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There is no God and Dawkins is his Prophet

The God Delusion by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins will be available in Swedish shortly. Dawkins became world famous in 1976 as the author of The Selfish Gene, a book that many consider to be one of the most important works of popular science in the 20th century.

Dawkins had given a glimpse of his critical views on religion earlier, but in A Devil's Chaplain he dropped all constraints and attacked Christianity outright. His new book is a 400-page showdown with religion in its Jewish, Christian and Muslim forms. It will interest anybody who is the least bit interested in religion.

Dawkins attacks along two frontlines. First he wants to prove that God does not exist and that religion is intellectually second-rate, then that religion is the cause of an enormous amount of misery and evil. The four first chapters are devoted to the first frontline, the others to the second one. The stated purpose of the book is to make its readers atheists. Dawkins preaches his message with the evangelical's steadfast rhetoric: paradise is within reach, you can live very happily without religion.

In his foreword Dawkins declares that he addresses people who have been brought up with religion but are beginning to feel uncomfortable with it. He wants to help them to liberate themselves from faith and make them realise that they can live good and happy lives also as atheists. Not only that. Since religion is the root of much evil in the world, as many people as possible must throw off the burden of faith and became aware of the fact that God does not exist and that religion is unnecessary. Religion is a by-product of evolution and has survived since mankind has benefited from it. However, nowadays we understand that God is an illusion and that religion causes damage. This damage must be minimised.

According to Dawkins, faith is passed on from parents to children like a virus or as religious memes, in other words as cultural genes. The impressionable children are injured for life. The remedy is to see to it that they are given no religious instruction at all. This is the decisive solution. A whole chapter of The God Delusion equals religious upbringing with child abuse. Religious schools indoctrinate the children with creationism and stops them from thinking in scientific terms. Christian children grow up fearing hell, Jewish and Muslim boys are mutilated as soon as they are born.

Dawkins presumes that religion wishes to explain certain phenomena, e.g. the origin of universe. He does assume that most people approach God for other reasons - because they long for a meaning of life or for consolation - but he leaves such things aside. His view of God coincides with the idea of God as the intelligent designer of the universe, and in the third chapter he discusses the arguments for the existence of God to find out if there actually is an intelligent designer of that kind. He brings out ancient proofs of the existence of God but leaves fresher and sharper arguments aside. However, he misunderstands conclusive points of the old arguments. Two examples chosen at random: contrary to what Dawkins says, the medieval theologian Thomas of Aquinas' famous third proof of the existence of God does not rest on the difference between physical and non-physical entities but on the difference between possible and necessary entities. Dawkins obviously has no idea of Immanuel Kant's equally famous and pioneering criticism of the ontological proof, and he also seems to describe Norman Malcolm as an opponent of the ontological argument, although Malcolm was one of its most ardent proponents. As icing on the cake, Dawkins refers to a website with faked and facetious arguments for the existence of God. To put it mildly, that chapter does not add anything of value to the discussion. The next chapter is better. There Dawkins delivers what he presents as the crucial argument of the book.

This crucial argument is supposed to show that it is extremely unlikely that God exists. Dawkins calls it "the ultimate Boeing 747". With the so-called anthropic principle as a starting-point he stresses how unlikely it is that the universe exists at all. Therefore it is natural to try to find an explanation for it. The religious explanation is that there is a divine intelligent designer that has created it all. But the explanation fails on two accounts. First, we are left with the question who created God in the first place and then with an endless regress of causes. Second, a being that is so intelligent that he can create the universe must be extremely complex. But complex structures do not exist in the beginning of a developmental chain but appears only at the end of a long process. Consequently, it is almost certain that no divine intelligent designer exists.

The argument against the existence of God is interesting and deserves to be discussed seriously, despite certain obvious weaknesses. One is that it presumes that the mechanisms ruling the biological evolution can be applied immediately at the birth of the universe, although these mechanisms came into existence much later. If God exists, it is also reasonable to expect that he is of another kind than we biological beings and cannot be understood as a product of a biological evolutionary process. As to the problem with the infinite regress, other thinkers have already come up with alternative solutions, which Dawkins does not seem to be aware of. One is that God is unique inasmuch as he is his own cause and that God therefore is the very solution of the regress problem. There is another problem that is embarrassing for Dawkins: the regress problem appears also when one looks for one great scientific theory about everything, as Dawkins himself does. It may be possible to develop Dawkins' argument and sharpen it. In his own eyes it is highly important, but in its present form it is hardly convincing. The reviewer in Nature dismisses it drily as "a less than compelling argument".

The God Delusion has raised a lively debate both in Europe and in the United States, and opinions differ widely. The reviewers in The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books dismissed it for its mocking tone and lack of objectivity, while The Times Literary Supplement praised it as a welcome critique of religious fundamentalism. Alister McGrath has written two books as an answer to Dawkins' challenge. The most recent one, The Dawkins Delusion?, with Joanna Collicutt McGrath as co-author, will appear shortly in Swedish.

One point that McGrath makes is Dawkins' definition of religion as "faith without reason", i.e. that religious faith does not rely on reasonable arguments. A belief of this kind exists in fundamentalist groups but is rejected by the main churches. Therefore the idea that Dawkins presents in his book can be seen as a persuasive definition of religion, rather than as a description that the great majority of believers feel at home with. History is full of religious thinkers who have presented arguments in favour of their faith, and Dawkins himself devotes part of his book to a discussion of such arguments. Here he seems to have been impressed by McGrath’s critique, since he has admitted in an interview that his definition of religion does not fit in with that of theologians like McGrath. Neither do they agree on another important point, how faith and violence can go together.

In his later chapters Dawkins quotes many examples of violence caused by religion. Here he points at the true Achilles’ heel of religion, and his arguments in this part of the book are also more effective than those in the first part. How is it that religion, which should foster brotherly love, so often ends up doing the opposite? McGrath’s answer is that evil is a general problem that both theists and atheists are exposed to. Dawkins argues that religion, as opposed to atheism, has caused a great deal of evil. Admittedly, atheists are also guilty of horrible crimes; suffice it to mention Stalin. But, says Dawkins, it is not atheism as such that has inspired these crimes, as opposed to religion.

McGrath and Dawkins have totally different views on religion and violence. Their disagreement is further fuelled by Dawkins’ opinion that even moderate forms of religious faith are dangerous and clear the path for violence by religious extremists. Moderate forms of religious faith enjoy respect in society, but the result is that people abstain from criticising religion also when it turns into extremism. Dawkins’ argument can of course be rejected as an example of guilt by association. According to the same reasoning, anybody interested in politics could be denigrated as a potential fascist. But in spite of that objection, and even if atheism too has inspired violence, the decisive question remains: how is it that religion is so often used to justify violence?

What, then, is the purpose of The God Delusion and which readers will Dawkins convince? The book addresses those who have been brought up with a religion but who are looking for a way out of it. Whether Dawkins will convince them or not is partly a matter of their own experiences coinciding with his description of religion. He is at his strongest in his examples of how religion can be abused. Religious leaders who encourage the use of religion as a cover for all kinds of horrors and violence, or who look the other way when that happens, have every reason to lie very low. The chapters where these questions are discussed will probably attract more attention than those about the intellectual aspects of faith. Even if Dawkins obviously is right when he says that creationism should be rigorously kept out of schools, his criticism of the lack of rationality in religion is not convincing since it rests on a gross caricature. He does admit here and there that not all believers are fundamentalists and that there are even some very prominent scientists who believe in God. However, he finds that extremely puzzling, even to the extent that he wonders whether they really are believers or have allowed themselves to be bribed by religious organisations.

Here we have the fundamental problem with Dawkins' approach. He divides the world into two camps: good, tolerant atheists who believe in science and evil-minded, intolerant believers who try to counteract science. People who fall outside this pattern have no room in his view of the world. In that way he is weakening his chances of establishing a constructive dialogue with his opponents, who feel that he is unfair to them or does not even make an effort to understand them. In a world where we more than ever need a sensible dialogue between different cultures and philosophies of life, marked by respect and willingness to understand the other party, Dawkins resorts to stereotypes and provocations. In his urge to liberate the world from all fundamentalists and intolerant dogmatists he is dangerously close to becoming one of them.

Translated by Margareta Eklöf

TAGGED: ATHEISM, COMMENTARY, RELIGION


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