The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press, 416pp, 20
OH DEAR. IF, LIKE ME, YOU ARE A FAN OF THE Richard Dawkins of The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, The Ancestor's Tale and the rest, reading his new book could seriously damage your faith, not so much in God as in the great man himself.
Where his previous books were elegant, lucid and well-argued, The God Delusion is badly written, erratic and confusing. And - this from an intellectual who says he is determined to expose the faulty logic behind religion - there's a logical howler in the superfluous second half of the book that would make an undergraduate philosophy student blush.
Earlier this year Dawkins presented a documentary about religion on Channel 4 called The Root of All Evil. Here, in what is much more than the book of the series, he presents a kind of Bible for atheists, a "consciousness-raiser" for "atheist pride", which by his own admission is really aimed at the American market, and at fundamentalist Christians in particular. I can only assume it is this that gives rise to the hectoring tone; at times I felt as if I was being bludgeoned into accepting assertion rather than being invited to exercise reason. I can only assume, too, that it is Dawkins's focus on his putative audience that explains the absence of subtlety: creationists and advocates of intelligent design are lumped together with mainstream Christians, while deism, which has not yet been seen off by science, is dismissed with a rhetorical flourish.
The battle, he contends, is not between evolution and creationism, but between rationalism and superstition, science and religion. Those who argue otherwise he accuses of the Neville Chamberlain defence: they are appeasers all. Yet from a purely tactical point of view - as Dawkins appears to accept at one point, only to revert to his original stance - it would surely be sensible to make some allies. In geopolitics, by this measure, he would be an American neocon.
The book is not unremittingly bad. Dawkins mounts a powerful case against agnosticism, defeating the case for design in nature if not in relation to the origin of life. In a section entitled "The Poverty of Agnosticism", he distinguishes between TAP, or Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, "the legitimate fence-sitting [position] where there really is a definite answer, one way or the other, but we so far lack evidence to reach it", and the vulgarly named PAP, or Permanent Agnosticism in Principle, the belief that the question "can never be answered, no matter what new evidence might one day become available". He is right to say the existence of God is a hypothesis that can be investigated scientifically, and therefore correctly places agnosticism in the former category.
However, he then argues that this kind of agnosticism is only a respectable position if there is a 50:50 chance of God existing. Clearly, he says, the chances are far less than this. "If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefyingly improbable event would still happen on a billion planets." The odds that God created life, then, are remote. Furthermore, Dawkins argues, it is not up to sceptics to disprove God's existence - "we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything" - but up to believers to prove that he does. If TAP agnostics accept these arguments from probability and burden of proof, logically they must also be equally agnostic about the existence of, for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot.
Dawkins brushes aside claims of God's existence such as Thomas Aquinas's "proofs", the assertions of "admired religious scientists" and Pascal's Wager (better to believe than get it wrong and face damnation). In a similar vein, he disposes of challenges to evolution, such as the notions of "irreducible complexity" and the fossil gap. The phrase "irreducible complexity" was coined by the creationist Michael Behe in 1996. The argument is that natural selection cannot explain the development of, for example, the eye because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: a lens on its own is useless, just as a retina is. Therefore, there must be a teleological dimension to the development of the eye. In other words, it must have a designer. Dawkins says: "But as soon as we give these assumptions a moment's thought, we immediately see the fallacy. A cataract patient with the lens of her eye surgically removed can't see clear images without glasses, but can see enough not to bump into a tree or fall over a cliff." The fossil gap argument is that if there is a gap in our knowledge through missing parts of the fossil record, "God, by default, must fill it", which is indeed "utterly illogical".
So what is wrong with the book? For a professor for the public understanding of science, Dawkins's writing is poor, and he barely settles on countering one argument before he wanders off to address another. "I must beware of riding off on my pet steed, Tangent," he declaims, dreadfully abusing the English language, at one point. But that is precisely what he does, throughout the book.
There are greater flaws. He fails to answer the question: why, if there is no God, does four-fifths of the world's population believe in one? He suggests that religion is an evolutionary by-product. His analogy is moths, which fly into the flame because they mistake the light for that of the moon and stars, by which insects navigate. "My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being ... there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders ..." In essence, we are credulous creatures. But why is religion a special case? Until the middle of the last century, racist terminology was acceptable in public discourse. It is no longer. In large part, that is because of the atrocities wrought in its name. There have been atrocities wrought in the name of religion. But why does it persist?
Which brings me on to Dawkins's logical howler. In Chapter 6, "The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?", he rightly observes that religion is not, and cannot be, the basis of morality. That is not to say that Christianity has not contributed to ethics, but that we are moral beings first. However, in the next chapter, "The 'Good' Book and the Moral Zeitgeist", he blames religion for much of the violence in the world. So religion can be the basis of immorality but not morality. That makes no sense. It is like blaming Buckfast for anti-social behaviour, confusing proximate with ultimate causes.
Ironically, in a sense Dawkins does recognise this when he says: "But it is frequently and rightly said that wars, and feuds between religious groups or sects, are seldom actually about theological disagreements." Yet, he persists: "Religion is a label of in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta, not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not." Again, why is religion a special case? Factionalism, adolescence and other motivators, as described by social anthropologists, are much more helpful in this analysis. Take away religion, if you like, and there would be something else.
Strangely, Hitler and Stalin are adduced by Dawkins in support of his argument that religion is, as his television series put it, the root of all evil. But Stalin certainly wasn't religious and while Hitler may have paid obeisance to his Catholic upbringing, he was not a devout man.
Oh dear, oh dear.