources? What traditions did this draw from” In short, the “Holy Book” is, in fact, subordinate to reason which effectively rebuts the claim that they get their morals “from the Bible”.

  • 3. Errancy  |  January 13, 2009 at 5:44 am

    I do like Dawkins as an evolutionary biologist, but he should stay away from the philosophy of religion until he’s spent some time studying it. He seems to think that philosophy isn’t a proper subject and so that anyone can discuss it on an equal footing. This leads him to distort and caricature arguments (e.g. he represents Aquinas’s Third Way as being about physicality, when it’s about contingency), and fall back on anecdotes (including one in which he wastes everyone’s time at a seminar because he doesn’t understand the ontological argument) to pad out his superficial and simplistic discussions. It’s more embarrassing than convincing.

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