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Richard Dawkins


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Richard Dawkins has written much against religion in the past, so it is no surprise that he has now produced a full-length book on the subject. Its avowed aim is to persuade believers and even agnostics to change their minds and become frank atheists. It is concerned exclusively with the "Abrahamic" religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, but especially Christianity. It is, of course, a polemical work, and this is stated at the outset. "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." This is probably something of an under-statement. The book will doubtless offend some readers, but, like everything else that Dawkins writes, it scores highly for readability, verve and wit.

There are ten chapters. The first four consider the case for God and seek to show why it is invalid; the remaining six look at various aspects of religion in the context of God's non-existence. One might say that the first part of the book is concerned with "pure" religion, the second with "applied" religion.

Dawkins treats the existence of God as a scientific question. Significantly, his second chapter is called "The God Hypothesis". The existence of God is "a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analysed as sceptically as any other." This reminds me of the way physicists once approached the question of the luminiferous ether: something amenable to testing by observation or experiment.

Claims that God communicates with human beings, Dawkins says, are certainly testable empirically. He has no patience with those, such as the late Stephen J.Gould, who say that science and religion occupy different realms or "magisteria" and are not in competition with each other. For Dawkins, they emphatically are. He acknowledges that the existence of God can never be finally disproved, but he finds it to be so overwhelmingly unlikely that for all practical purposes it can be discounted.

Theologians, of course, don't accept this evidence-based way of looking at the matter, as Dawkins discovered when he took part, somewhat against his better judgement, in a conference organized by the Templeton Foundation. There were objections to his approach to the subject. "Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific, and it is one of these other ways of knowing that must be deployed to know God." I think we touch on the crux of the matter at this point. Religious believers do say this, but it is not an argument that Dawkins accepts. There can be no meeting of minds here.

Chapter 4, "Why there almost certainly is no God", contains Dawkins's central argument and his main conclusions are tabulated at the end. One might have expected to find a lot about the problem of evil at this point, but it gets only a passing mention. This is because the presence of evil in the world argues only against the existence of a good God, but Dawkins wishes to discount all possible views of God, including the idea that he stands aloof from his creation and is not directly responsible for what happens (a "deistic" as opposed to a "theistic" God).

Arguments for a deistic type of God centre on the question of design. In earlier times it was the striking appearance of design in animals and plants that attracted most attention. Since Darwin, we have known that the presence of complexity in the biological realm no longer requires a Designer to explain it. The same is not (yet) true of physics and cosmology. If the "settings" of some of the laws and constants of physics were only slightly different from what they are, the universe would have developed quite differently and life would have been impossible. There is no obvious explanation for this state of affairs. To some, this implies there must be a God who set things up just so.

Various ways round this impasse have been suggested by physicists who want to avoid the God hypothesis, but all of them demand rather sweeping and ad hoc assumptions. Dawkins does not despair of the possibility that a naturalistic explanation for the settings will be found, but in the meantime he advances an argument which he thinks makes the God hypothesis useless as an explanation.

In outline, he says that because the universe is very complex, any Designer would have to be equally complex. But this merely shifts the problem back a stage. If God is complex, how did his complexity arise? Who made God? Alternatively, if you say that God was just there, with all his complexity, why not say that the universe was just there? Why bring God into it? This concludes his review of the arguments for God's existence.

In the chapters that follow, Dawkins considers other matters, including the charge often levelled against him, that he is unnecessarily hostile to religion. His case here has been made easier in recent years by the appearance of ever-increasing numbers of zealots prepared to commit mass murder in the name of religion, confident that, if they blow themselve up along with their victims, they will be immediately translated to paradise. The dangers of religious absolutism get a chapter to themselves.

The fact that religion in one form or another seems to be pretty well universal in all human societies continues to puzzle those who treat it as a natural phenomenon. Dawkins considers various possible explanations though he is not confident that we yet have a fully satisfactory theory. As one would expect, he thinks that the roots of religion must lie in evolution. He suggests that it would have been advantageous for children to accept their parents' statements about the natural world as authoritative and that this acceptance could have become attached to other statements about the invisible world of religion. While this may explain how religion is transmitted, however, it does not seem to explain why such strange beliefs should have arisen in the first place.

Dawkins is well known for his suggestion that cultural transmission could be thought of as partly based on memes, by analogy with genes. Memes duly make their appearance here, though they do not form a major part of the discussion. I was glad to see that he notes a resemblance between the evolution of religion and that of language, something that has long interested me, although he does not take the idea very far.

Two chapters look at religion in relation to morality. There is a good discussion of how changes in our collective consciousness or "zeitgeist" influence our ideas of what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The Old Testament, in particular, contains numerous instances of behaviour that almost everyone today would regard as morally repugnant, but which were apparently endorsed or even ordered by God. Such things are quietly ignored by those who claim to base their morality on the Bible. Dawkins's demolition of Biblical fundamentalism here seems to be pretty unanswerable.

Perhaps the part of the book that will most outrage many adherents of religion is Dawkins's claim that to bring a child up in a particular belief system is literally a form of child abuse, which can have worse long-term effects than some kinds of sexual abuse. He is referring here to "extreme" religious indoctrination, such as inculcating a terror of hell into young children. But he regards even milder forms of indoctrination as illegitimate, and he is predictably appalled by Mr Blair's support for faith schools, especially those that teach Creationism. He thanks his own parents for teaching him not so much what to think as how to think.

If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, [children] grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movement of the planets rules their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure.
Even Dawkins, however, regrets the present widespread ignorance of the Bible as a literary source, and he thinks there is a place for teaching comparative religion in schools.

This book is an eloquent account of religion as seen from the standpoint of science by an atheist. Whether it will persuade many theists to change their minds, I rather doubt. As another scientific critic of religion, Taner Edis, has said:

It is scientific thinking, not religion, which is profoundly unnatural for us; no matter how science progresses, most of us will be most comfortable explaining the world through the actions of personal agents. … For most people, learning to go without a God is a costly undertaking for no clear benefit. [The Ghost in the Universe]
Religion is consoling for many people because it gives meaning to their lives. It is hard to live without it, and even Dawkins can feel something of the force of this. His Oxford college, New College, was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, who intended it to serve "as a great chantry to make intercession for the repose of his soul." There were supposed to be ten chaplains, three clerks and sixteen choristers, who were to be kept in place even if there were no longer funds enough for anything else. Today there is just one chaplain (and a female one at that), and the erstwhile "torrent of prayers for Wykeham's soul" has dwindled to a paltry two prayers a year. Dawkins admits to a certain feeling of guilt about this neglect, in which New College is not alone.
Hundreds of mediaeval benefactors died trusting that their heirs, well paid to do so, would pray for them in purgatory. I can't help wondering what proportion of Europe's mediaeval treasures of art and architecture started out as down-payments on eternity, in trusts now betrayed.
Not to mention the music of Bach and Dante's Inferno, both inspired by religion and dependent on it, at least in part, for their full meaning. May it be that human beings cannot live without religion and perhaps cannot live with it either?

19 October 2006

%T The God Delusion
%A Dawkins, Richard
%I Bantam Press
%C London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 0593055489
%P 406 pp
%K religion

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