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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Mark Vernon questions Richard Dawkins’ state of self-delusion.

There is, I think, one good thing about The God Delusion. Read as a catalogue of religious excess and abuse and pulling no punches, it serves a purpose. Too often today, religionists of various persuasions get away with advocating everything from a literal six days of creation to violence against gay women and men. However, any good Dawkins’ reportage might have done is massively eclipsed by a book that is ultimately as blinkered, biased and, yes, deluded as the targets of his ire.

It can be said that he commits all seven of the deadly sins – and it is right to call them deadly. Originally these sins were to be feared because perpetrators risked being separated eternally from the source of all truth. In the same way, this book appears to separate Dawkins from the scientific approach he has at other times so brilliantly espoused.

1. Lust. Dawkins has an excessive love of polemic that swamps the more subtle affections required for a serious appreciation of the nuances of truth. Consider a couple of examples. First, he insists that everyone is either for him or against him – even when people have expressly said they are neither theists nor atheists but somewhere in between.

Take no lesser figure than Charles Darwin. He called himself an agnostic, aware that while the theory of evolution challenged the theology of Creation, evolution did not itself provide grounds for abandoning belief in God. In fact, as the last sentences of the Origin of Species suggest, with their talk of the “grandeur in this view of life,” it could provide a whole new approach to the Creator.

Dawkins will have none of that. He conveniently forgets how Darwin described himself, focussing instead on the rhetorically more promising, because probably false, rumours of Darwin’s deathbed conversion. Similarly, Einstein, another agnostic, is recruited to Dawkins’ cause; as is Bertrand Russell, who called himself an “atheistically inclined” agnostic; and Thomas Henry Huxley – the man who invented the word agnostic, not to express a state of indecision, but as a deliberate rebuke to those who present their beliefs, scientific or religious, as facts.

Dawkins’ lust for polemic has other effects. It is no surprise that he rails against Creationism, for example. And Creationism is nuts. But if you speak to people who believe literally in the six days of Genesis, they do so in part because they fear the moral nihilism they see as implicit in a Dawkins-style Darwinism. Dawkins’ approach is pretty nihilistic because he insists on the meaning-lite doctrine of ‘science as salvation’, as Mary Midgley put it. He will never win the Creationists over. Rather, he is likely to confirm them in their belief.

2. Gluttony. Dawkins is guilty of an excessive consumption of Enlightenment rhetoric. He is like the philosopher who mistakes Kant’s ‘Dare to think!’ as an endorsement of the view that Reason can reason everything out. The successes of science are taken as the supreme proof of this fantasy. What this view ignores is that for Kant, daring to think also meant daring to understand the limits of reason and science – as his Critiques sought to map out. Rather than grappling with the possibility that there are areas of experience on which reason and experiment can throw no or little light, Dawkins marches blindly behind a banner calling blithely for more and more scientific, atheistic light.

No more embarrassingly does this rationalist ideology reveal itself than in his defence of Stalin’s atheism against the extreme evil Stalin inflicted on his fellows. Stalin’s brand of ‘enlightened’ communism was inspired by Marx’ dialectical materialism, which was expressly scientific and atheistic. And as John Cornwell has written: “Marxist-Leninism, it is well known, provided a powerful impetus for murderous purges of political dissidents and religious believers alike. Under Stalin, Russia saw the devastating implementation of sociobiological principles based on Lamarck — the inheritance of acquired characteristics — legitimising strategies of enforced collectivisation and ruinous systems of agricultural production.” (The Sunday Times, 24th December 2006.)

Similarly, Dawkins blames Nazi horrors on a supposed latent religiousness in Hitler rather than on any non-theistic ideological convictions. Again, as Cornwell points out, the truth of the matter is that Hitler played fast and loose with religiosity, against religion. Hitler revealed his hand when he said: “The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble. When understanding of the universe has become widespread... then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity.” (from Hitler’s Table Talk by Norman Cameron, p.336.)

Incidentally, Dawkins’ chapter on these two tyrants ends by quoting the philosopher Sam Harris in glowing terms. What is less often cited from Harris’ book The End of Faith is his contemplation of the possibility of nuking Muslims, which though it would kill millions of innocents, might be the only option ‘we’ have, in the face of the threat ‘they’ represent to us, apparently.

3. Greed. Greed, or avarice, is different from gluttony: it is to put the desire for money and material things above the desire for God. So, allowing a pun on terms, Dawkins’ sin here is to opt for a materialist understanding of the world to the exclusion of the metaphysical: in other words, he is thoroughly materialistic. This has two consequences. First, it reduces all intellectual enquiry to that which falls within the domain of natural science – effectively ejecting all non-scientific approaches in literature, history, philosophy and theology. (Theology is picked out for special ridicule, mocked as “not a subject at all”.) Metaphysics – or matters of being, truth, wisdom and principles, as Aristotle described it – doesn’t exist in Dawkins’ world.

Except that it does, of course; here is the second consequence of his materialism. He actually imports a neo-Darwinian metaphysic as the normative explanation of everything, from ethics to art. This means taking evolutionism to extremes, even by evolutionist standards. Conversely, by (explicitly) rejecting metaphysics, Dawkins has no way of establishing or assessing the objective status of his science beyond mere assertion.

4. Sloth. It appears that Dawkins simply cannot be bothered to tackle the best arguments of those he opposes. So while The God Delusion spares no efforts in honing its rhetoric, it is actually intellectually slothful. That Dawkins picks the easy targets and paints religion’s more sophisticated apologists with the same colours has been a common criticism from other reviews this book has received. Let me quote just two. First Keith Ward in Third Way: “This is like talking of chemistry in terms of phlogiston and bodily humours, and mocking it for its crudity.” Second Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books: “[Dawkins is like] someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds.”

5. Wrath. Why did Dawkins write this book? He says it is to “raise consciousness” about the virtues of the atheistic way of life. For too long non-believers have been cowed into silence, while believers have their minds “hijacked by religion.” It’s hard to resist the thought that if you replace the word ‘religion’ with ‘science’ in this quote, then Dawkins could be writing about himself. Intolerance drives him. He is entitled to his opinion, of course. But the book appears to be motivated not so much by truth as by wrath.

Take his argument that moderate religion provides cover for extreme religion, namely suicide-bombing fundamentalists. This is as ridiculous as claiming that evolution excuses eugenics. Similarly, he equates religious belief with unquestioning submission to authority – forgetting Anselm’s exploration-spirited formula about “faith seeking understanding.”

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, a new venture mentioned in the preface and launched last autumn, compounds the sense that he has been overcome by a zealotry at odds with the values to which he otherwise aspires. For example, the Foundation wants to raise consciousness of the ‘immorality’ of ‘branding’ young children with the religion of their parents. But doesn’t this encourage the kind of social engineering which would force the clumsy hand of government between parents and their children? This alone says a lot about the illiberality behind Dawkin’s proselytising brand of atheism.

6. Envy. Dawkins has maths-envy, in the sense that he wishes everything could be as certain as 1+1=2. In this spirit he engages in a series of attacks against attempts to prove God, and he launches a counterattack which aims to demonstrate the high improbability of ‘the God Hypothesis’ – the postulate that a divinity designed the universe.

Thomas Aquinas rehearses several arguments for the existence of God, although if you turn to the Summa it is remarkable how little space he alloted for defending what has subsequently become such a pivotal issue in the battle between science and religion. It is as if Aquinas knew they weren’t that important. Why? Because God ain’t really the sort of thing that can be proved at all – for the very good reason that God ain’t a thing in the natural object sense.

Imagine a thought experiment, Aquinas suggests, in which you add up all the things in the universe and reach the number N. Then you remember that you believe in God, and so revise the figure to N+1. This would be wrong. Whatever God might be, God is not a thing in the universe. This is the main function of Aquinas’ ‘proofs’: to be a reminder that God is ultimately beyond human comprehension, let alone proof. Thus God is not amenable to probability calculus either.

A better way of proceeding is in terms of the plausibility of God, though that can’t deliver mathematical certainties. Then again, Dawkins should have reread his Bertrand Russell before indulging his maths-envy. This is a man who spent the first half of his life trying to see whether something could be known for sure – in pure mathematics, if nowhere else. Russell concluded: “One of the most painful circumstances of recent advances in science is that each one of them makes us know less than we thought we did.” (from the essay ‘What Is The Soul?’, 1928.)

7. Pride. When Huxley explained what it meant to be an agnostic, he wrote: “In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This is important because it expresses intellectual humility. With respect to science, this humility acknowledges that when it comes to the big questions in life, what science has established “amounts at present to very little” – Huxley’s words – compared to the wisdom of, say, history and literature. With respect to religion, it acknowledges the ethical idealism of the life of faith even if not (intellectually) being able to go along with it: Huxley was theologian enough to realise that the question of God was one on which he had to remain a committed agnostic.

I think intellectual humility matters both to science and society at large. Science is reduced by a lust for empirical certainty which presents itself as the exclusive path of progress. The methods of science are astonishingly successful in certain parts of life but are of limited value in others: science can heal us but not make us whole; it can entertain us but not make us happy. To pretend science has all the answers to every question worth asking is to lose out on half of life – if the more complex, less sure half. Remember George Meredith: “What a dusty answer gets the soul... When hot for certainties in this our life.” (from ‘Modern Love’.)

Intellectual humility matters in our society because we’re at risk of suffering much from those who adopt extremes. The debate about science and religion is a particularly important focus for this since it commands popular attention and is fired by effective polemicists, of whom Dawkins is only one. However, if we let the polemicists set the turns of the debate for too long, our intellectual and political well-being is threatened. As Daniel J. Boorstin, another agnostic, put it: “It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress.” The revival of a committed, passionate, but balanced and reasonable agnosticism is crucial in our day: without it religion will become more extreme and science more frighteningly utopian.

© Mark Vernon 2007

Mark Vernon is the author of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) – www.markvernon.com

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press, 2006, pb $15.95/£8.99.

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