“As ever when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful.”
As I kicked off a second reading of Richard Dawkins’ 2006 chart-buster, I was reminded of a secondhand conversation to which I was privy at a (now-obsolete) home electronics store. A slick-haired, middle-aged man stands a few paces away, clearly fixated by the latest inventory of high-definition televisions. As a store clerk approaches the shopper remarks, “You ever wonder how it all works? I mean this is just…wow.”
The clerk, as if being tested on his knowledge of the trade, seizes the moment with avidity, launching into a monologue on the mechanics of flat panel operation. (Paraphrasing): “Well, sir, you can direct a cold cathode light source, such as a fluorescent lamp, through a light shutter made up of pixels coated with tiny precision filters and get color images that way, as in the case of an LCD monitor, or you can discharge electricity through pixels filled with a rare gas mixture and watch as color phosphors are stimulated to produce visible light. We call the second type a plasma displ-.”
The glassy-eyed patron, with all the disinterest he can muster, interrupts, “Oh I’d rather not know. Takes some of the magic out of it.”
Mystery, of course, allows the imagination to run wild. Absent a mechanistic explanation for a video monitor, a shooting star, an earthquake or, say, the appearance and evolution of life on earth, our minds latch onto those ideas we find most intuitive or comfortable, be it magic, mysticism or other notions of our own devising. Before we located better answers, we were quite content attributing weather, disaster, war, famine, constellations and star movements, migratory patterns and the rest to divine agency. For much of our early history “God” was the placeholder for human ignorance.
Fast forward to present day, and we see that the lineaments reaped by modern society (like the HDTV) were borne out of a firm unwillingness to accept these default, untested answers and an insatiate thirst for deeper understanding. It was this aggrandizing spirit of discovery through which science was born. The process of replacing supernatural causality with natural causality is one that continues to this day. As God has been pushed further and further into obscurity by the never-stagnant march of science, does that, by extension, make God a delusion? Has our wealth of knowledge elbowed God out of the cosmic arena? Richard Dawkins believes so.
To borrow his own phrase, Dawkins has been a “consciousness-raiser” for all things science, and is among the most distinguished practitioners living today. His work in gene-centric approaches to evolution and original ideas on memetic theory have spawned fresh avenues of research. Like many scientists, Dawkins’ quest to deconstruct reality has not diminished the grandeur of the cosmos but rushed in a deeper intimacy and awe. And in doing so, he believes science has drawn the curtain back far enough to declare God a giant fallacy wrapped in a cocoon of faith and religions mere vestiges of earlier ignorance.
Gods and Goddesses
In his 2006 meisterwerk The God Delusion, based on his earlier documentary The Root of All Evil?, Dawkins assumes a two-pronged approach: he seeks to demonstrate first the untruth of revealed religion and secondly its detriment to society. In consonance with other atheist literature, his thesis is that supernatural gods almost certainly do not exist and that society would be better off without the religions that have congealed around them.
Of all the “New” Atheists, Dawkins tends to attract the most flack, both from the theist camp as well as from some of his co-thinkers (Frans de Waal comes to mind). This may be connected to the fact that he is the most publicly visible, or it might simply be due to his expressing views particularly controversial to American ears. Whatever the case may be, his scientific prowess and nigh immortal ability to convey scientific concepts through rhythmic prose cannot be denied.
Those put off by his public persona may find themselves wooed into acquiescence, lost in his literary gait. However cantankerous Dawkins may seem while perched on a stage, his writing reflects a decidedly more even-handed, sometimes even glancingly humorous scientist trying sincerely to get at the truth. Sure, some of the adjectives he throws around in reference to religion may be a bit undiplomatic, but that is only to be expected given the bottomless rabbit hole of religious ruminations. Overall, I found his approach equitable and well thought out, as will be customary to anyone familiar with Dawkins’ craft.
He makes clear at the starting gate the conception of God he is challenging in this book: “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” (p. 31) This subsumes not only theistic ideas of God but deistic versions as well. As the chapters unfold, he frequently narrows in on the Abrahamic triumvirate of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
While Dawkins may not be blind to the psychological utility of religion or its merit as a moral motivator, he is above all concerned with whether or not it is true. And it is in this vein that the first half of the book positions itself. Dawkins engages many of the popular arguments in favor of God’s existence (while satirizing a few of the spectacularly weak ones), laying each of them to rest or at least exposing their glaring flaws.
As a specialist in biology, he reserves the greatest expositional force for dismantling the argument from design. With characteristic lucidity he explains how Darwin’s bold idea completely upended the design argument once and for all. Exercising Daniel Dennett’s analogical idea of cranes and skyhooks, Dawkins remarks, “Natural selection is the champion crane of all time.” (p. 73) Unlike the top-down, skyhook hypothesis of a designer, evolution by natural selection is a gradated, bottom-up process where genetic configurations can only be understood post hoc. Dawkins stresses repeatedly that natural selection is not driven by chance but by fitness. He then concludes that while natural selection and design are alternatives, only the former is actually an explanation (since the latter merely regresses it) and more importantly, is the only one of the two buttressed by evidence. With descent by modification, one could hardly ask for an idea which more handily routs the chronic refrain of religious creation myths.
In response to the cosmological version of the design argument, that of a finely tuned universe, Dawkins brandishes the familiar one-two stroke of the anthropic principle and Rees’ multiverse hypothesis. Whether a non-natural agency existing outside of space and time or swarms of buzzing universes is a more satisfactory explanation of the facts may largely be a subjective verdict, especially considering that both currently occupy the same threshold of evidence: zero. At any rate, given what once was ascribed to God and later dislodged by science, Dawkins asks what possible reason could we have for thinking “God did it” will win out here?
Prayer and NOMA
Considering how many prayers are pitched to the skies each day as devotees inveigle their deity of choice to accomplish some change in the world, we might expect to find observable results validating these efforts. To date there have been several well-controlled, double-blind studies on the efficacy of prayer. In each of these studies, the null hypothesis was confirmed (i.e., prayer was shown to have no effect on patient condition). As Dawkins points out, one of the largest and most significant of these studies was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which of course was trying to prove the opposite. Templeton solicited Christian petitioners across America and provided them with the first name and last initial of 1,802 patients to pray for. The whole unctuous charade lasted for months, and the results were published in the American Heart Journal in April 2006. No relationship observed.1
Faced with a vacuum of evidence, many religionists take a different approach. Rather than aimlessly looking for something concrete, they resort to the notion of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria). Popularized by Gould and swiftly picked up by apologists everywhere, it is the idea that science and religion occupy entirely separate domains of reality. Essentially, science operates in the facts sphere, while religion functions in the realm of values, and never the twain shall meet. This conceptual apparatus conveniently renders God immune to the scientific method. But as Dawkins illustrates with the multi-million dollar Templeton study, religion is quick to embrace science when there is but a slight chance the evidence may fall in its favor. This indicates clearly that “NOMA is only popular because there is no evidence to favour the God Hypothesis.” (p. 59)
On several occasions he lends an ear to more sophisticated theologians, though he does not tread around them lightly. He gestures toward more rigorous ripostes to his arguments, but ultimately decries them as fantastical. According to Dawkins, the (Christian) theologian’s appetency to allegorize the more troublesome and contradictory bits of the Bible and insert dreamed up concepts in their stead amounts to nothing more than arbitrary speculation. One could discern the zealous fans of Harry Potter and other fan fiction who dispute every minute detail of their revered lore as being not too distinct from the theologians of today, whose armchair musings fall on the deaf ears of the congregations of America. In the end, Dawkins says the constructions of modern theology are “just shamelessly invented.” (p. 35)
The Roots of Religion
Following his competent disassembly of the God hypothesis, he moves on to probing more underlying questions: Where did religious beliefs come from; if patently false, why are they still around? I found this section of secondary interest and feel he devoted a bit too much space to what essentially was a lot of speculation. He attempts to weave his pet memetic theory into a quasi-evolutionary explanation for the survival of religion into modernity, with moderate success. I think the psychological and emotional utility of religious beliefs are sufficient to explain their lasting power on human culture. That’s not to say Dawkins’ exploration here isn’t worthwhile or interesting.
Do We Need God to Be Good?
Easily my favorite section of the book is “The Roots of Morality”, where Dawkins deciphers the riddle of ethics and morality. While he harbors no illusions that science can help us discern right from wrong (contra-Sam Harris), he argues that our capacity for doing so indeed has a scientific explanation. First, the pillars of empathy and reciprocal altruism are traits readily observable across the animal kingdom. This governing sociality, moreover, is most predominant in the higher primates, just as we would predict. Under an evolutionary view of life, then, it is no stretch to say that such cooperative attributes were biologically and later culturally selected for as an avenue towards greater fitness. If true, this would mean that basic decency codes and what we today call moral behavior long anticipated religion.
Even if one doesn’t find a Darwinian ontology compelling, Dawkins argues that the religious alternatives have no merit whatsoever. A Celestial Watchman and binary afterlife are typically heralded as motivators for good and, inversely, repressors for evil. In response, Dawkins has this to say, in what might be the single most poignant passage in the book:
“As Einstein said, ‘If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.’ Michael Shermer, in The Science of Good and Evil, calls it a debate stopper. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would ‘commit robbery, rape, and murder,’ you reveal yourself as an immoral person, ‘and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you.’ If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good. I suspect that quite a lot of religious people do think religion is what motivates them to be good, especially if they belong to one of those faiths that systematically exploits personal guilt. It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness.” (pp. 226-227)
In short, a conscience is not so easily discarded. The humanistic view, rather, is the view that people are fully capable of knowing right from wrong and do not need childish incentives to act ethically toward our fellow brothers and sisters. Human solidarity, empathy and the lessons derived from social experience account well enough for moral behavior. This Dawkins regards as the more adult moral psychology. In contrast, an ethic that even in implication is dependent upon eternal punishment as a demotivator for bad behavior seems to me to be the deficient one.
Of equal importance to our justification for goodness (why be moral) is the epistemological (what is moral). Christians often wonder, ‘For people who don’t regard the Bible as the Word of God, from where do they get their morals?’ Dawkins showcases with great effectiveness the ethical flimsiness of the Abrahamic holy books, visiting a sampling of the Bible’s problematic narratives and itemizing the divine prescripts that not even the most ardent men and women of faith follow. We all separate the virtuous bits from the primitive barbarism. How do we do this, Dawkins asks? By filtering them through our own ethical intuitions. The very fact that each of us passively edits these texts tells us that wherever our moral sense comes from, we are all tapping into the same source. And it’s most certainly not holy books.
For even better, book-length treatments of this topic, look out for de Waal’s recent exposé The Bonobo and the Atheist, Hinde’s Why Good is God, Buckman’s Can We Be Good Without God? and Hauser’s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
Dawkins concludes with a more abstract section on how ethics have progressed across the ages. He calls this the shifting moral zeitgeist, and I found the insights here quite compelling. As we catalog history, on issues like the abolition of slavery or emancipation of women we see a broad, cross-cultural convergence, perhaps reinforced by social feedback loops or “a complex interplay of disparate forces.” (p. 272) It seems to follow inescapably that morality is not something handed down from above, but is to be found within ourselves. It is not eternal, nor is it absolute, but is constantly being refined and improved.
The closing sections of the book Dawkins devotes to the dangers of dogmatic religious faith, which is really a dispraisal of fundamentalism in all its forms. While there is definitely great harm done under the banner of religion, the vast majority of Christians, Muslims, etc. worldwide do conform to the shifting moral zeitgeist, are persuaded by scientific evidence, and are dismissive of static, unflinchingly literal interpretations of ancient literature. The alarms he sounds, while attention-grabbing and unspeakable, describe more localized problems rather than endemic ones. I did, however, find his consciousness-raising on the doctrinal labeling of children very poignant.
Stow overhead everything you’ve heard about Dawkins, and check your epistemic commitments below deck. The arguments laid out in The God Delusion are thought-provoking, eloquently made and deserve a fair hearing from seekers on both sides of the aisle. One cannot be said to have properly surveyed these conversations before having read and engaged both halves. And given its international penetration and status as a modern cultural icon, Dawkins’ treatise is a great place to start. While I found some of his challenges less than airtight (the “who designed the designer” argument has never hit home for me), and perhaps there were some missed opportunities for delivering a truly comprehensive counterstroke to theism—for my money, the problems of evil and (un)intelligent design and the arguments from divine hiddenness and inconsistent revelations carry more heft in undermining religion—this is nevertheless a compelling presentation of why 1 billion people and counting don’t believe.
Dawkins has penned a manifesto to sit alongside Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature, Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism. Irrespective of one’s persuasion, with The God Delusion Dawkins has shown, as several others before him, just how rational a position atheism is, despite its historical unpopularity.
Note 2: I encourage readers also to watch the follow-up debate between Dawkins and John Lennox, which is based on the core arguments made in Dawkins’ book. You can find it here.
Note 3: Those looking for a more technical, but not overly so, refutation of the God hypothesis are encouraged to read Y. I. Fishman’s outstanding paper, Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?, in which Dawkins’ book is referenced throughout.
Feature image courtesy of brandonmichaelblack.com
- Interestingly, in the single blind study (where the patients were aware they were being prayed for), the patient’s condition actually worsened. It is thought that anxiety crept in because the patients assumed they should be recovering since they were being prayed for, and when they didn’t, this stressed them out even more than the illness itself. [↩]