The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, is one of several recent books that attack religion in general and Christianity in particular. It has been on the New York Times best-seller list longer than other books and may be the most important one for a Christian to read because it considers the intellectual foundation of religion rather than social or political tendencies of the Religious Right that are annoying people these days. You may discover your neighbor has pinned his hopes for a God-free world on Richard Dawkins' tract.
A tract it is. Dawkins makes clear that his goal is to persuade theists to give up their faith decisively-not falling short with a timid agnosticism, but boldly going all the way to confessing atheism. The book is both positive and negative in its thrust. Dawkins wants to gain converts, not just unsettle believers. He constantly balances arguments against religious faith with arguments in favor of atheism.
Perhaps in an unwitting way, Dawkins has made a case that atheism is not a natural state of mind. The shaking of religious faith will not necessarily produce an atheist. Rather, atheism is itself a conviction gained through a kind of conversion process and maintained by the right teaching and the support of community (see the Appendix that lists support organizations for atheists). Seen in this light, The God Delusion provides a kind of atheistic doctrine of conversion, a "treatise concerning nonreligious affections." You hear the voice of the preacher more clearly in this book than the voice of the scholar.
How does Dawkins hope to gain a convert? Although the book is divided into ten chapters, three distinct arguments emerge throughout. His appeal is not addressed to the intellect alone, as we shall see. If someone is persuaded to become an atheist, as Dawkins hopes, it will take a movement of the whole person.
In no particular order, the first argument is the repellent behavior of religious people. Dawkins uses an extensive store of anecdotes to give the reader a visceral experience. One source is communication from religious people in response to his writing: "I receive a large number of letters from readers of my books, most of them enthusiastically friendly, some of them helpfully critical, a few nasty or even vicious. And the nastiest of all, I am sorry to report, are almost invariably motivated by religion" (211). He then copies several such letters that are laced with ignorance and bigotry, such as this: "I'll get comfort knowing that the punishment GOD will bring to you will be 1,000 times worse than anything I can inflict. The best part is that you WILL suffer for eternity for these sins that you're completely ignorant about" (212).
Another example is Pat Robertson and his infamous statement to the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, who in 2005 voted against the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools. Robertson warned those citizens that because they had voted God out of their town, they'd better not turn around and plead to God for help if some disaster strikes them. Dawkins comments that "Pat Robertson would be harmless comedy, were he less typical of those who today hold power and influence in the United States" (239).
Dawkins' conclusion from the nasty mail, Pat Robertson's outrages, and a host of other stories is that repulsive behavior is not exceptional but typical of the religious. The reader can't help but respond with aversion. That aversion is a key element in the creation of an atheist. Dawkins does offer positive examples of atheism, such as Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, but only as a secondary theme to the many more repelling examples of the religious.
The second argument Dawkins makes for becoming an atheist is the content of religious faith when viewed objectively: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. It is unfair to attack such an easy target. The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation, Yahweh, nor his insipidly opposite Christian face, 'Gentle Jesus meek and mild'" (31).
Dawkins shocks the Christian reader by telling him at the outset his particular brand of religion is the most ludicrous of all. The Christian doesn't see it because over time custom has dulled the mental senses. Dawkins pulls off the blinders when he says, "It is unfair to attack such an easy target." Possibly for the first time, a Christian is hearing the content of his faith presented "objectively."
The reader should not object that Dawkins provides no evidence for his disposal of the Bible early in the book. He later discusses numerous passages in some detail and sums up the heart of New Testament theology in these words: "I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment – thereby, incidentally, condemning remote future generations of Jews to pogroms and persecution as 'Christ-killers'" (253)?
Dawkins' third argument for becoming an atheist is that Darwinism provides a fully satisfying worldview. This is the heart of Dawkins' intellectual argument. He is an elegant writer and his skill is especially evident in his expression of wonder for natural evolution in its ability to explain everything that religion explains, and more.
Dawkins argues that creationists have misunderstood natural evolution by comparing its improbability to a hurricane blowing through a junkyard and leaving behind a Boeing 747. The point of the comparison is that it is impossible for the complexity of life on earth to have evolved by chance. What the creationists don't understand is that evolution proceeds by tiny increments, with each step forward taken with perfectly reasonable probability. Rather than scaling a great cliff at a single, impossible bound, evolution posits a ramp leading up the cliff at a tiny angle of incline.
Darwinism can even explain why religion is so persistent. It's the result of what Dawkins calls the misfiring of an otherwise useful adaptation. For example, when a moth flies into a candle, it acts on the misfiring of an adaptation to direct its flight by the light of the moon or stars. That practice evolved when there were few candles around to be confused with the lights in the sky. To us it looks like the moth is doing something that evolution, if true, should have eliminated. In the same way, the religious instinct may be explained as the misfiring of the need to implicitly obey authority. That adaptation is necessary for a child to do what a parent says to avoid the threat of danger. "Don't play with the saber-toothed tiger," for example.
Should a fair-minded person become an atheist after reading The God Delusion? Critical questions for Dawkins rise from his methods: Can't you find any examples of noble religious people who may have something more serious to contribute to the debate? Shouldn't you evaluate the most effective arguments for religion, as stated by the most able advocates, instead of what amounts to a distortion in your own terms? As to the more purely intellectual presentation of Darwinism as a worldview, similar questions of the author's fairness are inevitable. Are creationists really surprised at the notion of the gradual incline to the top of the summit of evolution? Don't they actually base the argument for the improbability of evolution at the molecular or cellular level? There may not be enough credibility left in The God Delusion by the time one reaches the incredible comparison of the religious instinct to a misfiring natural adaptation.
Christians may find agreement with Dawkins, however, as to how people are converted. Whether it is to atheism or to Christ, faith is never the final step at the end of a logical argument. We should point out to our neighbor who may be impressed by The God Delusion that much of its persuasive power is not addressed to what is best in us. The words of the New Testament on how to defend the faith ring with nobility and wisdom in contrast with what goes on in The God Delusion: "Do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame."