Placebo for the masses: Dawkins launches broadside against God

Some see God as a disinterested watchmaker that set the universe in motion; others as a decisively interventionist force that hands out favors and punishments; and yet others as a source of meaning and purpose in this world. Others, like Richard Dawkins, don’t see him at all. In his latest book he sets out to demolish God who, according to the writer, is no more than a delusion, indeed an unnecessary and harmful one. «The God Delusion,» now available in Greek by Katoptron, belongs to the more militant genre of atheism that has made itself increasingly felt on both sides of the Atlantic, partly as a response to the backlash of faith-based extremism. Anti-religious polemics such as Sam Harris’s «Letter to a Christian Nation,» Christopher Hitchens’s «God is not Great» and «The Atheist Manifesto» by French philospher Michel Onfray have all made the best-seller lists. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, does not mince his words. As a result, «The God Delusion» can be uncomfortable for and often even offensive to believers. The God of the Old Testament, he writes, is «the most unpleasant character in all fiction… a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.» That should be enough to put even Nietzsche to shame. Dawkins’s demolition project is carried out in steps. First, with a deft hand, he takes apart the main philosophical arguments for God’s existence (he seems to take particular pleasure in knocking about some of the «playground» arguments). Second, he explains why there almost certainly is no God. Third, he hammers at the metaphysical claims of religion, offering a purely evolutionary explanation in its place. Finally, Dawkins does away with the religion-as-a-useful-lie stuff, arguing that people can be happy and moral without God. The God virus It is in the third step, i.e. his exposition of the roots of faith, that Dawkins is at his most original. As a Darwinian scientist, the author has to explain why religious practice is so enduring and widespread among cultures. If religion were really a bad habit for humans, if it were nothing but a waste of time and energy, then surely it should have disappeared through the age-old process of natural selection. Interestingly, it’s not religion itself that has any survival value, Dawkins contends. Rather, religion is the by-product of another, genuinely useful process, namely a child’s (Darwinian) disposition to believe what its parents tell it. «Believe in God,» in other words, is a worthless piece of information that infects nascent brains along with lifesaving advice such as «keep away from the fire» or «look both ways before crossing the road.» It’s like a self-spreading computer virus that benefits no one but itself. But why are we so vulnerable to this particular mind virus? Dawkins claims that religion possesses a particular quality that makes it highly receptive to human psychology, namely its capacity to deal with some of the most fundamental human needs: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. The fact that religion is comforting does not make it any truer, Dawkins says. We humans need no such placebos to feel at home with the world. Critics have said that reflecting on the natural world or the spectacular findings of modern physics, as Dawkins suggests, can hardly fulfill our existential need for a sense of purpose or meaning. Sure, but who said the universe owes us any meaning at all? Preaching to the converted «The God Delusion» comes with a lofty ambition: to shatter the atheism taboo. Dawkins wants the ungodly folk to «come out» and express themselves the way homosexuals – at least those living in progressive societies – have done. That may be a noble cause, in fact an indispensable one. But apart from that middle ground of agnostics it’s hard to see how the book, for all its crafty and skillful arguments, can convert a true believer to atheism. As with similar projects, Dawkins’s book will most probably end up in the hands of the converted just like the copies of the Bible sit on the bedside tables of church-goers. People tend to pick books that merely cement their convictions. So God will probably be around for some time to come. The reason for God’s staying power was pointed out by Nietzsche more than one hundred years ago. It has less to do with God than with us humans. «Truth,» the German iconoclast said, «is the kind of error we cannot live without.»