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The God Delusion
The God Delusion is the most famous and most controversial book by Richard Dawkins. It makes the case for the lack of a deity. The God Delusion has a companion miniseries, originally titled Root of All Evil?
This article is intended not to replace the book, but to serve as a home base for the many articles and subjects already addressed on RationalWiki. The book is definitely a worthwhile read, regardless of the direction the reader might be coming from, as it contains many humorous quotes, completely excerpted citations and rhetorical arguments that this article would disservice the book were they to be included here.
The book was dedicated to Dawkins' intellectual contemporary, friend and spousal matchmaker Douglas Adams, who is referenced several times throughout the pages.
- 1 Preface
- 2 A Deeply Religious Non-Believer
- 3 The God Hypothesis
- 4 Arguments for God's Existence
- 5 Why There Almost Certainly Is No God
- 6 The Roots of Religion
- 7 The Roots of Morality: Why are we good?
- 8 The 'Good' Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist
- 9 What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?
- 10 Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion
- 11 A Much Needed Gap?
- 12 Additional sources repeatedly cited in the book
- 13 Responses and criticism
- 14 See also
- 15 External Links
- 16 References
In his preface, Dawkins outlines some of his reasons for writing the book. He wants to alert people (especially not very religious people, or people unhappy with their religion) to the fact that atheism is an option. He also wants to address a number of related issues including: the argument that it is wrong to label children by their parents' religion, and the idea that being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about, but is in fact something to be proud of, as, according to Dawkins, it often indicates a healthy mind and intellectual independence. In addition, he outlines how the book is structured, and what questions the various chapters are set to answer. He also takes the time to define the word "delusion", as it is used regularly, and how that definition relates to the book.
A Deeply Religious Non-Believer
Dawkins starts by quoting some prominent atheists about their beliefs, such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, with particular attention paid to Albert Einstein. The atheists he quoted, mostly physicists and cosmologists, had used the word "God" in those quotations with a particular sense of awe and reverence. Dawkins then goes to explain, sometimes using the atheists' own words, that when they said "God" they didn't mean the interpersonal theist or lazy deist God, but rather the naturalistic metaphorical or pantheistic God which is used to be synonymous with the natural laws of physics and relativity. Dawkins suggested that those scientists should probably stop using the word God in any context: for one reason, to keep the preachers from quote mining them; for another, because the God of the believers appears to be less awe-inspiring than nature itself, and thus not worthy of praising.
Dawkins starts this section by explaining the point of the last section: that the God of Einstein (nature) was not the God to be discussed in this book. Realizing the almost certain possibility of offending a believer with the rest of the book, he devotes this section to alleviating any concerns.
Dawkins presents examples of how religions and religious beliefs are generally assumed by the populace to be unattackable bastions which must be respected by everyone, but no one can explain why they deserve such respect any farther than "they just do!" Politics, economics, even operating systems can be raucously debated, but somehow religion is protected, whether it be in determining valid reasons not to be drafted in wartime or allowing marijuana to be smoked by churchgoers who believe it provides religious insight, but for medical purposes it is still restricted. Even hate speech is protected if it is deemed religious, which is an interesting if tragic interpretation of the First Amendment.
He then compares these concepts, if anyone thought them reasonable, to the controversial riots and violence that occurred as a result of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. He remarks that he does not want to cause this sort of trouble, so please continue with an open mind—and maybe the reader and author together can determine why any religion and the corresponding beliefs, if for a being so perfect and pure, need to be treated with kid gloves.
The God Hypothesis
Dawkins starts his not-wishing-to-be-offensive masterpiece by calling out the God of the Old Testament for the petulant, selfish, vindictive bastard that he is, as interpreted by His own word. He then continues by saying that this is not what he wants to do for the rest of the book—what he intends to show is that the concept of a Creator is one of evolution and cannot be responsible for the creation of the universe.
The ultimate point of this chapter is to show that God can be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, for further scrutiny in the following chapters.
Dawkins calls out the state-sponsored prejudice towards monotheism over polytheism (usually involving petitions for tax-exempt status as a charitable organization) and argues that religious organizations should not be tax-exempt. He then questions how Christianity with its Holy Trinity and Catholicism with its many saints and choirs of angels can be considered monotheistic.
But ultimately, Dawkins' point for bringing up concepts of polytheism is so that he can treat all religions and their deities the same, and when he uses the word "God" in text he is not differentiating between the various deities, semantics and pedantry be damned.
Dawkins then states that he will focus the bulk of his charge against monotheism, specifically the Abrahamic religions, with a focus on Christianity as it is the religion he is most exposed to—he mentions not wanting to belabor Buddhism or Confucianism as he sees them more as ethical systems or philosophies.
Secularism, the Founding Fathers and the Religion of America
Dawkins asserts that the United States were founded by secularists, as evident by the Treaty of Tripoli. He uses a famed quote from Barry Goldwater describing the stranglehold that the religious right has over conservative politicians. He also mentions the interesting irony that at the time America was founded as a secular nation, England was extremely religious—but now in present times, the shoes are on the other feet. For this, he places the blame on the Establishment Clause—because religions are free in America, they are free to grow unrestricted, wield their influences, compete for worshipers and benefit from tax-exempt tithings.
While acknowledging that the common belief that most of the Founding Fathers were deists, he argues that many of them were atheists, if not agnostic. He focuses much attention on Thomas Jefferson, but also provides quotes from James Madison, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin who all had their criticisms of Christianity, churches and priests in favor of more reasonable causes. But despite their passion for secularism, they all believed that the religious opinions of politicians, in particularly the President, was a personal matter and no one else's damned business.
Despite this, he relates stories of extreme and very un-Christian prejudice against atheists in America, which he asserts would have appalled the Founding Fathers.
The Poverty of Agnosticism
Dawkins takes a moment to define agnosticism as a form of "fence-sitting". Agnostics, by definition, wish to reserve judgement until all the evidence is in (one way or another), while recognizing the likelihood that it will never happen. Dawkins quotes Thomas Huxley in the definition. Dawkins cautions about the latter assertion, however, as science has a way of improving humanity's view on things once deemed impossible. He illustrates this point with a quote from August Comte regarding astronomical agnosticism—that we will never be able to study the composition of stars, a scientific assertion that was defeated even as he first wrote it.
Dawkins then describes the spectrum of theism/atheism, acknowledging agnosticism in the middle. He mentions verbatim Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot and references to "a-fairyism", unicorns, the Tooth Fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster as equally unprovable/undisprovable concepts. Here he makes his famed "I just go one God further" statement about how all people are atheists about most deities.
Again referring to Huxley and to Stephen Jay Gould who assert that science cannot prove or disprove God, Dawkins asks the reader why God is protected from scrutiny but the other "undisprovables" previously mentioned aren't equally immune to such skepticism. He then mentions Gould's definition of non-overlapping magisteria, but questions under what authority is this assertion made, even going so far as to cast doubt as to why theology is considered a collegiate field, let alone one worthy of expertise—what can a theologian add to the study of the universe, from the motion of galaxies to the mechanics of particles, that a scientist cannot?
Dawkins dismisses NOMA as a cop-out and a tipping-of-the-hand from scientists to theologians under the guise of being polite. He also mentions that NOMA is a two-way street; if theologians expect scientists to stay out of the non-sciency bits, then such a division is null and void should the theologians try to discuss anything related to science.
The Great Prayer Experiment
Dawkins relates the results of a NOMA-defying Templeton Foundation-funded experiment involving patients of heart surgery who would be receiving prayers from an anonymous congregation. 1802 subjects were divided into three groups:
- Patients who would be receiving prayers, but didn't know it.
- Patients who would be receiving prayers and were told about it ahead of time.
- Patients who would not be receiving prayers (the control group).
The results found no differences in the complications of groups 1 and 3, which a rational scientist would expect. Patients in group 2, however, actually had more complications during surgery. Understandably, the results were panned by theologians, but Dawkins presses the reader to question whether theologians, who were treading into the other magisteria with this study, would have panned the study should the results have gone the other way.
The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists
Dawkins then points out personal attacks made against him by creationists, journalists and other scientists, like William Dembski and Michael Ruse. Dawkins notes that any politeness offered by scientists who would respect NOMA is being disregarded by proponents of intelligent design (as well as all related positions, such as anti-evolutionists).
Little Green Men
Dawkins discusses the views of Sagan, who could not for-certain argue for the existence of extraterrestrials, but acknowledged that the question, as evidenced by the Drake equation, was not one of yes/no but rather one of probability. He appears to bring up extraterrestrials as a matter of comparison—how vastly advanced would a non-human civilization appear to us, and would we regard them as gods? And in what way would our current technology confound the famous historical figures of 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years, or 5000 years past? Dawkins points to Clarke's Third Law for a probable answer.
Arguments for God's Existence
Dawkins takes a moment to address various previous arguments for the existence of God:
Thomas Aquinas' 'Proofs'
Dawkins addresses the "unmoved mover", the "uncaused cause", the cosmological argument, the "argument from degree", and the teleological argument (or argument from design). All are bunk in Dawkins' eyes, some are ridiculous and some had already been long since refuted by Darwin and others.
Dawkins takes on the ontological argument, as offered by St. Anselm of Canterbury, which he considers infantile. He refers to Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Douglas Gasking in their philosophical and logical arguments against Anselm. He also links to a list of comical "proofs" that he found hilarious.
The Argument from Beauty
This argument is so stupid that Dawkins barely devotes page space to argue against it, and neither will we.
The Argument from Personal 'Experience'
Dawkins addresses anecdotal evidence, which is neither scientific nor reliable. He also mentions individuals who swear they have talked to God, or were commanded by God, such as the case as George W. Bush being called to start a War in Iraq (as Dawkins remarks, "a pity God didn't vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction"). He defers to the ideas that improbable things happen, some people see what they want to see, and some people are liars, delusional or simply insane.
The Argument from Scripture
Dawkins briefly talks about the Lewis Trilemma and goes into depth regarding various Biblical contradictions and mistranslations. He also quickly talks about The Da Vinci Code, noting that the major difference between the novel and the Gospels is that the Gospels are ancient fiction and The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.
The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists
Dawkins notes that in modern times, religious scientists are incredibly more rare, but with notable exceptions and not just among those who sell out to the Templeton Foundation. The prevailing reason for their rarity appears to be a lack of integrity in the eyes of other, non-believing scientists: who among scientists can trust someone who accepts an argument without evidence or a truth through revelation and not experimentation?
He calls out Answers in Genesis as a force in America working against atheist scientists. He was amused that a study which suggested a very small percentage of religious scientists was cited by AiG to argue that scientists were waging a war against religion despite repeated claims (from scientists) that evolution was compatible with religion. Another study showed that biologists tend to be more atheistic than physical scientists. Yet another study of random Americans by Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway found a high negative correlation between religiosity and education, religiosity and interest in science, religiosity and political liberalism...none of this should be shocking to anyone reading RationalWiki. The same study also found a high positive correlation between the religiosities of parents and their children.
Dawkins also uses this section to address theodicy and the problem of evil as more likely reasons to why God does not exist than evidence of a malicious deity that pretends to be good. Theologists and apologists will accept arguments like an anti-God, or an aloof God, or the Old Testament God, or a God that has cursed humanity with suffering as the cost of free will before they accept a null hypothesis.
Dawkins ends the chapter stating that the next chapter would address the argument from improbability, which is the argument that is the most popular for arguing in favor of a God, is actually the one that comes closest to proving that God does not exist.
Why There Almost Certainly Is No God
The Ultimate Boeing 747
Creationists like to employ the "747" argument as to the reason why abiogenesis and evolution cannot be true. Dawkins waves this off as evidence that creationists don't know what the hell they're talking about. Instead, Dawkins will attempt to turn the argument around—that since the argument from improbability states that no sufficiently complex entity could have come about through evolution and not design, then how did God, a sufficiently complex entity, come about?
Natural Selection as a Consciousness-Raiser
Inspired by the consciousness-raising properties of feminism (e.g., using gender-neutral pronouns and "herstory"), Dawkins attempts to raise the consciousness of the reader using natural selection. He acknowledges the philosophy of Daniel Dennett: that the living things of the world came from simpler forms of life and not from a greater being is counter to the beliefs that sentient beings have held for eons. But the opposite is obviously not true with complex inanimate objects—bricks do not come from houses; pieces of metal don't come from cars. Darwin's concepts (and those that came as a result of those concepts, like DNA) show this to be the case. Thus, even though evolution is compatible with religion, with evolution in the picture, what does God need to do but start it up? This picture of a lazy God paints one that is lazier than the God of the deists.
Dawkins uses examples from the Watchtower publication Life - How Did It Get Here, which address the Venus' Flower Basket (a type of sponge), the Dutchman's Pipe (a fly-trapping plant) and the giant redwood. The tract uses language that basically states "these things are perfect, complex, beautiful and amazing; and we don't know why, but it can't have been by chance." Dawkins concurs with the last assessment, but for different reasons: because evolution is not random. Dawkins states that just because some people who never studied biology can't (or don't want to) figure out how some life form came to be, it doesn't mean it's impossible to discover. Design, says the scientist, is not the only alternative to chance, and natural selection is a better one. Yes, Dawkins concedes, it is extremely improbable for some "amazing thing" to come about perfectly on the first shot. But given enough time, trial and reproductive effort, amazing can be surmounted. Irreducible complexity, is the most simplistic of viewpoints towards life forms, as it means that either "something happened by chance or designed, or it doesn't happen at all". No wonder it is the favored view of the uneducated.
Dawkins takes an opportunity to plug an earlier work, Climbing Mount Improbable, which addresses the concept in greater detail. He finishes the section by saying that if God exists, he must be irreducibly complex—put that in your pipe and smoke it for awhile.
The Worship of Gaps
As was the case with irreducible complexity, the "worship of gaps" is also an example of argument from ignorance. Dawkins quotes his friend Matt Ridley against gaps being the realm of God, stating that scientists love mystery as it gives them something to do. Dawkins criticizes creationists for utilization of false dilemma—that if science cannot immediately answer a given question about nature, then design must be the only reason as it is the only alternative. Unlike the creationist, the scientist will look to discover the true answer, whereas the creationist will just assume he or she is right. Ignorance, while being a favorite home base of creationists, is in reality the driving force behind scientific discovery.
Dawkins also mentions the "gaps" left by so-called transitional fossils, pointing out all the bullshit that creationists love to shovel around that topic of debate without realizing what a fossil actually is.
He then uses an example of a Penn and Teller magic trick to explain why argument from incredulity is false. Magicians will show you a trick. You may think it's amazing and that since you can't figure out how it's done, it must be due to some supernatural force. But then, as P&T are wont to do, they show you how they did it. And now you feel stupid. As you should. The ignorant fool will watch Uri Geller bend a spoon and think it must be supernatural; the rational, skeptical scientist will consider the possibility that it's a trick, then endeavor to determine how it was done.
Dawkins calls out Michael Behe for introducing the irreducible complexity and gaps to his "studies" in cell theory. He mocks Behe, whose arguments against evolution couldn't even stand up in court to satisfy a judge no more fluent in science than an average layperson. Dawkins further aggravates the arguments against intelligent design as a scientific theory, saying that no work in science would ever be achieved if the scientists gave up trying to resolve what they couldn't explain and simply say "Goddidit". The God of the gaps is little more than the statement "I don't know" dressed up in robes and vestments.
The Anthropic Principle: Planetary Version
Dawkins notes that the reason that so many different forms of life flourish on Earth is because life has adapted to live on Earth, not because Earth was designed to sustain life: otherwise, what is to keep life from forming on other planets in the universe? Or, more to the point, what is currently preventing life from being formed on other planets if they were also designed?
The Anthropic Principle: Cosmological Version
In addition to discussing the concept, Dawkins derides theologians for suggesting that God is powerful enough to know the exact states of the infinitely large number of electrons that exist in the universe—not that such a task would be impossible to an omnipotent being, but that if a scientist can't figure out what's going on, then said scientists must defer to God as the answer. But this philosophy is defeatist: no progress will ever come of it; otherwise, God would have cured cancer by now.
An Interlude at Cambridge
Dawkins relates an experience at a Templeton Foundation-sponsored conference at which he was the token atheist. He was shocked that the journalists, and not the speakers, had been paid to attend. Nevertheless, the questions he posited to theologians about the scientific improbability of God were returned with appeals to NOMA—that God lay outside the realm of science. Claims of knowing God must come through other ways of knowing, and none of those other ways are scientific. Dawkins suggests that appealing to God for being the answer, having created everything and being able to communicate with everyone, is not only lazy, it is irresponsible.
Strangely, the most common argument against Dawkins' world view, received at both the conference and elsewhere, was that it was antiquated. Not that atheism was an old concept, but that Dawkins' method of arguing was from the "nineteenth century". Of course, it doesn't take a genius to see that telling a person about how their style of discourse is wrong has nothing to do with why the subject of discourse is wrong. Apparently, a discussion of style over substance was somehow preferable to actually discussing the topic at hand. A reasonable person might suggest that it was because, subconsciously, the theologians knew their arguments had no leg to stand on, but the Dunning-Kruger effect is probably more likely. Dawkins notes that attacking his style appeared to be a cover for some latent cognitive dissonance—theologians, being bombarded with appeals to common sense and facts obtained from science, don't like being asked how they can still honestly believe in miracles or virgin births anymore.
Dawkins finishes the chapter with a summary of his points, then presents the argument for the next chapter in a manner that suggests it, too, will be easily trounced.
The Roots of Religion
At the end of the last chapter, Dawkins sets up the next question, which is simply, "Okay, even if God doesn't exist, aren't religions still good things to have around?" And on we go.
The Darwinian Imperative
Dawkins holds nothing back. With the understanding that humans are products of Darwinian evolution, which regularly weeds out excesses, frivolities, inefficiencies and vestigialities over time, then how did religion come about and how is it still here? In comparison to other animal behaviors, he mentions that religion consumes enormous resources without any perceived (real-world) end benefit to the creature that practices it—particularly, a religion that goes against the main principle of evolution: the continuation of the species. He uses Aborigines as an extreme example of a group of humans who are great survivors in a natural environment, inarguably better than anyone from an urban civilization; but even they hold some crazy, unscientific beliefs (such as worries over magic and witches).
Direct Advantages of Religion
Dawkins acknowledges that certain religious practices, such as prayer and faith healing, can reduce stress or cure certain ailments. He also points to doctors who can relieve pressure and worry in the same manner with a few kind words. He likens such activities to the placebo effect, which he recognizes as powerful but not effective in all instances, but doubts that such a benefit would explain the worldwide fascination for religion.
Dawkins states that evolutionists want to know why the human mind takes comfort in experiences that are known (by someone) to be false, as, because it exists, it must serve some purpose. After all, mind over matter or mind over body only go so far—you may be able to convince yourself that the shark under your surfboard is a sea bass, but it won't make a difference to the shark. Interesting is that at no point in this section does Dawkins use the word "delusion".
Dawkins points to group selection as a possible reason for the popularity of religion. Churches and sects gather people together, and because of their shared ideas, they tend to relate to each other better than if they did not share ideas. Members of groups tend to stick together, form bonds, enter relationships, make promises, conquer and assimilate other groups, etc.
However, such cohesion can only go so far, as individual members of the groups are ultimately selfish. If a particular group promotes martyrdom or self-sacrifice in order to perpetuate the group, some members will go forward and commit suicide, but there will still be others who will say "Well, fuck that!", stay behind to live and procreate and teach their offspring that martyrdom is stupid, thus reducing the percentage of willing potential martyrs in the group over time.
Religion as a By-Product of Something Else
Dawkins starts this section by saying that the title of the section is an idea he stands by—that is, religion survives from generation to generation because something else is surviving. Dawkins starts by demonstrating the apparently suicidal behavior of moths that spiral into candle flames. Moths are not inherently suicidal, and such a notion is easily ridiculed. But after a little study, one can find that nocturnal moths use moonlight and starlight for navigation, an ability that evolved over time. Introduce candles, relatively recently on the evolutionary time scale, and moths have not figured out that they aren't stars. They are, however, very bright, and the moth maintains its angle of flight relative to that fixed light, until it eventually circles into the flame. It is a very good evolved mechanism for navigation, thrown off by false information that it doesn't know how to fix. This would appear stupid to humans, if it weren't for the number of recent stories of GPS devices navigating location-blind drivers into ditches and lakes.
This something else, Dawkins offers, appears to be the concept that children are taught to listen to and trust what their parents tell them. If Mommy or Daddy says something is true, the child believes it. The trust and obedience that children tend to naturally have is vital to their survival: it gives the child a chance to think "maybe Daddy is right" before sticking a fork in a light socket or running across a street to chase a wayward ball. But the downside is that with trust comes gullibility—if Daddy tells his young, impressionable child to listen to a man in a robe, and the man in the robe says "playing with yourself is bad, and if you do you'll burn in sulfur and ash", the child is likely to believe it, even if the child doesn't completely understand it.
These children grow up, procreate, and, having learned from their own parents, continue similar ideas. As discussed earlier, children tend to follow in their parents' footsteps, maintaining similar levels of piety, intelligence, charity, wealth, etc. Or, as computer nerds like to say, "Garbage in, garbage out."
Psychologically Primed for Religion
Other possible "moth to the flame" corollaries could be due to psychological hardwiring to do other things, such as finding correlations, joining groups, discriminating against "others" in favor of the familiar, etc. Children are born with dualism hardwired, whereas monism must be learned. Related to this, children are also inherently teleological in that everything has a purpose: many just never grow out of it when they become adults. He refers to the studies of Paul Bloom that show dualism and teleology as inherent; the concept of separating the mind from the body and the concept of purpose, predispose religiosity. From there, the idea of a soul or a created universe are not gigantic leaps to make.
Dawkins also notes the neurological and emotional similarities of belief in a deity to the irrationality of love; that while polyamory makes more sense on an evolutionary and realistic level (a person can love more than one wine or rock band, so why not people?), our minds are predisposed toward monogamy, possibly because couples raise children better than individual parents do, or at least have an easier time with it.
Dawkins mentions that just as species drift over time when separated by geography, so do languages and accents, and in many ways so do religions. That religion has an evolutionary component is certainly supported by evidence, such as the Christian co-opting of pagan holidays and rituals, as well as the many thousands of denominations and sects that are spread across the globe.
Tread Softly, Because You Tread On My Memes
Dawkins states that just because a gene or meme or religion propagates from generation to generation, it doesn't mean it's because it confers a benefit to the species—if this were true, humans would have lost their appendixes long ago. Dawkins alludes to the teaching of certain craft skills from master to apprentice—the techniques might slowly change over time, but the results are relatively similar. He likens the combined skills to memeplexes, which are the meme versions of gene cartels—that is, groups of genes that express themselves together, like the traits of carnivores versus traits of herbivores. Some memeplexes provide a fundamental group of ideas. Religions are examples of such memeplexes.
Here, Dawkins invokes Life of Brian, Clarke's Third Law (again) and makes specific mention to the story of John Frum and how quickly a religion can spring up when promises of a Messiah are made. If Vanuatu natives are willing to wait tens of years for their savior to return, who are Christians to criticize them? Dawkins mentions that morality existed on the islands where cargo cults were established, before they were established—thus, religion is not a predicate for morality (setting up the next chapter).
The Roots of Morality: Why are we good?
Dawkins starts the chapter exposing the hypocrisy of certain religious individuals, particularly those that send him and the editor of Freethought Today nasty letters which amount to threats of death or damnation by the Christian God. Dawkins wonders why the omnipotent God (should he exist) needs such vitriolic defenders who would do His work.
Does our moral sense have a Darwinian origin?
Dawkins notes four Darwinian reasons for morality: genetic kinship, reciprocation, reputation, and popularity. All are observed in non-human species. Specifically, Dawkins discusses altruism and reciprocal altruism. He briefly examines altruism as a basis for economics and money, and the regulation of cheaters through game theory. Of particular note in this section is mention of the Arabian babbler, a small species of bird, whose members assert their dominance by feeding others.
Dawkins takes a moment to mention that just because a behavior is a result of evolution, that fact does not diminish its other qualities. Having sex without the purpose of procreation, or adopting an orphan, while certainly not a purpose in a purely evolutionary sense, do not mean they are worthless activities—nor do they counter evolutionary ideas, as the cooperation and efforts involved certainly make life a little less difficult than without them.
A Case Study in the Roots of Morality
Dawkins highlights studies of Marc Hauser which suggest that morality is mostly universal, regardless of religion or other factors, as revealed through the study of subjects' responses to hypothetical moral dilemmas, referencing Immanuel Kant frequently. Hauser's works also find that the answers to these questions showed no statistically significant difference between atheists and the pious.
If there is no God, why be good?
Dawkins, by himself and quoting Einstein et al, states that not only is this a fairly cynical question (if a person is only refraining from murdering, raping and stealing because he's worried about what God thinks, what does that say about the person?), it's also unsupported by reality, noting that a majority of high crime cities and "dangerous places to live" in the United States are in so-called "red states".
The 'Good' Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist
Dawkins starts this chapter by noting that the religious texts of nearly 2000 years ago does not reflect modern times, and anyone who would set their moral code based on those texts have either not read them or do not understand them.
The Old Testament
Dawkins highlights a variety of tales, such as the stories of Noah, Lot at Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and even Moses, and how from a purely moral standpoint they are really quite horrible tales, hardly Aesop's fables. He also points out the many crimes punishable by death according to God. "But no one takes the Old Testament seriously anymore!" cry the apologists. So, just like they might with scientific evidence, it's okay for them to cherry pick the word of their Lord, which they hold sacred and infallible?
Is the New Testament any better?
Interestingly, Dawkins praises the story of Jesus as one Jew who chose to break from the ancient traditions proscribed by those that came before him (be nice to the unfortunate, turn the other cheek, etc.)—but only just. Dawkins points out that many of his teachings are similar to the structures of modern cults and he didn't treat his mother very well. In addition to the original sin of the Old Testament where individuals pay for the sins of their forebears, the New Testament brings in a character who, in a fit of sadomasochism, pays for the sins of every individual's descendants. Guilt by association, it seems, is the cross born by every Christian.
Love Thy Neighbour
Dawkins notes that some interpretations of the Bible note that quotations such as "love thy neighbor" referred only to Jews. Similarly, a strong Commandment instructs that "Thou shalt not kill" actually means "Thou shalt not kill other Jews". He goes on to note that throughout the Bible, as well as the doctrines of other religions regardless of origin, there is an inherent appeal to othering and segregation being taught. Dawkins asserts that if religions were not responsible for any other atrocities in history, indoctrination of the concepts of "us vs. them" would still make them pretty bad.
The Moral Zeitgeist
Since even the most pious of Christians obviously do not use the Bible as the only source for their moral code, then where do modern humans get their morals? Dawkins remarks that morality is relative to the spirit of the times, noting that even Abraham Lincoln's views on black people, while progressive in his time, would be considered reprehensible today. Even modern standards of immorality (or questionable morality) change—the policies of Adolf Hitler pale compared to the death sowed by Genghis Khan or the amoral codes of Caligula, and Donald Rumsfeld would be considered a bleeding-heart liberal compared to the war chiefs of World War II. Dawkins admits he doesn't have an answer for why morality changes over time, but one thing appears certain: if it moral codes were dependent upon religion, they wouldn't change as much as they do.
While recognizing that Joseph Stalin was an atheist, and we all know that Hitler was a Catholic, Dawkins states that it follows logically that both assertions are irrelevant due to the fact that their actions and policies were not created in the name of atheism, nor because they were (or might have been) atheists. Hitler, in particular, was praised by German cardinals and tacitly supported by the Vatican.
Dawkins ends the chapter by asking a fairly critical question: Why would anyone go to war over the lack of a belief?
What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?
Here, Dawkins notes that he eschews confrontation, refusing to get into debates with creationists on the grounds that it would only serve to uplift their credentials and degrade his own. Somewhat answering his own last question in the previous chapter, he states that his "hostility" (as others call it) is limited to words, and he isn't going to kill or bomb anyone for not agreeing with him. That being said, there are still plenty of reasons to be pissed off with religions' bullshit.
Fundamentalism and the Subversion of Science
Dawkins remarks that scientists will admit they are wrong and change their point of view if new evidence renders an old theory obsolete—something no fundamentalist would admit to doing about their own beliefs. He compares the inspirational exaltation of one scientist being proven wrong about a fundamental of cellular biology to the tragic descent of geologist Kurt Wise into young earth creationism as a modern day Winston Smith. Fundamentalism, Dawkins fears, is robbing humanity of some brilliant minds who, hopelessly entrenched in their beliefs, will never contribute anything of consequence to the world beyond useless PRATT.
The Dark Side of Absolutism
Faith and Homosexuality
Dawkins notes that while the Taliban executed homosexuals, even in his own country homosexuality was a crime until as recent as 1967, tragically too late for Alan Turing, whom Dawkins asserts did more for the effort against the Germans in World War II than either Dwight D. Eisenhower or Winston Churchill for his efforts in decoding German intelligence. He goes on to mention Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Fred Phelps and others for their considerable Christian charity towards gays and lesbians, along with the societies that tolerate them.
Faith and the Sanctity of Human Life
Dawkins goes into the many slippery slope arguments involving faith and abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, stem cell research, in vitro fertlization, Army of God and martyrdom that plague the international conversation. He notes that those that possess the religious zeal to kill an abortion doctor definitely do not see any irony in their actions, only righteousness.
The Great Beethoven Fallacy
In addition to describing and debunking the fallacy, Dawkins goes on to mention that pro-life actually means "pro-human-life", desiring to afford special rights to a mass of cells that pro-lifers recognize as human without understanding what that mass of cells actually is (or, indeed, what classifies a being as human to begin with).
Dawkins also notes the interesting contradiction in the fundamentalist tendency to attribute humanity to a mass of cells while simultaneously not recognizing transitional forms of humanity (such as Australopithecus) through evolution as human.
How 'Moderation' in Faith Fosters Fanaticism
Invoking 9/11 and the London subway bombing, Dawkins equates the War on Terror as a sort of "war on religion", except that western politicians don't use the word "religion" because it might refer to their own. He acknowledges that unerring faith has driven some well-educated, middle-class young men to blow themselves up in the name of a deity. But why? Dawkins blames the tactics of indoctrination that were forced upon them as children.
Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion
Dawkins begins this chapter relating the story of Edgardo Mortara, a 19th-century six year-old Jewish boy in Italy who was rescued (read: kidnapped) by the Catholic Church to be raised by Catholics, thus saving his soul from damnation, thanks to a baptism performed by a babysitter earlier in life. Dawkins relates this story to begin his assertion that forcing beliefs upon children, who are too young to understand what they are being taught, is a form of child abuse.
Physical and Mental Abuse
Taking this moment to finally talk about the abuses of Catholic priests against children as well as other abuses of the church (such as the Magdalene asylums), Dawkins asserts again (as he had previously done in conversation and in public discourse) that the psychological trauma caused by, for example, suggesting to a child that their recently deceased child friend is going to Hell for being a Protestant is significantly worse. He discusses the use of Hell Houses to scare children into being pious as utilized by Dominionist priests. The commonality between the physical and mental abuses perpetrated by religious officials is the abuse of trust.
Dawkins shares some letters (sent to him) and other accounts of individuals who have escaped from the indoctrinations of nuns preaching hellfire and damnation (e.g., coming to the realization that Hell does not exist, sometimes facing ostracism from friends and family).
In Defence of Children
Dawkins asserts, citing psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, that children have a right not to be force fed bullshit by anyone, even parents who believe they have the right to teach them whatever they want. A physical manifestation of this "right" can be seen in practices of female genital mutilation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled previously (in a case involving the Amish) that the parents had every right to pull their children from public school if the teachings conflicted with their culture. However, no one bothered to consult the children to see what they wanted. Both Humphrey and Dawkins question whether parents are really doing their children any service by denying them access to science, vaccines or medical care in order to assert their own rights—whether it be justified by the preservation of cultural norms or by unconfirmed perceptions of reality.
An Educational Scandal
Dawkins talks about Emmanuel College, funded by Peter Vardy, a British public school active in the teaching of creationism and Biblical literalism, highlighting the denial that Vardy practices when others ask him about the curriculum.
Dawkins uses the example of three four year-olds appearing as the "Three Wise Men" in a creche by their religious affiliations as egregious and inappropriate as identifying them by atheistic-affiliative terms, or by what political party or economic school of thought they subscribe to (Marxism, Keynesianism, etc), despite protest from concerned parents who would argue that "they're just kids". He even asserts that an organization such as the Brights Movement would be inappropriate to label a children, suggesting that if you have to tell someone what they believe or think, then they can't be identified by those beliefs or thoughts. Identification, specifically self-identification, requires an active decision on the individual being identified. Faith, in particular, which requires a belief in superiority over other forms of faith, denies a belief in equality—can any teaching be more horrible for a young child?
Religious Education as a Part of Literary Culture
Despite all of his objections against gods and religions, Dawkins recognizes the need for understanding the Biblical texts (as well as Greek mythology and Norse mythology, and others) in order to maintain literacy. He lists dozens of Biblical quotes, idioms and metaphors that appear throughout everyday fiction, nonfiction, music, conversation and colloquial expressions—while simultaneously pointing out studies that show a marked ignorance of Biblical references, particularly in the United States.
A Much Needed Gap?
Dawkins begins his final chapter by wondering about the necessity of a deity to fill "a much-needed gap"—if, for example, there isn't something that would be more worthwhile to fill that gap.
Dawkins includes a poem by A. A. Milne about an invisible friend named "Binker", remarking that lots of children have invisible friends. He does not criticize this practice, as some reported stories about a person's invisible friends appeared to contribute positively to their psychological well-being. He posits that perhaps the invisible deities are simply manifestations of these friends that were retained by certain adults out of childhood and puberty. He also considers the inverse, that the tendency to have imaginary friends evolved from beliefs of supernatural gods, but doubts it as the less likely of the two.
Dawkins questions the psychological need of invisible friends for consolation, and that assertions of pointlessness without a God is a fallacy, stating that simply because a religion says "things get better" doesn't mean that they will. In other words, feelings do not equal truth, and vice versa. He notes that happiness and unhappiness do not know religion, or a lack thereof. While some can take comfort in an invisible friend that things will be better, Dawkins states that science offers more effective consolations, such as medicine. He wonders why so many pious individuals believe they will live on after death while simultaneously fearing it, crying at funerals, protesting against assisted suicide or trying to keep the brain-dead alive. He notes that it is a shame that humans are not afforded the same comforts of terminally ill cats or dogs, and questions as to why individuals so anxious to get into heaven are willing to put it off as long as possible, while the opposite happens to be true for the majority of atheists.
Dawkins also uses this chapter to mention that consolation used to be sold by the Catholic Church in the form of indulgences. He also mentions William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, who used his wealth to guarantee his soul to heaven.
Dawkins states that if the absence of a deity leaves a gap in the lives of humans, it will not mean those lives are empty—humans often find ways of staving off boredom and finding interesting things to do and observe.
The Mother of All Burkas
Dawkins ends his book with an analogy, comparing the eye-slit of a religion-mandated burqa to the worldview of humans who are forced to look through the lens of religion. Using the electromagnetic spectrum as an example of all things observable (though some require different senses or tools), he suggests that removing the metaphorical burqa allows us not only to see more of the universe, but exposes our own selves from the veil that was covering us. There are many things in the universe still yet to be observed, and some of those things are inside us. Removing a deity which states that some things cannot be adequately explained, in turn, removes that limitation from our worldviews and allows the realm of possibility to become realized.
Additional sources repeatedly cited in the book
Some of the quotes and philosophies not mentioned here came from the following individuals (list not inclusive):
- Sam Harris
- Christopher Hitchens
- Thomas Huxley
- Thomas Jefferson
- H. L. Mencken
- Monty Python
- Bertrand Russell
- Julia Sweeney
- Mark Twain
The back of the book contains citations, lists of atheistic and scientific organizations (as well as their addresses and URLs), and suggested additional readings (including many but not all of Dawkins' other works).
Responses and criticism
While The God Delusion predictably caused quite a few theists to foam at the mouth for daring to suggest that god doesn't exist, a number of more substantive responses were made:
- Biologist H. Allen Orr was underwhelmed, writing that Dawkins failed "to engage religious thought in any serious way." He also claimed that the Ultimate Boeing 747 argument suffered from a number of potential flaws. Orr's review sparked a back-and-forth with Daniel Dennett and PZ Myers. Dennett responded that the book was aimed at a popular audience and so shouldn't be judged as a work of academic philosophy or theology. Myers argued that Orr's criticism of the 747 argument was unfounded because he failed to define "god" clearly. Myers would go on to coin the infamous Courtier's Reply in reference to Orr's review.
- Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton grouched, "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." Author Adam Roberts characterized Eagleton's review as an incoherent rant.
- Gudmundur Ingi Markússon agreed with Dawkins that religion is a by-product of evolution, but noted that the details of his explanation did not accurately represent the research in the evolutionary and cognitive science of religion.
- Philosopher Thomas Nagel found its approach to be too scatter-shot and its philosophical arguments to be weak.
- Philosopher Antony Flew called Dawkins a "secularist bigot." Dawkins claimed Flew hadn't actually read the book.
- Philosopher of biology Michael Ruse complained that Dawkins' approach would alienate moderate theists in the fight against creationism being taught in schools.
- Philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne claimed that Dawkins had misrepresented his arguments, but acknowledged a mistake of his own in one instance.
- Biologist David Sloan Wilson disagreed with the by-product theory and argued that religion is an adaptation. Dawkins noted that the chapter was "peripheral to my main critique."
- Robert Todd Carroll of The Skeptic's Dictionary wrote that the book would appeal most to non-believers who are "trapped in a religion because they were born into it or are surrounded by family and friends who would ostracize and reject them if they became atheists."
- Anthropologist Jonathan Marks offered an alternative recommendation: "For an apostate’s witty analysis of religion, the reader would be far better served by revisiting Mencken's Treatise on the Gods."
- The God Delusion on Google Books
- An interesting perspective; perhaps this is the reason why churches decry the book, because of the money they would be losing and not the unassailable beliefs that would be assailed? Naw...
- Atheists of Silicon Valley: Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence
- Dawkins doesn't mention this, but Project Steve offers an interesting refutation of this argument.
- As described by Jesus and Mo
- On group selection
- Even though Dawkins, ironically, does not support mainstream group selection in other contexts. See: Open Letter to Richard Dawkins: Why Are You Still In Denial About Group Selection?, and Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, and the Consensus of the Many
- On Wikipedia; the book was published before Hauser was dismissed from Harvard for scientific misconduct, regarding studies unrelated to his work on morality.
- Dawkins references John Shelby Spong for his observation in The Sins of Scripture.
- Luke 14:26
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
- John 2:4
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.
- Dawkins, just like Peter Joseph, is using the actual term "zeitgeist", a german loan word roughly translating into "the spirit of the times". Dawkins' title here has absolutely nothing to do with Peter Joseph or the Zeitgeist series.
- I know what you're thinking: someone needs to read this section, badly.
- I know, tragic use of the word.
- See George Tiller
- For example, one Gallop poll from 1954 notes that three fourths of all Catholics and Protestants in the study could not identify a single Old Testament prophet, and two thirds could not identify who preached the Sermon on the Mount.
- Which is distinct from the discussion on the God of the gaps.
- While simultaneously admitting that he did not have one as a child.
- In a footnote, he links to studies by Marilyn Smith Stoner, which are no longer available on line for free, but are still available.
- Dawkins compares this ridiculous transaction to modern day cryonics, suggesting the effectiveness is similar.
- A Mission to Convert, H. Allen Orr, New York Review of Books
- The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett (w/ reply by Orr), New York Review of Books
- Open Letter to H. Allen Orr, PZ Myers, H. Allen Orr, Daniel Dennett, edge.org
- Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books
- Terry Eagleton's Traditional Theology; And a New Version of Pascal's Wager, Adam Roberts, The Valve
- Gudmundur Ingi Markússon. Book Review: The God Delusion. Journal of Cognition and Culture 7 (2007) 369–373
- The Fear of Religion, Thomas Nagel, The New Republic
- Flew Speaks Out: Flew Reviews The God Delusion, Antony Flew, bethinking.org
- Richard Dawkins Branded 'Secularist Bigot' by Veteran Philosopher, Martin Beckford, The Telegraph
- Michael Ruse. Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion. Isis Vol. 98, No. 4 (December 2007), pp. 814-816
- Response to Richard Dawkins’s comments on my writings in his book The God Delusion, Richard Swinburne, University of Oxford
- Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong About Religion, David Sloan Wilson, eSkeptic
- Richard Dawkins Replies to David Sloan Wilson, richarddawkins.net
- Book Review: The God Delusion, Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic's Dictionary
- Jonathan Marks. Voltaire This Ain't. Dialectical Anthropology (2010) vol. 34