Book Review: The God Delusion

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; A Mariner Book, New York, 2008

“I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”                                                                              Attributed to Mark Twain

The God DelusionRichard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was first published in October 2006.  According to Wikipedia, Dawkins had wanted to publish a book critical of religion for a long time, but was advised against it by his publisher.  By 2006, however, Sam Harris had already published The End of Faith, and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great would follow early in 2007.  The public was clearly receptive to their underlying theses.  The God Delusion quickly reached number four on the New York Times Hardcover Non-fiction Best Seller list, and to date has sold more than three million copies.

In his preface to the hardback edition, Dawkins defends his use of the word ‘delusion’:

The word ‘delusion’ in my title has disquieted some psychiatrists who regard it as a technical term, not to be bandied about.  Three of them wrote to me to propose a special technical term for religious delusion: ‘relusion’.  Maybe it’ll catch on.  But for now I am going to stick with ‘delusion’, and I need to justify my use of it… The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder’.  The first part captures religious faith perfectly.  As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity.  When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.’

What was Dawkins’ purpose in writing The God Delusion?  What did he hope to accomplish?  I’ll let Dawkins himself speak to that:

As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave.  Years later, when she was in her twenties, she disclosed this unhappy fact to her parents, and her mother was aghast: ‘But darling, why didn’t you come to us and tell us?’  Lalla’s reply is my text for today: ‘But I didn’t know I could.’

I didn’t know I could.

I suspect – well, I am sure – that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option.  If you are one of them, this book is for you.  [The italics are mine.]  It is intended to raise consciousness – raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one.  You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled…

He goes on to say,

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.  What presumptuous optimism!  Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design).  Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.  But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.  Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.  At the very least, I hope that nobody who reads this book will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I could.’

Nobody will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I could.’  What a modest aspiration, yet how important!  How does Dawkins go about it?  What exactly will you find if you do open this book?  In the interest of full disclosure, here is Dawkins’ own summary of what lies between its covers:

Perhaps you feel that agnosticism is a reasonable position, but that atheism is just as dogmatic as religious belief?  If so, I hope Chapter 2 will change your mind, by persuading you that ‘the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analyzed as sceptically as any other.  Perhaps you have been taught that philosophers and theologians have put forward good reasons to believe in God.  If you think that, you might enjoy Chapter 3 on ‘Arguments for God’s existence’ – the arguments turn out to be spectacularly weak.  Maybe you think it is obvious that God must exist, for how else could the world have come into being?  How else could there be life, in all its rich diversity, with every species looking uncannily as though it had been ‘designed’?  If your thoughts run along those lines, I hope you will gain enlightenment from Chapter 4 on ‘Why there almost certainly is no God’.  Far from pointing to a designer, the illusion of design in the living world is explained with far greater economy and with devastating elegance by Darwinian natural selection…

Perhaps you think there must be a god or gods because anthropologists and historians report that believers dominate every human culture.  If you find that convincing, please refer to Chapter 5, on ‘The roots of religion’, which explains why belief is so ubiquitous.  Or do you think that religious belief is necessary in order for us to have justifiable morals?  Don’t we need God, in order to be good?  Please read Chapters 6 and 7 to see why this is not so.  Do you still have a soft spot for religion as a good thing for the world, even if you yourself have lost your faith?  Chapter 8 will invite you to think about ways in which religion is not such a good thing for the world.

If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about.  The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination… The whole matter of religion and childhood is the subject of Chapter 9…

Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.

One of the things I like best about Dawkins’ writing is his precise use of language.  A good example of this appears in Chapter 1, A Deeply Religious Non-Believer:

…The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him.  One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is our better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’  Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like.  If you want to say that ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.

Another example is Dawkins’ clarification of the differences among the terms theist, deist, agnostic, and atheist.  I won’t repeat it here, but it may well help many readers understand where they, and others, stand on the subject of the existence of God.

One of the most compelling (to my mind, at any rate) passages in The God Delusion is the account of Douglas Adams’ (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) conversion to atheism.  As related by Dawkins…

In an interview, reprinted posthumously in The Salmon of Doubt, [Adams] was asked by a journalist how he became an atheist.  He began his reply by explaining how he became an agnostic, and then proceeded:

And I thought and thought and thought.  But I just didn’t have enough to go on, so I didn’t really come to any resolution.  I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place.  But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking.  Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’ books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place.  It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life.  The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it.  I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

The concept of stunning simplicity that he was talking about was, of course, nothing to do with me.  It was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser.

This account by Adams is remarkably similar to Dawkins’ account of his own abandonment of religion, as related earlier this month in an interview with Naga Munchetty on the BBC’s ‘Sunday Morning Live’:

Q: When did you stop believing in God?

A: I realized at the age of about nine that there were lots of different religions and they all couldn’t be right, but then I carried on believing in some sort of deistic God, some sort of divine creator, and that disappeared when I finally understood Darwinism and the fact that you don’t actually need any kind of designer whatsoever in order to explain the beauty, the elegance of life, and the apparent design of life.

Interested readers can watch the entire Dawkins interview here.

Whether or not you actually enjoy reading The God Delusion may depend in large measure upon the set of beliefs you bring to it.  If there are some sections, or even whole chapters, that don’t hold your interest as much as others, I’m sure Dawkins wouldn’t mind if you page through them quickly.  I’m one of those who do enjoy it.  I particularly appreciate Dawkins’ light-handed, even humorous approach to subjects which are likely to ruffle some feathers.  As I have indicated, I also appreciate his carefully nuanced language.  You won’t find any sloppy English in The God Delusion, which is usually a good indicator that you won’t find any sloppy thinking either.

Anyone who wants to debate Dawkins on these matters had better bring his A-game.  He’s been doing this a long time, has heard all the arguments before, and is well prepared to meet them.  And to anyone who may be be feeling the vague yearnings mentioned at the beginning of this review – to leave their parents’ religion – but who needs help putting their philosophical house in order, I say: Take heart; in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has done much of the heavy lifting for you.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2016 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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