Delusions, Myths, and Wars: Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion


Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006. 416 pages. $27.00.

This book is one of many that celebrate an allegedly bitter warfare between Science and Religion, two epic figures representing rival forces between which we must choose. Different people understand this myth differently. In the USA today, the default alternative—the attitude of normal people—is increasingly assumed to be Religion, because a scientific or Darwinian world-view is still taken to mean Social Darwinism, the brash, brutal doctrine of the survival of the fittest which Herbert Spencer taught so successfully in America and which (as Hitler’s table-talk shows) also influenced the Nazis. In recent times the sociobiological rhetoric of ‘selfishness’ and ‘ruthlessness’ in natural selection has actually reinforced this impression of meaningless brutality, so religion is seen as the only tolerable option. In the Middle East, however, talk of a scientific or Darwinian attitude stands for something different but no less hateful. It means primarily Western materialism—a brash, greedy, uncaring life-style belonging to powers which have repeatedly trampled down oriental cultures and are doing that with increasing vigour today. Traditional religion appears as the only alternative to this odious attitude.

Thus, once the scene is polarized—once the two vast abstractions are set up—the background ideologies that are incorporated in them turn the debate into incurable conflict. In that spirit this book cries out on its cover for the abolition of the enemy. ‘Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no crusades, no Gunpowder Plot’ and so on.

These examples are, of course, endless and the thought that removing religion would end such large-scale atrocities was a main reason for the rise of anti-religious regimes during the twentieth century. But, as it turned out, these included the governments of Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Stalin’s Russia. It is still not clear how it was possible for these regimes to commit, as they did, the three most monstrous crimes of the epoch. What does emerge, however, is that removing religion had not helped at all. The roots of great crimes plainly lie far deeper than the doctrines that people use to justify them. In any culture, rogues defend their actions by professing whatever standards their society respects. Until recently, of course, Christianity was the usual cover in the West, but when Marxism and Fascism were introduced they proved every bit as effective. Science too can easily be used, as it was by both Germany and South Africa to justify racism. Religion is not really relevant at all, unless we carefully define ‘religion’ in a way that links it necessarily with atrocities.

The strategy of Dawkins’s book does tend to do this. For a start, he rules that faiths which do not use the concept of God, such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, are not really religions at all. He also works hard to exclude distinguished scientists, such as Einstein, who have firmly and repeatedly used religious language to express what are plainly central elements in their thought. Dawkins is irritated by this phenomenon and complains of a ‘confused and confusing willingness to label as “religion” the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein’. He insists that this reverence has ‘no connexion with supernatural belief’. Pantheism, however, is unmistakeably a religious attitude. And when, like Einstein, you are speaking of an immanent god, a divinity pervading the world—when, like Spinoza, you equate God and Nature—words like ‘supernatural’ do not mean much. Einstein understood this well.

Usages like Einstein’s are only surprising if you assume, as Dawkins seems to, that science is the only possible source of knowledge. Thus in quoting Martin Rees’s remark that such questions as ‘why anything exists?’ lie ‘beyond science’, he simply cannot see what this might mean. Similarly, mentioning Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA doctrine of separate spheres and Freeman Dyson’s description of himself as ‘one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much for the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels’, he declares flatly that they cannot mean what they say. Being scientists, they must be atheists really.

It seems not to have struck Dawkins that academic science is only a small, specialised, dependent part of what anybody knows. Most of human knowledge is tacit knowledge—habitual assumptions, constantly updated and checked by experience, but far too general and informal ever to be fully tested. We assume, for instance, that nature will go on being regular, that other people are conscious and that their testimony can generally be trusted. Without such assumptions neither science nor any other study could ever get off the ground, nor could everyday life. And when we build on these tacit foundations we necessarily use imaginative structures called myths—not lies, but graphic thought-patterns that shape and guide our thinking. This is not irrational; it is a necessary preparation for reasoning. The Selfish Gene is a powerful myth, so is the Science-and-Religion war, so is Gaia, so is the Social Contract and Natural Selection and Progress and the Hidden Hand of the Market. And, when we get to the largest and most puzzling questions, we have to proceed in mythical language which cannot be cashed in detail at all, but which still serves (as Einstein’s did) to indicate in what sort of spiritual universe we perceive ourselves to be living. This is the province of religion. Adding God is not, as Dawkins thinks, adding an illicit extra item to the cosmos. It is perceiving the whole thing differently.

Until lately, this kind of mythical language was reasonably well understood. Since the mid-nineteenth century, however, there has been a disastrous attempt to get rid of it, keeping only literal statements of fact. This is, of course, the root of Christian fundamentalism, which tries, absurdly, to treat the whole of that strange compilation, the Bible, as literal fact. In doing this, however, it is only responding to a less obvious fundamentalism on the scientistic side, which has claimed that our knowledge all reduces to one fundamental form—the literal statements of science. Both extremes show a similar crass refusal to admit the complexity of life.

Dawkins is, of course, quite right to express horror at Biblical fundamentalism, especially in the current neo-con form that centres on the Book of Revelations. But it is not possible to attack this target properly while also conducting his wider, cluster-bomb onslaught on everything that can be called religion. And, since this particular bad form of religion is spreading rapidly in the world, we urgently need to understand it—not just to denounce it but to grasp, much better than we now do, why people find it attractive. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins does, that they are just being childish. We need also to ask in what way they have found the other attitudes that are open to them inadequate. As I have suggested, this means becoming more aware of the inadequacies of our own life-style which are obvious to them and which put them off the opinions that we profess. In fact, we need a bit more self-knowledge.

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