I suppose I should begin by explaining why I bothered to read the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Bantam, 2006). Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and a zealot with a mission: to wipe out religious belief of all sorts. The God Delusion is his call to arms.
My reading of the book was largely in response to a triple dare made by a friend, Dr. M., a true Zionist Israeli, an outspoken Jewish patriot, and someone who describes himself as a militant agnostic. Dr. M. has long found it incomprehensible – indeed, a downright insult to his intelligence – that a nice educated fella like myself does not share his staunch agnosticism.
With a mixture of pity and annoyance, Dr. M. has been trying to enlighten me. Convinced that no one could read Dawkins and come away unpersuaded, he sent me the book and challenged me to read it.
The God Delusion – not to be confused with The Dawkins Delusion, an attack on Dawkins co-written by Alistair McGrath, a molecular biologist also from Oxford University – is one of a growing genre of books designed to market militant atheism to the reading public. (A recent entry that has sold rather briskly is God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, who used to be a left-wing Israel basher and is now a quasi-right-wing Israel basher.)
“Promulgating atheism,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “has become a lucrative business.” Los Angeles-based radio host and popular columnist Dennis Prager recently wrote, “In my opinion the arguments put forth [in such books] are far more emotional than intellectual, and even secular liberal journals have written devastating reviews of the Hitchens and Dawkins books. The secular indoctrination of a generation that has grown into adulthood is bearing fruit.”
* * * * *
What exactly is Dawkins’s thesis and why is his book a bestseller?
Dawkins pushes his atheist arguments by setting up the weakest straw men he can find and then toppling them over. He briefly argues with Thomas Aquinas, but chooses most of his other sparring partners from among the dullest, most evil, and least sophisticated he can find. This is all a bit like claiming that if some foolish or unscrupulous people happen to believe the world is round, that in itself proves it is flat.
A more serious book would deal with the subject in a deeper manner, rather than with caricatures of its theological/ideological opponents. Dawkins often resorts to crude mockery of “believers.” His writing style is hysterical, demagogic and at times juvenile. He tends to respond to claims he dislikes by barking out “That’s an argument?”
Dawkins’s general theme is that God’s existence cannot be scientifically “proved” or even probabilistically established by using mathematical rules of likelihood. He then leaps to the “inference” that if one cannot prove scientifically that God exists, well, then, He must not exist. Much of the book is an attempt to establish as a given that belief in God is delusional, often by discrediting individual believers and specific religious groups or organizations.
Before he became arguably the leading academic advocate of atheism, Dawkins was best known for his books on popularized genetics. Dawkins invented the rather silly concept of “memes,” which holds that pop tunes and cultural fads spread in similar fashion to genetic traits, via a process of mutation and “natural selection.” I guess that explains hip-hop music, something no one would attribute to any Deity.
As it turns out, when Dawkins writes about “religion,” he, like many similar writers, really means Western Christianity. He has at most a shallow passing familiarity with Islam and Judaism, and knows virtually nothing at all about other religions. His ideas about “Bible believers” are really all about fundamentalist Christians; he seems to have never met a Jewish biblical authority or scholar.
(Hitchens is little better; he spends a significant amount of time attacking the biblical pronouncement of an eye for an eye, apparently unaware that Judaism has always interpreted that as meaning the monetary value of losing an eye.)
Dawkins is at his best when he attacks the “scientific gaps” arguments made by some who argue that God must exist because humans cannot explain various mysteries of the universe, first and foremost the Big Bang itself. Dawkins argues that if scientists have been unable to explain this or that scientific mystery, one should be cautious about leaping to the conclusion that they will never be scientifically explained.
Many rabbis would agree: Insisting that acknowledgment of God’s existence depends upon unsolved “gaps” in science is to make God a hostage to the pace of scientific advance. Too many things previously believed to be unsolvable have by now been solved, starting with genetics. But Dawkins’s real problem appears when he claims that if scientists have indeedexplained many scientific mysteries, it somehow proves that God is a delusion.
To sum up his overly long and at times tedious book, these are Dawkins’s main points:
· The existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like all others and must be subject to scientific testing. If God cannot be proven to exist, no proof that He does not exist is even needed. It just follows.
· Religion has nothing useful to teach about science (though one must not conclude the inverse). Creationists and those who have conducted experiments seeking empirical demonstration of the power of prayer are to be scorned.
· Religious scientists really are not so; they are really atheists for whom God and nature are synonyms. (Never mind that many of them wouldcompletely disagree.)
· Religious believers are too easily offended when people challenge their beliefs. (Hardly a serious argument against belief itself, especially from someone who takes offense at any criticism of atheism).
· Groups of religious believers are involved in bad things, like violence and political suppression. Some clergymen have engaged in sexual misconduct. Therefore God must not exist.
· The “God of the Old Testament” (or, more correctly, the caricature of that God with which Dawkins is familiar) is nasty and hysterical and ultimately a petty invention. All religions (especially monotheism) foster fanaticism. Therefore God must not exist.
Dawkins pooh-poohs the “primary cause” arguments (“everything must have a cause and so the first cause must be God”), but is left with little besides “things just get caused” in a natural world that is full of random noise.
The entire universe just popped out of a space the size of a pinhead for no reason at all (which is the Big Bang theory as science now understand it), certainly no thanks to God. Multiple or sequential universes, for which no evidence actually exists, would neither prove nor disprove God, but Dawkins keeps insisting they disprove God’s existence.
While Dawkins properly dismisses those who say “If you cannot explain something, God must be the explanation,” he is infatuated with the no less fatuous idea that if you cannot explain God’s agenda/behavior/character, He must not exist.
Dawkins often contradicts himself. Lots of eminent scientists do not believe in God, writes Dawkins, somewhat mysteriously counting Einstein among them. Atheism is legitimate because the U.S. founding fathers were atheists, he adds. (Actually, not one of them was.)
At the same time, however, he goes to great lengths to dismiss those who argue for God’s existence on the grounds that nearly all humans in all countries believe in at least one. That proves nothing, he insists – it’s just an “anthropic principle” argument. In other words, sometimes “theological proof by straw poll” is acceptable and sometimes it is not.
Dawkins wants moral principles to be based on something other than religion or the Bible, but is not sure what should replace them other than his own personal moral preferences. His “atheists are moral too” mantra would not hold up well to empirical testing (there would be too many communists in the sample). His social science pronouncements are surprisingly thin (indeed, he seems never to have studied social science). He uses dime-store anthropology in his chapter – the book’s weakest – on the development of religion among humans.
To “prove” his point that theology is not needed to foster morality, he cites some secular alternatives to the Ten Commandments taken from an atheist website: “Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice”; “Always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.” Yawn.
He then adds some original “commandments” of his own, like “Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else)”; “Value the future on a timescale longer than your own” and “Do not indoctrinate your children.” No shofar blowing or mountain in flames here. We can just envision the little Dawkins children, if there are any, asking their anti-indoctrination daddy why he forbids them to read the Bible.
* * * * *
I suspect Dawkins and his copycats have been induced to turn out these Three Cheers for Atheism books by the growing popularity of the Intelligent Design school of thought: In recent years, a minority set of thinkers about evolution has emerged, including some serious scientists. Intelligent Design’s main argument is that there are holes in the theory of evolution, things that cannot be explained by classical Darwinian biology. Commentary magazine has run several articles promoting their point of view.
The conclusion of Intelligent Design advocates is that only some form of “intelligence” imposed on random evolution can explain life on earth. Most biologists dismiss the argument, and opponents have filed a series of court petitions to prohibit its being mentioned in schools, even as a minority, dissident point of view.
The more zealous opponents of Intelligent Design unfairly denounce it as “creationism,” or academic window dressing to biblical literalism, and as an unconstitutional attempt to impose religious fundamentalism on schoolchildren. Attacks on Intelligent Design often are hysterical and ad hominem in nature, and attempts to recruit the courts as classroom censors sometimes seem like Scopes monkey trials in reverse.
While liberal Jewish organizations have generally denounced Intelligent Design and have backed and aided attempts to ban it from the classroom, the Orthodox response has been less than uniform. Rabbi Avi Shafran, for example, while affirming that Jews respect science and scientific inquiry, sees the attempt to use the courts to suppress Intelligent Design as anti-scientific, amounting to an attempt to impose a pseudo-religion of Randomness.
Israeli Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who writes about science and theology, has been critical of Intelligent Design because it attempts to prove God’s presence through the existence of the “scientific gaps” mentioned earlier. Slifkin argues instead that Judaism more properly should see proof of God and His presence in the parts of the universe that have been understood and explained; that is, in the miracles of mundane and ordinary life.
While some haredi rabbis have denounced Slifkin’s writings – mainly for his suggesting that the Talmudic sages were not infallible on matters of science – a number of Modern and Centrist Orthodox rabbis have praised his work.
Meanwhile, like so many other haters of religion, Dawkins repeatedly tries to set up an artificial contest between theology and science, demanding that readers concede that each and every scientific discovery amounts to an additional nail in the coffin of religious belief (or religious “superstition,” in his terminology).
Dawkins would have problems with a recent survey which found that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of professors at American colleges confirm they believe in God. I recently attended a lecture at the Technion by Nobel Prize winner Robert Aumann. His entire lecture consisted of citations from Maimonides and the Talmud.
All of which leaves me wondering how Dawkins would deal with Sir Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics. With the arguable exception of Einstein, Newton contributed more to science than any other human. But Newton had a deep belief in a personal God and even something of an affinity for Hebrew scholarship.
Incidentally, if Dawkins and some of his more zealous followers were to have their way, Sir Isaac himself would today be prohibited from teaching science in any public school.
In an exhibit of some of his scientific papers now on display at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, there is one on which Newton had evidently written in his own hand the Hebrew phrase “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed” – the verse from Ezekiel we repeat during the recitation of the Shema prayer. (The page can be viewed at www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/871781.html.)
The English translation of the verse transcribed by the giant of science reads: “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.”
Dawkins and his ilk must pity the poor, primitive, deluded Isaac Newton.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.