The biggest surprise in this book which has caused such a storm is that it says nothing new, including assumptions. As one would expect from any book out to slam religion it does contains many of the old arguments, including that religion has been the cause of countless wars, and people of faith have treated others throughout history badly. Religion doesn’t cause wars, difference of opinions and the way people choose to resolve them cause wars. Yes often one faith group might be on one side and another faith group on another, but the wars are over land, or rights, or resources in the main. As for the treatment of others by those of faith, yes there has been some horrific examples, but then there are horrific examples of people treating others badly all through history regardless of faith, people abuse power, in and out of faith settings, that is a fault of people not of religion. If Dawkins think that without religion there would be no wars, no injustice, no oppression and no hatred then he is far more deluded than he would like to claim those of faith are.
Dawkins starts by admitting that it is not easy to answer why a similar experience can lead people in different directions, so rather than wrestling with that difficult question he immediately dismisses it. He quotes from Carl Sagan, who claimed that religion keeps God little; on the contrary the God of the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian is one who is awesome, omnipresent, beyond understanding, a God who is bigger than we can even begin to imagine or conceive. Transcendent wonder is no more limited to the pursuit of science than it is to the pursuit of religion, quickly I was left wondering why he was so determined to separate the two. And almost as quickly he answered my question, because he wanted to put God in a box to contain God into a space which suited his theory, he wants the understanding of God to stand still in a past time while he welcomes and relishes the way science moves forward. God, any god, according to Dawkins should be no more than “a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.” However, that limited description is not one that sits comfortably when pertaining to the God whom I worship.
He frequently introduces red herrings, like the one about monotheistic chauvinism in Scottish and English law, or the Church’s strivings in trying to explain the Trinity; however he is profoundly wrong in stating that theology has not moved on in eighteen centuries! He scoffs at beliefs just as people scoffed at Da Vinci for suggesting that people could fly in something we know call a helicopter. He quotes Thomas Jefferson to legitimise his right to ridicule those of faith – ‘Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.’ So having set his case that it is okay for him to ridicule religion, (presumably because he doesn’t understand it fully, due in no small part to the fact he has put God in a box), along with his own statement that there is no evidence for theological opinion either way. He makes the assumption that how one person of faith acts, is how all people of faith act, by his own admission Christianity, Judaism and Islam are different but for his purposes he will treat them as indistinguishable. Not satisfied with putting God in a box he now decides he will put all those of any faith in the same box. This is where the book, and consequently his argument, looses all credibility. Just like you can not class all people who choose to wear Levi jeans as robbers just because a robber chooses to wear Levi jeans to commit a robbery you can not say all those of faith are the same, act the same and think the same just because they are people of faith. However he is quick to defend his own, as it were, to make sure we don’t, horror of horrors, box all atheists together. When it comes to morals he is quick to defend atheism when Hitler and Stalin are mentioned, rightly pointing out religion has no monopoly on morals and their atheism (disputed in Hitler’s case), can not be seen as having any impact on the actions they took. He acknowledges morals have changed with understanding using the phrase ‘the Zeitgeist moves on’. This of course suits his argument morals can move on, science can move on, but religion has to be the same and stay the same!
The most interesting revelation in this section is that Dawkins himself says that he classes himself as someone who can not know for certain but thinks that there is a very low probability of God, is he in danger of becoming delusional himself? Or to put it another way, Dawkins asks ‘If science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can? Maybe he would be better wrestling with the question ‘If science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can’t?’ And by the way Richard, if you happen to be reading this, I am a priest and don’t dread the advance of science!
Dawkins main thrust is that all Christians believe the same, and for the majority of his arguments that, in his view, means all Christians are creationalists, which they most definitely aren’t. Of course one of the major flaws in Dawkins insistence on the Darwinian Imperative, is that humankind is refusing to fall into the pattern, is tinkering with nature and altering natural selection and consequently possibly evolution itself, at an increasing rate.
There are many, I would hazard to say the majority of those with faith who would agree with Dawkins view on extremists, but why does he want to throw the baby out with the bath water? This is just about as far from following scientific principals as Dawkins and I am on the subject of faith. Dawkins starts chapter 8 – What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile? – by saying: ‘I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation.’ Only to further on in the chapter say what I see as the most confrontation statement in this whole book and for the second and last time Dawkins lost all credibility – ‘Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against ‘terror’, as though terror were a kind of spirit of force, with will and a mind of its own.’ Terror might not have any spirit or force of it’s own but it is real enough for those who live in terror, I don’t like the word used in this context for other reasons but try as I might, no matter how many times I read that sentence, I was left with the impression that Dawkins would rather there was a ‘war on religion’!
Basically this book is saying that if there is anything that you do, think, or say that doesn’t have a benefit, in the Darwinian sense, to it then you are delusional, but in particular religion, which of course only has bad points according to Dawkins. So give up growing plants in your garden, unless they are for food; sport, unless you take part; making origami Chinese junks, unless you are trying to prove some scientific theory; give up going to the movies for a night out, going to the pub for a drink, going to a foreign beach to sit in the sun; because they too like religion can be ‘time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals … anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies.’
All in all the book is entertaining, but not a serious work in my view, at one point Dawkins says about Douglas Adams, to whom the book is dedicated, “I hope this book might have made you laugh …” Well it certainly made me laugh, though I suspect in places that Dawkins wasn’t hoping Adams might.
The book closes with the following lines: “… I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover there are no limits.’ I wonder Richard; does that include the possibility of discovering that God is no delusion?