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September 3, 2009

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion

The God Delusion, By Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin Company, 464 pages, $18.95

Lee KuhnleThe God Delusion, By Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin Company, 464 pages, $18.95

It is truly shocking that a book as poorly researched and badly argued as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion should make the New York Times’ bestseller list.

The best that can be said about The God Delusion is that it achieves a marginal degree of success as a polemic directed at the absurdities of fundamentalist religious thought. However, the work’s gross oversimplifications prevent it from reaching the level of a convincing argument for atheism.

Ideally, works of popular non-fiction distill academic theories and present often complex ideas in a coherent narrative that is accessible to the general public. This popularization of high theory is exactly what Dawkins managed in his first bestseller, The Selfish Gene, in which he brings the complexities of Darwinian evolution within the grasp of the non-specialist.

The God Delusion, however, is written as if the last hundred years of religious scholarship did not exist.

Quite apart from the paucity of his arguments, a brief gander at the bibliography demonstrates that Dawkins is embarrassingly out of his intellectual depth.

None of the major theorists on the subject of religion or atheism, such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Mikhail Bakunin or Karl Marx, are cited. Imagine a book on modern physics that entirely ignores the contributions of Einstein and you will have a good sense of the level of sophistication that Dawkins brings to his work on religion.

Dawkins’ main objective in The God Delusion is to revitalize atheism in light of the apparent resurgence of religious belief. Dawkins’ invective is directed at both the implausibility of Christian fundamentalist theology and at the taboo in liberal society that shields these views from criticism.

He sees himself as a social activist fighting to bring atheism out of the closet and into the public sphere. Despite all the problems with his book, Dawkins can be commended for his dogged insistence that religious belief must be opened to the same public criticism to which any other ideology is subject.

Dawkins’ primary approach to achieving his end is to point out the ridiculousness of religious beliefs and the dangerous consequences for which they are responsible. Although much of Dawkins’ energy is directed against young Earth creationists and their tenuous grasp on Darwinian evolution and geology, his book is a veritable survey of religious follies.

The reader is invited to smile smugly with Dawkins when, for instance, he notes that studies in the effectiveness of prayer came up with no evidence to suggest that petitioning God makes any difference to a hospital patient’s recovery time.

One feels vindicated when Dawkins ponders why, if God told George W. Bush to invade Iraq, he “didn’t vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction” (112). And we are duly shocked when confronted by the suggestion allegedly voiced by the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne that the holocaust “gave Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble” (89).

Those already inclined to read a book that argues for atheism will probably not need reminding that wars are started in the name of religion, that the Bible was written by human hands, or that the Earth is more than a couple of thousand years old.

But this raises a curious question. Who is Dawkins’ intended audience? Fundamentalist Christians will probably not read The God Delusion, and if they did, it would not change their minds. That leaves non-fundamentalists – that is, atheists, agnostics and what Dawkins calls “sophisticated theologians.”

But do non-fundamentalists need persuading that religious fundamentalism is unsound? Had Dawkins provided a history of modern atheist thought, a plausible theory as to why religious belief is so tenacious, or the social mechanics that underlie fundamentalist movements, then The God Delusion would have contributed something of interest to the discourse around religion and society. However, Dawkins goes no further than to argue that fundamentalist theology is implausible and dangerous.    

If the audience for whom Dawkins is writing is in question, so is the subject he derides. The mud Dawkins throws only sticks because he has chosen religious fundamentalism, specifically in the guise of American Protestantism, as his target.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to excluding all non-literal readings of the Bible from his consideration. The religion of The God Delusion excludes “sophisticated theologians”, the “God of Einstein”, the deist God of the European Enlightenment, as well as pantheism, totemism, and polytheism.

Indeed, Dawkins freely admits that he really does not understand much of the other major monotheistic traditions - Judaism and Islam - and will therefore focus solely on Christianity. A much more appropriate title would have been The Christian Fundamentalist God Delusion, since this is what he is actually talking about.

Focusing only on the fundamentalists is a cheap rhetorical ploy. It is as biased as allowing only Stalinist apologists to speak on behalf of Marxism. Dawkins evidently believes that if the religious fundamentalists can be shown to be dangerous, then a vital victory has been won against the irrational forces of religion as a whole. Dawkins’ justification for arguing only against fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity is that the majority of Christians are fundamentalists.

These grand leaps of reasoning are typical of Dawkins’ cavalier and anecdotal style. Seemingly without realizing it, he wanders into veritable minefields of problems that would tear his argument asunder if he only poked below the surface of his assumptions.

The problems with The God Delusion are simply too great to enumerate in any detail. However, the following discussion will provide the reader with a sense of some of them.

The first mistake that Dawkins makes has to do with how he conceives of religion itself. A typical error of the novice religionist is to identify belief as the primary definitional criterion of religion.

It is true that the operative question for the Christian is whether one believes in Jesus and God, and it is also true that the centrality of belief can be extended to encompass a few other religions, such as Islam. However, belief is not the operative criterion that characterizes religion in general. Belief is, rather, a culturally unique marker of ethical monotheism, specifically Christianity.

Other religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism, to name but a few, have a completely different valuation of belief. While a Christian is only a Christian, a Japanese person can without contradiction be both Buddhist and Shinto, with some Confucian elements thrown in.

Ancient religious practitioners of Greek and Roman paganism understood their gods as allegorical referents to natural and social conditions, and not primarily as beings to be worshiped and believed in.

Religious studies experts, including Bart Erhman – one of the few scholars on the subject whom Dawkins does cite – have long acknowledged this fact. Ehrman and others are here following the revolutionary theories of Émile Durkheim, who in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life argued that it is more fruitful to conceive of religion as a meta-cultural language that is used to define “in-groups” and otherwise conceptually organize society, than as something one has to believe.

What would the inclusion of a more nuanced view of the religious do to Dawkins argument? For one it would force him to provide a more sophisticated explanation for why religious “believers” do the things they do. Dawkins thinks fundamentalists are solely motivated by their belief in the verity of their theology. Examining the Muslim head-scarf (hijab) in this light perfectly illustrates the problems with Dawkins’ approach. According to a belief-based definition of religion, a Muslim girl who wears the hijab is certainly religious and probably a fundamentalist, since she obviously believes in a strict, literal interpretation of the Qur’an.

However, research on the subject has shown that there is usually a myriad of reasons why someone would chose to display such a religious symbol. Some women in Algeria during the time of French occupation used the hijab to symbolize resistance to western imperialism. Similarly, Muslim girls in France and Germany today, who are generally marginalized because of their ethnicity, often use the scarf in order to re-claim a sense of cultural identity and dignity.

What is important to realize is that many of these decisions are only tangentially related to the belief structure of their religion. More central is the interrelation of religion with other cultural-political forms.

Dawkins, however, is not interested in the obvious fact that religious belief is situated within a nexus of interweaving social forces. Instead, he reduces the motivations of the religious to their belief systems and then proceeds to argue that these views are irrational. This strategy misses the complexity of religion entirely. 

Second, the very notion of radically separating popular (here fundamentalist) and elite religions, as Dawkins attempts, has been questioned by many in the social sciences. An expert on Chinese religions, Maurice Freedman, for example, noted that the beliefs of the elites and the masses are intimately connected.

A book that examines fundamentalism in a social vacuum is, at best, only half the story. This fact is closely related to another problem, which is that it is much more difficult than Dawkins seems to think to demonstrate that most religious believers are of the fundamentalist ilk.

The Marxist historian Carlo Ginsberg made this point eminently clear in his inspired The Cheese and the Worms. Ginsberg examined the inquisitorial records of sixteenth century Italy in order to ascertain what the religious beliefs of the masses might have been. He discovered that the views of the illiterate populace were very sophisticated and not at all in keeping with the stereotypical image of the late-Medieval peasant.

If the Medieval peasant, the supposed archetype of religious superstition, was not necessarily as doctrinaire as is often assumed, what about the modern fundamentalist American? The fact that Dawkins does not even bother to mention these issues is the prerogative that comes with not being familiar with the vast canon of research on the subject.

Third, while Dawkins’ grasp of the theoretical aspects of his subject is questionable, his arguments themselves also leave much to be desired. For example, in chapter seven, entitled, “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist” Dawkins argues that Christianity (and religion in general) has never acted as a force for social good.

Dawkins’ thesis here is that good people are good and bad people are bad, and religion has nothing to do with it. Preempting his critics, Dawkins tries to strengthen his claim by showing that, “Although Martin Luther King was a Christian, he derived his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience directly from Gandhi, who was not” (307).

It is strange that Dawkins should use this of all examples to make his point. Was Gandhi not motivated by religion? And, importantly, Gandhi said that he got his inspiration of civil disobedience from Tolstoy, who was a Christian. Dawkins fails to raise any of these points, let alone follow through on their implications for his central argument. Examples like this leave one wondering how many times Dawkins has included half-truths in order to make his case seem more convincing than it actually is.

More problematic still is Dawkins’ attempts to answer the charge that atheists have been responsible for their share of atrocities. In the chapter just cited, Dawkins responds to the claim that both Hitler and Stalin were atheists.

In discussing Stalin, Dawkins avers that he was certainly a bad person but his atheism was not a factor. “What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things.

There is not the smallest evidence that it does” (309). Alexandr I. Solzhenitsyn, a long-time inmate of Stalin’s Gulag, would disagree. Solzhenitsyn maintained that a great way to get arrested and sentenced in Stalin’s Soviet Union was to be openly religious. The claim that Stalin’s atheism had nothing to do with his hatred of religious believers is indefensible.

After dismissing Stalin, Dawkins turns to Hitler and finds that he must at some point have been infected with the Christian hatred of the Jews. This together with some other circumstantial evidence (Nazi belt buckles were inscribed with “God [be] with us”) is enough for Dawkins to find that there must have been a bit of religion in Hitler somewhere. While Dawkins argues that Stalin’s atheism had nothing to do with the atrocities he committed, it turns out that Hitler’s religion did.

Dawkins book drips with self-congratulatory snobbery. Claims like, “there are few atheists in prison” are peppered throughout (262).

The complexity that should comprises the subject of The God Delusion, such as the relation of income, education and social status to the formation of religious identity is entirely absent from his discussion.

By eliding these issues Dawkins essentially reiterates a class-based version of “the white man’s burden” thesis. The intellectual elite (for Dawkins, the readers of his book) are called to enlighten the unwashed masses whose simple ways have led them into error.

  1. Enlightenment, however, does not entail changing the social and material conditions that are at the root of fundamentalism. Instead, it simply means teaching Darwinian evolution more vigorously in order to “raise consciousness”.  

A new book on atheism is desperately needed. As Terry Eagleton makes clear in his witty and sarcastic polemic Reason, Faith, and Revolution:  Reflections on the God Debate, neither Dawkins nor his co-atheist evangelist Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great) are equal to the task. 

Indeed, it is Eagelton’s book, which does not purport to be a work of atheist theory that nonetheless suggests the path any new critique of religion would have to take.

While agreeing with “Ditchkins” – his conflation of Dawkins and Hitchens – that Christianity and Islam are implicated in innumerable human tragedies, Eagelton is too honest a thinker to leave the argument there.  Instead, he also takes seriously the revolutionary, critical and radical aspects of religion and entreats the reader not to dismiss these forms as accidental byproducts of a fundamentally oppressive ideology. 

One of Eagelton’s central claims is that any critique of religion can only begin after the straw-man arguments are transcended and the opposing position, the religious, is taken seriously in all its variegated forms. 

Religion is not simply an instance of “false consciousness” foisted on a gullible populace by a devious elite.  If that is how religion is characterized, then there is little wonder why many dismiss atheism as no better than the fundamentalism it attempts to deride. 

A real critique can only begin once religion is recognized as a phenomenon with divergent, and not simply reactionary social consequences.  Jesus, as Eagelton rightly notes, was after all a revolutionary figure who was executed as a political criminal by an imperialist occupying power.

The contradictions and complexities that make religion a fascinating topic for any keen thinker do not find expression in the pages of Dawkins’ God Delusion.  If anything his intellectual chicanery will actually damage the atheist’s cause.  

References

Dawkins, Richard.  The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.--.The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. 

Durkheim, Émile.  The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  Translated by Carol Cosman.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001. 

Eagelton, Terry.  Reason, Faith, and Revolution:  Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Ginzburg, Carlo.  The Cheese and the WormsThe Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller.  Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi.  Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. 

Hitchen, Christopher.  God is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 

Lee Kuhnle is a doctoral student in the department of Social and Political Thought at York University in Toronto, Canada.  His research focuses on the relationship between political and religious culture, as well as Critical Theory and Walter Benjamin. 

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