A review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The God Delusion
By Richard Dawkins
Bantam Press (Random House Australia)
ISBN 9780593055489, November 2006, paperback, $35.00(aud)

As an American, I was brought up in a modern, multi-cultural household, where atheism existed side-by-side with a kind of cultural Judaism and Hinduism: spirituality mingling comfortably with a complete lack of dogmatic religion beyond the trendy variants of the Sixties. Nevertheless, I knew without being told that the one thing you didn’t do was to question another’s religious beliefs. I grew up comfortable in my atheistic skin, but also accepting of other religions, which, in the main, I felt were none of my business. Until I began to notice just how ugly those beliefs could be. That is one of the key points of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. It isn’t that God doesn’t and cannot exist; though Dawkins provides some startling clear and yet absolutely understandable arguments around this point. But rather that it isn’t good enough to simply “live and let live” when it comes to religion. As moral atheists (and Dawkins also provides excellent arguments about the morality of atheism), we have a responsibility to recognise that religion itself can often be a negative force to be treated with animosity.

It is Dawkin’s overt hostility towards religion which has caused many critics, both non-believers like Germaine Greer (or as she puts it, “believers who actively dislike God”, though I think that’s a rhetorical flourish) and Christian Theologians like Alister McGrath, to claim that The God Delusion is a cranky, poorly researched book. McGrath himself has built a kind of career on disputing the writings of Dawkins. Without exception, The God Delusion is neither cranky, nor poorly researched (surely ‘research’ into the notion of a “God” is an oxymoron). It is possible that some of Dawkins’ jokes which pervade the book, will come across as offensive to those who hold deep seated and unquestionable beliefs, but Dawkins makes no apologies for that, nor is he cranky about it. If anything, The God Delusion is a jocular, good humoured and bold book which slowly and surely tackles the most untouchable of subjects.

The book firstly separates the notion of spirituality, wonder at the beauty and complexity of the universe—“Einsteinian religion” or even “Einsteinian Pantheism” from the doctrine oriented religion (“interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language”) that this book is critical of. Those scientists among us moved to poetry by the wonders of the natural world and the extraordinary laws of physics are urged not to use words like “religion” or “god” to describe how we feel, since this is open to the abuses of dogma, as has been the case with Einstein’s god who “doesn’t play dice” or Hawking’s “mind of God”. The reasons for this are presented in the following chapters as Dawkins’ systematically takes apart the Biblical notion of a supernatural creator, tackling some of the more common arguments for God’s existence from Aquinas to Gould, and showing why these simply cannot be right, based on evidence and logic. Nor, he points out, should religion be exempt from evidence or logic, regardless of how long they have been in existence, how many people believe in them, or how many people have killed or died for them. These are not arguments:

But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? Isn’t it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity? What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn’t the designer of the universe have to be a scientist? (104)

Other chapters look at the notion of morality, and why morality itself exists outside of any godly notions. This argument is further strengthened by later chapters which quite succinctly show how religion is often used to justify the most atrocious lack of morality, and how morality reaches its all-time low in the Bible. Dawkins can’t fail to look at religious fundamentalism, a perfect example of what’s wrong with religion:

Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion) ad instead characerize their battle as a war against ‘terror’, as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure ‘evil’. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. (304)

This is not an easy subject to address, as many of the arguments which Dawkins refutes are cyclical and have been given a wide berth for a long time. Religious people tend to have deep seated feelings about their beliefs which are resistant to logic, and the emotions that go along with these feelings can be extreme. Dawkins is such a clear thinking scientist that he manages, through analogy, metaphor, logical argument, and example to make his points with the kind of clarity that religious theologians rarely reach. This book is a joy to read, and never gets dry or terse. Instead Dawkins’ good humour and sense of humanistic pleasure in science and discovery are constantly evident. Best of all, Dawkins is positive in his approach and doesn’t leave the reader empty once he proves how fatuous religious belief is. Instead he ends, in “A Much Needed Gap” where he began, with the heightened awareness of the kinds of things that should be exciting the mature mind: Science. Art. Human friendship. Humanism. Nature. “Love of life in the real world, giving no credence to other lives beyond the grave.”:

I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits. (374)

This is a superb, well written, well constructed book which belongs on the shelf of any thoughtful, moral person. For its humour and grace, it is pure pleasure to read. For its incisive clarity on a subject that hasn’t received much clarity over the years, it is critically important.