A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin (2006)





The hurrah side of The God Delusion (hereafter G-D) is the message that "you can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled." The boo side is that to achieve this you have to give up your belief in an infinitely powerful but genocidal egomaniac who is watching your every move and is especially concerned about your sex life; and many of your family and friends will disown you for doing so. Some Jews and Christians—he doesn't say much about Muslims, perhaps because there are many members of that peaceful religion who threaten to kill anyone who offends their religious sensibilities—some Jews and Christians might take offense at characterizing their deity this way, but Dawkins has the nasty habit of finding Biblical stories that support his depiction of JHWH, such as the story of Noah and the Flood and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Dawkins doesn't ignore Islam, however. He spends a few pages on the Danish cartoon fiasco and he's especially critical of the way women are treated in that religion. He ends his book with a strange analogy between the burka and the electromagnetic spectrum. But, for the most part, when Dawkins talks about God and religion, he talks about the God of the Jews and Christians.

Dawkins is as merciless as JHWH in making his case against the Bible as a model of morality. But who are you going to believe, Dawkins, who's actually read the Bible, or someone like Ronald Reagan who didn't read much more than a teleprompter but claimed that "Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face....Indeed, it is an incontrovertible fact that all the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book." I wonder what answer to what problem was solved by the story in Judges 19, one of Dawkins's examples of the cruelty and immorality of the Old Testament. In case you've forgotten, that story is about an old man who gives up his concubine to a group of men who rape her all night so they won't sodomize him. The next day he slices her up with his knife and "together with her bones, into twelve pieces ... sent her into all the coasts of Israel."* Dawkins knows the story is fiction but what kind of message is conveyed by it? He's willing to put it down to the "ubiquitous weirdness of the Bible" (p. 241).

One wonders in vain what the world would be like today if religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had not held women in such low esteem that they would not allow women to participate in the arts and sciences for most of human history. Actually, we don't wonder in vain, since in many parts of the world, nothing's changed regarding female equality over the past several thousand years and much of the oppression has been done in the name of religion.

Dawkins doesn't let up when he comes to the moral example set by Jesus in the New Testament. Many skeptics and atheists are fond of citing Luke 14:26 and Dawkins is no exception: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.* Nobody takes this literally, I would think. But the message is clear: You must detach yourself from the people and things you love in this world if you are to be a disciple of Jesus. Even the most benign interpretation of this passage can't twist it to reflect the kind of family values that many modern Christians claim their religion supports. Dawkins doesn't make too much of it, but this passage, along with several others in the canonical gospels, indicates that Jesus taught that the end of the world was at hand. He was wrong.

Jesus also outdid JHWH in threatening eternal suffering to those who didn't accept his teachings. The God of the Old Testament punished his idolatrous, unfaithful chosen people in this life and he promised them land and a kingdom in this life, but Jesus promised eternal life or eternal damnation in the afterlife. Was this Pascal's wager in its rawest form? Or was it just another false dichotomy in a large bag of con man tricks? Whatever it was, it raised fears like no other threat before it. Even Zarathushtra offered eventual redemption to those in Hell. Not Jesus. The only ticket to Hell was one-way and you get a ticket if you don't accept him as your Lord. Bertrand Russell found this aspect of Jesus's character repulsive.* But at least Jesus didn't threaten little kids with eternal torments in a fiery Hell, as many modern Christians do. Dawkins makes a strong case for considering it child abuse to inculcate children with such ideas. He cites the work of Israeli psychologist George Tamarin to support his notion that uncritical teaching of Bible stories leads to children who can't think critically about things like prejudice (p. 255ff). Dawkins seems to think we have a duty to educate our children to be critical thinkers with high morals that do not include hating homosexuals, being prejudiced and despising those who don't accept our own religious views, and being frightened to death about the possibility of eternal torments for yourself and those you love if you screw up. It goes without saying that he does not approve of training young children to hate others to the point of wanting to kill them.

Part of the book is spent in presenting his reasons for not believing in God and not finding much of personal value in religion (at least not in Christianity or Judaism). A couple of chapters are devoted to speculating about the origin of religion and of morality. He makes it quite clear, despite what some of his critics have written, that he does not think religion is the root of all evil. ("I do not deny that humanity's powerful tendencies towards in-group loyalties and out-group hostilities would exist even in the absence of religion," p. 260.) He does not claim that atheists don't ever do evil. He spends some time discussing Stalin and he notes, though his critics will probably ignore it, that though Stalin was an atheist and did a great deal of evil, he didn't do it because he was an atheist or in the name of atheism. Dawkins is well aware that even if religion were to disappear from the face of the earth, there would still be evil people doing evil things. But he does seem convinced that there would be much less evil if there were no religions. That may be true, but there would probably also be much less good. I say that because many religious people devote their lives to helping others. It may be true that many of them would probably continue to do good even if their religion was taken from them, so the amount of good done might not decrease significantly. Also, there are some religions that are just as irrational as Judaism and Christianity (the only religions Dawkins addresses in detail) but which are completely nonviolent, e.g., Jainism. Jainism is also a religion which does not accept the notion of God. Dawkins doesn't distinguish God from religion sufficiently enough to recognize or examine those religions that do not have a God around which they center. Buddhism is another such religion. But, frankly, I think the discussion over the possible consequences of the end of religion is a waste of time.

I have two reasons for not being optimistic about the end of religious faith and they relate to the two ways this end could be brought about: by force or by rational persuasion. Force has been tried on a large scale by the Soviet Union and it failed. The Chinese may have wiped out the Tibetan army but they could not wipe out Tibetan Buddhism. In any case, Dawkins does not advocate using force to end religion. His appeal is to reason and science. Unfortunately, only people who have a passionate love for reason are open to his arguments. Religious faith in the forms that Dawkins finds most degrading and debilitating are just those forms that have no passion for reason. The faith that destroys minds and bodies is the one like that which led a number of fundamentalists to form The World Association of Christian Fundamentalists (WACF) in 1911. They saw—correctly I think—that liberal theology was distorting the meaning of their scriptures by interpreting them in ways that made them seem progressive. The liberals were turning false, absurd, cruel, inane, and degrading stories into 'moral truths for the modern age'. The fundamentalists insisted on the "inerrancy of the Bible," which they took to mean that there would be no diddling with the stories to make them more palatable. This insistence on the absolute truth of every word in their scriptures was not based on a rational analysis of those doctrines, whatever that might mean. It was based on an irrational faith that went so far as to insist that if science contradicted the Bible, then science was wrong. Period. No discussion. No thought. No consideration that maybe their Bible was wrong or being wrongly interpreted by them. Any scientific discovery that contradicts their understanding of scripture would be rejected. The descendents of the WACF are leaders in the Christian evangelical movement in the U.S. Many of them homeschool or send their children to "creation science" schools and send their children to colleges like Patrick Henry College, where they don't have to learn about evolution, geology, anthropology, cosmology, or any other science—at least as those sciences are taught in the real world—that contradicts their young Earth creationism. While at Patrick Henry they can work for the Bush White House and other Christian agencies as interns. They can then graduate and spread their memes. So, I ask, how is such a group going to be persuaded to see the error of their ways by appealing to reason?

The people who might be most influenced by Dawkins's book are those who are trapped in a religion because they were born into it or are surrounded by family and friends who would ostracize and reject them if they became atheists. Such a book might give them the courage to come out of the closet, especially if they discover that there are many more people like themselves, who have been intimidated by their parents, teachers, and friends, not to mention by their religious leaders who have identified them as pure evil only because they believe in one less god than they do.

For many readers, perhaps the most interesting part of Dawkins's book will be those areas where he discusses the relationship of science and religion. Dawkins is a scientist. He is also the premier science writer in the field of evolutionary biology. By that I mean that nobody writes for the general audience of non-scientists with the power, style, knowledge, and conviction like Dawkins does in the area of evolution. Thus, it would seem natural that he would engage those religious irrationalists who would do everything in their power to weaken belief in evolution only because it threatens their preconceived belief in (a) the inerrancy of the Bible and (b) the story of creation in the Bible that says (they think) God made species individually in a short time just a few thousand years ago. And indeed he does take on the creationists,  intelligent design folks, the Young Earth creationists, or whatever they might want to call themselves. But he thinks that defeating the creationists is secondary to defeating religion. Religion represents the forces of irrationality. Science represents the forces of rationality. If scientists join with moderate or liberal religious folks to defeat the creationists and save our schools for evolution, they may win the battle but lose the war. As Dawkins sees it, religion is the enemy of science. Creationism is just one aspect of one religion that is the enemy of science.

In many ways, Dawkins seems out of step as a crusader. He strikes me as a gentle man, deeply concerned about the fate of our species, a lover of truth, non-confrontational and pleasant, inquisitive, critical, and having a great sense of humor. I laughed out loud several times while reading G-D. His enemies, lacking in Christian charity or even modest decency that might move them to try to be accurate, portray him as a raving maniac, slapping religionists in the face at every opportunity. He is blunt and abrupt with religious claims and that puts some people off, but his bluntness is never gratuitous. It always has a point. And the point is always: science is what deserves our greatest respect, not irrational assent to falsehoods, absurdities, and cruelties in the name of religion. Amen to that, brother. Amen to that.

Still, most potential atheists are probably more amenable to a message that says "I don't really need religion and you may not either" (like Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God") than with a message that says "the world is being destroyed by religion and belief in god; for the sake of science and sanity, they must go extinct." My own cheery optimistic view is that belief in gods and religions will go extinct when religious fanatics reduce the world and everything in it to rubble. In the meantime, I don't need religion and you probably don't either.

Robert Todd Carroll
Nov. 19, 2006

further reading

Daniel Dennett's near-death experience


more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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