REVIEWS

A selection of the best from recent issues of the Philosopher

 

Heavenly spheres The Delusions of Richard Dawkins, Prophet of Science

The Philosopher's verdict: not so chummy
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press, 2006, £20 pp 406
ISBN 0593-05548-9
Christian bookshops are full of books proclaiming the 'Good News' of God's love and forgiveness, and Richard Dawkins' book shares something of the style of these evangelical efforts. Indeed, the publishers have chosen for the cover a design rather like that of a religious tome, with an evangelical starburst on the cover, under the word 'God'. Nor do the similarities do not end there, for this is a book, Dawkins admits, intended to convert the reader. 

However, Dawkins' effort will not be welcome in many Christian bookshops. For his aim is not to persuade people to believe in God, but rather to disbelieve in God. It seems that Dawkins has designated himself as the apostle of a kind of anti religion, in which it is his job, role and duty to tour the world tirelessly revealing his 'message' which is that God does not exist. Old story though this may be in philosophy, in the world today , as Dawkins says, many people still seem to need convincing. 

Dawkins' aim is to produce the 'definitive' account of why people are wrong not only to continue to believe in God (which is a disgraceful affront to him 'as a scientist') but even to entertain the possibility that there might be some kind of supernatural deity regulating human affairs. In God's place Dawkins offers instead a different deity, who will not tolerate any wavering in disbelief. Step forward, Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection he presents as the definitive proof of God's non existence. Over several hundred pages, and these largely repeating earlier book of his, 

Dawkins explains that natural selection can explain the journey from primordial chemistry to the dazzling variety of life forms we know today. Morality, human consciousness, art, even religion itself, all can be explained by the elegantly simple theory of natural selection. Since Darwin, he says, anyone who continues to believe there might be a role for God is denying facts as plain as any that science can demonstrate. 

Yet here is a curious thing: Darwin himself considered this theory to be perfectly compatible with belief in God. In Origin of Species , he wrote: 

"I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance." 
Dawkins' book is long and full of quotes, but this one is not included. Instead, Dawkins sneers at those who claimed Darwin had some religious belief, saying that this is clearly completely false. Some "apologist" even added the name of Darwin to the list of scientists who were religious. declares Dawkins in a chapter dedicated to proving that scientists are not religious, adding unpleasantly that "rumours of a deathbed conversion continually come around like a bad smell". So he does not have room for the well-known letter of Darwin's to John Fordyce, on 7 May 1879 which says: 
"Dear Sir, It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist... Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind." 
But then, Dawkins' aim is equally to discredit the whole notion of being 'agnostic', or not knowing for sure about how the universe operates, as he says all this is quite well known. In one of his occasional tangential attacks on 'amateurs with a little philosophical learning' who claim that science itself is uncertain, he says that this is merely a theoretical argument and that in practice science's findings are as solid as, (he gives the example) New Zealand being in the Southern hemisphere. 

Not for Dawkins is the idea that science proceeds in 'paradigm shifts' with large chunks of theory being unavoidably jettisoned as new findings expose inconstancies and flaws in the old certainties. 
And in fact, Dawkins' book rests on a much more impressive way of arguing than that used by either scientists or philosophers. He uses mere rhetoric to press his case. He creates straw men to before knocking them ringingly down, he draws irrelevant conclusions from partial data, and launches crushing tautologies at imaginary opponents as though the foolish opponents had stated the opposite. 

Dawkins, it turns out, has successfully combined his day job , Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, with being the prophet of a new religion, the sole deity of which is Charles Darwin. It is his role to travel the world proclaiming the 'good news' that God neither exists nor is needed, but rather is in fact a most unfortunate evolutionary 'misfiring'. Religion, it tuns out , is an evolutionarily useful respect for the teachings of the elders that has unfortunately mutated into blind 'faith' in various deities. 

But there is good news too to declare too, notably that Dawkins himself is now one of the world's "top three intellectuals", (alongside Chomsky and Umberto Eco) and many accounts of his successful actions to date in the war against 'unreason'. 

"Seventeen years ago, I was one of 36 writers and artists commissioned by the magazine New Statesman to write in support of Salman Rushdie.." (p22) 

"I once was the guest of the week on a British radio show called Desert Island Discs. You have to choose the eight records you would take with you if you were marooned on a desert island..." (p86) 

There is an entire section entitled 'An Interlude at Cambridge' about Dawkins' talk to various theologians. We learn that he told them that if God communicated the people, that fact would not lie outside science and that secondly that such communications would be difficult for God to arrange owing to the large numbers of messages needing to be sent to all the people. "At least one fellow said that his faith was wavering as a result of Dawkins' dissection of religion" the author proudly reports of himself. 

At other points in the book, the tone is even more chummy. 

"...in the gardens of his old college at Cambridge, Clare, I interviewed my friend Jim Watson, founding genius of the Human Genome Project..." (p99) 
"My main authority for the cargo cults is David Attenborough's Quest in Paradise, which he very kindly presented to me." (p202) 

"In the course of a recently televised conversation, I challenged my friend, Robert Winston..." (p14) 

(and finally) 

"I am still amused when I recall the remark of a former Warden (head) of my Oxford college..." that he doubted whether theology was a proper subject. (p56) 

But in-between the name-dropping, is sandwiched some philosophy. Dawkins discusses the conventional arguments for God's existence. 

There is, for example, the Cosmological Argument which Dawkins summarises as saying that there must have been a time before the universe existed, and "since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence". This he calls an infinite regress, although, at least as he describes it, there is nothing of the regress about it. 
Then there is the idea of a 'first mover', which rests on the assumption that we can see that there is movement in the universe and that we know nothing moves unless it is moved by something else. 

This is indeed an infinite regress. It is particularly unconvincing as we all accept nowadays that things in fact continue to move unless stopped (for example , by friction). The question of why things in the universe move disappears without needing God to be invented. The argument was developed by Aquinas from the bad science of Aristotle. And what do we know about Aristotle? That he was not a religious believer but a biologist with philosophical leanings. Dawkins, a biologist with philosophical leanings, however does not mention this, but instead objects to the invention of God as a first mover and says it is "more parsimonious to conjure up, say a 'big bang singularity' or some other physical concept as yet unknown". Grammatically speaking, at least, I am not sure how "some other physical concept as yet unknown" can be called 'parsimonious', nor indeed why the 'Big Bang singularity' can be assumed to need nothing to create it. 

Another argument for God, Dawkins calls the 'Argument from Degree' and is described thus: "humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us. Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God". 

However, again, this is really two arguments. One is that our concepts seems to require ideals, the ideal of goodness, yes, but also the idea of being a table' or being 'two'. One weakness in it as an argument for God is that since ideas are in the mind, God in this sense as the omnipotent, omniscient perfect being may end up with 'his' existence being 'necessary' only as an idea in the kind of alternative mental world of Plato's theory of the Forms. The problem for theologians, such as Aquinas, was to get God from existing only in the mental world to also existing in the physical world. Dawkins however dismisses the effort calling it 'fatuous' jeering "You might as well say people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness". 

The other debate is that put by Thomas Anselm and called the 'Ontological Argument'. It simply states that as everyone can imagine a perfect being, all powerful, all good et cetera, even if they do not know whether such a being really exists, it follows that in order to be perfect, such a being must also exist, as to exist is better than not to exist. As Dawkins says, this is by no means clear, band indeed, as he does not say, it may well be more perfect to exist as an abstract idea than to exist in grubby reality. In fact, it seems quite likely that it would be more perfect to exist like that. But then, this argument against God's existence would not occur to Dawkins as really his book is intended to demolish God as a concept. He says he is attacking the hypothesis that here "exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe", a confusing formulation which could potentially rule out the laws of nature themselves as being 'superhuman'. 

The 'Argument from Design' is particularly closely examined. Dawkins explains that complexity in the world arises from simple steps following the golden rule of C.D., namely survival of the fittest. He laughs at the idea that there might be a explanatory use for a designer, as he says such a designer would have to be unimaginably complex. It does not seem to occur to Dawkins that the most elegant designs are those requiring the fewest rules or procedures, and that 'God' could have designed the universe (as Darwin himself suggests) to operate using a system like that prescribed by evolutionary theory. Why shouldn't the evidence that all of the biological world seems to be reducible to a few microbes randomly mutating equally well be evidence of a wonderfully efficient design? 

And sometimes, Dawkins insistence on the universal reach of Darwin's theory obliges him to make some strange claims. To the objection that certain specialised organs like eyes and wings seem to be useless until after many supposed cycles of evolutionary refinement, he says that animals might have found 'half a wing' useful even before they could fly. He says that it might slow their descent if the fell from a tree: indeed 51% of a wing would significantly advantage such an animal over another of the same species with only 50% of a wing, he explains. There is only one question left unanswered, which is how all those flightless birds and other animals, with only two feet and useless wings, got up the tree in the first place. 

Similarly, Dawkins seems to think it necessary to demolish all aspects of religion together. Having easily demonstrated that the Old Testament is violent and unpleasant, he continues by saying that the "teaching that lies at the heart of New Testament theology, is almost as morally obnoxious as the story of Abraham setting out to barbecue Isaac, which it resembles...". His only evidence for this is the supposed 'racism' of Jesus' command to 'love they neighbour' which he claims, quoting one follow atheist-activist, was intended to promote preference for one ethic group (the Jews) over everyone else. He also says that the idea that most people will go to hell, as a result of having inherited the 'original sin' of Adam and Eve is part of the New Testament, whereas more accurately it is part of medieval theology introduced hundreds of years later, much contested both at the time and ever since and is now rejected by most Christians. Original Sin is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. 

Nonetheless, Dawkins, choosing his words carefully and with more than a little intellectual dishonesty, makes up for this in vehemence. "New Testament theology adds a new injustice, topped off by a new sadomasochism whose viciousness even the Old Testament barely exceeds." 

Dawkins happily spends the second half of the book attacking various form of religious extremism, such as the Church that teaches that the world is only 6000 years old, and the evangelist movement that has 'hell schools' which attempt to terrify children who have been naughty. It is interesting to read about the inaccuracies and palpably untrue inventions of Biblical scripture, such as the likely reality that Jesus was NOT born in Bethlehem but was merely dragged there, so to speak, by later writers in order to fit with ancient predictions about the 'messiah'. Nor did I know that Martin Luther declared that a good Christian should "tear the eyes our of his reason" and that he thought that "reason should be destroyed in all Christians". This is all interesting stuff, but it does not really serve any purpose other than a rhetorical one in the argument. 

Dawkins proceeds to demonstrate how various conflicts (the 'sectarian conflicts' in Iraq, Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia) were in fact all religious conflicts, only the newspapers preferred to protect the religious. If, in Iraq, ("Clearly a religious conflict" Dawkins asserts brusquely) we forget the American presence and the 'Kurdish question'. 

Stories like that of David Mills, who tried to protest against a 'Christian faith healer' in small-town America are entertaining enough, and it is well to be reminded that the Taliban executed homosexuals, or that the Pakistani legal code prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy, yet none of this can establish the link between religion and violence that Dawkins seeks any more than to learn that the makers of the board game ' Cluedo ' changed the name of the Reverend Green to plain 'Mr Green' in the Americana version, apparently to avoid offending the religious. Such stories are offered as making an inescapable political case against religion. But people also use 'science' to justify not only foolish but terrible actions, and we do not condemn the activity of scientific inquiry in all its many other forms. Much of Dawkins' selection of religious nonsense, although in a sense useful (surely we must try to combat such prejudice) is unworthy of a book supposedly conducting a serious debate. 

Not that Dawkins (having warned off 'amateurs') does not try a bit of philosophy himself. He describes what he calls 'that philosophical chestnut': the question of whether everyone sees colours the same way. "Maybe your red is my green, or something different from any colour that I can imagine", he says. Notwithstanding the fact that everyone, even philosophers, knows people see colours different ways. Dawkins instead says that philosophers say this question is one that can "never be answered no matter what new evidence might one day become available". he does not seem to realise that philosophers discuss such issues as a way of exploring the use of words, not as a way of examining possible knowledge of the world. 

Another philosophical favourite, we are assured, is the "invisible, intangible, inaudible unicorn" ("disproof of which is attempted yearly by the children at Camp Quest", Dawkins adds in one of his many irrelevant asides, this one presumably intended as a 'plug' for an organisation he supports). Dawkins bravely asserts that he considers unicorns not to exist, even if the philosophers say it is impossible to be prove it. 

Again, however, the point for philosophers about unicorns is not whether or not they exist, but whether or not their properties exist - for example, whether or not they have 'one or two horns' on their horsey foreheads. Unicorns are recognised, indeed defined, to be imaginary creatures: the philosophical debate concerns is the status of statements about such imaginary things. Dawkins is pleased however, having 'disproved' the existence of unicorns to extend his method to the question of God. "The point of all these way out examples is that they are undisprovable, yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is on an even footing with the hypothesis of their non-existence" he adds. 

Religious extremism - be it Christian, Muslim or Jewish - is certainly on the rise as Dawkins' book usefully illustrates. Indeed, it takes some courage these days to do so. Yet Dawkins seems to actively court controversy. Noting that a link to Hitler is often thrown at atheists, as Hitler was probably an atheist, despite having had his Nazi troops wear belts with the words "Gott mit uns" on them, he then seems to think it necessary to downplay Hitler's wickedness. That Hitler was definitely a keen supporter of the theory of 'survival of the fittest' he does not seem to think relevant. His tactic in defence is a curious one, suggesting that "Hitler seems especially evil only by the more benign standards of our time" . 

But then, Hitler seems to have been on religious matters closer to Dawkins than anyone else except Nietzsche. As Dawkins explains, while Hitler's speeches were full of pious appeals to 'the Lord', in private he was saying things like: 

"The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity" 

and: 

"When all is said, we have no reason to wish that the Italians and Spaniards should free themselves from the drug of Christianity. let us be the only people who are immunised against the disease." 

The book is full of odd digressions like this, but then Dawkins admits he drew heavily on his 'column' for the magazine 'Free Inquiry'. "We doctors call that kind of linkage linkage" Dawkins says obscurely on page 197, adding "and I shall say no more about it". 

In conclusion, Dawkins says that "Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument". Evil? What about a mother's belief that here baby is the most beautiful , of that it will become a famous writer? There may be no evidence for it, but surely she can hold these views because they are either harmless or marginally useful (creating a loving environment for a child to grow up in is doubtless evolutionarily desirable). 

Now Dawkins refers to many of his friends in the book, from Nobel Prize Winners and Ivy league and Oxbridge Professors down to mere journalists and reviewers. Let this reviewer too then refer to one of his friends, a committed Christian, who had not won any prizes or become a professor but instead devoted her time to caring for severely handicapped people. Without her 'faith' she would not have done this. Does that make her action - or her - evil? 

The only trouble with 'faith' is when it involves a commitment to do something bad. It is irrational commitment to evil that is evil, not commitment itself. And scientists, of course, are past masters at the 'rational' commitment to do evil. 


Never mind what The Philosopher says -
Take me to the bookshop!
 
Reviewed by Martin Cohen