The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins first appeared in 2006, the paperback including corrections and clarifications in 2007. Dawkins starts from the fact that the world changed in the mid-nineteenth century when Charles Darwin finally published his theory of evolution. He reminds us also that Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century brought about a similar paradigm shift by postulating that the earth was not the centre of the universe or even the solar system. It may also be relevant to remind ourselves that some of these facts had been known to ancient Greek philosophers (Aristarchus) and that the knowledge had been subsequently suppressed by various religions, contrary to evidence, such as the appearance of ships´ masts over the horizon at sea. It is this denial of evidence whenever it challenges dogma that is the central theme of The God Delusion.

Richard Dawkins charts the process whereby scientific evidence has continually rolled back the previously dominant supernatural explanations of reality as we perceive it, thus calling in question the basis of continued allegiance to any form of religion. He goes as a far as describing a child´s indoctrination into a faith by parents as a form of abuse. The arguments will not convince or convert the religious. They were clearly never intended to do so.

There is one word that he uses many times and it is «evidence». As a scientist, Richard Dawkins maintains a rational approach to the physical world. Science explains nothing, by the way. The question «why» is perhaps inadmissible, since it really represents an amalgam of the answers to how, when, how much or what. And these questions must be answered before anything amounting to explanation can be adopted. Dawkins´s position is little more than a restatement of Kant´s Categorical Imperative, which is almost three hundred years old. Dawkins´s opponents, however, apparently regard him as a modern radical. He reminds us that science creates intellectual models that fit with and relate to the physical world. In reality, whatever that might be, an electron, for instance, is probably nothing like what we imagine it to be. But is our model of what we understand an electron to be fits the phenomena of its effects, and if our expectations of its presence correspond to what we observe, then we have something that is workable, even though, ultimately, we can never know if it is literally accurate.

And this is Richard Dawkins´s main problem with religion. To believe something merely because it is written in a book that someone else has previously labelled sacred is as anti-scientific as denying gravity. It is, as Dawkins points out, irrational to the point of being disingenuous and disingenuity, in most religions, would be condemned.

A major argument used by Richard Dawkins is, of course, that these religious texts are only ever interpreted or adopted selectively. He quotes numerous examples from the Bible of divinely handed-down rules that are broken in every self-proclaimed Christian society. If particular aspects of these texts have been selected with other ignored, and if that selection is dictated by the cultural, moral or intellectual mores of a particular place and time, then what is it that still makes these texts both authoritative or divine, let alone literally true?

More than a decade after The God Dilemma appeared, it seems that its reading is if anything more essential now than then. The political presence of the populist right, often associated with the same ideological blinkers and rejection of evidence that characterises the fundamentalists of religion, had in 2006 only a fraction of its current influence. There is thus no more important time to remind ourselves of Dawkins´s approach – even if we might disagree with his final destination – that evidence is all important and cannot be either discounted or denied. In an age where the powerful say one thing today and deny it tomorrow or insert a word like «not» after the event to change all sense, then it is the responsibility of all people who respect evidence or eschew anything that ignores it.

Richard Dawkins also reminds us that human beings collectively still know very little about anything. The expanding universe – that bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to any universe described in any sacred text – poses perhaps the greatest question. Where is the matter that might drive such expansion? The question currently cannot be answered. And it would be no answer, as Dawkins points out, to lump this question, along with all the others we currently find hard, into a box, call it something supernatural, and then consider that matter solved, let alone explained. Such intellectual laziness would do nothing to enhance our paucity of knowledge. What The God Delusion also illustrates, however, is that those who espouse this intellectual laziness are often apparently more confident than those who refuse to commit because of a lack of evidence.

The moral of it all, and it is more important now than in 2006, is beware of all counsel that comes without proof, without ability to demonstrate or illustrate. And the only acceptable proof is a weight of evidence that cuts across opinion and is demonstrable. And, importantly, distrust anything that claims there is no need for such authentication.

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