Bob Potter

(Investigator 113, 2007 March)

In spite of a long-standing 'family tradition' that grandparents don't receive 'Christmas presents', a daughter presented me with the latest from one of my favourite contemporary authors, Richard Dawkins.

My immediate reaction was very positive – all the right people were thanked in the "acknowledgements", Dan Dennett heading the list! After two days of careful reading of The God Delusion, my next thought was that writing a "review" for the Investigator might help me clarify my thoughts about the book.

My overall feeling is best described as ambivalence. Dawkins claims in his Preface that a key objective is to help numerous (?) individuals, already (albeit unconsciously) "atheists", to accept this simple categorization for themselves and openly 'stand up' and declare what they already decided – there is no "God".

With what he himself describes as "presumptuous optimism", Dawkins hopes "religious readers who open it [the book] will be atheists when they put it down". Although I cannot share his optimism to the same degree, I anticipate readers will, at least, understand what a "scientific approach" to religion is all about. Perhaps I am being unfair to Dawkins. I have read most of his previous published work, always with great enthusiasm as a very enjoyable "learning experience" (my knowledge of 'evolutionary genetics' being very basic); this book differs from the others in that it deals with a topic in which I am already reasonably "well read".

There is very little "new" information in The God Delusion.

From the start, Dawkins tackles, head-on, the absurd, but unfortunately widely accepted, claim that a person's religious "faith" must be sacrosanct; it cannot be challenged or ridiculed – to question it causes an inexcusable "offence".

There can be no justification of such a privilege, given exclusively to devotees of a religious "faith".

Throughout the book, Dawkins regularly cites Thomas Jefferson: "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is a mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus." [His text provides good evidence of the "irreligion" of the founding fathers of the USA – but unfortunately neglects informing the reader that the incorporation of "God belief" on to US currency etc. didn't happen until the 1950s! Nor is it clear what he is hoping to show from this discussion!]

Nevertheless following Jefferson's logic, with sharp and powerful logic Dawkins argues that, virtually by definition, "theology isn't a subject at all" in any kind of academic sense.

In many respects, The God Delusion, reminds me of an earlier masterful (and greatly under-rated, in my view) critique of God-believers, "All in the Mind: A Farewell to God", by Ludovic Kennedy (1999).

Here, perhaps, is the origin of my ambivalence – for although the detail covered by the two books differs at times, much of the ground covered is the same and I suspect the inquiring outsider might find Kennedy's style of writing makes him more approachable for the wavering "believer". There is a unity in Kennedy that is sometimes lost in Dawkins where the brilliance of some chapters, ('Why there almost certainly is no God" for example), dissipates in others which the reader is left suspecting were an effort to write and done to fill an unfortunate "gap" – "holes" are being plugged!

The God Delusion provides excellent summaries of the 'God portrayals' in the Old Testament, a particularly obnoxious personality made up of every imaginable human character failing. His orders for grand scale massacres, rapings of women and young children, together with routine pillage and ethnic destruction, are well covered (and are well known to all Bible students). There is a good, concise overview of traditional "proofs" of God's existence, highlighting on Aquinas (whom he competently summarizes and whom, presumably, nobody can possibly take seriously today (?), with reference to hundreds of later attempts by theologians.

Finally, but not always systematically, he refers to the frequent attempts of fundamentalists to claim the support of scientists – from Newton, Galileo, Kepler (even Immanuel Kant)… and more recently, Einstein and Hawking; all their views deliberately "misrepresented" by the God-worshippers.

Dawkins continues by detailing aspects of the misrepresentations of Darwin's "natural selection", turning it into a windmill more easily demolished according to fundamentalist "rules of debate". He hones in on the quotation from Darwin regarding the 'complexity of the eye' (where Darwin's subsequent paragraphs in Origin of Species, always omitted by the creationists, answer his own rhetorical question!) and spares the time for interesting documentation vis-à-vis pseudo-scientist M J Behe's (Darwin's Black Box) embarrassing performance before a court in Pennsylvania, in 2005.

As the "work" of Behe has been addressed in several articles in the Investigator, I include three of Dawkins' relevant paragraphs here, reporting on the trial summary to be found in Nature Immunology 7,2006, pp 433-5:

" … on cross examination, Prof Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that was not 'good enough'."
Behe, under cross-examination by Eric Rothschild, chief counsel for the plaintiffs, was forced to admit that he hadn't read most of those fifty-eight peer-reviewed papers. Hardly surprising, for immunology is hard work. Less forgivable is that Behe dismissed such research as 'unfruitful'. It certainly is unfruitful if your aim is to make propaganda amongst gullible laypeople and politicians, rather than to discover important truths about the real world. After listening to Behe, Rothschild eloquently summed up what every honest person in that courtroom must have felt:

  "Thankfully, there are scientists who do search for answers to the question of the origin of the immune system… It's our defence against debilitating and fatal diseases. The scientists who wrote those books and articles toil in obscurity, without book royalties or speaking engagements. Their efforts help us combat and cure serious medical conditions. By contrast, Prof Behe and the entire intelligent design movement are doing nothing to advance scientific or medical knowledge and are telling future generations of scientists, don't bother."]
  A sharp line needs be drawn between science and mysticism, Dawkins insists. By definition, the advocates of the latter cherish knowledge "gaps" – areas easily 'peopled' with ghosts (holy or otherwise), demons and other supernatural forces.

Most of us recall the notions of the 'more sober' Christian, Martin Luther, regarding the regular presence of Satan in his bedroom (only dismissed by a well-placed fart in Satan's face!); less well known are his frequent attacks upon human reason: " Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.", or "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason."

The logic of fundamentalism is rigidly opposed to science in that the final source of knowledge must be found, not in the world, but in Scripture … be it Christian, Islamic, Hindu or whatever.

For fundamentalists the "truth" is "fixed and knowable", contained within the sacred scrolls. For the scientist, however (Dawkins himself is an example) 'truths' of scientific theories, like those of 'natural selection', exist only because, to date, "nobody has thought of better ones" to explain the world as we find it.

Given Dawkin's central stance of "natural selection", how can he explain the ubiquity of religion (more specifically, the more or less 'commonly accepted' moral standards of human societies) throughout human societies? Why has it survived?

Here the book degenerates into a superficial overview of psychological/ sociological/ anthropological suggestions that have been proffered. The author's contribution is the suggestion to utilize his "meme" concept (the sociologically-based 'replicator' equivalent to the more basic "gene") coupled, at times, with his "extended phenotype" (genes may survive not for the preservation of an existent species per se, but to benefit another species in a symbiotic relationship with its own host).

We are approaching the end of The God Delusion. There is an almost 'anachronistic' discussion as to whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists … although the conclusion reached is probably accurate ("no "and "yes" respectively). Several quotations from der Führer are totally irrelevant to the discussion, merely indicating his opposition to Christianity! The section has apparently been inserted simply because of frequent letters received by the author from "true believers", arguing the crimes of these two tyrants are explainable by their "rejection of God belief".

This discussion is to fill one of the "holes" Dawkins felt needed plugging, quite separate from his general argument of his text.

Another "hole" plugged is a cursory skim over the New Testament, quite lacking the relish of the earlier exposure of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Greek texts were touched upon without any real enthusiasm.

Finally, almost as an appended afterthought, some good points are spelled out regarding the negative consequences of fundamentalist religious beliefs, translated into actions. The amazing self-sacrifice of London's suicide bombers (July 2005), where well educated, middle-class family men were happy to blow themselves up for no reward beyond the seventy-two virgins awaiting them in the next world (and Dawkins does point out the promise is based on a 'mistranslation' of a Qur'anic verse!). Clearly absurd to attempt to argue their actions were not in any way "caused" by their religious beliefs.

Dawkins attacks the fundamentalist reactionaries who persecute homosexuals – (he superbly details the obnoxious campaign that led to the suicide of Alan Turing "who made a greater contribution to defeating the Nazis than Eisenhower or Churchill") – and campaign against abortion (whilst at the same time providing support for the death penalty).

To conclude: As a piece of academic writing, The God Delusion is one of Dawkins' less impressive books. It leaves an overall impression as a bit of a "hotch-potch", thrown together from a series of notes constructed for earlier presentations, on varying topics.

For a naïve reader, beginning to question theological beliefs, it could provide useful, initial intellectual stimulants, provoking further explorations of his or her doubts. But, as said earlier, with that objective in mind, Ludovic Kennedy did a rather better job!