The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
The God Delusion was ranked number 2 on the Amazon.com bestsellers’ list in November 2006. In early December 2006, it reached number 4 in the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller list after nine weeks on the list. As of August 5, 2007, it is still listed at number 29, after 43 weeks on the list.
It brings into question why such a book on this controversial topic, and which is difficult to read, can be so popular. May be it reflects a phenomenon that the uncertainty of god and the present state of religions have created doubt in the mind of many people. The title is an attractive subject to the doubtful. It is also an attractive subject to the faithful. Religious faith is so important for many that they would wish to examine the other side of the argument and ridicule it in order to confirm their faith. If you think this book is talking nonsense, don’t worry. Half of the world population may be thinking that way. I am on the other half.
Dawkins said the God Delusion is mainly about the Abrahamic religions, namely religions which have the origin from the god of Abraham, including Judaism, Islam, Catholic, Christian, Orthodox and the like. He thought some religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism should be labeled ethical systems. I do not agree with him on this point. Although these ethical systems exist, they have been similarly distorted into religion per se by the inclusion of idol worshiping, rituals, blind faith and superstition.
The book shows a lot of examples that the holy books contain many passages which are contradictory, irrational and immoral. This does not come as a surprise as these have been pointed out by many for a long time. When I was in secondary school, a priest who was my teacher in biblical studies explained that the bible was not exact history. They were written by the followers of the apostles recording verbal legends. The bible was then kept by monks and was worshiped at the church. The monks read the bible and added margin notes of praise and commentaries. When the bible was copied, which was the only way of reproduction in ancient time, all the side notes were included in the text, making some of the meanings inconsistent. When students asked questions on the inconsistency, the priest would explain but usually conclude with the notion of faith, i.e. bible was to be believed, not questioned. This is the main difference between religious belief and scientific belief. When there is a mystery, religion would accept it as god’s will. Science would consider it as god’s invitation to learn.
The religious non-believer
Following a long period of doubtful tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny during the Dark Ages and the theocratic rule of the Middle Ages, there was the Age of Enlightenment which advocated reason as a means to establishing an authoritative system of aesthetics, ethics, government, and logic, so that human beings could obtain objective truth about the universe. This movement in Europe from about 1650 until 1800 advocated the use of reason and individualism instead of tradition and established doctrine. Although many enlightened intellectual leaders including philosophers and scientists were at awe with the mystery of the universe and the origin of beings, they did not find the holy books and religions satisfactory in answering the mystery. As said by Albert Einstein, “I don’t try to imagine a personal god; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.”
The God hypothesis
Many people believe god exists, and many people do not. Thus there is a hypothesis that god exists or not. The solution is to find a way to prove it. There has not been any direct proof put forward to prove the existence of god; similarly it is argued that there is also no direct proof that god does not exist. It all boils down to how one looks at this scenario.
Bertrand Russell was a strong advocate that it was not the business of the skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than the dogmatists to prove them. He wrote a parable of the orbiting teapot to illustrate that it was irrational to look for proof that something did not exist. Suppose between the Earth and Mars there was a small teapot revolving about the sun in a elliptical orbit, and that the teapot was too small to be revealed by the most powerful telescopes. Someone could say that this got to be true because it was beyond human ability to doubt it; but this would just be considered nonsense by everybody. However, if the story of the teapot was written in the holy books, any hesitation to believe in its existence would cause the doubter to be persecuted.
Another parable on god’s creation was one said by Fred Hoyle of the ultimate Boeing 747. In arguing creation by intelligent design or evolution, Hoyle likened the probability of life originating on Earth was no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard of aeroplane parts, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. This improbability is termed irreducible complexity. Because of it, life on earth, and everything else, must have been created outright by a designer. The answer of Dawkins, being a biologist and an evolution specialist, was that such parable was ignorant of the nature of natural selection, that life was the result of numerous trials of molecular combinations over trillion of years. It was a gradual process of perfection.
Back to history, Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century drew up five proofs on god’s existence. These proofs were adopted by the church for several centuries. According to the proofs, god was:
1. The unmoved mover – Everything moves by a mover; by regression there is the last mover that is unmoved.
2. The uncaused cause – Everything is caused by a cause; by regression there is the last cause that is uncaused.
3. The cosmological argument – Physical things exist now; there must be a time when non-physical being brings them into existence.
The first three proofs are the same, being regression to the extreme. It is symbolic of the terminator to the logic, just like positive whole numbers regress to zero. These proofs do not lead to a god with the respected properties of omnipotence, omniscience and goodness.
4. The argument from degree – Everything has a degree of goodness; there is a maximum goodness to set the standard of perfection.
5. The teleological argument or argument from design – Everything in the world looks as if it is designed; thus there is a designer of all things.
The fourth proof deploys comparison. The comparison can be used in any dimension and we cannot call the ultimate standard of anything god. These four proofs are not in use anymore. The fifth proof is the one which is strongly disputed by modern science, but it is the most controversial one as there are still many religious people arguing that, according to the bible, the universe was created eight thousand years ago and the great world flood occurred four thousand years ago created the Grand Canyon.
The roots of religion and morality
The religious explanations of the roots of religion and morality are straight forward and easy to understand. Religion came directly from god together with morality which is god’s will. Dawkins proposed that religion created the god delusion, and morality is the behavioural standard mutually accepted in a community. Dean Hamer in his book The God Gene explained why human beings are susceptible to religion. He claimed that a gene VMAT2 was discovered in human DNA. This gene has the effect of a physiological arrangement that produces the sensations associated by some with the presence of god or other mystic experiences, or more specifically spirituality as a state of mind. There is no theory as to how this gene came into the human DNA. A religious perspective is that it could be implanted by god. Evolutionists claimed that it is by natural selection that such a behaviour was gradually developed among human beings as they evolved into a community having leaders, teachers and authority to be followed. The rest was the building up of hierarchy in a community and the devising of the god delusion for the strengthening of governance.
Much examples were quoted to show that morality did not come from religion. While Dawkins showed many quotations from the holy books that much immoral acts were recorded, he also proposed by scientific arguments that moral was a result of natural selection along the evolution path. In the process of evolution, good genes get maintained while bad ones get eliminated. Good or bad genes are defined by their probability to reproduce or be copied. Expanding from genetics, good genes are reflected in the behaviour of the organism in being able to survive. There are some activities that are conducive to survival and sustained existence. One important virtue is the caring for the young, which is essential in the continued existence of the gene. Such behaviour can be found in many kinds of animal, and especially human; thus there is a tendency to care for the young and to reciprocate, care for the parents who provide. Such morality is embedded in our genes and is innate. On the other hand, competition among peers is a necessary evil for survival. We can see this trait among young children where siblings could compete for food, toys and attention, sometimes by lying and violence. They have to be taught to behave well. In such case, morality is acquired in order to maintain the cohesion within a community. Whether innate or acquired, a person does not need religious belief to be moral.
Childhood and Abuse
Dawkins was very critical of the compulsory education on religion for young children. He considered this child abuse because the children were not free in being fed the doctrine of the religion of their parents. I do not agree with him in this line of thought. Children have to be educated. The education they received is the knowledge and thoughts prevailing in his living environment. Although Dawkins listed many examples of child abuse owing to inflexible and superstitious religious rules, this cannot rule out that most children are receiving proper education including a religion of their parents’ belief.
The book also mentions the effect of religion on consolation and inspiration. The theory put forward for such effects is the need to fill a gap in human emotion; and this gap could be filled by other means which is non-religious. I agree that there are many ways to sooth one’s spirit and motivate creativity. However, it cannot be denied that religions play a vital role on many occasions. It may be a delusion, but in this case it is a delusion for a good cause. However, most of the time the god delusion has a negative effect on humanity, including war, tyranny, bureaucracy, superstition, terrorism, and many more evil deeds. Of all the religious activities, I only admire the religious self-help groups, fellowship groups and self-improvement programmes which help people help themselves and each others. If there is a chance for people to really live a better live, it does not really matter whether it is god delusion or not.