Thursday, January 04, 2007

The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)

Be forewarned: Richard Dawkins does not pull punches, a fact that should be obvious to anyone looking at the title of his most recent book, The God Delusion. He has little patience for poor reasoning or wishful thinking, and, as he says early in the book, “I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.”

I’ve been a fan of his ever since I read The Blind Watchmaker, a wonderfully lucid and detailed explication of Darwinian natural selection that debunks both creationist/“intelligent design” rhetoric and the widespread misunderstandings that enable them to keep promoting their religious views as science, at least in America. (Anyone who says that evolution is “just random chance,” for example, does not really understand natural selection, and anyone who says that evolution is “just a theory” does not really understand the scientific definition of theory.)*

In Dawkins’s view, life’s complexity and variety used to provide the single most compelling reason to believe in a higher being. But Darwin showed that such a being is at best superfluous to our understanding of the universe and ourselves. The God Delusion serves as a natural extension of a book like Watchmaker: what that work did for the conflict between creationism and evolution, The God Delusion does for the broader conflict between religion and science, arguing not just that a Designer is unnecessary to explain the development of life, but that there are simply no good reasons to believe in God (or gods), and that religion is not only misguided but actively harmful to society—that it encourages the sort of blind, uncritical acceptance of received truths that supports fanaticism and intolerance.

And make no mistake: he does see religion and science as diametrically opposed. Dawkins spends a good number of pages putting to rest well-meaning notions that religion and science simply serve two different purposes, the “non-overlapping magisteria” of Stephen Jay Gould. Religion makes profoundly scientific claims about the nature of the universe (for example, whether Jesus rose from the dead is a scientific claim—it either happened or it didn’t) and tends to shun or embrace science and its methods as is convenient (if scientific evidence came to light demonstrating that Jesus did rise from the dead, it’s unlikely that religious leaders would ignore that evidence as irrelevant on the grounds that science has nothing to do with religion). And for those questions that science can’t answer, he sees no evidence that religion has any true expertise to offer, to say nothing of the impossibility of deciding which religion, exactly, is most expert.

Dawkins covers both the classic “proofs” of God’s existence and philosophical approaches like Pascal’s wager, and argues that, from a scientific point of view, God is no more likely than Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He also thoroughly dissects many other arguments in favor of the emotional or cultural usefulness of religions (which, either way, have nothing to do with whether those religions are true):

  • Don’t religions provide valuable moral guidance?
  • Doesn’t religion provide comfort and purpose to millions of people? Why would you want to deprive them of that?
  • Most religious people are perfectly nice—why can’t you leave them alone?
  • Every culture in the world has religion—isn’t it an intrinsic part of humanity?
  • Weren’t Hitler and Stalin atheists?
  • How can atheists be happy? Don’t they think life has no purpose?
  • Aren’t you just a scientific fundamentalist?
I would guess that for many, at least some of these ring true. (I’ve heard both the first and second myself, more than once, from people who aren’t especially religious themselves.) If you’re one of them, you may be interested in hearing the other side—why, for example, the link between religion and morality is nonexistent, and why Dawkins thinks that even moderate religion make a dangerous virtue of unquestioning obedience that then allows extremism to flourish.

Given how things are going so far in the twenty-first century, with a president who apparently believes God wants him in the White House, regular assaults on both science curricula and separation of church and state, and 40 percent of Americans still rejecting evolution—without even getting into the hornet's nest of religiously motivated terrorism—I’m glad to see books like Dawkins’s and Sam Harris’s on the best-seller lists. The term atheist has come to be loaded with far more negative weight than it deserves, and I would hope that they can start putting a lot of misconceptions to rest. (A recent Newsweek poll found that only 37 percent of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president. By way of comparison, homosexuals apparently fared better.) At one point Dawkins quotes Julia Sweeney’s show Letting Go of God, when, after describing how her parents learned that she had become an atheist, she says,
I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God anymore, but being an atheist was another thing altogether.
Absurd, of course—but absurdity that rings true. I doubt this book will convince very many people to abandon their faith and take up rational secularism, but with a few people here and there, it might eventually reach the levels of popularity currently enjoyed by astrology, ESP, and haunted houses.

Although I do hope the Flying Spaghetti Monster sticks around.

* The Blind Watchmaker also has some really awesome parts about bats.


Unknown said...

Flying Spaghetti Monster, eh! Would that be whole wheat spaghetti? Nice review. Hard not to see the connection between religion and war and terrorists willing to blowup themselves and anyone else within reach. Also food for thought in Harris's description of the Catholic Church as the “institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child-molesters."

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