BookReview: The God Delusion
Book by Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins’ 1974 book, the Selfish Gene is probably one of the most important science books written for the general public (I’ll be reviewing that book here later) in the second half of the 20th century. Not only did the Selfish Gene do much to explain evolutionary biology to the average reader, but it also contributed a significant new conceptual framework to neo-Darwinism, that genes program biological hosts to be selfish (meaning they privilege propagation of those genes above all other imperatives), even when being altruistic. This follows from an important observation of Darwinism: that which succeeds is that which propagates, and vice versa. Genes that are not, ultimately, selfish, will not propagate = not succeed = not propagate.
What I have read of Dawkins’ work, I have liked; and I am always happy to hear him speak (thank you podcasts). He is passionate, articulate, and convincing when he discusses evolution and science. So I was excited to read his new one, the “God Delusion.”
And starting for page 1, I was deeply disappointed. Infuriated, actually. The God Delusion is a different kind of book from the Selfish Gene, though what kind of book it was intended to be is hard to say. Whatever kind, Dawkins badly missed the mark. It’s possible that I read it unfairly, expecting it to be something it wasn’t meant to be: an exploration of the scientific/cultural reasons behind the almost-universal human belief in some kind of supernatural deity or deities. But it is not that book at all. It is many other things, and none of them particularly effective. It is a catalog of many stupid things said in the name of religion; it is a list of many bad things religious people have done; it is a sarcastic dismissal of the “religious mind” (whatever that is); it is a refutation of creationism; it is a defense of the separation of church and state; it is a book of sloppy theology; poor philosophy; shoddy psychology; and most offensive to me, given Dawkins’ bona fides, a book of lazy science.
Dawkins has an axe to grind here, and he leaves no doubt that he *hates* religion. He thinks it is childish, ignorant, dangerous, evil, contemptible, disgusting. Such beliefs are not necessarily problematic, except that his contempt for religion gets in the way of his ability to make a cogent case for whatever it was he meant to elucidate (which is not particularly clear in this muddled book).
As a leading public exponent of Darwinism he has been the target of countless attacks from religionists and creationists (many of them abusive and threatening, some of them printed in this volume). As a public and vocal atheist the target on his head is that much larger. He is frustrated with dangerous and anti-scientific movements such as Intelligent Design, and is offended by the valued place religion is given in policy-making, particularly in the USA, but elsewhere as well. He doesn’t like the way religion treats homosexuals and stem-cell research, and abortion. All of which is fine.
Indeed a book about all the bad things done in the name of Religion in the past six thousand years, or even the past six years, would be a thick tome, and anyone would marvel at the horror. But I wouldn’t have much interest in Dawkins’ account of such things – I need no convincing on that point in any case. He is an evolutionary biologist, and I wanted his views on where religion comes from, and why it is a delusion. To be fair, he occasionally provides some theories on this count (one chapter): mainly that religion is the “byproduct of childish gullibility,” that children learn to obey orders from parents (helpful for keeping them alive), and later this “gullibility” mechanism is erroneously transferred onto “God.”
Perhaps. (Though I find, as almost everywhere throughout this book, Dawkins’ use of language is unnecessarily non-neutral… “childish gullibility” is an odd way to state a useful evolutionary trait).
But here is another Darwinist theory (mine, perhaps others’) of why religion and belief in God might have persisted and spread: religion is a useful way to organize societies, to force people to obey laws, to enforce social norms, to inspire warriors and to placate the discontented. Hence, from a cultural Darwinist vantage, religious societies have historically been better at organizing themselves, hence defeating their foes, hence surviving. So there has been a “natural selection” of religious societies over non-religious. Perhaps this theory is wrong, yet Dawkins is so hostile to religion, he cannot admit that religion might serve any useful purpose at all (except to produce good music, poetry, and to console the dying). And so his theories of the delusion of God, such as they are, seem woefully incomplete as any kind of explanation for the persistence of the idea of God across almost all ages, and cultures in human history. Including our own, scientific age.
I should note here my own biases: I am a very lapsed Catholic, mostly agnostic, vaguely influenced, perhaps, by the belief in some kind of universal power, but certainly not a “personal” God, certainly not as reflected in particular religious doctrine. (In fact, I think that the idea of having a “true” religious doctrine is logically inconsistent with the Christian/Judeo/Islamic concept of an infinite God; our puny human minds are too small for such things). Curiously, Dawkins dismisses this kind of loose pantheistic belief, which he calls Einstiennian belief, after Einstein’s statement: “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” Dawkins says this sort of belief is not religious at all (hence not worth considering), and doesn’t really address it in any serious sense. Which is curious, because if God is a delusion, surely this kind of vague belief, the kind that secular, scientifically-minded people like me harbour, would be just the kind of belief that an evolutionary biologist would be interested in studying. There are easy explanations for why teen-aged Evangelicals and those who grow up in Amish towns and Madrasses believe in God … But what about us thoughtful agnostics? Dawkins explains this away with some cheap logic showing that agnostics are in fact atheists (check this video for the hilarious “logical” move in the other direction).
Because this is a book by Richard Dawkins, it does have its moments, mostly when he is doing what he does best: explaining evolution. He does far too little of that in these pages. It is not a science book, or a philosophical book; it is a political book. An effective political book should make its case coherently, objectively. Dawkins has not done that here, and should get back to his desk and work harder to write the book this ought to have been.
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