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The Dawkins Delusion

“I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation,” declares Richard
Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of
Science at Oxford University and one of the world’s leading skeptics
concerning Christianity and belief in God.

Dawkins is well known as an intellectual adversary to all forms of
religious belief–and of Christianity in particular. He is one of the
world’s most prolific scientists, writing books for a popular audience
and addressing his strident worldview of evolutionary theory to an
expanding audience. Put simply, Richard Dawkins aspires to be the
“devil’s chaplain” of Darwinian evolution.

All this is what makes Dawkins’ denial of a confrontational approach
so ludicrous. It is simply false at face value. This is a man who has
taken every conceivable opportunity to make transparently clear his
unquestioned belief that the dominant theory of evolution renders any
form of belief in God irrational, backward, and dangerous.

Dawkins set out the basic framework of his worldview in best-selling books including, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and, most famously, The Selfish Gene. Now, in The God Delusion,
Dawkins brings his attack on Christianity to a broader audience.
Interestingly, Dawkins’ new book is released close on the heels of two
similar works. Fellow skeptics Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have
written similar books released since late summer. Taken together, these
three books represent something of a frontal attack upon the legitimacy
of belief in God.

There are few surprises in The God Delusion. Dawkins is a
gifted writer who is able to popularize scientific concepts, and he
writes with an acerbic style that fits his purpose in this volume. His
condescending and sarcastic tone set the stage for what he hopes will
be a devastating attack upon theism.

Dawkins admits his “presumptuous optimism” in hoping that his book
will cause persons to set aside their faith. “If this book works as I
intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it
down,” he asserts. Time will tell.

Though The God Delusion is intended more as an attack upon
theism than as a defense of evolutionary theory, the framework of
evolution is never far from Dawkins’ mind. In his opening chapter, he
argues that most legitimate scientists–indeed all who really
understand the issues at stake–are atheists of one sort or another. He
defines the alternatives as between a stark atheism (such as that
Dawkins himself represents) and a form of nonsupernatural religion, as
illustrated by the case of Albert Einstein. “Great scientists of our
time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine
their beliefs more deeply,” he explains. As examples, Dawkins offers
not only Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking but also Martin Rees,
currently Britain’s Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal
Society. According to Dawkins, Rees “goes to church as an ‘unbelieving
Anglican . . . out of loyalty to the tribe.’” As Dawkins explains, Rees
“has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the
cosmos provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned. He cites
Einstein to the effect that he was a “deeply religious
nonbeliever”–moved by the majesty of the cosmos but without any
reference whatsoever to a supernatural being.

As Dawkins explains, real scientists are naturalists. As
such, they eliminate entirely the question of a supernatural being’s
existence. “The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is
light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking,
thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of
priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to
confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.”

As Dawkins then makes clear, his attack upon belief is explicitly and exclusively directed toward belief in supernatural
gods. As he explains, “the most familiar” of these deities is Yahweh.
Put simply, Dawkins holds no respect for those who believe in the God
of the Bible, whom he describes as ruthless, cruel, selfish, and
vindictive.

Accordingly, Dawkins does not understand why social etiquette requires respect for those who believe in God.

In one of the central chapters of his book, Dawkins attempts to
accomplish two simultaneous purposes: to undermine the intellectual
movement known as Intelligent Design and, in a twist of its logic, to
suggest that belief in God is itself a refutation of the very notion of
an intelligent design. As Dawkins sees it, “the existence of God is a
scientific hypothesis like any other.” As he sets out his case, he
denies that there could be any legitimate basis for belief in
God. The very notion of a supernatural agent flies directly in the face
of his presuppositional naturalism. Therefore, by definition, such a
God cannot exist and those who believe in such a God prove their
intellectual inadequacy or gullibility.

In accordance with his own evolutionary theory, Dawkins acknowledges
that the universe displays appearances of design. Nevertheless, he
suggests that these appearances are false, and that any example of
apparent design is actually due to the Darwinian engine of natural
selection. He considers the traditional proof for God’s existence
offered by the philosophers and rejects each out of hand. Finally, he
considers the argument that the existence of God can be proved by
Scripture–but then launches a broadside attack upon Scripture itself.

When it comes to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, Dawkins
displays absolute amazement that any intelligent person could even
entertain the notion that such teachings might be true. Pointing back
to the nineteenth century, Dawkins asserts that the Victorian era was
“the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to
believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment.” He
adds: “When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to
deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them
because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much
rather not be asked.”

Since Dawkins considers the existence of God to be nothing more than
a scientific hypothesis–just like any other–he presents his case that
“the factual premise of religion–the God Hypothesis–is untenable.” In
other words, “God almost certainly does not exist.”

So why do so many persons believe in Him? Consistent with his
evolutionary worldview, Dawkins must offer a purely naturalistic
interpretation for the origin and function of religion. He argues that
religion must be, like all other human phenomena, a product of
Darwinian evolution. Nevertheless, he understands that the existence of
religious belief poses some interesting Darwinian questions. “Religion
is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually
targets and eliminates waste,” Dawkins explains. Therefore, there must
be some fascinating Darwinian explanation for how religious belief
emerged and survives. Citing his colleague Daniel Dennett, Dawkins
suggests that religious belief is “time-consuming, energy-consuming”
and “often as extravagantly ornate as the plumage of a bird of
paradise.” He sees no good in it at all. “Thousands of people have been
tortured for their loyalty to a religion, persecuted by zealots for
what is in many cases a scarcely distinguishable alternative faith.
Religion devours resources, sometimes on a massive scale. A medieval
cathedral could consume a hundred man centuries in its construction,
yet it was never used as a dwelling, or for any recognizable useful
purpose.”

In his own twist, Dawkins argues that belief in God is simply a
by-product of some other evolutionary mechanism. He suggests that one
possible source of belief in God (understood in purely physicalist and
natural terms) is the need for the brains of children to accept on
faith the teachings of their elders. Thus, he argues that evolution may
have “psychologically primed” the human brain for some form of belief
in God. Nevertheless, whatever function this may have served the
process of evolution in the past, Dawkins now believes that it has
become a dangerous liability.

“I surmise that religions, like languages, evolved with sufficient
randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to
generate the bewildering–and sometimes dangerous–richness of
diversity that we observe. At the same time, it is possible that a form
of natural selection, coupled with the fundamental uniformity of human
psychology, sees to it that the diverse religions share significant
teachers in common.” In the end, Dawkins sees all these forms as
dangerous.

Along the way, Dawkins insists that morality is not based in
absolute truth but in a consequentialist form of reasoning that is
itself a monument of evolutionary development. He plays with categories
and concepts–no doubt intentionally–in order to confuse the question.
Christians do not argue that those who believe in God always act in a
way that is morally superior to those who do not. Atheists may behave
better than Christians. This is to our shame, but it does not pose an
intellectual challenge to the validity of the Christian faith. The more
urgent question has to do with how any form of moral
absolute–including even a prohibition on murder or incest–can survive
if all morality is merely a natural phenomenon of human evolution.
Dawkins simply embraces the relativity of morality, arguing that this
explains why Christians are so dangerous. Believing in moral absolutes,
Christians are led to defend the sanctity of human life at every level
and to believe that, of all things, the Creator actually has set forth
moral commandments and expectations concerning our sexuality. Dawkins
rejects these ideas altogether.

At the same time, he suggests that the morality revealed in the
Bible is actually immoral when judged against the enlightened standards
of our current moral Zeitgeist. Furthermore, Dawkins argues
that modern persons do not actually derive their morality from the
Bible, no matter how much they may claim to do so.

In a sweeping rejection of biblical Christianity, Dawkins expresses
outrage at the morality of both the Old and New Testaments. “I have
described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious,
sado-masochistic and repellant. We should also dismiss it as barking
mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our
objectivity,” he asserts. Dawkins would dispense with the Ten
Commandments and replace these with a new set of commandments more
attuned to modern times. Among his proposed commandments are these:
“Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave
others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which
are none of your business;” “Do not discriminate or oppress on the
basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.” Another of
Dawkins’ commandments hits close to home: “Do not indoctrinate your
children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate
evidence, and how to disagree with you.”

Amazingly, Dawkins denies that he is himself an absolutist.
Accordingly, he expresses incredulity at the fact that he is seen as a
particularly ardent opponent of Christianity.

“Despite my dislike of gladiatorial contests, I seem somehow to have
acquired a reputation for pugnacity towards religion. Colleagues who
agree that there is no God, who agree that we do not need religion to
be moral, and agree that we can explain the roots of religion and of
morality in non-religious terms, nevertheless come back to me in gentle
puzzlement. Why are you so hostile?”

Dawkins denies that he is a “fundamentalist atheist.” “Maybe
scientists are fundamentalists when it comes to defining in some
abstract way what is meant by ‘truth.’ But so is everybody else,” he
insists. “I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than
when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere.”

In the end, Richard Dawkins will surely fail in his quest to turn
theists in to atheists. His book represents nothing fundamentally
new–just the same old arguments repeated over and over again. Dawkins
is quick to label his intellectual adversaries as fundamentalists, but
he conveniently redefines the term so that it does not apply to his own
position. He claims to live life solely on the basis of scientific
evidence, but is so fundamentally committed to the theory of evolution
that we cannot take his protestations to the contrary seriously.

The God Delusion is sure to garner significant attention
in the media and in popular culture. Dawkins, along with the other
fashionable skeptics and atheists of the day, makes for good television
and creates an instant media sensation. In one sense, we should be
thankful for the forthrightness with which he presents his arguments.
This is not a man who minces words, and he never hides behind his own
argument. Furthermore, at several points in the book he correctly
identifies weaknesses in many of the arguments put forth by theists. As
is so often the case, we learn from our intellectual enemies as well as
from our allies.

The tone of the book is strident, the content of the book is
bracing, and the attitude of the book is condescending. Nevertheless,
Dawkins insists that his strident attack upon the faith is limited to
words. “I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn
them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers,
just because of a theological disagreement,” he insists. He even allows
that “we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary
traditions” of organized religion, “and even participate in religious
rituals such as marriages and funerals,” he asserts. Nevertheless, all
this must be done without buying into the supernatural beliefs that
historically went along with those traditions.” Further: “We can give
up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.”All
this raises more questions than Dawkins answers. If belief in God is so
intellectually abhorrent, why would anyone want to retain the
traditions associated with these beliefs? Why does Dawkins acknowledge
that all this amounts to “a treasured heritage?” It must be because, in
the end, even Richard Dawkins is not as much of an atheist as he
believes himself to be. If Dawkins is so certain that theism is dead,
why would he devote so much of his time and energy to opposing it? A
man who is genuinely certain that Christianity is passing away would
feel no need to write a 400-page book in order to urge its passing.