The Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion is not a good book; it is unorganized, gossipy, filled with tangents, of little depth, and boring. Oscar Wilde said there were no moral or immoral books; “books are well written, or badly written, that is all.” The God Delusion is badly written. I could tell I was in for something bad when the acknowledgements came to a close with him thanking (of course) his wife – please authors let us not put our spouses last in our acknowledgements, it is transparently unctuous at worst and trite at best – who read the book back to him aloud (I am not sure what this says about this marriage). “I recommend the technique to other authors,” he says, “but I must warn that for best results the reader must be a professional actor, with voice and ear sensitively tuned to the music of language.”
This is, in short, an author who likes to hear himself talk, or who, apparently, likes to hear others repeating his own words back to him. The tangents of the book reveal a man who never can pass up an opportunity to sound smart – which, of course, makes him sound desperate and dull. On page 344, for instance, Wagner makes a cameo in the book, as Dawkins speaks of the usefulness of knowing the Bible for understanding European literature, and the Quran for Arabic literature, and the Bhagavad Gita for Indian literature. “Finally, to round off the list, you can’t appreciate Wagner (whose music, as has been wittily said, is better than it sounds) without knowing your way around the Norse gods.” Recycled cultural witticisms – I believe the technical term in the trade is “cliches” – combined with obviousnesses and pandering is how Dawkins manages to write a book about God’s nonexistence clocking in at 374 pages without saying anything of substance. You have to consent to be told for all that time stories about “the celebrated conjuring duo Penn and Teller” (who (surprise surprise) blurb the book on the back cover), “Alfred Hitchcock, the great cinematic specialist in the art of frightening people,” or “the Ottoman sultans, whose staggering feats of nastiness are described in Noel Barber’s Lords of the Golden Horn.” I presume Mr. Dawkins met Mr. Barber at a cocktail party while writing this book, and he is not yet old enough to have learned that that is not a sufficient reason for publishing such a sentence. You also get great lines like, “Hitler and Stalin were, by any standards, spectacularly evil men.” And terrible awkwardnesses like “I hope this book might have made you laugh – though not as much as you made me.” And thousands of extra words – “Fatuous as it is, the legend stems from the horn’s supposed resemblance to a virile penis.” As opposed to what other kind of penis?
But anyway, God bless Mr. Dawkins, he’s the best-selling of all the atheist authors, and has made several million dollars off the book, even though in terms of strict quality it is probably the worst of them all. This should tell him that the problem in the world is really not religion so much as stupidity itself.
If you are going to read the book, the reason to do it would be for the science bits, which are the only part of any competence. He quotes a nice study which shows that Israeli schoolchildren approve of the story of Joshua murdering the Canaanites, unless the names are changed: if the same story is told about a General Lin attacking a city in China and killing all its inhabitants, they no longer approve. This is a larger problem than religion, but no matter. He has another interesting meditation on ethical scenarios which involve sacrificing one life in order to save multiple others. After determining that most people are willing to make such sacrifices and that this has nothing to do with religion, he then curiously is unable to even apply the logic to his later tale of an abortion-doctor murderer, who he thinks of as a ghastly beast. That the murderer must have gone through the same moral calculations Dawkins had just been describing as inherent to us and in no way affected by religion was obvious (“there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgements”), and yet he does not make that connection. The reason is clear: a murderer of abortion doctors is not going to be of Mr. Dawkins’ tribe – he will be General Lin, so to speak. And so Mr. Dawkins must condemn him. In short, Dawkins is fine reading scientific papers, but as soon as he needs to reason through his own convictions the objectivity goes. This does not make for pleasant reading. The general impression is of a man who has never had to look at himself in any deeply self-critical way, and at age seventy or so the prognosis for change is not good.
The general justification of the book comes on its fifty-fifth page – indicative – and goes thus. He quotes Stephen Jay Gould unapprovingly:
“To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (but its legitimate methods) adjudicate the question of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.” Despite the confident, almost bullying tone of Gould’s assertion, what, actually, is the justification for it? Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn’t Russell’s teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, equally immune from scientific scepticism?
This is far too easy to refute, and I’m sure it has been done many a time, but just to have it all in one place, I will do it. The Russell-teapot analogy is this: if some holy book said there was a teapot in outer space too small to be seen with customary telescopes, we should simply scoff at the idea and not waste our time building bigger and bigger telescopes to try to find it. Similarly, he says, we should not be convinced that there is a god either. The problem with this thinking is that it is presuming that the maker of the universe is simply another object in the universe. Dawkins really does persist in this line of thinking: he comes up with what he calls, stupidly, the “Ultimate 747 gambit,” “a very serious argument against the existence of God, and one to which I have yet to hear a theologian give a convincing answer despite numerous opportunities and invitations to do so” (157). He calls this the “central argument” of his book. It goes like this: the universe is statistically improbable, life even more so, and highly evolved life most of all. Hence
2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a ‘crane,’ not a ‘skyhook, for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity…. If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion – the God hypothesis – is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. (158)
The “infinite regress” problem – who designed the designer – is a trivial one and it is strange to see Dawkins put so much weight on it. The origin of matter, time, space, and the universe – and those are the questions we are after – would necessarily have to be a being immaterial, atemporal, nonspatial and most emphatically not within the universe. I do not know of any philosophical argument that does not postulate such qualities for a deity. This designer, not being within the universe, is not susceptible to the kind of design arguments that objects within the universe are.
The Stephen Jay Gould deduction from this situation was that science should hence stick to explaining the universe within the given constraints. Science won’t know what to do with something immaterial and atemporal anyway. Scientifically, I think that is correct, but Dawkins seems to be confused: he is convinced that there is no galactic teapot or spaghetti monster or bearded man within the universe, and proud of this conviction, he wishes to broadcast it to the world, despite the fact that no one of any seriousness is contending that there is such a teapot or spaghetti monster or bearded man. Dawkins is so convinced that the Designer must conform to the rules of his design that he insists that he must be “complex” and hence must have evolved (!), because nothing in the universe begins complex:
[There] may even be a superhuman designer – but, if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. If (which I don’t believe for a moment), our universe was designed, and a fortiori if the designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption, the designer must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe. (156)
The ironies are obvious: only someone taking Darwinism beyond all rational bounds, and indeed idolizing it, would be unable to see that the Designer is in the theory to explain the existence of the rules, not evolve subject to them as if they already existed. This is a learned idiocy and might take its place in Gulliver’s Grand Academy of Lagado.
Dawkins comes near a slightly better argument, that it is difficult trying to explain the origin of the universe, but it is even more difficult explaining a God who could have made a universe. In other words, it is simpler to postulate that the universe is eternal, and its laws fixed simply because they are fixed, and matter and energy and time all exist on their own and are eternal, rather than try to conceive of a being who is not of stuff like the universe at all and might have started it. But oddly enough cosmology does not suggest good evidence for this: the universe appears to have a moment of birth (“the big bang”) and to be headed for death (expansion without end, Amen). This suggests creation more than a stable, eternal universe. (It’s one thing if it just “is.” What is most inexplicable is that it appears that it was not and will not be, and yet for the entire time in between runs on causality. What is Time that it should bring forth everything and gobble it all up again?).
But we all know this. We argued for and against God’s existence all through high school and college, and everyone else besides Dawkins and a few others came to the same conclusion all people through time have: you can construct arguments on one side or the other.
In the meantime, a good plan for scientists who are interested in religion might be simply to – approach it scientifically, as a phenomenon, with certain causes and purposes and effects, which can be studied and if known predicted. Religion, in other words, is a form of human behavior, and like all other behavior presumably has some adaptive value (which Dawkins recognizes as a possibility but dogmatically proclaims it probably is a “misfire,” a wasteful expenditure of energy concomitant with some other adaptive trait: he mentions gullibility and “dualism” – which word he uses to mean our capacity to read intentions into phenomena – as possibilities. I don’t know why he doesn’t simply look at the fundamentalists he argues with so often, who we may reliably predict have more children than your average evolutionary biologist). Dawkins unfortunately does not seem to be any expert on the topic of the adaptive value of religion, and I may say I got almost nothing out of his book in this regard, but I am sure it will continue to be the subject of interesting books in the future. As I have mentioned on this site before, Jung was struck by the fact that all of his therapy patients had no religion, and he later claimed that for a human being a feeling of meaninglessness, often brought on by atheism, was clinically equivalent to disease.
These questions science can help us answer. I doubt it will discover the source of the laws whose effects it measures; but since human beings frequently claim to have a rapport with something immaterial and atemporal, which they claim is the maker of those physical laws, science can help us understand what they are talking about when they make these claims. Unfortunately, I don’t see Mr. Dawkins preaching much other than an uncultured antagonism, which I doubt will do much for progress of any sort.