National Sections of the L5I:

The God Delusion: An ultimately crude and one-sided atheism

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Review of 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins. Written by Marcus Halaby

To many readers, the name of Richard Dawkins will need little introduction. This prominent British biologist has become notorious, both for his strident attacks on creationism and on religious belief in general, and for the near-vitriolic abuse to which he has been subjected for his arguments by US fundamentalist Christians in particular. In "The God Delusion" he seeks to advance the case that the existence or non  existence of God is a scientific hypothesis, one that can be tested empirically and theoretically by the methods of science. It is significant that he made the decision to write this book after "four years of Bush" a period that has seen a rise in influence for the fundamentalist Christian lobby in US politics, and the parallel rise of fundamentalist Muslim movements in the semi-colonial world. The latter, of course, is largely in response to the unrestrained wars of aggression launched by a US government cheered on by the very same Christian right.

Dawkins begins by trying to define the "God hypothesis" that he wishes to refute. He is not concerned with the religious belief held by respected scientists like Einstein, for whom God makes no intervention into human affairs, nor has any interest in being worshipped. He argues this is hardly a God at all and, rather, his beef is with the personal God who is the creator of the universe  a supernatural and superhuman being that exists outside of his creation and who is worthy of worship. The form that this God commonly takes is what he calls, "the Abrahamic God in all his nastiness"; the Jewish and Muslim God, or his "insipid Christian counterpart, 'gentle Jesus meek and mild'." However, he goes father, examining polytheistic as well as monotheistic religions, he makes the point (p. 57) that he is "not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented."

He anticipates the argument that he shows insufficient sensitivity to the beliefs of others, and sets the tone for the rest of the book; by arguing that the "respect" demanded by religious believers for their belief is undeserved. He rightly points to the privileges enjoyed by conscientious objectors to military service when their objection is based on belief rather than secular politics. But Dawkins goes further than this, rejecting the use of what he calls, "euphemisms", to describe wholly "religious" factions engaged in civil war, and he points to Bosnia and Northern Ireland as examples. He reiterates this point when he mentions the controversy over the Danish cartoon depictions of Prophet Mohammad  once again seeing this as a purely religious (and therefore reactionary backlash). Religion is, for Dawkins, the determining, and reactionary factor in each of these conflicts; the possibility of them having non-religious causes is dismissed out of hand.America is a key target of Dawkin's polemic. He tries to give a measure of how far it has moved backwards, by pointing out that the American Founding Fathers tended to be committed secularists; whatever their own views on religion, and that many of them were, indeed, deists, agnostics and atheists themselves. He then proceeds to attack "the poverty of agnosticism". He makes the distinction between what he calls "temporary agnosticism in practice" (whose temporary character is that of a scientific hypothesis awaiting validation through empirical evidence, and which he regards as effectively atheistic in practice), and "permanent agnosticism in principle" (which he regards as an evasion of the scientific method through flawed ontological premises).

Having defined his subject and his intended purpose, he deals with the various arguments for God's existence, of which the most famous (in the Western world) are Thomas Aquinas' "five proofs" (an a posteriori argument crucial to the Catholic and Protestant traditions), and the ontological and other a priori arguments such as those of Saint Anselm. This is the part of the book that has come in for the most criticism from "moderate" Christians, arguing, plausibly, that Dawkins demonstrates little interest in or knowledge of the relevant philosophical debates. Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that he is so unable to take the arguments of religious believers seriously that he feels no real need to give them a serious response. However, one need not be an expert in philosophy or ontology to understand that Dawkins is correct and these arguments generally rely upon sleights of hand in their logic, or on the smuggling in of unjustified assumptions. The first three of Aquinas' proofs, for example (the idea of God as the "First Cause" of all things), relies on the unappealing quality of the idea of an infinite regression of cause and effect, and arbitrarily brings it to an end by an ultimate cause which is called God. Even if one follows this argument, it is difficult to see why this God should have any of the other attributes given to him (superhuman, supernatural, concerned with sin and transgression, etc). More to the point, all of these "proofs" base themselves solely on mere thought, and take little or no evidence for their conclusions from the material world.The arguments from the beauty of the natural world, or from profound or traumatic "personal experience" he similarly dismisses as being too subjective (relying on illusion and hallucination) and insufficiently scientific. The arguments from scripture, on the other hand, suffer from the manifold contradictions within the scriptures (and between the scriptures and recorded history)  a fact that most modern Bible scholars now concede. Continuing the rest of this chapter in a chatty and informal style, Dawkins jokingly points out that "Pascal's wager"  the idea that the risk of eternal damnation makes belief a sensible proposition, no matter how long the odds on God's existence actually are  is really an argument for feigning belief, something that is hardly likely to convince an omniscient God in any case.Dawkins then moves on to territory that is more familiar to him, and uses Darwin's theory of evolution to deal with the argument from design, in order to prove "why there almost certainly is no God". His argument, essentially, is that Darwinian natural selection, far from positing random chance as the likely creator of apparently irreducible complexity in the natural world, shows that small improbable events (in the course of biological evolution) can accumulate to produce results (complex organisms) whose existence would be much more unlikely had they simply come into existence fully-formed. Or, to put it another way, Darwinian natural selection reduces apparently irreducible complexities by introducing the power of accumulation.In contrast, any argument in favour of creation by design raises the question of who designed the designer, a being who must surely be more complex (and therefore even more improbable) than the most improbable life forms whose creation his existence is meant to explain. He argues that creationism essentially consists of the "worship of gaps" (in our scientific understanding), placing God in those spaces that science has not yet filled with plausible hypotheses supported by empirical evidence, and effectively telling scientists to refrain from filling those spaces in our human knowledge. By contrast, the scientific outlook revels in the discovery of gaps, not as faits accomplis requiring no further enquiry, but as spurs to research.In Chapter 8 ("What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?") Dawkins attempts a defense of his fierce hostility to religion by pointing out how fundamentalist religion subverts science and its achievements, as well as the other achievements of capitalist modernity. A perennial theme throughout his book is that religion is not necessary for moral behaviour, and indeed, often distorts it into its opposite. For example, he discusses the way that religious faith persecutes homosexuality and other forms of consensual sexual behaviour, and the way that religious arguments about the sanctity of human life have been used to justify the murder of pro-abortion doctors in the US.From these quite sensible propositions, Dawkins then massively overstretches his argument. He argues that moderation in religion fosters fanaticism, in that, without a heaven and a hell to believe in, extremist fanatics would be unable to commit atrocities such as 9/11, or the London bus and tube bombings of 7 July 2005. Here, as with his previous comments on Bosnia and Northern Ireland, he is quick to attribute a religious cause (existing at the level of an individual person's belief, or the lack of it) to deal with events that have much wider, non-religious, roots.He ends the book by presenting a hypothesis that religion exists as the evolutionary remnant of ideas that arose to fill gaps in humanity's understanding and self confidence, explaining, exhorting, consoling and inspiring in much the same way that the phenomenon of the childhood "imaginary friend" does. He presents his own, secular humanist world-view as an alternative, showing that the achievements of science, constantly pushing against the limits of human understanding, are much more capable of providing consolation and inspiration than religion is. He insists, that the discovery that there are no limits to this understanding may be the best and most inspiring discovery that we can make.

In insisting that all science is tacitly, if not overtly atheistic in its basic assumptions, and offering a rigorous defence of the scientific revolution and modernity, there is much in Dawkins' work that is useful. But, sadly, these are seriously negated by his tendency to see the world through what is ultimately a crude and one-sided atheism. It is in Chapters 5 to 7 ("The Roots of Religion", "The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?" and "The Good Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist") that we can step away from cheering on Dawkins' belligerence in the face of obscurantism, and witness first-hand the limitations of his outlook. Applying the ideas of Darwinian natural selection again, this time to religion itself, he tries to identify the "direct advantages of religion" that have allowed religious ideas to survive and reproduce.

Unfortunately, most of the hypothetical mechanisms he posits for this Darwinian imperative are psychological ones and exist, yet again, at the level of individual belief, or at most at the level of the survival and reproduction of groups of individuals sharing the same beliefs. It is notable that he refers to Karl Marx only once  in a later section dealing with the claim that atheism inspired the behaviour of such amoral monsters as Hitler and Stalin. He refers, indirectly, to Marx's famous dictum that religion is the "opium of the people" (describing it as the claim that "religion is a tool used by the ruling class to subjugate the underclass"), only to dismiss it almost as a conspiracy theory, unable to explain "why people are vulnerable to the charms of religion and therefore open to exploitation by priests, politicians and kings".

Realising that his hypothetical mechanisms are themselves also insufficient to explain this, he is forced to fall back on the idea that religion might be a by-product of the imperative towards group survival and social cohesion by primitive societies, and that humans are psychologically primed for religion by evolutionary impulses that have other purposes. Asking the rhetorical question "Does our moral sense have a Darwinian origin?" he tries to argue morality can and does exist independently of religious belief, rather than scripture, and that in any case, it is a good thing that those who claim to get their morals from scripture do not really do so in practice.

In a very bold fashion, Dawkins proceeds to take us through a tour of the cruel, vindictive and misogynistic morality offered by a literal reading of the Old Testament, before showing that the New Testament is little better. He uses the moral abhorrence he encourages the reader to hold of such values, to show there is, or at least should be, a universal morality. That is, a "changing moral zeitgeist" evolving progressively in a more rational and tolerant direction with the advance of scientific knowledge and modernist social and technical achievement. This moral zeitgeist might be summarized in talk show host Jerry Springer's catchphrase "be good to yourselves, and each other". Dawkins insists we should not judge the individual behaviour of others, except in so far as it is harmful or where they are also being judgmental. He concurs with Salman Rushdie that there is only one major obstacle blocking (and occasionally reversing) this relentless march of Progress  a problem that goes by the name "God".This, then, is Dawkins' world-view, in all its belligerent scientificity, and its liberal limitations. It is nothing more than the world-view of the old-fashioned, nineteenth century Victorian empiricist liberal rationalist  and in this regard, is curiously English in its preoccupations. Or, if one throws in Darwinian natural selection (a highly dialectical concept when not used mechanically as a type of panacea), it resembles the idealist dialectic of Hegel, with science and atheism replacing the Prussian absolute monarchy as the embodiment of Hegel's "Absolute Idea". By contrast, Marx's critique of religion  for whom religion is not just "the opium of the people" but also the "heart of a heartless world"  is much more rounded than the near-conspiracy theory that Dawkins presents it as. Presented in its most developed form by Frederick Engels in his "Origins of the Family, Private Property and State", Marxism places the development of religious ideas in the context of the development of the social organism  its material and social development, and in particular, the development of social classes with irreconcilable interests, and the struggle between then to which this gives rise.

By this view, religions develop and survive because they reflect, in however distorted a form, the standpoint and interests of a real material force in society  a social class, defined by its relationship to property and to other social classes. Or, often enough, they reflect the standpoint and interests of more than one such social class. They necessarily do so in a distorted form. This is partly because all ideas produced by and held by the dominant classes in society must seek to obscure the exploitative nature of their domination, and also because a religion that is embraced by millions from all classes of society must try to appeal to and to reconcile these irreconcilable interests.

This can sometimes have inconvenient short-term results for the dominant classes for whom a particular religion otherwise expresses their overall and long-term interest. For example, with the ideas found in all major religions denouncing tyranny and injustice, promoting charity, and glorifying the poor and oppressed. One might well observe the current rise of political Islam, the 1979 Iranian revolution and the "social message" of movements like Hamas and Hizballah in this context. One should add for good measure that, precisely because all religions obscure the material forces at work in society in favour of the non-material notions of "good" and "evil", that no religious movement of the oppressed has ever proved capable of resolving the problems of exploitation that gave rise to it in the first place.

On occasion, however, such ideas might serve as an inspiration for the oppressed classes; by turning generally-accepted notions originating from religion against their historic beneficiaries in the dominant class, and putting them to their own purpose, changing the class content of these ideas in the process, and sometimes leading to the emergence of new religions out of old ones. It should therefore not surprise us that the great religious schisms of history have generally coincided with the rise and fall of particular social classes. To take one example (well-known in the Marxist tradition), and to present it schematically, one might say that Protestantism developed as the movement of rebellion of a rising bourgeois class against a Catholic church that represented the interests of the old feudal nobility, in a society in which the Catholic church was both the biggest landowner and the primary source of legitimacy.

Even the moral zeitgeist of which Dawkins speaks so highly can be analysed according to this method. The failure of the Protestant Reformation to remake European Christendom in a bourgeois mould (except, in a limited way, in Britain, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia), plus the almost complete identification between the Catholic church and the rulers of sixteenth century Europe's super-power, the French absolutist monarchy, meant that the next great wave of bourgeois rebellion had to take the ideological form of an attack on religion, bringing into being the ideas of secularism, atheism, agnosticism, deism and so forth in the modern form that Dawkins discusses at the beginning of his book. The Catholic church, for its part, survived both the Reformation and the great French revolution of 1789 by adapting itself to that part of the new ruling class, the bourgeoisie, that feared future revolutionary upheavals, and later on by appealing to the frustrations of those oppressed classes for whom capitalist modernity meant a worsening, rather than an improvement, of their social condition.

There is not a word of this in Dawkins' book  nor any similar analysis of the origin and evolution of the other great religious (Islam, Hinduism and so forth). His moral zeitgeist is capable of mocking the evident absurdities of the religious ideas of the great unwashed masses, and the cynicism with which religious and secular elites make use of these ideas. It is unable, however, to explain the source of the great contradiction with which he tries to grapple  that the achievements of capitalist modernity conflict with the ideas of religion in all sorts of ways, but at the same time reproduce religious belief like smallpox. To do so, one would have to denounce those other absurdities, perhaps less evident to those less directly affected by them, of a society in which we all have to bow down to the blind gods of profit-making and the market, by contrast with whom the nastiest, most vindictive and irrational god of any revealed religion must look positively benign.