The God Delusion is a no-holds-barred frontal assault on supernatural forces and specifically the “God hypothesis.” Dawkins captures the reason of Carl Sagan with the irreverence (if not the language) of George Carlin. This is an important book for the religious and non-religious alike. No future religious apology should be allowed to ignore the arguments made here.
There has been a change in recent atheism books. Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World acts as a scientific apology, a defense of Reason. Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things explores how so many people are honestly confused and misled due to our human wiring and the manipulations of others. In Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould offered a truce with NOMA (Nonoverlapping Magisteria). But Dawkins and other recent atheist authors change the tone. No longer is there respectful disagreement, NOMA, or other forms armistice. Dawkins literally equates religious education with child abuse, and suggests that society should step in to prevent it. The gloves have come off.
Why such polemic? Because, as Dawkins explains, the NOMA truce has failed. It’s failed because it wasn’t possible. To require that religion not make material (scientific) claims is to box religion out of the universe. A God that does not interfere with the universe in any detectable way isn’t a Theist God. And a God that does interfere with the universe can be studied with science, at least in principle. Dawkins doesn’t technically object to “religion” is its broadest sense; he objects to Theism, and makes this very explicit at the beginning of the book. Einsteinian religion (which is the nature of my beliefs) is acceptable to Dawkins, and he may even consider himself of this camp.
So how do Dawkins’ arguments hold up? In my opinion, Dawkins does an excellent job within his sphere of expertise: evolutionary biology. He illuminates the current hypotheses for the evolution of religion and morality. He explains how scientists do not have the full answer to this question, but this does not mean they know nothing about it or that it is beyond the powers of evolution. There are several possibilities, and scientists are researching them using science, not just guessing with answers that sound reasonable (as is common in the anti-scientific approaches of Intelligent Design/Creationism). Dawkins explain how obvious-sounding answers like group evolution do not actually work. This is the kind of stuff that D’Souza needed to have read before writing What’s So Great About Christianity, and should be mandatory reading for all religious apologists.
I believe Dawkins goes off the rails a bit when he leaves his area of expertise. Dawkins is not a philosopher, and especially not a moral philosopher, and he should stop pretending to be one. It’s not that I disagree with most of his conclusions (though I do on abortion). It’s that his reasoning isn’t very good. As I discuss in Richard Dawkins is a meanie head, his “Ultimate 747” argument is as weak as Augustine’s “first mover” argument that it’s based on. God may be extremely unlikely, but not because of his complexity. God is unlikely because there is so little evidence for him. Yahweh, as a special case of God, is even more unlikely because the hypothesis makes specific claims and they don’t check out. There is no need for philosophical mind-experiments here. We can use the same scientific rules of evidence we always use. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the evidence just isn’t there.
When Dawkins strays from metaphysical philosophy to moral philosophy, he becomes even less of an expert. As I discuss in On Abortion, his defense of till-the-minute-of-birth at-will abortion is perhaps cribbed from other thinkers, but his reasoning is weak and poorly explored. He takes none of his arguments to their reasonable conclusions, stopping them exactly at the point he was seeking. Despite his contributions in understanding how morality evolved, he seems to bring little himself to the field of moral theory.
On the other hand, I believe that Dawkins’ practical attempts to “raise consciousness” is a good direction. Atheism needs to move beyond “not theism.” Science and reason are positive ways of knowing things, not just negative ways of doubting things. Evolution is, as Dawkins says, a consciousness raiser because it shows us how incredible complexity and beauty can arise from simple physical laws. It opens our mind to new ways of thinking when we encounter other “insolvable” problems.
Dawkins’ reminds us that young children aren’t of any religion; there aren’t “Christian children” or “Muslim children” anymore than there are “Republican children” or “Democratic children.” There are instead “children of Christian or Muslim parents.” This raises our consciousness not just about the proper treatment of children, but the proper meaning of religion. While there is always danger of excessive “political correctness” in these issues, finding words that help us break old paradigms is a valuable thing. Feminism, as a previous “consciousness raiser” that Dawkins cites, may have led to certain excesses of oversensitivity. But perhaps that oversensitivity was needed to change our patterns of thinking. In a world where women are common in the board room, perhaps it will be OK again to call her “chairman,” rather than “chairperson,” but by then it may seem silly to do so. Dawkins hopes to create a similar flinching awareness around the words “Christian child” or “Hindu child.” He may be onto something.
The God Delusion has its flaws. It may not even be Dawkins’ best book. But it is an important book, and a book I believe people on both sides of this escalating “culture war” should read and respond to.
Note: I “read” The God Delusion as an unabridged audio book available through Audible.com, read by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward. Hearing it in the author’s voice is valuable here, and Ms. Ward provides an excellent “other voice” that reduces the monotony and allows for interesting dialog. The two of them often take the opposing voices in quotations or rhetorical arguments, and it works to good effect. I highly recommend the audio book, though I also like to have a paper copy on my shelf for reference.