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A Mission to Convert

Scientists’ interest in religion seems to come in waves. One arrived after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Another followed in the 1930s and 1940s, inspired by surprising revelations from quantum mechanics, which suggested the insufficiency of conventional physical theories of the universe. And now scientists are once again writing about religion, apparently provoked this time by the controversy surrounding intelligent design.

During the last year, a number of popular books on religion by scientists or philosophers of science have appeared. Daniel Dennett kicked things off with his Breaking the Spell (2006), an investigation into the possibility of a science of religion. Reviewing evolutionary, psychological, and economic theories of the origin and spread of belief, Dennett covered much ground but reached few conclusions. In the last few months, three prominent scientists—all biologists—have published their own books on belief. Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, has given us The God Delusion, an extended polemic against faith, which will be considered at length below.

Lewis Wolpert, an eminent developmental biologist at University College London, has just published Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a pleasant, though rambling, look at the biological basis of belief. While the book focuses on our ability to form causal beliefs about everyday matters (the wind moved the trees, for example), it spends considerable time on the origins of religious and moral beliefs. Wolpert defends the unusual idea that causal thinking is an adaptation required for tool-making. Religious beliefs can thus be seen as an odd extension of causal thinking about technology to more mysterious matters. Only a species that can reason causally could assert that “this storm was sent by God because we sinned.” While Wolpert’s attitude toward religion is tolerant, he’s an atheist who seems to find religion more puzzling than absorbing.

Joan Roughgarden, on the other hand, is sold on religion. An evolutionary biologist at Stanford University and a recent convert to Christianity, she attempts in Evolution and Christian Faith both to explain evolutionary biology to fellow believers—laying out what is known, what is speculative, and what is unknown—and to discuss what the Bible has to say on matters relevant to evolution. These are ambitious aims, particularly for so brief a book, and Roughgarden’s own views—that, as she writes, “what evolutionary biologists are finding through their research and thinking actually promotes a Christian view of nature”—are not supported by sufficiently detailed arguments.


Among these books, Dawkins’s The God Delusion stands out for two reasons. First, it’s by far the most ambitious. While Wolpert and Roughgarden preach to the choir—each has his or her own audience, rationalist and religious, respectively—Dawkins is on a mission to convert. He is an enemy of religion, wants to explain why, and hopes thereby to drive the beast to extinction. Second, Dawkins has succeeded in grabbing the public’s attention in a way that other writers can only dream of. His book is on the New York Times best-seller list and he’s just been featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Dawkins’s first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), was a smash hit. An introduction to evolutionary theory, it explained a number of deeply counter-intuitive results, including how an apparently self-centered process like Darwinian natural selection can account for the evolution of altruism. Best of all, Dawkins laid out this biology—some of it truly subtle—in stunningly lucid prose. (It is, in my view, the best work of popular science ever written.) While Dawkins has published several other popular books on Darwinism, he has, in recent years, turned to larger issues. In such works as Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) and A Devil’s Chaplain (2003), he’s explored our sense of wonder before the natural world and, increasingly, the tension between science and religion.

His new book continues this last theme. Dawkins clearly believes his background in science allows him to draw strong conclusions about religion and, in The God Delusion, he presents those conclusions in language that’s stronger still. Dawkins not only thinks religion is unalloyed nonsense but that it is an overwhelmingly pernicious, even “very evil,” force in the world. His target is not so much organized religion as all religion. And within organized religion, he attacks not only extremist sects but moderate ones. Indeed, he argues that rearing children in a religious tradition amounts to child abuse.

Dawkins’s book begins with a description of what he calls the God Hypothesis. This is the idea that “the universe and everything in it” were designed by “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence.” This intelligence might be personal (as in Christianity) or impersonal (as in deism). Dawkins is not concerned with the alleged detailed characteristics of God but with whether any form of the God Hypothesis is defensible. His answer is: almost certainly not. Although his target is broad, Dawkins discusses mostly Christianity, partly because this faith has wrestled often with science and partly because it’s the tradition Dawkins knows best (he was reared as an Anglican).

The first few chapters of The God Delusion are given over to philosophical matters. Dawkins summarizes the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence, from Aquinas through pre-Darwinian arguments from biological design, along with the traditional arguments against them. In a later chapter entitled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” Dawkins himself plays philosopher, presenting the chief argument of his book. The God Hypothesis, he tells us, is close to “ruled out by the laws of probability.” Dawkins’s demonstration involves what he calls the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. This is his variation on a standard creationist argument. By tweaking that argument in a clever way, Dawkins claims it now leads to a conclusion that’s the opposite of the traditional creationist one.

The creationist argument works like this. Living things are enormously complex. Even the simplest of present-day organisms, like bacteria, are far more complicated than anything found in the nonliving world. All organisms carry genes, built from a replicating molecule like DNA (which is itself very complex). But DNA alone doesn’t make an organism. Organisms also possess many different proteins (each, in turn, made of amino acids), as well as other molecules that help make structures like cell membranes. Moreover, all these parts must be arranged in just the right way: membranes on the outside of the cell and DNA on the inside, and so on. Creationists argue that the idea that such organized complexity could arise by natural means—without the intercession of a designer mind—is absurd. In particular, they argue that the probability that life could assemble itself spontaneously is extremely close to zero. To dramatize this, they suggest that thinking life could arise by natural means is like thinking a tornado could tear through a junkyard and assemble a Boeing 747. Such an event is not, strictly speaking, impossible but it’s so extraordinarily unlikely that it is, according to creationists, unworthy of serious consideration.1

Dawkins’s variation on this argument involves a judo-like move in which he turns its logic against itself. In particular, Dawkins claims that rejecting natural means to explain life and instead invoking a designer God leaves us with a hypothesis that’s even more improbable than the naturalistic one:

A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right.

In short, only complicated objects can design simpler ones; information cannot flow in the other direction, with simple objects designing complicated ones. But that means any designer God would have to be more complex—and thus even more improbable—than the universe he was supposed to explain. This argument, Dawkins concludes, “comes close to proving that God does not exist”: the God Hypothesis has a vanishingly small probability of being right.

The latter half of The God Delusion is partly devoted to Dawkins’s discussion of religion as practiced. Not surprisingly, he finds little good to say about it: religion for him is the root of much evil and its disappearance from the world would be an unmitigated good. Religion, he tells us, is certainly not the source of our morality (indeed the God of the Old Testament is, he claims, nothing short of monstrous) and believers are no better morally than nonbelievers; in fact they may be worse. Dawkins regales us with tales of Christian cops who threaten to beat up an atheist; presents statistics on the higher rates of crime in regions that are religious; and argues that, when considering religiously inspired violence and terrorism, “we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism—as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion.” Late in his book, Dawkins defends a faith-free morality and provides his own, secular, Ten Commandments. (For example, “Do not indoctrinate your children” and “Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else).”)

As you may have noticed, Dawkins when discussing religion is, in effect, a blunt instrument, one that has a hard time distinguishing Unitarians from abortion clinic bombers. What may be less obvious is that, on questions of God, Dawkins cannot abide much dissent, especially from fellow scientists (and especially from fellow evolutionary biologists). Indeed Dawkins is fond of imputing ulterior motives to those “Neville Chamberlain School” scientists not willing to go as far as he in his war on religion: he suggests that they’re guilty of disingenuousness, playing politics, and lusting after the large prizes awarded by the Templeton Foundation to scientists sympathetic to religion.2 The only motive Dawkins doesn’t seem to take seriously is that some scientists genuinely disagree with him.

Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins’s work, I’m afraid that I’m among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, 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. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

  1. 1

    Most evolutionary biologists would argue that we do not need to explain anything as complex as present life to explain the origin of life. We need only explain how a self-replicating molecule could arise. Given such a molecule, natural selection can operate and complex life could then evolve. Although the details are difficult and the case is not proved, there is reason to believe that the origin of life may have involved a replicating molecule called RNA. According to this theory, this RNA was able to replicate by itself—without the assistance of any proteins or other molecules. See James P. Ferris, “From Building Blocks to the Polymers of Life,” in Life’s Origins: The Beginnings of Biological Evo-lution, edited by J. William Schopf (University of California Press, 2002), pp. 113–139.

  2. 2

    For more on this, see Dawkins’s interview at Salon.com (www.salon.com/books/int/2006/10/13/dawkins/index.html).

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