The God Delusion

200px The God Delusion Uk

Bantam Books 2006

I approached this book with no little trepidation knowing Dawkins’s reputation as a ferocious proponent of science (and Darwinism in particular) as being able to explain evolution and the universe.

Dawkins has written this book as part of a continuing crusade for the primacy of modern rational science over what he sees as the pernicious and increasing influence of organised religion on humanity today. The first half of the book attempts to marshal the scientific arguments as to why there is no God. The rather simplistic argument consists of the following steps:-

  • For hundreds if not thousands of years, humanity has tried to explain how the appearance of complex design in the universe arises.

  • The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design (for example, the complex eye of an insect, a bird wing or a human being) to design itself.

  • The temptation to accept a benign “designer” should be rejected because this would raise the difficult question of “who designed the designer?” Since the arising of life is so improbable, the likelihood of this creator force is even more implausible.

  • Darwinian natural selection can demonstrate how living creatures have evolved by slow gradual degrees from simple beginnings., which has created the illusion of design.

  • There are some physical factors which will pre-determine the possibility of life arising on a planet, which leads scientists to conclude that evolution is possible, however unlikely.

Dawkins then goes on to ascribe four main roles of religion to humankind and examines each in turn to determine to what extent science can supplant religion. These roles are:-

  • Explanation – for the creation of the universe and life on earth.

  • Exhortation – moral instructions on how we are to behave

  • Consolation – the need for something to believe in

  • Inspiration – the development of humankind, and a sense of the possibilities for

He confidently states that science has completely supplanted religion in providing the explanation for the universe. He also suggests that we do not need a moral code from religion on how to live. Supporting evidence from anthropological studies suggesting that across different races and cultures people have a remarkably similar sense of right and wrong is presented to support the view that we do not need texts such as the Ten Commandments or the strict discipline of the Quran to live. However, could these findings be interpreted differently, to indicate evidence of a deeper, intuitive, universal set of values that humankind shares?

Dawkins identifies three behaviours in current societies which exacerbate religious divisions – the labelling of children as being part of a particular religion from a very early age, before they’ve had the chance to make up their own minds about religion (this is termed a form of child abuse), segregated schools, and taboos about marrying outside a religion or faith. There is much truth in these suggestions. When it comes to providing consolation, he does pose some valid questions about why many deeply religious people oppose assisted suicide for people suffering an excruciatingly agonising death from degenerative diseases when we are so much more humane towards domestic animals. Other ideas supporting the scientific view over the religious view are more tenuous – for example the suggestion that religious impulses are the result of a “misfiring” of part of our central nervous system.

When it comes to contesting the inspirational function, Dawkins struggles to articulate what science can do but implies briefly that it may become possible through science to develop our ability to intuitively understand the universe better.

So why should you read this book? It’s well-written, and there is no doubt that the author is passionate about his subject. He also has a very high profile in the media for and is probably one of a handful of scientists who is well known by the general public, and in this role he exerts enormous influence. It’s useful to people searching for their own spiritual way because it vividly describes two of the main conflicting world views manifesting across humanity. Firstly, the literal interpretation of holy books such as the Bible and the Quran, placing “God“ at the centre of everything and encouraging blind belief without questioning. And secondly, the view that modern science, with Darwinian evolution at its heart that can provide and explain a “godless” universe. Why should this matter? It places a context for asking oneself questions about why more extreme forms of religion are spreading in many countries with a concomitant increase in religious intolerance (for example the right wing Christian movement in North America and fundamentalist Islam). In parallel with this, the rational scientific view is equally intolerant of religion. Is something being missed by this all-encompassing rejection of every religion?

In some ways, I think Dawkins is right. Many religious sects appear to bludgeon individuals, both physically and metaphorically, into accepting highly literal interpretations of much translated ancient religious texts, for example the Bible and the Quran based on fear of exclusion. Some of these literal interpretations flatly ignore overwhelming scientific evidence. There is no room for individual questioning to allow each person to grow their own understanding. In contrast, the fundamental premise of empirical science is the need to prove whether or not a hypothesis is correct.

Having trained as a scientist, the urge to find out how and why things are as they are can be an honourable quest, and a humbling one. I can still vividly recall hearing Sir Oliver Scott, one of the world’s leading Radiobiologists, apologising publicly for his field’s lack of progress over the last 30 years. It’s also true that many religions and individuals have taken the most appallingly arrogant moral high ground when justifying their behaviour, for example the American “priest“ who murdered a doctor for performing abortions in the last decade, and the forced removal of Jewish children from their parental homes to be brought up by the Catholic Church having been forcibly baptised by their nannies. In fact throughout human history, there is clear evidence of religions involving to become a source of bigotry, exclusion and war. Finally, there is some scientific evidence to support Darwinism – the gradual evolution of species, although over the last fifteen years some questions have been raised about the validity of natural selection.

And yet there is an over-riding assumption in the book that all religions are the same and that there are no qualitative levels of inner experience. Are all religions so averse to individual questioning and self-development? Regardless of how we originated (by gradual evolution or otherwise) is there another science, one which recognises differing levels and therefore qualities of inner experience, and which enables the observed phenomenon to be related to the human being making the observation? We can all recall certain experiences, perhaps when we lost a close relative or in moments of danger, when our functioning appears to speed up – our thinking is clearer, we feel our own position and that of others around us more, we sense ourselves more and we respond in a more rounded way. Paradoxically, Dawkins raises a searching question along similar lines but does not develop it . He quotes from a scientist called Steve Grant, inviting his readers to:-

“….think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place….Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.”

If such a science of being exists, might this provide more moments of greater quality of experience? Could this alternatively be described as an evolution of consciousness? It would require that each person tries for themselves to build their understanding of their own lives and the world around them through an integrated testing of ideas, with the help of a guide or teacher to recognise different levels within themselves. I would contest that all the major religions began with a genuine teaching along these lines which was based on oral transmission, and that traces of this lineage still survive. It is the absence of a recognition of the need for self-knowledge and of inner levels of experience, referred to in all the great spiritual traditions, which is most striking in this book.

I was grateful to read The God Delusion. It has raised more questions. What is a human being?

Geoff Butts – September 2007