With two books on the bestseller list raising questions about the validity of belief in God, some observers see a movement they call the New Atheism. If they are right, Richard Dawkins is to New Atheism what Bertrand Russell was to what is now apparently “Old Atheism.”
Yet there is a fundamental and significant difference between Dawkins, the author of the bestselling The God Delusion, and Russell. Russell was a philosopher. As such, he approached the question of the existence of God as an interesting exercise in logic and philosophy. Dawkins, in contrast, is an evolutionary scientist at Oxford University. He approaches the subject with an eye honed by scientific analysis and reason. His conclusion: belief in God is a “delusion” because religious faith is a false belief in the face of extremely strong evidence to the contrary. His use of science to reach that result is the topic of significant recent discussion. In fact, a “debate” between Dawkins, described as an “atheist biologist,” and “Christian geneticist” Francis Collins is the cover story of this week’s Time magazine.
There is also a difference between Dawkins and Sam Harris, the author of the best-selling Letter to a Christian Nation (the subject of the first review in this series). Harris provides a condensed view of the problems many people see with Christianity. Dawkins’ scope is much larger. He presents a lengthier and perhaps more erudite analysis of not just Christianity but the whole idea of a belief in God. In fact, Dawkins frequently challenges the reader intellectually with his analysis and commentary, particularly when he embarks into philosophical ideas and examines them with a scientific eye. At the outset, for example, Dawkins even invokes Russell in explaining why he believes agnosticism — the position that it is impossible to know whether there is a God — is untenable. He also devotes a chapter to deconstructing arguments for the existence of God advanced by thinkers from St. Thomas Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and, more recently, the mathematical approach of Stephen Unwin.
Yet even here the scientific method that permeates this work shows through. His scientific approach becomes stronger as the book progresses. He uses evolutionary principles to show why arguments that the existence of life supports the existence of God cannot withstand scrutiny. Likewise, in examining why all human cultures seem to have religion, Dawkins discusses not only evolutionary principles but alleles, memes (a term Dawkins is credited with coining) and memeplexes.
With his razor-like approach, Dawkins is almost brutal in his deconstruction of the argument that religion is necessary as a source of morality. He says “much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird.” Anyone who wishes to “base their morality literally on the Bible,” he writes, “[has] either not read it or not understood it.” In response to criticism that no one takes every word of the Bible literally any more, Dawkins says
[T]hat is my whole point. We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is “morality flying by the seat of its pants”, so is the other.
Dawkins, like Harris, also sees inconsistency evidenced by the Ten Commandments as being the foundation of morality. He points out:
If we took the Ten Commandments seriously, we would rank the worship of the wrong gods, and the making of graven images, as first and second among sins. Rather than condemn the unspeakable vandalism of the Taliban, who dynamited the 150-foot-high Bamiyan Buddhas in the mountains of Afghanistan, we would praise them for their righteous piety.
That is not the only commonality between Harris and Dawkins. Both are equally appalled that religious doctrines not only influence but often dictate public policy. Likewise, perhaps given their ardent approach toward the subject, Dawkins joins Harris in questioning why religion is granted “such uniquely privileged respect” that any disagreement with it is considered intolerance.
The immunity and existence of blind and unquestioned faith is a large part of what Dawkins sees as the evil of religion. Once again, though, Dawkins approaches it from the standpoint of analysis and evaluation.
More generally (and this applies to Christianity no less than to Islam), what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them — given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by — to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades. …. If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools[.]
That also leads Dawkins to a conclusion that undoubtedly prompts outrage from believers. He considers some aspects of religion to be child abuse. For example, he believes it improper to refer to a child as “Catholic” or “Muslim.” While they may be a child of parents of that religious belief, “children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics.”
It is somewhat surprising The God Delusion has remained on the bestseller lists for as long as it has and that it has been featured in many bookstores. First, advocacy of atheism is not a subject one would expect to find popular favor in the United States. Second, despite Dawkins’ unquestionable writing skills, the book can be difficult going at times. Yet commercial success does not necessarily equate to practical success. The God Delusion is afflicted by an inherent and perhaps ultimately fatal flaw. It is almost impossible to use logic and reasoning to educate and persuade others on a subject that requires ignoring and rejecting logic and reasoning.
What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion