The God Delusion – the definitive review

I get irritated when people throw the word ‘definitive’ around. So ignore the headline which is – in the words of Lady Bracknell – altogether too sensational.

But in a recent post of mine that seems to have found its way into the side bar of recent comments for a surprisingly long period of time, Ingolf has drawn our attention to what I think is a bloody marvellous review of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion

I began talking about Dawkins book by linking to another negative review of Dawkins by Terry Eagleton. I thought Eagleton’s review hit various nails on the head but of course I agreed with it. Not surprisingly, it’s stridency made a very poor impression – as stridency generally does – on those who are not already converted. Now H. Allen Orr argues the same line, in greater detail, with greater lucidity but from the same essential perspective.

Here are some of the most telling extracts but read the whole thing, and go have a read around some of Orr’s other articles and scraps in the NYRB.

Dawkins’s first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), was a smash hit. . . . Best of all, Dawkins laid out this biology¢â¬âsome of it truly subtle¢â¬âin stunningly lucid prose. (It is, in my view, the best work of popular science ever written.) . . .

The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. . . .

You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

Instead, Dawkins has written a book that’s distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. Dawkins’s intellectual universe appears populated by the likes of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Carl Sagan, the science popularizer, both of whom he cites repeatedly. This is a different group from thinkers like William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein¢â¬âboth of whom lived after Darwin, both of whom struggled with the question of belief, and both of whom had more to say about religion than Adams and Sagan. . . .

Exercises in double standards also plague Dawkins’s discussion of the idea that religion encourages good behavior. Dawkins cites a litany of statistics revealing that red states (with many conservative Christians) suffer higher rates of crime, including murder, burglary, and theft, than do blue states. But now consider his response to the suggestion that the atheist Stalin and his comrades committed crimes of breathtaking magnitude: “We are not in the business,” he says, “of counting evils heads, compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity.” We’re not? We were forty-five pages ago. . . .

C.S. Lewis, in perhaps the most widely read work of popular theology ever written, Mere Christianity, conceded the possibility. Emphasizing that the Gospel was preached to the weak and poor, Lewis argued that troubled souls might well be drawn disproportionately to the Church. As he also emphasized, the appropriate contrast should not, therefore, be between the behavior of churchgoers and nongoers but between the behavior of people before and after they find religion. Under Dawkins’s alternative logic, the fact that those sitting in a doctor’s office are on average sicker than those not sitting there must stand as an indictment of medicine. (There’s no evidence in The God Delusion that Dawkins is familiar with Lewis’s argument.)

In any case, there are some grounds for questioning whether Dawkins’s project is even meaningful. As T.S. Eliot famously observed, to ask whether we would have been better off without religion is to ask a question whose answer is unknowable. Our entire history has been so thoroughly shaped by Judeo-Christian tradition that we cannot imagine the present state of society in its absence. But there’s a deeper point and one that Dawkins also fails to see. Even what we mean by the world being better off is conditioned by our religious inheritance. What most of us in the West mean¢â¬âand what Dawkins . . . means¢â¬âis a world in which individuals are free to express their thoughts and passions and to develop their talents so long as these do not infringe on the ability of others to do so. But this is assuredly not what a better world would look like to, say, a traditional Confucian culture. There, a new and improved world might be one that allows the readier suppression of individual differences and aspirations. The point is that all judgements, including ethical ones, begin somewhere and ours, often enough, begin in Judaism and Christianity. Dawkins should, of course, be applauded for his attempt to picture a better world. But intellectual honesty demands acknowledging that his moral vision derives, to a considerable extent, from the tradition he so despises. . .

The reason Dawkins thinks he has something to say about God is, of course, clear: he is an evolutionary biologist. And as we all know, Darwinism had an early and noisy run-in with religion. What Dawkins never seems to consider is that this incident might have been, in an important way, local and contingent. It might, in other words, have turned out differently, at least in principle. Believers could, for instance, have uttered a collective “So what?” to evolution. Indeed some did. The angry reaction of many religious leaders to Darwinism had complex causes, involving equal parts ignorance, fear, politics, and the sheer shock of the new. The point is that it’s far from certain that there is an ineluctable conflict between the acceptance of evolutionary mechanism and the belief that, as William James putit, “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe.” Instead, we and Dawkins might simply be living through the reverberations of an interesting, but not especially fundamental, bit of Victorian history. If so, evolutionary biology would enjoy no particularly exalted pulpit from which to preach about religion.

None of this is to say that evolutionary biology cannot inform our view of religion. It can and does. At the very least it insists that the Lord works in mysterious ways. More generally, it demands rejection of anything approaching biblical literalism. There are facts of nature¢â¬âincluding that human beings evolved on the African savanna several million years ago¢â¬âand these facts are not subject to negotiation. But Dawkins’s book goes far beyond this. The reason, of course, is that The God Delusion is not itself a work of either evolutionary biology in particular or science in general. None of Dawkins’s loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It’s just Dawkins talking.

Finally a quote from Orr commenting on some earlier Dawkins attacks on religion.

When Dawkins attacked the “different dimensions” view of religion defended by Stephen Jay Gould and others, he assailed a variety of religious thinking that had already rejected miracles as literal events. Indeed he attacked a body of thought that holds that religion must surrender all pretense of describing the physical world. Now I don’t know if this different dimensions view is entirely defensible¢â¬â and I certainly don’t claim it’s common among the faithful¢â¬âbut I do maintain that Dawkins’s attacks on it were less than cogent. In the end, we scientists must guard against our own kind of literalism: it is one thing to ridicule religious persons for believing in virgin births; it is another to continue snickering after they’ve said they don’t hold that belief literally.

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24 Responses to The God Delusion – the definitive review

  1. Patrick says:

    That does sound, as you say, very lucid. Impressively so.

    I strongly recommend Wittgenstein to anyone interested in the idea of religious belief – there is at least one book on the subject. His approach is especially interesting on the meaning of religious propositions, somewhat along the lines sketched out in your final excerpt.

  2. Robert says:

    It’s strange how you come to the decision of whether or not to devote time to a book – that time of decision-making delicious in itself.

    As I first came across it, Dawkin’s The God Delusion was promised us (potential readers) something along the lines that it would change our views of religion – in Dawkin’s favour – forever.

    Big call; comes at once of course with invoked interest and cynicism alike.

    Having read others’ reviews now, including the excellent one above, it’s clear Dawkins hasn’t delivered on that promise. The question remains of course whether it’s worth chewing through a person’s problems (the title itself suggests a problematic) to find expected nuggets of value. But overall, and unusually, not delivering upon his promise as evident in others’ disappointments seems enough to move further along the shelf.

  3. Rafe says:

    As a robust agnostic I am inclined to pass by on the other side of the road from books on religion and leave them bleeding in the gutter for some better Samaritan to look after (or maybe for a really bad Samaritan to cross the road to see if there is anything left to steal).

    What I want to know before crossing the road (or putting my hand into my pocket) is what difference it makes whether you accept the arguments for or against the existence of god or some other kind of supernatural being that may or may not have some relationship to …..what?

    Of course religions have been the primary social institutions that transmitted ideas about the way the world is and the way that we should live. And gods or supreme deities are central to most religions. But science (and philosophical cosmology ) have taken over the task of talking about the way the world is, not that this means that the positivist/empiricist versions of science have the last word on the matter because metaphysics will never be eliminated by positivism (it is another metaphysical doctrine itself).

    So when we are talking about the way the world is, we are talking about the most robust or durable ideas about science and metaphysics that we have at our disposal. It is not apparent that talk about supernatural deities adds anything more helpful than picturesque language and appealing metaphors in this context. (Appealing to people who want to keep the idea of deities in the game, I mean. Others are happy to consign them to the bench or drop them from the list entirely).

    Moving on to the way we are supposed to live, it is again hard to see how the existence or nonexistence of the alleged deity makes any difference. Given the is/ought situation (the dualism of facts and values) it remains our problem how we live and how we choose our moral principles and I don’t see how the deity, even if proved to exist , would assist in working out how to live our lives and relate to other people or form positions on policy issues, great and small.

    And remember, how ever many wickets Warnie takes, offspinners are the gentlemen of the game!

  4. Robert says:

    Perhaps ‘the difference it makes’, Rafe, is apparent only after it’s been looked at. If it made a difference with you, wouldn’t that then change everything?

    This book promised more than that. (Bearing in mind some books deliver on the promise of changing your life). It was the possibility of having my faith, earned the hard way and with the claim of being profound as we all can make, uprooted, slammed on its head, and me reinvented by a whole new paradigm which tugged deliciously at me.

    For reasons above, and like you say, watched the cricket instead.

  5. Janice says:

    Rafe, does “robust agnostic” mean the same thing as “strong agnostic”? If so, would you tell me what are your grounds for believing that it will always be impossible to know whether or not God exists?

    I ask because there is also “weak agnosticism”. Weak agnostics are those who don’t believe it is possible, now, to know whether or not God exists but believe that it may one day be possible to know.

  6. Bannerman says:

    B-man has listened to two recordings of Dawkins speaking on and from his book, “The God Delusion”, and finds the man to be intellectually brilliant, insightful and over-whelmingly opinionated in his belief…..or should that be unbelief? The man strikes chords like clock towers ring chimes. The reference he makes to a moth and a candleflame debunking anti-evolutionary arguments is sublime. Indeed, the God thing is definitely the most perfect delusion ever enacted upon humanity, by humanity. What a pathetic species we are.

  7. I haven’t read Dawkins book. I may yet do so, although my pile of “must read that” books is getting rather large – too much time on the internet perhaps (although that’s where I’ve found out about most of the books I feel I should read).

    I note your comment about how stridency usually makes a poor impression on those not already converted. Without having read the book, but having heard many people speak about it, this makes me wonder whether that is one of the main aims of the author. Stridency may not convert anyone, but it can fire up on the converts, attract controversy and generally make people feel like their having an impact. One could say the same about fundamentalist Christians and Muslims or deep green environmental zealots. The fire and brimstone is what keeps people fired up, and I get the sense that Dawkins feels that athiests haven’t been fired up enough about putting their case. Thoughtful, well reasoned arguments which acknowledge that other perspectives can have some validity, even while ultimately dismissing them as flawed, rarely attract wide attention.

  8. Rafe says:

    Thanks for confusing me Janice! Now what did I mean when i wrote “strong agnostic”?

    I think I meant that there are really good arguments for not being dogmatic enough to call myself an atheist.

    That probably means that I am also a bit feeble about making a distinction beween strong and weak agnosticism. I suppose the weak agnostic thinks that refinements in theories and experimental technology may render previously “supernatural” entities observable in some sense, like the array of subatomic particles that we now have to add to the list of the positrons, neutrons and electrons of the nice homely solar system atom that I used to love so much. Still I can’t work out how anything that might be discovered by any means that I can envisage would count as a god in the theological sense.

    Andrew Bartlett, or should I say Bartlewheet, has raised an issue that I almost went on about last time. No good deed should go unpunished and so I suppose you are all about to be punished for Andrew’s good deed.

    Stated in summary form: If we want to make the world safe for children and other little green things, then the greatest impediment is fanaticism. That is, fanaticism in all forms, not just religious fanaticism.

    The root of fanaticism, at least for people who read, write and chatter about things, is the doctrine of justified true belief (justificationism for short). This generally has religous roots but the same structure of thought was taken up by western epistemology and the philosophy of science. So we have justificationist epistemologies, justificationist theories of rationality and justificationist theories of science. And so the spirit of justificationism is perpetuated, especially in schools of philosophy, even after people like Dawkins have given up on religion and theology.

    Hence the need for non-justificationist theories of knowledge, rationality and science. However justificationism is a tenacious weed and it (or at least the people who carry it) vigorously resist efforts to replace it with a different modus operandi. I think there was a book or a movie about mind parasites which were adept in blocking messages to the brain that might emancipate the person from the influence of the parasite. It may be that justificationism functions in the same way.

    Further, I suspect that people who think that fanaticism can be driven out just by stirring people up without having an antidote to the dogmatic condition are only entrenching the basic problem.

  9. Ingolf says:

    Nicely put, Rafe. I particularly liked your last paragraph.

    I don’t have much to add, for the moment at least, save for the stray thought that the experience of fanaticism may bear more than a little comparison to addiction. Certainly, the difficulties of withdrawal from the high it provides appear no less difficult.

  10. Chris Lloyd says:

    If atheism means rejecting categorically that there is any kind of God then I suspect few would be atheists. The concept of God is so puzzling that one cannot understand it, which is a precondition to rejecting it. If atheism means not believing in christ and the holy trinity then it is a much more common and reasonable position – logically rather similar to not believing in Santa Claus.

    It’s typical of the disingenous games that the god-botherers play that they shift the philosophical goal posts whenever you try to pin them down. Discussions about the impossiblity of the flood morph into the complexities epistemology and thence into big-bang geometry. The plain fact is that Jehovah is a delusion and we give oxygen to Hillsong zealots by engaging in a serous discussion.

    I suspect that Dawkins book will not convince anyone. But it sounds like the kind of stridently superior rant that may appeal to me. And finally, I liked your comments (3) Rafe. The only part I disagree with is “It is “

  11. derrida derider says:

    “The concept of God is so puzzling that one cannot understand it …”
    Indeed, that’s part of the problem – it can be anything you want it to be, which makes the sort of equivocation that many believers indulge in easy (Chris is quite right about this nasty habit of theirs).

    And yeah, I can’t understand why people go for all this crap. A cursory reflection on the thousands of religions throughout the world shows they can’t all be right, and its likely they are all wrong.

    Why are people so willing to subsume their commonsense for this nonsense? I’ll read Dawkins’ book because he attempts to provide a testable, empiric answer to that.

  12. derrida derider says:

    Oh, and that excerpt from Orr’s review shows he doesn’t understand that Darwinism dealt a body blow not just to biblical literalism (as Orr said, something that literate churchmen had long rejected, though it was good enough to keep the plebeians in their place), but also to the Argument from Design – something which is the main emotional, as well as the last remaining intellectual, source of deism generally. This is something that was well understood by Darwin (its why he was reluctant to publish) and by Huxley and Wilberforce.

  13. Eagleton’s review is shameful and Orr’s little better. There is a breathtaking determination entirely to miss the point and to misunderstand and mis-state the arguments Dawkins makes. For example

    You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book

    Dawkins’ point is not to argue the merits of the enterpretations of the specific fairy stories of any particular religion. That would be to discuss the merits of the stitching on the Emperor’s new clothes. Or, as Sam Harris says in Letter to a Christian Nation,

    The history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion.

    Nevertheless is it entertaining to watch believers squirm and, in their inability to believe it possible they are mistaken, trot out yet again their tired old ptolemaically complex rationalisations for their delusions. As someone said,

    I contend that we are both atheists; I just believe in one fewer god than you. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours.

  14. Ingolf says:

    DD, I’m surprised you suggest that Orr’s views as expressed in that review shows that he:

    doesn’t understand that Darwinism dealt a body blow not just to biblical literalism (as Orr said, something that literate churchmen had long rejected, though it was good enough to keep the plebeians in their place), but also to the Argument from Design . . .

    On the contrary, from the little I’ve read by Orr, he actually spends a fair bit of time arguing strongly against any sort of argument from design. Either of these two articles provides a good taste of his rather merciless style when confronted with some of the more “sophisticated” arguments for interventionist design:

    As to the notion that the Argument from Design “is the main emotional, as well as the last remaining intellectual, source of deism generally”, this strikes me as far too unequivocal a statement. To quote Orr again:

    As it happens, the idea that Darwinism is yoked to atheism, though popular, is also wrong. Of the five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology–

  15. I want to invite you and your readers to join us in reading and discussing Dawkins “The God Delusion”

  16. Great piece. There are some similar thoughts on The God Delusion here.

  17. observa says:

    Don’t know why he even bothered now that all thinking people are no longer religious, but ‘spiritual’.

  18. John Greenfield says:


    I am soooo glad, you raised this. It is one of my galloping hobby horses. I wrote a first year history essay, which included a discussion of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (Suck on THAT weathergirl/wilson/gould), counter-culture LSD use in the 1960s etc. I was discussing the role that said use involed a “religious” experience. My Luvvie tutor (if she is reading this, I mean that with love as she was a fantastic tutor and an otherwise very generous assessor of my musings), crossed out “religious” and wrote “spiritual”. Quite wrong. I really did mean “religious”.

  19. Johnboy says:

    John G,

    LSD has proved very efficacious in treating alcoholism and a recent trial claimed Ectasy some success in treating PTSD. Leary was a moron, his rantings made investigations into LSD and Ecstasy grind to a halt.

  20. AdrienSword says:

    Nicholas – I thought Eagletons review hit various nails on the head but of course I agreed with it.

    Shouldn’t this be either:

    I thought Eagletons review hit various nails on the head but of course I disagreed with it.


    I thought Eagletons review hit various nails on the head and of course I agreed with it.


  21. AdrienSword says:

    JohnG – Did you refer to Tom Wolfe’s musings viz the origin of religion and 60s drug use in that paper?

  22. John Greenfield says:


    The positive link between LSD (and mescaline) use and treatment of alcoholism is controversial. My reading is that it can be very useful in many clinical conditions – not just those battling the booze – though no magic bullet. LSD is superb for people who have never “let go” and/or are not very practised at self-analysis and so on.

    A tab of LSD and they’ll be surrending to the Jesus-Guys at AA in no time. But alcoholism is such a complex and broad malady to reduce confidently to any specific treatment strategy.

    I put much more store in the clinical power of MDMA. You’re right. It has proven to be very successful with PTSD patients, but fuck, I reckon they should put it in the water supply! :)

  23. John Greenfield says:


    I didn’t mention Wolfe, and I don’t know if I read him on the subject. I read quite a bit from then and now, and most informatively those who wrote in the 60s with their views in the 1980/90s. Gotta link or summary of his argument?

  24. AdrienSword says:

    Gotta link or summary of his argument?

    Well it’s not a full on argument more an observation. He made it around the time he wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test viz Ken Kesey’s road trip with beatniks in the 60s. The bus was wired for sound and there was always acid-spiked kool-aid.
    Wolfe didn’t take any. He was afraid he’d give up writing. But he made the observation often around that time. Interviews etc.
    I suspect Wolfe’s one of those conservatives who believe religion is bullshit but necessary.

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