The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Bantam Press, $40. Reviewed by Vincent Gray.
In 1811 Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford University for writing a book entitled The Necessity for Atheism. Today we have the distinguished Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science writing a work in a similar vein and prospering from it. We have certainly made progress in anti-religious tolerance, at least in Great Britain. The question is, how far does such tolerance extend, and can the ‘God Delusion’ be explained?
When somebody asks me why I do not believe in God I always reply “because there is no evidence” I might get a reply, suggested by Dawkins, that there is no evidence that humans exist elsewhere in the universe, but it is still highly likely, given the probable large number of planets capable of hosting our own existence. So why do I not think God to be just as probable? Because it is easy to understand how humans could develop elsewhere but there is no explanation of how a God could exist anywhere.
Dawkins does a fine hatchet job in ridiculing both the beliefs and the explanations for the mainly Christian God. Many of the ‘arguments’, even if accepted, fall down when the location or substance of God is incapable of being explained.
The Bible comes in for detailed dissection. He shows that a believer in the literal truth of the Bible has to contend with a recommendation for genocide (Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho), the stoning of adulterers, gang rape (Chapter 19, Judges) and discrimination against homosexuals and masturbators.
My take on Jesus has been influenced by the two alternative versions of the gospels proposed by Robert Graves in The Nazarene Gospel Restored and his novel King Jesus. But Dawkins goes further in pointing out that the gospels disagree as to where Jesus was born, that there was no census at the time postulated, and there is even doubt whether the Hebrew word that was translated as ‘virgin’ might really have meant only ‘maiden’. Luke is proud that Joseph was descended from David; there would not be much point in this if Joseph was not Jesus’ father.
Having tackled the absurd beliefs and practices of the worshippers of God, Dawkins makes a very poor effort in trying to explain why they do it.
It all seems to lie in his inability to ‘believe’ in social evolution, and his embrace of his own alternative ‘religion’, which turns out to be The Selfish Gene upon which his reputation has been made.
Nobody can deny that genes determine heredity, and that survival of the genes of effective individuals is the engine of evolution. But Dawkins cannot seem to move beyond individual survival or recognise that survival or prosperity of a society can often decide survival of individuals within it.
Dawkins is altogether silent on other substitutes for God. They include spiritualism, which was so popular with Victorian intellectuals when Darwin destroyed their faith, Stalinist communism, fascism and environmentalism, the fad currently sweeping the world. These substitute religions may sometimes be more dangerous for survival than beliefs in God. Many of us consider that Dawkins’ atheists’ charter would be preferable for our future survival, but we have yet a long way to go to prove it.