Having Richard Dawkins write a book about
religion is rather like asking a vegan to write a book of veal recipes: nothing
good can come of it. Dawkins’ position on religion was firmly established in
his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, in which he put forward his own
uncritical view that religions provide no advantages of any kind and are best
understood as parasitic entities taking advantage of people. In his new book, The
God Delusion, he further expounds his own prejudices in a manner that seems
markedly short on sane discourse.
Many of Dawkins problems seem to result from his insistence on evaluating religions as unsuccessful precursors to science, which is to say, from considering religions as failed research programmes. In doing so he commits gross category errors of the kind that any philosophy undergraduate can identify. But Dawkins has no interest in philosophy. He has previously admitted his ignorance of this field, and has since committed no time and effort to study the area. Similarly, he has wilfully ignored the field of theology on the basis that (in essence) ‘since I know God does not exist, theology cannot possibly contain anything of interest.’
Essentially, Dawkins comes to the topic of
religion having done none of his homework, and loudly declares his own
prejudices as facts: ‘I’ve done nothing to study religion, and here are my
conclusions,’ seems to be his position. This is unfortunate, as Dawkins has a
keen intellect, and has written some solid scientific material in the past. But
outside the domain of science, he lacks both experience and insight. He is a
man with intelligence but no wisdom.
The prevailing viewpoint among critics of The God Delusion (and there are no shortage of these) is that Dawkins purposefully sets up straw men in order to knock them down. Other complaints include an apparent presumption that all religions can be treated as variations on Christianity, ignorance of religions that might contradict his opinions (such as Sufism in Islam), and an erroneous conflation of secular conflicts with religious conflicts. There seems to be general agreement that this book achieves little if anything of any philosophical importance.
Recommended reading from the critical response to this book is Terry Eagleton’s commentary from the London Review of Books which notes:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.
H. Allen Orr of The New York Review of Books comments:
Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I'm forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he's actually more an amateur.
Another critic of note is Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson, who notes that Dawkin’s has chosen to actively attack tolerance, apparently on the basis that his world view is the only sane choice. She concludes her dissection of Dawkin’s polemic with this apposite phrase:
It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science.
As a scientist, Dawkins lack of objectivity on the subject of religion is staggering. His conclusions proceed from his assumptions in a manner eerily reminiscent of Creation Science. There appears to have been no point at which Dawkins has considered that religions might provide benefits for societies and individuals – that providing people a common metaphysical and ethical framework helps stabilise societies, or aids individuals in living a purposeful life. Nor is the evidence that those with a religion to inform their world view are happier for it considered.
Although Dawkins seems incapable of
understanding this basic philosophical point, God belongs to the domain of faith. This has no
overlap with science, which has as its domain all things testable. The absence
of God in anything testable is a subject already covered at great length in
theology, and furthermore it is never possible (as the noted astrophysicist
Professor Martin Rees has observed) to eliminate God on scientific grounds as
science can never provide an answer to the ultimate question: why there is
something rather than nothing. The issue of a personal God, as discussed by
Einstein, is an area of legitimate debate, but God the creator is not an entity
that can be dismissed by anything other than a metaphysical choice.
To be clear, there is not a problem with
atheism, which is one of many belief systems we can choose between. Furthermore,
there are many atheist religions, and the youngest of these, such as Humanism,
are attempting to find their feet despite the rather difficult problems facing
any new religion. Dawkins apparently has little to offer on the issues facing
atheists and seems focussed instead on attacking theists by impugning their
mental faculties. What Dawkins espouses goes far beyond holding a personal
belief about God and instead walks dangerously close to insisting in the
supremacy of one ideology over all others.
Poorly informed anti-theists such as Dawkins always take especial issue with God, but rarely with other untestable entities – such as nations – which surely have contributed far more directly to wars and atrocities throughout human history than religion. Dawkins single-mindedness in attacking God seems to stem from some personal issue of his own that has never been resolved, possibly overcompensation for the sixteen years he was an Anglican Christian.
What is especially bizarre about Dawkins
crusade is that his current job is as Chair for the Public Understanding of
Science at the prestigious
Dawkins chief delusion seems to be a delusion of
grandeur: it is almost as if he sees himself as something akin to an atheist
messiah. He seems to have missed the point that the many intelligent atheists
of the world have no need or want of messiahs, while people with other belief
systems are not likely to be swayed into converting to Dawkins’ faith by an
outpouring of rampant bigotry. As with all supercilious zealots, the
possibility that Dawkins' sectarian world view might be incomplete is never considered.
No-one is denying that humanity has a problem with radical exclusionist dogmas, especially those that lead to hatred and hence violence. But these dogmas are not the exclusive consequence of religion, and occur just as readily from nationalist, racial, or scientistic grounds. They are catastrophes born of the human condition, feeding on ignorance. Anyone who thinks that this problem is best addressed by advocating some new radical exclusionist dogma is surely deluded.