The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins


Four stars, read in August 2016.

This was exactly what I was hoping it would be.

I started calling myself an atheist a few years ago, but I hadn’t yet read any of the oeuvre, though I’ve been vaguely meaning to. This ended up being a good first choice, since Dawkins wrote it with the explicit intent to persuade people, though in some cases the point felt a bit belabored because I did already know/agree with what he was talking about. I appreciated the background, though.

I don’t know much about Dawkins, but I heard enough of the Skepchick situation a few years ago that my general impression is not favorable. I was surprised to see him specifically mention feminism in The God Delusion, and although he sounded maybe slightly condescending at first, he apparently intended the reference to be a positive one; if nothing else, he didn’t say anything offensive. I’m suspicious, but I guess holding out on a solid opinion until I read more of his work.

This book is a pretty comprehensive overview of atheism, so it covers a lot of ground. There’s a good section on the arguments for God’s existence, which I really enjoy the way religious people like those jokes about different denominations that I used to always get in my email. My favorite is Pascal’s wager, the one that says we should believe in God just to be safe. Because, as Dawkins points out and as I have always thought should be incredibly obvious, Pascal’s wager could only be an argument for feigning belief in God. You can’t force belief; you can want to believe something, but that doesn’t make you actually believe it. And any god that would be fooled by feigned belief would not be a real god.

But for me, the most fascinating parts were the explorations of the roots of religion, the theories on why it exists, why it persists, what Darwinian advantage it provides. How does religion survive natural selection, which usually culls such evolutionarily wasteful behaviors? This is such a compelling question to me. (Although really, it could just be that human civilization hasn’t been around long enough for natural selection to have dealt with it, right?—because evolution happens over millions of years. But this is the way it’s approached in the book.)

Dawkins gave the example of a peacock, with that tail which obviously does nothing to help the bird survive. What it does, though, is help the genes that distinguish one peacock over another. The more extravagant the tail, the more attractive that male peacock is to females (apparently), so his genes are the ones to propagate, so the tail carries on to the next generation. Is it possible that religion works in a similar way?

The possibility I find most intriguing is that of religion as a byproduct of something else, like the way moths fly into flames. Essentially, moths use moonlight and starlight to navigate according to the angle at which those rays hit their eyes. These rays are at optical infinity, a concept that’s not totally clear to me, but basically it means the light rays are parallel, and light from a candle flame is not. So when a moth sees the light from a flame and tries to use it the way it uses moonlight or starlight, “a nervous system applying a 30-degree (or any acute angle) rule of thumb to a nearby candle, as though it were the moon at optical infinity, will steer the moth, via a spiral trajectory, into the flame.” We never notice all the times moths aren’t flying into flames, so we only see what looks like a completely irrational behavior.

So if religion is a byproduct, what could it be the byproduct of? “What is the primitively advantageous trait that sometimes misfires to generate religion?” This is a fascinating question to consider. One possible hypothesis:

More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations . . . not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong.

Computers do exactly what they’re told, whether the instructions are good or bad. This is what makes them work, but it’s also what makes them susceptible to viruses. Something similar can happen when we pass on this information from one generation to the next, because children’s brains—like computers—have no way of distinguishing between good information and bad.

Dawkins shares a story he was told by a preacher as a child, about soldiers whose commanding officer gave the order to march and was then distracted, so that the soldiers just kept marching into an oncoming train. “Nations whose infantrymen act on their own initiative rather than following orders will tend to lose wars. From the nation’s point of view, this remains a good rule of thumb even if it sometimes leads to individual disasters. Soldiers are drilled to become as much like automata, or computers, as possible.”

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them . . . But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable byproduct is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses . . . The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience. The same goes for propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature.

Dawkins emphasizes that this is only an example of the kind of thing we could be talking about, and not necessarily the actual answer. It’s certainly a plausible possibility, though, especially when I think about the compounding effect of millennia of human civilization—being taught something by your parents is a strong enough influence, and then if your neighbors and communities are all teaching the same thing, and if it goes on for generations and generations—but also, significantly, the way people seem to accept without questioning any information that fits with what they already believe, and ignore everything that doesn’t.

Now it’s time to wonder what might be “the Darwinian counterpart of the usefulness of the moths’ light compass. Why might natural selection have favoured dualism and teleology in the brains of our ancestors and their children?” Dualism is the perception of the mind and body as separate entities, and teleology is the explanation of something by the effect of it, the purpose it serves, rather than the cause of it—the way children think of clouds as “for raining,” and rocks as “for animals to scratch themselves when they’re itchy” (two adorable examples that come from the book).

Dawkins approaches this question using Daniel Dennett’s concept of intentionality, suggesting that “predicting the behaviour of entities in our world is important for our survival.” (And I have to tell you, at this point in the post I’m starting to get bogged down by the enormity of it, so if it sounds a little stilted from now on it’s because I’m basically transcribing my notes with minimal fleshing out.)

The physical stance is slow; by the time we’ve calculated the physics of an object’s moving parts, we’re too late.

The design stance is helpful for an object that’s actually designed, like a washing machine; we know what the object was designed to do without having to calculate the functions of all its parts on our own.

The intentional stance is seeing not just an object but an agent that has intentions that guide its actions. Evolutionarily, being able to grasp someone’s intent is a matter of safety. If you’re facing a tiger, you don’t have time to work out the dangers based on the tiger’s physiology, etc. You see that the tiger’s intent is to eat you.

My thought while reading this was that the intentional stance probably explains why people are so quick to assume the worst about others: Our brains evolved to intuit others’ intentions and for higher level interactions we have to specifically choose to override that instinctual assumption, which people don’t generally do. Even if there are dozens of other reasons why someone could have done what they just did, you assume that you know the reason, and that’s the one you react to.

J. Anderson Thomson, from his perspective as an evolutionary psychiatrist, points me to an additional reason, the psychological bias that we all have towards personifying inanimate objects as agents. As Thomson says, we are more inclined to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. A false positive might be a waste of time. A false negative could be fatal. In a letter to me, he suggested that, in our ancestral past, our greatest challenge in our environment came from each other. ‘The legacy of that is the default assumption, often fear, of human intention. We have a great deal of difficulty seeing anything other than human causation.’ We naturally generalized that to divine intention.

The other theme I especially appreciated was Dawkins’ examination of religion and morality, particularly the question of whether morality comes from religion (as most religious people believe it does). This is something many atheists find amusing, because really, it seems backward: If you need someone to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, how does that make you a moral person? Aren’t you actually more moral if you’ve come to those conclusions on your own? And if your motivation is fear—of punishment—or self-interest—wanting to get to heaven—then are you really superior to someone who does the right thing simply because they believe it is right?

I have serious problems with organized religion, and Dawkins addresses those problems as well. Atheists are often asked, anytime they discuss religion with religious people: Why be hostile to something you don’t believe in? Completely aside from the fact that atheists are not necessarily hostile to religion, I think there are countless damn good reasons to be.

“One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” Not just neutral, but an actual positive. I believe in the exact opposite, in learning as much as we can and always trying to know more about the world.

Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness—its deliberate and cultivated pandering to humanity’s natural tendency to favour in-groups and shun out-groups—would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world.

This is also how I feel. Even if that divisiveness and judgmentalism were the only inherently bad thing about religion, I would think it does more harm than good.

But there’s also the fact of religious terrorism, and Dawkins points out that “moderation” in faith is what fosters that fanaticism. The only difference between fanatics and non-extremists is that non-extremist religious people actually don’t believe the full, complete version of their religion. They don’t follow it to the extent that the religion exists. The major religious texts that I know of—like the Bible—contain explicitly violent beliefs. If Christians (for example) are reasonable modern people, it’s because they don’t fully believe the scriptures they claim to believe. If they did, they would be just as willing to kill, because that is what the scriptures say. There is some reasonable part of them that exists outside those doctrines, a part that says nope, we don’t kill people for being “sinners.”

The idea that religious faith inherently deserves grave respect—on what basis do we decide that religious terrorists don’t also deserve that respect? It can’t just be because their actions affected someone else, because look at lesbian wedding cakes, employer health care and birth control, etc. We’re fine with using your religion to discriminate against others, to foster a culture of sexually assaulting children, to exert actual control over people’s (women’s) bodies and reproductive systems—the only religious damage we won’t accept is mass murder. We will literally “respect” anything up to murder in the name of religion.

Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to ‘respect’ it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and ‘community leaders’ (who elected them, by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the ‘true’ faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert?

My last note (finally!) was about the indoctrination inherent to religion, and I thought this was a particularly useful point:

Our society, including the non-religious sector, has accepted the preposterous idea that it is normal and right to indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them—’Catholic child,’ ‘Protestant child,’ ‘Jewish child,’ ‘Muslim child,’ etc.—although no comparable labels: no conservative children, no liberal children, no Republican children, no Democrat children.

People generally feel almost as strongly about their political beliefs as they do about their religious beliefs—probably because for many people, they’re tied up together. But you just never hear someone describe a child as belonging to a political party, because that would be absurd. Children aren’t old enough to have formed opinions about those things, to have seen the way the world works, to know what a political stance even means. And is religion any less complicated or significant? Knowing, as religious people do, that their faith is just that—faith, a thing specifically not based on actual knowledge—how can they teach their children that faith is fact? I have to wonder how many people would actively choose religion as adults, if they hadn’t been indoctrinated into it by default in their childhoods.

In the end, Dawkins quotes Bertrand Russell to explain how atheists feel about their atheism. “Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour all their own.” Though I haven’t read Bertrand Russell (yet—but I recently bought a copy of Why I Am Not a Christian from my favorite bookstore in Denton), I think this is a perfect description. To me, religion seems to be largely about keeping the real world out, making your life small and comfortable. You believe certain things, regardless of whether or not those things are true, and you try to make reality fit the parameters that you’ve already decided on. Opening windows can be uncomfortable, but the thing is that even if it’s cold at first, in the real world, seasons change. It will warm up, it will get cold again, because that’s life. Refusing to look outside doesn’t make the outside not exist.

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