Thoughts on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2008

Note: If you like what you are reading here, check out my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. There are many essays in it on similar topics.


Last month, I read Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life and wrote my comments as I read each chapter.

This month, I'm reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and I am doing the same.

Both books are about the role God should play in our lives. Warren proposes that believing in God, particularly in a Christian God with Jesus acting as humanity's liaison, will explain mankind's role in being on Earth.

I will read to find out exactly what Dawkins proposes.

As I read Warren's book, I found myself writing, "How silly!" a lot. This was no surprise to me as since I was a teenager I have found the Christian description of how the universe works to be shot full of logical problems.

I am an evolutionist, a strong evolutionist, so... lets see what comes to mind as I read the Dawkins version of the problems with believing in a sentient, interventionist god.



Dawkins likens the problems of being an atheist today with those of being a homosexual fifty years ago: today many people are "closet atheists" who are afraid to "come out". He states that the purpose of this book, the God Delusion, is to help more people recognize their atheism by doing some consciousness raising... ala what feminists did for writing "he" as versus "he or she" in the eighties and nineties.

Dawkins comments on Albert Einstein's real feeling about the existence of a sentient God. He says flat out that Einstein didn't believe, and offers some extensive quotes to show it. He says that those who try to show that Einstein was, deep in his heart, a believer in God, are taking his words out of context, and flat out lying.

... This seems to be a characteristic I have noted in many Creationists and True Believers: they are quite willing to take "cheap shots" with the facts to support their contentions. This could just be me, or it could be real, and caused by differences in the roots of belief. This could happen because religious believers base their belief on what feels good (often the root of their belief is an emotion supported by an instinct), while science believers base their belief on what they see happening in the world around them. The symmetry in belief systems, and what is an "OK tactic" to support a belief system, may go something like this:

So, the symmetry is: religious believers are willing to trample over facts, and science believers are willing to trample over instinct-emotion-based beliefs.

Why does evolution get to be the particular science "picked on" by religionists? At the heart of most religions is the belief that the followers are special and chosen, this is particularly true of religions that emphasize strong belief as important,. The Anglicans discovered it first: that evolution strongly implies that mankind is not special and not chosen. This is the heart of the religionists outrage with evolution.

When science produces theories which emphasize mankind's special place in the universe, then religionists will enthusiastically accept the findings. But chip at that "chosen" foundation, and expect the Wrath of God to come down upon you.

...I've been watching some Dawkins lectures on the Internet as well as reading the book, so this next part is not quite in line with the current topic of the book.

There are two things about the science versus religion problem that I don't think Dawkins emphasizes enough:


Examples of the build-upon nature of science and the benefit:

The reason the science method is important is that it points the way for future science. Religious explanations of the real world don't do that.

Here are some examples:

Galeleo carefully tracks the orbits of the planets. When he becomes a recognized authority on the motion of the planets, he is given financial assistance to do more research by The Pope of his time because The Pope wants a new and better calendar system. The calendar system of that day was drifting and the New Year was going to become a springtime event if the drift wasn't fixed.

Galeleo uses a telescope on the planets (this was an innovation, before Galeleo, telescopes were used to look at faraway ships), and in the case of Jupiter he discovers three "spots" that move around Jupiter with clock-like precision. (later known as the Galelean Moons)

Based on his observations of the real world, and those of his predecessors, Galeleo comes up with a better calendar for The Pope: mission accomplished. In the process of doing so, he proposes a better way to explain the motion of the planets he has observed. He proposes that a model of the planets that puts the Sun at the center rather than the Earth will be simpler and predict better.

The Deep Belief religionists of his day see this as attack on the concept that man is the center of the universe -- the chosen people -- and attack his ideas... and him. Given a choice between standing by his beliefs and living... Galeleo chooses... to live! and he recants his work. Thankfully for us, his ideas had already spread by then, and others chose not to give them up.

Now here is the important difference between the Galeleo hypothesis and the Deep Belief religion hypothesis:

The question is: "How do you explain the motion of the planets?"

The Deep Belief religion answer is: "God made them that way."

The Galeleo answer is: "Based on what I see happening in the real world, we can predict what's happening in the sky better by presuming the planets circle the sun, not the Earth."

Fast forward two hundred years.

Newton looks at the same planets that Galeleo did, but using the better tools available in his day, he observes them even more closely. He notices that some of the planets, Mars in particular, don't move through the sky like they are going around the sun in perfect circles. They seem to be moving in ellipses and with variable speeds rather then perfect circles with constant speeds.

Here is the important part: he builds upon Galeleo's work to come up with a new theory, the theory of gravitation, to better explain the motions he observes. The key term here is better explain. It's still not perfect, but it is better, much better.

Now, lets look at that same old question: "How do you explain the motion of the planets?"

In two hundred years, the Deep Belief religion answer hasn't changed one wit!!! "God made them that way."

The updated science answer, the Newton answer, is: "There is a force drawing the planets towards the sun, and it seems to be directly proportional to the mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance."

In the exact same way, Einstein builds upon Newton's work. Using the even better tools of his day, he measures even more closely than Newton did, and finds that Newton's theory is close, but not perfect. In Einstein's case, the major culprit is Mercury's orbit, not Mar's. So, Einstein proposes an additional twist -- a theory that acts like Newton's theory when dealing with "normal" objects, but predicts different motions for objects that move really fast or are subject to lots of gravity, such as Mercury is because it orbits so closely to the sun. He proposes... the theory of Special Relativity.

Meanwhile... the Deep Belief answer remains the same, "God made it that way."

The moral: science keeps coming up with better ways to explain what's happening in the real world, the one we live in. Religion keeps coming up with the same way to explain what's happening in the real world: "God made it that way." The biggest problem with the Deep Belief religious answer is that is has no predictive value, so it can't lead us to any better understanding of the world we live in.

AND HERE'S THE REALLY IMPORTANT PART: Without better understanding, our life can't get better.

This brings us to the second issue: what authority should we use to explain the real world we live in? Deep Belief religious people say that authority should be The Bible, while scientists say it should be the world we live in.

Hmm... we have a choice in basing how we describe the real world.

We can describe what's happening in the real world based on...


Deep religious believers say the first one is the not just the better choice, it is the only right choice. Think about it: this is what "believing in The Bible" means.

... How strange! In two thousand years of study, we haven't learned a single new thing about our world? But, then again, maybe not so strange. After all, "God made it that way."

When I think about Deep Believer logic, I can't help but think of a song I heard and enjoyed back in the sixties:

"It's a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack."

(from a 1968 folk song, "Master Jack" by 4 Jacks and a Jill)

Further Thoughts on the first chapter

I have read this chapter, and watched the BBC video "Root of All Evil?", which is closely related to the book.

My summary feeling at the end of Chapter One is that Dawkins is employing religious persuasion tactics to get his message across rather than science persuasion tactics. In particular, he's using a lot of anecdotes to support his arguments. Story telling (anecdotes) is an interesting way to make a point, but not a strong way to make one. One of the easiest ways to punch holes in religion or pseudo science arguments is to point out that they are anecdotal.

On the other hand, this is a style of argument that religionists are familiar with and used to. Using the anecdotal tactic may be why Dawkins is such a lightning rod for criticism by the Deep Believer religious and Creationist communities. They attack because they clearly understand the message.

The main problem he talks about in Chapter One is religious intolerance, and he points out it's still very much with us today.

He also points out that if an idea is thought of as religious, it gets casual scrutiny compared to the scrutiny a science idea is subjected to.

His most notable example: the uproar over the Danish Mohammed cartoons in 2006.


Chapter Two: The God Hypothesis

The title comes from the question, "Can the existence of God be treated as a provable or not provable idea?" If it can be treated this way, it is a hypothesis.

First off, many Deep Believers feel belief in God cannot be treated as a hypothesis because belief in God is a faith issue, not a fact issue. In fact, in this essay, that is my definition of a Deep Believer: It's a person who has so much faith in an issue, that real world fact about the issue is unimportant.

It is my opinion that for such people, Deep Believers in religion, there is little left to say. As long as strength of faith is the central issue, then I have little to say that a faith-based person will be interested in hearing. A faith-based person will only become interested in what I have to say after a few brushes with harsh reality shake his or her belief that faith provides the right answers to living in a real world. Sadly, this is going to be an unhappy day for the Deep Believer because faith-believing is instinctual thinking.

A Deep Believer's faith-based world view is not a problem for me... until his or her faith-based world view starts impinging on how I have to live. A painful-for-me example of that happening is when I have to endure standing in line and getting inspected at an airport because other people have faith that doing so will make the plane fly better. 

Dawkins spends much of his time in this chapter defining terms and concepts. Doing so is a necessary step when talking about ideas that are new and different. If you, the writer, are telling me, the reader, about how Romeo and Juliet felt about each other, you don't need to do much defining of terms, the concepts are very familiar to me and almost all readers. But if you're telling me about how sodium and chloride ions crystallize out of an aqueous solution (how salt crystals form in briny waters), then a lot of term defining is necessary because some readers are not familiar with the words used to describe the process.

Dawkins points out that while the Catholic church defines itself as a monotheistic religion -- there is just one God -- the inclusion of the Virgin Mary and many, many saints as subjects worthy of worship sure gives it a polytheistic garnish.

In this chapter Dawkins spends a lot of time trying to deflect the counter-argument that, "The religion Dawkins is attacking is not my religion, so, he must be talking about someone else, not about me and my belief system."

He defines how a deist god is different from a theist god: a deist god is one who starts the universe and then walks away from it, and is no longer intervening in its operation in any way. This belief was strong in the Eighteenth century Enlightenment, and strong among America's Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine in particular, and Paine was reviled for his anti-Christianity by his contemporary Deep Believers.

Dawkins points out the strong belief of the Founding Fathers that a government should be secular, and how ironic that using that secular foundation, Americans have evolved into such a strongly religious people.

He goes on to discuss agnosticism. He puts agnostics into two categories: temporary -- those who are waiting for more evidence, and permanent -- those who are passive fence-sitters. He does not like the latter.

The major issue with agnosticism that Dawkins brings up is it's connection to the probability that God exists. He points out a logical flaw of many Deep Believers: that if something is unprovable, it's likelihood is fifty-fifty.

He then goes on to make a scale of probability that God exists, and populates the scale. This scale, he says, will be useful in later chapters. I hope so... so far I have found much of this chapter a waste of time reading because it's busy countering arguments that have yet to be made.

He then counters another counter argument, the one that religious questions are outside the realm of scientific inquiry. He points out that as a result of this thinking, scientists often bend over backwards to not subject religion-based assertions to the same intellectual rigor that science questions face, and this is a mistake.

Summary comment on Chapter Two

I hope this is a foundation-laying chapter. I've read it, and it has not opened much new insight in my thinking. It reads very much as a defensive chapter... one that is countering various religious and creationist arguments that have been tossed Dawkins' way over the years. I've heard many of these arguments as well.

The weakness I see in Chapter Two is that the arguments and the counter arguments are mostly in the anecdotal format, which is not a particularly strong format for science arguments.

So, I'm left with the feeling, "I hope things get more interesting."


Chapter Three: Arguments for God's Existence

Chapter Three was ho-hum for me. Basically, he throws up many arguments for God's existence that I already knew, and shoots them down in ways I already knew.

For that reason, this chapter is a good reference if you are facing a Deep Believer, and you feel dishing out some logic might make a difference in the discussion.


Chapter Four: Why there almost certainly is no God

This chapter is similar to chapter three. It's the same discussion, but taking the flip side. Once again, a fast read for me because I'm familiar with these arguments.

What is nice about this chapter is a lot of references to other books discussing the same issue.

The heart of the discussion in this chapter is how revolutionary the concept of natural selection is. Let me say it again because it's important: Revolutionary! It does make God The Designer unnecessary as an explanation for how life got as complex as it is today, and as a consequence God the Designer becomes a bad explanation for how the world got to where it is today.


Chapter Five: The roots of religion

Here the book gets interesting for me.

Dawkins and I agree that religion is around because it is helping humans survive. We agree that it's sure not helping humans with its cosmology, so... what is it helping?

Here Dawkins and I disagree mildly. He has come up with several theories, and I have come up with several theories, and they are different.

What our theories have in common is they spring from two roots: The first possibility is that religion is parasitic thinking that exists because it is inseparable from some other kind of thinking that is highly valuable to humans. Dawkins presents the idea that it springs from childhood obedience thinking. I think it comes from the value of seeing exploitable patterns in the world around us -- religion is a "false positive" pattern that humans have a hard time distinguishing from the "true positive" patterns of the real world. Part of the discipline of science is about rigorously distinguishing between false positive and true positive. 

The second possibility is that it may not be right thinking, but it is still helpful thinking -- helpful in the sense that it helps humans survive. One example he gives of this, but explains that it's not "big" enough, is that believing in a religion can reduce stress in a person.

My candidate for this second category is that religion can fend off some of the bad effects of self-aware thinking. Self-awareness is a powerful, powerful tool in the human thinking tool box. For instance, if I understand that "you" and "me" are not the same entities, then I can understand that teaching you is something valuable to do. If I don't understand that difference, then teaching is something that happens haphazardly, not deliberately. If I expect that my son will learn baseball just because he follows me to the baseball field every Saturday, then I'm not using self-aware thinking.

But powerful tools can be abused as well as used. Self-awareness can lead to asking "dangerous" questions, such as "Why am I here on this Earth?" If a person finds no good answer to that question, gets depressed, and kills himself or herself as a result, then the tool as been abused. If religion can provide a comforting answer when that question is asked, then it has enhanced the value of the self-awareness thinking tool.

That's my explanation for a possible value for religious thinking -- it takes a dangerous edge off of self-aware thinking.


Chapter Six: The roots of morality: Why are we good?

This chapter I found really interesting.

It points out the flaw in assuming that our morality comes from scripture. It does so by pointing out how far the stories of scripture are from the morality we practice today.

I found it fun because very few people talk about scripture this way. It was new for me... and a little scary. Yeah, some of these people were sure bloodthirsty, and others were sure oddball.


Chapter Seven: The 'good' book and the changing moral zeitgeist

This chapter I found really interesting, too.

Much of the chapter is like chapter six, it talks about loopy morality in the Bible stories, and it moves on to those the New Testament.

Then it moves on further, and this is where it got really interesting. Dawkins talks about a concept he calls Zeitgeist: the concept that community morality is not fixed, that it drifts steadily with time, much like spoken language drifts steadily with time.

In both language and morality, everyone in the community somehow knows what the standard is, even though the standard keeps changing with each generation.

My feeling is this changing Zeitgeist may also reflect the changing technology base human communities live in. "Spare the rod, spoil the child." is a mentality that serves well when a child is surrounded with mortal hazards -- deadly diseases, dangerous predators, life-threatening falls off cliffs, whatever. In such an environment, one slip may cause death, so learning a lesson in a painful-but-fast way makes sense.

In a modern civilized environment, the deadly hazards are far from a child. In a civilized environment worrying about scarring by abuse makes sense.


Chapter Eight: What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?

This chapter is, to me, the most important in the book. This is the "why" of the book.

Frankly, I don't think Dawkins does enough in this chapter. 

What he talks about, which is good, is the fallacy that "moderate" belief in religion does no harm. He shows that moderate belief is the foundation for fanatic belief.

What he doesn't talk enough about is how science builds on itself, and this is something that religion can't do. It can't because it's locked into basing itself on centuries-old holy texts. Our understanding of the real world can change, and does. Science can accept this and reinvent. Religion can't because the "real world" for religion is its scriptures, and those change only with translation.

This is important because technology is based on science, and the material things that make our lives civilized all come from technology. Without knowledge of materials, cosmology and evolution, we wouldn't have french fries (from good ships to cross the Atlantic), cell phones (from the physics of atoms) and vaccines (from genetics).

Bible belief will not create these good things in life for us. This is the most important point of this chapter. This should be the most emphasized.


Chapter Nine: Childhood, abuse and the escape from religion

This chapter tells some interesting stories. It makes the point that children can be labeled with a religion, but not with something such as being a Democrat or a Republican. Why is this? Why does religion get such a huge "pass" when it comes to labeling?

It goes on to point out how pervasive fundamentalist thinking is in the American religious scene.

It was a good read, and it made me worry a bit more.


Chapter Ten: A much needed gap?

This chapter was another good read.

The first part of this chapter is back to the question of, "Do we need religion to be human thinkers?" The Gap in this case is the concept of God of the Gaps -- basically, God fits in the gaps where science can't explain.

The second part, the fun part, talks about how "big" the universe really is, and how little of it we see with our "native" -- unenhanced -- senses.

Evolution has designed our senses to help us survive in the world around us, to sense what Dawkins calls the "middle world". He uses the image of a Middle East Burka -- the head-to-toes dress with only a single slit in it for vision. Our senses are like the slit in the burka, and there's a whole lot going on in the world that we don't sense.

What science does is give us more ways to see what's going on outside the burka, and Dawkins waxes poetic. It's a good image.



All-in-all, the book is a good read. Dawkins is addressing directly the question of why it is important that science and religion stay separate. He is also warning us that religious intolerance is alive and well today. It thrives not just in faraway places such as Afghanistan, but also in closeby places such as America.

I sense that Dawkins wrote this book because he was tired of answering the same questions about religion over and over. It seems to be mostly about giving answers to people who at his lectures have said to him, "Yeah, but how do you explain...."

Here he is explaining.

-- The End --