The God Delusion
To many people Richard Dawkins needs no introduction. He’s that scientist chappy who promotes evolution, and denigrates religion with equal fervour in books with snappy titles such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. I confess to never having read any of his books, despite hearing much about him from atheist friends, and thus recognising that at some point I should engage with his arguments. On a recent visit to a bookshop I handed over $40 to purchase his latest (2006) book The God Delusion. I am pleased to report that his book is easy to read and I have read it; which actually says something good about Dawkins’ style because I read very few books these days in toto. Let me confess something else. I read such books with a little bit of trepidation – what if the argument of the book is compelling and I find myself persuaded to give up believing in God? I suppose if I became an atheist like Dawkins then I should be pleased to move from being a ‘minister of religion’ to being an ex-minister. But life is not that simple; and I have made an emotional investment in a way of life, just as I have in a marriage and in a family, and I cannot imagine giving any of the three up without the gravest of difficulty. So I am not an impartial reader of Dawkins’ attempt to persuade me (and every one of his readers) of the folly and danger of believing in God. Dawkins is, by the way, an ‘evangelist’ for atheism: religion is bad news in all its forms, moderate and extreme, but salvation both for the individual and for humanity lies in leaving religion behind and disavowing belief in God. He is very clear that he is delighted when he hears that he has influenced someone away from belief.
In the end, however, I think Dawkins makes it easy for someone like me. He has no compelling argument to give up belief in God even as he does provide compelling arguments for the comprehensive explanatory power of Darwinian evolution and does, I suggest, provide a compelling case for an atheist not to become a theist. In coming to this conclusion I may not be an impartial reader, but an internet trawl – not only of Christian reviewers – suggests I am not wrong either! To expand my conclusions in reverse order: Dawkins pulls out all stops as he makes the case that religion is nonsense, malevolent, and a curse on humankind. After reading The God Delusion no atheist would be tempted to think ‘but perhaps there is something to commend religion after all.’ There is just nothing, Dawkins argues, since religion is not true and thus even its putative consolatory value is fraudulent. Better by far to embrace life as it is – at least Dawkins is not pessimist and life as it is, without God, is not bleak, since we have the possibility of making as much of life as we want.
I am not much of a biologist and have largely left the ‘creationism versus evolutionism’ arguments alone until recently. But Dawkins is compelling as he handles that which he knows well: the variety of life we find on earth is well-explained by natural selection, and nothing about the development of life requires another explanation. However, far from thinking this made God unnecessary (as Dawkins argues) I found myself wondering whether God is incredibly smart. Silly me, of course God is – God is omniscient (according to theism, as Dawkins frequently reminds the reader before he points out some logical folly of such belief) – but what I wondered was this: it’s a lot of mental work (say) to invent flowers which reward bees with nectar in return for bees taking pollen to another flower, while keeping a restrictive eye on the potential for unwanted cross-pollination, and then having the nifty thought that perhaps nectar could both feed bees and humans … multiply all that kind of ‘design’ by a trillion times and you start to have an idea of what God had to do to both create and develop life on a non-Darwinian model (‘creationism’ if you will); but what if God was ‘smart’ more than ‘omniscient’ and decided to simply create energy and let it all happen (‘the big bang’ which Dawkins is inclined to accept, along with the associated theory that the universe is expanding rather than in a cycle of ‘bang-expand-contract-bang’)? That way the apparent design of life was accomplished on Earth by God’s masterstroke idea of ‘natural selection’ (maybe God had a wee hand in aligning Earth’s orbit so that life could begin and develop here in a way that almost certainly has not happened on the other planets of our solar system). The brilliance of ‘natural selection’ is not only that it ‘designs’ particular organisms, but it enables them to all live together in beneficial ways (though the lion might be more inclined than the antelope to agree with that description of the inter-connectedness of life). Dawkins would find my musing here highly disagreeable: his point is that ‘natural selection’ undoes the one possible – in his view - argument for the existence of God – the so called argument from design. My response invokes a God who is not necessary and that is irrational.
Except that my musings are not purely a response to Dawkins masterly account of the power of ‘natural selection’. Along the way Dawkins necessarily has to say something about how life began, for ‘natural selection’ can only apply to the development of life and not to its beginning. Here Dawkins leads me towards God and not away from God, hence my musings about the Creator God who saves mental effort when planning the development of life (is such a creator God ‘more perfect’ than the ‘creationist’ God?). For Dawkins recognises that the Earth is in a remarkably propitious position for life to begin and to develop (neither too close nor too far away from the sun; in a solar system with just one sun; etc). Are we stupendously lucky, or what? But then that’s the point: maybe we are in this perfect place because it was made just so, not is just so. Dawkins won’t agree but his problem is that many do agree and in one form of religion or another express their belief in the theistic God who made our world. Thus God is less disposable from the world than Dawkins reckons not least because he (i.e. Dawkins) has such a lovely description of the wonder of the world that, for this reader at least, I find myself seeing God at work in the world, not least in setting it up as the best of all possible nurseries for life to begin.
Finally, why has Dawkins not provided a compelling argument for a theist to turn atheist? Essentially Dawkins loses by exaggerating the evils, faults and pitfalls of religion to the point where what he says is ‘religion’ is unrecognisable as the ‘typical’ experience of the ‘mainstream’ religionist. If Christianity – even the conservative Christianity I have experienced all my life – were Dawkinish in character then let me out of here. No doubt it is in some of its fringes – experienced by Dawkins in various ways, including some terrible hate mail he has received – but it just ain’t so in its ‘average’ reality. (Similarly, I suggest, for Muslims experience of Islam, Buddhists experience of Buddhism, etc). Even in Dawkins’ attack on Scripture, he misses the bus. Every terrible act of ethnic cleansing, barbaric punishment, and extreme religiosity (e.g. God asking Abraham to kill his only son) is heavily underlined by Dawkins. But by failing to find any sign of God’s grace in Scripture, he effectively asks his Christian readers to reject a caricature of Scripture and not Scripture itself. There is a case against the truth of Christianity (and against each of the other religions) which can be made, but Dawkins has yet to discover it. However, he is a scientist, so perhaps one day he will find it!