A number of books on the theme of faith and reason have been published lately. I just finished one of them, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This book gives a broad view of a number of questions in the faith-and-reason debate, all written with Dawkins’s characteristic style and wit. I enjoyed reading it, and although much of the material was familiar to me, I still feel like I learned a few things.
Dawkins starts out by laying out exactly what sort of God he believes is a delusion–i.e., a supernatural being. Actually, he starts out by describing what he means by “Einsteinian religion”, the use by scientists of religious terminology in a metaphorical or pantheistic sense, because that is not the kind of God he means. He has some good quotes, like this from Einstein, which he used to sum up Einsteinian religion:
“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.”
Or this from Carl Sagan, which explains very nicely the pitfalls of using “religion” or “God” in the sense that Einstein did:
“…if by “God” one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying … it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.”
Dawkins sums up his own views by saying:
“…I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.”
I agree with what Einstein said and I like the way he said it, but, while I wouldn’t word it as strongly as Dawkins does, I can see the value of the point he’s making and I have to reluctantly admit he might be right. I broached this topic with a couple of people who like to think about things like this and it generated some excellent discussion; I’d be interested in hearing other opinions too.
Dawkins describes the God hypothesis–the variety of beliefs that people hold about God, and how (or whether) they try to accommodate these to facts about the world we live in–and gives a brisk run-through of arguments for God’s existence (that’s “run-through” as in “run through wih a sword”, as he gives brief but compelling reviews of the difficulties with each one). There was nothing particularly new and exciting here but I think he did a good job of covering his turf very readably and wittily. He follows this up with an explanation of why there almost certainly is no God.
He devotes a couple of chapters to how we came to be religious animals and to where our sense of right and wrong comes from, discussing human psychology, the possible adaptive value of religion, and memes. (Daniel Dennett covers the origins of religion more thoroughly in his recent book Breaking the spell, by the way, and I list some other books on this topic on the Thinking Meat reading list.)
The chapter on what our moral sense tells us was particuarly interesting. His main point was that whatever people may say about getting their ideas of right and wrong from the Bible, that’s not really the case. The Old Testament is notoriously blood-soaked and violent, and the God depicted there is often morally unsavory to a high degree. (I have long found the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac particularly repugnant, but there are plenty of other stories to make a decent person cringe, and you have perhaps seen the open letter purportedly written to Laura Schlesinger detailing some of the more offensive Biblical injunctions.) Christians who don’t take the advice of the Old Testament literally are using some other moral yardstick by which to measure what they find in the Bible, rejecting the bad and keeping the good–meaning that scripture is not truly the basis for their moral code.
There’s a fair amount of consensus about that moral yardstick that defines good and bad behavior for us, although over time the consensus changes (Dawkins describes each age as having its own “moral Zeitgeist”). Dawkins reported on a study done about 40 years ago by Israeli psychologist George Tamarin that looked at how Israeli children reacted to a passage from the Bible about Joshua and the battle of Jericho, something we might today describe as a massacre. When over a thousand Israeli schoolchildren were asked whether they totally approved, partially approved, or totally disapproved of what Joshua and the Israelites had done in taking over the city of Jericho and slaughtering its inhabitants, 66% totally approved and 26% totally disapproved. When asked to explain their thinking, they gave religious justifications, including statements about the danger of learning bad ways from others of a different religion. (And some of those who disapproved did so on the grounds that property was lost as well as lives, and that property could have been put to good use by the Israelites.) When a smaller control group was given the same story, but with the names and places changed so that it was about a fictitious general who lived in China 3,000 years ago, only 7% totally approved and 75% disapproved. This was a striking and discouraging instance of the influence of religious prejudice on the moral sense of children. (You can read more in this Skeptic paper by John Hartung.)
Dawkins spends a chapter on the dangers of religious fundamentalism (and even moderate religion, he says, provides the climate in which fundamentalism can grow). There is plenty of material available to prove his point; this is ground that Sam Harris covered more thoroughly in The end of faith.
The final chapter is a summary of how life can be full of beauty, meaning, and inspiration despite, or perhaps even because of, an absence of the supernatural. This is also well-trodden ground, but I always relish seeing someone expressing these ideas, especially as beautifully as Richard Dawkins can do it, because in my opinion they cannot be disseminated too widely. He mentions a number of books that you can go to for more in this vein.
Overall I’d say this book is valuable as an overview and a pointer to other resources. He includes a bibliography and a list of organizations that support atheism, humanism, free thought, etc. The list is also available on the web site for the Richard Dawkins Foundatino for Reason and Science. I’ve heard people say that The God Delusion is preaching to the choir, and while it may be well presented and engagingly written, it’s not likely to reach the people who really need to read it. But I wonder if it might be a very useful thing for young people who have had a religious upbringing and are in the process of leaving the religion in which they were raised. I wish this book had been around 24 years ago when I was going through my own struggles with leaving the Catholic church. Maybe there were other books that would have helped and I just didn’t find them, but Dawkins’s excellently and compassionately written summary of the key issues might have eased the transition considerably for me. I hope the book finds its way to other people who might find it similarly useful.