The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York, 2006, 406 pages
Richard Dawkins is an inspired and inspiring exponent of Darwinism. His books on evolution are rigorous and entertaining, and the frequent leftist political jabs that crop up in them, though irritating, can be overlooked as they are irrelevant to his subject and will soon become outdated in any case. Sadly, in The God Delusion, Dawkins’ leftism is more than an irritant, it trivializes the debate. He states that the purpose of the book is to ‘raise consciousness” – the arrogant phrase of the feminists. With its unworthy aim and silly model the book amounts to little more than a replacement of God and religion by the politically correct desiderata of the leftist professoriate.
This is far from Dawkins at his best. Not surprisingly, the most interesting points he makes are concerned with evolution. He contributes a Darwinian idea to the discussion of why religious belief is ubiquitous. Mankind’s impulse to religion may be explained, he suggests, in Darwinian terms as a by-product of a trait naturally selected for survival. Simply stated, faith (gullibility) is a by-product of the child’s unquestioning obedience to parental authority. “Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal leaders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival.” The by-product idea is also used by evolutionary psychologists to explain why mankind has a natural tendency to impute agency to natural phenomena (decision-making short cuts). Similarly, religious mania is a by-product of the “genetically useful tendency” to “fall in love”. Finally, he floats an interesting conjecture that consoling gods evolve from childish imaginary friends by a sort of psychological “paedomorphosis” (a retention into adulthood of childhood characteristics ). On this theory, “religions could have evolved originally by gradual postponement, over generations, of the moment in life when children gave up their [imaginary friends] – just as we slowed down, during evolution, the flattening of our foreheads and the protrusion of our jaws.’
Yet it is precisely his scientific habit of mind that leads Dawkins most widely astray. He posits the existence of a creator God as a scientific hypothesis that, as such, needs to be tested. Then by using probability he brings us to the conclusion that almost for sure there is no such thing. I do not think that treating belief in God as a scientific hypothesis actually makes the arguments against it more persuasive.
In the first place, and while accepting the impossibility in logic of proving a negative, it is possible for one to arrive at the conclusion by reason alone (what else?) that the God idea is a bad one, an irrational fantasy, an error, and that God exists nowhere outside the minds of the deluded. Secondly, it panders to the feeble argument that scientists should keep ‘an open mind’ to the supernatural. Finally, if one agrees with Popper that a theory is scientific if it is falsifiable, the God hypothesis can only be treated as a scientific idea if it is capable of being falsified. Proving probability almost to certainty does not do it. However narrow the probability of God, even a teeny tiny ‘short of zero’ space provides enough real estate for God and his angels to dance on.
Dawkins sets up a spectrum of belief in the probabilities for God’s existence, ranging believers from‘1. Strong theist. 100% probability of God, through 4.Exactly 50%. Completely impartial agnostic, to 6. Very low probability, but short of zero, de facto atheists to 7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God…’’ Dawkins puts himself at number 6, a de facto atheist, tending to 7. Why not squarely in 7? Because, he iterates, “reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist”. As a convinced level 7 atheist, I am as annoyed by this prevarication as Dawkins is by believers.
The refutation by probability is Dawkins’s own. (He proudly quotes Dan Dennett’s description of it as “unrebuttable”.) It is the same idea he used in his impressive book Climbing Mount Improbable: that natural selection, for which he uses the metaphor of a “crane”, can accomplish complexity more probably than can a creator God, for which he uses the metaphor of a “skyhook”. The complexity of a creator God would itself, he points out, demand explanation. Elegantly described as it is, I fail to see how this is the magic formulation to confound believers. Why should a believer concede either God’s complexity, or that, even if it’s granted, it must have come about by a ‘crane’ – a Darwinian process in another, pre-existing universe? If push comes to shove, the believer can set up infinite regressions of God – God’s god, God’s god’s god – and call them all God. “Turtles all the way.” God can be the cause of the Big Bang, the Big Crunch, this universe, the “multiverse”. Wherever the frontier of knowledge is, there can he locate God.
Having reduced God’s existence almost to nothing, Dawkins turns to the question of where we get morals from if not from God. I agree that we do not get them from God. But I find little merit in his arguments.
He argues that Scripture is certainly not a source of morality, and that, as a matter of fact, we do not get our morality from it. Like others among recently published atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris), Dawkins has a grand old time showing, in the words of Randolph Churchill which he quotes, that “the God of the Old Testament is a shit”. The trouble is, as his bibliography reveals, he has found out almost nothing about the history of religions. The Abraham myth, for example, is not about an evil father prepared to murder his own son, but about God’s forbidding the sacrifice. It is the founding myth of the Hebrew faith. Its rejection of human sacrifice was a giant moral leap forward for mankind.
Not only does Dawkins display his ignorance of religious and cultural history, he relies on highly dubious sources for his argument against the morality of the Old Testament. The chief authority he cites is one John Hartung, a fellow Leftist and follower of Noam Chomsky, and one of the numerous anti-Zionists who believe that the Jewish state is ‘racist’. His schtick is to show that Judaism itself, and the immorality of the blood-thirsty ancient Israelites as demonstrated in the Old Testament, prefigure the blood-thirsty modern Israelites and their treatment of Arabs in their ‘apartheid’ theocracy. A perfect give-away of Hartung’s view appears in the original essay (which Dawkins regards as ‘entertaining’) where he refers to ancient Israelites at war in ‘Canaan-cum-Palestine’! Hartung also believes, against all the evidence, that Israel deliberately attacked the USS Liberty. For Hartung, Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people are not to be credited with anything good. Even the ‘golden rule’ expressed as ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’‘ (Leviticus 19.18) is not so moral according to Hartung, because it applies only to Jewish neighbours. Hartung here relies on a line of interpretation favoured by Maimonides, but as a matter of exegetical fact, other lines of interpretation by Jewish commentators have maintained that by ‘neighbor’ is meant a non-Jew. In any case, a later verse of Leviticus (19.33) repeats the command to love a ‘stranger’ (specifically a non-Jew) as thyself. Furthermore, a commandment by the Jewish God to the Jews to ‘love’ – that is, to act righteously towards – their fellows-in-covenant is not by implication an immoral commandment simply because it excludes – if it does – those not bound by the same rules and responsibilities. Patriotism is, after all, ‘in-group’ favoritism everywhere. It is only to the politically correct of this strange era in which established norms are inverted by the politically correct such as Dawkins and Hartung, that patriotism is now a sin. They and their like-thinkers form an in-group of their own. They manifestly extend little love, or righteous dealing, to those who are outside it.
Most irritatingly, Dawkins also drags in Hartung’s reference to an experiment conducted by an Israeli professor, George Tamarin, on Israeli school children between the ages of eight and fourteen. Presented with an account of Joshua at Jericho, they were asked whether Joshua ‘acted rightly or not’ to destroy Jericho and kill all the people and animals therein. The choice of answer was A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results showed that 66 per cent chose A, 26 per cent chose C and 8 per cent chose B. Writes Dawkins: ‘the justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Presumably, the savage views they expressed were those of their parents, or the cultural group in which they were brought up. It is not unlikely [!] that Palestinian children, brought up in the same war-torn country, would offer equivalent opinions in the opposite direction.’ These experiments prove nothing more than that Israeli children are capable of an historical reading of what they all recognize as a story from the Old Testament. They were asked whether Joshua behaved rightly. Behaving ‘rightly’ within the context of a bible story means obedience to God’s command. Historically, extermination was the way of war, assimilation was wrong, other religions were impure. It says nothing about the Israeli children’s moral views, only their religious knowledge. Once taken out of the sphere of religous knowledge, the same text set in China with a Chinese general in place of Joshua, produces the right moral answer from Israeli schoolchildren – disapproval. And while Professor Tamarin is busy proving how ‘savage’ Israeli children know their bible stories, those Palestinian children are very likely, in fact certainly, every day on Hamas children’s TV, being taught moral lessons to strive for the genocide of the Jews by becoming suicide ‘martyrs’. Biblical literalism is not the basis of Israel’s legal system. On the other hand, Koranic literalism is the basis for Sharia. This obsessive need to indict Israel on every possible count, with half-truths and lies, and by applying to it standards never applied to any other nation, is part of the sickness and derangement of the Left.
Hartung states that the Bible is “a blueprint”’ of in-group morality, complete with instructions for genocide, enslavement of out-groups, and world domination. Yet, he says, the real evil of the Bible is that it’s “sold as a foundation for morality … as a guide to how people should live their lives”. So it’s the false advertising that really bothers him? Perhaps a health warning should be printed on its cover saying something along these lines: “Some of the cultural practices herein are not suitable for modern life and may, if carried out, subject the perpetrator to criminal or civil liability. With respect to genocide and enslavement, it may be advisable to attempt these in Sudan. Jehovah is not a suitable role model for American citizens. Circumcision, while proven to be beneficial in the prevention of the spread of AIDS and cervical cancer, is now widely regarded as child abuse”.
Literalist readings of the Bible, caricatures of Jehovah, and fundamentalist trumpetings, while providing good laughs (indulged in by Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and all atheists everywhere) do not establish the immorality of Scripture. Leaving aside the tedious exegeses by contemporary believers who tease out the most progressive ethics from its pages, if the Bible is read as a set of historical documents, and as an “in-group” ’ survival “blueprint”, it cannot be said to be immoral.
Dawkins extends his criticism of religion-based morality by suggesting that the fundamentalists of all faiths perform their immoral acts with a strong belief in their righteousness; and that being the case, it is not the religious who are immoral, but the religion, or religion itself. Religion as such sets up the exclusivity of the ‘in-group’, which Dawkins regards as an evil idea. That to him is what is really immoral about religion. And what is moral, therefore, in his view, is the break-down of in-groups by humanism, universalism, and a creed of universal ‘human rights’. Further, and taking the piety to ridiculous lengths, humans should not form an ‘in-group’ that excludes animals. This fashionable vapidity is Dawkins’s morality without God. And what is the source of this morality of his? Astonishingly, and disappointingly, he conjures up a djinn – the “Zeitgeist”.
This djinn, which we are told is a fact, is the gradual moral progress of “civilized” people away from “genocidal racism, xenophobia, oppression of women and minorities, homophobia, and cruelty to animals”. So, it’s a pink djinn!
Where is the Zeitgeist headed? To a “post speciesist condition in which humane treatment is meted out to all species that have the brain-power to appreciate it, a natural extension of earlier reforms like the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women”. How will the Zeitgeist spread from the civilized world to the barbaric world (so much larger )? Through conversation, editorials, radio chat shows, the Internet. (Not by a foreign policy of spreading Western values). “Most of us in the twenty-first century are bunched together and way ahead of our counterparts in the Middle Ages or in the time of Abraham”. Who is “us”? Dawkins and his friends in the ultimate in-group, leftist academia, the echo chamber of the great and the good.
He does concede that the progress of the Zeitgeist will not be smooth. “There will be local and temporary setbacks such as the United States is suffering from its government in the early 2000s.” Local and temporary setbacks, such as George W. Bush? Not Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, none of the Arabian despots, not the ayatollahs, not Ahmadinejad, none of the African tyrants, not communism, national socialism, or Islamofascism, but Dubya? “But over the longer timescale, the progressive trend is unmistakable and will continue.” Ah, this is fine cocktail-party sentiment, ever so sweetly optimistic.
However, whether he recognizes it or not – and it seems he does not – the Western “progressive” class to which Dawkins belongs is under severe threat, both from within and without. Democracy is dying with the populations that created them. Demographically and ideologically, Europe is giving way to Islam. What will happen to the Universal Court of Rights for Humans and Smart Animals when the Caliphate is reestablished?
What gives rise to the Zeitgeist? The onus, says Dawkins (echoing God-believers when asked how God came into existence) is not on him to answer. He does, however, believe that mankind has an innate morality not derived from religion. How is this innate morality shown? Dawkins cites certain scientific experiments to show that most people, even remote tribal cultures, will agree on moral outcomes when given hypothetical moral dilemmas. For example most people will choose the death of one person in certain circumstances to save five. But whatever one may think of these experiments – and whether they are about morality at all and not an assumed utilitarianism (or ‘consequentialism’), they no more establish innate goodness than other experiments show innate badness. For example, the famous Milgram experiment, replicated in various forms in many places where the Zeitgeist blows, demonstrated that most people will inflict pain and even death on another person when obeying (non-divine) authority. A certainty of innate morality is a very difficult concept to extract from any aspect of culture, including religion, since cultures are made of ‘in-group’ rules. Interestingly, the ‘civilized’ people of the Zeitgeist correlate closely with Judeo-Christian nations and cultures, the ones which have separated church and state, the former colonialists, the technological and scientific innovators, the citizens of democracies – the ones which are now losing faith the fastest. An intellectual history of tolerance and its manifestation in cultural institutions, including religious institutions, would provide a better explanation for the moral progress that Dawkins ascribes to the ‘Zeitgeist’.
With or without the djinn, why does Dawkins elevate compassion, a private decency, to the supreme progressive moral principle? Why not, say, justice (which is, by the way, the supreme moral principle of Judaism)? I suspect because he is so deep in the multiculturalist fog of the Left; the fog that blurs distinctions, moral or otherwise. The fog that invariably equates American Christian fundamentalists with the Taliban; that distorts the push and pull of First Amendment jurisprudence played out in the courts of a secular nation into a threat of an impending theocracy; that believes terrorists are “today’s equivalent of Salem’s witches and McCarthy’s Commies”. It even clouds Dawkins’ scientific judgment: he brings in Sam Harris’s nonsensical city crime statistics as proof of the American religious right’s immorality. Having correlated Republicans with religious conservatives, he looks at the crime rates of cities and finds that of ‘the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of crime, 62 per cent are in “blue” [Democrat] states, and 38 per cent are in “red” [Republican] states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities in the US, 76 per cent are in red states and 24 per cent are in blue states.’ Perhaps Dawkins is not aware of the fact that cities themselves are political jurisdictions, so one would have to count up the number of Republican and Democratic elected representatives at the city, county, state, federal and Presidential levels to establish whether the city is (majority) Republican or Democrat. If one were to do so, the picture may well emerge that most inner-cities, where most of the crime within a state is committed, are Democrat, irrespective of where the state stands politically (but again, what determines a state’s color? Presidential elections? State Governor elections?) The only way of knowing whether most felons are Christian Republicans is to ask prisoners their religion and how they vote. I would confidently wager that most are not Republicans, considering that the Democratic party is keen to enfranchise felons.
Dawkins is a good exponent of evolutionary theory, though a poor and apparently ill-informed political thinker. As a scientist he has earned his scorn for religious dogma. Scientific knowledge has displaced God as an explanation for natural phenomena and dilutes the hold of formal religion. But we might ask of this Darwinist: if belief in the supernatural is natural, if our brains have evolved to favor irrational belief, as you say they have, can the “impulse to religion” be eradicated? Will not our evolved gullibility always find other irrationalities to latch onto? Evolutionary theory seems to be telling us that as a species we are inclined to blind faith and will make religions, cults, gods, prophets, messiahs and other infallible authorities out of whatever material is to hand – global warming, for instance. Or will further evolution wholly correct the religifying predisposition? And are there not also natural selection pressures that favor an “impulse to skepticism” – for after all many of us have it? Is it rational of us to look forward to an age in which irrational belief no longer bears significantly on human action? Is evolution going the way we atheists would wish it to?
I fear not. The most atheist of the world’s populations (Europe, Japan, Russia) are not reproducing themselves. Rather than raising atheists’ consciousness, Dawkins should be telling us to “go forth and multiply”.