The God Delusion is a 2006 bestselling non-fiction book by British biologist Richard Dawkins, professorial fellow of New College, Oxford, and inaugural holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that belief in a personal god qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. He is sympathetic to Robert Pirsig‘s observation in Lila that “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”
As of November 2007, the English version of The God Delusion had sold over 1.5 million copies and had been translated to 31 other languages. It was ranked #2 on the Amazon.com bestsellers’ list in November 2006. In early December 2006, it reached #4 in the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller list after nine weeks on the list. It remained on the list for 51 weeks until 30 September 2007. It has attracted widespread commentary, with several books written in response.
Dawkins has argued against all creationist explanations of life in his previous works on evolution. The theme of The Blind Watchmaker, published in 1986, is that evolution can explain the apparent design in nature. In The God Delusion he focuses directly on a wider range of arguments used for and against belief in the existence of God (or gods).
Dawkins had long wanted to write a book openly criticising religion, but his publisher had advised against it. By the year 2006, his publisher had warmed to the idea. Dawkins attributes this change of mind to “four years of Bush“. By that time, a number of authors, including Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who together with Dawkins were labelled “The Unholy Trinity” by Robert Weitzel, had already written books openly attacking religion. These books did well on best-seller lists, and have spawned an industry of religious responses. According to the Amazon.co.uk website, the book led to a 50% growth in their sales of books on religion and spirituality (including anti-religious books such as The God Delusion and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and a 120% increase in the sales of the Bible.
The book contains ten chapters. The first few build a case that there is almost certainly no God, while the rest discuss religion and morality. It is dedicated to the memory of Dawkins’ late friend Douglas Adams, accompanied by the quote “isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” (from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
Dawkins writes that The God Delusion contains four “consciousness-raising” messages:
- Atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.
- Natural selection and similar scientific theories are superior to a “God hypothesis” — the illusion of intelligent design — in explaining the living world and the cosmos.
- Children should not be labelled by their parents’ religion. Terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make people flinch.
- Atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind.
The God hypothesis
Since there are a number of different theistic ideas relating to the nature of God(s), Dawkins defines the concept of God that he wishes to address early in the book. He coins the term “Einsteinian religion”, referring to Einstein’s use of “God”, as a metaphor for nature or the mysteries of the universe. He makes a distinction between this “Einsteinian religion” and the general theistic idea of God as the creator of the universe who should be worshipped. This becomes an important theme in the book, which he calls the God Hypothesis. He maintains that this idea of God is a valid hypothesis, having effects in the physical universe, and like any other hypothesis can be tested and falsified. Thus, Dawkins rejects the common view that science and religion rule over non-overlapping magisteria.
Dawkins surveys briefly the main philosophical arguments in favour of God’s existence. Of the various philosophical proofs that he discusses, he singles out the Argument from design for longer consideration. Dawkins concludes that evolution by natural selection can explain apparent design in nature.
He writes that one of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain “how the complex, improbable design in the universe arises”, and suggests that there are two competing explanations:
- A theory involving a designer, that is, a complex being to account for the complexity that we see.
- A theory that explains how, from simple origins and principles, something more complex can emerge.
This is the basic set-up of his argument against the existence of God, the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit, where he argues that the first attempt is self-refuting, and the second approach is the way forward.
At the end of chapter 4, Why there almost certainly is no God, Dawkins sums up his argument and states, “The temptation [to attribute the appearance of a design to actual design itself] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”
Dawkins does not claim to disprove God with absolute certainty. Instead, he suggests as a general principle that simpler explanations are preferable (see Occam’s razor), and that an omniscient and omnipotent God must be extremely complex. As such, he argues that the theory of a universe without a God is preferable to the theory of a universe with a God.
Religion and morality
The second half of the book begins by exploring the roots of religion and seeking an explanation for its ubiquity across human cultures. Dawkins advocates the “theory of religion as an accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful” as for example the mind’s employment of intentional stance. Dawkins suggests that the theory of memes, and human susceptibility to religious memes in particular, can explain how religions might spread like “mind viruses” across societies.
He then turns to the subject of morality, maintaining that we do not need religion to be good. Instead, our morality has a Darwinian explanation: altruistic genes, selected through the process of evolution, give people natural empathy. He asks, “would you commit murder, rape or robbery if you knew that no God existed?” He argues that very few people would answer “yes”, undermining the claim that religion is needed to make us behave morally. In support of this view, he surveys the history of morality, arguing that there is a moral Zeitgeist that continually evolves in society. As it progresses, this moral consensus influences how religious leaders interpret their holy writings. Thus, Dawkins states, morality does not originate from the Bible, rather our moral progress informs what part of the Bible Christians accept and what they now dismiss.
The God Delusion is not just a defence of atheism, but also goes on the offensive against religion. Dawkins sees religion as subverting science, fostering fanaticism, encouraging bigotry against homosexuals, and influencing society in other negative ways. He is most outraged about the indoctrination of children. He equates the religious indoctrination of children by parents and teachers in faith schools to a form of mental abuse. Dawkins considers the labels “Muslim child” or a “Catholic child” equally misapplied as the descriptions “Marxist child” or a “Tory child”, as he wonders how a young child can be considered developed enough to have such independent views on the cosmos and humanity’s place within it.
The book concludes with the question whether religion, despite its alleged problems, fills a “much needed gap”, giving consolation and inspiration to people who need it. According to Dawkins, these needs are much better filled by non-religious means such as philosophy and science. He suggests that an atheistic worldview is life-affirming in a way that religion, with its unsatisfying “answers” to life’s mysteries, could never be. An appendix gives addresses for those “needing support in escaping religion”.
While the book was published with endorsements from notable intellectuals, such as Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA James D. Watson, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, as well as popular writers of fiction and the illusionists Penn and Teller, it received mixed reviews from critics. The review aggregator Metacritic reported the book had an average score of 59 out of 100, based on 22 reviews by critics, and a score of 8.1 out of 10 by users. The book was nominated for Best Book at the British Book Awards, where Richard Dawkins won the Author of the Year award. It has been controversial, and has provoked responses from both religious and atheist commentators. In the 2007 paperback edition, Dawkins responds to many of the criticisms that these reviewers raise.
Several books have been written in response to The God Delusion. These include The Dawkins Delusion?, by Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath; God is No Delusion, by Thomas Crean; Dawkins’ Dilemmas, by Michael Austin; Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, by Keith Ward; Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers, by Eric Reitan; The Devil’s Delusion, by David Berlinski; God, Doubt and Dawkins: Reform Rabbis Respond to the God Delusion, by Jonathan A Romain, Deluded by Dawkins?, by Andrew Wilson, and Darwin’s Angel by John Cornwell.
Philosophy and theology
Alvin Plantinga, Anthony Kenny, Thomas Nagel,, Michael Ruse, and other philosophers have responded to the arguments of the book about the existence of God, especially Dawkins’ argument that God almost certainly does not exist, the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. Richard Swinburne has responded to parts of The God Delusion that interact with Swinburne’s writings.
Plantinga writes “So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex. More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins’ own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are “arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn’t have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex.” He continues “But second, suppose we concede, at least for purposes of argument, that God is complex. Perhaps we think the more a being knows, the more complex it is; God, being omniscient, would then be highly complex. Given materialism and the idea that the ultimate objects in our universe are the elementary particles of physics, perhaps a being that knew a great deal would be improbable—how could those particles get arranged in such a way as to constitute a being with all that knowledge? Of course we aren’t given materialism.”
Some reviewers were highly critical of Dawkins’ lack of scholarship on theology and the philosophy of religion. Dawkins is explicitly dismissive of theology in The God Delusion, and in the words of John Cornwell “there is hardly a serious work of philosophy of religion cited in his extensive bibliography”. This sentiment was echoed by other reviewers, from theologians, such as Alister McGrath, to scientists otherwise sympathetic to Dawkins’ position, such as H. Allen Orr. One of the most emphatic formulations of this objection was by Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
Anthony Flew commented that “The fault of Dawkins as an academic … was his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine which he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form”, in reference to a claim that Dawkins “makes no mention of Einstein’s most relevant report: namely, that the integrated complexity of the world of physics has led him to believe that there must be a Divine Intelligence behind it”. Dawkins has denied these claims. The philosopher Robert Oakes suggests that a fact-checker would have been helpful, and that Dawkins’ postulate (p.31) that “Any creative intelligence of sufficient complexity to design anything comes into existence only as the end product of gradual evolution” fails to imply that this universe has not been designed by a transcendent intellect, who might have come into being in a preceding universe
But Australian writer Russell Blackford says the work is “extraordinarily impressive” and he could not find any obvious blunders
Murrough O’Brien of The Independent gave the book a mixed review, saying that while “mostly tendentious tosh” it “forces the reader to ardent thought.” He criticizes several specifics of Dawkins’ arguments, including his use of the “Who made God” argument and Russell’s teapot analogy, but says that “as the bard of materialist myth, [Dawkins’] only rival is Philip Pullman.”
Dawkins himself replies to the charge of inadequate scholarship in the preface to the new edition of the book. He states that he only considered thinkers who actually argue for God’s existence, rather than just assume it, and asks, “Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” He thereby endorses PZ Myers‘ analogy of the “Courtier’s reply”, that being expected to debate the finer points of religious scholarship as an atheist is like having to have read “learned tomes on ruffled pantaloons and silken underwear” before claiming that the Emperor is, in fact, naked.
American physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, writing in Nature, says that although a “fan” of Dawkins’ science writing, he wishes that Dawkins “had continued to play to his strengths”. Krauss suggests that an unrelenting attack upon people’s beliefs might be less productive than “positively demonstrating how the wonders of nature can suggest a world without God that is nevertheless both complete and wonderful.” Krauss is disappointed by the first part of the book, but quite positive about the latter part starting from Dawkins’ discussion of morality. He remarks, “Perhaps there can be no higher praise than to say that I am certain I will remember and borrow many examples from this book in my own future discussions.” In particular, he praises the treatment of religion and childhood, although refraining from using the term “child abuse” himself.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson suggests that Dawkins is mistaken about the evolutionary basis of religions in his article Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion.
Writing in the Guardian, Stephen D. Unwin, author of The Probability of God, which is the focus of Dawkins’ criticisms of Bayesian methods for the proof of God’s existence, notes that Dawkins’ views are “hardly shocking as certainty is the position of almost all participants in the God debate.”
Sceptic Michael Shermer describes the book as “a powerful polemic against the infusion of religion into nearly every nook and cranny of public life.” But Shermer considers The God Delusion much more than a polemic. He stresses the consciousness-raising messages of the book, and praises its latter part, describing the closing chapter as “a tribute to the power and beauty of science, which no living writer does better.” However, he was put off by the provocative title and Dawkins’ derogatory references to religious believers. Also, he is not convinced by Dawkins’ argument that without religion, there would be “no suicide bombings, no 9/11, …”, suggesting that many of the evils that some atheists attribute to religion alone are primarily driven by political motives. Nevertheless, he concludes that the book “deserves multiple readings, not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature.”
Joan Bakewell reviewed the book for The Guardian, stating “Dawkins comes roaring forth in the full vigour of his powerful arguments, laying into fallacies and false doctrines”, and suggesting that it is a timely book: “These are now political matters. Around the world communities are increasingly defined as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and living peaceably together is ever harder to sustain….Dawkins is right to be not only angry but alarmed. Religions have the secular world running scared. This book is a clarion call to cower no longer.”
Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times, while finding that “Dawkins’ attack on the creationists is devastatingly effective”, considers him “maddeningly inconsistent”. He argues that, since Dawkins accepts that current theories about the universe (such as quantum theory) may be “already knocking at the door of the unfathomable” and that the universe may be “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”, “the thought of how limited our comprehension is should introduce a certain diffidence into our attempted refutations of those who think they have the answer”.
Mary Wakefield writes in the Daily Telegraph that Dawkins fails to understand why people believe in God, adding, “I’ll eat my Sunday hat if this book persuades even the most hesitant half-believer to renounce religion”.
To the claim that the book is written as a polemic, and that Dawkins is being shrill and intolerant, he argues that this only seems to be so in comparison with most discussions on the subject of religion. Religion is traditionally seen as a subject that should be discussed in extremely polite terms, but Dawkins does not understand why it should receive such a special status. He compares his work with restaurant reviews to show that his writing is not rude in comparison.
Over the charge that his book is only likely to be read by atheists and is unlikely to convince anyone to change his or her mind, Dawkins says that many people are secretly interested in atheism but are worried about admitting to this and discussing it. He also says that, even if his book were only to be read by atheists, it could still provide for an exchange of ideas.
Religion as consolation or source of evil
Andrew Brown writes a critical review titled “Dawkins the dogmatist” in Prospect in which he considers that “In his broad thesis, Dawkins is right. Religions are potentially dangerous, and in their popular forms profoundly irrational”. He criticises, however, the assertion that “atheists … don’t do evil things in the name of atheism” and notes that “under Stalin almost the entire Orthodox priesthood were exterminated simply for being priests.” Furthermore, he cites Robert Pape that religious zealotry is neither necessary nor sufficient for suicide bombers, and concludes that the book is “one long argument from professorial incredulity.”
Biologist David Baltimore welcomes the book in American Scientist as a reaction to the irrationality that he sees in US social and political life. Religion dominates the news, he writes, be it jihad, opposition to stem-cell research, or teaching intelligent design. He finds the title of The God Delusion worth savouring as it conveys the core of Dawkins’ argument, and the book worth reading for its wide-ranging discussion of religion. However, he states that while Dawkins’ arguments against religion are much based on evolution, Dawkins does not come to terms with the “many scientists who believe both that evolution is a natural process over billions of years and that there is a God”. Thus, Baltimore maintains that the focus of the book is on those who disbelieve evolution and are therefore fundamentalists. In conclusion, he says he is glad that Dawkins wrote this book at a time when, as he opines, “In the United States, there is an increasingly pervasive assumption that Christianity is our state religion.”
Marek Kohn in The Independent suggests that in this book “passions are running high, arguments are compressed and rhetoric inflated. The allusion to Chamberlain, implicitly comparing religion to the Nazi regime, is par for the course.” He also argues that “another, perhaps simpler, explanation for the universality and antiquity of religion is that it has conferred evolutionary benefits on its practitioners that outweigh the costs. Without more discussion, it is not clear that Dawkins’ account should be preferred to the hypothesis that religion may have been adaptive in the same way that making stone tools was.”
In the Daily Telegraph, Kenan Malik commends Dawkins’ intellectual case for atheism, but believes that Dawkins misunderstands what makes religion attractive to believers, and exaggerates its role in modern conflicts. Malik is sceptical that a world without religion, as John Lennon asks us to imagine, would be as utopian as Dawkins paints it. He concludes by stating “if you want an understanding of evolution or an argument for atheism, there are few better guides than Richard Dawkins. But treat with extreme caution the pronouncements of any one who takes his political cue from an ex-Beatle.”
Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher and author, wrote a review for Free Inquiry, where he states that he and Dawkins agree about most matters, “but on one central issue we are not (yet) of one mind: Dawkins is quite sure that the world would be a better place if religion were hastened to extinction and I am still agnostic about that.” In Dennett’s view many “avowedly religious people” are actually atheist, but find religious metaphors and rituals useful. However, he applauds Dawkins’ effort to “raise consciousness in people who are trapped in a religion and can’t even imagine life without it.” He continues by stating his regret that neither he himself nor Dawkins deal with theist arguments as patiently as they might, noting that “Serious argument depends on mutual respect, and this is often hard to engender when disagreements turn vehement”, but concludes by suggesting that “Perhaps some claims should just be laughed out of court.”
Dawkins repeats his long-standing opposition to the argument that the masses need religion. He considers it to be patronising and elitist to hold that intellectuals can be trusted with atheism but the majority of people need to believe in religion. Dawkins has been involved in the popularisation of science, and he believes that this is a much better support for society than religion.
Moderate religion and fundamentalism
Writing in Harper’s, Marilynne Robinson criticises the “pervasive exclusion of historical memory in Dawkins’s view of science,” with particular reference to scientific eugenic theories and practices. She argues that Dawkins has a superficial knowledge of the Bible and accuses him of comparing only the best of science with the worst of religion: “if religion is to be blamed for the fraud done in its name, then what of science? Is it to be blamed for the Piltdown hoax, for the long-credited deceptions having to do with cloning in South Korea? If by ‘science’ is meant authentic science, then ‘religion’ must mean authentic religion, granting the difficulties in arriving at these definitions.” Robinson suggests that Dawkins’ arguments are not properly called scientific but are reminiscent of logical positivism, notwithstanding Dawkins’ “simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information.”
The Economist praised the book: “Everyone should read it. Atheists will love Mr Dawkins’s incisive logic and rapier wit and theists will find few better tests of the robustness of their faith. Even agnostics, who claim to have no opinion on God, may be persuaded that their position is an untenable waffle.” The review focuses on Dawkins’ critiques of the influence of religion upon politics and the use of religion to insulate political positions from criticism. “The problem, as Mr. Dawkins sees it, is that religious moderates make the world safe for fundamentalists, by promoting faith as a virtue and by enforcing an overly pious respect for religion.”
To those who claim that Dawkins misrepresents religious people and argue that fanatics are a small minority, Dawkins replies that this is not true, and that intolerant fanatics have huge influence in the world.
Dawkins has been described as an “atheist fundamentalist”. He rejects this label, saying fundamentalism implies a belief system that is impervious to change, while his atheism is based on the scientific method of reasoning. He says that if new scientific evidence were found that disproved evolution, then he would willingly give up his belief in evolution and natural selection, whilst a genuine fundamentalist would remain firm in his/her belief no matter how much opposing evidence came to light.
Legal repercussions in Turkey
In Turkey, where the book has sold at least 6000 copies, a prosecutor launched a probe into whether The God Delusion is “an attack on holy values” following a complaint in November 2007. The Turkish publisher and translator, Erol Karaaslan, faced a prison sentence if convicted of inciting religious hatred and insulting religious values. As is also the case for other controversies in Turkey, such as that involving Orhan Pamuk‘s statement on the Armenian Genocide, Sylvia Tiryaki points out that “an investigation of this kind on behalf of a claim from a citizen can be opened – but also closed as fast as possible – in any other country.”
In April 2008, the court acquitted the defendant. In ruling out the need to confiscate copies of the book, the presiding judge stated that banning it “would fundamentally limit the freedom of thought”.