March 2007By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.
The God Delusion. By Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin. 406 pages. $27.
Richard Dawkins, best-selling author and golden-haired boy of Britain's scientific academe, is perplexed that so many Americans in the "boondocks," a whole century and a half after The Origin of Species, have still not realized that Darwinism provides a complete explanation of reality. Why has evolutionism not supplanted Christianity in America as it has in Britain? Dawkins laments the "religious mania" of the "less educated classes" stateside, as well as the "political power" of "America's Ten Commandment tablet-toters." He even claims (risibly) that American atheists have to hide their identity or face "discrimination." Lots of them, he says, dare not admit their atheism to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves. He exhorts them to come out of the closet: "Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them."
Dawkins puts those who believe in biblical revelation on a par with people who think they are reincarnations of Napoleon. About the latter, he says: "We humour them but don't take their internally revealed beliefs seriously, because not many people share them. Religious experiences are different only in that the people who claim them are numerous." Dawkins sees religion, then, as mass delusion. It reminds one of the joke about a fond mother at a parade who exclaimed, "They are all out of step except my Johnny." Dawkins wants us to believe that just about everyone who ever lived was wrong about religion except for him -- and Darwin.
It is instructive to note that Dawkins is not so much an atheist as an anti-theist. When someone asks him if he is an atheist, he replies that "the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra." True, but the questioner who denies the existence of these gods does not break into vituperation against them. That's what Dawkins does. He can't deny the existence of the biblical God without producing a furious flood of verbal abuse. The least insulting of the attributes he slaps onto God are "mysogynistic" and "homophobic." Usually he calls Him the "monster of the Bible," the "cruel ogre," and other such infantile monikers. He reviles the Scriptures for their "ubiquitous weirdness," and calls the Book of Revelation the "weirdest" of them all. Of the central Christian doctrine of Atonement, he says that it is not just "sado-masochistic," but "barking mad." Weird, mad, monster -- is this the language of rational discourse? Does such incontinent speech pass for reasoned argument in today's England? It certainly does not pass for such in what Dawkins contemptuously calls the American "boondocks."
Dawkins's scorn is palpable. He himself regards the Gospels as factually dubious as the stories of King Arthur. Of course, he ignores the fact that there are no martyrs for the truth of the Round Table, while there are countless martyrs for the Truth of Christ, including nearly all the Apostles who walked with Jesus and who would not have suffered martyrdom for something they had invented.
Why does Dawkins single out the biblical religion for so much abuse? He says it is the only one that "impinges most threateningly on all our societies." Most threateningly? I haven't noticed any racks, ropes, or fires. Oh, I see, he means the possible loss of grant money: "Scientists could be forgiven for feeling threatened, because most research money comes ultimately from government, and elected representatives have to answer to the ignorant and prejudiced, as well as to the well-informed, among their constituents." The ignorant and prejudiced -- that means Christian voters like you and me. What Dawkins finds most threatening is that Christian voters might influence the U.S. Congress to stop funding such vampire-like activities as embryonic stem cell research, of which he is a great champion.
Religions other than the biblical get a virtual pass when it comes to Dawkins's satirical abuse. He has just one jeer at the Koran, in a single footnote, where an ex-Muslim atheist is cited as claiming that the word virgins, in the passage regarding the 72 virgins who await Jihad martyrs, is actually a mistranslation for "white raisins of crystal clarity." (Not much of a reward for the suicide bomber!) When it comes to the biblical religion, Dawkins lets it all hang out. A Christian theologian points out to him that the existence of God cannot be "disproved," and he disdainfully retorts that this is an "ignominiously weak point." He wonders why scientists are so "cravenly respectful towards the ambitions of theologians," then warns against throwing them "even a sop," and finally argues that Christian theology is a field equivalent to fairyology. Words like ignominious, craven, sop, and fairyology fairly reverberate with unseemly passion. He is even so coarse in his contempt as to speak of prayer as "sucking up to God." Sucking up! Is this how one defends a supposedly scientific point of view? It looks like mad zeal, a delusion far worse than the one Dawkins attributes to Christians. Indeed, he is setting himself up as the fiery prophet of the final revelation of man -- that everything in existence derives from, and is inherently only matter.
In a recent book called The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Michael Ruse speaks of how Darwinists have created an alternative religion to Christianity under the cloak of science -- "a religion of evolutionary naturalism." These two religions -- Darwinism and Christianity -- have long been in profound conflict, because each of them has its own account of the origin of life, of the ultimate meaning of existence, and of the scope of morality. Dawkins uses a vehement hortatory style in his God Delusion because he's preaching this alternative religion to Americans.
At times, though, he sounds like the pot calling the kettle black, as when he declares that he can't endure "the overweening confidence" of Christians and their "draconian hostility" toward those of different opinions -- all the while he is himself speaking with arrogant scorn and hostility toward them. He tries (unconvincingly) to correlate education and intelligence with atheism, so as to paint American Christians as stupid. Ironically, while he sees himself as vastly superior to Christians, he sees himself as profoundly inferior to extra-terrestrials. He is ready to fall prostrate at the feet of aliens, if they should ever contact us, for he declares his reaction "would be something akin to worship, for any civilization capable of broadcasting a signal over such an immense distance is likely to be greatly superior to ours." He would treat those aliens as "superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine." Isn't this fairyology? Isn't this delusion?
Dawkins sees human beings as so low on the scale of existence that a truly "divine being" would not "care a fig for petty human malefactions." He scorns the idea that "our poky little sins'" might have "cosmic significance." In a chapter on evolutionary morality, Dawkins ridicules the kind of goodness that results from wanting to gain God's approval, seeing it as mercenary. But when he outlines the evolutionary morality available to Darwinians like himself, it turns out that their "goodness" is merely the result of trying to gain human approval. They favor relatives who will later support them; they give to others in order to get something back (reciprocal altruism); they act well to earn a good reputation; and they are generous to prove their superiority. He calls all this "Good Samaritan" behavior. What a misnomer! None of this reaches the example that Christ gave in the Good Samaritan parable, of one who showed love to a member of a different ethnic group -- in fact an enemy group -- and helped the afflicted "neighbor" without expectation of a return in kind. Such lofty biblical morality is achieved only for the sake of Heaven.
Dawkins reserves a lot of vitriol for Catholicism. He calls the Virgin Mary "a goddess in all but name," and our saints virtual "demigods." He laughs at John Paul II's "polytheistic hankerings" in canonizing a roll of new saints and in attributing to the Virgin Mary his survival from an attempted assassination. He even goes to great lengths to argue (unpersuasively) that Hitler remained a Catholic. In an especially brutal attack, he speaks of Mother Teresa of Calcutta as "sanctimoniously hypocritical," and castigates her for saying, in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, that abortion is the "greatest destroyer of peace." As one would expect, Dawkins supports abortion to the hilt. He contends that "late-aborted embryos with nervous systems" suffer no more than cows at the same developmental stage, and far less than adult cows. He refuses to grant man a unique and special status because there are, he insists, no natural borderlines between species in evolution. The borderlines, he insists, are merely an illusion created by the fact that "the evolutionary intermediates happen to be extinct." Extinct? No, altogether missing.
Dawkins defends himself against the charge that he is a "fundamentalist atheist" by saying that a fundamentalist by definition is one who thinks he's right because he has "read the truth in a holy book." Well, he has a "holy book." He claims that in The Origin of Species, Darwin "anticipated and disposed of every single one of the alleged difficulties that have since been proposed, right up to the present day." Every single one -- talk about an absolutist faith! Dawkins also defends himself against the charge of being too "passionate" by saying that he is only "passionately distressed" that the "poor fundamentalists" in America are missing out on "the truths of evolution." Sure.
To top it all, Dawkins contends that "after Darwin we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness." Here Dawkins tempts us to regard nature as bearing no trace of divine Providence. He'd like us to embrace an evolutionary atheistic materialism as a form of freedom -- from "illusion," from a "trap." But as St. Paul warns, in Romans 1:20, "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Atheists are without excuse because they willfully refuse to see God's power in the beauty and order of the natural world. They imagine that they are more clever than the rest of mankind, but they are actually much more foolish, for St. Paul adds, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools" (Rom. 1:20).
In The God Delusion Dawkins speaks of most of the human race (but especially of American Christians) as caught up in the "delusion" of supernatural religion. However, it is clear that Dawkins himself is caught up in the delusion of evolutionism as an alternate religion to Christianity. His passionate language, his volleys of abuse, his scorn for most of the human race shows how madly he must defend his esoteric faith. Evolutionism as worldview purports to explain all of reality as sheer matter -- matter without soul, without spirit, and without purpose. What a bleak religion it is!