Book review: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, published by Black Swan, 2006.

Richard Dawkins mounts a scathing attack on religion in this book, arguing that religious faith itself is the problem with religions. If it were not for faith, i.e., the willingness to believe things without proof or against the evidence, religious wars and all the cruel bigotry that religions display would not be possible.

After giving the usual arguments against the usual arguments for god’s existence, Dawkins turns to why religious beliefs come about. He suggests that it is a misfiring of certain other habits of thought which are helpful in early survival. He suggests that (i) dualism, (the belief that mind can exist separately to matter) and (ii) teleology (we attribute purposes to things) are built into human brains. Children are natural-born teleologists: clouds are for raining. In other words clouds have a purpose, or so children think.

Dawkins claim these two tendencies have a function from an evolutionary point of view. When a primitive person sees a lion or tiger, it’s much safer to assume that the tiger has an intention of eating you: it saves a lot of time compared to observing the tiger, discussing the fact that it has claws and teeth, and debating whether or not it intends to eat you. If you assume that certain things have minds and intend to do you damage you’ll survive better in the wild. “Children and primitive peoples impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.” (p.213). It’s not too much of jump from there to imaging a volcano god: the volcano has a mind and is deliberately showering rocks on us for a reason. If the volcano is intentionally showering me with hot rocks, then I’ll also believe it must have a mind.

It seems to me that attributing a mind and intentions to something like a tiger is useful for survival, and I can see how we than misapply the idea to a volcano, but why is there a survival value in assuming that the mind exists separately from the body? As far as I can see, I don’t need to believe that the volcanoes mind or the tiger’s mind exists separately to the volcano or the tiger. Dawkins doesn’t convince me on that one. Dawkins then goes on to (iii) religious belief involves the same chemical reactions in the brain as falling in love: people get a mental endorphin rush by falling in love with their god and experiencing the same feelings of rapture and wonder as a person in love. A natural phenomenon that has a procreative survival value (sticking by your mate long enough to rear a child) gets misapplied to a non-existent figure. The mind “misfires”. Then, (iv) Dawkins argues that once a variety of religious ideas spring up, some will survive because they cater to wishful thinking: e.g. the idea that our minds can survive out bodily death.

Dawkins suggests that atheists should start calling themselves ‘brights’ in order to that word in the same way that homosexuals have appropriated the gay (presumably to counteract prejudices that their lifestyle was sad or forlorn.) Somehow I can’t see atheists taking that idea up. Even if you’re convinced that atheism is a more intelligent position than theism, going around saying, in effect ‘we’re just smarter than everybody else’ by calling themselves “brights” is something I just can’t see catching on.

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