Keywords: Religion, politics, faith, reason, current affairs, evolutionary theory

Title: The God Delusion

Author: Richard Dawkins

Publisher: Black Swan/Houghton Mifflin

ISBN: 055277331X/0618680004


There was a time when Richard Dawkins was primarily known for 'The Selfish Gene', a landmark volume that did much to popularise evolutionary biology and genetics. These days, however, Dawkins is as likely to be known for his 'militant' atheism and willingness to confront organised religion. Unlike many of his scientific colleagues, Dawkins is that rare thing these days, a public intellectual who feels that religious beliefs are not exempt from criticism - why should religious beliefs be privileged against all others?

In his latest book, 'The God Delusion', Dawkins finally puts down in one place many of the ideas that he has expressed in newspapers, magazines and the broadcast media. And while there is no doubting the passion, sincerity and strength of his views, this is much more than an impassioned rant against organised religion and religious ideas. Contrary to the views voiced in some parts of the media, Dawkins does not come across as a secular 'fundamentalist' but as a rational, scientific thinker who is writing this polemic with the explicit aim of showing the belief in God is not rational, does not warrant 'respect' and that religious faith of all forms is divisive and dangerous.

To begin with Dawkins takes pains to clarify his terms. He discusses the different forms of religious belief, from the pantheistic ideas of Einstein and others to deism, agnosticism and finally to the monotheistic religions that dominate the modern world: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. While he has little time for vaguely spiritual pantheistic ideas, it is the monotheistic religions that are his main target, and it is these forms of belief that are founded on what he terms the 'God Delusion', the idea that there is a single supernatural being who created the Universe and takes a personal interest in its day to day running.

Having established his terms (and choice of target), Dawkins proceeds to argue that many of the most common proofs for the existence of God are no such thing. From Thomas Aquinas to Pascal's Wager to a number of more modern arguments, he shows that they are either fatally flawed or empty exercises in word play. As many believers will admit, there can be no proof of the existence of God. This is the argument that many agnostics make, as there can be no proof then judgement on belief or non-belief must be postponed. Dawkins demolishes this form of argument too. In principle, he argues, it is fundamentally a scientific hypothesis, and is therefore open to refutation like any other theory.

One of the more modern manifestations of religious belief has been 'intelligent design', which posits that the theory of Darwinian evolution could not possibly explain the complexity of life on earth. Surely, the argument goes, something as complex as a human being could not have arisen by chance? The clear implication being that such complexity requires a designer (or a Creator, as the more explicitly religious would have it). Dawkins has written on this many times in the past, but he tackles the topic once more. Such arguments, he convincingly argues, are based on a very basic misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Darwinian evolution is not based on a series of improbably accidents. Furthermore he shows that many of the complex organs and systems that make up a complete organism exist in different forms in different creatures and at different times.

Yet another issue that Dawkins addresses is the evolutionary roots of religion itself. It is clear that something that is so pervasive in human cultures must have evolved over time. Why is it that all cultures have God and religion? Again Dawkins turns to evolutionary theory, though in this case his arguments are far more speculative than those with which he attacks the God delusion or the idea of intelligent design. Rather than suggesting that there is direct evolutionary advantage to religious belief, he suggests that it is a by-product of those social and intellectual adaptations that have provided advantage in the past. This idea that the make-up of our brains pre-disposes us to believe in stories (religion), together with social advantages in terms of binding groups together, is appealing on many levels, but difficult to prove without additional research (a point that Dawkins himself makes).

Morality without God is another topic that Dawkins addresses, along with a hilarious chapter on scripture as a moral source. When he wants to be Dawkins can be really funny, and the Bible lends itself to that humour perfectly as he points out that looking to the good book for moral guidance can be a bit of a nightmare. And, for those who prefer to pick and chose which bits to believe in, he points out both the existence of large numbers of literalists and also that there are no objective means by which you can decide which bits to interpret as stories, metaphors or literal truth.

The final chapters of the book look beyond the God delusion to the damage done by religious belief. Dawkins will have no truck with those who attack fundamentalism but praise religious moderates. By its nature, he argues, all religious belief depends on 'faith' and an absence of questioning. The religious moderate who encourages people to accept ideas without evidence is guilty of encouraging blinkered thinking, irrationalism and ultimately fanaticism. This is an important point, and is one of the reasons many atheists feel slightly embarrassed by the vehemence with which Dawkins attacks religion. It is, to say the least, refreshing that Dawkins breaks the ultimate post-modern sin and dares to risk causing offence and to point out that pinning the label of 'religious belief' on any idea, no matter how vile, effectively means it is no longer open to criticism.

Aside from the intellectual content, the book is also well-written, engaging and passionate. Dawkins writes vividly and with a style that is approachable, making even complex ideas and theories accessible to the general reader. As an antidote to the religious ideas which increasingly permeate public discourse, Dawkins has provided us with an exemplary piece of work.

It's the sort of book that ought to be on the reading list of every parent and every school-kid in the country.

Contents © London Book Review 2007. Published May 18 2007