Controversial atheist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is intended by its author to serve as a summing-up of his views about the entire subject of religion and, ranging across topics from the arguments for and against the existence of God to today’s headlines, he leaves no stone unturned. There’s little that is genuinely new, but much that is rarely said frankly, and for that alone the book is a worthy addition to any thoughtful person’s library.
But first, an important caveat: Dawkins is a scientist — and thinks and writes like one. What he has to say is plain enough, but only rarely is it fully developed and expressed gracefully. He is intelligent and writing for an intelligent audience, and tends to leapfrog from point to point, assuming that the connections he is making are obvious. Prepare to back-up and re-read, more often than ought to be necessary, in order to figure-out how he got from A to B.
The book would have profited mightily from sharper editing.
Dawkins launches with a tedious elaboration of the varieties and degrees of agnosticism, conceding that the negative “There is no God” is not susceptible of objective proof, but likening it to “There is no teapot orbiting Mars.” He takes recourse at the last to probabilities to explain that really he’s an agnostic, but “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” It’s a fine distinction, albeit one wasted on those who fling the (not very) pejorative “atheist” at everyone who doubts even the most garish of Biblical claims.
It’s a necessary introduction, though, to what comes next: the complete, ruinous, dispositive demolition of the “Watchmaker” argument, the claim that life is so complicated that it must be the work of a superior intelligence. At last, Dawkins’ answer reduces to this:
It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.
And so much for that. He then goes on to rehearse the familiar arguments for and against a transcendent, cosmic intelligence. The treatment is brusque, though; readers just coming to those questions will do better with Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, or Robert Ingersoll’s Some Mistakes of Moses.
The remainder of the book is devoted to familiar, commonplace claims: That religion is the source of morals, and good cannot exist in the absence of a cosmic lawgiver; that religious beliefs should enjoy an exemption from the critical analysis given to, say, the claims of astrologers; and, contrarily, that religion is affirmatively harmful.
Briefly, Dawkins responds, Nah, Nah and, Usually … yes.
The best part of the book comes when he takes up the question: Why does religion survive in the face of all the human misery wrought by its, often, plainly ridiculous claims? How might an evolutionist explain that? Does religious faith confer some sort of evolutionary advantage? Dawkins is careful to say he doesn’t know, but speculates thusly: Perhaps religion exploits human characteristics naturally selected, as, for example, the common cold virus exploits the human sinus cavity.
Consider, for example, the experience of the first humans, living beside some river in Africa. The river is important to the tribe’s survival; it attracts animals useful for food, and offers transportation. It is dangerous to children, however, and so parents tell them “Stay away from the water, or a crocodile will eat you.” Those trusting children who obey their elders avoid the water and survive. Those who are not so trusting, or obedient, go to the river bank and are eaten.
Natural selection might then, early in man’s history, have favored credulousness and obedience. But the same child who unhesitatingly accepts the reality of a never-seen crocodile will almost certainly believe, too, that failing to say certain words at the appropriate time will cause an old man who lives in the sky to fling lightning bolts at the tribe. Why not? To the child, the one story is much like the other and equally plausible.
Like Sam Harris, Dawkins accepts the argument that religious “moderates” are as awful as the most knotheaded fundamentalists, reasoning that the “moderates” are merely wishy-washy and, practically speaking, run cover for the loonies. He’s wrong about that. There is a lot of territory between uncompromising belief and uncompromising unbelief, and most of the world occupies that space comfortably — a point that Dawkins fails to recognize. Indeed, most of the world has far too much sense to be concerned with the bellows of clerics when important, life-sized, actually-important questions are on the table, and it may be that, rather than natural selection, which saves religion from itself. Recall, for instance, how quickly the influence of the evangelical right went over a cliff following their grotesqueries in the Schiavo matter; when they got up to meddling in things that actually mattered, the public had no trouble deciding they were bothersome fools and best ignored.
Nor is Dawkins’ or Harris’ wish for a religion-free future likely to be realized, especially if Dawkins’ speculation about the evolutionary advantage of juvenile credulousness is accurate. The case for so wishing is easy to make and understand, however. Religious loonies — Muslims, just now — want to kill everybody who doesn’t worship as they do — and there is cheap, available technology that raises that ambition well above the level of a lunatic’s pipe-dream. And here comes a point that Westerners seem to have trouble “getting:” They really believe it and mean it. They really, really do. The threat is real.
Religion’s occasionally-lovely sentiments and wisdom, as well as its myriad, undeniable evils, are going to be part of the human experience for a long time to come. Better, then, to reform with intelligence the superstitious impulses that aren’t going to go away, by rejecting the clerics’ demand that their bellowings be accepted uncritically, and dragging the nonsense to the public square and strangling it in plain sight of the fearful. Dawkins’ book is a worthy call to arms.