The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is a very, very good book, let’s say that right up front. It is an understandably controversial book, but if you really step back from the topic and look at it objectively, and you don’t let your emotions and your rooting interest determine your reaction to what he says, it is an intelligent, well-argued discussion of an important set of topics. That’s really not a close call.

Not only does he successfully argue for his main conclusion—that the probability of the existence of the conventional God (created the world, omnipotent or close to it, omniscient or close to it, a conscious being who concerns himself with the affairs of human beings as far as hearing and responding to prayers and determining their fate in an afterlife) is vanishingly small—but he’s on the money on most or all of the related side issues he addresses as well.

For example, in the section where he notes and responds to the most common objections that are offered against him on these issues, he deals with each one in a straightforward, logical way and shows why they don’t hold water.

There is a great deal I could write about this book, as many of the topics are things I’ve thought about a lot, and in some cases have dealt with academically as a student and instructor of philosophy. For reasons of space, many things that caught my eye I’ll just mention in passing, and I’ll address at greater length only a small number of points.

Dawkins notes that declaring oneself an “atheist” feels too extreme or too harsh to many people, including those who for all intents and purposes are nonbelievers. They resist the label themselves—typically preferring something like “agnostic”—and respond unfavorably to someone like him who declares himself an atheist, often objecting that that makes him just as dogmatic as those he’s criticizing on the other side. A fair, open-minded person, it is said, would admit that we can’t know the truth about matters such as this, so it’s best to admit that and to respect all points of view.

There are multiple problems with this common reaction. First off, even if we concede that no one on either side can “know” in some absolute sense, with 100% certainty, so what? That’s not an appropriate standard. We can “know” virtually nothing in that extreme sense, yet you certainly don’t see people constantly insisting on this point:

Hal: It’s raining.

Sylvia: Why must you be so dogmatic! You don’t know that it’s raining. You could be dreaming right now. You could be a brain in a vat with someone poking the right neurons for you to experience what you’re experiencing mentally that makes you think it’s raining. As an open-minded person, I’m agnostic on this question of whether it’s raining, as you should be too.

Hal: Well, in any case I don’t think we should go out in it, since we don’t have an umbrella.

Sylvia: There you go again! Who are you to say that an umbrella won’t materialize in your hand as soon as you walk out the door? I’m not saying it will or it won’t, as I’m agnostic about it, but you can’t seem to help yourself claiming to know things you simply can’t know!

You’ll never hear an exchange like this, other than perhaps in an insane asylum.

Dawkins makes the same point by citing Bertrand Russell’s hypothetical floating teapot. When people challenged Russell on his claim to be an atheist by saying that surely he should stop at agnosticism since going beyond that requires having more knowledge than he could possibly actually have—i.e., that God does not exist—he responded by saying that he was an “agnostic” on the question of God’s existence only in the same sense that he, and they, were agnostic about whether there is a tiny teapot revolving around the sun between Earth and Mars. Such a teapot has never been definitively disproven, has it?

Yet almost everyone, Russell notes, would say that they disbelieve in such a teapot with a very high level of confidence. Whether you call that being atheist or being agnostic about the teapot’s existence is a matter of semantics, but that’s where he stands on the existence of the conventional conception of God, as does Dawkins, as do I.

But also, what about this whole “respecting all viewpoints” thing? Dawkins understandably bristles at this, since he is routinely accused of not abiding by this obligation in his criticisms of religion.

One thing worth noting is that in practice it’s largely a one-way street. Religious believers are routinely treated as if they are entitled to be shielded from this “disrespect,” but are far less often called to task for disrespecting nonbelievers.

But aside from that, how is it disrespectful to present a rational argument on a topic like God’s existence, or the beneficial or harmful consequences of religious beliefs? Or even the lunacy of some beliefs and believers for that matter? Why is it objectionable to point out that creationism is blatantly inconsistent with the available scientific evidence, but it isn’t objectionable to point out that Lamarckism is? Why are we obligated to take at face value someone’s belief in God and avoid in any way implying it could be mistaken, but not similarly obligated to endorse little Cindy’s belief that she has an invisible friend, or the homeless guy’s belief that he’s Elvis?

Is the justification pragmatic? Dawkins suspects that many scientists, like Stephen Jay Gould, who contend that science is solely about the material world and thus does not conflict with matters of theology and morality likely don’t really believe that but are being strategic in giving the religious enemies of science less reason to hate them, and assuring the more “moderate” religious believers that they can safely work together to resist those theocrats.

I guess you’d have to examine on a case-by-case basis when pretending there are no valid criticisms of religious beliefs makes pragmatic sense like that, but I certainly agree with Dawkins that there’s nothing inherent about religious beliefs that generates an obligation to never disagree with them.

Certainly there are times in one’s personal life when it’s best not to be too frank about how ridiculous a given religious claim is, just on the general principle that it can be especially hurtful and conflict-provoking to come across as insulting about something that is extremely emotionally important to someone. (You also normally wouldn’t want to tell someone that their child is butt ugly, say, no matter how true that might be.)

But no one is forcing people who are that sensitive about their religious beliefs to read the writings of Richard Dawkins. It’s not his responsibility to avoid expressing the truth as he sees it, backed up with the most cogent arguments he can construct in support of it, because someone might come across it and feel pain at having some comforting falsehood cast into doubt.

Plus, there is again that non-reciprocity. If you think Dawkins is “insulting” or “disrespectful” because he is frank about his opinion that certain religious beliefs, and the actions taken in consequence of them, are unjustified, what do you say about the rhetoric of many believers? In my experience, fundamentalist religious folks routinely blatantly lie (think about creationists, and all the things they repeat no matter how many times they have seen them definitively refuted), and don’t hold back in the slightest in insulting and disrespecting anyone who disagrees with them.

Has Dawkins ever written anything even remotely in the same ballpark as the claim that anyone who disagrees with him will—deservedly—be tortured for eternity for doing so?

I think the vast majority of ordinary, ground-level fundamentalists are at least sincere in the accusations and insults they direct toward anyone who doesn’t share their particular faith, however misguided they might be. But the bulk of the public figures, the polemicists, the Ayatollahs issuing death sentences for disagreeing with their theological beliefs, the right wing politicians lying to get creationism into public schools, the Ann Coulter-type pundits, etc. are largely despicable, insincere human beings. Can anyone who has really looked at the evidence objectively hold to the ridiculous false equivalence position that Dawkins is just as bad as these people, that he’s the atheist version of them?

Moving on, I agree with Dawkins that religious folks have an annoying habit of relying on evidence and rationality when they think it supports their beliefs, but then playing the “faith” card when they sense they are losing an argument.

No matter how justified you are in contending that their beliefs don’t hold up to rational scrutiny, they can always dismiss you with “That’s why they call it faith!” (generally spoken in a tone of impatience at your stupidity).

But my position has always been that either faith is a subset of rationality—i.e., some method of belief acquisition (an intuitive direct pipeline to God or whatever) that tends to lead to true beliefs and avoid false beliefs—or it is not a reliable way of ascertaining truth. Indeed, that’s pretty much a tautology. So the correct response to “That’s why they call it faith!” is “Yes, but what is “faith” and what reason is there to believe that it leads to truth?” Barring an adequate answer to this question, the person insisting “That’s why they call it faith!” might as well bang his fist on the table and instead say, “I’m being irrational!” or simply “I’m wrong!”

Bible interpretation follows the same “heads I win, tails you lose” logic as the appeals to faith: If the most literal, straightforward interpretation of a passage is true, then that’s what it means; if it is false, then it means something else.

For example, in Matthew Jesus is quoted as saying, “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

The most obvious, straightforward interpretation of that is that the Second Coming would occur within a few years or at most decades, while at least one of the disciples was still alive. But that didn’t happen. So is the prophecy disproven?

No, because unlike in science, in religion whenever something doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to you simply change the prediction. So it turns out this wasn’t a reference to the Second Coming after all. I’ve heard a plethora of possibilities: It’s a reference to Jesus rising from the dead and appearing to the disciples before ascending into Heaven, it’s a reference to the Holy Spirit (who is always around, and is the same as Jesus), or “those who are standing here” doesn’t mean those specific individuals but is a reference to the human race. Then there’s my personal favorite and most fanciful dodge: the legend of the Wandering Jew (a person who was alive during Jesus’ time is condemned via supernatural means to walk the Earth until the Second Coming—by the way, is his name Mel Brooks by chance?).

See, it’s not false after all, not once you properly interpret it!

But imagine if the Second Coming had occurred while at least one of the disciples was still alive. Is there any chance whatsoever that that wouldn’t have been hailed as a fulfilled prophecy? Do you really think any Bible believer would have insisted that Jesus never predicted that, that he had really just meant the Holy Spirit would be with us or whatever? Of course not.

If the evidence supports the claims of religion, that shows religion is true. If the evidence does not support the claims of religion that’s irrelevant, because religion is a matter of faith, not evidence. Heads I win, tails you lose.

As far as Gould’s wanting to leave certain matters to religion, Dawkins is skeptical that there’s really any subject matter per se when it comes to religion. That is, how is the study of God, or of, say, moral systems allegedly based on the commands of God, any different from a cryptozoologist claiming to study unicorns? A religious person, or the most acclaimed theologian, knows no more about God than the most intelligent, experienced cryptozoologist knows about unicorns, which is to say they know nothing whatsoever since there is no such being to know about.

As a philosopher, I’ve similarly always been turned off by Gould-style attempts to safeguard science by ceding philosophy to the religious folks: “Leave the natural world—the big bang, evolution, etc.—to us, and we’ll acknowledge your expertise in ethics and metaphysics and the like.” Baloney. We philosophers don’t want them any more than you scientists do. A theologian is no more inherently qualified to talk about right and wrong than to talk about geology.

Dawkins has some good things to say about moral philosophy, but also is a bit shaky on some points. I think his section on moral philosophy would have been stronger if he had laid the foundation by defining some key terms, as I sense some equivocation or confusion in what he writes.

For example, to claim that ethics is absolute, to claim that ethics is objective, and to be dogmatic about your ethical beliefs are three different things, which I’m not sure he understands.

Objective is opposed to subjective or relativist. Absolute is opposed to having exceptions. Dogmatic is opposed to open-minded.

So let’s say that I believe that killing is wrong except in self-defense, that I make that claim about killing in general and not just about killing I might do or killing that might occur in my culture, and that I am open to opposing arguments and quite willing to believe otherwise if given good reason to. In that case my belief that killing is wrong would be put forth as something objective (applying to everyone), but not absolute (it has exceptions), and not dogmatic (I’m not claiming certainty and am willing to change my mind about it).

Or let’s say I believe I’m obligated to be a vegan, but that that has no bearing on anyone else’s obligations, and that I believe I am justified in deviating from that in certain circumstances like that I’m starving, and that having made my commitment to veganism I refuse to even consider the possibility that I’m mistaken. Here I am not claiming veganism as an objective moral principle but instead as simply some kind of subjective one that applies only to me, I am not treating it as an absolute even in my case since I’m acknowledging exceptions, and I am dogmatic about it.

So again, “There are objectively true moral principles,” “Moral principles are absolute,” and “I know with certainty what are the true moral principles” are three importantly different claims (and for that matter, none of them are equivalent to “Moral principles come from God”).

(There’s a lot more to this of course, and I know I’m oversimplifying, but I don’t want to write a whole book about these basic moral concepts. For instance, you can always reword a moral principle that has exceptions into one or more that do not just by increasing the specificity, so in that sense you can make any system of non-absolute morality into a system of absolute morality. So, “It’s always wrong to kill when the killing isn’t necessary for self-defense” can be a moral rule that does not admit of exceptions—“always”—and so in that sense is absolute, but only because you’ve worked the exceptions into the rule itself.)

It would also be useful to distinguish between a consequentialist system of ethics (what makes acts right or wrong are the consequences of those acts) and a non-consequentialist or deontological system of ethics (there can be properties of acts other than their consequences that can make them right or wrong).

Though Dawkins early on acknowledges the existence of non-consequentialist ethical theories (e.g., Immanuel Kant’s deontology), he later seems to forget this and implies that consequentialism is the only secular alternative to religious morality. Or maybe he thinks that all non-consequentialist theories like Kant’s are implicitly based on some kind of divine command religious morality, which would be inaccurate.

That’s interesting, because Kant in effect supports a point Dawkins makes about how people typically don’t really get their morality from religion anyway, but instead implicitly judge it against some other standard.

That is, people use their own independent moral beliefs to pick and choose what to follow from the Bible or other religious sources (or to interpret the Bible or other religious sources, which amounts to the same thing). If there’s something in the Bible that doesn’t fit what they believe (e.g., a celebration of genocide of one’s enemies), they explain it away (e.g., “Jesus replaced those old rules with new rules,” or “The Bible just means that that kind of thing was appropriate for primitive people in ancient times who couldn’t understand the Bible’s higher moral teachings like we can”). The few people who do try to follow their religious text literally no matter how monstrous it seems—like the Taliban or the most extreme Christian fundamentalists—stand out as dangerous lunatics for precisely that reason.

Or as Kant says, “Even the Holy One of the Gospels [Jesus] must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognize him as such.”

Another terminological distinction that probably would have been helpful to Dawkins’s discussion is descriptive (“is”) versus normative (“ought”).

Descriptive moral claims aren’t really about right and wrong directly. If they were, they’d be normative. Examples of descriptive claims would be: “Alice felt guilty about lying to Fred.” “72% of residents of Transylvania regard abortion as immoral.” “Bestiality is illegal in Pakistan.” “Carmine believes it to be his duty to provide for his children.” Note that one could affirm any or all of these statements without thereby committing to believing there are any actual moral truths, just as one could affirm statements like “Juan claims he was bitten by a unicorn as a child” or “The Phoenicians regarded unicorns as immortal but the Greeks did not” even if you believed there were no such things as unicorns.

Examples of normative claims, on the other hand, would be: “Alice was wrong to lie to Fred.” “Abortion is immoral.” “Bestiality can be right or wrong depending on the motive.” “Carmine ought to provide for his children unless it would be more in his self-interest to sell them to cannibals.”

When you make a normative claim (assuming you mean it literally) you are implicitly affirming that there is some kind of moral reality, that claims about right and wrong can be true or false. If you are a skeptic about such things and regard morality as nonexistent like unicorns (even if you acknowledge that beliefs about morality can certainly exist just like beliefs about unicorns can), then you cannot make statements like these without contradicting yourself. Indeed, you would be contradicting yourself even by believing something like “Moral skeptics shouldn’t be executed for not agreeing with the prevailing moral beliefs of their society,” or “Different cultures with different moral beliefs should be tolerant of each other.”

How might Dawkins’s pet issue of evolution relate to this distinction between descriptive and normative moral statements? Well, for the most part, as a scientific theory concerning what is rather than what ought to be, it would only be directly relevant to descriptive morality.

So evolution could be relevant as far as providing explanations of why people believe what they believe. For example, if we wanted to know why most or all societies make murder illegal, or favor their own members over foreigners, or forbid polygamy, or what have you, we could approach it from the standpoint of natural selection and examine why societies that have these traits tend to survive whereas societies that do not have them tend to die out. Or maybe we’d find that certain moral beliefs and practices are apt to help societies survive in some circumstances and not others.

But those are descriptive matters. It’s not like evolution would somehow make murder, nativism, polygamy, homosexuality, public nudity, torture, or anything else right or wrong. At most, understanding evolution by natural selection might give us some insight into why societies that treat these things as right or wrong tend to survive or not.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which evolution could be relevant to normative moral claims. If there is indeed objective truth to morality (and remember, if there isn’t, then even statements calling for tolerance and broad-minded multiculturalism and all that would be as false or nonsensical as claims about unicorns), then it’s possible natural selection favors those with a greater ability to ascertain the truth about such matters. Just as the evolutionary development of the five senses enables an increasing ability to ascertain empirical facts about the world, and the evolutionary development of certain kinds of brains enables an increasing ability to ascertain abstract or mathematical truths like 2 + 2 = 4, perhaps evolution can bring about beings with a greater ability at moral reasoning.

I don’t think most scientists, including Dawkins, would agree with that (my guess is that the vast majority of them are moral skeptics in the sense I mean that, though I doubt they, or anyone, would remain moral skeptics if they understood its implications), but it makes sense to me that it’s at least possible.

Dawkins says a certain amount about the evolution of morality, but he has a much longer section on the evolution of religion, i.e., how natural selection might explain the prevalence of religious beliefs in human history.

It’s an interesting section. He admits that his remarks are all quite speculative (the specific explanatory possibilities he suggests that is, not there being an evolutionary explanation at all; the latter is nearly certain), but he makes some plausible points.

I do have one point of criticism of that section though, not in terms of substance but in terms of logical structure. I think this discussion makes the most sense logically as a response to the theist argument that the very fact that such an overwhelming majority of people and societies in history have believed in some kind of god or gods constitutes important evidence in favor of theism. If you can instead explain how such beliefs could come about through natural selection whether God exists or not, then you undercut this argument.

It’s not that he doesn’t make that connection at all, but it’s kind of indirect and understated. For example, he closes the chapter preceding this section with a series of questions, including “Why, if [theism] is false, does every culture in the world have religion?” But because he doesn’t emphasize the connection, the section on the evolutionary roots of religion comes across as more of a tangent than a premise in an argument about the existence or non-existence of God.

Dawkins makes short work of the kind of classic theist arguments one comes across in an Introduction to Philosophy class (e.g., the argument from design, Pascal’s wager, etc.). I don’t know that they really deserve more than the brief attention he gives them, as most or all of them have always struck me as the kind of arguments almost no one would find convincing if they didn’t have an emotional stake in the matter.

Dawkins also addresses some of the problems with Biblical literalism, noting that it’s to be expected that the Bible would be full of inaccuracies and contradictions given the difficulty of coming up with something that would both fit ancient Jewish prophecies and appeal to non-Jews by incorporating versions of various of their common legends and such. (Though as I noted earlier, as long as you allow yourself the freedom to cheat by reinterpreting anything false or contradictory, you can remain a literalist about the Bible or anything else.) He also delights in quoting the American Founding Fathers writing against God, religion, or Christianity specifically. Even allowing for cherry picking, it’s hard to sustain a belief that the Founders were all fundamentalist Christians in the face of their many statements that indicate otherwise.

Concerning evolution versus creationism (or “intelligent design” or whatever they’re calling it nowadays), Dawkins makes the same point here that he has made in other of his books, which is that evolution deniers routinely commit the fallacy of false dilemma by pointing out how extraordinarily unlikely it would be that intelligent life or any kind of complex life could come about at “random.” (A common version of such an argument is to compare the likelihood of complex life developing randomly with all the parts of a Boeing 747 being mixed together randomly and ending up with something that can fly.)

The false dilemma is the implication that the only possibilities are randomness or some sort of magic or supernatural act of creation by God, when in fact evolution by natural selection is neither. Natural selection favors some changes or outcomes over others; it is not the case that all developments are equally likely.

More than once Dawkins asserts that is it offensive and inaccurate to attribute religion to children, for instance to claim that a certain percentage of the population of a certain country is Christian or Muslim or whatever because you’re counting all the children as being of the same religion as their parents. You wouldn’t, for instance, count a 10 year old as being a Democrat because her parents are, or a 5 year old as being bisexual because his parents are.

I mostly agree, or at least I agree that it’s no more appropriate to do that with religion than with political ideologies and the like. But rather than say that children don’t have a religion (and don’t have a political ideology, moral philosophy, sexuality, etc.), I think it’s more accurate to say that they can have these things to an increasing degree the older and more sophisticated they get. Certainly a 17 year old can be a believing Hindu, just as a 15 year old can be gay. But such attributions get increasingly tenuous the younger the kid. A 6 year old can only be a Christian in a very, very loose sense.

In any case, simply counting kids as being whatever religion their parents are isn’t justified.

Anyway, a strong recommendation for The God Delusion. Let’s give Dawkins the last word in summing up one of the themes of the book: “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument….If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers.”

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