The God Delusion is Dawkins’ evangelistic primer on modern atheism, making the case for atheism as rational, moral, brave, and fulfilling. I accept this basic case. There are many good arguments which justify atheism (but many that justify theism, too). Certainly, atheists can be moral; indeed, atheists have a much lower divorce rate and crime rate than religious people. Atheism is surely one of the bravest public stances to take, especially in the United States where atheists are trusted and accepted far less than even Muslims and homosexuals. And despite Neitzchian arguments for the absurdity of life without God, millions of atheists report happiness, meaning, and fulfillment, and I have no reason to disbelieve them.
Writing a beginner’s book, Dawkins necessarily spends many words debunking common myths and presenting atheism on its own terms. It takes him 9 pages to explain that Einstein was not a theist, several more to explain that the U.S. founding fathers were mostly deists and atheists, and still more to define agnosticism vs. atheism. His 8 pages on the privledge of religion in U.S. society are more interesting (one can get away with hate speech by calling it freedom of religion, one is allowed to challenge any stance but a religious stance, etc.).
Like most theistic apologetic books for the layman, The God Delusion compares the worst of its enemy (theism) to the best of its cause (atheism). Dawkins does not mention the serious theist free thinkers and philosophers, genuinely selfless theist servants of humanity, the common theist who gives and loves as she can, etc. He does spend a lot of time on the most irrational and absurd (and unfortunately, the most popular) claims of general theism – which argues against the beliefs of more than a billion people, but in response to serious theist thinkers he mostly attacks straw men.
Dawkins makes some good points about NOMA, the idea that the lack of evidence for God is excused because science cannot adjudicate spiritual matters. A universe with a God would look very different than a universe without a God, and indeed this is what theists claim. Thus, science should have something to say about the likelihood of God’s existence, just as it has something to say about the likelihood of there being unicorns or a magical teapot orbiting earth. And of course, when scientific evidence supports theist claims, theists build it up like a holy grail. But philosophy, of course, has even greater access to questions of metaphysics (via a partnership with science and other disciplines of course), and Dawkins is no philosopher.
This is quite clear in chapter 3, in which Dawkins pretends to debunk all major philosophical arguments for God’s existence that have been offered throughout history in 33 pages. The chapter is as effective as it sounds.
His primary argument against God is not, surprisingly, the Problem of Evil, but rather what he calls the Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. Hoyle argued that the likelihood of [insert complex organic system here] forming by chance is akin to the likelihood of a windstorm blowing through a scrapyard and building a Boeing 747. Dawkins rightly points out that natural selection is not pure chance at all; but heavily guided design of a natural sort. He goes on to say that whatever the improbability of, say, life coming from non-life, it is vastly more improbable that a living being of infinite complexity such as God should arise from nothing. God is the ‘Ultimate’ Boeing 747. This is a great way of demonstrating the inconsistency of intelligent design and irreducible complexity arguments, but again Dawkins attacks straw men: while naturalists do claim that life came from non life, theists do not claim that God came from nothing. Rather, they claim that God has always existed. As paradoxical as this sounds, it is perhaps no less paradoxical than the recent findings of quantum mechanics, and thousands of pages of philosophy have been written to support it (and deflate it). Furthermore, such infinite material complexity (i.e. if God is material) is indeed the most improbable thing ever conceived, but again Dawkins attacks a straw man; theists have not claimed that God is a material entity.
Dawkins’ vehement rhetorical attacks have all the intellectual substance of George W. Bush. His arguments of sarcasm and anecdote against straw men are not convincing. But despite my objections to The God Delusion, I am grateful to atheist evangelists like Dawkins. They challenge blindly held ideas and promote free thought.
Midway through the book, Dawkins plays to his strengths: clarifying evolutionary processes, extolling their beauty, and using them to explain phenomenon like the birth and mutating spread of religion. Then he returns to his vehement attack on religion, religious society, religious education, religious morality, and more. He makes many good points, but they are so jumbled in rhetoric and volume that I doubt disentangling the mess would be worth the energy it would require.
I’ll conclude with an extended quote which illustrates the timbre of Dawkins’ book: snarky and humorous and without any real argumentative continuity:
All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them. [Anthropologist Pascal] Boyer did research on the Fang people of Cameroon, who believe “that witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches some- times assemble for huge banquets, where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”
[Compare this with]:
• In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
• The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.
• The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
• Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.
• If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
• If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
• The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
• Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.