A Defense of Atheism
The God Delusion. Richard Dawkins. x + 406 pp. Houghton
Mifflin, 2006. $27.
These are difficult times for rational people, particularly in the
United States. Those of us who believe that scientific evidence
should be the bedrock of policy formation, that logic should be the
basis for argument and that uncertainty should beget tolerance are
not honored in the political world. Rather, scientific evidence is
ignored when it leads to politically unacceptable conclusions, logic
is tossed aside when faith is involved, and tolerance for minority
opinions is simply out of political fashion. Why should this be? For
one thing, we seem to be becoming an increasingly religious country,
and because religion supplants evidence and logic with
faith—and faith can mean anything you want it
to—politicians can get away with appealing to faith without
having to justify themselves.
Less abstractly, the consequences of religious doctrines are
implicitly or explicitly generating much of the news today. Whether
it be jihad, opposition to stem-cell research, or teaching of
intelligent design, religion is the genesis of more of our news than
at any time I can remember. Because of the central role of religious
belief in U.S. political life, this is a good time for a hard look
at its nature. And a number of books have recently appeared that put
religion to the test of rationality and show how appallingly it fails.
One quite extensive and erudite discussion comes from evolutionary
biologist Richard Dawkins, who is an Englishman and a facile writer
about science. In a sense, you needn't read his latest book, you can
just savor its title: The God Delusion. Depending on your
position on religion, you may be impressed by how neatly that title
announces his strongly held antireligious beliefs, or you may be
disgusted that such a deeply rooted part of the world's traditions
is dismissed so curtly. Either way, you will have a pretty full
appreciation for the core of the arguments he makes. However, if you
don't read the book, you will miss a very wide-ranging and quite
readable discussion of religion from many points of view:
historical, logical and cultural.
The God Delusion is a defense of atheism. I must say, I
think most atheists probably don't feel any need to defend
themselves and are quite comfortable with their belief system. And I
suspect that in spite of the range of Dawkins's arguments, few
theists or deists are likely to read this and say, "What a fool
I have been to have believed in God!" So it is worth noting
that Dawkins says his goal is consciousness-raising. He wants
readers to be aware of four things: (1) Atheists can be "happy,
balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled" people. (2)
Darwinian natural selection explains "the illusion of design in
the living world" with "devastating elegance" and is
a far more economical explanation than the existence of a
supernatural "Designer." (3) When children are too young
to know where they stand on issues of religion, their parents take
advantage of this tabula rasa to instill religious beliefs.
(4) An atheist should be proud of his or her stance. This last item
is perhaps his core reason for writing: He believes that "The
status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of
homosexuals fifty years ago," and he wants to help change that
status to tolerance, if not acceptance.
Dawkins goes through the various stages needed to develop his
argument. He discusses "The God Hypothesis," which he
defines as follows: "there exists a superhuman, supernatural
intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and
everything in it, including us." It is only
supernatural gods that he is calling delusional, Dawkins
emphasizes; he does not disapprove of religious feeling of the sort
that Einstein described as "unbounded admiration for the
structure of the world." Dawkins also discusses the historical
arguments used to prove God's existence, the power of Darwinian
reasoning and the historic wrongs committed in the name of God. In
addition to Einstein, he quotes Steven Weinberg ("the word
'God' can be given any meaning we like"), Thomas Jefferson
("Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for
every fact, every opinion") and many others who have defended
atheist impulses over the years.
Dawkins is full of pithy statements that skewer religion by
substituting a rational approach to questions. For instance, he
comments as follows on the fundamentalist's belief in the literal
truth of the Bible:
The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product
of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence
seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out,
not the book.
When Dawkins considers the charge that he too is a fundamentalist,
but his religion is science, he counters neatly:
It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion.
I may well appear passionate when I defend evolution against a
fundamentalist creationist, but this is not because of a
fundamentalism of my own. It is because the evidence for evolution
is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my
opponent can't see it.
It is worth noting that Dawkins's arguments against religion focus
more heavily on evolution than those of other atheists might,
reflecting the awe he feels after thinking so hard for so long about
the power of evolution as a force of creation. He gives evolution
credit for more than just creating our physical selves: In one
chapter he argues that morality is evolutionarily grounded and that
religion is not necessary to generate moral behavior.
Dawkins doesn't ever come to terms with the large number of
scientists who are comfortable believing both that evolution is a
natural process over billions of years and that there is a God. His
main focus is on those who disbelieve in evolution and are therefore fundamentalists.
I personally have wondered for years why it took such a long time
for the rational view of the world to make inroads on the religious
one. With the evidence from fossils so blatant, why did it take
until the beginning of the 19th century for someone (William Smith)
to realize that fossils provided a record of the history of life on
Earth? And why was Darwin so scared to present his ideas in the
mid-19th century—why at that time was the prevailing view of
how animals came to be on the planet so totally grounded in a
Because I am myself unable to accept a religious explanation of
anything, I wonder why others so readily do so. Dawkins does talk
about the possibility that religion fills a deep-seated need in
people, and he tries to dismiss it. But the evidence that this is
the case is so strong, and the train of belief stretches so far back
into human history, that the theory deserves more respect.
This book does not plow new ground—Dawkins has visited all of
these topics in other books, and even on television, but clearly he
felt that he had to present his views on religion in
extenso. He is one of the great writers on evolution and has
done as much as anyone to explain it to a general readership.
However, in this book he often refers to his earlier writings and
then to those who have written explicitly in opposition to his
ideas—for instance, the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne.
Readers may at times feel that they are eavesdropping on an ongoing
debate on which they have been incompletely briefed. But this is a
minor flaw in a generally readable book.
I am glad Dawkins took the time to write The God Delusion
at this moment in history. In the United States, there is an
increasingly pervasive assumption that Christianity is our state
religion. In fact, the tolerance of other religions that was so much a
part of American politics, at least in the post-World War II era, is
giving way to an increasing focus on Christianity as the only true
belief. Atheism has never had a strong position in the United States,
and it is hard to imagine a politician today publicly admitting to such
views. But one implication of Dawkins's book is worth noting: that
tolerance of other religions implies acceptance of a relativism that
could lead to doubt and is therefore anathema to the true believer. The
intolerance bred by fundamentalism is not particularly American: Attacks
on Jews and sites of Jewish worship are becoming increasingly frequent
in Europe as Islamic fundamentalism spreads there. A lesson of World War
II should be that a civilized society must be one that defends diversity
of belief; if so, we seem to be becoming less civilized. Combining
intolerance with the power of the weaponry born of contemporary
technology is producing a lethal brew. We must learn the lessons of
history lest we put our whole civilization at risk.
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