Monday, November 06, 2006

Review of The God Delusion

Mr. Dawkins has certainly produced a book worthy of his reputation as Britain’s leading atheist. In The God Delusion, the internationally best-selling author has taken 406 pages to tell us that God does not exist, that the Bible is total fiction, that religion is a virus of the mind and that Christianity is dangerous to society.

Professor Dawkins’ self-appointed task has been to discredit the religious ‘infection’ in all its forms. While this has also been the goal behind many of his other books, The God Delusion takes things to a new height. Being an all-out tirade against theists in general and Christians in particular, the professor has now abandoned any pretence of civility.

Believers are ridiculed, mocked, slandered and bullied throughout the entire volume. Apparently Christians are a bunch of self-deceived idiots who ‘dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.’

The only consolation for Christians is that they remain in good company since Mr. Dawkins has reserved his most stinging abuse for the God of Abraham (‘the most unpleasant character in all fiction’ he says). Among the charges he lays at God’s door are that He is ‘jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’

Wow, that’s quite a list. Jesus fares slightly better. While being ‘a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament…Jesus’ family values, it has to be admitted, were not such as one might wish to focus on.’

The Trinity also takes a few good knocks.


Dawkins’ hostility towards Christianity frequently leads to scattershot reasoning. No where is this more apparent than his argument for the non-existence of God.

According to Dawkins, belief in God is as infantile as believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden or that there is such a thing as a Flying Spaghetti Monster lurking invisibly in the sky. As thinking people, he says, we can be sure God does not exist. Well…almost sure. As a scientist, Dawkins will not completely close the door to God’s existence (‘we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything’). Nevertheless, he maintains it is highly probable that God does not exist.

To prove that ‘there almost certainly is no God’, Dawkins appeals to the scientific method: ‘the presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question.’

A scientific question? That’s right. Whether or not a Being exists beyond time and space is just as much a question for empirical observation as the nature of our DNA.

That certainly pricked my curiosity. How, I wondered, could Dawkins possibly defend atheism using the scientific method? When he does finally get round to trying to disprove God, it is a bit of a let down. His arguments for the probable non-existence of God, it turns out, have nothing to do with science at all. Instead, his defence of atheism rests on some speculative metaphysical assumptions about the God he doesn’t believe in. In short, he presupposes that if God exists, then He must: (A) have ‘come about’ once upon a time or have always existed within time; (B) be limited by the laws of science, time and contingency.

Although these assumptions are never made explicit, they underpin his entire project and allow Dawkins to argue that God is at the wrong end of the evolutionary time scale. As he puts it: ‘any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.’ Because ‘any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide’ it follows that ‘a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable.’

The idea that the Creator of time and the laws of the universe might, in fact, not be subject to time and cause-and-effect contingency, is an idea Dawkins dismisses with scathing polemic rather than reasoned argument. Yet this should not be such a hard idea for Dawkins to grasp, seeing that on page 145 of his book he allows that the laws of our universe might be merely one among a number of ‘by-laws’ in a ‘multiverse’ containing ‘many universes, co-existing like bubbles of foam.’ He can conceive that possibility, yet he will not allow, even hypothetically, a reality that is not time-bound. At least, not when the subject in question is God. However, if we are talking about the universe itself, Dawkins is more generous. In an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins remarks that

'further developments of the [big bang] theory, supported by all available evidence, suggest that time itself began in this mother of all cataclysms. You probably don’t understand, and I certainly don’t, what it can possibly mean to say that time itself began at a particular moment. But once again that is a limitation of our minds….'

Chapter 4 of the book is a classic example of trying to blind people with science. It would be very easy for unphilosophical readers to think Dawkins has proved his point when he appeals to seemingly irrefutable scientific data. In reality, even if all his science is correct (and specialists will know it is not) his conclusions simply do not follow. He commits what is called a non sequitur – when the conclusion is out of sequence with the preceding premises.

Just as Dawkin’s notion of God hinges on certain unverifiable assumptions, so most of his objections to Christianity rest on misunderstanding and ignorance. Because he has failed to do his research properly, many of his assertions are embarrassingly ill-informed.


One of the useful things about The God Delusion is that it shows the consequences of atheism. If there is no God, then right and wrong have no ultimate meaning and we are left with an ‘each man for himself’ approach to ethics.

Dawkins denies this. In fact, the purpose of chapter 6 is to show that you can have morality without God. Yet the best he can do is subject all ethics to a vigorous reductionism, arguing ‘that our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past.’ In short there are

'four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.'

Okay, thanks Dawkins. I always knew there was something wrong with the way Hitler treated the Jews and now I know why.

But wait a minute? What about situations where we do something right that does not directly benefit ourselves our advance our own evolutionary progress? Dawkins has an answer for that one as well. Our ‘Good Samaritan urges’, as he puts it, are ‘misfirings’ or ‘by-products’ of one of the above reasons. These ‘misfirings’ are a kind of ‘Darwinian mistakes.’ Lest anyone worry that this invalidates all ethics, Dawkins hastens to add that they are ‘blessed, precious mistakes.’

Blessed mistakes? For Dawkins to even use the word ‘blessed’ in this context involves smuggling in an outside ethical standard not established by his theory. It also raises more problems then it solves: was Hitler wrong because he didn't make the right Darwinian mistakes?

Being content with explaining (some would say ‘explaining away’) our ethical standards, Dawkins does not attempt to establish that we are under any obligation to follow such standards. And how could he? After all, if ideas of right and wrong are simply the by-product of a long stage in evolutionary history, what do you say to the person who decides to leave right and wrong behind and move on to the next stage? Proving that certain impulses we normally consider ‘ethical’ are useful to our evolutionary growth is as much an argument for no ethics as it is for ethics. This follows from the fact that at one time it may be useful for my evolutionary growth to be kind to my wife, at another time it may be useful to murder my neighbour and steal his car. The question of whether such actions are right or wrong belong to a different category to the question of whether they are useful. Yet Dawkins moves rather sloppily from the first category to the second.

Dawkins is aware of the problem. Summarising his dilemma through the mouth of an imaginary apologist, he writes,

‘If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe there are any absolute standards of morality. With the best will in the world you may intend to be a good person, but how do you decide what is good and what is bad?… The Christian, the Jew or the Muslim, by contrast, can claim that evil has an absolute meaning, true for all time and in all places, according to which Hitler was absolutely evil.’

For all Dawkins’ skill, he cannot answer this objection. In fact, he does not seem particularly concerned even to try. He spends two paragraphs over Kant’s view that moral absolutes can exist without religion, yet he finds this inadequate. With the exception of patriotism, he confesses that ‘it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.’ This only leaves him one option left: the consequentialist school of moral philosophy, which includes theories such as utilitarianism. Although the book is full of utilitarian reasoning, Dawkins acknowledges that it forms an insufficient base for deriving moral absolutes. As he says elsewhere, "Wrong and right are not things that you can prove scientifically.” (From
an interview available on Youtube) He concludes chapter 6 by apparently conceding the point. His only trump card is an ad hominem attack on Christians: ‘in any case, people who claim to derive their morals from scripture do not really do so in practice.’


One of the most chilling aspects of The God Delusion is the ‘Meme’. The word first appeared in Dawkins book The Selfish Gene to explain what he believes is the social equivalent of the gene. According to memetic theory, ideas such as belief in Jesus, prayer, miracles, (all religious ideas, in fact) spread from one mind to another mind like a kind of genetic infection. These mind viruses then replicate by infecting the minds of gullible children and then jumping around from brain to brain after that.

Religious memes, like ethics, are misfirings of impulses that were originally useful in our evolution. This applies to all religion. Islam, he suggests, may be ‘analogous to a carnivorous gene complex, Buddhism to a herbivorous one.’ Our minds are vulnerable to ‘catching’ various religious memes rather like our bodies are prone to catch the common cold. But whereas the common cold is relatively harmless, the religious meme is a complete enemy to the health and even survival of the human race.

The irony is that the theory of the meme, combined with Dawkins ruthless utilitarianism, is actually what is dangerous. Dawkins does not advocate the forced extermination of religion from society, but I kept expecting that as the corollary of memetic theory. After all, if we are all the products of natural selection, then what would be wrong with using self-guided evolution to eliminate certain corporate brain infections (i.e. Christianity)?

One of the paradoxes of the meme is that if the theory is correct, then Dawkins’ own ideas could be brushed aside as memetic. As Jim Holt pointed out in The New York Times, ‘The story Dawkins tells about religion might also be told about science or ethics. All ideas can be viewed as memes that replicate by jumping from brain to brain.’


In many ways The God Delusion is a throwback to the 18th and 19th centuries, when people still believed science could give us absolute truth. For all its problems, this viewpoint is a refreshing contrast to the postmodern relativism that says ‘You have your truth, I have mine.’

The book is also an antidote to the widespread assumption that religion is a private matter, outside the realm of objective analysis. Dawkins and Christians agree about one thing: Christianity is just as much about objective truth-claims as science (1 Cor. 15:13-15).

Although Christians can admire Dawkins’ commitment to truth, such admiration must be short-lived. He works on the premise that there is objective truth, yet if his worldview is correct, he has no right to that assumption. After all, if ideas are naturally selected according to how they help or inhibit human survival, and if they compete, cooperate and mutate just as genes do, then the very idea of ‘truth’ is a category mistake. In the end, ideas cannot be true or false, only useful or harmful.

And that includes all the ideas in his book.

Thus, Dawkins has shot himself in the foot. He leaves himself no basis for really knowing anything, let alone his premise that Christianity is false and dangerous. The book only works on an emotional level for those willing to be carried along in the flood of his scorn and derision. Looking beyond the emotional polemic, however, we find no evidence to support his claims, only slipshod reasoning and emotional propaganda. If he has proved anything, it is the truth of the Bible's statement that it takes a fool to say in his heart 'there is no God.'

Further web resources:

List of Anti-Dawkins Resources

The Odd Delusion

Dawkins and Eugenics

Dawkins: Justifying Ignorance

Dawkins & The Rise of Militant Atheism

Dawkins & The War on Christmas

Richard Dawkins on Gorillas' Rights

Reply to Counter Argument

Beyond Belief

If You Can’t Beat Them, Embarrass Them

Marilynne Robinson on Dawkins

Christopher Booker’s Notebook

Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching

Tilic Thoughts

Dawkins the Dogmatist

Brown on Dawkins

The Dawkins Delusion

The Myth of Secular Tolerance

Platinga’s Review

[i] Alister McGrath challenged Dawkins’ knowledge of Christian theology. Dawkins responded by saying, “Yes, I have, of course, met this point before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that there is something in Christina theology to be ignorant about. The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content.” Yet Dawkins also advocates teaching the Bible as literature (pp. 340-343). But if the Bible (from which Christian theology is derived) is meaningless, then how can it be studies as a literary source? Further, if there is no content to Christian theology then why does Dawkins spend so much energy criticising various aspects of its content? To justify such ignorance on the grounds that is nothing there to misunderstand seems like the ultimate ad hoc, and I am sure Dawkins would not have very nice words if a Christian took that approach to his ideas. It is simply a convenient way for Dawkins to let himself off the hook of doing the real work of understanding his opponents’ positions.

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Steven Carr said...

'According to Dawkins, belief in God is as infantile as believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden or that there is such a thing as a Flying Spaghetti Monster lurking invisibly in the sky'

Whee is McGrath's proof that these do not exist?

Paul claimed to have gone to the third heaven while in a trance.

The Book of Acts claims Paul saw a real man from Macedonia in a trance or vision.

The Book of Acts claims Peter thought he saw real things while in a trance, and that real voices from heaven spoke to him in that period of time.

Were they nutcases?

Do sane people really think they can go to the third Heaven, to be told things that no mortal dare repeat?

tinwhistle said...

Thank you, Robin, for the cogent review. I read this book shortly before I went to hear Prof. Dawkins at the Free Library in Philadelphia a year or so ago. He read aloud some of the more outrageous passages from his own book; judging by the enthusiastic response the audience was on his side.

I regard The God Delusion as a rather vindictive re-hash of some pretty juvenile assertions about the Bible. And his one-size-fits-all advocacy of Evolution is not up to the task on which he embarks. I'm pleased to know that not all who embrace his philosophy necessarily agree with his tactics.

Luke said...

You don't have to be an atheist to see that Dawkins' central argument fails miserably. I'm an atheist and I regularly rebut Dawkins on my blog. See, for example, my article Richard Dawkins and Naive Atheism.

CD-Host said...

After all, if ideas are naturally selected according to how they help or inhibit human survival, and if they compete, cooperate and mutate just as genes do, then the very idea of ‘truth’ is a category mistake. In the end, ideas cannot be true or false, only useful or harmful.

Well written critique. I did want to address this point though because I think you are in error.

Think about it this way.
A is a statement about objective reality.
B is another statement about objective reality.
C is the statement both A and B are true.
D is the statement A is true and B is false

Assume that C is objective true.

X is a person. Assume belief in D assist X in accomplishing goals i.e. belief in D is useful.

Because D is useful person Y also believes D.

That in no way changes the fact that D is objectively false. In general we would hope that true statements are useful and false statements not useful. But I think it would be too much to hold that all true statements are useful and false statements not useful.

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