Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Blaming 'The God Delusion'

Richard Dawkins's attack on religion gets flak even from the left.

By Charles Demers 14 Dec 2006 |

Charles Demers is a regular contributor to Tyee Books.

image atom
Richard Dawkins: unnatural reactions

With a four-headed fundamentalist hydra rending progressive social movements, co-opting populist anger, and marginalizing women and religious minorities around the world, one would expect a warm reaction among the liberal left to The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins's moving and articulate plea for reason, skepticism and Enlightenment values. Instead, Dawkins is being treated like a party guest offering Moses a golden calf for his birthday, or the purveyor of a beer-baked ham at a Saudi potluck.

Dawkins is a Darwinian scientist and an essayist on popular science often mentioned in the same breath as the late and still-missed Stephen Jay Gould. His symmetry with Gould lay not only in the fact that both men sold millions of books making evolutionary theory accessible, but also because they represented different theories within Darwinism itself. Dawkins is an exponent of an (appropriately) unorthodox, gene-centred theory of evolution, expounded in his bestseller The Selfish Gene. Enron kingpin Jeff Skilling cited The Selfish Gene as his favourite book, leaving the "mortified" Dawkins to explain in his new book that the stress is on 'gene,' not 'selfish.'

The God Delusion is a declaration of secular humanism that excoriates religion, both moderate and extreme. It also attempts to outline a possible Darwinian origin for the emergence and prevalence of religious belief.

So what has the progressive reaction been? Not very, as it turns out. The November issue of Harper's magazine was emblazoned with a front cover notice calling attention to Pulitzer-winning author Marilynne Robinson's Dawkins critique "In Defense of Religion." Harper's, of course, certainly didn't mean a defence of Islam; the publication's continuing mockery of Muslim faith was recently cited by a writer friend of mine (at an Eid party marking the end of Ramadan, no less) as the reason she no longer buys the mag. True to form, the halal yuks continued in the same issue in "Ground Control to my Imam," a preposterous speech about finding the direction to Mecca while orbiting the earth, in order to pray from space.

Whose daddy is being gored?

Meanwhile, in the London Review of Books, one of the great minds of serious Marxist and progressive literary criticism, Terry Eagleton launches a critique of Dawkins so histrionic you'd think it was his dad, and not Christ's, who was being insulted. After writing the first half of his review as though he hadn't read Dawkins's book (continuously raising objections that Dawkins himself had already brought up and demolished), Eagleton makes it to his one redeeming criticism: Dawkins's superficial grasp of politics and history. After that, it's back to grasping at straws.

There's even a sentence that could be taken as a bizarre threat, not unlike the ones from Christian fanatics reproduced in The God Delusion, when Eagleton says: "Dawkins may be relieved to know that I don't actually know where he lives." Eagleton then dismisses Dawkins's rationalism as a liberal trope of the English middle-class -- no word yet whether Eagleton's LRB essay was filed from a meatpacking plant or a more traditional coal mine, but his upcoming book, How to Read a Poem, promises to be a huge hit amongst inner-city Pakistani teens and white proletarian football hooligans.

"Dawkins quite rightly detests fundamentalists," Eagleton writes, "but as far as I know, his anti-religious diatribes have never been matched in his work by a critique of the global capitalism that generates the hatred, anxiety, insecurity and sense of humiliation that breed fundamentalism." For those who care to read it, one such Dawkins essay was recently published alongside playwright Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize acceptance speech by the U.K.'s Stop the War Coalition as a fundraising and political tool. The book, typical of middle-class evasiveness and equivocation, is called Not One More Death.

Eagleton does rightfully take Dawkins to task for his political and historical naivety -- he's particularly baffled when Dawkins's suggests that the words "nationalist" and "loyalist" are, in their Northern Irish context, merely euphemisms for "Catholic" and "Protestant," respectively.

An equally cringe-inducing point comes on page 44: "As I said in the Preface, American atheists far outnumber religious Jews, yet the Jewish lobby is notoriously one of the most formidable in Washington. What might American atheists achieve if they organized themselves properly?" The so-called Jewish lobby is not, after all, calling for the national separation of milks and meats; it's more properly called a pro-Israel lobby, and works to secure military hardware as well as financial and political support for an existing earthly government.

Religion's hardly the only delusion

Throughout The God Delusion, Dawkins minimizes the role of ethnic, class and international conflict in order to emphasize the role of religion. Eagleton is also right in his evisceration of Dawkins's Hegelian optimism and blind trust in a guiding and ever-ameliorating zeitgeist (although he fails to contextualize it in Dawkins's memetic theory, which is a very different thing than any advanced by Hegel). Eagleton also accurately goes after the "bitchiness" of Dawkins's tone (an angry condescension which permeates the first third of the work).

But it's worth remembering that the fight between science and religion isn't one that science picked. Quite the opposite. The controversies surrounding intelligent design and young-earth theories, as well as pseudo-scientific studies on the power of prayer (which Dawkins debunks), mark religion's steady and ill-advised incursion onto science's turf, to which Dawkins responds mercilessly. When Dawkins makes the point that a creationist God raises more questions than He answers, he doesn't raise it in a vacuum -- rather, he's responding to theists who insist that the "God Hypothesis" answers questions that physics and biology can't, and is therefore superior.

Besides, The God Delusion quickly drops its sour tack and becomes a most impassioned, endearing, articulate and heartening secular-humanist call to arms. Call it the book's evolution. Despite the clumsy burka metaphor with which he wraps up his essay, Dawkins is humane, logical and erudite. This is a fitting manifesto for any of us who have been told that we have no moral system because we lack faith in a god, or even for those who believe simply that spiritual atavism and confessional regression are not the means with which we ought to meet the challenges of the present day. Or for those who see no virtue in faith itself, relying instead on reason, and Enlightenment ideals now (hopefully) corrected of the racial, class and gender biases of the philosophers who initially expounded upon them.

This is necessary reading for everybody, if those of us without holy books are ever to stand a chance.