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Them's fightin' words

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Bill Hanage 5 November 2006

Confrontational: Hanage, not to be messed with

Come the end of the book, you are fired up and ready to start your own atheist faith school

Richard Dawkins has what might be termed a history with religion. For more than two decades he has been its foremost critic in British cultural life, a position that has won him widespread acclaim. He was recently voted Britain’s top intellectual by readers of the left-leaning periodical Prospect (which with magnificent pretension subtitles itself ‘Britain’s Intelligent Conversation’).

With this reputation in mind, it might surprise you that, up until now, Dawkins has directly addressed religion in only one of his books, The Blind Watchmaker. This masterpiece of science writing tackles the argument of Design (“the world and living things in particular look as if something designed it, so it must have been designed by something. I know, let’s call it god”) and patiently demolishes it by explaining the power of natural selection to build up the appearance of design through the accumulation of multitudinous, tiny mutations.

But even in The Blind Watchmaker, it was science that took centre stage: Dawkins seemed to delight in displaying its elegance and explanatory power in comparison with the credulity-straining diktats of religion. When it comes down to it, the process of natural selection is a lot less hard to believe than any creation myth. The problem is that most people don’t appreciate what natural selection can do, or don’t understand it, a failing that has been Dawkins’ life’s work to correct. But after two decades of tiptoeing around his old adversary, Dawkins has now taken it on in typically robust fashion with his new book The God Delusion, which is a little like The Blind Watchmaker inside out. Here Dawkins exposes religion’s repellent face, over and over, with science playing a supporting role as the alternative. It is a tour de force of sustained argument which never quite descends into name-calling – even in the face of some pretty unpalatable truths. Instead, he is almost playful in his put-downs. The American right-wing columnist and all round wingnut Ann Coulter, who has enjoyed quite a lot of success in the US, is referred to as ‘Someone called Ann Coulter’ as if she is beneath Dawkins’ magisterial attention. If you think this is petty, consider what Coulter has said about Dawkins: “I defy any of my co-religionists to not enjoy the thought of Dawkins burning in hell for eternity”. If I were asked to explain my atheism, I do not think I could do better than just hand over a copy of this book. It is all there. The logical proofs beloved of theologians get a well-deserved (though metaphorical) kicking. For example, those who argue religion and science are ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ in the mealy-mouthed phrase of the late Steven Jay Gould are given short shrift. Instead Dawkins takes us on a glorious but frustrating tour of the cruel, ignorant and uncurious belief systems which still dwell in most minds around the world today. I say glorious because he can be very funny, as when he describes a double-blinded, randomised controlled trial into the efficacy of prayer for patients recovering from surgery. Unsurprisingly, the prayers didn’t work (at least in the blinded part, although the patients who were told that prayers were being said for them actually did significantly worse). But Dawkins is surely right that if the experiments had worked, churches would be excited beyond belief by the vindication: just one of the reasons why those magisteria most certainly do overlap. The frustration has nothing to do with the author, and everything to do with his subject. Come the end of the book, you are fired up and ready to start your own atheist faith school. But there are flaws in the polemic. While this is a rip-roaring ride, there is actually very little new in what Dawkins has to say. Though it is true that, far from the peace and love we are taught to associate with it, the Bible actually contains some pretty hideous aspects – rape, murder and genocide, to name a few – this has been noticed before. The only new idea is something of a damp squib: Dawkins notes that the main fatal flaw of any god hypothesis involving a designer is that one has to suggest something more complicated that the designer to design the designer, and so on up logic’s own backside. He goes on to suggest that any ultimate designer, one which we do not have to postulate yet another designer behind, could only have come about by natural selection. When I first read this I thought it was a joke. It may be, but I am not certain. It seems like an exercise in absurdity. Another flaw in the book has been picked up by Andrew Brown, in a really bad- tempered review in Britain’s Intelligent Conversation. Brown doesn’t like this book, although reading his review, I think his main problem is that it isn’t a different book entirely, with different aims. But one thing Brown picks up on which I agree with is that Dawkins, in bending over backwards to accommodate his hypothesis that no bad things are ever done in the name of atheism, doth protest a bit too much about Hitler and Stalin. Hitler, we are assured, was actually a Catholic. And Stalin? Stalin is more difficult. Dawkins admits that he was a very nasty fellow, but then, gob-smackingly, claims that his crimes were not motivated by his atheism. What? There’re a lot of dead orthodox priests who’d probably disagree, if there were book reviews in heaven (and if there were a heaven).

The counter-argument is obvious, and I am perplexed that Dawkins did not confront this head-on. Namely, the belief system of Communism which motivated Stalin was surprisingly religious in its demand for unswerving devotion, its reliance on a quasi-sacred text (and its interpretation by those in power), and its comfort in the concept of sacrificing the present to the future. Why does Dawkins shy away? Is it because he not want to lose focus – or is it rather that he has a lingering fondness for leftist ideals? This is the problem Dawkins does not address. For all that he – and many of you – are comfortable with uncertainty, scepticism and doubt, most people are not. Religion is just one of the parasites that preys upon this. The promise of ultimate truth has a seductive gleam that can derail and deform human minds. While talking this over with a friend, I learnt of an acquaintance who had become a born-again Christian. This man didn’t like science, he said, because “it changed its mind all the time”. You ask a scientist about something now and they will give you an answer, but the answer might be different in ten years time. I see that as a strength: we are always doing the best we can to understand and don’t accept lazy shortcuts in our thinking. But I have a feeling that the complaint resonates with many.

Despite what some suggest, it is by no means obvious that humans require absolutism. The rise of secularism over only a few generations in a few cultures suggests it may be a matter of education, or even memes (which get another outing in The God Delusion). But in not confronting properly this particular feature of humans, I can’t help but feel Dawkins is missing something, because it surely goes to the heart of the problem. In contrast, Daniel Dennett’s recent (and complimentary) book Breaking the Spell wonders directly if religion could be an evolutionary adaptation, and suggests reasons why this might be so. Non-believers have been around for centuries. In 1660 Samuel Pepys professed himself in the privacy of his diary “Wholly scepticall” in matters of religion. But it has only been very recently that this has become a view people can speak out loud, and even in such an advanced society as the United States, it is still difficult to proclaim oneself an atheist. Unlike Brown, I am not exercised by this, as it means there is another book out there for Dawkins to write. And write it he should, because religion makes the world dangerous. Recently the comedian Andy Hamilton, appearing on Radio 4’s News Quiz, wondered about the possibility of a militant agnosticism: “If you march around saying ‘we demand rational debate!’, you can’t then go and chuck a hand grenade, can you?” Quite.