(10 December 07)
Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (Bantam Press 2006)
A review by Peter Bore.
(Reviewed December 2007)
“This sounds terrific- right up until you give it a moment’s thought”
The God Delusion (55)
I should make clear from the outset that my view is that there are many qualities attributed to god and my experience of the world indicates that most of these attributes do indeed exist. The one attribute of god for which I can find no compelling evidence and no convincing argument, is his existence. This is based only slightly on the lack of scientific evidence for god’s existence. The major reason is that I see no need for god. Thus I chose not to believe he exists but I cannot say that those who do see a need for god are wrong in choosing to believe that he does exist.
I have read several of Dawkins’ books on biology and enjoyed them though I noted with some irritation the sprinkling of unnecessary and distracting anti-religious sentiments they contain. Thus, though I had high hopes of The God Delusion, I perhaps should have been alerted to its problems. With regard to religion this book is a waste of trees. From the perspective of science it is much worse than that. However it appears that Dawkins reads the Guardian and does not like George Bush and Tony Blair so there are some mitigating factors.
From the standpoint of religion (not a good word because its meaning varies with the user) the book is superfluous for the following reasons.
1. Dawkins insists that he is talking only of a supernatural god. It has been demonstrated in Don Cupitt’s everyday language series that by the words they use, people are increasingly giving up on the idea of god. Empirically, a recent survey In the Guardian indicates that in Britain only a third of the population claims to be religious. Acknowledging the linguistic difficulties associated with the word religion it seems likely that considerably less that a third will believe in a supernatural god. Those who do are unlikely to read, let alone be influenced by, this book.
Given that belief in a supernatural god has been on the decline for 200 hundred years, Dawkins is staging a battle between 20th century science and 18th century Christianity. To confine religious talk to supernatural gods is like confining biology to the ideas that predated Darwin. Would Dawkins be happy discussing biology with evolution an exclude topic?
2. As Stephen Jay Gould indicated, (page 55) once you have defined god as supernatural, scientific arguments against the existence of god are inevitably inconclusive because the un-supernatural tools of science cannot disprove a supernatural phenomenon. Nor do you have a rational basis for placing limits on god’s power. Science can assert that it sees no evidence of god but it may be looking in the wrong place and /or with the wrong tools. At best, the evidence is lightweight.
3. Most, if not all, of the valid criticism of the wrongs that have been associated with religion, are already well known.
From the standpoint of science the book is bad. The standards and ethos of science have not been upheld in this book and if anything is damaged by the book, it will be the reputation of science and/or Richard Dawkins. A fundamental characteristic of a scientific mind is that it recognises the limits of its knowledge and understanding and it is never dogmatic as it tries to probe beyond those boundaries.
Inappropriateness and Confusion
Given that un-supernatural science can say little if anything that is conclusive about the existence of a supernatural god, I would suggest that it is a fundamental misuse of science to try to use it, to the extent that Dawkins does, in order to disprove the existence of god.
The language of science should be clear and unambiguous with terms being defined when necessary. However it is not always clear what Dawkins is talking about and thus inconsistencies arise. Dawkins does not define religion. If by religion he only means belief in a supernatural god then the whole book is very narrow indeed. This seems to be the way he does defines it on page 19 and on page 20 he is quite clear that by god he means supernatural god. However he acknowledges in several places that there are some, perhaps many, people who hold office in the churches who do not believe in a supernatural god. It therefore follows that we cannot assume that because someone describes themselves as Sunni or Shia or Catholic or Protestant or Christian or Muslim they necessarily believe in a supernatural god and therefore we cannot ascribe their actions as resulting from a belief in a supernatural god and we cannot assume that their actions have a religious basis unless we define religion as something other than belief in a supernatural god, If we accept that religion is belief in a supernatural god then we cannot label a conflict between a Catholic who may not believe in a supernatural god and a Protestant who may not believe in a supernatural god as religious which it what Dawkins does on page 21. In doing this Dawkins introduces, perhaps not deliberately, the confusion he condemns on page 19.
“People of faith” (page 292) is an unacceptably imprecise term. Faith in what? I know people who certainly have faith but who do not believe in god.
Bias using perjorative language
Science is a rational disciplined examination and interpretation of fact including an examination of the degree of reliability of the facts in question. Difference in views should be explored by reasoned argument not by resort to denigration and pejoratives. In this book those who support Dawkins arguments are ‘celebrated’ or ‘respected.’ Those who do not may get the neutral ‘well-known’, but may be ‘over-publicised’ or “odious.” Dawkins accuses Jesse Helms of sneering (Page 290) by using the sentence “The New York Times and the Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals” but Dawkins himself states, “these islands have long been infested with missionaries’.(page 204)
There is further evidence of his sneering on Page 17 “Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.” Dawkins offers no justification for this assessment.
Bias in selecting and/or interpreting facts
Another characteristic of science is that it recognises and tries to avoid bias by presenting evidence as objectively and impartially as is humanly possible. This book is littered with examples of fact being selected or interpreted to support Dawkins assertions with little or no acknowledgement of contrary data or other possible interpretations.
Dawkins rightly laments the treatment of Alan Turing (Page 289)but does not tell us that Turing was prosecuted by the secular English law, not by the church. He refers to the Catholic Church abducting children (Page 311) but does not mention for example Australia’s “stolen generation’ which resulted from the action of a secular government.
He asserts that people of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they would like to be true (Page 108). This is a human characteristic. It afflicts all groups including scientists.
Page 238. He complains about selective reading of the multi-authored bible and people choosing what information to accept. Is this fundamentally different to reading the literature before starting a scientific research project and deciding what information is relevant and what is credible etc?
Page 43. The first of many references to the bad (see chapter 8) that religion has done (or was done in its name). The good that religion might have done (eg the founding of universities, hospitals and charities) is almost totally ignored.
Page 53. Bias. Dawkins asserts that the burden of proof lies with those who claim that something exists. To be even handed the burden of proof lies with those who make an assertion either way. One can reasonably claim to not believe in the existence of god without having to furnish proof but that is different to asserting that there is no god.
Pages 137 and 143. The spontaneous origin of life is ‘very very improbable’ but it happened. The existence of god is ’very improbable indeed’ so we can ‘dismiss’ it
Page 34 ‘theology……has not moved on in 18 centuries’ Untrue. Has he never heard of Nietche, Fuerback, Matthew Arnold, Cuppitt and Geering. Unless of course he is defining religion as only that part of the broader category of religion which continues to believe in the supernatural and therefore its definition includes the characteristic of not having moved. The sentence would then state the obvious - that the fixed belief in a supernatural god has not moved on in 18 centuries. Not exactly an earth shattering revelation.
Page 272. ‘Stalin’s atheism is not necessarily the cause of his having done bad things.’ True but I do not sense that such even-handedness is accorded in the book to Christians or Muslims who do bad things
Page 229. Dawkins claims, probably correctly, that humanism may increase morality and implies that since humanism is often associated with atheism, this would support his suspicion that there are few atheists in prison.
Christianity is also strongly associated with humanism; its ethos is essentially humanist. But the possibility that it may have any beneficial effect on Christians morals is not considered. Of course Christians are likely to describe their humanism as a Christian ethos whereas atheists will simply call it humanism. However for many atheists of today their humanism probably had its origins in the humanist Christian ethos in which they were brought up. Where is the difference?
Page 249. ‘I do not believe that there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca …….’ Unsubstantiated personal opinion and almost certainly there is an atheist somewhere who would - particularly for the right price.
Pages142 143. Man can deduce the values for the six fundamental constants but the possibility of a supernatural god being capable of calculating them ‘is very improbable indeed’. Irrational.
Page 229. “Few atheists in prisons” Without defining atheist and prison the argument goes nowhere. In some countries you may go to prison if you are an atheist and in others, if you are not.
Page 36. Dawkins Is prepared to attack something he has never heard of. Where is the scientist?
Page 163 ‘Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant’ Compared with what? Sport, politics, the cinema. Consider for example the issue of preventing theft and murder. Currently we use a complex system of laws, policing, courts and prisons. They require a lot of social organization and it costs a small fortune to create the laws, police them, and run the judicial and prison systems. To persuade the population that there is a man in the sky who sees their every move and will ultimately punish them for any misdemeanours was a very simple and inexpensive way of enforcing the rules and was, arguably, just as effective as anything we do today. Thus it is probable that one of the reasons for religion coming into being was to define and control man’s relationships with other men. This is not an unreasonable objective. It is just what our present day legal system is intended to do.
Page 270. Changes in social consciousness ‘certainly have not come from religion” Many came from people of religious persuasion some who cited religious ethos as their inspiration. We may question the basis of their action but we cannot dismiss this out of hand as Dawkins does.
Page 175. Dawkins does not believe that a squad of soldiers would walk into the path of a train because their instructor failed to tell them to stop but a military aerobatic team followed their leader and flew into the ground a few years ago. The ethos of the military is that you do what you are told to do regardless of the risks.
Page 228. Is it reasonable or scientific to assume that a majority of people in Montreal believed in god in 1969? Moreover what percentage of the population took to crime that evening? Were they all religious or all atheists. The Montreal story is irrelevant without more information yet Dawkins tells the story as if it has meaning beyond his own un-informed prediction. And this from a man who cannot get excited about personal opinion –not even his own. (page108)
Speaking of suicide bombers Dawkins, on page 303, states that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness,’ yet on page 306 he himself acknowledges the unreasonableness of this statement in saying that other factors, such as patriotism, can have that same effect.
Page 20. Quote from Douglas Adams ‘not allowed to say these things’. This is nonsense. People have been criticising other people’s religions for centuries and on some occasions have even gone to war over it.
Page 271/272 “It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way. For my purposes it is enough that, as a matter of observed fact it does move and it is not driven by religion’ Again if you are defining religion here to mean something that has not moved then the statement is probably true, even self-evident, since an unchanging religion is unlikely to produce change outside of itself. If religion is being used in anything other than that extremely limited way then the statement “it is not driven by religion” is inconsistent with para 2 page 271.
Chapter 7. He chronicles how so many attitudes have changed but wishes to judge religion by the fixed values of several hundred years ago.
There are a number of issues that have a significant bearing on Dawkins thesis that have not been alluded to. Their acknowledgement might have led to a less strident denunciation of religion and all that is associated with it.
The idea of a supernatural god was once a good idea in that it was a model that both explained the unexplainable to the satisfaction of the people of the time and also allowed the introduction of a moral code. It was a model as is Quantum theory and evolution both of which are currently the best models we have but both may undergo some modification and may be superseded by some better model at some future date. Interestingly both creationism and belief in a supernatural god have both declined by an order of magnitude over the last 100 or so years (there will of course be a considerable overlap in the populations which believe in each of these concepts) However one might reasonably take the view that for both of these concepts to have declined so rapidly represents good progress for humanity since this decline from almost 100% acceptance to something in the order of 10 % acceptance has taken place in about one percent of the time that humans have believed in supernatural gods and creation.
Judgment must relate to circumstance. Even Hitler is accorded some mitigation in that he was not quite so bad when judged by the standards of 60 years ago than he is when judged by the standards of today. Criticism of belief in a supernatural god must be made in the context of what science could offer at the time that belief in a supernatural god was the norm. In other words it must be judged in the context of science before Darwin when even the scientists had no better explanation than creation. Even Dawkins acknowledges that the spontaneous evolution of life is highly improbable and thus without the evidence which Darwin uncovered would not unreasonably have been dismissed. But Darwin wrote only one and a half centuries ago.
Ascribing origins to actions
It would be easy to assume that the Iraq war was a religious war. At one level Sunnis and Shias, (names of Islamic religious groups) fight with each other, perhaps about religion but more probably because both fear political and social persecution by the other if it becomes the dominant force. At another level Muslims (ie Iraqis – though not necessarily the same thing)) fight with George Bush who invokes a Christian god as supporting his cause when in fact many take the view that the war is about getting rid of an occupying force on the one hand and oil, self-aggrandisement and the transfer on taxpayer’s money to the American oil and arms industries on the other. Simplistic labels may be very misleading.
There is a need to separate the ethos of religion from what is done in the name of religion. Much of what is now being done in the name of Islam, or what western politicians are claiming is being done by Islam, is no more Islamic than the Spanish Inquisition was Christian. To fabricate evidence to justify an illegal war is not a Christian act nor is it democratic, but it now appears that it was indeed done (along with other unchristian and undemocratic acts like detention without trial, torture and arbitrary execution) by three political leaders who all profess a Christian ethos, and who all became leaders via democratically based electoral processes. But there are few, if any, commentators who attribute responsibility for these transgressions to Christianity or democracy. They blame George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard not the Christianity or democracy that these three politicians variously claim to be acting in the name of, or in defence of. To judge “Christainity” on the basis of what people who claim to be Christians (or who simply live in the West) do, without defining whether a Christian is someone who merely professes to be a Christian or someone who lives out a Christian ethos does not cast much light on the matter.
Roots of morality
Ethical dilemmas only arise when there are conflicting loyalties to different people or different ethical principles. Arguments about the origins and justification for ethics and the absolute/relative debate are intellectually challenging. Religion as a convenient way of asserting the desired practical outcomes of ethical thinking was an effective tool in its day. It probably still is for those who do not have the ability, the education or the life-experiences to think through these issues for themselves.
Man, in a sense, is an affront to the selfish gene notion in that his survival is now linked to his forming social groups. His evolutionary predecessors had little in the way of offensive or defensive equipment. They were only modestly equipped with weapons like teeth and claws. They had no defensive armour or camouflage. They did not have exceptional skills as runners, swimmers or flyers. But they could climb higher into trees than their predators. When man adopted the bipedal gait and started using his upper limbs for tasks such as carrying tools and weapons he gave away his principal defence. However he did develop language. The ability to communicate is the ability to co-operate with others and it is this quality which enables him to hunt in groups, to create armies and manufacture machines be they offensive, defensive and purely industrial. These attributes have given humans their dominant place in the world. However living in a group requires trust in the other group members. Ideally this trust is generated because the desire to cooperate, and not take advantage of other members of the group, is innate, but it may also be created by a system of values, laws and punishments. Whether this trust in the group is genetic or is simply taught from generation to generation is not crucial. The outcome is that the survival of homo sapiens is now firmly linked to the attributes of social groups as much as to the attributes of the individual. This brings about a paradox in that if it is group survival rather than individual survival that is important then the individual is expendable ( we have armies to fight and die for the group) yet if trust in the group is important we must try to care for each individual (we have hospitals to care even for those who can no longer make an active contribution to the group).
Of course there is a steady stream of individuals who do not have the gene or have not accepted the teaching about trust in groups and who therefore seek to exploit the group for their own ends. Whilst they may be only a small group they could do great damage and thus a system of control within the group is essential (without of course unreasonably infringing the liberties of the remainder of the group). In the days before police forces, judiciaries and prisons were socially or economically feasible. religion, an old man in the sky who saw your every move and who would ultimately punish you for your misdeeds, was not a bad idea. It was certainly cheaper that the current system and was, in its day, probably just as effective.
The evidence which I see from my own experience is that human behaviour is complex, often unpredictable and frequently difficult to understand. Science does not provide all of the answers though some day it might. Until then the stories and ideas which are derived from religion and spirituality (and many other things such as music, love, novels, happiness and despair) give us some insights into the human condition. The issues are abstract and difficult to communicate but they help to fill in some of the gaps. They are not necessarily the definitive solution but for the moment they are the best we have. Models of the galaxy once promoted circular orbits for planets and models of peptic ulceration promoted physiological hyperacidity. Both we now know were wrong but both were useful at the time.
Writing of models on pages 363 364 Dawkins acknowledges ‘Our imagination is not yet tooled up to penetrate the neighbourhood of the quantum.’ Perhaps it is not yet tooled up for penetrating the depths of spirituality either.
Why was this book written?
This book is not an objective assessment of religion. It is simply an attempt to select and interpret evidence and opinion with the object of discrediting religion in general and a belief in a supernatural god in particular. Why does Dawkins think this is necessary when belief in a supernatural god is declining so rapidly. Was it done for the money since one might presume that Dawkins’ literary reputation will ensure that any book will sell? Was it a hoax to see how many people will accept scientific nonsense if it come from the pen of a member of the scientific establishment? Is he practising for a job as George Bush’s speechwriter? Whilst these may be interesting hypotheses there is little in the way of evidence to support them. What clues are there?
1. Dawkins denies that he is a fundamentalist by the method of defining fundamentalism as always being derived from “holy books’. (Page 282) This definition might be tenable if you believe that there is a god who authorised these books. But, if you do not believe in god then all holy books are the creation of man and any book can be deemed a holy book. The definition falls apart.
Fundamentalism is alive and well both inside and outside religion. The fundamentalist creed may be based on reasons or rationalisations which can be political, economic or just pure prejudice. It is characterised frequently by a need to control but always by a certainty of one’s own rightness. People who shoot gynaecologists who terminate pregnancies may do it in the name of Christianity but there is nothing about the act that embraces a Christian ethos. They are in fact people who are so convinced that they know the truth that they have a right, or even a duty, to force it down the throats of others. There are thus distinct similarities between them and Dawkins though it must be acknowledged that Dawkins forces his truths downs our throats with a pen not a gun. Not that one should underestimate the potential impact of words. It is quite possible that Hitler himself killed no one in World War II but his words ultimately resulted in the deaths of millions.
I have a friend who is a member of an atheist society. He refers to a subset of that society as ‘Fundamentalist Atheists’ because they are so inflexibly sure of their own views that they stay away when there is a speaker who might claim that religion might, at some time or in some circumstances, have had some use.
Thus I am not convinced by Dawkins’ arguments that he is not a fundamentalist.
2. I do not believe in an old man with a beard in the sky. On the basis of that statement Dawkins claims (Page 36.) to know my real thoughts about god and declares them ‘silly’ This is an extraordinary claim. Usually it is god who has been attributed with the ability to read our thoughts. Moreover, as I stated at the outset, my conceptualisation of a supernatural god is probably very close to Dawkins (i.e. god does not exist)
3. On pages 143, 144 and 146. Dawkins extols the consciousness raising effect of studying evolution. There are a few other things that might raise consciousness, things which are not the exclusive territory of biologists. One might think that physicists studying cosmology would have their consciousness raised considerably by their contemplations of the orgins, the infiniteness and the possible end of the universe. But no, they need to study evolution. As an anatomist and a surgeon evolution has been a very useful tool in explaining human anatomy but my consciousness has been raised by many other things such as treating sick people, dealing with death, music, books, fear and responsibility. Why are biologists who study evolution so special?
Dawkins tell us that psychiatrists objected to the word delusion in the title. They have a point. In everyday language delusion usually implies not just being wrong but being obstinately wrong on issues that few, if any, would support. Psychiatrists formalise this by including in their definition the qualification that the wrong belief should by incongruous with the social milieu of the subject. On that score belief in god is not yet delusional though it may soon become so.
I wonder, does Dawkins think that biologists are the new gods? Are they jealous that people have other gods? That would make the title very appropriate. Belief in god may not be a delusion but to believe that you are god certainly qualifies.