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Arguing for Atheism

A review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Bantam Books, 2006, ISBN 0618680004). This review was originally published in Science, January 26, 2007.

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me … that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?

Such stirring words, spoken with such moral conviction, must surely come from an outraged liberal exasperated with the conservative climate of America today, and one can be forgiven for thinking that in a review of The God Delusion these are the words of Richard Dawkins himself, who is well known for not suffering religious fools gladly. But no. They were entered into the Congressional Record on 16 September 1981, by none other than Senator Barry Goldwater, the fountainhead of the modern conservative movement, the man whose failed 1964 run for the presidency was said to have been fulfilled in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, and the candidate whose campaign slogan was “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.”

If Goldwater had been president for the past six years, I doubt that Dawkins would have penned such a powerful polemic against the infusion of religion into nearly every nook and cranny of public life. But here we are, and like Goldwater, Dawkins is sick and tired of being told that atheists are immoral, second-class, back-of-the-bus citizens. The God Delusion is his way of, like the Howard Beale character in the 1976 film Network, sticking his head out the window and shouting, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

But The God Delusion is so much more than a polemic. It is an exercise to “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.” Dawkins wants atheists to quit apologizing for their religious skepticism. “On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.”

Dawkins also wants to raise consciousness about the power of Darwin’s dangerous idea of natural selection. He believes that most people — even many scientists — do not fully understand just how powerful an idea it is. He attributes that failure to the need to be steeped and immersed in natural selection before you can truly recognize its power. In this context, natural selection “shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.”

Out of obligation, of course, Dawkins reviews and offers rebuttals to all the standard arguments for God’s existence. He concentrates on dissecting the anthropic principle and dismantling intelligent design creationism. (As part of the latter efforts, he redirects the creationists’ argument from complexity to show that God must have been designed by a superintelligent designer.) He then builds a case for “why there almost certainly is no God.” The remainder of the book outlines possible evolutionary origins of morality and religious belief, a justification for being hard on religion, childhood religious indoctrination as child abuse, and an elegant commentary on the progressively changing moral zeitgeist. Dawkins closes with a tribute to the power and beauty of science, which no living writer does better.

When I received the bound galleys for The God Delusion, I cringed at the title, wishing it were more neutral (why not, say, The God Question?). As I read the book, I found myself wincing at Dawkins’s references to religious people as “faith-heads,” as being less intelligent, poor at reasoning, or even deluded, and to religious moderates as enablers of terrorism. I shudder because I have religious friends and colleagues who do not fit these descriptors, and I empathize at the pain such pejorative appellations cause them. In addition, I am not convinced by Dawkins’s argument that
without religion there would be “no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ no Northern Ireland ‘troubles’…” In my opinion, many of these events — and others often attributed solely to religion by atheists — were less religiously motivated than politically driven, or at the very least involved religion in the service of political hegemony.

I also never imagined a book with this title would ever land on bestseller lists in the United States. But I was wrong. The data have spoken. The God Delusion is a runaway bestseller, a market testimony to the hunger many people — far more, I now think, than polls reveal — have for someone in a position of prestige and power to speak for them in such an eloquent voice. The God Delusion deserves multiple readings, not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature.

13 Comments

  1. Piltdownmanisinnocent says:

    “The God Delusion deserves multiple readings, not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature.”

    You may be right … are you discussing Shakespeare’s … “a theory of errors”.

  2. Mario says:

    I fail to point out religion as the main cause for all the violent conflicts Dr. Dawkins mention in his book, but for me the God that they praise so much end up being the main publicized reason to keep on going with the killings instead of being the cause of them putting a halt to the madness.

    So if the supreme and omnipotent person is OK with this wakos using its name not only in vane but to justify the murder, rape or any kind of violence against other human being, is more than enough for me to get rid of that meme.

  3. David says:

    I think a problem for people like Dawkins, people who do have a geniune concern for humanity, is that they themselves often have faith in very ancient goddess: her name is Panacea. The end of religion will not cure all mens’ ills. In the twentieth century we saw a host of atrocities committed by “athiest” regimes. Of course, the reply to this is often “well communism is a religion for some” or some similar reply. However, if that is the case then the belief in the supernatural or of gods is not required for a “religion” and therefore, faith in the supernatural is not the cause of all of mankinds ills. Consequently, the whole premise of a Dawkins book is flawed.

    I, for one, am amazed by partisan thinking. People seem to be able to shut down parts of their minds to accomodate the party line. I would like to see more study done on that phenomenon.

    • neil jacobs says:

      As either Dawkins or Hitchens point out, atrocities carried out in so called atheistic regimes were not carried out in the name of atheism .
      However many atrocities are carried out in the name of ,or defending , a particular religion .
      There is a huge difference between the two

    • Steven Marsh says:

      Neither Dr. Dawkins, Christopher Hitches, or Sam Harris believes that the “End of Religion” will cure mans ills.

      But it may well prevent the kind of catastrophe that would end civilization, of this I have no doubt.

      Our Technological prowess is increasing and it will not stop, the power of Technology like say, Atomic Weapons, is not compatible with a future where Religious ideologies compete. Such a scenario would certainly lead to the death of 10s of millions in a nuclear exchange. India and Pakistan come to mind. Iran and Israel come to mind. Russia and Israel come to mind. etc, etc.

      You cannot claim to know what would happen if all of Humanity realized that there is no “chosen people” or “chosen religion”

      You cannot claim to know that Panacea is not possible either, it may be possible for all of Humanity to realize that it is indeed one big family with a common evolutionary heritage.

      You seem to claim that it is in fact better to NOT BELIEVE that this is even possible.

      Perhaps you need some personal experience to realize that it is possible, abandoning Religious divisions opens many doors for the future of Humanity. Doors that right now we don’t even know exist.

      I many not have faith in Jesus, but I do have faith in Humanity, even though right now they are letting me down.

  4. Rocco says:

    I try to avoid absolutes. Circular logic is harder to avoid because it seems we often are given to gradually getting off track. We seem to tend to take a valid point and digress. In the assertion that (a host of atrocities were committed by atheist regimes), I find no fault; the digression is the (jump to)/ inference that . . . therefore atheisim is wrong.
    This approach completely leaves behind the (interesting) discussion of whether there is or is not a conscious entity that perpetuates this enigma.
    If we accept the premise of such logic we must likely conclude that. Theists regimes have committed a host of atrocities . . . therefore there is no God.
    I “think” I question the nature of a Gods existence yet I (admittedly) “feel” there is a God of a nature.
    If we consider the idea that all “positive” Divine texts were Divinely inspired and necessarily metaphorical (to be able to represent Gods greatness) the dicrepancies amongst and between religions can be reconciled as the different traditions grown out of different cultures times and places seeking to understand and practice their ongoing interpretations, and yes reinterpretations.
    Whether or not there is a God . . . the dicrepancies appear to be of Men/ People and are an illogical reason to kill one another and seemingly not supported by a complete consideration of any of the great/ major religious texts.
    I am not commenting on the book, but rather some of the logic being used in the discussion of it.
    We are left with . . . what are the valid/ logical arguments supporting the existence of God and what are the valid/ logical arguments supporting the concept of there being no conscious entity perpetuating or having created this enigma.
    The discussion seems more interesting when based on concepts supporting either belief versus condemning the believers . . . of either perspective.
    Interesting?

  5. H.Paul Lillebo says:

    As an atheistic biologist I was embarrassed when I read Dawkins’ book. That an atheist could be so doctrinaire, that a biologist could be so unscientific, that any author could be so careless with style and continuity, and that a reputedly wise man could be so uncomprehending of human nature, to me seemed incomprehensible, and to be an embarrassment to both science and atheism. Space doesn’t allow me to criticize in specifics here, but my web site (Blue Ridge Journal) does, and I invite you to read my critique at http://www.blueridgejournal.com/brj-dawkins.htm

  6. renato botelho says:

    I would add to Shermer comment

    “without religion there would be “no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ no Northern Ireland ‘troubles’…” In my opinion, many of these events — and others often attributed solely to religion by atheists — were less religiously motivated than politically driven, or at the very least involved religion in the service of political hegemony.”

    The fact that we have Christians/Protestants and Jews/Muslins living together in many countries out of Northern Ireland and Palestine without conflicts. This way the conflicts are not caused by religious differences but by local social/politics reasons. The Jews and Muslins conflict is recent, they lived together for centuries without major problems. The religious differences just divide people in groups with the same social/political conditions.

  7. John says:

    I’m amazed that so many obviously intelligent and reasoning people claim to be atheist. The only conclusion I can come up with is that people confuse religion with the possibility of a creator. Of course there’s no Supreme Being that has given us commandments to live by. The very thought is completely ludicrous. But did the universe just happen? There are questions we simply will never be able to answer. So when it comes to religion, I am an atheist. And maybe that’s what most people mean. But when it comes to there being creator, we’re all agnostics.

    • Zach says:

      That’s not true. I am not agnostic about there being a creator of the universe. And I don’t believe that there are questions we will “never be able to answer”. Maybe we won’t; but maybe we will. We can keep trying. But when it comes to the question of a creator, there is not a shred of evidence in favor of that hypothesis. The best argument for a creator would probably be the fine tuning argument and/or goldilocks principle. It’s not nearly convincing enough to sway me towards agnosticism about the likehood of there being a creator.

  8. drumdaddy says:

    Perhaps some of the commenters might gain insight by actually reading the book. I’ve listened to the audio version twice so far and find it to be inspiring.

  9. Quantus says:

    all the explanations and reasoning, but i still don’t understand why Hitler wanted to kill all the Jews. he could have simply gone after any other religion too (i don’t think Jew is a race)?
    what was the reason that made Jews the target?
    what if the Jews were not Jews, would they still have been an inferior ‘race’ as claimed by Hitler to be wiped off or whatever the reason maybe?

  10. Steve C says:

    The God Delusion set me on a path of discovery that lead to the completion of a degree in philosophy and a further desire to better understand the discussion concerning evolution/creationism, theism/agnosticism/atheism, science/religion, and other similar topics.

    This in turn forced me to better understand the science supporting evolution as well as the complete theory as explained by Darwin, primarily the impact that natural selection has upon the individuals within a species whose random mutations have given them a slight survival advantage that is passed on through sexual reproduction. This I was forced to compare with the evidence supporting creationism or lack thereof to establish my position.

    Also, growing up in the U.S. within the Bible Belt region, I have always been accustomed to seeing a church in nearly every square mile of inhabited land whilst maintaining no interest in religion whatsoever. This too has changed because I am more interested and concerned about the influence that religious doctrine has on U.S. politics, culture, and education.

    At this point it has been so long since I read The God Delusion that I don’t remember what it says directly or how Dr. Dawkins addresses the reader, but I am immensely thankful to him for creating that book—I can assure you it was intelligently designed.

    I now spend a great deal of time working through the history and development of Western Civilization looking for points of interest and revolutionary events that have led to the world in which I will experience my existence. I am certainly glad that I arrived on the scene following the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, but I think I might have rather taken this ride another fifty to a hundred years henceforth when God has been further moved from the public sphere and back into the life of the individual where he/she/it/they/them belong.

    Whether or not a god or gods exist is a moot point; how we experience our life and how we treat our fellow beings and those supposed lessor animals and our shared environment is the real discussion. The absolutes established within the foundation of this world’s various religions are not useful in this discussion. These absolutes are absolutely a creation of man and the God head is simply a higher authority by which religious institutions provide justification for their own ideals concerning the design of society and culture that they themselves prefer.

    While I don’t remember this being the thesis presented in The God Delusion, this is the result of having read that book for me.

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