The God Delusion
Author: Richard Dawkins
Genre: Philosophy, Religion, Atheism
The concept of God has always intrigued me. Born to a religious mother and an atheist father, I had always struggled to define my own belief. I loved the serenity of prayers and the togetherness of religious rituals, but found the notion of an actual superhuman God rather unscientific. It appeared childish to believe in a bearded figure in the sky, who created us in a far flung planet in a far flung galaxy, and who twisted the laws of the universe to selectively answer prayers.
While the popular concept of God simply appeared silly; Organized religion, and all the wars and murders in its name, was actually nauseating. Nehru, India’s founding father, said (and this book quotes): The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, has filled me with horror… Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interest.
And yet, despite my distaste, there was the obvious rhetoric I couldn’t readily answer: Who created us? How can this complex world exist without an intelligent design (or higher power)?
Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most popular atheist, attempts to answer these and all questions regularly touted in support of God. And offer Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as a pragmatic alternative to creationism. Dawkins blames religion and the blind belief in God for a lot of miseries in the world today, starting with fundamentalism, and therefore has taken on himself the role of atheism’s chief evangelist. Hence, the aggressive title of the book (God is a Delusion!).
The God that Dawkins seeks to negate is the popular personal God that most of the world believes in (superhuman, our creator, answers prayers). Pantheism (or an awe for nature, its laws and beauty), he says, is just sexed-up atheism and not the target of his diatribe (though he pushes people to take a clear stand). He quotes Einstein: To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense, I am religious. In this sense, Dawkins says, he is religious too. But, it does not make sense to pray to the law of gravity. Admiration for a beautiful garden can exist without the belief that there are fairies at the bottom!
Dawkins is acidic against blind faith (fundamentalists “knows that nothing will change their minds”; as against a true scientist, who “however passionately he may believe in a theory, knows that with the right evidence he will change his mind”). His special target is the God of religious texts like Old Testament, “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty, ethnic cleanser…”
An entire chapter is dedicated on Why There Almost Certainly Is No God. While today’s complex life couldn’t have just evolved as a matter of chance, using God to justify the origin of life suffers from a bigger flaw: Who then created God? Scientifically, any being powerful enough to create life would be so complex itself that it cannot be at the beginning of creation. God then is just an easy term used to stop the discussion on the unknowable origin. He then offers the much more plausible Theory of Evolution to show that “organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate (or divine) guidance”. Humans, with 80 year life-spans, fail to grasp the power of accumulation. The human civilization is only 10,000 years old but the universe is 14 billion years old, and had aeons to slowly evolve life. Starting with billions of years of nothing, then slowly the formation of atoms, then the first cell, and then over a further billions of years of natural selection, progressively complex life. If we marvel at, say, the human eye today in its fully evolved form, we may be tempted to ascribe a divine intervention. But look at a flatworm eye (detects light but cannot take images) and then a Nautilus eye (basic, blurred, ‘pin-hole’ camera images) and then many other forms of eyes lost to fossil, finally over a billion years, through natural selection, leading to the modern eye. Which itself, while brilliant, is not perfect (frequently bigger or smaller eye ball leading to myopia or long-sightedness; or cataract and other ailments). The larger philosophy is that phenomenon as yet un-explained does not mean un-explainable. Ergo, the use of God to explain life is a shallow and convenient attempt to shrug further analysis and discovery, a subversion of science.
Other silly examples: A plane crash killed all the 143 passengers and crew. But one child ‘miraculously’ survived with third-degree burns. The believers would use this incident to proclaim that God must exist! [Which God would kill 143 and save only one just to prove his presence?]
Dawkins goes on. He wants everyone to flinch when they hear a phrase like Catholic child or a Muslim child. Rather say ‘child of Catholic parents’. Children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on politics or economics.
He also explains we can be very moral without being religious. The Ten Commandments rephrased for an atheist make an interesting read (‘Do unto others as you would want to be done unto you’ is simply goodness required for social living and does not require a divine sanction). Dawkins explains that people need consolation and religion conveniently offers that. But a thinking person will “go nowhere by labelling our ignorance God”. He cautions us against the dark side of Absolutism quoting Victor Hugo: There is in every village a torch – the teacher. And an extinguisher – the clergyman! And Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
This is a strong book with strong views, and hence has attracted both supporters (more than 3 million copies sold, translated in 35 languages) and detractors in large numbers. The most common criticism against Dawkins is that he takes the worst of religion and literal interpretation of ancient texts and equates them with a ‘straw-man’ God which he then criticizes. To be fair, Dawkins does admit that if the world at large believed in Gandhi’s religion (“I am a Hindu, I am a Moslem, I am a Christian, I am a Jew, I am a Buddhist”), he wouldn’t have needed to write this book. Unfortunately the appeal of a soft, mystical religion is numerically negligible and the vast population believes in the aggressive rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini or Tel Haggard. And hence his polemic against religion and God. [I am not so sure. The media does tend to highlight only the ‘on-your-face’ religion of a jihadi but I have personally asked hundreds of believers on their concept of God, and most gently laugh off the notion of an actual superhuman entity. They still go to temples, but largely “out of loyalty to the tribe”, and pray, but largely because it instils inside them peace, hope and courage.]
The other criticism is that in opposing fundamentalism, he has himself become a “secularist bigot”: loud, uncompromising and acidic. In some passages, it appeared his focus was on propagating his own views and demolishing his opponents instead of guiding his readers gently into an objective discovery of God’s existence or non-existence. And therefore, while the non-believers will love it and gain much ammunition, I doubt how many true believers will actually be converted (see the review of Karen Armstrong’s book The Case For God elsewhere on this blog; when we offend or provoke fundamentalists, history teaches us they become even more defensive). I was disappointed, for example, to read his disrespectful denunciation of Mother Teresa (page 330) just because of her religious convictions.
Why should you read the book: For a brilliant and forceful denouncement of the God Hypothesis. For a logical and utterly believable case that Natural selection offers a much more pragmatic explanation of life. For just learning logical, clear-headed, evidence based thinking and writing.