In 2006, Richard Dawkins wrote a book that has garnered high praise from some and unabashed fury from others. The book has the provocative title, The God Delusion. Dawkins uses his background as a scientist specializing in evolutionary biology to examine a simple conceit to explain why so many people refuse to even consider leaving religion behind despite compelling evidence to refute its validity: “I didn’t know I could.” In his Preface he explains that his intention in writing this particular book is to raise consciousness to a few ideas such as why atheism has merit and can facilitate a productive and fulfilling life without guilt or apology; how concepts like natural selection, though often misunderstood, provide more probable alternatives to religious dogma; and how religion corrupts childhood and encourages exclusion. He acknowledges the importance of various scriptures such as the Bible, not as divine instruction, but as works of literature or historical fiction. As such, he explains how they provide cautionary tales and cultural references while inspiring countless modern works of literature, and he laments the ever decreasing familiarity with such sources even amongst those who claim to be religious. Mostly he intends his book to inspire people to think and examine the world around them anew, open to the beauty that comes with greater understanding through science.
Science can be defined as a body of factual knowledge about the natural world and the physical laws governing it based on evidence gathered through observation and experimentation. As the knowledge base increases, scientific texts and reports are updated to incorporate the new information.
Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. It differs from science in that it is not evidence-based through experimentation and observation and is instead fixed based on its unchanging scriptures.
Dawkins explains his reasoning through studies, examples, and thought experiments drawn from his life’s work in the sciences stressing the importance of probability in weighing various alternatives. After the Preface, Dawkins breaks the book into ten chapters, an appendix with resources for those seeking help in extricating themselves from the grip of religion, an extensive bibliography, a notes section expanding on various examples, and a broad index. His chapter headings are instructive:
- A deeply religious non-believer
- The God Hypothesis
- Arguments for God’s existence
- Why there almost certainly is no God
- The roots of religion
- The roots of morality: why are we good?
- The ‘Good’ Book and the changing moral Zeitgeist
- What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?
- Childhood, abuse and the escape from religion
- A much needed gap?
Wikipedia provides an excellent synopsis along with details of the book’s reception and critiques ranging from hearty endorsements to fiery attacks.
Dawkins raises a consuming concern regarding the latitude religion is given in modern society. He discusses several examples where religious arguments justifying wrongdoing against others are given undo consideration in the adjudication process and questions why religion has such status.
Although the book was written over a decade before the current worldwide SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, an example of the depth of depravity in elevating religious views over the established rules and needs of society can be found in the application of public health measures surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. Religious objectors are allowed to flout various science-driven requirements for vaccination, and in some cases even refuse something as simple as wearing a face covering proven to help decrease the rate of viral spread. This amplifies the concern raised regarding the outsized place of religion in society.
In the U.S., this is especially troubling given the erosion of the firmly secular foundation of the nation, something Dawkins discusses at length. Despite a Constitutional directive to keep religion out of governmental affairs, Dawkins notes that religion is allowed to creep into government processes with ever greater frequency. He also notes that the U.S. is one of the most religious nations on the planet rivaling many others that are declared theocracies. The irony of course is that a nation professing to respect self-government and democratic processes based on laws separate from religion attempts to enforce religious practices not only on its own people, it tries to export those same practices.
Ever the scientist, Dawkins attempts to treat the exploration of whether something akin to God exists using the scientific method which requires a hypothesis to test. He first defines the God Hypothesis thus:
“There exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”
He then notes an obvious problem with such a hypothesis:
“Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.”
In other words, he observes that adhering to the idea of a designer begs the infinitely recursive conundrum of what then designed the designer? This problem surfaces in various ways several times throughout the book.
Beyond the definition of the hypothesis, Dawkins briefly explains how human beliefs mutated through polytheism and monotheism offering that as religions evolved, various gods were removed. He quips that the natural evolution of the concept should logically end with atheism as the final God is subtracted. He finds it curious as well as amusing that theologians saw the removal of multiple earlier gods as an improvement and then got stuck on the last one.
Throughout the book, Dawkins calls upon history along with scientific concepts and probabilities to examine various claims and preconceptions which can blind people to new information. He notes that much of science is based on studying probabilities and uses this to undertake an exercise creating a probability scale to sort the strength of people’s conviction in the existence of God. He defines seven probabilistic milestones along a continuous spectrum forming categories of belief as:
1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C. G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’
2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’
3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. ‘I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.’
4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. ‘God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.’
5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. ‘I don’t know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.’
6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’
7. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’
He then makes several notable observations regarding the scale based on numerous discussions, interviews, and surveys.
- Categories 1 and 2 are heavily populated by believers, but 7 is practically null, only included for the purposes of symmetry.
- As a scientist, he places himself in category 6 leaning into 7 because based on probabilities he knows that he cannot prove with 100 percent certainty the non-existence of something. He further expresses his “agnosticism” in a colorful way: “I am agnostic <about the existence of God> only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”
- He noticed a trend that the level of education of the respondents, particularly in the sciences, tends to increase in concert with the increasing category numbers moving towards atheism.
He concedes that although proving or disproving his God Hypothesis is extremely difficult and potentially not even possible to do conclusively, science provides a methodology for assessing the probabilistic potential, i.e., the likelihood of such an entity existing.
Dawkins’ discussion of various arguments in favor of the existence of God show that they all contain logical fallacies which do not stand up to scientific rigor. He emphasizes that many of the arguments used throughout history don’t so much advance any credence to the existence of a God or gods, but they instead put pressure on people to feign belief even if none exists out of fear of harm from other people. He cites the historical record illuminating numerous religious wars and conquests such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and many more. The arguments in favor of God’s existence also lay naked the mutual incompatibility of such an entity being both omniscient and omnipotent expressed in a catchy little verse by Karen Owens:
“Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?”
Dawkins bristles at the either/or situation that religious adherents tend to present, i.e., there has to be a designer, or the world developed by complete chance, and it couldn’t have happened by chance because of the level of complexity. He insists that there is another option and argues that the theory of natural selection is crucial. Although he doesn’t actually define natural selection outright in this book, he uses multiple examples to illustrate why it’s the most probable answer to how life’s complexities evolved. Any biology textbook or dictionary would provide a reasonable definition of the theory of natural selection such as the following from Dictionary.com:
“The process by which forms of life having traits that better enable them to adapt to specific environmental pressures, as predators, changes in climate, or competition for food or mates, will tend to survive and reproduce in greater numbers than others of their kind, thus ensuring the perpetuation of those favorable traits in succeeding generations.”
The key point is that the process of natural selection is not random. It is selection based on the greatest chance for a species’ survival. The version of an organism that has the greatest evolutionary success is the one that makes the most copies of itself. It’s also not about individual survival but instead pertains to the survival of the overall species. We can see this in nature all the time, and recently, the most obvious example is the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Each new variant has some number of mutations distinguishing it from previous variants, and over time, the one(s) that survive are able to replicate (through their hosts) and spread more efficiently than the previous instances. At the time of this writing, the Omicron variant shows the greatest potential for evolutionary success spreading more rapidly and easily than previous variants. It also happens to cause less severe illness to the vaccinated, but that’s not an evolutionary criterion. Of course viruses themselves are merely genetic material that cannot replicate without a host cell’s machinery, but they are still affected by natural selection because of their genetic material, the building blocks of life that allow them to co-opt the host cells to serve their purposes.
The point is that from a probability perspective, which is the most likely?
- The existence of a designer that begs the question of infinite recursion of what created it
- Random chance
- Natural selection
The first two options are equally improbable, but natural selection where gradual adaptations allow creation of a more complex organism from simpler ones is highly probable.
Beyond equating natural selection with random chance, which it is not, religious arguments seize upon the gaps in scientific knowledge alleging that because something is as yet unknown, the only possible answer requires magical thinking by accepting a supernatural master designer. This is highly improbable and stops rational thought. For science, a gap represents an area for further exploration, not resignation. Science provides a methodology for deciphering the mysteries of the universe and working through various gaps in understanding as our collective knowledge base increases. Religion freezes that understanding, dismisses science, and stops intellectual growth.
Dawkins finds some promise in an interesting explanation for the Darwinian survival of religion in human culture. Through natural selection, there are sometimes traits that develop as by-products of something else, and that same phenomenon can surface in cultural behaviors as well. An interesting possibility to consider is that religion developed in humans, not through divine provenance, but as a side effect of something else that gave humans an evolutionary advantage from a social perspective. To explain, Dawkins provides a fascinating example of how asking the wrong question can fail to illuminate the answer sought.
He describes a situation where moths seem to intentionally fly into the flame of a candle which on the surface appears to be an evolutionary failure. The real question is not why a moth would seemingly choose to end its life this way but instead should try to discover how moths navigate. It turns out that moths use celestial navigation using the light emitted by objects effectively at optical infinity. The advent of humans and candles (or artificial light) causes an individual moth’s navigational methodology to misfire and catastrophically cause it harm, but the methodology for the species is still sound. The apparent aberrant behavior isn’t at all what it seems.
Dawkins uses this concept to suggest that it’s possible that religion developed as a by-product of some other beneficial human behavior. This line of reasoning takes him into his concerns regarding how children are indoctrinated into religious practices well before their brains are mature enough to object. From a species perspective, children benefit from the experiential knowledge of their caretakers. The lessons they learn help them avoid dangers and survive into adulthood, and an evolutionary imperative that may have evolved is to accept such teaching without question when they are young. Unfortunately, in addition to learning necessary survival skills, adopting a strong faith based on the religion of their parents or teachers is often in the mix of instructions they receive.
In addition to bonding with the in-group, this religious instruction often encourages the exclusion of those who believe differently and can subvert science. Throughout the book, Dawkins argues that the big difference between adhering to a religious doctrine based on unchanging scriptures and science is that the religious adherence is done by dictate; whereas, science acceptance is based on evidence and facts. With science, as new evidence is uncovered, that understanding can change, but religious acceptance is much more fixed based on unchanging books reflecting the ancient time in which they were written.
Dawkins also makes an impassioned argument that even mild or moderate religion creates an environment where absolutism can take hold, and what we think of as religious extremism can flourish. The danger in that case is that adherents who treat faith as a virtue can believe that violent actions are not only acceptable but are necessary to enact what they term as God’s will. This is the same mindset that launched religious wars throughout history.
Beyond outright war, another viable concern is the damage that religion does in causing unnecessary human suffering in day to day life, particularly where death and reproduction are concerned. While seemingly providing comfort in teaching people that they live on after death (which cannot be proven in any objective way), religious doctrine also heavily influences society to withhold that final exit even in cases where someone is suffering intractable pain from incurable, terminal illness but just hasn’t died yet. Nothing is served by forcing people to live in agony, and we show far more compassion toward our pets than we do to one another. On the reproductive score, religious doctrine often creates a kind of slavery by forcing women to carry pregnancies to term whether or not they want them taking away their reproductive freedom.
Dawkins also refutes a primary claim that religion is required to encourage people to be good. Morality is actually an evolutionary imperative for species survival. Here the so-called Golden Rule applies though it doesn’t come from scripture. It evolved long before the advent of religion, and as Dawkins recounts, often, religion encourages the opposite through war and purges of the unfaithful.
As adversarial as some of the book may be, Dawkins’ intention isn’t to condemn faith out of malice, and it isn’t even to remove the various sacred texts from our general education. Books like the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Bhagavad Gita provide a rich cultural history that shouldn’t be forgotten and allow a broader understanding of literature, art, and music. He only suggests that giving up supernatural beliefs has additional benefits in reducing our divisions and enhancing our cooperation.
He sees the dismissal of science that often accompanies religious fervor as a great loss that inhibits people’s ability to appreciate the wonders and beauty of nature and space within the limits of the human senses. In current times science and technology can enhance those senses, but unaided, every creature is limited by its physical form which determines its model of the world, i.e., the reality it can perceive. Why further limit that perception through faith?
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil, DVD, Presented by Richard Dawkins
Are Viruses Alive? Scientific American