The God Delusion

I got hold of and immediately read through The God Delusion last week. As always, Richard Dawkins is a delightful writer. I recommend the book to everyone. It’s a more popular-oriented book rather than something that presents detailed examinations of various versions of “God,” but that makes it all the more valuable. And it does not lack in substance—Dawkins sketches some interesting arguments that I found thought-provoking, even if I ended up disagreeing with a few.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The God Delusion before I picked it up. Especially in anti-creationist circles, Dawkins has an ambiguous reputation, since he goes out of his way to denounce all religion, including liberal faiths that are the main force in resisting fundamentalism. In some of his short, op-ed types of writing (such as his column in Free Inquiry) he has occasionally put forth ideas that seem simplistic at best. So the public image of Dawkins has been too close to the stereotype of an abrasive atheist who has only a superficial understanding of religion. Not quite as bad as an unscholarly bigot such as Sam Harris, but an eyebrow-raising figure nonetheless.

This book should work against that stereotype, though it probably will not. In the less-constrained format of a book, Dawkins has a chance to develop some of his ideas further, and in many cases, he persuaded me that there was more to his point of view than I might have first thought. And even though he cites Sam Harris favorably, Dawkins at least does not endorse Harris’s lunatic right-wing anti-Islamic jihad. Certainly, as a hardcore nonbeliever, I sat down as someone inclined to agree with Dawkins’s overall point of view. But I also came up thinking that Dawkins says a lot of sensible things that I had not given much thought to before, and that even when I was inclined to disagree, I learned something nonetheless.

Let me give a couple examples of points of disagreement. Dawkins insists that it’s a very bad thing to call a child a “Christian child” or a “Muslim child”—they’re too young to know their own minds or make a mature decision about such a matter. Speaking of a Christian child, to Dawkins, makes as much sense as talking about a Marxist child. I find myself unconvinced. It’s not that Dawkins does not have a point—in a liberal, individualist environment where we conceive of education as opening up possibilities and favor intellectual positions achieved after mature reflection, the whole business of “Muslim child” and so forth does seem out of place. But religions, particularly communitarian religions rooted in pre-modern social ideals, do things differently. When we have identity formation within a strong community, when children take on nontrivial roles within a religious environment, and when the children themselves deeply believe and perceive their world in terms of a whole package of supernatural notions, it seems legitimate to identify the children with their religion. The children are a significant part of their religious community; in a very real sense they belong to the community that molds their identity. So very often “Christian child” is descriptively useful in a way that “Keynesian child” can never be.

I also remain dubious (though less so compared to before I read the book) about Dawkins’s main argument against intelligent design. He says that design is never a good explanation of complexity, since it invites the question of who designed the designer, and the designer must then be even more complex than its creation. There is a good point here, which Dawkins captures brilliantly in his description of how Darwinian evolution raises consciousness about issues concerning possible design. Given Darwinian evolution, it becomes distinctly odd to think of an intelligent designer on high. This is perhaps most obvious not in forms of creationism but in attempts at theistic evolution, where the blind, bottom-up Darwinian process and the top-down creator/designer sit together very uneasily.

Still, I think Dawkins tries to make his argument do too much work, almost turning it into a silver-bullet argument against God, a sort of metaphysical disproof. I think that’s way too strong. I don’t see much that is inherently unacceptable in tracing complexity back to an intelligent, perhaps more complex source. Especially since theistic views (involving either ID or more liberal ID-lite) almost always involve some dualism about minds, their explanations of complexity naturally have a top-down nature that seems to me to make good sense within that context. It just happens that at present, design explanations are a complete failure in biology, and indeed in natural science as a whole. Design does not work, but this is different from saying that it is inherently unworkable.

In other words, I agree that the gross failure of design ideas is a significant reason to doubt there is a God. But this is a failure to describe the world as we find it—not some inherent logical defect in design-based explanations. Ours could have been a top-down world, where the lesser forms of complexity we see did not emerge from bottom-up processes, but were shaped top-down by purpose and intelligence. It could be that all complexity is traceable back to an ultimate source with limitless intelligence and potential for generating complexity. This is almost certainly not so. Darwinian evolution is a very important part of the overall argument that should make us recognize that this is not so. But Dawkins should ease off on his claim of having a silver bullet against the legitimacy of intelligent design as an explanation. There is no such thing.

After the obligatory nitpicking, however, I should return to my main theme. The God Delusion is a good book. It is fun, thought-provoking, and refreshingly plain-spoken in a world where religion usually commands an automatic attitude of deference. Read it, and enjoy it!