Book review by Jason Zarri
June 22, 2011
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion (Paperback edition). Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 463 pages with notes, bibliography and index.
I feel I should begin by saying that, whatever impression you might get from reading this review, I have nothing against Richard Dawkins as a person. I’ve read two of his previous books, The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, and I enjoyed both of them. I admire Dawkins both for his ability to clearly explain important biological concepts and for his engaging writing style. When I set out to review The God Delusion I expected to like it, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t agree with what Dawkins had to say. This is not how things turned out. I was right in thinking I would disagree with Dawkins, but wrong in thinking I would like the book. I found much of it to be either too hostile or too simplistic to be effective in its criticisms. In the following sections I will explain why I think so. Instead of giving a point-by-point analysis of Dawkins’ arguments, I will share some of my thoughts about where I think he has gone wrong, focusing on those passages of the book which best illustrate the weaknesses of his claims.
A Lack of Respect
The God Delusion is, as its title would suggest, a sustained critique of belief in God, primarily as Dawkins takes the concept of God to be understood in the three Abrahamic religious traditions. This much is to be expected. What is unexpected is the extent to which Dawkins treats both his opponents and their ideas as though they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. On several occasions Dawkins writes of “the religious mind” (p. 38, p. 164, p. 351). This phrase has an air of condescending derision about it, and sounds—to me, anyway—like the sort of phrase a racist might have used some fifty or so years ago when describing the intellectual capacity of some minority group. One wonders how Dawkins might feel if he read a book by a Christian in which the author wrote of “the evolutionistic mind” or (God forbid!) “the atheistic mind.”
In places Dawkins displays a stunning lack of intellectual sympathy, making no (or very little) attempt to understand what someone really thinks or why they think so. One example is this passage:
Rivers of medieval ink, not to mention blood, have been squandered over the ‘mystery’ of the Trinity, and in suppressing deviations such as the Arian heresy. Arius of Alexandria, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubstantial (i.e. of the same substance or essence) with God. What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What ‘substance’? What exactly do you mean by ‘essence’? ‘Very little’ seems the only reasonable reply. (p. 54)
And this reply seems to be the only reasonable one because…why? I would have thought that the best way to determine what unfamiliar words mean is to see how the people who employ those words define them or use them in their writings, and to try, to the best of your ability, to make sense of them in terms of what you already understand. Dawkins gives no evidence that he has tried to do this. The terms ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ (or their equivalents) were common in ancient philosophy, and I’m sure that those who used them at least thought both that they were meaningful and that they knew pretty well what they meant by them. Perhaps they were wrong in thinking so, but Dawkins has done nothing to show that they were. He does not analyze any of the texts that contain these terms, nor does he consult any dictionary or encyclopedia of ancient philosophy. Instead of showing how those who used such terms were mistaken in thinking them to be meaningful, Dawkins seems to prefer heaping scorn on funny-sounding words to score a rhetorical point.
Shortly after, on the same page, he writes,
Do we have one God in three parts, or three Gods in one? The Catholic Encyclopedia clears up the matter for us, in a masterpiece of theological close reasoning:
In the unity of the Godhead there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another. Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.’
I find it odd that Dawkins calls this “reasoning.” Obviously, Dawkins doesn’t think it is cogent reasoning, but that is not what I mean. The passage he quotes is not a piece of reasoning at all, but rather a summary or explanation of what the doctrine of the Trinity means. Perhaps the passage is part of a larger line of argument? Alas, the answer is “no.” Although it is hard for readers of The God Delusion to tell—Dawkins gives no context for the quote, and simply tells us that it is part of the (gigantic!) Catholic Encyclopedia, without giving a more specific reference—it is actually part of the opening paragraph of the entry on the Trinity! To give the passage a slightly larger context, here are the first two paragraphs in full:
The Trinity is the term employed to signify the central doctrine of the Christian religion — the truth that in the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another.
Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” In this Trinity of Persons the Son is begotten of the Father by an eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit proceeds by an eternal procession from the Father and the Son. Yet, notwithstanding this difference as to origin, the Persons are co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and omnipotent. This, the Church teaches, is the revelation regarding God’s nature which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came upon earth to deliver to the world: and which she proposes to man as the foundation of her whole dogmatic system. –Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15047a.htm
Clearly there is not even an attempt at reasoning here; the author is not trying to prove anything, but is simply introducing the idea of the Trinity to set the stage for what follows. Why then does Dawkins call it “reasoning”? My hunch is that Dawkins’ hostility towards religion leads him to see targets for criticism even when there are none there to be found.
Another example of Dawkins’ unsympathetic approach is his treatment of the “Five Ways” of St. Thomas Aquinas (pp. 100-3). These were five arguments that, in Aquinas’ opinion, established the existence of God. Dawkins makes no reference to where the Five Ways were taken from, either in the main text of The God Delusion or in the “Books cited or recommended” section. If you’re unfamiliar with Aquinas, theology or philosophy, you probably have no idea where they are to be found. (The interested reader should see Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Aka. Summa Theologiae), Part One, Question 2, article 3, which can be found online here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm#article3.) Worse, Dawkins does not engage with the actual text—he doesn’t quote a single word from it—and makes no effort to achieve an understanding of what Aquinas might have really meant, despite the fact that he belonged to a different culture, one which happens to be separated from us by an interval of close to eight hundred years. (For a comparison of Dawkins’ summary with what Aquinas actually said, see the appendix.)
Design and Natural Selection
It is natural for a scientifically informed theist to think that natural selection is the means by which God designs organisms. Even if it should turn out that there are no permanent gaps in scientific knowledge, that we will one day be in possession of a Theory of Everything that completely explains all physical phenomena, it may still very well be that the universe is the product of divine design. The theist can say that there is a God who decreed that physical things should exist, authored the laws that govern their behavior, and fine-tuned things so that life and sentience would eventually emerge, natural selection being the way in which all organisms save the first ones would come into being. Whether there is such a God or not, the point is that there could be, and that is enough to show that the hypothesis of divine design is not ruled out by the fact of natural selection. Dawkins considers this proposal only long enough to ridicule it:
I am continually astonished by those theists who, far from having their consciousness raised in the way that I propose, seem to rejoice in natural selection as ‘God’s way of achieving his creation’. They note that evolution by natural selection would be a very easy and neat way to achieve a world full of life. God wouldn’t need to do anything at all! (pp. 143-4)
There are (at least) two problems here. First, it has been traditionally held by many theists that in addition to creating the universe, God needs to continually sustain it in its existence. According to them the universe has no “existential inertia”; the mere fact that it has existed up to a certain point in time provides no reason for it to continue to exist afterward. It is therefore necessary for God to act to preserve it, even during those times that God doesn’t suspend the natural laws that he has set up. Second, if the laws of nature are probabilistic, as they are on most interpretations of quantum mechanics, they do not determine one unique way for events to unfold, and it is possible that God could providentially direct events to unfold in one way rather than another without violating those laws. A view very close to this one has been advocated by Kenneth Miller in his book Finding Darwin’s God,  and Dawkins says nothing in his discussion of design to rule such a view out, despite the fact that he says he has read that very book (p. 158).
Faith is something that Dawkins regards as being at variance with having evidence, reasons, or justifications for one’s beliefs. The following passage is typical. In his list of “religious memes” (pp. 231-2), Dawkins includes the following:
Faith (belief without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially highly rewarded. (p.232)
Also, quoting one of his older articles in the New Statesman magazine, Dawkins said:
The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’. (p. 45)
These passages are not accurate. One’s faith may go beyond one’s evidence to an extent, but it is surely not undermined by one’s evidence. Dawkins’ charge is something that many theologians, Aquinas being a prime example, would have been surprised to hear. Aquinas gave several reasons to think that it is rational for certain things to be proposed for people to believe on faith (see appendix). And when it comes to the Christian tradition in general, the term “faith”, as it occurs in a great deal of places in the New Testament, means placing your trust in God, not assenting to some theological doctrine.  One can see this in the letters of Paul, as well as the Epistle of James: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” (2:19), NRSV, http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=James+2. In time the term “faith” did expand to include certain theological doctrines, but they do not constitute its only or primary meaning, and for some Christians and/or Christian denominations, assent to such doctrines is not sufficient, and perhaps not even necessary for salvation. The apostle Paul himself suggested as much in his Letter to the Romans:
12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.–Romans 2: 12—16, NRSV http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+2
In his discussion of morality and religion in chapter 6, Dawkins gives what I regard as a contentious account of deontology and its relation to moral absolutism. He writes:
Moral philosophers are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and wrong. […] They classify themselves in many ways, but in modern terminology the major divide is between ‘deontologists’ (such as Kant) and ‘consequentialists’ (including ‘utilitarians’ such as Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832). Deontology is a fancy name for the belief that morality consists in the obeying of rules. It is literally the science of duty, from the Greek for ‘that which is binding’. Deontology is not quite the same thing as moral absolutism, but for most purposes in a book about religion there is no need to dwell on the distinction. Absolutists believe there are absolutes of right and wrong, imperatives whose rightness makes no reference to their consequences. Consequentialists more pragmatically hold that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences. (pp. 265-6)
This account is partially accurate, but I would make two emendations. First, there are many deontologists who do not discount the consequences of our actions; they only think that consequences aren’t the only moral factors that are relevant in assessing the rightness or wrongness of an action. Second, I like to distinguish moral absolutism from moral objectivism, a distinction that Dawkins neglects to make. Moral absolutism is the thesis that moral principles in general hold always and everywhere, so that, e.g., it’s never okay to lie, even if lying would save someone’s life. On the other hand, moral objectivism holds simply that for any given (fully specific) situation there is an objectively right and wrong choice (or sets of objectively right and wrong choices). I think moral judgments are objective in the sense that (a) they are true or false, and hence not merely ways of expressing emotions or attitudes, and (b) that their truth or falsity does not in general depend on whether people think they are true or false.
I also think that we have what some ethicists, following W.D. Ross, would call prima facie duties, duties which hold “by default” but which can be overridden by other, stronger duties. Thus my duty not to kill people—Smith, for example—can be overridden by my duty to protect the innocent—say if Smith is attempting to bomb a school bus. I see no reason to think that my prima facie duty not to kill Smith is inconsistent with my really being justified in killing Smith, even if killing people is wrong in general. Killing people, even Smith, remains an undesirable state of affairs, but it is not nearly as undesirable as allowing him to bomb the school bus. On this sort of account one doesn’t have to embrace any form of subjectivism or relativism in order to account for the dependence of morality on circumstance, nor for the fact that one is sometimes justified in doing what it is in general wrong to do.
For the reasons given above, I think The God Delusion will win Dawkins more enemies than friends, especially among religious moderates, religious progressives and those sympathetic to them. This is a shame, because he does make a number of valid criticisms of religious extremism. However, the fact that these criticisms are bound up with a hostile and indiscriminate attack on religion in general is likely to alienate those who would otherwise have given him a fair hearing. Had Dawkins written a more sympathetic and less polemical critique, he could have encouraged a healthy dialogue between theists and atheists. As things are, I predict his critique will give them the impression that they have little or nothing constructive to say to each other.
(Please see An Appendix to A Review of The God Delusion )
Works Cited (apart from The God Delusion)
The Bible. New Revised Standard Version, <http://www.devotions.net/bible/00bible.htm>
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 2nd and Revised Edition, Fathers of the English Dominican Province trans. 1920. Online Edition Copyright 2008 by Kevin Knight <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/>
Joyce, George. “The Blessed Trinity.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 22 Jun. 2011 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15047a.htm>.
Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin’s God. Harper Perennial, 1999.
Skelton, Anthony, “William David Ross”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/william-david-ross/>.
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PARENT PAGE: Book Reviews
 (Except where otherwise noted, all page references are to The God Delusion)
 See Chapters 7 and 8, especially pp. 250-3