A friend asked me if I had read Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. I had not. He said he thought that I should, so I read it that evening and the next day presented this paper on it at our morning seminar.
Dawkins says that his book is an attempt to refute “the God hypothesis” and to demonstrate that it is a delusion. Is this really what he attempts? And, does he succeed in what he attempts?
What he attempts:
1. To advance the claims of his version of Darwinism
2. To refute the idea that God exists
3. To discredit religions in general other than his own Darwinian one, and American fundamentalist Christianity in particular
The book, being an evangelical polemic, is a mixture of argument and scorn. I have tried to concentrate on the argument, though it is sometimes a bit buried in the undergrowth of contempt. The quantity of insult contained in the book did give me pause, as did the haughty distain that shines through innumerable comments including, for instance, his one line dismissal of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva as “icons of haute francophonyism”. In other words, he positions himself as the authority on everything, often without a scrap of supporting evidence or analysis, and cannot resist a smart remark even if he has no time to justify it.
Overall, I thought that the argument weakened as the book progressed. I am afraid that the scathing invective tone of the book is really quite infectious and my own review of it is far from free of contemination by the same disease. I guess it is a kind of knock about fun. This in itself suggests that the book is not really a work of great seriousness, however.
At the beginning (p.32) he asserts that
“A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe... has no connection with supernatural belief.” Now, probably, most people will disagree with him on this and this perhaps illustrates two things.
Firstly what I feel to be a basic weakness of the book. His book is an example of that genre which argues a case by first asserting that the opposing case is more extreme than it is in reality and then posing as the representative of reasonableness in comparison, in other words, what is commonly called tilting at windmills. The problem with this type of argument is that it could just as easily be used the other way round. One can readily imagine a book that represents Darwinism only in its most extreme form, one that granted humans no self determination and presented us as entirely the product of natural forces over which we have no control, and then arguing that the religious outlook is, by comparison, sweet reasonableness itself. A basic principle of argument has to be that one is willing for one’s own tactic to be tried the other way around.
Secondly, he argues within a frame of meanings that predetermine the argument, but this is not a frame that most people would feel entirely happy with. The “quasi-mystical response to the universe” is precisely what many people feel is at the core of their religious sensitivity. Consequently, when he says that this is not what he is arguing against, if he meant what he says, this would readmit the vast majority of religious spirituality as it is actually found in the world. This, however, would make his book irrelevant, so he probably does not really mean what he says.
In this section he also tries to eliminate what he calls “religious non-believers” from consideration. He has no argument with them. He is thinking of people like Einstein. In fact, a great many Buddhists, especially those who follow the line of Stephen Batchelor, would fall into this category and such Buddhists might not find much in Dawkins to quibble with. I, however, am certainly a more religious Buddhist than that, so let us proceed further.
Also early on (p.35) he says that an atheist or philosophical naturalist, and he includes himself in this category, believes there is nothing beyond the natural physical world and here he himself uses the word “believes”. He does not say that an atheist knows or has proved or demonstrated that there is nothing beyond it, merely that he believes. In fact, at no point anywhere in the book does he even attempt to offer a proof that there is nothing beyond the natural world. It is apparent, therefore, that the claim to disprove God is not achieved in the book and that in reality, for Dawkins, the notion that “there is nothing beyond the natural world” is, for him, axiomatic, in the same way that the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line was axiomatic for Euclid. Now it may have seemed even more self-evident to Euclid that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line than it does to Dawkins that there is nothing beyond the natural world, but we all know that some of the greatest advances of modern thinking in cosmology have come through discarding Euclid’s axiom. This should, at the very least, make us very cautious about Dawkins argument. If his axiom is true then, of course, there is no God beyond the natural world, but this is not a proof, it is a tautology.
However, this axiom does lead Dawkins to argue against the existence of a God who is part of the natural world, simply because he himself has already excluded the possibility of one outside of it. He says, on page 70, that the existence or otherwise of God is a scientific question. As a result, the whole book is aimed at refuting something that very few theologians would claim, namely that there exists a God inside the natural world. Even then, he offers no argument that claims to disprove even this, merely circumstantial arguments suggestive of its improbability. By page 72, he reduces his aim to that of demonstrating merely the improbability of such a God and on page 74 he admits that “reason alone cannot prove that something does not exist.”
The Jewish Christian God
He has a particularly energetic polemic to launch against one particular deity, namely the Jahweh of the Old Testament... “the most unpleasant character in all fiction....” that he describes as petty, unjust, unforgiving, vindictive, bloodthirsty, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infantilist, genocidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capricious, malevolent, etc. I have nothing much to say about this as argument, other than that it is clearly selective and one sided, but one can only wonder where the energy behind this assault is coming from. It certainly does not give one the feeling that the argument that follows is going to be balanced or reasonable. It does sound very fundamentalist in style.
Monotheism and Polytheism
On page 52 he says that it is not clear why change from polytheism to monotheism should be self-evidently considered an improvement. This is a valid point. However, having made it, he should really allow it to be applied to his own argument which, after all stands or falls upon the assertion that a monist conception of the universe is superior to a dualist or pluralist one. He does not realise that at this point he is undermining his own basic axiom.
There is some kind of muddle in the book between agnosticism and atheism. On page 69 he says that where we lack evidence, agnosticism is the reasonable position. But he is clearly not agnostic. In fact, genuine agnosticism is a very difficult and disabling position to maintain. One might have no real evidence concerting one’s spouse’s fidelity, but you do not live agnostically in this respect. You might lack evidence about your boss’s financial liquidity, but you assume you are going to get paid until you receive evidence to the contrary. Most of life is lived on presumption, not on agnosticism. Dawkins, despite an extensive section on agnosticism, is no different. Dawkin’s presumption is that we live in a monistic, naturalistic universe and, having made that presumption, the rest of his book follows, but there is no evidence presented for that presumption. It could be right; it could be wrong, but he presumes it is right. He is not agnostic. The tactic of arguing for the merits of agnosticism as if that supported his thesis, therefore is illegitimate.
The Burden of Proof
By page 76 Dawkins has to resort to the strategy used by a great many people who advance an argument for which they have no conclusive evidence which is to assert that the burden of proof lies with the other party. Well, we have already shown that there are hardly any people who believe the thesis that Dawkins is trying to disprove, namely that there exists a God inside of the natural world, so there are not gong to be many takers for this challenge. That aside, however, there is not really any more reason why the burden of proof should be on one side or the other. It is by no means self-evident that we live in a monistic universe. Dawkins himself later acknowledges that children do not think we do, but have to be educated into the idea. The poet Coleridge, who was also a not inconsiderable philosopher and social commentator, wrote that in his youth he had toyed with becoming an atheist, but had not done so because try as he might he could not find any argument for the non-existence of God that seemed conclusive. Here again we have an example of the basic maxim that one can hardly rely upon a tactic of argument that, if applied the other way round, would sink your own argument.
Desirability and Truth
A point that Dawkins returns to again and again is the idea that the desirability of something does not make it true. The desirability of religion does not make it true. This, of course, is only a half valid argument. The desirability of something does not make it true in a certain way, but many things that are effectively true for humans fall into this category. It is desirable for various social reasons that I regard myself as British, but Britain is not something that could fulfil the criteria of existence that Dawkins seems to demand of God. The fact that a large number of people think that Britain exists is not sufficient. Dawkins only recognises his sort of truth. Well, fair enough for him, but most people, in practice, recognise a variety of kinds of truth, and, in practice, Dawkins himself must do so or he would have been locked up a long time ago. Many of the most important things in human life are not material and in fact do not belong to the natural world at all.
Arguments for God
In Chapter Three he sets out to demolish the common arguments advanced as reasonable proofs of the existence of God. He considers the ontological argument, the argument from beauty, the argument from experience, the argument from scripture, the argument from authority and various other lesser lines. His arguments in this section are not very strong philosophically - more a sort of brief precis or review such as would be acceptable if the case were already settled, but quite inadequate if you are the one making the case. The whole chapter is really just a gloss. We are left in no doubt what he thinks, but he deals with a couple of thousand years of European philosophy in a few pages which is really quite unconvincing and gives an impression of shallowness. In a later chapter he says, “I am not advocating some sort of narrow scientistic way of thinking” but one cannot help the impression that this is exactly what he is doing. In particular, I felt that he had not really grasped what the argument from beauty or the argument from experience are each about. The reason is clear enough. He cannot do so from within his own axiomatic position. To take the case of beauty, for instance, if the satisfaction in watching a Shakespeare play is actually entirely a matter of brain biochemistry or, alternatively, of the working out of a evolutionary mutation, then it is quite true that there is little to be said for the human spirit, but then there wouldn’t be, would there?
The Core of the Argument
Chapter 4 is billed as the core of his argument. On page 187, at the end of the chapter, he says “This chapter has contained the central argument of my book.”
Here he tries to set up a polarity between God and evolution so that he can use the argument for evolution as an argument against God. This, of course, is an attempt at rerunning the arguments of the nineteenth century. Dawkins is rather sensitive to being told that he belongs in the nineteenth century and here you can see why. Actually, as I read this chapter I felt that his argument was so weak that I came closer to being convinced of the case for a creator God than at any time since I started having doubts about it at about age 11. What comes out is that while evolution can certainly explain the emergence of complexity out of simple beginnings that, in itself, does not demonstrate that evolution is the only force at work and there are some things that evolution and science are completely stumped by: small matters like (a) what is life and how does it come about, (b) why the universe is the way it is and how it could possible come about that way, (c) what is consciousness and how can it be as it is. He enthusiastically tells us that, of course, any day now, science is going to solve all these problems. This actually seems about as improbable as anything you can imagine. Science’s inevitable triumph in these domains is only certain if you buy Dawkins’ axiom in the first place, but an axiom that leads to such improbable conclusions starts to look distinctly wobbly.
There are a number of separate arguments in this chapter. The basic one is about statistical improbability. A lot of this argument is fanciful with probabilities just pulled out of the air, as where he talks, on page 165 about the probabilities of there being planets capable of supporting life in the universe. He also demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of statistical method, but perhaps one should not hold this against him and rather concentrate on what rational arguments there are here. This is really very weak stuff. Statistics prove nothing even when you have got reliable figures and here we are in complete never never land.
Linked to the statistical ideas is an assault upon the intelligent design thesis. Dawkins clearly thinks this is the crux of the matter because he makes this Point One in his summary of the chapter. He says, the “complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe” is a challenge to the human intellect. That is true, but it represents a considerable narrowing of the target of his thesis. Design is only one of God’s functions and, as far as most practising religious are concerned, probably not the most significant. It is fair enough to argue against the “intelligent design” lobby, but this is a significant narrowing of the argument. Dawkins is in danger of becoming akin to somebody who says that he will demolish a house and then merely removes a window pane.
Then there is the argument that if God created the world, who created God. This is quite a good argument as far as it goes, but it does not go as far as Dawkins would like. Most theists think God is eternal and anyway, even if God did have his own creator, so what?
Then there are arguments advancing the merits of evolution, but again, so what? Evolution is good stuff, but it does not provide an explanation of the universe, life, or consciousness and, in any case, any modern religious is simply going to see evolution as God’s creation anyway.
By this stage I was feeling rather disappointed. I would actually have thought that a more cogent philosophical case could have been made; but even if it were, it could not, as Dawkins himself tacitly admits, ever be conclusive.
The Evolution of Religion
In Chapter five the tack of the book changes. Here Dawkins is not talking any more just about a rather particular kind of God that he (and unknown apparently to him almost everybody else) thinks does not exist; here he is talking about religion as a whole and reading between the lines this chapter comes about because he realises at some level that there is a rather tricky problem with his argument so far. To understand it, let us suspend disbelief in Dawkins and for the moment accept his position completely. Evolution is the creative force in this completely natural world. It follows that all phenomena are products of evolution and that what evolution has created is what is appropriate for survival. So what has it created? It has created a human race that almost universally practises religion. It would follow that religion is essential for human survival and anybody who tampered with it would not be doing the species a favour. Dawkins tries hard to get round this. The best he can come up with is the idea that religion must actually be a by-product of something else that genuinely is of survival value. This argument sounds particularly weak. He does not have a strong candidate for what the something might be but his best attempt at it is to suggest that there might be survival value in “slavish gullibility”. Of course, if he were right, then one would have to ask whether he himself were not an example of it, following mindlessly in the tracks of a temporarily fashionable mode of scepticism.
Chapter six brings us to the question of morality. He starts out, of course, by pointing out that religious people are not always good and can be horrible. Then, without more ado he goes on to discuss good Darwinian reasons why people might be moral. There is not a lot wrong with this other than that it implicitly reduces morality to a sophisticated form of selfishness. He also advances evidence - about the first real evidence in the book, actually, - that suggests that irreligious people make moral decisions in rather the same way as religious ones do. I’m not sure that this proves anything very relevant to his thesis since all the people in the experiment came from the same culture and the culture was one with a substantial religious history, but the fact that evidence like this is offered so rarely is a reminder that this is not in the least a scientific book. Then he goes on to the argument that people should be good for some reason other than just to please the big policeman in the sky. Well, this is fine, and here he is starting to become a theologian himself. These arguments about the true nature of morality are just the sort of thing you hear around our own Buddhist community. Dawkins wants to say, and does say, you don’t need God in order to be good, but, for me, at least, that misses the point which is that religious thinking is immensely important to humans and that includes ethical thinking and here Dawkins cannot resist engaging in it himself.
In the early part of Chapter Seven Dawkins launches fierce attacks on the Bible. He comes over as a kind of religious evangelist of another religion, piling on the rhetoric with all the fervour of a rather less intelligent Carl Barthe. Then he returns to the morality theme and even offers his own revised ten commandments. Throughout we see Dawkins playing at being a theologian. If one needed evidence of the religious nature of humankind, look no further.
Chapter 8 is called “What’s Wrong with Religion? Why be so Hostile?” - obviously a response to a frequent criticism levelled at him. With what is surely feigned innocence he says, “I seem somehow to have acquired a reputation for pugnacity towards religion.” Well, my goodness, how did that happen? He finds it distressing, apparently, that people call him a “fundamentalist atheist” - implying that he is just as bad as those he criticises, I suppose, and he claims that he is merely “passionate” (p.320) in an attempt to defend himself against this slur. He believes that he only believes things on the basis of evidence. My own sense, however, is that he is himself thoroughly religious, and has found in Darwinism a creed he feels he can proselytise for. His position taking does seem to me just as bigoted as that which he opposes and his arguments do not even seem very strong. This book is not full of evidence - it is full of rather poor philosophizing interspersed with virulent attacks upon his opponents and forays into moralizing. It would be very hard to represent this as evidence based. Chapter Nine continues in the same moralizing vein.
From page 323 on and implicitly throughout the book, he turns his attack upon what he calls absolutism. Of course, a great many religious people would share his concern and one can straight away point out that absolutism is by no means a religious monopoly. It is, rather a kind of disease that can infect any social system, religious or not.
So finally we have chapter 10. We are told that religion’s function in explaining our existence and the nature of the universe has now been “wholly superceded by science”, though in this very book he has admitted that science has no answers to any of the important questions in this regard, but we are exhorted to believe (believe, mark you) that it soon will have.
We are led to believe that religions role in exhorting us to moral goodness has been completely superceded by Dawkins himself who has given us at least two chapters explaining the whole matter- all of it presumably based on evidence that there somehow was not room in the book to include. Of course, philosophically speaking, it is not possible that such evidence exists since empiricism and values are not commensurate domains, but Dawkins tells us he never believes anything without compelling evidence so he must have somehow achieved what the whole of Western civilisation has so far failed to fathom - oh, hail the new messiah!
Apparently science can provide just as much consolation as religion to the dying, sick bereaved and so on. This section is a bit far fetched.
Finally, Dawkins realises that he has to provide something to replace religion’s role as a source of inspiration. He devotes several pages to telling us how vast the universe is using a metaphor based on a rather unfortunate and insensitive slur on the dress habits of Moslem women who look at the world through a narrow slit. Then he develops this into a commentary upon perception suggesting that we do not see the real world, but only a model of it reconstituted by our senses - an idea he could have got from Buddhist epistemology, I suppose. I think what he is trying to do here is to say that science can be really exciting and if you get excited enough about it you might not need religion any more. This is rather weak as what should be the book’s crescendo and, in any case, it can easily lead us back to the starting point which was that for many people it is exactly this magnificence of the universe that turned them to religion in the first place.
So now we reach the very last word. He writes: “I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.” So, a rather religious sounding finale to round it off. Of course, The assertion that there are no limits to human understanding is a declaration of faith that flies in the face of the evidence, but then Dawkins is a thoroughly religious type really. He just wants to be the one true prophet himself.
So much for the weakness of Dawkins arguments. His book being a populist gloss rather than deep thought has brought him much popular appeal and many highly critical reviews, most notably in New Scientist magazine. What provokes the criticism is not just his intemperate language or his incomprehension of theology exhibited while trying to be an amateur theologian himself - a bit like somebody saying “Physics is rubbish; I’ll show you what real physics is,” - no, what really upsets intelligent people is that he panders to an outdated and false popular model of what science is and so is indeed guilty of peddling a “narrow scientistic way of thinking” despite his denial. The other major problem is that the criteria of truth that he applies are asymetrical. Let us, therefore, move on to a more positive critique.
It is very interesting to me that he lets in a rather Buddhistic epistemology quite near to the end of the book. If he had let it in earlier he would have had to shape his argument in a completely different way and it would have been a different book. He allows that what we see is not what it there. In this epistemology, there is assumed to be a real world there, but what we see and experience is a “model” (his word) reconstructed by our senses and then further worked upon by our intellect and sensitivities. This, I believe, is the correct Buddhist epistemology. However, as soon as we allow that what we are dealing with, not just cognitively but experientially, are really models, the truth criterion changes. A model by definition is not the absolute truth of what is, as you might say, “out there”. The test of a model is how well it works. This is also correct philosophy of science. Science does not prove anything absolutely. Science works with whatever models seem to work until such time as they are shown not to work, and, even then, if they are shown only not to work in a restricted domain, science will go on regarding them as true in some circumstances. From an absolute point of view, almost certainly none of these models that science uses are true, but at the level of truth required by the philosophy of science or by the modelled naturalism epistemology, they are true (or true enough). Everything that the ordinary person thinks has been proved by science falls into this true enough category while being absolutely false. Now a scientist or a model-naturalism epistemologist should apply this standard consistently, not require an absolute proof from those he disagrees with and only tis standard for himself, otherwise he risks having the tables turned.
Let’s take Euclids geometry as an example. It works for all ordinary purposes. Recently it has been shown to be inadequate when dealing with things happening on an inter-galactic scale. So it has been disproved. The absolute reality out there is not like that. Does this mean that scientists no longer regard Euclidian geometry as true? No. They simply recognise that it is a model that works rather well under some circumstances and not under others.
How would Dawkins book look if he applied this scientific epistemology to the God hypothesis and was willing to look at evidence in a balanced way - taking on that while religion may have contributed to war in Afghanistan it was not the only cause and next door it has certainly contributed to there not being a similar war in Tibet, that it did end the slave trade (which, after all, is a not unreasonable or unscientific pass-time, merely an cruel and immoral one) and continued to be the strong force in the whole civil rights movement in America, that it was the major force in bringing about the amelioration of the worst iniquities of the industrial revolution - iniquities that were mostly the application of science, and so on? Would he not come to the conclusion that the God hypothesis works well in some circumstances, but fails in some others? Might he not have come to the conclusion also that some religious models work better than others? Might he not have come to agree that there is a need for enlightened religion and for evolution within religion rather than the wholesale discarding of baby and bathwater altogether? This might not satisfy some Christians and, being a temperate and sensible message might not have sold so many books, but it would satisfy Buddhists. Conversely, if he had applied the standard and style of argument that he uses against religion to a critique of science, might he not have come to the conclusion that we should abandon it altogether?
Let’s approach this from a different angle. Dawkins says that if God were to communicate with us then inasmuch as that communication had effect in the mundane world - inasmuch as God was heard - that would make God, in principle, part of the natural world and bring him within the ambit of scientific enquiry. One can see what he is getting at, I think. However, this example throws into relief the fact that there are huge areas of human life that science does not provide anything more than a reductionistic leverage on. Science would not in practice consider God’s voice because it would not be measurable, predictable or replicable. He is forgetting that science does not incorporate everything. It has its own rules of evidence and science itself is a model that only works well within certain conditions. Science, despite Dawkins prejudices, does not tell us whether we should use the bombs or not, it only tells us how to make them.
Dawkins tries to tell us that science is inspiring, but really he should then add that in his model “inspiration” is just a genetic mutation, and, if he really believed that, why would he bother? It is only because he has made a prior, non-scientific, decision that inspiration is a good thing - that it is part of his own implicit god, if you like - that he then goes on to try to convince us that his favourite model can provide it, but that model could not establish that it is a good thing in the first place. If he is going to allow such things as inspiration and consolation into his universe, and he clearly wants to, then he will find himself operating in a domain where reductionist thinking is, for everyday purposes, quite inadequate. He recognises this in his own way and calls all our “higher” life “short-cuts”. By this he means that the nuts and bolts reductionist approach is the real truth and the language of art, religion and literature is a convenient superstructure that enables us to say complex thing quickly. Well, firstly that is a very demeaning way to talk about, say, Shakespeare, but even leaving that aside, there is no real philosophical basis for choosing between two models that both work perfectly well except that in the philosophy of science there is something called Occam’s razor or the rule of parsimony which suggests that you should regard as more true the theory that provides the shortest cut. On that basis, religion is, in the domain of explaining inspiration, more true than science - and a fortiore the reductionist science of Dawkins.
Dawkins is essentially trying to assert a model of naturalistic monism. Contemporary neo-orthodox Christian theology is dualistic. These are two models. They both work. Each is strong in a particular domain. Dawkins does not like the idea that science and religion have separate domains. He wants to deny any domain to theology and not have any restriction on the bounds of science - well, he would, wouldn’t he? But, as he says, desire does not make something true. So if we discard the extremist rhetoric, what is actually the case. The actual situation is that theology and science have different models and each model comes out strong in some areas and weak in others. Science is strong on investigating molecular biology, but, despite Dawkins protests, it does not give us an inspiring reason for living. Should we no longer read Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, but confine ourselves to reading “The Selfish Gene”? Will this work well?
Is there a spiritual as well as a naturalistic domain? Is our universe dualistic or even pluralistic? In practice our existence is richer when we think so, and, if you read it carefully, Dawkins offers no stronger case for his own model than an argument that we will be richer if we think so - it is just that he is wrong on that point and that point is the only real point that he tries to make. To put it in really Dawkins language, our survival chances and likelihood of flourishing are probably higher if we discard Dawkins’ restrictions upon our imagination and allow that there may be more domains than he would let us have. The great majority of studies of the matter have shown positive correlations between religious belief and mental health. Although he tries to wiggle out of it, Dawkins book bring home to us the facts that science is a very long way away from explaining everything, yet one of the things that it does seem to suggest is that religion is part and parcel of what it is to be fully human and equipped for survival.
Many people in Britain are currently worried about religion. They look at the news and see wars in many parts of the world and they rea about terrorism and they see a link between this and religious fundamentalism. I am as concerned about this as anybody. This then leads some people to the conclusion that the world would be a better place without religion. However, when we look at the various twentieth century experiments in creating societies without religion we immediately think of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and we quickly understand why any right thinking person shrinks with horror from the prospect. Extremist secularism is even more to be feared than extremist religion. What we are all worried about is extremism whatever form it comes in. Dawkins can jump on the anti-religion band waggon if he likes, but we have to ask ourselves, in relation to the extremism problem, whether his lambasting style, biassed thinking and dogmatic presentation contribute to amelioration or exacerbation.
Even if it were the case that religion is just a kind of temporary fill-in, providing us with a makeshift reason for living and mode of ordering our life until such time as science reveals the ultimate truth, which, remember friends, it is just on the point of doing - the great revelation is just round the laboratory corner - as, we have been being assured it has been for quite a while now - even if religion is such a stop gap, I have just a hunch that it is one that might still be needed for a little while yet, and we all know that in the realm of science a “little while” can be a mere matter of a few millennia, so I wouldn’t hold your breath. So, my final word is don’t be bullied by Dawkins, think for yourself, there is more to life than chemistry and physics.