Unlike Christopher Hitchens's "god is not Great", written from an historical/literary point of view "THE GOD DELUSION", by a respected biologist, contains actual science-based arguments.
Evolution of Memes
Richard Dawkins previously wrote "The Selfish Gene" (1976) where he introduced the word "meme" (from "mimeme" derived from the Greek "mimeisthai" which means "to imitate"). The word "mneme" was used by others in a similar way as early as 1927 (from the Greek mimneskesthai" which means "to remember").
A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene. Dawkins wrote: "DNA is a self-replicating piece of hardware. Each piece has a particular structure, which is different from rival pieces of DNA. If memes in brains are analogous to genes they must be self-replicating brain structures, actual patterns of neuronal wiring-up that reconstitute themselves in one brain after another."
The etymology of the word "meme" itself is an excellent example of the evolution of the cultural equivalent of genes. “Meme” is one letter shorter than “mneme” and far easier to pronounce. A challenge arose in 1980 when E.O. Wilson introduced a new word, "culturgen" for the same concept. That word has all but died out as “meme” survived and replicated in the natural human selection process. Clearly, the word “meme” is the “fittest” (best fits into the human cultural environment and brain structure).
A Personal God IS a Delusion – But is it a Useful Myth?
Although I agree with Dawkins that the concept of a personal God, external to the Universe, is, strictly speaking, a delusion, I am surprised at the vehemence with which he attacks it. He minimizes the significance of the fact that the various religions which survived and reproduced over millennia and encompassing the belief systems of billions of people are the “fittest” beliefs (best fits into the human cultural environment and brain structure, regardless of whether or not they are literally true). As such, they must have provided some real benefit to believers and the societies that promoted and still cling to religious beliefs.
About half-way through the book, he finally acknowledges, however grudgingly, the facts. He writes [pg 163 …166]:
[W]e should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favoured the impulse toward religion. … Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. …no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming,hostility provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.
David Wilson and Group Selection
Dawkins searches, in vain, for rational explanations for the survival of the God delusion. He mentions David Wilson [pg 170] a colleague of Howard’s and one of my favorite professors at Binghamton University who Dawkins rightly calls “the American group-selection apostle”.
Group selection makes the claim that groups, including religious associations, which promote cooperative, altruistic behaviors, survive at the expense of less religious groups. While I accept multi-level selection (gene level and meme level), I am not sure that true, pure altruism exists and have gone round and round discussing this with Wilson.
David Wilson has an annual “Darwin’s birthday” event at his home that my wife and I have attended. He gave me a plastic knock-off that is like a “Jesus fish” but this one has feet and the word “Darwin” on it. He also gave me a copy of his excellent book, Unto Others .
I agree with Dawkins that what appears to be altruism is actually kin selection (favoring those with common genes) or reciprocal altruism (helping others of the same or different species in return for a benefit). In complex human society it is often difficult to know who is kin or who may provide a reciprocal benefit, so we generalize the concept and indoctrinate our children to help all older people, cooperate with all neighbors, and so on. That is an “accidental” side-effect of kin- and reciprocal altruism, but it never-the-less benefits those societies who imprint generalized cooperative behaviors, so long as altruism is not taken too far.
Dawkins ultimately rejects group selection and is left with the only remaining alternative, that religion is an unintended byproduct of something else. What is this “something else”? Well, he concludes [pg 174-176] it is “obey the tribal elders … For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust.”
Religion as a “Mind Virus”
Religion, Dawkins asserts, is a mind virus that feeds on the need for a child to obey elders without question, just as computer viruses are based on the need for a computer to follow instructions. The implication is that all societies of the past have had the mentality of children. With the advent of the age of reason we have the opportunity to grow up and reject religion once and for all. I find that “logic” kind of haughty and simple-minded.
Perhaps, with the rise of science and modern technology and so on, literal belief in a personal God is no longer as adaptive as it was in the past. In coming centuries, we humans may modify our beliefs to something like what Dawkins calls the “Einsteinian religion”, or the “Gaia” of Lovelace, or some other science-based concept of that unifying thing we all feel that is larger than all of us.
Scientists who Invoke "God" - Is such Belief Genuine Religious Feeling?
Dawkins knocks Stephen Hawking [pg 13] for ending his A Brief History of Time with a reference to God. Hawking wrote:
Dawkins, quoting only the phrase I have highlighted, criticizes Hawking for being "dramatic (or was it mischievous?)".
However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God.” [Emphasis added]
Dawkins includes Einstein’s famous references to religion and God [pg 15]:
Is Scientific Pantheism “Intellectual High Treason”?
Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists ….
God is subtle, but not malicious … God does not play dice …
Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?
I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.
What I see in Nature [notice uppercase “N”] is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”
Dawkins, in a statement worthy of Anne Coulter, dismisses [pg 19] the metaphorical use of the word “God” by scientists as “intellectual high treason” because it deliberately confuses the distinction between the personal God of “supernatural religion” with the Pantheistic God of “Einsteinian religion”.
It is amazing to me that the originator of the idea that memes evolve in a way similar to genes can be so blind to what is happening! Memes evolve by building upon previous memes. The pagan “rebirth of the Sun” winter solstice meme evolved into Christmas when early Christian authorities co-opted that time period for the birth of Jesus, and, later, when Jewish authorities glommed onto that same time period and elevated Chanukah to a higher significance than it originally claimed. Similarly, IMHO, the traditional supernatural God meme is evolving into a more naturalistic Pantheistic meme. Perhaps the Gaia idea that the Earth biosphere has developed some sort of Global Consciousness will ease the transition. Perhaps it is even true!
Dawkins Quotes Carl Sagan:
A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe [note upper case “U”] as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
Perhaps, when Sagan talks of a new religion, he is describing the naturalistic yet genuine religious beliefs of Hawking and Einstein and Spinoza. It seems to me it is better to believe in something than in nothing. Sagan also wrote:
Scientists are in the same boat with religious believers when they conclude the Universe (like the God of literal believers) always existed! Where did all that energy and matter come from? Where did all the wonderful Laws of Nature that scientists struggle to discover come from? Like the religious believers who say that God always existed, and He created the Universe, scientific believers, in Sagan’s words, “save a step” and assume the Universe always existed! The origin of the Universe is, like the origin of God, an unanswerable question.
In many cultures it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must of course ask next where God comes from. And if we decided this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and decide that the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Or, if we say that God has always existed, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed. [Emphasis added]
Bashing the God of the Old Testament
According to Dawkins [pg 31], the OT God is “… 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.”
Mischaracterizing Intelligent Design
Dawkins mentions intelligent design (which he calls “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”) on nine pages of this book, but he does not appear to understand it. Intelligent design proponents claim the origin of life on Earth by purely random processes is highly improbable and therefore conclude the initial biological cells were planted here on Earth by some extraterrestrial designer. After that, some of them accept the scientific explanation that something like evolution and natural selection took over and resulted in the wide variety of species on Earth. That theory, per se, is certainly possible. Life on Earth may have been planted by some visiting alien life form. Of course, this raises the question of the origin of the alien life forms.
I, like Dawkins, believe life originated on Earth through un-directed mixing of atoms and molecules. Though highly improbable from a statistical point of view, it seems clear to me that life originated by random chance either here on Earth (or on some other planet in the Universe and was later seeded here).
Dawkins Agrees “Chance is not a solution”
On the positive side, Dawkins [pg 119] realizes that, given those first primitive biological cells, subsequent evolution was anything but a random process.
... the greater the statistical improbability, the less plausible is chance as a solution: that is what improbable means. But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection. Chance is not a solution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was.” [Emphasis added]
Dawkins Belief there is “A generalized process for optimizing”
He goes on his apparently subconscious defense of pantheism [pg 139]:
It is clear that here on Earth we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species, a process that works all over the planet, on all continents and islands, and at all times. … if we wait another ten million years, a whole new set of species will be as well adapted to their ways of life as today’s species are to theirs. This is a recurrent, predictable, multiple phenomenon, not a piece of statistical luck recognized with hindsight. [Emphasis addedDawkin’s “generalized process for optimizing” is Omnipresent (“all continents and islands … all times”), Omnipotent (“whole new set of species”) and Omniscient (“as well adapted to their ways of life as today’s species”). Change it to “Generalized Optimizing Device” and we have our familiar Pantheistic “GOD”. QED :^)
Opposition to Homosexuality by the “American Taliban”
In another passage worthy of Ann Coulter, Dawkins [pg 289] notes the Afghan Taliban punishment for homosexuality was execution by being buried alive and compares that to a statement by what he calls the “American Taliban” Rev. Jerry Falwell who said “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” One does not have to agree with Falwell to recognize Dawkins’s analogy as an awful exaggeration.