By Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin (September 18, 2006)
I didn’t intend to write a review on Dawkins’ book for religion is without doubt one of – if not the – most discussed topics of today’s human culture, and given that the book is two years old already I am sure some thousand people have already said what there is to say. However, since we have on this blog repeatedly touched the issue of unquestioned belief and its troublesome relation to knowledge discovery (and Phil and Rae Ann encouraged me to), I thought the book would make for a good opportunity to discuss some questions regarding science and religion. I am offline while writing this, and I didn't read anybody else’s review, so apologies in case I’m repetitive.
The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins’ book is a passionate argument against religious believes. In ten chapters, he presents the most commonly raised points in favor of religion, for the existence of a God, and in favor of tolerating both, for then to meticulously debunk them and expose their fallacies. His writing style is very clear while being entertaining, though he gets occasionally somewhat polemic. In many cases he anticipates objections a believer would raise and deals with them right away, which makes it very easy to follow his line of thought. The book tells that Dawkins has plenty of experience with arguing about this topic, and he draws from a huge reservoir of anecdotes. His main message is that atheists should voice their opinions more openly, not back up, and not quietly tolerate religion for it can be harmful.
Dawkins’ starts with explaining in the first two chapters in which way he refers to God: A “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” He refers to the existence of such as the “God Hypothesis”. His central argument against the God Hypothesis it is that a God with these abilities necessarily must be more complex than anything it allegedly created, therefore its own existence is enormously improbably, not to mention implausible: It begs the question who created God. This then turns the argument God is in some way a ‘simple’ explanation ad absurdum. Unsurprisingly for the time the book was written, Dawkins spends some time in defeating Creationists’ arguments, pointing out with a multitude of examples that the claims for Creationism stem in all instances from a lacking understanding of how Natural Selection results in complexity: by small gradual changes for which we have plenty of evidence.
Dawkins also makes a brief excursion into fundamental physics, asking for the origin of our universe and the laws of physics. He seems to regard the anthropic principle as a plausible explanation for why our universe is the way it is, but even more he seems to like Lee Smolin’s idea of Cosmological Natural Selection which goes very well with Dawkins’ affection for Natural Natural Selection. (See here for my Thoughts on the Anthropic Principle, and here for some comments on CNS.)
A recurring theme in the book is the evidence that higher education goes along with an increase of atheism, signaling the conflict of reason with unquestioned acceptance of inconsistent belief systems. He presents several survey results from different countries to make the point, and in the first chapters he also works with quotations of many well-known scientists. Though the circle of people I know is hardly representative, this confirms my personal impression. Dawkins’ argues that science and religion is mutually incompatible for the heart of science is examining the evidence and building understanding from it, whereas the main virtue of religion is believing without any evidence.
Dawkins spends a chapter on the plausible roots of religion, suggesting that the susceptibility of the human mind for religion is a by-effect of our brain’s evolution. Most notably he points out the vulnerability of children’s minds to indoctrination, a side-effect of evolutionary advantageous trust in adult’s knowledge, that allows religios ideas to be reproduced and passed on over the generations:
“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. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile infested waters. But, to say the least, 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, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But […] it can go wrong.”
He also comments on the idea that religious traditions and convictions that our brains are most receptive for survive as memes in our civilizations. That addresses the survival of religious cults. As far as their origin is concerned, he suggests that the human mind has a predispostion to assign intentions to inanimate objects and to create explanatory narratives.
In chapter seven he dissects the Bible to demonstrate how inconsistent it is and how cruel its stories are, rendering it an unsuitable source to derive ones morals from. In chapter eight, he argues that religion is a global source of political conflict and cause of suffering. In chapter nine he explains in which sense religion is a cause also of personal suffering for many religions ensure loyalty by threatening with punishment in the case of acting against its rules, which can result in psychological trauma.
He ends with marveling at the enrichment to ones’ life when one understands part of how the world works, a step of insight that only science can provide, whereas religious believes demand the suppression of our curiosity and humans’ natural desire to understand.
Richard Dawkins spends some time addressing the argument that religions offer comfort and inspiration, making the case that both come at the price of suppressing the own mind’s curiosity and shutting off its questions. What he does not address at all however is the sociological role that many churches play in our cultures.
Leaving aside the fact that churches have something to do with religions, they are basically large groups that offer its members a sense of belonging and acceptance. They offer a place to turn to in case of trouble, and they have traditions that strengthen the feeling of being part of something. If you move into a new country and don’t know anybody, you look for the next church with the right symbol on its door and find a community where you know the rules of the game. In most countries, major churches play a vital role for the social system, they take care of the sick and the poor, they offer advice and counseling, not to mention places to meet likeminded people. Dawkins does not comment on this beneficial sociological side at all which I find very disappointing.
Some years ago I was at a physics conference and was sharing a table with nine other people, from several European countries, and from North and South America. I can’t quite recall how the topic came up but upon try it turned out all of us knew the Pater Noster by heart, though everybody in his native language and though most of us were not attending church. It found it astonishing to realize we shared this common knowledge though it had nothing to do with the reason of us meeting in the first place.
And that brings me to why, in its current form, religion will continue to dominate over science. Because scientists don’t have traditions, because science is all about competition and not about belonging, because you are not accepted simply by declaring your willingness of being part, because we don’t take care of our group members, because we offer no advice in hard times and no guidance for those in trouble. Because the scientific enterprise as it is today does not take care of these most human needs. And as long as we don’t make the scientific enterprise a more welcoming place, people will continue instead to turn to religion for comfort and a place of belonging.
Maybe, and only maybe, the Web2.0 is a step into the right direction. One of the roles that blogs play is without doubt one of mutual support, advice, and counseling.
Another point I found disappointing about Dawkins’ book is that his elaborations for the biggest part focuses on the Bible. I would have thought for a book on religion, he should have made more effort to present contradictions or murky moral values from other world religions as well.
I entirely agree with Dawkins’ assessment that the main reason why religions survive is that parents and preachers indoctrinate children. If you have grown up being told there is a God who watches over you, it is hard to part with it later in life. It is not coincidentally in most cases people carry on with the religion of their families, it is hardly a conscious choice of a grown-up. Whether or not somebody thinks God should play a role in his or her life is a personal decision, but it should be up for them when they are old enough to understand what they are chosing among. Dawkins however remains unfortunately very vague on how to address the problem for I see no way it will ever be possible or even desirable to dictate parents how to raise their kids. The only way I can see a change could happen is what he refers to as “consciousness raising.” As far as I am concerned, the worst thing about religion seems to me that it is such a waste of people’s time and interferes with their ability to understand and enjoy life.
I also don't share Dawkins’ sense that religion and science is mutually incompatible. It is some aspects of religious teachings that are incompatible, for - as I said earlier - science is the very antithesis of a belief system, you'd better call it a “doubt system”. There are also many aspects of presently established religions that are outdated and incompatible with scientific knowledge today. However, since I don't think we will know just everything there is to know any time soon, believing will remain part of human culture very possibly forever. The realm of believing however changes with time, and this has been and is reason for tension. Given the success and relevance of scientific research, almost all traditional religions are presently in a pretty much indefensible position and I expect they will become mostly redundant in the soon future (except for the incorrigible fundamentalists that will remain). What we will likely see instead is the spread of religions that are up to date with scientific progress and constrain belief to where it doesn't interfere with science, possibly finding new niches that science itself has only brought into our attention.
And finally, just to give you the context from which I am writing: I am a heathen, and according to Dawkins further a “sexed up atheist”. I insist on the “sexed up”.
The book is a recommendable read and it is very well written, entertaining though somewhat polemic. “The God Delusion” is basically a handbook for the atheist. It arms the reader with arguments for the people with the leaflets who want to talk about the existence of God. If this was an Amazon review, I’d give four stars.