The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2006, 406 pages, $27, ISBN 978-0-618-68000-9.
Richard Dawkins, following in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell’s classic 1927 essay “Why I am not a Christian,” has written a passionate and important polemic against religion and theism. “The God Delusion” is nothing less than a call to arms for scientists to do battle in the current culture war between science and religion, or as Dawkins sees it between reason and dogma.
Dawkins attacks a watered-down version of logical positivism espoused by a variety of scientists and thinkers, which holds that questions of theology are simply outside the realm of science. He specifically challenges Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” which divides science from religion: the former covering the empirical realm and the latter extending to questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.
Dawkins rightly observes this supposed divide is neither recognized nor respected by theists, who alternately attack science and attempt to use it as justification for dogmatic beliefs. But more fundamentally Dawkins maintains it is plain wrong that science has nothing to say about the hypothesis that God exists. As a matter of completeness, Dawkins rehashes why the various arguments for God’s existence are not compelling, although Russell already presents a more concise set of refutations in his famous essay.
The real heart of “The God Delusion” is Dawkins’ contention that, as a matter of scientific fact, there almost certainly is no God. Dawkins’ “statistical demonstration” of God’s likely nonexistence follows from his recasting of the argument from improbability. This is the argument many theists see as an overwhelming reason to believe in God, and also as the basis of the so-called theory of intelligent design. Simply put, the theists' argument is that “…the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747.”
Here is where, according to Dawkins, Darwinian natural selection is so revolutionary. Natural selection offers a mechanism that explains what otherwise seems inexplicable: that complexity can occur without design.
Physicists, of course, have already learned this lesson from the study of nonlinear phenomena. But Dawkins’ paramount point is that the complexity of the Universe, including life, cannot be explained by design and can be explained by natural selection and other natural mechanisms. “A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right.”
Fortunately, and this is Darwin’s great contribution, design is not the only alternative to chance as an explanation for complexity. Dawkins’ contribution is to recognize that fundamentalists are rightfully discomforted by the theory of evolution. The fact that life evolved via naturally selected random mutations destroys the theist argument from improbability and casts a glaring light on how unnecessary, and improbable, God is as an explanation for the complex universe we inhabit.
Dawkins tosses down the gauntlet to scientists and challenges them not to retreat from the fundamentalist onslaught against science.
Clearly, most scientists would have no difficulty stating flatly that Greek mythology is completely improbable as an explanation of natural phenomena. Yet many scientists are loath to challenge the prevailing Judeo-Christian mythologies prevalent in western societies, and instead treat superstitions dating back millennia as deserving of solemn respect.
Scientists are able to recognize the intentional silliness of the mock religion Pastafarianism, which postulates a giant flying spaghetti monster as the creator of the Universe. Scientists know, as well as any empirical statement can be known, that mass murderers aren’t rewarded with 72 virgins after they die. Yet how many scientists in Judeo-Christian countries are willing to speak out publicly and flatly state Judeo-Christian creationism is irrational nonsense?
Dawkins advocates strident hostility to religion not only because fundamentalism subverts science and rational discourse, but also because moderate or even liberal religious movements foster fanaticism by treating dogma with respect and thereby undermining reason. Neither does Dawkins shy away from even more controversial reasons for actively opposing religion, arguing that religious upbringing is a form of mental and, far too often, physical child abuse.
“The God Delusion” is targeted primarily to raise the consciousness of agnostics and mildly religious believers—the great middle ground between staunch atheists and fundamentalists. Quite simply, Dawkins hopes to convince liberally minded scientists to actively oppose religion rather than to tolerate it. His plea deserves careful reading and serious consideration.