Blue Ridge Journal
BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment

Suggested Related Essays:
"Theologians, myth & religious peace " and: "Reconciling Science and Religion"

The Dawkins delusion

Richard Dawkins' atheistic polemic further deludes the deluded

June 2008

Dawkins, Richard: "The God Delusion", Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, observing humanity from afar, demonstrates his failure to understand actual human beings and their needs.  And gets all tangled up between the physical, which he knows something about, and the metaphysical, which he does not.
Popular science books are, in my estimation, generally a good thing.  If they're good books, that is.  I grew up with Rachel Carson's books about the sea, and they played a large part in my becoming a biologist.  Today, 50 years later, I occasionally read more recent favorite authors of popular biology, like Niles Eldredge.  When I have a lot of time I may read Stephen Jay Gould, who was a master with words and suffered only from being very conscious of that.  And if I want to be irritated – and that doesn't happen all that often – I may pick up something by that thundering polemicist of Oxford, biologist Richard Dawkins.

Now Mr. Dawkins does have a verbal gift, but it's more a gift of gab.  Reading him we feel as if we're in a bar where a slightly tipsy Dawkins is going on and on while we're thinking: ... haven't we heard this before; like a few minutes ago from the same fellow, with just some different examples?  Well, yes, we have.  Such unedited stream-of-consciousness chatter, which could make Mr.Dawkins entertaining for a while in a bar, is his bane in print.  Nevertheless, his pop biology books have sold pretty well.  Then in 2006 he cobbled together some draft notes on the theme of "God", and published them under the title "The God Delusion" (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).  This has also sold well (you can still find the paperback in airport news kiosks), the buyers perhaps being deluded into thinking that the author would somehow apply scientific principles and methods to questions related to God.  And, voilà! that is precisely what Dawkins claims to do.  But...

Alas.  Readers of The God Delusion are instead treated to what we might call the Dawkins Delusion.  Mr.Dawkins is reputed to be a brilliant man, so he must have realized the futility of his mission even as he was whipping out the prose.  The God Delusion winds up being a kind of testament to the folly of his project.  But at any rate he has left us a book that's funny in spots.  He tells us, for example, that he can illuminate the probability of the existence of God, and he proceeds to do so in a way that will have statisticians laughing out loud.  Dawkins, it turns out, understands neither statistics nor probability, and his amusing effort at working out the probability of God would be even funnier if it weren't so sad to see a scientist publicly demonstrating his shortcomings.

Dawkins tells us, amused and amusingly, of a "scientific experiment" that was carried out in the U.S. just a few years ago, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, to determine the efficacy of prayer.  As a part of the experiment, more than 1800 cardiac hospital patients were divided into "treatment" and "control" groups, the "treatment" group being those for whom prayers would be said.  Genuine believers were recruited to pray for specific individuals in the treatment group.  The experiment was conducted with the usual "double blind" methodology, i.e., neither the experimenters nor those experimented upon knew which of the test subjects were in which group, and neither the "prayors" nor the "prayees" knew that they were part of an experiment.  (It may occur to you at this point that the prayors were likely to have had differing levels of skill at prayer, a circumstance which could confound the experimental result.  I offer, by way of example, my own experience as a teenager in Chicago.  Status within our church was based in large part on the member's agility at public prayer.  I was in awe of a Mr.Simonson, whose lyrical prayers moved us to tears.  My own were insipid and banal by comparison, and I didn't doubt that my failure to get any response to my heart-felt requests was due in large measure to my prayers' lack of polish.  Could the same quality-control problem have infected the prayer experiment?)  The experiment was evidently expected to confirm the efficacy of prayer, but the results must have disappointed the sponsors when it was found that there was no statistically significant difference in the healing of the prayed-for and the spiritually ignored patients.  (In fact, there was a small but statistically insignificant difference in favor of those for whom divine aid was not sought.)

Now this entire exercise is amusing, to be sure, and it's typical of Dawkins that he actually cites the result as serious evidence that prayer does not work!  But just like the deluded experimenters who were wasting the sponsors' money, the deluded Dawkins fails to see that the "experiment" was fatally flawed:  There were three, not two parties to this experiment, which needed to be triple-blind, not just double-blind, to produce a fair result.  Putting aside the question of why God should need to be reminded of the suffering of specific individuals, and why (only) upon being reminded he would hop to with help, we see that it is primarily God who is the test subject, it is God who's being experimented upon.  The real question being tested was: "Would the prayer-buddies' exhortations move God to action?"  But here the test subject, if omniscient – as reputed – was not blind to the test's intent or methodology;  he was fully aware, and was thus fully capable of directing the result so as to frustrate experimenters, delude over-eager atheism-crusaders, and amuse both himself and us.  In the end this "experiment" was just silly, since the unattainable "triple-blind" requirement should have been obvious from the start, but was not obvious to the sponsors, to the "scientific" experimenters, or to the deluded Dawkins.

Atheism is an honorable philosophic viewpoint; I'm an atheist myself, in the root sense of someone who makes no use of divinities.  But Richard Dawkins is an atheist of a different stripe:  He's an evangelist in the tradition of the Bible-thumping fundamentalist preacher, equally convinced of the error of other views, and equally afire with zeal to convert the deluded masses.  It's in his claims for "scientific" certainty about God, and in his purportedly science-based anti-faith crusade that Dawkins proves an embarrassment to scientists and atheists alike, who stand to find themselves spattered by the brush of cocksure intolerance that Dawkins wields so carelessly.

Dawkins makes the claim that "God's existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice."  Setting aside that a scientific discovery not made "in practice" is no discovery at all, let's consider Dawkins' claim:  Just what kind of god is he prepared to discover?  (We're prepared to nominate him to lead the research project!)  He seems unclear about this, but stands by his claim that whatever this being – or concept – "God" is, it's "existence" is scientifically discoverable.  I hear you asking, "If it's a spirit, how would its existence be scientifically discoverable?"  Good question.  Don't expect an answer, either in the book or here.

Dawkins seems to be suggesting, by his use of the form "God", that he would mainly be looking for a single god, perhaps in the Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) tradition: an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal creator of the universe and all that's in it.  Of course that's an extremely limiting research aim, as it could greatly reduce the chances of discovering alternatives, such as a cooperative of millions of gods of a lower grade; but let's go along with Dawkins' proposed restriction and see where his investigation takes us.  What, then, should he be looking for?

  • Surely not a material God, one we could describe by use of the periodic table of chemical elements.  Hardly any believers, other than small children, would claim to worship a God made of matter as we know it (though they would generally insist on God's ability to materialize when called for).  So, an immaterial, insubstantial God, then.
  • The prime non-material candidate for constructing our God must be some form of energy.  Energy, as we know, is merely matter moving fast, and converts readily to matter by putting on the brakes.  But energy, like matter, follows the physical laws of the universe, and therein lies the rub, god-wise.  Since the God of traditional belief is defined as having created both energy/matter and the physical laws themselves, this God cannot be made of the stuff he/she/it created, nor be captured within the universe she/it/he made!  So God can't be made of energy as we know it, nor be susceptible to detection by instruments that are limited to sensing only energy/matter or that are limited to operation within our universe.  It's a shame, Richard, you sounded so certain; but where do we go from here?  I see two remaining alternatives, one apparently undiscoverable – even "in principle" – and the other easily discoverable and in fact long ago discovered:
  • If God, in whatever form, is not to be located within the bounds of creation, the alternative (assuming the idea of "location" has any meaning in relation to a putative omnipresence) is, of course, outside the created realm.  Now, I don't know what kind of grant funds Mr.Dawkins could drum out of Parliament (I know he's a slick talker), but a research proposal to search for an immaterial, insubstantial being, apparently of infinite dimensions, beyond the realm of creation and outside the bounds of the physical laws, presumably employing for the search transcendental detectors for non-energetic signals, would get a reception briefer than the proverbial snowball in Hell.  Get a grip, Richard.  Remember Abbott's "Flatland"?  Human science neither has nor can have any "principle" by which such a discovery could be made.  Claims to the contrary are just bravado.
  • Leaving fruitless searches behind, we look instead where God is known to reside:  In the heart (read "mind and glands") of Man.  The spiritual God exists for spiritual Man; metaphysical God exists in Man's metaphysics.  Of this there can be no doubt, and no research program is required.

Richard Dawkins, unlike most specialists in the natural sciences, enjoys great certainty in the correctness of his views.  Here, even when the subject is God (or gods), a subject on which people hold a thousand or more differing opinions, Dawkins has found truth, which he, in a fantastic overreaching, claims as provable scientific truth.  But, misplaced as Dawkins' claims of scientific certainty are, my more fundamental beef is with his overwrought anti-faith crusade, on which the book (and apparently much of his life) is based.  In my view, Dawkins' book title, "The God Delusion", is fair enough:  stories of gods do indeed seem to be delusions or, at least, Man's creations.  But from there Dawkins jumps to the conclusion that faith in that which cannot be proven, delusional or not, is an abomination and should be eradicated, and this conclusion has led him to the quixotic crusade against belief to which he has evidently dedicated himself.

Dawkins mentions, then dismisses mockingly, the idea that faith in the unproven and the improbable (such as in God, particularly) could serve any useful purpose, and he bases his argument on the claim that formal religions have done more harm than good throughout human history.  I tend to agree with Dawkins on this last point, though I'm less certain of it, and I think Dawkins ought to be less certain of it; it is after all impossible to measure whether the good outweighs the bad or vice-versa.  Dawkins' argument is simply the well-worn one:  that religious power structures have for thousands of years abused their "sheep", have taken their money, led them into wars, and clouded their minds with mumbo-jumbo in order to keep them fearful, thereby obedient, and thereby under tight control and contributing to the power and glory of the Church masters.  Dawkins here is rehashing history that is generally agreed upon, but his leap to the conclusion that belief in God or gods is averse to mental clarity or social progress is unsupported and illogical.

Tens of thousands of years ago, early human myth-makers invented gods for very good reasons:  to provide answers to unanswerable questions that the great advance in the human mind had brought to the fore:  Who are we?  Who made us?  Where are we going?  What is death?  Is there someone who rules all this?  They created mythologies to answer such questions, and to provide a continuity to human life that gave satisfaction in the face of the new contemplation of death that had not troubled their pre-human ancestors.  Early gods brought satisfying answers and a sense of community to tribes through laws and ritual.  As recently as the past two thousand years we have seen the development of the current, more personal God (by now, the god) of Western and Mid-Eastern civilizations; a God that comforts through personal prayer, gives hope of a better life to come for the oppressed, the sick, and the destitute, sets rules for life based on peace and love, and provides for believers a communal fellowship based on trust and mutual caring, in other words, a god that satisfies many of mankind's primal needs.  That's a lot to ask of a god, and who can dispute that these values are real and significantly positive for the practitioners?  Dawkins' argument that these values are diminished because the God that is the focus of the system is not "real" is meaningless, and demonstrates his lack of grasp of the real values that drive and support real people.  Of course this God is real!  As real as Mozart's Requiem and Beethoven's Ninth.  Like God, these summit works of the human spirit exist as they are called forth by practitioners.  And like these musical/spiritual experiences, the religious/spiritual experience of God continues to exist long after the proximate experience.   The Requiem, the Ninth, and God are all real and existing, requiring only man's participation to bring their reality into view.  They are real and meaningful in ways that matter, in ways that Dawkins hasn't grasped:  Really metaphysical.  Really transcendental.  Really psychological.  Really revered, and thus really existing for those who revere them.  Mr.Dawkins should ask, "Is the Abrahamic God real for me?"  If his answer is "no", so be it.  Who cares, really?  Let that be the end of his book.  The rest is meaningless.

Not faith, but two other aspects of religious practice, deserve the thrust of Dawkins' poison pen:  First, dogmatic certainty, (note the irony of Dawkins criticizing others for claiming unproved certainty) which leads to exclusion and even hatred of those outside the circle of believers.  This aspect of religion continues to lead to wars and violence, as it has for thousands of years.  The solution is simply to be less certain of our stance when it comes to questions of divinity.  After all, we're all just guessing.  Second, the religious power structure, that has – probably since the very beginning of organized religion – parasitized, abused, and simply stolen from their flock of believers.  (No need to delve into that sordid history yet one more time.)  The solution to the evil of "The Church" is to understand that faith can be better practiced without the frocked fathers.  Toss them out, the lot.  These aspects of religion indeed deserve Dawkins' scorn, but not faith, not belief, not prayer, not hope by the downtrodden for a better world beyond, and not the compassion that faith engenders.  Dawkins paints it all with his anti-religion brush, along the way getting all mixed up between the physical world that he understands to some degree and the metaphysical, psychological world that he does not understand, but where real gods reside.  Sorry, Richard, you won't be able to apply your scientific method to measuring the transcendental, and your claim that you can is pure hogswaddle.

I won't burden the reader with more about Dawkins' silly book.  The God Delusion is a book of bad pseudo-science, where a scientist by inadmissible claims for science has descended to the same level as the authors of the "creation-science" pursuasion that he rightly lambasts.  When it comes to understanding the meaning of God to humanity, it is Dawkins who is deluded.

© 2008 H. Paul Lillebo

BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment