In recent years, the tension between competing religious beliefs has climbed to a dangerous new level. Adding fuel to the fire is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which reads like a declaration of war upon mainstream religion.
Dawkins is one of today's most vocal advocates for atheism and his new book is a potent expression of a growing atheist viewpoint. While this book will almost certainly offend some believers, it will also bring relief to many skeptics.
Everyone has different ideas about religion and you cannot expect an unbiased review of a book like this one. I believe in science and evolution, like Dawkins does, and my main aim was to write a clear and accurate summary of the book so that those who have not read it can form an educated opinion of it.
I hope to have truthfully represented what Dawkins was trying to say, but at the same time, I have not hesitated to expose whatever flaws I perceive in his arguments.
Hold on tight to whatever faith you may have and brace yourself for a chapter-by-chapter summary and analysis of what Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion.
Dawkins begins by promising that atheists can be “happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled”. He then asks us to imagine a world without the destructive influence of religion.
He says that being an atheist is something to be proud of. There may be prejudice against atheism, especially in America, but he says that atheists actually make up a significant percentage of the American population.
He says that many of America's intellectuals are atheists, but nobody notices them because they hide their disbelief out of fear. Dawkins hopes that his writings will encourage more prominent citizens to publicly admit their atheism.
Dawkins defends his use of the word ‘delusion’ in the book title by quoting the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who said, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion”.
He hopes his book might convert some believers into atheists, but he acknowledges that most believers will dismiss the book as a work of Satan.
Chapter 1 - Deserved Respect
After reflecting on his boyhood wonderment for the beauty of the universe, Dawkins points out that his love of nature is almost religious. Then he quotes the famous astrobiologist, Carl Sagan ...
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
Dawkins then complains about how confusing the word ‘God’ can be. Although most people see God as a superstitious idol to be worshipped, there are some people who use the word God to conveniently label the supreme mystery behind the existence of the natural scientific universe.
He then talks about how Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking occasionally used the word God in their own writings, but not in any way that a creationist would understand. Many scientists have religious feelings that can only be interpreted as natural rather than supernatural.
Dawkins describes an atheist as someone who believes in nothing beyond the natural, physical world. There is no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe. If we ever do discover something beyond the natural universe then Dawkins hopes it would be something that could eventually be understood using science and embraced as natural.
Dawkins then focuses on what Einstein believed. He quotes how Einstein rejected any belief in a personal God, and he details the criticism that this provoked from Catholics and other believers.
While complaining about how religious believers often try to claim Einstein as one of their own, Dawkins then hypocritically attempts to claim that Einstein was an atheist. He suggests that when Einstein said things like “God does not play dice”, he was only being metaphorical and poetic.
In a new section, Dawkins states that he has no problem with the beliefs of Einstein or any other enlightened scientist. He then promises that the rest of the book will be devoted to attacking belief in supernatural Gods, like the God of the Bible.
He talks about how religious believers often react badly to criticism, and how the wider society generally frowns upon any criticism of religion. Religion seems to be protected by a shroud of sacred irrationality. He then gives several examples of how easily religion can be used as an excuse to get away with almost anything.
Dawkins then focuses specifically on Muslims and their violent reactions to criticism. He quotes ironic Islamic death chants like 'Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion'. And he makes a lot of good points about how Islamic intolerance often goes way beyond anything that rational people should tolerate.
Chapter 2 - The God Hypothesis
Dawkins starts this chapter by saying that there is no point poking fun at the ridiculousness of the God described in the Bible. Instead, he just wants to debunk the idea of a supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.
For the next few pages, he talks about religion's tax-exempt status and the evangelical conmen who profit from it. He then digs into the history of the Christian trinity, condemning it as a ridiculous polytheistic concept. And he highlights other elements of polytheism in Christianity like “Mary, the queen of heaven” and various other godlike heavenly entities.
After reminding us that extreme violence has often been used in the spread of both Christianity and Islam, he then opens a new section on the religious beliefs of the founding fathers of the United States.
Secularism, The Founding Fathers, and the Religion of America
While it is widely acknowledged that many of the authors of the United States constitution were deists (believers in a natural non-interventionist God). Dawkins makes the case that some of them were probably atheists.
He quotes from the writings of a few early American presidents like Thomas Jefferson, who once remarked that “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man”, and he succeeds in making a believable case that maybe one or two of the founding fathers could be described as atheists.
Dawkins then talks about America today, and tells a story about how George Bush senior was once quoted as saying “No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God”.
Dawkins also recounts a story about how redneck police once harassed an atheist street protestor. He then suggests that atheists would have to lie about their beliefs to get elected in America.
He says that although the natural non-interventionist God of the deists was an improvement over the personal interventionist God of the scriptures, all Gods are unnecessary, and he makes a bold claim that he can prove that the probability of God's existence is almost zero.
The Poverty of Agnosticism
Dawkins now attacks agnostics. Thomas Huxley, the originator of the word ‘agnosticism’ said that when it comes to issues that are still open to debate, refusing to commit to a particular belief is the smartest position to take.
Dawkins says that there is nothing wrong with being agnostic in cases where we lack enough evidence one way or the other. Without any evidence, the reasonable thing to do is to not take a position. Unless, according to Dawkins, you are talking about God.
He then splits agnostics into two groups, those who won't commit yet for lack of evidence, and those who believe it is impossible to know. The difference between the two is whether the question of God's existence can ever be answered using science. Dawkins claims that it can be.
According to Dawkins, agnosticism is flawed because it assumes that the probability that God exists is equal to the probability that God does not exist. This is an important claim, because it is his only solid argument against agnosticism, and he promises that he will prove that the probabilities are unequal later in the book.
He admits that for many agnostics, claims about probability are meaningless. If there are no measurable quantities from which the probability can be calculated then it is only a matter of possibilities, not probabilities. But he then dismisses this argument using a quote from the famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who said that the responsibility is on believers to prove God's existence rather than on atheists to disprove it. No rational person believes in tooth fairies or flying spaghetti monsters and yet they are also impossible to disprove.
It is here that Dawkins makes his first serious conceptual error by saying that an object like a flying teapot that affects the physical universe is impossible to disprove, rather than saying that within the limits of our technology it is impractical to disprove.
He also fails to properly differentiate between an interventionist and non-interventionist God. With a non-interventionist God, there would be absolutely no observable difference in the physical universe and therefore no way to either prove or disprove God's existence.
Dawkins now attacks theologians, starting with Alistair McGrath, who recently wrote a book attacking Dawkins. McGrath had quoted the popular evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, who once wrote that “science covers what the universe is made of and why it works this way”, and “religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value”. Gould gained both critics and admirers when he claimed that these two spheres of human endeavor could coexist without conflict.
Dawkins disputes Gould's claim, and he disputes a similar claim made by the astronomer, Martin Rees, who said that the ultimate reason for our existence is something that lies beyond the reach of science and is open to the speculations of philosophers and theologians.
Philosophers maybe, Dawkins retorts, but not theologians. What possible contribution could they make? Why would any real scientist value the opinion of someone whose entire system of knowledge is based upon a book of myths?
He suggests that the only reason why a respectable scientist might say nice things about religion is to appease a powerful enemy. He then chastises Gould for having been an agnostic, because agnostics are too deluded to accept that the probability of God's existence is almost zero.
Dawkins points out that if there was ever any scientific evidence to support a religious assertion then believers would jump all over it. And believers are always making claims about miracles that would violate the principles of science. If God ever did intervene, then science and religion would be in conflict over the workings of nature. Dawkins says that this makes the existence of God a scientific matter. You cannot separate science and religion.
Dawkins admits that Gould might have been talking about some kind of religious belief that was compatible with science. But then he points out that any such miracle-free religion would be unrecognizable to the vast majority of religious believers in the world today.
This leads Dawkins to reconsider the idea of a non-interventionist God. If God's only interference in nature was to establish the initial conditions of the universe and then leave events to unfold in a natural way, could it then be said that there is no conflict between science and religion? Dawkins says no, they would still be in conflict, and he promises to explain why in chapter four.
The Great Prayer Experiment
Dawkins recalls a scientifically controlled experiment in which thousands of churchgoers prayed for the health of sick hospital patients. Needless to say, their prayers went unanswered. Religious commentators invented plenty of ridiculous and even sometimes sickening excuses for why God failed to intervene. This gives Dawkins an easy opportunity to attack the stupidity and insensitivity of prominent theologians.
The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists
Dawkins says that the teaching of evolution is being attacked in America by well-organized, well-connected, and well-financed religious groups. In order to defend evolution, some scientists have enlisted the help of moderate Christians who have no problem with evolution and who often feel embarrassed by creationists who bring their religion into disrepute.
Dawkins now attacks these scientists for colluding with the enemy. One focus of his attack is on Michael Ruse, a prominent evolutionary philosopher who recently attacked Dawkins for being too extreme.
Ruse says that all evolutionists, even Christian evolutionists, should be encouraged to join the fight against creationism. But Dawkins says that the real war is between rationalism and superstition. Creationism is just a symptom of a larger religious problem.
Creationists use every dirty trick in the book. They turn popular opinion against evolution by connecting it with atheism, and they publicly persecute atheists by comparing them to terrorists. Dawkins says that appeasing religious believers is not the best strategy to employ at a time when America is being torn apart by a culture war. He believes that instead of surrendering to religious superstition for the sake of peace, every scientist should now join the secularist campaigners who are fighting against religion.
Little Green Men
Dawkins explains that there is an equation called the Drake equation that is used by astrobiologists to calculate the probability that life exists on other planets. This equation currently suggests that we should keep an open mind on the issue.
Thanks to recent breakthroughs, however, like the discovery of planets in nearby solar systems, the odds are starting to narrow. Dawkins argues that the same principle applies to the probability that God exists. He says that science is slowly narrowing the odds, and once again, he promises to explain how in chapter four.
Chapter 3 - Arguments for God's existence
In this chapter, Dawkins outlines some of the arguments for the existence of God that theologians like Saint Aquinas and Saint Anselm have been boring people to sleep with for centuries. Dawkins now bores us some more with the same tired old counter-arguments that secular philosophers use.
The main point of this chapter is to show that any attempt to prove God's existence using logic and reason never amounts to anything more than a word game. And any attempt to use ‘evidence’ to prove the existence of God is either based upon misinterpretations of nature, figments of the imagination, or blatant lies.
The argument from scripture
Dawkins attacks the historical credibility of the New Testament by running through all of its glaringly obvious inconsistencies. He then gives a brief account of the haphazard way in which the Gospel stories were written and chosen.
He says that the only difference between the Gospel stories and Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code is that one is recent fiction and the other is ancient fiction.
The argument from admired religious scientists
Some Christians argue that the Bible must have some credibility if a great scientist like Isaac Newton believed in it. And some Christians are even so desperate as to repeat the lie that Darwin converted to Christianity on his deathbed.
Dawkins points out that most historical figures were reported to be Christians up until the end of the 1800s, when the theory of evolution finally made it fashionable to admit your disbelief. Famous Christian scientists like Newton and Faraday can be excused for having lived in a time of ignorance.
The most noticeable thing about religious scientists today is that there are so few of them. Recent surveys have shown that religious scientists are a dwindling minority, and that less than ten percent of distinguished scientists believe in a personal God.
While Dawkins confidently claims that almost all true intellectuals are atheists, he blows his credibility by forgetting to mention the percentage of scientists who might be agnostics. In fact, he seems to label as an atheist anyone who does not believe in a personal God.
Still, it is a damning indictment that, according to Dawkins, only one or two Nobel Prize winning scientists out of several hundred have been Christians. According to numerous studies mentioned in the book, the higher a person's intelligence or education level, the less likely they are to be religious.
The French mathematician Blaise Pascal is famous for saying that you better believe in God, because if he exists then you will go to heaven, but if he does not exist then what did you lose by believing in him? However, if you do not believe in him and he does exist then you will go to hell.
Dawkins asks why God needs us to believe in him. Why wouldn't God prefer that we believe in science instead? Surely God would respect us more for choosing to pursue provable truths.
Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by an angry God who demanded to know why he had not believed. Russell said his reply would be “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence”.
Dawkins asks why God would credit Pascal's cowardly wager over Russell's courageous skepticism? Dawkins admits that nobody with a brain would ever take Pascal's wager seriously, and that it was probably only a joke anyway.
Finally, Dawkins mentions a recent attempt by some crazy theologian to calculate the probability of God's existence. The factors used in the calculation were things like “the goodness of humankind” and “the occasional evilness of nature”. Dawkins condemns this ridiculous attempt but praises the idea of trying to calculate God's probability, something he intends to do in chapter four.
Chapter 4 - Why there almost certainly is no God
The cosmologist, Fred Hoyle, once said that the probability that life originated on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747.
This is a common argument that creationists use against evolution. As Dawkins points out, it demonstrates their complete lack of understanding of the power of natural selection to shape things.
Dawkins says that anyone who understands how powerful a creative force natural selection can be should realize that whenever they are confronted with something of inexplicable complexity, they should assume Darwinian forces rather than an invisible creator.
Dawkins' old ally, Daniel Dennett, once pointed out that the theory of evolution counters one of the oldest ideas that we have, “the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing”.
This is a very serious mistake, because it suggests that evolution is a self contained process. Dawkins and Dennett fail to mention that it took an incredibly complex and powerful set of natural laws governing the interactions between atoms and molecules in order for biological evolution to happen.
Despite this fatal oversight, Dawkins says that knowing about the power of natural selection should make us bold enough to apply evolutionary ideas to other fields. With this, he prepares to lay down his killer theory that our universe was the product of natural selection.
Dawkins agrees with creationists who say that it is just too improbable that pure chance could be responsible for the design of something as complex as life. But then he says that it is even less probable that some kind of creator is the designer, because then you would have to ask, “who created the creator?” A creator would have to be at least as complex as its design, and therefore at least as improbable.
The beauty of natural selection, Dawkins explains, is that it breaks the creation of something up into miniscule steps, each small step being so much less improbable that in a strange kind of way, it becomes probable.
We can see here that Dawkins is building up to suggesting that our universe is the result of some kind of process of cosmic evolution. He says that the existence of God would be a more complex and improbable way to have created the universe than a simpler and incrementally probable process like natural selection.
The worship of gaps
Dawkins talks about how creationists eagerly look for any gap in our present-day scientific knowledge. They then try to fill that gap with an explanation involving God. The worry for believers is that as science advances, the gaps shrink, and one day there may be no gaps left for God to explain. The worry for scientists is that there will be no more mysteries left for science to explore.
This chapter becomes very tedious as Dawkins goes on and on about creationist arguments against biological evolution, and how cleverly he and Darwin have refuted them all. He mentions the embarrassing courtroom demolition of intelligent design advocate, Michael Behe. And once again he condemns the creationists for suggesting that there is no need for scientific research because everything can be explained using God.
The anthropic principle: planetary version
Dawkins now introduces a concept known as “the anthropic principle”. He attempts to give us an easy explanation of this concept by first discussing it in relation to the number of planets in the universe that support life.
He explains that our earth is very a fortunate place. If its chemical composition or position within the solar system were much different, our planet would not have been able to support the evolution of life.
The vast majority of planets in the universe are made of the wrong stuff, or are too close to their stars, or too far away, or their orbits are too irregular. Only a very small percentage of planets will have the necessary conditions to support the evolution of life.
However, there may still be more than a trillion planets in our universe that can support life, so the chances of a self-replicating molecule (the evolutionary precursor of life) being randomly assembled on at least one of these planets is relatively high. There is no need for a God to have initiated the process of evolution.
Dawkins says that life evolved for two reasons. The first is that the high improbability was overcome by the extremely large number of planets. The second is that natural selection broke the process down into miniscule steps, each step being so much less improbable that it became probable.
The anthropic principle: cosmological version
Dawkins says that we can now apply these principles to the existence of the universe. He says that physicists have calculated that if the laws of nature that govern this universe were just slightly different, then the evolution of life would not have been possible.
He talks about the six fundamental constants of nature, one of them being the magnitude of the force that binds the nucleus of an atom. If this value was much different from its current value then the stars would not shine and the universe would not contain the right elements to support life.
A theist might claim that God chose the values of these six constants to allow the evolution of life. But Dawkins hates this answer because it leaves the existence of God unexplained. He says that the probability of the existence of a God who is capable of calculating the best six values would have to be at least as improbable as these values having been arrived at by pure chance.
Dawkins admits that a hard-nosed physicist might say that one day a unified theory of everything will explain where the six values came from, showing that there could only be one possible set of values. But then this would raise the question again, “Why would the only possible universe allow the evolution of life?” In Dawkins mind, only natural selection could have fine-tuned the six values to support life.
At this point Dawkins says that we can completely dismiss the existence of God and shake our heads disappointingly at anyone who is too blind to see the logic of his argument. Maybe the reason for such blindness is because of people's widespread ignorance about the power of natural selection. Or maybe it is because of our primitive tendency to assume humanlike agents at work behind natural phenomena.
Dawkins then claims that because biologists are so intimate with natural selection, they are uniquely qualified to pontificate about the probabilities of the existence of the universe, whereas theologians are just ignorant.
Dawkins now introduces the ‘multiverse’ theory, which says that beyond our universe there exists perhaps an infinite number of other universes, each having a different variation in the laws of nature.
He suggests that our universe might eventually collapse into a single point and then re-explode to form a new universe with different laws of nature. If this process continued indefinitely then it might create every possible configuration of universe. The more configurations, the more probable that at least one would have the right conditions for life.
Another multiverse theory put forward by the theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin, speculates that black holes might give birth to baby universes that are slightly different from their parent universe. An essential component of this theory is that each baby universe would inherit certain successful qualities from its parent. A process of gradual evolution would then lead to a universe like ours that could support life.
Dawkins admits that such elaborate explanations might sound just as preposterous and unsatisfactory to some people as the existence of an intelligent creator. But he claims that the difference is one of improbability.
He says that God's existence would have to be at least as improbable as the existence of the universe he created. A multiverse might seem extravagant in terms of the sheer number of universes involved, but if the original universe was governed by only a few simple laws, and if the mutations between the universes were small enough, then the whole process would be much more probable than an all-powerful supremely-intelligent creator.
Dawkins looks for someone to argue with
While looking for someone to refute his argument, Dawkins mentions a few of the objections he received from Christian scientists and theologians. The objections he mentions are all so worthless that you wonder why he bothers mentioning them at all, other than to point out how useless theologians are.
Dawkins takes some time out to ridicule the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that gives away millions of dollars in grants every year to promote a more constructive dialog between science and religion. Each year, they award the Templeton prize, worth more than a million dollars, to any individual who achieves progress in bridging the gap between science and religion.
Dawkins was once invited to one of their affairs as a token atheist. The impression he got from the event was that Templeton was trying to bribe scientists into saying nice things about religion. He repeats an old Daniel Dennett joke that if he is ever short of a dollar then he'll know what to say.
Dawkins then starts attacking theologians again, and he once again drops the distinction between the Christian God and a non-interventionist God, as though your only two choices are a naturally selected universe or a God who listens to prayers.
Dawkins rests his case in chapter four by saying that although we don't have the answer yet, we have a hint that at some time in the future we might have a scientific theory that explains our existence. Dawkins suggests that a hint of a theory is good enough to have faith in.
Chapter four was a dismal failure
Much of what Dawkins had to say in the first three chapters, especially his argument against agnosticism, depended entirely on his promise to prove in chapter four that God was too improbable to exist. Dawkins based the entire credibility of his book on this chapter, and the only proof that he delivered was a rhetorical hypothesis.
To begin with, the chapter was poorly written. Most of its pages were wasted attacking Biblical creationists instead of explaining God's relative improbability. Dawkins' explanation of the multiverse was short and vague, and his case for cosmological evolution required the reader to see connections between a loose collection of fuzzy concepts.
Throughout the book, he throws the term ‘natural selection’ around like it means the same thing as evolution. But evolution requires ‘random mutation’ as well as natural selection, and Dawkins' failure to address the question of how universes might randomly mutate spells doom for his probability argument.
Biological evolution is only possible because of the laws of nature that govern the universe and give organic molecules their remarkable properties. With cosmological evolution, however, there must be no external laws governing how universes behave, otherwise we would be back to square one trying to explain where these higher laws came from.
Every possible way in which a baby universe might be different from its parent would have to be determined by the internal laws that govern the parent. Every universe would have to contain the potential design of every other universe that ultimately descended from it. This would include the seeds for life in our universe.
The only possible way around this would be if there was some kind of reality disconnection during the birth of a new universe. The birth process would have to include something unrestrained by the laws of nature that allowed unpredictable and indeterminable things to happen. In other words, there would have to be an injection of pure chaos.
With biological evolution, this injection of chaos is governed by the laws of nature. It is restrained chaos. But if you try to use pure unrestrained cosmic chaos to explain the gaps in cosmological evolution then anything becomes possible. You don't need gradual evolution anymore because our universe could have sprung directly from pure cosmic chaos. Even a personal God could conceivably spring from cosmic chaos. If there was any chaos at all in our origin, then we could not trust our laws of nature to be failproof.
Another problem with the idea of cosmological evolution is that it would be difficult to imagine how a fundamental thing like ‘time’ could ‘gradually’ evolve into existence. The origin, whatever it is, would have to be beyond time. In a similar way, the origin would probably be beyond concepts like logic and even probability. Why would the thing that was originally responsible for the concept of probability be bound by it?
Dawkins' description of cosmological evolution reminded me of the old image of a flat earth being carried on the back of a giant turtle standing on the back of an infinitely high stack of turtles. Each turtle gets slightly smaller as you go down the stack. The difference in size between consecutive turtles is too insignificant to require an explanation. At the bottom of the stack, the turtles are so small that they may as well no longer exist.
Dawkins' claim about differing probabilities appears very naive. Whatever explanation you give for the existence of our universe, whether you believe that the ultimate source of all reality is a mindless cosmic machine, an infinite cosmic chaos, or a purposeful creative force; they are all logically impossible.
Without a shred of evidence to support it, the only difference between cosmological evolution and any other kind of creation myth is that it is cleverly shrouded in scientific words. Dawkins does this a lot throughout his book. He takes questionable concepts and shrouds them in scientific words in order to give them the look of scientific legitimacy. Intelligent design theorists use the same tactic.
Dawkins' dodgy introduction to metaphysics ends with chapter four and the next six chapters deal primarily with the reason why religion exists and the impact it has on society. These chapters are not so much a defense of atheism as they are a continuation of his venomous attack on religious irrationality.
Stay tuned for the second part of my review, covering the last six chapters of The God Delusion.
- Robert Stewart