The God Disappointment

When I read Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth a few months ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Part of me truly thought it was going to be a mean-spirited rant against religion and faith.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by a thoughtful, well-argued, and incredibly witty look into the workings and results of evolution.  When I started The God Delusion, I didn’t expect to agree with it, but I was expecting to find a  thoughtful and challenging tract.

As it turned out, not so much.

I don’t mean to suggest that it was all bad.  It had its moments, especially when it came to areas of Dawkins’ expertise.  These were wonderfully reminiscent of The Greatest Show on Earth.  However, taken as a whole, it lacked the intellectual vigor and consistency which I had expected.

Dawkins’ main argument goes as follows.  The existence or non-existence of God is, in theory, a scientific question.  Therefore, scientific data should be used to make a conclusion.  There is no scientific data supporting God.  Therefore God very probably doesn’t exist.  Nothing revolutionary there.  In fact, if you left out the conclusion, a large number of thoughtfully religious people would agree.  Dawkins notes this and concludes that these people are idiots.  Fair enough.  Dawkins is entitled to his point even though it’s not too hard to poke philosophical holes in his arguments.  (One of his is as follows:  If there is a God, who created Him?  A slight variation on the “If God can do anything can he make a pizza sooo big even He couldn’t eat it?” childhood rumination.)  Dawkins again notes this, says that he’s right and moves on.

There are then some chapters on evolution and how people came to be through a process billions of years in the making rather than appearing out of thin air 6000 years ago.  Then there’s the requisite sections on how religious people sometimes do really bad things.  His sections on Hitler and Stalin are thorough and he makes a good point that their respective (possibly) atheism had nothing to do with their atrocities.  (I had hoped that he would include a section on Mao’s China in the 1950-1960’s where anti-religious fervor actually was the direct cause of an enormous amount of death and destruction.  Mao is unjustly overlooked quite often in favor of the Great White Tyrants.) These sections, on the whole, are well-written and hard to argue with but not particularly thought-provoking.

Up until this point, Dawkins book is mostly irrelevant.  God doesn’t exist because science says so and religion causes bad stuff.  These are not revolutionary ideas and they’re easily refuted or affirmed depending on your particular beliefs.

Dawkins’ chapter on religion-as-child-abuse, however, takes a puzzling turn.  While opening with a fair-minded exhortation for moderation in the sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church and a warning against witch hunts, Dawkins’ goes on by making the dubious claim that sexual abuse might not be so bad when compared with religious education itself.  He grants that sexual abuse might be ‘yucky’ (a quotation, not Dawkins’ words, yet still an interesting descriptor for child molestation) and sometimes ‘horrible.’  But his real opprobrium is directed at religious education itself which, in teaching about heaven and hell, inflicts irreparable psychological damage tantamount to child-abuse.  One of the nicer touches is a wish for hell so that religious teachers might burn in it.

Now, I’m not certain how to take this assertion that religious education is a more vile form of child abuse than sexual molestation.  Firstly, although I was raised in a religious family, I don’t feel particularly abused.  Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough.  Secondly, since I feel that I am better now for my religious upbringing, I wonder how I should feel about sexual molestation.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed it?  Maybe I’m just odd.

I jest, but Dawkins’ comparison of religion to child abuse has more serious implications.  In most jurisdictions in the developed world, serious claims of child abuse rightfully result in the removal of a child from an abusive household. Following Dawkins’ claim to its logical conclusion, this would require the forcible removal  of millions of children from their parents.  There could be no other humane or morally consistent conclusion.  This, then raises other serious issues.  Where do we put all the brainwashed children?  Should religious people henceforth not be allowed to have children?  How should this be enforced?  Pregnancy licensing?  What to do about violations?  These are some sensitive areas and I can almost understand why Dawkins doesn’t want to address them.  Yet, if he is going to make a serious claim that religion is child abuse, there’s no real way to avoid them without backing away from his original assertion.

What makes this whole chapter incredibly ironic is that Dawkins begins  with a horrendous story in which a young Jewish child is kidnapped by Catholics so that it could be saved.  How horrible it was for the Jewish parents to have their child snatched from their arms arbitrarily by some some self-righteous zealots!  I need not point out the almost comical similarities.

This chapter brings out most glaringly the flaws which riddle the rest of the book.  Taken by themselves, the inconsistencies and ironies are relatively minor.  But they add up, much like gene mutations in evolution.   I’m not sure that’s such an apt metaphor because the book itself doesn’t evolve, but the chapters do seem to devolve (another feature of evolution which was so wonderfully explained in The Greatest Show on Earth).  In an early chapter, when Dawkins explains in one breath that the Renaissance painters would have been equally as wonderful had they not worked for the Church and, in the next breath, has the “chilling” idea that Shakespeare would have sucked had he worked for the church, it’s easy to chuckle a bit and think that Dawkins might need a better editor.  He explicitly states that brilliant people would be brilliant even within the confines of the church.  Why the change of heart with Shakespeare?  When he argues that religion is a useless by-product of some evolutionary function and that monogamous love is an equally out-dated combination of cranial chemical reactions but one should be discarded and the other kept, it’s easy to raise an eyebrow and shrug.  When he starts comparing Sunday school to kiddie rape with the later coming out as less harmful…that’s just plain bizarre.

I’m, of course, biased.  I must admit that by being raised in a religious faith, some of my beliefs are diametrically opposed to Dawkins.  However, I  also have no particular vendetta against his belief structure.  He’s welcome to his views and I think that any person of religious faith should read and be challenged by them.  There are, however, plenty of books which I’ve shouted at, thrown, and loved/hated particularly because they were so well argued and I was forced to confront my own deepest personal beliefs.

In the end, as much as it tried, this was not one of those books.




  1. I agree that this is more confrontational & that he used extremes examples to make his point, but I think that was the point of the exercise, in using extremes he was highlighting what to him were the problems he saw with religion .

  2. I agree that this is more confrontational & that he used extremes examples to make his point, but I think that was the point of the exercise, in using extremes he was highlighting what to him were the problems he saw with religion .
    Ps, how are you enjoying Pandaemonium.

    1. I wouldn’t mind so much a litany of religious excess – it’s logical and, while I wouldn’t agree that this makes religious belief bad in and of itself, it would be a logical argument that I could follow. Dawkins just seems to lose his scientific rationality quite a bit in here. It’s understandable when your passionate – but it undermines credibility when your whole argument is scientific rationality. Anyway, still interesting. I’m almost finished with Pandaemonium – really love it, thanks for the recommendation!

  3. It’s too bad that this turned out to be a bust. I haven’t read any of Dawkins work but I was at least intrigued with the idea of this one, especially after you had good things to say about The Greatest Show on Earth. And really the comparison between being raised in a religious household and child molestation is awful enough without concluding that molestation is the lesser evil of those 2, regardless of how you feel about religion. I may still check out The Greatest Show on Earth at some point but I’ll give this one a pass.

    1. That comparison is particularly odious and I’m really unsure about how it can even possibly be justified. Dawkins sure doesn’t provide a reasonable justification. What’s more, Dawkins seems to suggest that giving children any type of moral system is blatant abuse. Seriously – he quotes a scientist who opposes censorship in all cases except where a parent wants to teach their children about “right and wrong.” Dawkins whole-heartedly endorses this. More than a bit out on the crazy limb if you ask me.

  4. Although I find myself agreeing with Dawkins in his science stuff – especially his summaries of evolution I suspect the real weakness in his work is that he assumes that the fundamentalist and creationist nonsense that he hears so much of in the criticism of his work represents good mainstream Christianity. Most of the educated Christians I meet are fully conversant with evolution, accept Biblical criticism, reject creationism (and its new found off-spring intelligent design) and would not have a bar of the twaddle about a young Earth. Remember that when the scientifically illiterate parts of the Bible were written, what was recorded represented state of the art scientific knowledge of the day. Just as science has moved on – religion too now grapples with a world at a totally different level. These days our real issues are with bioethics, international injustice, environment – and adapting our Christianity to new discoveries about the scriptures and their setting. Most Christians I know are more likely to be reading Karen Armstrong and her Charter of Compassion than spending their time fulminating about Muslims and failing to correctly predict the rapture. Unfortunately it seems to be the Bible Belters who get the publicity.

    1. Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, there’s no doubt about that. “The Greatest Show on Earth” was wonderful. But, he’s just irrelevant when it comes to religion. He addresses the issues you talk about – he not only deservedly slams the religious extremists but he also tries to negate the very idea of faith itself. His point is that, in a world where everything can be explained, in theory, by science, faith in anything is irrational and dangerous. Again, they’re easy positions to have because, if science is everything, then he’s right. However, I think most religious people would agree that there’s something transcendent which cant be proven or disproven. Thanks for the comments and for coming by!

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