The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Our Teapot, which art in heaven

By Murrough O'Brien
Sunday 26 November 2006 01:00

You don't agree or disagree with Dawkins's attempted refutation of theism; you cheer or you boo. That I must give a howling boo to much of The God Delusion is a recommendation. Again and again, it forces the reader to ardent thought. According to Dawkins, agnosticism is out; religion is true or it's false. If false, then it is the duty of any one with an intellectual conscience to smack its muzzle wherever it protrudes. This big, colourful book is mostly tendentious tosh, but it will stay with you. Whether it will, as its author avowedly hopes, "convert" anyone whose posterior is not firmly spliced by a fence, is another question.

Dawkins wastes a lot of space, and his readers' time, flogging the corpses of sacred cows. He slices through the various arguments for God sharply enough, but then they were never intended to be more than provisional: basic belief was a given. Despite his pious promise not to attack soft targets, that is precisely what he does, at some length. American evangelicalism, which for some reason he regards as the Christian norm, gets a relentless beating. No real psychological benefit is allowed for religion. Never mind philanthropy, repentance itself is discounted: on planet Dawkins, if murderers become saints, that has nothing to do with religion. Religious rapture, he maintains, has anatomical causes (as if that refuted anything). Dawkins rightly calls to task those Christians who would claim Einstein or Hawking for the theist cause, so how on earth can he himself invoke Dostoevsky in the atheist one?

Dawkins is also adept at looking the other way: no, Hitler probably wasn't an atheist, but he was hugely influenced by Dawkins's idol, Darwin, as was Stalin. Then there's the enormous amount he takes for granted. "For the umpteenth time," he wails, "natural selection is the very opposite of a chance process." For the umpteenth time, explain.

Some of his arguments are old atheistic chestnuts, and how merrily they crack in the roasting pan. The palm for outrageous question-begging goes to the Who Made God "argument". Dawkins squirts this sachet of puerile pap (most of us had outgrown it before hitting double figures) over the whole book, to inadvertently comic effect. He writes: "The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer." The short response to that is a simple "why?" The long one goes something like this: the question "Who made God?"only makes sense if one assumes that the Divine nature is subject to a kind of inverted evolutionary process by which the complex is preceded by the still more complex, but why on earth should we assume this? Why should God be subject to any version of a biological theorem? Why not the laws of physics, or of chemistry?

Dawkins also can't resist whipping out Russell's Teapot Paradigm. To explain: we cannot definitively prove that a teapot is not at this moment orbiting the earth but the balance of probability weighs against it. For teapot, read (of course) God. Oh dear. The analogy fails spectacularly because it's predicated on the fallacy of "all things being equal", that "all things being equal" we should have no reason to suppose that a God existed. But all things aren't equal: to think otherwise is to indulge in counterfactuality. To put it another way, the "delusion" of God is here opposed by the illusion of a human history devoid of religion. The fact is that a belief in transcendent powers of one sort or another is, so far as we can tell, as old as humanity, and has been upheld by some of its greatest minds. So no, a teapot won't do really. Some otherwise intelligent people seriously believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare and, were all things equal, they would have a case. But, again, all things that matter remain obstinately unequal: you've got to explain why it isn't Shakespeare before you attempt to prove why it is the earl of Oxford. An old tradition may be false, but in your way it lies.

So Russell's Teapot is no more than a cute version of the idea that the burden of proof rests with the believer, not with the sceptic. It's a fair point. But equally fair is the believer's retort that the burden of self-proof rests with the greenhorn, not with the veteran. In the history of human thought, neo-Darwinian atheism is the new kid on the block and, if this book is anything to go by, it has yet to prove itself to the 'hood.

As a critic of faith, Dawkins is thus pretty lame; as the bard of materialist myth, his only rival is Philip Pullman. Correctly perceiving that the tenacity of religious belief is hard to explain in terms of natural selection, he comes up with two theories. The comparatively uninspired one is that religion is perpetuated by children imbibing the false with the true from their parents' teaching; the other, closely allied to the first but much more interesting, is that religion represents a "misfiring" of essentially sound evolutionary instincts.

He takes the example of moths flying into candle flame; not a particularly sound instinct for survival evinced there, you would think. But as Dawkins tells us, moths are used to steering themselves by moonlight, and that they do perfectly well. Candlelight, being more intense than moonlight, fatally distracts them. Already, as you can see, this example is starting to look more like an analogy, but Dawkins is a mythologist, so why worry? The whole theory loses its charm somewhat as you read of pity and compassion also being "misfirings" of the sexual instinct. His famously selfish genes get an outing, as do their cultural cousins, memes. There's something dark and rich and wonderful in the idea that at any moment one's limbs are being jerked into motion by microscopic strings of DNA, puppeteered by the spectres of a false cultural consensus. I wish he could see that, far from destroying the pantheon, he has enriched it; that the One God now has two tiny angels to assist him.

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