AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 1

A review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins 15 years after its first publication hardly qualifies as a hot take. However, when I was deciding to launch this blog and considering the small contribution I could make to our AHS+ communities, it made sense to revisit the book which arguably helped launch the modern atheist movement more than any other .

An atheist humanist secularist reading

This series will be an experiment in in-depth critical reviews spaced out over alternate weeks for the benefit of those who wish either to read along or who are more interested in my sociopolitical commentary.

In part one I will review the preface and first two chapters, where Dawkins sets out the form of theism and religion he is arguing against, contrasting it with metaphorical uses of the terms. In two weeks’ time I will respond to chapters three and four, where Dawkins considers the arguments for and his central argument against theism. Part three will look at naturalistic explanations for the roots of religion and morality (chapters five and six). Part four critiques chapters seven and eight, and the moral case against religion. This series will conclude with my review of the final two chapters’ positive case for atheism, and my reflections on the series overall.

To paraphrase Heraclitus, we don’t read the same book twice. The text may not have changed, but we have.

I read the first paperback edition around 14 years ago. What was so energising was not necessarily the text itself but the intellectual and social movements it helped ignite. I’m not even sure if I read all the way to the end, as my copy was borrowed multiple times. Strangers seeing you read it in the park would come up to talk to you about it. Like the Bible, this was a text where the greatest impact, and both the most vociferous criticism and praise, comes not necessarily from the text itself, but peoples’ filtered idea of the text.

I read it for a second time about seven years ago when my personal atheism was transitioning from a firebrand to a more social justice-oriented approach. Perhaps I sought to recapture the burning ferocity of the early ‘new atheism’. I remember being surprised to find the book was far more mellow than I had remembered;. certainly less scathing than most online discourse about politics. It is only the special deference granted to religion that makes a book like The God Delusion seem at all scandalously rude.


The book was published in the same year that Dawkins presented a Channel Four documentary titled “Root of all evil” and illustrated by “a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the caption ‘Imagine a world without religion.’”. I was surprised by quite how early it is clear that this book was written in the shadow of 9/11, though to a lesser extent than books like Letter to a Christian Nation. Dawkins had wanted to write a book directly tackling religion for some time but was deterred by publishers. The events of 11 September 2001 and other Islamist violence forced concerns over religious fundamentalism into the mainstream and created the space for the so called ‘new atheism’ epitomised by authors like Dawkins.

This also displays the reduction of complex geo-political issues into simplistic explanations of religious extremism that those authors were more or less fairly criticised for.

Dawkins uses the preface to set out his approach including the self admittedly ambitious aim that “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” as well as four secondary aims of ‘consciousness raising’. Seeking to persuade people of the truth of your position is laudable. But this comes across as hopelessly naïve.

Perhaps this is a product of its time and seems stranger to us because the conversation about religion and atheism has moved on. Before the ‘new atheism’ of the early 21st-century began to break this taboo, atheist arguments were excluded from much of the public sphere. Before the internet, people in highly religious communities may never have had access to the writings of others who shared their own inner doubts. It is unsurprising that popularly accessible atheistic writing was able to quickly reach so many already primed recipients.

This claimed aim also invites comparisons to work by Christian apologists, who often profess themselves to be writing to the non-believer, while actually giving greater service to the aim of reinforcing religious faith.

Dawkins sets out four forms of consciousness-raising he wishes to promote through the book. Firstly, that atheism is both an intellectually viable and potentially personally fulfilling option. This is a measure of how far we have come in beginning to break the taboos of atheism, that this aim appears so modest.

Secondly, that the explanatory power of natural selection should prime us to embrace naturalistic and non-agent focused explanations over religious or design focused ones.

Thirdly, noticing the absurdity of labelling children by their parents’ religious beliefs. While the statement that “There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.” is perhaps too simplistic, the lazy assumption that children belong to or are owned by the religious tradition of their background should be challenged.

Fourthly, that being “an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of”. He makes the comparison to LGBT pride and the coming out movement explicit. The comparisons, and differences, between these two deeply entwined movements deserves further commentary.

Pride is a double-edged sword. Most of us still live in societies which – however irreligious – are awash with religious privilege and where being an open atheist is treated as something shameful. Atheists should have the pride necessary to be open about themselves and their beliefs but also be careful of being unnecessarily prideful about figuring out the easy ‘god question’.

Chapter 1. A deeply religious non-believer

“Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.”

The title of the first chapter comes from an Einstein quote and is all very interesting. While setting the scene, it does little to advance Dawkins’ main arguments. He discusses how a “quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists” and how metaphorical use of religious language can cloud our debate. It’s unclear whether Dawkins is criticising scientists for using religious metaphors or theologians and religious quote miners for misrepresenting these as an argument for theism.

During his life it was clear that Einstein was not religious or a believer in anything but a metaphorical god and Dawkins quotes at length some of the brutal and racist attacks against him by Christian theologians because of this. But in death Einstein’s words have been misappropriated by theologians.

“There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like ‘God is subtle but he is not malicious’ or ‘He does not play dice’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic. ‘God does not play dice’ should be translated as ‘Randomness does not lie at the heart of all things.’ ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ means ‘Could the universe have begun in any other way?’ Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. “

Dawkins is very concerned he is not misrepresented as arguing against metaphoric religion or poetic naturalism, and that he be understood as targeting specifically theistic supernaturalist religion.  Like many science communicators, Dawkins frequently uses agency and amorphization in discussions of evolution and other natural processes. Often one of the silliest critiques of atheists and other materialists is to accuse them of ‘scientism’, which puts the atheist into a bind. Either they are accused of not appreciating beauty and wonder, or they talk about beauty and wonder and are accused of making nature into a religion.

Figurative language about religion can be deployed in two ways according to Dawkins. Firstly he addresses how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to give inappropriate credit to religion. Then he turns his attention to how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to shield religion from criticism.

This provides us with an early example of Dawkins moving outside of his field of expertise (science communication) into fields where he is much less artful (social commentary). From Northern Ireland to Iraq and Yugoslavia, Dawkins criticises the use of euphemisms such as community or ethnic conflict when describing conflict between religious groups: “we have a pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions”.

It is true that the media and elites wish to downplay or obfuscate the role of religion and religious identity in such conflicts, but equally they cannot be reduced to matters of religion. Dawkins will return to this theme, and the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in more detail later in the book. So, I’m reluctant to criticise him for his overly simplistic treatment of it here.

Because of religious privilege, an underlying theme in but not actually one of the four issues Dawkins wishes to raise consciousness on, is that religion is often given credit for the good and shielded from criticism for the bad. For example, the work of a Christian charity is credited to Christianity, whereas bigotry by a Christian hate group is not. Dawkins is right to criticise this, but it would be difficult to justify doing the opposite, for example if he were to claim that religion must take no credit for Christian charity, but all blame for Christian hate.

For the rest of the chapter Dawkins goes into examples such as Islamic fundamentalists’ (and their mainstream apologists’) reactions to the 2005/06 Danish Muhammad cartoons episode and public debates over morality to highlight the undue deference given to religious sensibilities.

“It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.”

Chapter 2. The God Hypothesis

Chapter two opens with perhaps the book’s best-known quotation:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

It’s hard to argue with such a characterisation based on any honest reading of the Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly to those who have encountered this quote out of context, Dawkins is not out to “attack such an easy target”. In this chapter Dawkins sets out what he means to and believes can be attacked, namely the hypothesis that a theistic god, (i.e., one possessing agency and with some interest in the affairs of either humanity or the wider universe) exists.

Dawkins believes that this is a scientific hypothesis which can at least theoretically be tested. If the theologian genuinely believes they can demonstrate the existence of a god, either through empirical evidence or rational argument, it is unclear why they would object.

Dawkins takes a rather brief aside to consider polytheism, including the trinitarianism of Christianity. Of course, Christian theologians will argue, nonsensically, that the trinity is mono rather than poly theistic. Critics may argue that this is betraying Dawkins simplistic view of religion, while a supporter could respond that these are not necessary to address the god hypothesis. One need not know every single detail of every single edition and every single school of criticism of the Spiderman comics to discuss whether Spiderman exists.

Dawkins explains that “For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’.” Again, this seems perfectly sensible, Dawkins is free to set out the hypothesis he is arguing against and theologians are free to criticise the argument or hypothesis. Here also Dawkins explains why he will continue with the convention of referring to the agent or theistic god as he, before taking a dig at feminist theologians:

“More sophisticated theologians proclaim the sexlessness of God, while some feminist theologians seek to redress historic injustices by designating her female. But what, after all, is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male? I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might indeed be a less salient attribute than gender.”

I agree with Dawkins that theology is not a serious academic approach to studying religion or belief. Philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, history of religion, psychology of religion et cetera et cetera et cetera are all worthy fields of study, but theology should be kept as far away from this as alchemy is kept away from the chemistry department.

But it seems that Dawkins is intentionally associating theology with feminism, to make it sound silly. Proposing a female god is no sillier than proposing a male god, so why doesn’t he spend as much time making fun out of that? Feminist religious scholars – whether legitimate scholars or theologians – may have good reasons to talk about a female god, including addressing the traditional male supremacy in religion.

Dawkins is happy to make use of feminist thought surrounding consciousness-raising, and then turns round and uses feminism as a punchline. Feminists may label an arbitrary concept of god female, for the same reason that Australian mapmakers may arbitrarily place the southern hemisphere at the top of their maps. Indeed, this second is an example of consciousness-raising that Dawkins later praises.

Also note the use of the gendered language, ‘ditzy’. Toxic parts of the atheist movement frequently use gendered or racialised language to criticise gendered or racialised aspects of religion, and then when called on it claim that they are criticising all religion.

Dawkins seeks to pre-empt the criticism that: “The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.” Dawkins believes this is unfair because that’s not the hypothesis he is attacking, he is attacking the hypothesis of an agent i.e., theistic god. One may also point out that the idea of a god sitting up in the clouds, while laughable today, is not so different to concepts of gods that have been held throughout human history.

Dawkins then spends a little time looking at monotheism and the secularist roots of the United States. This is all fine enough but superficial and I’m not sure why it’s placed in this chapter. He spends a lot of time talking about:

“The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religiose country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least.”

He gives a quite superficial answer which might be called the free-market hypothesis that lack of state religion has encouraged religions to become more aggressively competitive. When Dawkins encounters a difficult question in science, he is excited about all the different possible explanations there could be. But on difficult social questions, he seems content to reach for simplistic answers.

After these asides Dawkins returns to the central argument of this chapter, that the existence of a theistic god is a scientific hypothesis. He begins by defining two types of agnosticism: “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” vs “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle”. First of which Dawkins considers a reasonable open-minded approach and the second a close-minded assertion.

He illustrates this with a seven-point scale from 100% certain theism to 100% certain atheism. Dawkins contends that the “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” should lead us to a strong six, verging on seven on the scale, while the “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle” approach is useless as it would preclude us from taking any position.

We then get a brief rundown of the burden of proof, and why theists are unjustified in placing this on atheists, via the examples of Russell’s cosmic teapot, Camp Quest’s invisible pink unicorn and the Church of the flying spaghetti monster. To summarise:

The great humanist mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell illustrates the problem with theists claiming that atheists should be the ones to prove that God doesn’t exist, by positing the existence of a tiny china teapot orbiting the sun which cannot be revealed or disproved even by the most powerful telescopes, and how absurd it would be to demand that a-teapotists disprove its existence. The invisible pink unicorn and flying spaghetti monster are contemporary examples to illustrate the absurdity of positing undetectable supernatural entities without evidence and then asserting the burden is on others to disprove their claim.

Dawkins spends the remainder of the chapter addressing potential criticisms of his approach to the god hypothesis, in the form of the theory of non-overlapping magisterium (NOMA) proposed by Stephen Jay Gould. NOMA holds that:

“The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”

Dawkins’ critique of this is twofold and it seems to me that an honest theologian who sincerely believes there is evidence for the god hypothesis would join Dawkins in this first critique. Namely, that the two magisterium do comment on each other. Theologians make claims about reality all the time. If there were the slightest suggestion of empirical evidence in favour of the god hypothesis, does anyone imagine theologians would say this doesn’t count, because it is from a different magisterium?

For an example of this, Dawkins considers “the Great Prayer Experiment”, one of several such initiatives funded by the Templeton Foundation which aim to find indirect empirical evidence in support of religion by testing prayer. If the test were to succeed, theologians would claim this as evidence. Religious apologists only retreat to claiming that the utility of prayer is beyond science because such tests fail.

Dawkins’ second critique is to question the basis of the second magisterium, i.e. to question whether theologians really do have a meaningful field of expertise.

“Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science… But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?… theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let’s throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will.”

While Dawkins does agree, perhaps to shield himself from accusations of scientism, that “science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least”, his simplistic treatment of the second magisterium does give succour to the types of atheists who do casually dismiss the contributions of philosophy and the humanities to our understanding of the world.

Finally, Dawkins turns to considering why NOMA is embraced by religious moderates and those nonreligious scientists who he dismisses as the “appeasement lobby”:

“A possible ulterior motive for those scientists who insist on NOMA – the invulnerability to science of the God Hypothesis – is a peculiarly American political agenda, provoked by the threat of populist creationism.”

Ostensibly this is all in aid of defending his claim that the existence of a theistic god should be treated as a scientific hypothesis. I can’t help but feel that had an editor imposed a clearer structure on the book Dawkins could have treated the whole question of religious moderates and appeasing atheists, with more consideration.

Dawkins’ scientific understanding of evolution plays an important role in his atheism. He seems to resent the suggestion that he should hide this in order to make the facts of evolution seem more palatable to the religious. But is Dawkins really being asked to hide his beliefs, or simply to meet religious believers on common ground?

This touches on Dawkins’ fourth consciousness raiser, that of atheist pride. Why in polite society or when cooperating with good and decent religious people, must atheists be expected to not only respect the beliefs of others, but acts if they are faintly embarrassed of their own atheism?

Like Dawkins, I am somewhat bemused at the cognitive dissonance required by sensible religious people to integrate god beliefs into their otherwise reasonable worldviews. But I’m not so prideful that I believe my own worldview is free of any irrationalism or woolly thinking.

7 thoughts on “AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 1

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