The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:33 pm

by Richard Dawkins
© 2006 by Richard Dawkins
Preface © 2008 by Richard Dawkins




"We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." -- Richard Dawkins

IN MEMORIAM: Douglas Adams (1952-2001) "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

Table of Contents

• Inside and Back Covers
• Preface to the paperback edition
• Preface
o Deserved respect
o Undeserved respect
o Polytheism
o Monotheism
o Secularism, the Founding Fathers and the religion of America
o The poverty of agnosticism
o The Great Prayer Experiment
o The Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists
o Little green men
o Thomas Aquinas' 'proofs'
o The ontological argument and other a priori arguments
o The argument from beauty
o The argument from personal 'experience'
o The argument from scripture
o The argument from admired religious scientists
o Pascal's Wager
o Bayesian arguments
o The Ultimate Boeing 747
o Natural selection as a consciousness-raiser
o Irreducible complexity
o The worship of gaps
o The anthropic principle: planetary version
o The anthropic principle: cosmological version
o An interlude at Cambridge
o The Darwinian imperative
o Direct advantages of religion
o Group selection
o Religion as a by-product of something else
o Psychologically primed for religion
o Tread softly, because you tread on my memes
o Cargo cults
o Does our moral sense have a Darwinian origin?
o A case study in the roots of morality
o If there is no God, why be good?
o The Old Testament
o Is the New Testament any better?
o Love thy neighbour
o The moral Zeitgeist
o What about Hitler and Stalin? Weren't they atheists?
o Fundamentalism and the subversion of science
o The dark side of absolutism
o Faith and homosexuality
o Faith and the sanctity of human life
o The Great Beethoven Fallacy
o How 'moderation' in faith fosters fanaticism
o Physical and mental abuse
o In defence of children
o An educational scandal
o Consciousness-raising again
o Religious education as a part of literary culture
o Binker
o Consolation
o Inspiration
o The mother of all burkas
• Appendix: a partial list of friendly addresses, for individuals needing support in escaping from religion
• Books cited or recommended
• Notes
• Index

'I'm an atheist BUT ...' As Daniel Dennett noted in Breaking the Spell, a bafflingly large number of intellectuals 'believe in belief' even though they lack religious belief themselves. These vicarious second-order believers are often more zealous than the real thing, their zeal pumped up by ingratiating broad-mindedness: 'Alas, I can't share your faith but I respect and sympathize with it.' ... Look out for it.... Atheists as well as theists unconsciously observe society's convention that we must be especially polite and respectful to faith.


Let me not labour the point. I have probably said enough to convince at least my older readers that an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. And of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals; without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.


[S]ophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer ... If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place ... this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible....


[B]ear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional.


Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings....Pantheism is sexed-up atheism.

-- "The God Delusion," by Richard Dawkins
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:34 pm

Inside and Back Covers

"At last, one of the best nonfiction writers alive today has assembled his thoughts on religion into a characteristically elegant book ... [Dawkins's arguments] are passionately stated and poetically expressed, but are rooted in reason and evidence." -- Steven Pinker, Author of How the Mind Works

"An entertaining, wildly informative, splendidly written polemic ... We are elegantly cajoled, cleverly harangued into shedding ourselves of this superstitious nonsense that has bedevilled us since our first visit to Sunday school." -- Sunday Times (London)

"The God Delusion is smart, compassionate, and true like ice, like fire. If this book doesn't change the world, we're all screwed." -- Penn and Teller

Selected as a Best Book of the Year: The Economist, Financial Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Capital Times, Kirkus Reviews, and others


Extraordinary International Acclaim for Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion

"If I had to identify Dawkins' cardinal virtues, I would say that he is brilliant, articulate, impassioned, and impolite ... The God Delusion is a fine and significant book .... irreverent and penetrating." -- San Francisco Chronicle

"Dawkins is frequently dismissed as a bully, but he is only putting theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand." -- Scientific American

"The God Delusion deserves multiple readings, not just as an important work of science, but as a great work of literature." -- Steven Weinberg, Times Literary Supplement (UK)

"The most coherent and devastating indictment of religion I have ever read." -- Mail on Sunday (UK)

"This thoroughly engaging thesis on atheism cajoles, bullies, persuades and dazzles ... Some of it is hard to disagree with, some of it will make you hopping mad. Perfect, really." -- Sunday Times (Australia)

"Fascinating ... expressed in sparkling language which makes the book not only a pleasure to read but also a stimulus to thinking across this widest of spectrums." -- Financial Times

"Engrossing ... this is an elegant, engaging and persuasive writer ... The God Delusion is a good, strong argumentative challenge to any thoughtful believer with the courage to read it with care and try to dispute it." -- The Globe and Mail (Canada)

"A lively writer ... an entertaining read ... Dawkins's outrage at the persistence of medieval ideas in the modern era is warranted. In fact, it's overdue." -- The Nation

"A spirited and exhilarating read ... Dawkins comes roaring forth in the full vigor of his powerful arguments." -- Guardian (UK)

''A wonderful book ... joyous, elegant, fair, engaging, and often very funny ... informed throughout by an exhilarating breadth of reference and clarity of thought." -- Michael Frayn, author of The Human Touch

"The God Delusion is written with all the clarity and elegance of which Dawkins is a master. It is so well written, in fact, that children deserve to read it as well as adults." -- Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials trilogy

"A brave and important book." -- Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape

"Richard Dawkins is the leading soothsayer of our time. Through his exploration of gene-based evolution of life his work has had a profound effect on so much of our collective thinking and The God Delusion continues his thought-provoking tradition." -- J. Craig Venter, decoder of the human genome

"Passionate religious irrationality too often poses serious obstacles to human betterment. To oppose it effectively, the world needs equally passionate rationalists unafraid to challenge long accepted beliefs. Richard Dawkins so stands out through the cutting intelligence of The God Delusion." -- James D. Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, author of The Double Helix

"Should be read by everyone from atheist to monk. If its merciless rationalism doesn't enrage you at some point, you probably aren't alive." -- Julian Barnes, author of Arthur and George

"A magnificent book, lucid and wise, truly magisterial." -- Ian McEwan, author of Atonement

"Dawkins is Britain's most famous atheist and in The God Delusion he gives eloquent vent to his uncompromising views ... if you want an understanding of evolution or an argument for atheism, there are few better guides than Richard Dawkins." -- Sunday Telegraph (UK)

"A surprisingly elegant and gracious conclusion, depicting science as exactly the kind of glorious expansion of our perceptions that we once thought only God could provide." -- New York magazine

"[A] well-stocked arsenal of anti-religious thought." -- U.S. News and World Report

"Passionate, clever, funny, uplifting and above all, desperately needed." -- Daily Express (UK)

"Lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes." -- New York Times Book Review

"You needn't buy the total Dawkins package to glory in his having the guts to lay out the evils religions can do." -- Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"A rallying cry to those who want to come out as non-believers, but are not quite sure if they dare." -- Daily Mail (UK)

"A gloriously belligerent attack on the foaming tide of superstition that is washing over the world once again, from a great scientist who has demonstrated throughout his career the power of cool, hard reason to explain life itself." -- The Independent (UK)

"Oh, it's so refreshing, after being told all your life that it is virtuous to be full of faith, spirit, and superstition, to read such a resounding trumpet blast for truth instead. It feels like coming up for air." -- Matt Ridley, author of Genome


"A powerful argument for how to think about the place of religion in the modern world. It's going to be a classic." -- SEED

In his sensational international bestseller, the preeminent scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins delivers a hard-hitting, impassioned, but humorous rebuttal of religious belief. With rigor and wit, Dawkins eviscerates the arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of the existence of a supreme being. He makes a compelling case that faith is not just irrational but potentially deadly. In a preface written for the paperback edition, Dawkins responds to some of the controversies the book has incited. This brilliantly argued, provocative book challenges all of us to examine our beliefs, no matter what beliefs we hold.

"Everyone should read it. Atheists will love Mr. Dawkins's incisive logic and rapier wit, and theists will find few better tests of the robustness of their faith. Even agnostics, who claim to have no opinion on God, may be persuaded that their position is an untenable waffle." -- THE ECONOMIST

"In the roiling debate between science and religion, it would be hard to exaggerate the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins." -- SALON

Richard Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, and The Ancestor's Tale.

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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:38 pm

Preface to the paperback edition

The God Delusion in the hardback edition was widely described as the surprise bestseller of 2006. It was warmly received by the great majority of those who sent in their personal reviews to Amazon (more than 1,000 at the time of writing). Approval was less overwhelming in the printed reviews, however. A cynic might put this down to an unimaginative reflex of reviews editors: It has 'God' in the title, so send it to a known faith-head. That would be too cynical, however. Several unfavourable reviews began with the phrase, which I long ago learned to treat as ominous, 'I'm an atheist BUT ...' As Daniel Dennett noted in Breaking the Spell, a bafflingly large number of intellectuals 'believe in belief' even though they lack religious belief themselves. These vicarious second-order believers are often more zealous than the real thing, their zeal pumped up by ingratiating broad-mindedness: 'Alas, I can't share your faith but I respect and sympathize with it.'

'I'm an atheist, BUT ...' The sequel is nearly always unhelpful, nihilistic or -- worse -- suffused with a sort of exultant negativity. Notice, by the way, the distinction from another favourite genre: 'I used to be an atheist, but ...' That is one of the oldest tricks in the book, much favoured by religious apologists from C. S. Lewis to the present day. It serves to establish some sort of street cred up front, and it is amazing how often it works. Look out for it.

I wrote an article for the website called 'I'm an atheist BUT ...' and I have borrowed from it in the following list of critical or otherwise negative points from reviews of the hardback. That website, conducted by the inspired Josh Timonen, has attracted an enormous number of contributors who have effectively eviscerated all these criticisms, but in less guarded, more outspoken tones than my own, or than those of my academic colleagues A. C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, Paul Kurtz, Steven Weinberg and others who have done so in print (and whose comments are reproduced on the same website).

You can't criticize religion without a detailed analysis of learned books of theology.

Surprise bestseller? If I'd gone to town, as one self-consciously intellectual critic wished, on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus; if I'd done justice to Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope (as he vainly hoped I would), my book would have been more than a surprise bestseller: it would have been a miraculous one. But that is not the point. Unlike Stephen Hawking (who accepted advice that every formula he published would halve his sales), I would happily have forgone bestsellerdom if there had been the slightest hope of Duns Scotus illuminating my central question of whether God exists. The vast majority of theological writings simply assume that he does, and go on from there. For my purposes, I need consider only those theologians who take seriously the possibility that God does not exist and argue that he does. This I think Chapter 3 achieves, with what I hope is good humour and sufficient comprehensiveness.

When it comes to good humour, I cannot improve on the splendid 'Courtier's Reply', published by P. Z. Myers on his 'Pharyngula' website.

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr. Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion ... Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity ... Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

To expand the point, most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology etc.

The next criticism is a related one: the great 'straw man' offensive.

You always attack the worst of religion and ignore the best.

'You go after crude, rabble-rousing chancers like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion I believe in.'

If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.

Paul Johannes Tillich (August 20, 1886 – October 22, 1965) was a German-American theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher. Tillich was one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century. Among the general populace, he is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), which introduced issues of theology and modern culture to a general readership. Theologically, he is best known for his major three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63), in which he developed his "method of correlation": an approach of exploring the symbols of Christian revelation as answers to the problems of human existence raised by contemporary existential philosophical analysis....

For Tillich, the present day norm is the “New Being in Jesus as the Christ as our Ultimate Concern”....

It should also be noted that Tillich does not exclude atheists in his exposition of faith. Everyone has an ultimate concern, and this concern can be in an act of faith, "even if the act of faith includes the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied only in the name of God"...

… (the God above the God of theism) This has been misunderstood as a dogmatic statement of a pantheistic or mystical character. First of all, it is not a dogmatic, but an apologetic, statement. It takes seriously the radical doubt experienced by many people....

… In such a state the God of both religious and theological language disappears. But something remains, namely, the seriousness of that doubt in which meaning within meaninglessness is affirmed. The source of this affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness, of certitude within doubt, is not the God of traditional theism but the "God above God," the power of being, which works through those who have no name for it, not even the name God.

Paul Tillich, by Wikipedia

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and martyr. He was a participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was involved in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This led to his arrest in April 1943 and execution by hanging in April 1945, 23 days before the Nazis' surrender. His view of Christianity's role in the secular world has become very influential....

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer also raised tantalizing questions about the role of Christianity and the church in a "world come of age", where human beings no longer need a metaphysical God as a stop-gap to human limitations; and mused about the emergence of a "religionless Christianity", where God would be unclouded from metaphysical constructs of the previous 1900 years. Influenced by Barth's distinction between faith and religion, Bonhoeffer had a critical view of the phenomenon of religion and asserted that revelation abolished religion (which he called the "garment" of faith).

-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Wikipedia

I'm an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, intemperate, intolerant, ranting language.

Actually, if you look at the language of The God Delusion, it is rather less shrill or intemperate than we regularly take in our stride -- when listening to political commentators for example, or theatre, art or book critics. Here are some samples of recent restaurant criticism from leading London newspapers:

'It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone conjuring up a restaurant, even in their sleep, where the food in its mediocrity comes so close to inedible.'

'All things considered, quite the worst restaurant in London, maybe the world ... serves horrendous food, grudgingly, in a room that is a museum to Italian waiters' taste circa 1976.'

'The worst meal I've ever eaten. Not by a small margin. I mean the worst! The most unrelievedly awful!'

'[What] looked like a sea mine in miniature was the most disgusting thing I've put in my mouth since I ate earthworms at school.'

The strongest language to be found in The God Delusion is tame and measured by comparison. If it sounds intemperate, it is only because of the weird convention, almost universally accepted (see the quotation from Douglas Adams on pages 42-3), that religious faith is uniquely privileged: above and beyond criticism. Insulting a restaurant might seem trivial compared to insulting God. But restaurateurs and chefs really exist and they have feelings to be hurt, whereas blasphemy, as the witty bumper sticker puts it, is a victimless crime.

In 1915, the British Member of Parliament Horatio Bottomley recommended that, after the war, 'If by chance you should discover one day in a restaurant you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup in his foul face; if you find yourself sitting at the side of a German clerk, you will spill the inkpot over his foul head.' Now that's strident and intolerant (and, I should have thought, ridiculous and ineffective as rhetoric even in its own time). Contrast it with the opening sentence of Chapter 2, which is the passage most often quoted as 'strident' or 'shrill'. It is not for me to say whether I succeeded, but my intention was closer to robust but humorous broadside than shrill polemic. In public readings of The God Delusion this is the one passage that is guaranteed to get a goodnatured laugh, which is why my wife and I invariably use it as the warm-up act to break the ice with a new audience. If I could venture to suggest why the humour works, I think it is the incongruous mismatch between a subject that could have been stridently or vulgarly expressed, and the actual expression in a drawn-out list of Latinate or pseudo-scholarly words ('filicidal', 'megalomaniacal', 'pestilential'). My model here was one of the funniest writers of the twentieth century, and nobody could call Evelyn Waugh shrill or strident (I even gave the game away by mentioning his name in the anecdote that immediately follows, on page 51).

Book critics or theatre critics can be derisively negative and gain delighted praise for the trenchant wit of their review. But in criticisms of religion even clarity ceases to be a virtue and sounds like aggressive hostility. A politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a soberly reasoning critic of religion employ what would in other contexts sound merely direct or forthright, and it will be described as a 'rant'. Polite society will purse its lips and shake its head: even secular polite society, and especially that part of secular society that loves to announce, 'I'm an atheist, BUT ...'

You are only preaching to the choir. What's the point?

'Converts' Corner' on gives the lie to this premise, but even taking it at face value there are good answers. One is that the non-believing choir is a lot bigger than many people think, especially in America. But, again especially in America, it is largely a closet choir, and it desperately needs encouragement to come out. Judging by the thanks I received all over North America on my book tour, the encouragement that people like Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and me are able to give is greatly appreciated.

A more subtle reason for preaching to the choir is the need to raise consciousness. When the feminists raised our consciousness about sexist pronouns, they would have been preaching to the choir where the more substantive issues of the rights of women and the evils of discrimination against them were concerned. But that decent, liberal choir still needed its consciousness raised with respect to everyday language. However right-on we may have been on the political issues of rights and discrimination, we nevertheless still unconsciously bought into linguistic conventions that made half the human race feel excluded.

There are other linguistic conventions that need to go the same way as sexist pronouns, and the atheist choir is not exempt. We all need our consciousness raised. Atheists as well as theists unconsciously observe society's convention that we must be especially polite and respectful to faith. And I never tire of drawing attention to society's tacit acceptance of the labelling of small children with the religious opinions of their parents. Atheists need to raise their own consciousness of the anomaly: religious opinion is the one kind of parental opinion that -- by almost universal consent -- can be fastened upon children who are, in truth, too young to know what their opinion really is. There is no such thing as a Christian child: only a child of Christian parents. Seize every opportunity to ram it home.

You are just as much of a fundamentalist as those you criticize.

No, please, it is all too easy to mistake passion that can change its mind for fundamentalism, which never will. Fundamentalist Christians are passionately opposed to evolution and I am passionately in favour of it. Passion for passion, we are evenly matched. And that, according to some, means we are equally fundamentalist. But, to borrow an aphorism whose source I am unable to pin down, when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal force, the truth does not necessarily lie midway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong. And that justifies passion on the other side.

Fundamentalists know what they believe and they know that nothing will change their minds. The quotation from Kurt Wise on page 323 says it all: '... if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.' It is impossible to overstress the difference between such a passionate commitment to biblical fundamentals and the true scientist's equally passionate commitment to evidence. The fundamentalist Kurt Wise proclaims that all the evidence in the universe would not change his mind. The true scientist, however passionately he may 'believe' in evolution, knows exactly what it would take to change his mind: Evidence. As J. B. S. Haldane said when asked what evidence might contradict evolution, 'Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.' Let me coin my own opposite version of Kurt Wise's manifesto: 'If all the evidence in the universe turned in favour of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind. As things stand, however, all available evidence (and there is a vast amount of it) favours evolution. It is for this reason and this reason alone that I argue for evolution with a passion that matches the passion of those who argue against it. My passion is based on evidence. Theirs, flying in the face of evidence as it does, is truly fundamentalist.'

I'm an atheist myself, but religion is here to stay. Live with it.

'You want to get rid of religion? Good luck to you! You think you can get rid of religion? What planet are you living on? Religion is a fixture. Get over it!'

I could bear any of these downers, if they were uttered in something approaching a tone of regret or concern. On the contrary. The tone of voice is sometimes downright gleeful. I don't think it's masochism. More probably, we can put it down to 'belief in belief' again. These people may not be religious themselves, but they love the idea that other people are religious. This brings me to my final category of naysayers.

I'm an atheist myself, but people need religion.

'What are you going to put in its place? How are you going to comfort the bereaved? How are you going to fill the need?'

What patronizing condescension! 'You and I, of course, are much too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But ordinary people, hoi polloi, the Orwellian proles, the Huxleian Deltas and Epsilon semi-morons, need religion.' I am reminded of an occasion when I was lecturing at a conference on the public understanding of science, and I briefly inveighed against 'dumbing down'. In the question and answer session at the end, one member of the audience stood up and suggested that dumbing down might be necessary 'to bring minorities and women to science'. His tone of voice told that he genuinely thought he was being liberal and progressive. I can just imagine what the women and 'minorities' in the audience thought about it.

Returning to humanity's need for comfort, it is, of course, real, but isn't there something childish in the belief that the universe owes us comfort, as of right? Isaac Asimov's remark about the infantilism of pseudoscience is just as applicable to religion: 'Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold.' It is astonishing, moreover, how many people are unable to understand that 'X is comforting' does not imply 'X is true'.

A related plaint concerns the need for a 'purpose' in life. To quote one Canadian critic:

The atheists may be right about God. Who knows? But God or no God, it's clear that something in the human soul requires a belief that life has a purpose that transcends the material plane. One would think that a more-rational-than-thou empiricist such as Dawkins would recognize this unchanging aspect of human nature ... does Dawkins really think this world would be a more humane place if we all looked to The God Delusion instead of The Bible for truth and comfort?

Actually yes, since you mention 'humane', yes I do, but I must repeat, yet again, that the consolation-content of a belief does not raise its truth-value: Of course I cannot deny the need for emotional comfort, and I cannot claim that the world-view adopted in this book offers any more than moderate comfort to, for example, the bereaved. But if the comfort that religion seems to offer is founded on the neurologically highly implausible premise that we survive the death of our brains, do you really want to defend it? In any case, I don't think I have ever met anyone at a funeral who dissents from the view that the non-religious parts (eulogies, the deceased's favourite poems or music) are more moving than the prayers.

Having read The God Delusion, Dr. David Ashton, a British consultant physician, wrote to me on the unexpected death, on Christmas Day 2006, of his beloved seventeen-year-old son, Luke. Shortly before Luke's death, the two of them had talked appreciatively of the charitable foundation that I am setting up to encourage reason and science. At Luke's funeral on the Isle of Man, his father suggested to the congregation that, if they wished to make any kind of contribution in Luke's memory, they should send it to my foundation, as Luke would have wished. The thirty cheques received amounted to more than £2,000, including more than £600 from a whip-round in the local village pub. This boy was obviously much loved. When I read the Order of Service for the funeral ceremony, I literally wept (although I had never met Luke), and I asked for permission to reproduce it at A lone piper played the Manx lament 'Ellan Vannin'. Two friends spoke eulogies. Dr. Ashton himself recited Dylan Thomas's beautiful poem 'Fern Hill' ('Now as I was young and easy, under the apple boughs' -- so achingly evocative of lost youth). And then, I catch my breath to report, he read the opening lines of my own Unweaving the Rainbow, lines that I have long earmarked for my own funeral.

Obviously there are exceptions, but I suspect that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our educational system and don't realize that non-belief is even an option. This is certainly true of most people who think they are creationists. They have simply not been properly taught Darwin's astounding alternative. Probably the same is true of the belittling myth that people 'need' religion. At a recent conference in 2006, an anthropologist (and prize specimen of I'm-an-atheist-buttery) quoted Golda Meir when asked whether she believed in God: 'I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God.' Our anthropologist substituted his own version: 'I believe in people, and people believe in God.' I prefer to say that I believe in people, and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God and to lead fulfilled and satisfied -- indeed, liberated -- lives.

In this new paperback edition I have taken the opportunity to make a few minor improvements, and correct some small errors that readers of the hardback have kindly drawn to my attention.


As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave. Years later, when she was in her twenties, she disclosed this unhappy fact to her parents, and her mother was aghast: 'But darling, why didn't you come to us and tell us?' Lalla's reply is my text for today: 'But I didn't know I could.'

I didn't know I could.

I suspect -- well, I am sure -- that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness -- raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. That is the first of my consciousness-raising messages. I also want to raise consciousness in three other ways, which I'll come on to.

In January 2006 I presented a two-part television documentary on British television (Channel Four) called Root of All Evil? From the start, I didn't like the title and fought it hard. Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything. But I was delighted with the advertisement that Channel Four put in the national newspapers. It was a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the caption 'Imagine a world without religion.' What was the connection? The twin towers of the World Trade Center were conspicuously present.

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings', no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money ('God wants you to give till it hurts'). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it. Incidentally, my colleague Desmond Morris informs me that John Lennon's magnificent song is sometimes performed in America with the phrase 'and no religion too' expurgated. One version even has the effrontery to change it to 'and one religion too'.

Perhaps you feel that agnosticism is a reasonable position, but that atheism is just as dogmatic as religious belief? If so, I hope Chapter 2 will change your mind, by persuading you that 'the God Hypothesis' is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analysed as sceptically as any other. Perhaps you have been taught that philosophers and theologians have put forward good reasons to believe in God. If you think that, you might enjoy Chapter 3 on 'Arguments for God's existence' -- the arguments turn out to be spectacularly weak. Maybe you think it is obvious that God must exist, for how else could the world have come into being? How else could there be life, in all its rich diversity, with every species looking uncannily as though it had been 'designed'? If your thoughts run along those lines, I hope you will gain enlightenment from Chapter 4 on 'Why there almost certainly is no God'. Far from pointing to a designer, the illusion of design in the living world is explained with far greater economy and with devastating elegance by Darwinian natural selection. And, while natural selection itself is limited to explaining the living world, it raises our consciousness to the likelihood of comparable explanatory 'cranes' that may aid our understanding of the cosmos itself. The power of cranes such as natural selection is the second of my four consciousness-raisers.

Perhaps you think there must be a god or gods because anthropologists and historians report that believers dominate every human culture. If you find that convincing, please refer to Chapter 5, on 'The roots of religion', which explains why belief is so ubiquitous. Or do you think that religious belief is necessary in order for us to have justifiable morals? Don't we need God, in order to be good? Please read Chapters 6 and 7 to see why this is not so. Do you still have a soft spot for religion as a good thing for the world, even if you yourself have lost your faith? Chapter 8 will invite you to think about ways in which religion is not such a good thing for the world.

If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about. The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination. If you are religious at all, it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination. Mutatis mutandis if you were born in Afghanistan.

The whole matter of religion and childhood is the subject of Chapter 9, which also includes my third consciousness-raiser. Just as feminists wince when they hear 'he' rather than 'he or she', or 'man' rather than 'human', I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'. Speak of a 'child of Catholic parents' if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a 'Catholic child', stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics. Precisely because my purpose is consciousness-raising, I shall not apologize for mentioning it here in the Preface as well as in Chapter 9. You can't say it too often. I'll say it again. That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not. There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.

Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically -- and inadequately -- usurped.

My fourth consciousness-raiser is atheist pride. Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind. There are many people who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are atheists, but dare not admit it to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves. Partly, this is because the very word 'atheist' has been assiduously built up as a terrible and frightening label. Chapter 9 quotes the comedian Julia Sweeney's tragi-comic story of her parents' discovery, through reading a newspaper, that she had become an atheist. Not believing in God they could just about take, but an atheist! An ATHEIST? (The mother's voice rose to a scream.)

I need to say something to American readers in particular at this point, for the religiosity of today's America is something truly remarkable. The lawyer Wendy Kaminer was exaggerating only slightly when she remarked that making fun of religion is as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion Hall. The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago. Now, after the Gay Pride movement, it is possible, though still not very easy, for a homosexual to be elected to public office. A Gallup poll taken in 1999 asked Americans whether they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified person who was a woman (95 per cent would), Roman Catholic (94 per cent would), Jew (92 per cent), black (92 per cent), Mormon (79 per cent), homosexual (79 per cent) or atheist (49 per cent). Clearly we have a long way to go. But atheists are a lot more numerous, especially among the educated elite, than many realize. This was so even in the nineteenth century, when John Stuart Mill was already able to say: 'The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete sceptics in religion.'

This must be even truer today and, indeed, I present evidence for it in Chapter 3. The reason so many people don't notice atheists is that many of us are reluctant to 'come out'. My dream is that this book may help people to come out. Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them. There may be a critical mass for the initiation of a chain reaction.

American polls suggest that atheists and agnostics far outnumber religious Jews, and even outnumber most other particular religious groups. Unlike Jews, however, who are notoriously one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States, and unlike evangelical Christians, who wield even greater political power, atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence. Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority. But a good first step would be to build up a critical mass of those willing to 'come out', thereby encouraging others to do so. Even if they can't be herded, cats in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored.

The word 'delusion' in my title has disquieted some psychiatrists who regard it as a technical term, not to be bandied about. Three of them wrote to me to propose a special technical term for religious delusion: 'relusion'. [2] Maybe it'll catch on. But for now I am going to stick with 'delusion', and I need to justify my use of it. The Penguin English Dictionary defines a delusion as 'a false belief or impression'. Surprisingly, the illustrative quotation the dictionary gives is from Phillip E. Johnson: 'Darwinism is the story of humanity's liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself.' Can that be the same Phillip E. Johnson who leads the creationist charge against Darwinism in America today? Indeed it is, and the quotation is, as we might guess, taken out of context. I hope the fact that I have stated as much will be noted, since the same courtesy has not been extended to me in numerous creationist quotations of my works, deliberately and misleadingly taken out of context. Whatever Johnson's own meaning, his sentence as it stands is one that I would be happy to endorse. The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as 'a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder'. The first part captures religious faith perfectly. As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: 'When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.'

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism! Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan. But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn't 'take', or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether. At very least, I hope that nobody who reads this book will be able to say, 'I didn't know I could.'


For help in the preparation of this book, I am grateful to many friends and colleagues. I cannot mention them all, but they include my literary agent John Brockman, and my editors, Sally Gaminara (for Transworld) and Eamon Dolan (for Houghton Mifflin), both of whom read the book with sensitivity and intelligent understanding, and gave me a helpful mixture of criticism and advice. Their whole-hearted and enthusiastic belief in the book was very encouraging to me. Gillian Somerscales has been an exemplary copy editor, as constructive with her suggestions as she was meticulous with her corrections. Others who criticized various drafts, and to whom I am very grateful, are Jerry Coyne, J. Anderson Thomson, R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Ursula Goodenough, Latha Menon and especially Karen Owens, critic extraordinaire, whose acquaintance with the stitching and unstitching of every draft of the book has been almost as detailed as my own.

The book owes something (and vice versa) to the two-part television documentary Root of All Evil?, which I presented on British television (Channel Four) in January 2006. I am grateful to all who were involved in the production, including Deborah Kidd, Russell Barnes, Tim Cragg, Adam Prescod, Alan Clements and Hamish Mykura. For permission to use quotations from the documentary I thank IWC Media and Channel Four. Root of All Evil? achieved excellent ratings in Britain, and it has also been taken by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It remains to be seen whether any US television channel will dare to show it. [i]

This book has been developing in my mind for some years. During that time, some of the ideas inevitably found their way into lectures, for example my Tanner Lectures at Harvard, and articles in newspapers and magazines. Readers of my regular column in Free Inquiry, especially, may find certain passages familiar. I am grateful to Tom Flynn, the Editor of that admirable magazine, for the stimulus he gave me when he commissioned me to become a regular columnist. After a temporary hiatus during the finishing of the book, I hope now to resume my column, and will no doubt use it to respond to the aftermath of the book.

For a variety of reasons I am grateful to Dan Dennett, Marc Hauser, Michael Stirrat, Sam Harris, Helen Fisher, Margaret Downey, Ibn Warraq, Hermione Lee, Julia Sweeney, Dan Barker, Josephine Welsh, Ian Baird and especially George Scales. Nowadays, a book such as this is not complete until it becomes the nucleus of a living website, a forum for supplementary materials, reactions, discussions, questions and answers -- who knows what the future may bring? I hope that the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, will come to fill that role, and I am extremely grateful to Josh Timonen for the artistry, professionalism and sheer hard work that he is putting into it.

Above all, I thank my wife Lalla Ward, who has coaxed me through all my hesitations and self-doubts, not just with moral support and witty suggestions for improvement, but by reading the entire book aloud to me, at two different stages in its development, so I could apprehend very directly how it might seem to a reader other than myself. I recommend the technique to other authors, but I must warn that for best results the reader must be a professional actor, with voice and ear sensitively tuned to the music of language.



i. As the paperback goes to press, the answer is still no. DVDs, however, are now available from
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:39 pm


I don't try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.


The boy lay prone in the grass, his chin resting on his hands. He suddenly found himself overwhelmed by a heightened awareness of the tangled stems and roots, a forest in microcosm, a transfigured world of ants and beetles and even -- though he wouldn't have known the details at the time -- of soil bacteria by the billions, silently and invisibly shoring up the economy of the micro-world. Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms and it led him eventually to the priesthood. He was ordained an Anglican priest and became a chaplain at my school, a teacher of whom I was fond. It is thanks to decent liberal clergymen like him that nobody could ever claim that I had religion forced down my throat. [i]

In another time and place, that boy could have been me under the stars, dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way, heady with the night scents of frangipani and trumpet flowers in an African garden. Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer. A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief. In his boyhood at least, my chaplain was presumably not aware (nor was I) of the closing lines of The Origin of Species -- the famous 'entangled bank' passage, 'with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth'. Had he been, he would certainly have identified with it and, instead of the priesthood, might have been led to Darwin's view that all was 'produced by laws acting around us':

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Carl Sagan, in Pale Blue Dot, wrote:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

All Sagan's books touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder that religion monopolized in past centuries. My own books have the same aspiration. Consequently I hear myself often described as a deeply religious man. An American student wrote to me that she had asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!' But is 'religion' the right word? I don't think so. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is 'appropriate for us to worship'.

Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. Einstein sometimes invoked the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so), inviting misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own. The dramatic (or was it mischievous?) ending of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, 'For then we should know the mind of God', is notoriously misconstrued. It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that Hawking is a religious man. The cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, in The Sacred Depths of Nature, sounds more religious than Hawking or Einstein. She loves churches, mosques and temples, and numerous passages in her book fairly beg to be taken out of context and used as ammunition for supernatural religion. She goes so far as to call herself a 'Religious Naturalist'. Yet a careful reading of her book shows that she is really as staunch an atheist as I am.

'Naturalist' is an ambiguous word. For me it conjures my childhood hero, Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle (who, by the way, had more than a touch of the 'philosopher' naturalist of HMS Beagle about him). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, naturalist meant what it still means for most of us today: a student of the natural world. Naturalists in this sense, from Gilbert White on, have often been clergymen. Darwin himself was destined for the Church as a young man, hoping that the leisurely life of a country parson would enable him to pursue his passion for beetles. But philosophers use 'naturalist' in a very different sense, as the opposite of supernaturalist. Julian Baggini explains in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction the meaning of an atheist's commitment to naturalism: 'What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values -- in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.'

Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles -- except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don't yet understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural. As ever when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful.

Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply. This is certainly true of Einstein and Hawking. The present Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, told me that he goes to church as an 'unbelieving Anglican ... out of loyalty to the tribe'. He has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned. In the course of a recently televised conversation, I challenged my friend the obstetrician Robert Winston, a respected pillar of British Jewry, to admit that his Judaism was of exactly this character and that he didn't really believe in anything supernatural. He came close to admitting it but shied at the last fence (to be fair, he was supposed to be interviewing me, not the other way around). [3] When I pressed him, he said he found that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims. There are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews and observe Jewish rites, perhaps out of loyalty to an ancient tradition or to murdered relatives, but also because of a confused and confusing willingness to label as 'religion' the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein. They may not believe but, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Daniel Dennett, they 'believe in belief'. [4]

One of Einstein's most eagerly quoted remarks is 'Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.' But Einstein also said,

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Does it seem that Einstein contradicted himself? That his words can be cherry-picked for quotes to support both sides of an argument? No. By 'religion' Einstein meant something entirely different from what is conventionally meant. As I continue to clarify the distinction between supernatural religion on the one hand and Einsteinian religion on the other, bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional.

Here are some more quotations from Einstein, to give a flavour of Einsteinian religion.

I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.

I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature 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.

The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.

In greater numbers since his death, religious apologists understandably try to claim Einstein as one of their own. Some of his religious contemporaries saw him very differently. In 1940 Einstein wrote a famous paper justifying his statement 'I do not believe in a personal God.' This and similar statements provoked a storm of letters from the religiously orthodox, many of them alluding to Einstein's Jewish origins. The extracts that follow are taken from Max Jammer's book Einstein and Religion (which is also my main source of quotations from Einstein himself on religious matters). The Roman Catholic Bishop of Kansas City said: 'It is sad to see a man, who comes from the race of the Old Testament and its teaching, deny the great tradition of that race.' Other Catholic clergymen chimed in: 'There is no other God but a personal God ... Einstein does not know what he is talking about. He is all wrong. Some men think that because they have achieved a high degree of learning in some field, they are qualified to express opinions in all.' The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. That clergyman presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed 'fairyologist' on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings. Both he and the bishop thought that Einstein, being theologically untrained, had misunderstood the nature of God. On the contrary, Einstein understood very well exactly what he was denying.

An American Roman Catholic lawyer, working on behalf of an ecumenical coalition, wrote to Einstein:

We deeply regret that you made your statement ... in which you ridicule the idea of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement. Conceding your right to free speech, I still say that your statement constitutes you as one of the greatest sources of discord in America.

A New York rabbi said: 'Einstein is unquestionably a great scientist, but his religious views are diametrically opposed to Judaism.'

'But'? 'But'? Why not 'and'?

The president of a historical society in New Jersey wrote a letter that so damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind, it is worth reading twice:

We respect your learning, Dr Einstein; but there is one thing you do not seem to have learned: that God is a spirit and cannot be found through the telescope or microscope, no more than human thought or emotion can be found by analyzing the brain. As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith, not knowledge. Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, 'There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another's faith.' ... I hope, Dr Einstein, that you were misquoted and that you will yet say something more pleasing to the vast number of the American people who delight to do you honor.

What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.

Less abject but more shocking was the letter from the Founder of the Calvary Tabernacle Association in Oklahoma:

Professor Einstein, I believe that every Christian in America will answer you, 'We will not give up our belief in our God and his son Jesus Christ, but we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to go back where you came from.' I have done everything in my power to be a blessing to Israel, and then you come along and with one statement from your blasphemous tongue, do more to hurt the cause of your people than all the efforts of the Christians who love Israel can do to stamp out anti-Semitism in our land. Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, 'Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from, or stop trying to break down the faith of a people who gave you a welcome when you were forced to flee your native land.'

The one thing all his theistic critics got right was that Einstein was not one of them. He was repeatedly indignant at the suggestion that he was a theist. So, was he a deist, like Voltaire and Diderot? Or a pantheist, like Spinoza, whose philosophy he admired: 'I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings'?

Baruch Spinoza's Ethics, finished in 1675, was the major source from which Pantheism [God is identical with the universe] spread (though Spinoza himself did not use the word, and there is some controversy over whether he may more accurately be termed a panentheist) [God lies within and also beyond or outside of the universe].

-- Pantheism, by Wikipedia

Let's remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.

All varieties of Pantheism involve reverence for the Universe/Cosmos as a totality, and all stress some kind of unity. .....

Monist idealist Pantheism or Monistic Idealism holds that there is only one type of substance, and that substance is mental or spiritual. Some versions hold that the ultimate reality consists of a single cosmic consciousness. This version is common in Hindu philosophies and Consciousness-Only schools of Buddhism, as well as in some New Age writers such as Deepak Chopra....

Dualist Pantheism holds that there are two major types of substance, physical and mental/spiritual, which interact or are unified in some way. Dualistic pantheism is very diverse, and may include beliefs in reincarnation, cosmic consciousness, and paranormal connections across Nature.

-- Pantheism, by Wikipedia

The Gnostic view of God is pantheistic, that is God dwells in all things and via emanation, all things are of God. ... Emanation is opposed to the Jewish concept of a transcendent God. Gnostics of all kinds deny the idea that God directly created the material world, which they see as corrupt or fallen.

-- Overview of Gnosticism, by Lewis Loflin

There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like 'God is subtle but he is not malicious' or 'He does not play dice' or 'Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?' are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic. 'God does not play dice' should be translated as 'Randomness does not lie at the heart of all things: 'Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?' means 'Could the universe have begun in any other way?' Einstein was using 'God' in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking, and so are most of those physicists who occasionally slip into the language of religious metaphor. Paul Davies's The Mind of God seems to hover somewhere between Einsteinian pantheism and an obscure form of deism -- for which he was rewarded with the Templeton Prize (a very large sum of money given annually by the Templeton Foundation, usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion).

Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: 'To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious: In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that 'cannot grasp' does not have to mean 'forever ungraspable'. But I prefer not to call myself religious because it is misleading. It is destructively misleading because, for the vast majority of people, 'religion' implies 'supernatural'. Carl Sagan put it well: '... if by "God" one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying ... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.'

Amusingly, Sagan's last point was foreshadowed by the Reverend Dr Fulton J. Sheen, a professor at the Catholic University of America, as part of a fierce attack upon Einstein's 1940 disavowal of a personal God. Sheen sarcastically asked whether anyone would be prepared to lay down his life for the Milky Way. He seemed to think he was making a point against Einstein, rather than for him, for he added: 'There is only one fault with his cosmical religion: he put an extra letter in the word -- the letter "s".' There is nothing comical about Einstein's beliefs. Nevertheless, I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.


My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. I shall come to him in a moment. But before leaving this preliminary chapter I need to deal with one more matter that would otherwise bedevil the whole book. This time it is a matter of etiquette. It is possible that religious readers will be offended by what I have to say, and will find in these pages insufficient respect for their own particular beliefs (if not the beliefs that others treasure). It would be a shame if such offence prevented them from reading on, so I want to sort it out here, at the outset.

A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts -- the non-religious included -- is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death, [5] that I never tire of sharing his words:

Religion ... has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? -- because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'I respect that'.

Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows -- but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe ... no, that's holy? ... We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be.

Here's a particular example of our society's overweening respect for religion, one that really matters. By far the easiest grounds for gaining conscientious objector status in wartime are religious. You can be a brilliant moral philosopher with a prize-winning doctoral thesis expounding the evils of war, and still be given a hard time by a draft board evaluating your claim to be a conscientious objector. Yet if you can say that one or both of your parents is a Quaker you sail through like a breeze, no matter how inarticulate and illiterate you may be on the theory of pacifism or, indeed, Quakerism itself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from pacifism, we have a pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are euphemized to 'Nationalists' and 'Loyalists' respectively. The very word 'religions' is bowdlerized to 'communities', as in 'inter-community warfare'. Iraq, as a consequence of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, degenerated into sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Clearly a religious conflict -- yet in the Independent of 20 May 2006 the front-page headline and first leading article both described it as 'ethnic cleansing'. 'Ethnic' in this context is yet another I euphemism. What we are seeing in Iraq is religious cleansing. The original usage of 'ethnic cleansing' in the former Yugoslavia is also arguably a euphemism for religious cleansing, involving Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians. [6]

I have previously drawn attention to the privileging of religion in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government. [7] Whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be prominently represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio or television. I'm not suggesting that we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor?

Here's another weird example of the privileging of religion. On 21 February 2006 the United States Supreme Court ruled, in accordance with the Constitution, that a church in New Mexico should be exempt from the law, which everybody else has to obey, against ,the taking of hallucinogenic drugs. [8] Faithful members of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they can understand God only by drinking hoasca tea, which contains the illegal hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine. Note that it is sufficient that they believe that the drug enhances their understanding. They do not have to produce evidence. Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that cannabis eases the nausea and discomfort of cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy. Yet, again in accordance with the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that all patients who use cannabis for medicinal purposes are vulnerable to federal prosecution (even in the minority of states where such specialist use is legalized). Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they 'believe' they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet, when a church claims an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such is the power of religion as a talisman.

Eighteen years ago, I was one of thirty-six writers and artists commissioned by the magazine New Statesman to write in support of the distinguished author Salman Rushdie, [9] then under sentence of death for writing a novel. Incensed by the 'sympathy' for Muslim 'hurt' and 'offence' expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion-formers, I drew the following parallel:

If the advocates of apartheid had their wits about them they would claim -- for all I know truthfully -- that allowing mixed races is against their religion. A good part of the opposition would respectfully tiptoe away. And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification. The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe 'religious liberty'.

Little did I know that something pretty similar would come to pass in the twenty-first century. The Los Angeles Times (10 April 2006) reported that numerous Christian groups on campuses around the United States were suing their universities for enforcing anti-discrimination rules, including prohibitions against harassing or abusing homosexuals. As a typical example, in 2004 James Nixon, a twelve-year-old boy in Ohio, won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words 'Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!' [10]The school told him not to wear the T-shirt -- and the boy's parents sued the school. The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn't. Instead, the Nixons' lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. Their victorious lawsuit was supported by the Alliance Defense Fund of Arizona, whose business it is to 'press the legal battle for religious freedom'.

The Reverend Rick Scarborough, supporting the wave of similar Christian lawsuits brought to establish religion as a legal justification for discrimination against homosexuals and other groups, has named it the civil rights struggle of the twenty-first century: 'Christians are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian.' [11] Once again, if such people took their stand on the right to free speech, one might reluctantly sympathize. But that isn't what it is about. 'The right to be Christian' seems in this case to mean 'the right to poke your nose into other people's private lives'. The legal case in favour of discrimination against homosexuals is being mounted as a counter-suit against alleged religious discrimination! And the law seems to respect this. You can't get away with saying, 'If you try to stop me from insulting homosexuals it violates my freedom of prejudice.' But you can get away with saying, 'It violates my freedom of religion.' What, when you think about it, is the difference? Yet again, religion trumps all.

I'll end the chapter with a particular case study, which tellingly illuminates society's exaggerated respect for religion, over and above ordinary human respect. The case flared up in February 2006 -- a ludicrous episode, which veered wildly between the extremes of comedy and tragedy. The previous September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Over the next three months, indignation was carefully and systematically nurtured throughout the Islamic world by a small group of Muslims living in Denmark, led by two imams who had been granted sanctuary there. [12] In late 2005 these malevolent exiles travelled from Denmark to Egypt bearing a dossier, which was copied and circulated from there to the whole Islamic world, including, importantly, Indonesia. The dossier contained falsehoods about alleged maltreatment of Muslims in Denmark, and the tendentious lie that Jyllands-Posten was a government-run newspaper. It also contained the twelve cartoons which, crucially, the imams had supplemented with three additional images whose origin was mysterious but which certainly had no connection with Denmark. Unlike the original twelve, these three add-ons were genuinely offensive -- or would have been if they had, as the zealous propagandists alleged, depicted Muhammad. A particularly damaging one of these three was not a cartoon at all but a faxed photograph of a bearded man wearing a fake pig's snout held on with elastic. It has subsequently turned out that this was an Associated Press photograph of a Frenchman entered for a pig-squealing contest at a country fair in France. [13] The photograph had no connection whatsoever with the prophet Muhammad, no connection with Islam, and no connection with Denmark. But the Muslim activists, on their mischief-stirring hike to Cairo, implied all three connections ... with predictable results.

The carefully cultivated 'hurt' and 'offence' was brought to an explosive head five months after the twelve cartoons were originally published. Demonstrators in Pakistan and Indonesia burned Danish flags (where did they get them from?) and hysterical demands were made for the Danish government to apologize. (Apologize for what? They didn't draw the cartoons, or publish them. Danes just live in a country with a free press, something that people in many Islamic countries might have a hard time understanding.) Newspapers in Norway, Germany, France and even the United States (but, conspicuously, not Britain) reprinted the cartoons in gestures of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, which added fuel to the flames. Embassies and consulates were trashed, Danish goods were boycotted, Danish citizens and, indeed, Westerners generally, were physically threatened; Christian churches in Pakistan, with no Danish or European connections at all, were burned. Nine people were killed when Libyan rioters attacked and burned the Italian consulate in Benghazi. As Germaine Greer wrote, what these people really love and do best is pandemonium. [14]

A bounty of $1 million was placed on the head of 'the Danish cartoonist' by a Pakistani imam -- who was apparently unaware that there were twelve different Danish cartoonists, and almost certainly unaware that the three most offensive pictures had never appeared in Denmark at all (and, by the way, where was that million going to come from?). In Nigeria, Muslim protesters against the Danish cartoons burned down several Christian churches, and used machetes to attack and kill (black Nigerian) Christians in the streets. One Christian was put inside a rubber tyre, doused with petrol and set alight. Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners saying 'Slay those who insult Islam', 'Butcher those who mock Islam', 'Europe you will pay: Demolition is on its way' and 'Behead those who insult Islam'. Fortunately, our political leaders were on hand to remind us that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy.

In the aftermath of all this, the journalist Andrew Mueller interviewed Britain's leading 'moderate' Muslim, Sir Iqbal Sacranie. [15] Moderate he may be by today's Islamic standards, but in Andrew Mueller's account he still stands by the remark he made when Salman Rushdie was condemned to death for writing a novel: 'Death is perhaps too easy for him' -- a remark that sets him in ignominious contrast to his courageous predecessor as Britain's most influential Muslim, the late Dr Zaki Badawi, who offered Salman Rushdie sanctuary in his own home. Sacranie told Mueller how concerned he was about the Danish cartoons. Mueller was concerned too, but for a different reason: 'I am concerned that the ridiculous, disproportionate reaction to some unfunny sketches in an obscure Scandinavian newspaper may confirm that ... Islam and the west are fundamentally irreconcilable.' Sacranie, on the other hand, praised British newspapers for not reprinting the cartoons, to which Mueller voiced the suspicion of most of the nation that 'the restraint of British newspapers derived less from sensitivity to Muslim discontent than it did from a desire not to have their windows broken'.

Sacranie explained that 'The person of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is revered so profoundly in the Muslim world, with a love and affection that cannot be explained in words. It goes beyond your parents, your loved ones, your children. That is part of the faith. There is also an Islamic teaching that one does not depict the Prophet.' This rather assumes, as Mueller observed,

that the values of Islam trump anyone else's -- which is what any follower of Islam does assume, just as any follower of any religion believes that theirs is the sole way, truth and light. If people wish to love a 7th century preacher more than their own families, that's up to them, but nobody else is obliged to take it seriously ...

Except that if you don't take it seriously and accord it proper respect you are physically threatened, on a scale that no other religion has aspired to since the Middle Ages. One can't help wondering why such violence is necessary, given that, as Mueller notes: 'If any of you downs are right about anything, the cartoonists are going to hell anyway -- won't that do? In the meantime, if you want to get excited about affronts to Muslims, read the Amnesty International reports on Syria and Saudi Arabia.'

Many people have noted the contrast between the hysterical 'hurt' professed by Muslims and the readiness with which Arab media publish stereotypical anti-Jewish cartoons. At a demonstration in Pakistan against the Danish cartoons, a woman in a black burka was photographed carrying a banner reading 'God Bless Hitler'.

In response to all this frenzied pandemonium, decent liberal newspapers deplored the violence and made token noises about free speech. But at the same time they expressed 'respect' and 'sympathy' for the deep 'offence' and 'hurt' that Muslims had 'suffered'. The 'hurt' and 'suffering' consisted, remember, not in any person enduring violence or real pain of any kind: nothing more than a few daubs of printing ink in a newspaper that nobody outside Denmark would ever have heard of but for a deliberate campaign of incitement to mayhem.

I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect? As H. L. Mencken said: 'We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.'

It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion [ii] that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.



i. Our sport during lessons was to sidetrack him away from scripture and towards stirring tales of Fighter Command and the Few. He had done war service in the RAF and it was with familiarity, and something of the affection that I still retain for the Church of England (at least by comparison with the competition), that r later read John Betjeman's poem:

Our padre is an old sky pilot, Severely now they've clipped his wings, But still the flagstaff in the Rect'ry garden Points to Higher Things ...

ii. A stunning example of such 'respect' was reported in the New York Times while this paperback was in proof. In January 2007, a German Muslim woman had applied for a fast-track divorce on the grounds that her husband, from the very start of the marriage, repeatedly and seriously beat her. While not denying the facts, judge Christa Datz-Winter turned down the application, citing the Qur'an. 'In a remarkable ruling that underlines the tension between Muslim customs and European laws, the judge, Christa Datz- Winter, said that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu, in which she said it was common for husbands to beat their wives. The Koran, she wrote, sanctions such physical abuse' (New York Times, 23 March 2007). This incredible story came to light in March 2007 when the unfortunate woman's lawyer disclosed it. To its credit, the Frankfurt court promptly removed Judge Datz-Winter from the case. Nevertheless, the New York Times article concludes by quoting a suggestion that the episode will do great damage to other Muslim women suffering domestic abuse: 'Many are already afraid of going to court against their spouses. There have been a string of so-called honor-killings here, in which Turkish Muslim men have murdered women.' Judge Datz-Winter's motivation was put down to 'cultural sensitivity', but there is another name by which you could call it: patronizing insult. 'Of course we Europeans wouldn't dream of behaving like this, but wife-beating is part of "their culture", sanctioned by "their religion", and we should "respect" it.'
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:47 pm

Part 1 of 2


The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.

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. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror. A naif blessed with the perspective of innocence has a clearer perception. Winston Churchill's son Randolph somehow contrived to remain ignorant of scripture until Evelyn Waugh and a brother officer, in a vain attempt to keep Churchill quiet when they were posted together during the war, bet him he couldn't read the entire Bible in a fortnight: 'Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud "I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible ... " or merely slapping his side & chortling "God, isn't God a shit!"' [16] Thomas Jefferson -- better read -- was of a similar opinion, describing the God of Moses as 'a being of terrific character -- cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust'.

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'. (To be fair, this milksop persona owes more to his Victorian followers than to Jesus himself. Could anything be more mawkishly nauseating than Mrs C. F. Alexander's 'Christian children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as he'?) I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion.

Not surprisingly, since it is founded on local traditions of private revelation rather than evidence, the God Hypothesis comes in many versions. Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam.


It is not clear why the change from polytheism to monotheism should be assumed to be a self-evidently progressive improvement. But it widely is - an assumption that provoked Ibn Warraq (author of Why I Am Not a Muslim) wittily to conjecture that monotheism is in its turn doomed to subtract one more god and become atheism. The Catholic Encyclopedia dismisses polytheism and atheism in the same insouciant breath: 'Formal dogmatic atheism is self-refuting, and has never de facto won the reasoned assent of any considerable number of men. Nor can polytheism, however easily it may take hold of the popular imagination, ever satisfy the mind of a philosopher.' [17]

Monotheistic chauvinism was until recently written into the charity law of both England and Scotland, discriminating against polytheistic religions in granting tax-exempt status, while allowing an easy ride to charities whose object was to promote monotheistic religion, sparing them the rigorous vetting quite properly required of secular charities. It was my ambition to persuade a member of Britain's respected Hindu community to come forward and bring a civil action to test this snobbish discrimination against polytheism.

Far better, of course, would be to abandon the promotion of religion altogether as grounds for charitable status. The benefits of this to society would be great, especially in the United States, where the sums of tax-free money sucked in by churches, and polishing the heels of already well-heeled televangelists, reach levels that, could fairly be described as obscene. The aptly named Oral Roberts once told his television audience that God would kill him unless they gave him $8 million. Almost unbelievably, it worked. Tax-free! Roberts himself is still going strong, as is 'Oral Roberts University' of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Its buildings, valued at $250 million, were directly commissioned by God himself in these words: 'Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is dim, where My voice is heard small, and My healing power is not known, even to the uttermost bounds of the Earth. Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased.'

On reflection, my imagined Hindu litigator would have been as likely to play the 'If you can't beat them join them' card. His polytheism isn't really polytheism but monotheism in disguise. There is only one God -- Lord Brahma the creator, Lord Vishnu the preserver, Lord Shiva the destroyer, the goddesses Saraswati, Laxmi and Parvati (wives of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), Lord Ganesh the elephant god, and hundreds of others, all are just different manifestations or incarnations of the one God.

Christians should warm to such sophistry. Rivers of medieval ink, not to mention blood, have been squandered over the 'mystery' of the Trinity, and in suppressing deviations such as the Arian heresy. Arius of Alexandria, in the fourth century AD, denied that Jesus was consubstantial (i,e. of the same substance or essence) with God. What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What 'substance'? What exactly do you mean by 'essence'? 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply. Yet the controversy split Christendom down the middle for a century, and the Emperor Constantine ordered that all copies of Arius's book should be burned. Splitting Christendom by splitting hairs -- such has ever been the way of theology.

Do we have one God in three parts, or three Gods in one? The Catholic Encyclopedia clears up the matter for us, in a masterpiece of theological close reasoning:

In the unity of the Godhead there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another. Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: 'the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.'

As if that were not clear enough, the Encyclopedia quotes the third-century theologian St Gregory the Miracle Worker:

There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once had not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit: and this same Trinity is immutable and unalterable forever.

Whatever miracles may have earned St Gregory his nickname, they were not miracles of honest lucidity. His words convey the characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology, which -- unlike science or most other branches of human scholarship -- has not moved on in eighteen centuries. Thomas Jefferson, as so often, got it right when he said, 'Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.'

The other thing I cannot help remarking upon is the overweening confidence with which the religious assert minute details for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence. Perhaps it is the very fact that there is no evidence to support theological opinions, either way, that fosters the characteristic draconian hostility towards those of slightly different opinion, especially, as it happens, in this very field of Trinitarianism.

Jefferson heaped ridicule on the doctrine that, as he put it, 'There are three Gods', in his critique of Calvinism. But it is especially the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity that pushes its recurrent flirtation with polytheism towards runaway inflation. The Trinity is (are?) joined by Mary, 'Queen of Heaven', a goddess in all but name, who surely runs God himself a close second as a target of prayers. The pantheon is further swollen by an army of saints, whose intercessory power makes them, if not demigods, well worth approaching on their own specialist subjects. The Catholic Community Forum helpfully lists 5,120 saints, [18] together with their areas of expertise, which include abdominal pains, abuse victims, anorexia, arms dealers, blacksmiths, broken bones, bomb technicians and bowel disorders, to venture no further than the Bs. And we mustn't forget the four Choirs of Angelic Hosts, arrayed in nine orders: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels (heads of all hosts), and just plain old Angels, including our closest friends, the ever-watchful Guardian Angels. What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It is just shamelessly invented.

Pope John Paul II created more saints than all his predecessors of the past several centuries put together, and he had a special affinity with the Virgin Mary. His polytheistic hankerings were dramatically demonstrated in 1981 when he suffered an assassination attempt in Rome, and attributed his survival to intervention by Our Lady of Fatima: 'A maternal hand guided the bullet.' One cannot help wondering why she didn't guide it to miss him altogether. Others might think the team of surgeons who operated on him for six hours deserved at least a share of the credit; but perhaps their hands, too, were maternally guided. The relevant point is that it wasn't just Our Lady who, in the Pope's opinion, guided the bullet, but specifically Our Lady of Fatima. Presumably Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of Zeitoun, Our Lady of Garabandal and Our Lady of Knock were busy on other errands at the time.

How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many. Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it. For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply 'God'. I am also conscious that the Abrahamic God is (to put it mildly) aggressively male, and this too I shall accept as a convention in my use of pronouns. More sophisticated theologians proclaim the sexlessness of God, while some feminist theologians seek to redress historic injustices by designating her female. But what, after all, is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male? I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might indeed be a less salient attribute than gender.

I am aware that critics of religion can be attacked for failing to credit the fertile diversity of traditions and world-views that have been called religious. Anthropologically informed works, from Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough to Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained or Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust, fascinatingly document the bizarre phenomenology of superstition and ritual. Read such books and marvel at the richness of human gullibility.

But that is not the way of this book. I decry supernaturalism in all its forms, and the most effective way to proceed will be to concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar to my readers -- the form that impinges most threateningly on all our societies. Most of my readers will have been reared in one or another of today's three 'great' monotheistic religions (four if you count Mormonism), all of which trace themselves back to the mythological patriarch Abraham, and it will be convenient to keep this family of traditions in mind throughout the rest of the book.

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise -- as sure as night follows day -- turn up in a review: 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.' That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.


The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal -- God is the Omnipotent Father -- hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates. -- GORE VIDAL

The oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, and the clear ancestor of the other two, is Judaism: originally a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe. During the Roman occupation of Palestine, Christianity was founded by Paul of Tarsus as a less ruthlessly monotheistic sect of Juliaism and a less exclusive one, which looked outwards from the Jews to the rest of the world. Several centuries later, Muhammad and his followers reverted to the uncompromising monotheism of the Jewish original, but not its exclusiveness, and founded Islam upon a new holy book, the Koran or Qur'an, adding a powerful ideology of military conquest to spread the faith. Christianity, too, was spread by the sword, wielded first by Roman hands after the Emperor Constantine raised it from eccentric cult to official religion, then by the Crusaders, and later by the conquistadores and other European invaders and colonists, with missionary accompaniment. For most of my purposes, all three Abrahamic religions can be treated as indistinguishable. Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind, but only because it is the version with which I happen to be most familiar. For my purposes the differences matter less than the similarities. And I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.

The simple definition of the God Hypothesis with which I began has to be substantially fleshed out if it is to accommodate the Abrahamic God. He not only created the universe; he is a personal God dwelling within it, or perhaps outside it (whatever that might mean), possessing the unpleasantly human qualities to which I have alluded.

Personal qualities, whether pleasant or unpleasant, form no part of the deist god of Voltaire and Thomas Paine. Compared with the Old Testament's psychotic delinquent, the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is an altogether grander being: worthy of his cosmic creation, loftily unconcerned with human affairs, sublimely aloof from our private thoughts and hopes, caring nothing for our messy sins or mumbled contritions. The deist God is a physicist to end all physics, the alpha and omega of mathematicians, the apotheosis of designers; a hyper-engineer who set up the laws and constants of the universe, fine-tuned them with exquisite precision and foreknowledge, detonated what we would now call the hot big bang, retired and was never heard from again.

In times of stronger faith, deists have been reviled as indistinguishable from atheists. Susan Jacoby, in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, lists a choice selection of the epithets hurled at poor Tom Paine: 'Judas, reptile, hog, mad dog, souse, louse, archbeast, brute, liar, and of course infidel'. Paine died abandoned (with the honourable exception of Jefferson) by political former friends embarrassed by his anti- Christian views. Nowadays, the ground has shifted so far that deists are more likely to be contrasted with atheists and lumped with theists. They do, after all, believe in a supreme intelligence who created the universe.


It is conventional to assume that the Founding Fathers of the American Republic were deists. No doubt many of them were, although it has been argued that the greatest of them might have been atheists. Certainly their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours. But whatever their individual religious views in their own time, the one thing they collectively were is secularists, and this is the topic to which I turn in this section, beginning with a -- perhaps surprising -- quotation from Senator Barry Goldwater in 1981, clearly showing how staunchly that presidential candidate and hero of American conservatism upheld the secular tradition of the Republic's foundation:

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if 1 want to be a moral person, 1must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism. [19]

The religious views of the Founding Fathers are of great interest to propagandists of today's American right, anxious to push their version of history. Contrary to their view, the fact that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation was early stated in the terms of a treaty with Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The opening words of this quotation would cause uproar in today's Washington ascendancy. Yet Ed Buckner has convincingly demonstrated that they caused no dissent at the time, [20] among either politicians or public.

The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religiose country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least. I am continually asked why this is, and I do not know. I suppose it is possible that England has wearied of religion after an appalling history of interfaith violence, with Protestants and Catholics alternately gaining the upper hand and systematically murder- -ing the other lot. Another suggestion stems from the observation that America is a nation of immigrants. A colleague points out to me that immigrants, uprooted from the stability and comfort of an extended family in Europe, could well have embraced a church as a kind of kin-substitute on alien soil. It is an interesting idea, worth researching further. There is no doubt that many Americans see their own local church as an important unit of identity, which does indeed have some of the attributes of an extended family.

Yet another hypothesis is that the religiosity of America stems paradoxically from the secularism of its constitution. Precisely because America is legally secular, religion has become free enterprise. Rival churches compete for congregations -- not least for the fat tithes that they bring -- and the competition is waged with all the aggressive hard-sell techniques of the marketplace. What works for soap flakes works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today's less educated classes. In England, by contrast, religion under the aegis of the established church has become little more than a pleasant social pastime, scarcely recognizable as religious at all. This English tradition is nicely expressed by Giles Fraser, an Anglican vicar who doubles as a philosophy tutor at Oxford, writing in the Guardian. Fraser's article is subtitled 'The establishment of the Church of England took God out of religion, but there are risks in a more vigorous approach to faith':

There was a time when the country vicar was a staple of the English dramatis personae. This tea-drinking, gentle eccentric, with his polished shoes and kindly manners, represented a type of religion that didn't make non-religious people uncomfortable. He wouldn't break into an existential sweat or press you against a wall to ask if you were saved, still less launch crusades from the pulpit or plant roadside bombs in the name of some higher power. [21]

(Shades of Betjeman's 'Our Padre', which I quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1.) Fraser goes on to say that 'the nice country vicar in effect inoculated vast swaths of the English against Christianity'. He ends his article by lamenting a more recent trend in the Church of England to take religion seriously again, and his last sentence is a warning: 'the worry is that we may release the genie of English religious fanaticism from the establishment box in· which it has been dormant for centuries'.

The genie of religious fanaticism is rampant in present-day America, and the Founding Fathers would have been horrified. Whether or not it is right to embrace the paradox and blame the secular constitution that they devised, the founders most certainly were secularists who believed in keeping religion out of politics, and that is enough to place them firmly on the side of those who object, for example, to ostentatious displays of the Ten Commandments in government-owned public places. But it is tantalizing to speculate that at least some of the Founders might have gone beyond deism. Might they have been agnostics or even out-and-out atheists? The following statement of Jefferson is indistinguishable from what we would now call agnosticism:

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise ... without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.

Christopher Hitchens, in his biography Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, thinks it likely that Jefferson was an atheist, even in his own time when it was much harder:

As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment if only because of the prudence he was compelled to observe during his political life. But as he had written to his nephew, Peter Carr, as early as 1787, one must not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. 'If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in this exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.'

I find the following advice of Jefferson, again in his letter to Peter Carr, moving:

Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.

Remarks of Jefferson's such as 'Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man' are compatible with deism but also with atheism. So is James Madison's robust anti-clericalism: 'During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.' The same could be said of Benjamin Franklin's 'Lighthouses are more useful than churches.' John Adams seems to have been a deist of a strongly anti-clerical stripe ('The frightful engines of ecclesiastical councils ...'), and he delivered himself of some splendid tirades against Christianity in particular: 'As 1 understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?' And, in another letter, this time to Jefferson, 'I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved -- the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!'

Whether Jefferson and his colleagues were theists, deists, agnostics or atheists, they were also passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a President, or lack of them, were entirely his own business. All the Founding Fathers, whatever their private religious beliefs, would have been aghast to read the journalist Robert Sherman's report of George Bush Senior's answer when Sherman asked him whether he recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists: 'No, 1 don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.' [22] Assuming Sherman's account to be accurate (unfortunately he didn't use a tape-recorder, and no other newspaper ran the story at the time), try the experiment of replacing 'atheists' with 'Jews' or 'Muslims' or 'Blacks'. That gives the measure of the prejudice and discrimination that American atheists have to endure today. Natalie Angier's 'Confessions of a lonely atheist' is a sad and moving description, in the New York Times, of her feelings of isolation as an atheist in today's America. [23] But the isolation of American atheists is an illusion, assiduously cultivated by prejudice. Atheists in America are more numerous than most people realize. As 1 said in the Preface, American atheists far outnumber religious Jews, yet the Jewish lobby is notoriously one of the most formidably influential in Washington. What might American atheists achieve if they organized themselves properly? [i]

David Mills, in his admirable book Atheist Universe, tells a story which you would dismiss as an unrealistic caricature of police bigotry if it were fiction. A Christian faith-healer ran a 'Miracle Crusade' which carne to Mills's home town once a year. Among other things, the faith-healer encouraged diabetics to throwaway their insulin, and cancer patients to give up their chemotherapy and pray for a miracle instead. Reasonably enough, Mills decided to organize a peaceful demonstration to warn people. But he made the mistake of going to the police to tell them of his intention and ask for police protection against possible attacks from supporters of the faith-healer. The first police officer to whom he spoke asked, 'Is you gonna protest fir him or 'gin him?' (meaning for or against the faith-healer). When Mills replied, 'Against him: the policeman said that he himself planned to attend the rally and intended to spit personally in Mills's face as he marched past Mills's demonstration.

Mills decided to try his luck with a second police officer. This one said that if any of the faith-healer's supporters violently confronted Mills, the officer would arrest Mills because he was 'trying to interfere with God's work'. Mills went home and tried telephoning the police station, in the hope of finding more sympathy at a senior level. He was finally connected to a sergeant who said, 'To hell with you, Buddy. No policeman wants to protect a goddamned atheist. I hope somebody bloodies you up good: Apparently adverbs were in short supply in this police station, along with the milk of human kindness and a sense of duty. Mills relates that he spoke to about seven or eight policemen that day. None of them was helpful, and most of them directly threatened Mills with violence.

Anecdotes of such prejudice against atheists abound, but Margaret Downey, founder of the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN), maintains systematic records of such cases through the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. [24] Her database of incidents, categorized under community, schools, workplace, media, family and government, includes examples of harassment, loss of jobs, shunning by family and even murder. [25] Downey's documented evidence of the hatred and misunderstanding of atheists makes it easy to believe that it is, indeed, virtually impossible for an honest atheist to win a public election in America. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate. Assuming that the majority of these 535 individuals are an educated sample of the population, it is statistically all but inevitable that a substantial number of them must be atheists. They must have lied, or concealed their true feelings, in order to get elected. Who can blame them, given the electorate they had to convince? It is universally accepted that an admission of atheism would be instant political suicide for any presidential candidate. [ii]

These facts about to day's political climate in the United States, and what they imply, would have horrified Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Adams and all their friends. Whether they were atheists,' agnostics, deists or Christians, they would have recoiled in horror from the theocrats of early 21st-century Washington. They would have been drawn instead to the secularist founding fathers of post-colonial India, especially the religious Gandhi ('I am a Hindu, I am a Moslem, I am a Jew, I am a Christian, I am a Buddhist!'), and the atheist Nehru:

The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and 1 have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.

Nehru's definition of the secular India of Gandhi's dream (would that it had been realized, instead of the partitioning of their country amid an interfaith bloodbath) might almost have been ghosted by Jefferson himself:

We talk about a secular India ... Some people think that it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is a State which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities; India has a long history of religious tolerance ... In a country like India, which has many faiths and religions, no real nationalism can be built up except on the basis of secularity. [26]

The deist God, often associated with the Founding Fathers, is certainly an improvement over the monster of the Bible. Unfortunately it is scarcely more likely that he exists, or ever did. In any of its forms the God Hypothesis is unnecessary. [iii] The God Hypothesis is also very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability. 1shall come to that in Chapter 4, after dealing with the alleged proofs of the existence of God in Chapter 3. Meanwhile 1 turn to agnosticism, and the erroneous notion that the existence or non-existence of God is an untouchable question, forever beyond the reach of science.


The robust Muscular Christian haranguing us from the pulpit of myoid school chapel admitted a sneaking regard for atheists. They at least had the courage of their misguided convictions. What this preacher couldn't stand was agnostics: nambypamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters. He was partly right, but for wholly the wrong reason. In the same vein, according to Quentin de la Bedoyere, the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson 'respected the committed religious believer and also the committed atheist. He reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.'27

There is nothing wrong with being agnostic in cases where we lack evidence one way or the other. It is the reasonable position. Carl Sagan was proud to be agnostic when asked whether there was life elsewhere in the universe. When he refused to commit himself, his interlocutor pressed him for a 'gut feeling' and he immortally replied: 'But I try not to think with my gut. Really, it's okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.' [28] The question of extraterrestrial life is open. Good arguments can be mounted both ways, and we lack the evidence to do more than shade the probabilities one way or the other. Agnosticism, of a kind, is an appropriate stance on many scientific questions, such as what caused the end- Permian extinction, the greatest mass extinction in fossil history. It could have been a meteorite strike like the one that, with greater likelihood on present evidence, caused the later extinction of the dinosaurs. But it could have been any of various other possible causes, or a combination. Agnosticism about the causes of both these mass extinctions is reasonable. How about the question of God? Should we be agnostic about him too? Many have said definitely yes, often with an air of conviction that verges on protesting too much. Are they right?

I'll begin by distinguishing two kinds of agnosticism. TAP, or Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, is the legitimate fence-sitting where there really is a definite answer, one way or the other, but we so far lack the evidence to reach it (or don't understand the evidence, or haven't time to read the evidence, etc.). TAP would be a reasonable stance towards the Permian extinction. There is a truth out there and one day we hope to know it, though for the moment we don't.

But there is also a deeply inescapable kind of fence-sitting, which I shall call PAP (Permanent Agnosticism in Principle). The fact that the acronym spells a word used by that old school preacher is (almost) accidental. The PAP style of agnosticism is appropriate for questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather, because the very idea of evidence is not applicable. The question exists on a different plane, or in a different dimension, beyond the zones where evidence can reach. An example might be that philosophical chestnut, the question whether you see red as I do. Maybe your red is my green, or something completely different from any colour that I can imagine. Philosophers cite this question as one that can never be answered, no matter what new evidence might one day become available. And some scientists and other intellectuals are convinced -- too eagerly in my view -- that the question of God's existence belongs in the forever inaccessible PAP category. From this, as we shall see, they often make the illogical deduction that the hypothesis of God's existence, and the hypothesis of his non-existence, have exactly equal probability of being right. The view that I shall defend is very different: agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn't. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.

In the history of ideas, there are examples of questions being answered that had earlier been judged forever out of science's reach. In 1835 the celebrated French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote, of the stars: 'We shall never be able to study, by any method, their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure.' Yet even before Comte had set down these words, Fraunhofer had begun using his spectroscope to analyse the chemical composition of the sun. Now spectroscopists daily confound Comte's agnosticism with their long-distance analyses of the precise chemical composition of even distant stars. [29] Whatever the exact status of Comte's astronomical agnosticism, this cautionary tale suggests, at the very least, that we should hesitate before proclaiming the eternal verity of agnosticism too loudly. Nevertheless, when it comes to God, a great many philosophers and scientists are glad to do so, beginning with the inventor of the word itself, T. H. Huxley. [30]

Huxley explained his coining while rising to a personal attack that it had provoked. The Principal of King's College, London, the Reverend Dr Wace, had poured scorn on Huxley's 'cowardly agnosticism':

He may prefer to call himself an agnostic; but his real name is an older one -- he is an infidel; that is to say, an unbeliever. The word infidel, perhaps, carries an unpleasant significance. Perhaps it is right that it should. It is, and it ought to be, an unpleasant thing for a man to have to say plainly that he does not believe in Jesus Christ.

Huxley was not the man to let that sort of provocation pass him by, and his reply in 1889 was as robustly scathing as we should expect (although never departing from scrupulous good manners: as Darwin's Bulldog, his teeth were sharpened by urbane Victorian irony). Eventually, having dealt Dr Wace his just comeuppance and buried the remains, Huxley returned to the word 'agnostic' and explained how he first came by it. Others, he noted,

were quite sure they had attained a certain 'gnosis' -- had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion ... So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of 'agnostic'.

Later in his speech, Huxley went on to explain that agnostics have no creed, not even a negative one.

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle .... Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

To a scientist these are noble words, and one doesn't criticize T. H. Huxley lightly. But Huxley, in his concentration upon the absolute impossibility of proving or disproving God, seems to have been ignoring the shading of probability. The fact that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of something does not put existence and non-existence on an even footing. I don't think Huxley would disagree, and I suspect that when he appeared to do so he was bending over backwards to concede a point, in the interests of securing another one. We have all done this at one time or another.

Contrary to Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. Even if hard to test in practice, it belongs in the same TAP or temporary agnosticism box as the controversies over the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions. God's existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice. If he existed and chose to reveal it, God himself could clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocally, in his favour. And even if God's existence is never proved or disproved with certainty one way or the other, available evidence and reasoning may yield an estimate of probability far from 50 per cent.

Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way.

1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C. G. Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'

2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'

3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'

4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'

5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I don't know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.'

6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'

7. Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'

I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like lung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so (lung also believed that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang). Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 -- I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.

The spectrum of probabilities works well for TAP (temporary agnosticism in practice). It is superficially tempting to place PAP (permanent agnosticism in principle) in the middle of the spectrum, with a 50 per cent probability of God's existence, but this is not correct. PAP agnostics aver that we cannot say anything, one way or the other, on the question of whether or not God exists. The question, for PAP agnostics, is in principle unanswerable, and they should strictly refuse to place themselves anywhere on the spectrum of probabilities. The fact that I cannot know whether your red is the same as my green doesn't make the probability 50 per cent. The proposition on offer is too meaningless to be dignified with a probability. Nevertheless, it is a common error, which we shall meet again, to leap from the premise that the question of God's existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and his non-existence are equiprobable.

Another way to express that error is in terms of the burden of proof, and in this form it is pleasingly demonstrated by Bertrand Russell's parable of the celestial teapot. [31]

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

We would not waste time saying so because nobody, so far as I know, worships teapots; [iv] but, if pressed, we would not hesitate to declare our strong belief that there is positively no orbiting teapot. Yet strictly we should all be teapot agnostics: we cannot prove, for sure, that there is no celestial teapot. In practice, we move away from teapot agnosticism towards a-teapotism.

A friend, who was brought up a Jew and still observes the sabbath and other Jewish customs out of loyalty to his heritage, describes himself as a 'tooth fairy agnostic'. He regards God as no more probable than the tooth fairy. You can't disprove either hypothesis, and both are equally improbable. He is an a-theist to exactly the same large extent that he is an a-fairyist. And agnostic about both, to the same small extent.

Russell's teapot, of course, stands for an infinite number of things whose existence is conceivable and cannot be disproved. That great American lawyer Clarence Darrow said, 'I don't believe in God as I don't believe in Mother Goose.' The journalist Andrew Mueller is of the opinion that pledging yourself to any particular religion 'is no more or less weird than choosing to believe that the world is rhombus-shaped, and borne through the cosmos in the pincers of two enormous green lobsters called Esmerelda and Keith'. [32] A philosophical favourite is the invisible, intangible, inaudible unicorn, disproof of which is attempted yearly by the children at Camp Quest. [v] A popular deity on the Internet at present -- and as undisprovable as Yahweh or any other -- is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who, many claim, has touched them with his noodly appendage. [33] I am delighted to see that the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has now been published as a book, [34] to great acclaim. I haven't read it myself, but who needs to read a gospel when you just know it's true? By the way, it had to happen -- a Great Schism has already occurred, resulting in the Reformed Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. [35]

The point of all these way-out examples is that they are undisprovable, yet nobody thinks the hypothesis of their existence is on an even footing with the hypothesis of their nonexistence. Russell's point is that the burden of proof rests with the believers, not the non-believers. Mine is the related point that the odds in favour of the teapot (spaghetti monster / Esmerelda and Keith / unicorn etc.) are not equal to the odds against.

The fact that orbiting teapots and tooth fairies are undisprovable is not felt, by any reasonable person, to be the kind of fact that settles any interesting argument. None of us feels an obligation to disprove any of the millions of far-fetched things that a fertile or facetious imagination might dream up. I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.

All of us feel entitled to express extreme scepticism to the point of outright disbelief -- except that in the case of unicorns, tooth fairies and the gods of Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Vikings, there is (nowadays) no need to bother. In the case of the Abrahamic God, however, there is a need to bother, because a substantial proportion of the people with whom we share the planet do believe strongly in his existence. Russell's teapot demonstrates that the ubiquity of belief in God, as compared with belief in celestial teapots, does not shift the burden of proof in logic, although it may seem to shift it as a matter of practical politics. That you cannot prove God's non-existence is accepted and 'trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't) but whether his existence is probable. That is another matter. Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things. There is no reason to regard God as immune from consideration along the spectrum of probabilities. And there is certainly no reason to suppose that, just because God can be neither proved nor disproved, his probability of existence is 50 per cent. On the contrary, as we shall see.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:47 pm

Part 2 of 2


Just as Thomas Huxley bent over backwards to pay lip service to completely impartial agnosticism, right in the middle of my seven-stage spectrum, theists do the same thing from the other direction, and for an equivalent reason. The theologian Alister McGrath makes it the central point of his book Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Origin of Life. Indeed, after his admirably fair summary of my scientific works, it seems to be the only point in rebuttal that he has to offer: the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God. On page after page as I read McGrath, I found myself scribbling 'teapot' in the margin. Again invoking T. H. Huxley, McGrath says, 'Fed up with both theists and atheists making hopelessly dogmatic statements on the basis of inadequate empirical evidence, Huxley declared that the God question could not be settled on the basis of the scientific method.'

McGrath goes on to quote Stephen Jay Gould in similar vein: 'To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists.' Despite the confident, almost bullying, tone of Gould's assertion, what, actually, is the justification for it? Why shouldn't we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn't Russell's teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, equally immune from scientific scepticism? As I shall argue in a moment, a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?

Gould carried the art of bending over backwards to positively supine lengths in one of his less admired books, Rocks of Ages. There he coined the acronym NOMA for the phrase 'non -overlapping magisteria':

The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.

This sounds terrific -- right up until you give it a moment's thought. What are these ultimate questions in whose presence religion is an honoured guest and science must respectfully slink away?

Martin Rees, the distinguished Cambridge astronomer whom I have already mentioned, begins his book Our Cosmic Habitat by posing two candidate ultimate questions and giving a NOMA-friendly answer. 'The pre-eminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations, and actualized them in a real cosmos? Such questions lie beyond science, however: they are the province of philosophers and theologians.' I would prefer to say that if indeed they lie beyond science, they most certainly lie beyond the province of theologians as well (I doubt that philosophers would thank Martin Rees for lumping theologians in with them). I am tempted to go further and wonder in what possible sense theologians can be said to have a province. I am still amused when I recall the remark of a former Warden (head) of my Oxford college. A young theologian had applied for a junior research fellowship, and his doctoral thesis on Christian theology provoked the Warden to say, 'I have grave doubts as to whether it's a subject at all.'

What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot? In another book I recounted the words of an Oxford astronomer who, when I asked him one of those same deep questions, said: 'Ah, now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the chaplain.' I was not quick-witted enough to utter the response that I later wrote: 'But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?' Why are scientists so cravenly respectful towards the ambitions of theologians, over questions that theologians are certainly no more qualified to answer than scientists themselves?

It is a tedious cliche (and, unlike many cliches, it isn't even true) that science concerns itself with how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions. What on Earth is a why question? Not every English sentence beginning with the word 'why' is a legitimate question. Why are unicorns hollow? Some questions simply do not deserve an answer. What is the colour of abstraction? What is the smell of hope? The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn't make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can.

Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. Maybe quantum theory is already knocking on the door of the unfathomable. But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can? I suspect that neither the Cambridge nor the Oxford astronomer really believed that theologians have any expertise that enables them to answer questions that are too deep for science. I suspect that both astronomers were, yet again, bending over backwards to be polite: theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let's throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will. Unlike my astronomer friends, I don't think we should even throw them a sop. I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.

Similarly, we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to con tribute to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do. Which religion, anyway? The one in which we happen to have been brought up? To which chapter, then, of which book of the Bible should we turn -- for they are far from unanimous and some of them are odious by any reasonable standards. How .many literalists have read enough of the Bible to know that the death penalty is prescribed for adultery, for gathering sticks on the sabbath and for cheeking your parents? If we reject Deuteronomy and Leviticus (as all enlightened moderns do), by what criteria do we then decide which of religion's moral values to accept? Or should we pick and choose among all the world's religions until we find one whose moral teaching suits us? If so, again we must ask, by what criterion do we choose? And if we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion? I shall return to such questions in Chapter 7.

I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages. As I say, we have all been guilty of bending over backwards to be nice to an unworthy but powerful opponent, and I can only think that this is what Gould was doing. It is conceivable that he really did intend his unequivocally strong statement that science has nothing whatever to say about the question of God's existence: 'We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists: This sounds like agnosticism of the permanent and irrevocable kind, full-blown PAP. It implies that science cannot even make probability judgements on the question. This remarkably widespread fallacy -- many repeat it like a mantra but few of them, I suspect, have thought it through -- embodies what I refer to as 'the poverty of agnosticism'. Gould, by the way, was not an impartial agnostic but strongly inclined towards de facto atheism. On what basis did he make that judgement, if there is nothing to be said about whether God exists?

The God Hypothesis suggests that the reality we inhabit also contains a supernatural agent who designed the universe and -- at least in many versions of the hypothesis -- maintains it and even intervenes in it with miracles, which are temporary violations of his own otherwise grandly immutable laws. Richard Swinburne, one of Britain's leading theologians, is surprisingly clear on the matter in his book Is There a God?:

What the theist claims about God is that he does have a power to create, conserve, or annihilate anything, big or small. And he can also make objects move or do anything else ... He can make the planets move in the way that Kepler discovered that they move, or make gunpowder explode when we set a match to it; or he can make planets move in quite different ways, and chemical substances explode or not explode under quite different conditions from those which now govern their behaviour. God is not limited by the laws of nature; he makes them and he can change or suspend them -- if he chooses.

Just too easy, isn't it! Whatever else this is, it is very far from NOMA. And whatever else they may say, those scientists who subscribe to the 'separate magisteria' school of thought should concede that a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice. And it undermines the complacently seductive dictum that science must be completely silent about religion's central existence claim. The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice -- or not yet -- a decided one. So also is the truth or falsehood of everyone of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful.

Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle: yes or no. Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Did he himself come alive again, three days after being crucified? There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods. To dramatize the point, imagine, by some remarkable set of circumstances, that forensic archaeologists unearthed DNA evidence to show that Jesus really did lack a biological father. Can you imagine religious apologists shrugging their shoulders and saying anything remotely like the following? 'Who cares? Scientific evidence is completely irrelevant to theological questions. Wrong magisterium! We're concerned only with ultimate questions and with moral values. Neither DNA nor any other scientific evidence could ever have any bearing on the matter, one way or the other.'

The very idea is a joke. You can bet your boots that the scientific evidence, if any were to turn up, would be seized upon and trumpeted to the skies. NOMA is popular only because there is no evidence to favour the God Hypothesis. The moment there was the smallest suggestion of any evidence in favour of religious belief, religious apologists would lose no time in throwing NOMA out of the window. Sophisticated theologians aside (and even they are happy to tell miracle stories to the unsophisticated in order to swell congregations), I suspect that alleged miracles provide the strongest reason many believers have for their faith; and miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science.

The Roman Catholic Church on the one hand seems sometimes to aspire to NOMA, but on the other hand lays down the performance of miracles as an essential qualification for elevation to sainthood. The late King of the Belgians is a candidate for sainthood, because of his stand on abortion. Earnest investigations are now going on to discover whether any miraculous cures can be attributed to prayers offered up to him since his death. I am not joking. That is the case, and it is typical of saint stories. I imagine the whole business is an embarrassment to more sophisticated circles within the Church. Why any circles worthy of the name of sophisticated remain within the Church is a mystery at least as deep as those that theologians enjoy.

When faced with miracle stories, Gould would presumably retort along the following lines. The whole point of NOMA is that it is a two-way bargain. The moment religion steps on science's turf and starts to meddle in the real world with miracles, it ceases to be religion in the sense Gould is defending, and his amicabilis concordia is broken. Note, however, that the miracle-free religion defended by Gould would not be recognized by most practising theists in the pew or on the prayer mat. It would, indeed, be a grave disappointment to them. To adapt Alice's comment on her sister's book before she fell into Wonderland, what is the use of a God who does no miracles and answers no prayers? Remember Ambrose Bierce's witty definition of the verb 'to pray': 'to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy'. There are athletes who believe God helps them win -- against opponents who would seem, on the face of it, no less worthy of his favouritism. There are motorists who believe God saves them a parking space -- thereby presumably depriving somebody else. This style of theism is embarrassingly popular, and is unlikely to be impressed by anything as (superficially) reasonable as NOMA.

Nevertheless, let us follow Gould and pare our religion down to some sort of non-interventionist minimum: no miracles, no personal communication between God and us in either direction, no monkeying with the laws of physics, no trespassing on the scientific grass. At most, a little deistic input to the initial conditions of the universe so that, in the fullness of time, stars, elements, chemistry and planets develop, and life evolves. Surely that is an adequate separation? Surely NOMA can survive this more modest and unassuming religion?

Well, you might think so. But I suggest that even a noninterventionist, NOMA God, though less violent and clumsy than an Abrahamic God, is still, when you look at him fair and square, a scientific hypothesis. I return to the point: a universe in which we are alone except for other slowly evolved intelligences is a very different universe from one with an original guiding agent whose intelligent design is responsible for its very existence. I accept that it may not be so easy in practice to distinguish one kind of universe from the other. Nevertheless, there is something utterly special about the hypothesis of ultimate design, and equally special about the only known alternative: gradual evolution in the broad sense. They are close to being irreconcilably different. Like nothing else, evolution really does provide an explanation for the existence of entities whose improbability would otherwise, for practical purposes, rule them out. And the conclusion to the argument, as I shall show in Chapter 4, is close to being terminally fatal to the God Hypothesis.


An amusing, if rather pathetic, case study in miracles is the Great Prayer Experiment: does praying for patients help them recover? Prayers are commonly offered for sick people, both privately and in formal places of worship. Darwin's cousin Francis Galton was the first to analyse scientifically whether praying for people is efficacious. He noted that every Sunday, in churches throughout Britain, entire congregations prayed publicly for the health of the royal family. Shouldn't they, therefore, be unusually fit, compared with the rest of us, who are prayed for only by our nearest and dearest? [vi] Galton looked into it, and found no statistical difference. His intention may, in any case, have been satirical, as also when he prayed over randomized plots of land to see if the plants would grow any faster (they didn't).

More recently, the physicist Russell Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an initiative, funded by -- of course -- the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improves their health. [36]

Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients, nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying -- otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than for somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently that would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.

The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous measure of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:

What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the control group? ... Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr. Evans in the next-door bed ... What was that, Lord? ... Mr. Evans received a thousand prayers per day? But Lord, Mr. Evans doesn't know a thousand people ... Oh, they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean John Ellsworthy? ... Oh right, you used your omniscience to work out which John E they meant. But Lord ...

Valiantly shouldering aside all mockery, the team of researchers soldiered on, spending $2.4 million of Templeton money under the leadership of Dr Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston. Dr Benson was earlier quoted in a Templeton press release as 'believing that evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer in medicinal settings is mounting'. Reassuringly, then, the research was in good hands, unlikely to be spoiled by sceptical vibrations. Dr Benson and his team monitored 1,802 patients at six hospitals, all of whom received coronary bypass surgery. The patients were divided into three groups. Group 1 received prayers and didn't know it. Group 2 (the control group) received no prayers and didn't know it. Group 3 received prayers and did know it. The comparison between Groups 1 and 2 tests for the efficacy of intercessory prayer. Group 3 tests for possible psychosomatic effects of knowing that one is being prayed for.

Prayers were delivered by the congregations of three churches, one in Minnesota, one in Massachusetts and one in Missouri, all distant from the three hospitals. The praying individuals, as explained, were given only the first name and initial letter of the surname of each patient for whom they were to pray. It is good experimental practice to standardize as far as possible, and they were all, accordingly, told to include in their prayers the phrase 'for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications'.

The results, reported in the American Heart Journal of April 2006, were clear-cut. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. What a surprise. There was a difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not know one way or the other; but it went in the wrong direction. Those who knew they had been the beneficiaries of prayer suffered significantly more complications than those who did not. Was God doing a bit of smiting, to show his disapproval of the whole barmy enterprise? It seems more probable that those patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered additional stress in consequence: 'performance anxiety', as the experimenters put it. Dr. Charles Bethea, one of the researchers, said, 'It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?' In today's litigious society, is it too much· to hope that those patients suffering heart complications, as a consequence of knowing they were receiving experimental prayers, might put together a class action lawsuit against the Templeton Foundation?

It will be no surprise that this study was opposed by theologians, perhaps anxious about its capacity to bring ridicule upon religion. The Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, writing after the study failed, objected to it on the grounds that God answers prayers only if they are offered up for good reasons. [37] Praying for somebody rather than somebody else, simply because of the fall of the dice in the design of a double-blind experiment, does not constitute a good reason. God would see through it. That, indeed, was the point of my Bob Newhart satire, and Swinburne is right to make it too. But in other parts of his paper Swinburne himself is beyond satire. Not for the first time, he seeks to justify suffering in a world run by God:

My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering ... Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character. Some people badly need to be ill for their own sake, and some people badly need to be ill to provide important choices for others. Only in that way can some people be encouraged to make serious choices about the sort of person they are to be. For other people, illness is not so valuable.

This grotesque piece of reasoning, so damningly typical of the theological mind, reminds me of an occasion when I was on a television panel with Swinburne, and also with our Oxford colleague Professor Peter Atkins. Swinburne at one point attempted to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble. Peter Atkins splendidly growled, 'May you rot in hell.' [vii]

Another typical piece of theological reasoning occurs further along in Swinburne's article. He rightly suggests that if God wanted to demonstrate his own existence he would find better ways to do it than slightly biasing the recovery statistics of experimental versus control groups of heart patients. If God existed and wanted to convince us of it, he could 'fill the world with super-miracles'. But then Swinburne lets fall his gem: 'There is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God's existence, and too much might not be good for us.' Too much might not be good for us! Read it again. Too much evidence might not be good for us. Richard Swinburne is the recently retired holder of one of Britain's most prestigious professorships of theology, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. If it's a theologian you want, they don't come much more distinguished. Perhaps you don't want a theologian.

Swinburne wasn't the only theologian to disown the study after it had failed. The Reverend Raymond J. Lawrence was granted a generous tranche of op-ed space in the New York Times to explain why responsible religious leaders 'will breathe a sigh of relief' that no evidence could be found of intercessory prayer having any effect. [38] Would he have sung a different tune if the Benson study had succeeded in demonstrating the power of prayer? Maybe not, but you can be certain that plenty of other pastors and theologians would. The Reverend Lawrence's piece is chiefly memorable for the following revelation: 'Recently, a colleague told me about a devout, well-educated woman who accused a doctor of malpractice in his treatment of her husband. During her husband's dying days, she charged, the doctor had failed to pray for him.'

Other theologians joined NOMA-inspired sceptics in contending that studying prayer in this way is a waste of money because supernatural influences are by definition beyond the reach of science. But as the Templeton Foundation correctly recognized when it financed the study, the alleged power of intercessory prayer is at least in principle within the reach of science. A double-blind experiment can be done and was done. It could have yielded a positive result. And if it had, can you imagine that a single religious apologist would have dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters? Of course not.

Needless to say, the negative results of the experiment will not shake the faithful. Bob Barth, the spiritual director of the Missouri prayer ministry which supplied some of the experimental prayers, said: 'A person of faith would say that this study is interesting, but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started.' Yeah, right: we know from our faith that prayer works, so if evidence fails to show it we'll just soldier on until finally we get the result we want.


A possible ulterior motive for those scientists who insist on NOMA -- the invulnerability to science of the God Hypothesis -- is a peculiarly American political agenda, provoked by the threat of populist creationism. In parts of the United States, science is under attack from a well-organized, politically well-connected and, above all, well-financed opposition, and the teaching of evolution is in the front-line trench. Scientists could be forgiven for feeling threatened, because most research money comes ultimately from government, and elected representatives have to answer to the ignorant and prejudiced, as well as to the well-informed, among their constituents.

In response to such threats, an evolution defence lobby has sprung up, most notably represented by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), led by Eugenie Scott, indefatigable activist on behalf of science who has recently produced her own book, Evolution vs. Creationism. One of NCSE's main political objectives is to court and mobilize 'sensible' religious opinion: mainstream churchmen and women who have no problem with evolution and may regard it as irrelevant to (or even in some strange way supportive of) their faith. It is to this mainstream of clergy, theologians and non-fundamentalist believers, embarrassed as they are by creationism because it brings religion into disrepute, that the evolution defence lobby tries to appeal. And one way to do this is to bend over backwards in their direction by espousing NOMA -- agree that science is completely non-threatening, because it is disconnected from religion's claims.

Another prominent luminary of what we might call the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists is the philosopher Michael Ruse. Ruse has been an effective fighter against creationism, [39] both on paper and in court. He claims to be an atheist, but his article in Playboy takes the view that

we who love science must realize that the enemy of our enemies is our friend. Too often evolutionists spend time insulting would-be allies. This is especially true of secular evolutionists. Atheists spend more time running down sympathetic Christians than they do countering creationists. When John Paul II wrote a letter endorsing Darwinism, Richard Dawkins's response was simply that the pope was a hypocrite, that he could not be genuine about science and that Dawkins himself simply preferred an honest fundamentalist.

From a purely tactical viewpoint, I can see the superficial appeal of Ruse's comparison with the fight against Hitler: 'Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt did not like Stalin and communism. But in fighting Hitler they realized that they had to work with the Soviet Union. Evolutionists of all kinds must likewise work together to fight creationism.' But I finally come down on the side of my colleague the Chicago geneticist Jerry Coyne, who wrote that Ruse

fails to grasp the real nature of the conflict. It's not just about evolution versus creationism. To scientists like Dawkins and Wilson [E. 0. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard biologist], the real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition. Creationism is just a symptom of what they see as the greater enemy: religion. While religion can exist without creationism, creationism cannot exist without religion. [40]

I do have one thing in common with the creationists. Like me, but unlike the 'Chamberlain school', they will have no truck with NOMA and its separate magisteria. Far from respecting the separateness of science's turf, creationists like nothing better than to trample their dirty hobnails all over it. And they fight dirty, too. Lawyers for creationists, in court cases around the American boondocks, seek out evolutionists who are openly atheists. I know -- to my chagrin -- that my name has been used in this way. It is an effective tactic because juries selected at random are likely to include individuals brought up to believe that atheists are demons incarnate, on a par with pedophiles or 'terrorists' (today's equivalent of Salem's witches and McCarthy's Commies). Any creationist lawyer who got me on the stand could instantly win over the jury simply by asking me: 'Has your knowledge of evolution influenced you in the direction of becoming an atheist?' I would have to answer yes and, at one stroke, I would have lost the jury. By contrast, the judicially correct answer from the secularist side would be: 'My religious beliefs, or lack of them, are a private matter, neither the business of this court nor connected in any way with my science.' I couldn't honestly say this, for reasons I shall explain in Chapter 4.

The Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting wrote an article entitled 'Why the intelligent design lobby thanks God for Richard Dawkins'. [41] There's no indication that she consulted anybody except Michael Ruse, and her article might as well have been ghost-written by him. [viii] Dan Dennett replied, aptly quoting Uncle Remus:

I find it amusing that two Brits -- Madeleine Bunting and Michael Ruse -- have fallen for a version of one of the most famous scams in American folklore (Why the intelligent design lobby thanks God for Richard Dawkins, March 27). When Brer Rabbit gets caught by the fox, he pleads with him: 'Oh, please, please, Brer Fox, whatever you do, don't throw me in that awful briar patch!' -- where he ends up safe and sound after the fox does just that. When the American propagandist William Dembski writes tauntingly to Richard Dawkins, telling him to keep up the good work on behalf of intelligent design, Bunting and Ruse fall for it! 'Oh golly, Brer Fox, your forthright assertion -- that evolutionary biology disproves the idea of a creator God -- jeopardises the teaching of biology in science class, since teaching that would violate the separation of church and state!' Right. You also ought to soft-pedal physiology, since it declares virgin birth impossible ... [42]

This whole issue, including an independent invocation of Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, is well discussed by the biologist P. Z. Myers, whose Pharyngula blog can reliably be consulted for trenchant good sense. [43]

I am not suggesting that my colleagues of the appeasement lobby are necessarily dishonest. They may sincerely believe in NOMA, although I can't help wondering how thoroughly they've thought it through and how they reconcile the internal conflicts in their minds. There is no need to pursue the matter for the moment, but anyone seeking to understand the published statements of scientists on religious matters would do well not to forget the political context: the surreal culture wars now rending America. NOMA-style appeasement will surface again in a later chapter. Here, I return to agnosticism and the possibility of chipping away at our ignorance and measurably reducing our uncertainty about the existence or non-existence of God.


Suppose Bertrand Russell's parable had concerned not a teapot in outer space but life in outer space -- the subject of Sagan's memorable refusal to think with his gut. Once again we cannot disprove it, and the only strictly rational stance is agnosticism. But the hypothesis is no longer frivolous. We don't immediately scent extreme improbability. We can have an interesting argument based on incomplete evidence, and we can write down the kind of evidence that would decrease our uncertainty. We'd be outraged if our government invested in expensive telescopes for the sole purpose of searching for orbiting teapots. But we can appreciate the case for spending money on SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, using radio telescopes to scan the skies in the hope of picking up signals from intelligent aliens.

I praised Carl Sagan for disavowing gut feelings about alien life. But one can (and Sagan did) make a sober assessment of what we would need to know in order to estimate the probability. This might start from nothing more than a listing of our points of ignorance, as in the famous Drake Equation which, in Paul Davies's phrase, collects probabilities. It states that to estimate the number of independently evolved civilizations in the universe you must multiply seven terms together. The seven include the number of stars, the number of Earth-like planets per star, and the probability of this, that and the other which I need not list because the only point I am making is that they are all unknown, or estimated with enormous margins of error. When so many terms that are either completely or almost completely unknown are multiplied up, the product - the estimated number of alien civilizations -- has such colossal error bars that agnosticism seems a very reasonable, if not the only credible stance.

Some of the terms in the Drake Equation are already less unknown than when he first wrote it down in 1961. At that time, our solar system of planets orbiting a central star was the only one known, together with the local analogies provided by Jupiter's and Saturn's satellite systems. Our best estimate of the number of orbiting systems in the universe was based on theoretical models, coupled with the more informal 'principle of mediocrity': the feeling (born of uncomfortable history lessons from Copernicus, Hubble and others) that there should be nothing particularly unusual about the place where we happen to live. Unfortunately, the principle of mediocrity is in its turn emasculated by the 'anthropic' principle (see Chapter 4): if our solar system really were the only one in the universe, this is precisely where we, as beings who think about such matters, would have to be living. The very fact of our existence could retrospectively determine that we live in an extremely unmediocre place.

But today's estimates of the ubiquity of solar systems are no longer based on the principle of mediocrity; they are informed by direct evidence. The spectroscope, nemesis of Comte's positivism, strikes again. Our telescopes are scarcely powerful enough to see planets around other stars directly. But the position of a star is perturbed by the gravitational pull of its planets as they whirl around it, and spectroscopes can pick up the Doppler shifts in the star's spectrum, at least in cases where the perturbing planet is large. Mostly using this method, at the time of writing we now know of 170 extra-solar planets orbiting 147 stars,44but the figure will certainly have increased by the time you read this book. So far, they are bulky 'Jupiters', because only Jupiters are large enough to perturb their stars into the zone of detectability of present-day spectroscopes.

We have at least quantitatively improved our estimate of one previously shrouded term of the Drake Equation. This permits a significant, if still moderate, easing of our agnosticism about the final value yielded by the equation. We must still be agnostic about life on other worlds -- but a little bit less agnostic, because we are just that bit less ignorant. Science can chip away at agnosticism, in a way that Huxley bent over backwards to deny for the special case of God. I am arguing that, notwithstanding the polite abstinence of Huxley, Gould and many others, the God question is not in principle and forever outside the remit of science. As with the nature of the stars, contra Comte, and as with the likelihood of life in orbit around them, science can make at least probabilistic inroads into the territory of agnosticism.

My definition of the God Hypothesis included the words 'superhuman' and 'supernatural'. To clarify the difference, imagine that a SETI radio telescope actually did pick up a signal from outer space which showed, unequivocally, that we are not alone. It is a non-trivial question, by the way, what kind of signal would convince us of its intelligent origin. A good approach is to turn the question around. What should we intelligently do in order" to advertise our presence to extraterrestrial listeners? Rhythmic pulses wouldn't do it. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the radio astronomer who first discovered the pulsar in 1967, was moved by the precision of its 1.33-second periodicity to name it, tongue in cheek, the LGM (Little Green Men) signal. She later found a second pulsar, elsewhere in the sky and of different periodicity, which pretty much disposed of the LGM hypothesis. Metronomic rhythms can be generated by many non-intelligent phenomena, from swaying branches to dripping water, from time lags in self-regulating feedback loops to spinning and orbiting celestial bodies. More than a thousand pulsars have now been found in our galaxy, and it is generally accepted that each one is a spinning neutron star emitting radio energy that sweeps around like a lighthouse beam. It is amazing to think of a star rotating on a timescale of seconds (imagine if each of our days lasted 1.33 seconds instead of 24 hours), but just about everything we know of neutron stars is amazing. The point is that the pulsar phenomenon is now understood as a product of simple physics, not intelligence.

Nothing simply rhythmic, then, would announce our intelligent presence to the waiting universe. Prime numbers are often mentioned as the recipe of choice, since it is difficult to think of a purely physical process that could generate them. Whether by detecting prime numbers or by some other means, imagine that SETI does come up with unequivocal evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, followed, perhaps, by a massive transmission of knowledge and wisdom, along the science-fiction lines of Fred Hoyle's A for Andromeda or Carl Sagan's Contact. How should we respond? A pardonable reaction would be something akin to worship, for any civilization capable of broadcasting a signal over such an immense distance is likely to be greatly superior to ours. Even if that civilization is not more advanced than ours at the time of transmission, the enormous distance between us entitles us to calculate that they must be millennia ahead of us by the time the message reaches us (unless they have driven themselves extinct, which is not unlikely).

Whether we ever get to know about them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century. Imagine his response to a laptop computer, a mobile telephone, a hydrogen bomb or a jumbo jet. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, in his Third Law: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic: The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods, just as missionaries were treated as gods (and exploited the undeserved honour to the hilt) when they turned up in Stone Age cultures bearing guns, telescopes, matches, and almanacs predicting eclipses to the second.

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how godlike they may seem when we encounter them, they didn't start that way. Science-fiction authors, such as Daniel F. Galouye in Counterfeit World, have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization. But the simulators themselves would have to come from somewhere. The laws of probability forbid all notions of their spontaneously appearing without simpler antecedents. They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution: some sort of cumulatively ratcheting 'crane' as opposed to 'skyhook', to use Daniel Dennett's terminology. [45] Skyhooks -- including all gods - are magic spells. They do no bona fide explanatory work and demand more explanation than they provide. Cranes are explanatory devices that actually do explain. Natural selection is the champion crane of all time. It has lifted life from primeval simplicity to the dizzy heights of complexity, beauty and apparent design that dazzle us today. This will be a dominant theme of Chapter 4, 'Why there almost certainly is no God'. But first, before proceeding with my main reason for actively disbelieving in God's existence, I have a responsibility to dispose of the positive arguments for belief that have been offered through history.



i. Tom Flynn, Editor of Free Inquiry, makes the point forcefully ('Secularism's breakthrough moment,' Free Inquiry 26: 3, 2006, 16-17): 'If atheists are lonely and downtrodden, we have only ourselves to blame. Numerically, we are strong. Let's start punching our weight.'

ii. Stop Press: in March 2007, Representative Pete Stark, US Congressman for the California 13th District, publicly acknowledged his lack of theistic belief ( Let's hope other American politicians will now follow this brave man's example. Come on, dive in, the water's cold but refreshing.

iii. 'Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis: as Laplace said when Napoleon wondered how the famous mathematician had managed to write his book without mentioning God.

iv. Perhaps I spoke too soon. The Independent on Sunday of 5 June 2005 carried the following item: 'Malaysian officials say religious sect which built sacred teapot the size of a house has flouted planning regulations.' See also BBC News at

v. Camp Quest takes the American institution of the summer camp in an entirely admirable direction. Unlike other summer camps that follow a religious or scouting ethos, Camp Quest, founded by Edwin and Helen Kagin in Kentucky, is run by secular humanists, and the children are encouraged to think sceptically for themselves while having a very good time with all the usual outdoor activities ( Other Camp Quests with a similar ethos have now sprung up in Tennessee, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Canada.

vi. When my Oxford college elected the Warden whom I quoted earlier, it happened that the Fellows publicly drank his health on three successive evenings. At the third of these dinners, he graciously remarked in his speech of reply: 'I'm feeling better already.'

vii. This interchange was edited out of the final broadcast version. That Swinburne's remark is typical of his theology is indicated by his rather similar comment about Hiroshima in The Existence of God (2004), page 264: 'Suppose that one less person had been burnt by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Then there would have been less opportunity for courage and sympathy ...'

viii. The same could be said of an article, 'When cosmologies collide', in the New York Times, 22 Jan. 2006, by the respected (and usually much better briefed) journalist Judith Shulevitz. General Montgomery's First Rule of War was 'Don't march on Moscow.' Perhaps there should be a First Rule of Science Journalism: 'Interview at least one person other than Michael Ruse.'
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:51 pm

Part 1 of 2


A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution.

Arguments for the existence of God have been codified for centuries by theologians, and supplemented by others, including purveyors of misconceived 'common sense'.


The five 'proofs' asserted by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century don't prove anything, and are easily - though I hesitate to say so, given his eminence -- exposed as vacuous. The first three are just different ways of saying the same thing, and they can be considered together. All involve an infinite regress -- the answer to a question raises a prior question, and so on ad infinitum.

1. The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to a regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move, and that something we call God.

2. The Uncaused Cause. Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God.

3. The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God.

All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress. Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts. Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can't change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent. Karen Owens has captured this witty little paradox in equally engaging verse:

Can omniscient God,
who Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?

To return to the infinite regress and the futility of invoking God to terminate it, it is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a 'big bang singularity', or some other physical concept as yet unknown. Calling it God is at best unhelpful and at worst perniciously misleading. Edward Lear's Nonsense Recipe for Crumboblious Cutlets invites us to 'Procure some strips of beef, and having cut them into the smallest possible pieces, proceed to cut them still smaller, eight or perhaps nine times.' Some regresses do reach a natural terminator. Scientists used to wonder what would happen if you could dissect, say, gold into the smallest possible pieces. Why shouldn't you cut one of those pieces in half and produce an even smaller smidgen of gold? The regress in this case is decisively terminated by the atom. The smallest possible piece of gold is a nucleus consisting of exactly seventy-nine protons and a slightly larger number of neutrons, attended by a swarm of seventy-nine electrons. If you 'cut' gold any further than the level of the single atom, whatever else you get it is not gold. The atom provides a natural terminator to the Crumboblious Cutlets type of regress. It is by no means clear that God provides a natural terminator to the regresses of Aquinas. That's putting it mildly, as we shall see later. Let's move on down Aquinas' list.

4. The Argument from Degree. We notice that things in the world differ. There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum. Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us. Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God.

That's an argument? You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion.

5. The Teleological Argument, or Argument from Design. Things in the world, especially living things, look as though they have been designed. Nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Therefore there must have been a designer, and we call him God. [i] Aquinas himself used the analogy of an arrow moving towards a target, but a modern heat-seeking anti-aircraft missile would have suited his purpose better.

The argument from design is the only one still in regular use today, and it still sounds to many like the ultimate knockdown argument. The young Darwin was impressed by it when, as a Cambridge undergraduate, he read it in William Paley's Natural Theology. Unfortunately for Paley, the mature Darwin blew it out of the water. There has probably never been a more devastating rout of popular belief by clever reasoning than Charles Darwin's destruction of the argument from design. It was so unexpected ..Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance. And among these eminences of pseudo-design are nervous systems which -- among their more modest accomplishments -- manifest goal-seeking behaviour that, even in a tiny insect, resembles a sophisticated heat-seeking missile more than a simple arrow on target. I shall return to the argument from design in Chapter 4.


Arguments for God's existence fall into two main categories, the a priori and the a posteriori. Thomas Aquinas' five are a posteriori arguments, relying upon inspection of the world. The most famous of the a priori arguments, those that rely upon pure armchair ratiocination, is the ontological argument, proposed by St Anselm of Canterbury in 1078 and restated in different forms by numerous philosophers ever since. An odd aspect of Anselm's argument is that it was originally addressed not to humans but to God himself, in the form of a prayer (you'd think that any entity capable of listening to a prayer would need no convincing of his own existence).

It is possible to conceive, Anselm said, of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Even an atheist can conceive of such a superlative being, though he would deny its existence in the real world. But, goes the argument, a being that doesn't exist in the real world is, by that very fact, less than perfect. Therefore we have a contradiction and, hey presto, God exists!

Let me translate this infantile argument into the appropriate language, which is the language of the playground:

'Bet you I can prove God exists.'
'Bet you can't.'
'Right then, imagine the most perfect perfect perfect thing possible.'
'Okay, now what?'
'Now, is that perfect perfect perfect thing real? Does it exist?'
'No, it's only in my mind.'
'But if it was real it would be even more perfect, because a really really perfect thing would have to be better than a silly old imaginary thing. So I've proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur Nur. All atheists are fools.'

I had my childish wiseacre choose the word 'fools' advisedly. Anselm himself quoted the first verse of Psalm 14, 'The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God; and he had the cheek to use the name 'fool' (Latin insipiens) for his hypothetical atheist:

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

The very idea that grand conclusions could follow from such logomachist trickery offends me aesthetically, so I must take care to refrain from bandying words like 'fool'. Bertrand Russell (no fool) interestingly said, 'It is easier to feel convinced that [the ontological argument] must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.' Russell himself, as a young man, was briefly convinced by it:

I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: 'Great God in boots!, the ontological argument is sound!'

Why, I wonder, didn't he say something like: 'Great God in boots, the ontological argument seems to be plausible. But isn't it too good to be true that a grand truth about the cosmos should follow from a mere word game? I'd better set to work to resolve what is perhaps a paradox like those of Zeno.' The Greeks had a hard time seeing through Zeno's 'proof' that Achilles would never catch the tortoise. [ii] But they had the sense not to conclude that therefore Achilles really would fail to catch the tortoise. Instead, they called it a paradox and waited for later generations of mathematicians to explain it. Russell himself, of course, was as well qualified as anyone to understand why no tobacco tins should be thrown up in celebration of Achilles' failure to catch the tortoise. Why didn't he exercise the same caution over St Anselm? I suspect that he was an exaggeratedly fair-minded atheist, over-eager to be disillusioned if logic seemed to require it. [iii] Or perhaps the answer lies in something Russell himself wrote in 1946, long after he had rumbled the ontological argument:

The real question is: Is there anything we can think of which, by the mere fact that we can think of it, is shown to exist outside our thought? Every philosopher would like to say yes, because a philosopher's job is to find out things about the world by thinking rather than observing. If yes is the right answer, there is a bridge from pure thought to things. If not, not.

My own feeling, to the contrary, would have been an automatic, deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reached such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world. Perhaps that indicates no more than that I am a scientist rather than a philosopher. Philosophers down the centuries have indeed taken the ontological argument seriously, both for and against. The atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie gives a particularly clear discussion in The Miracle of Theism. I mean it as a compliment when I say that you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won't take common sense for an answer.

The most definitive refutations of the ontological argument are usually attributed to the philosophers David Hume (1711-76) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant identified the trick card up Anselm's sleeve as his slippery assumption that 'existence' is more 'perfect' than non-existence. The American philosopher Norman Malcolm put it like this: 'The doctrine that existence is a perfection is remarkably queer. It makes sense and is true to say that my future house will be a better one if it is insulated than if it is not insulated; but what could it mean to say that it will be a better house if it exists than if it does not?' [46] The Australian philosopher Douglas Gasking devised an ironic parody of Anselm's argument, which he did not record, but which has been reconstructed by William Grey of the University of Queensland as follows:

1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being -- namely, one who created everything while not existing.

6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.


7. God does not exist.

Needless to say, Gasking didn't really prove that God does not exist. By the same token, Anselm didn't prove that he does. The only difference is, Gasking was being funny on purpose. As he realized, the existence or non-existence of God is too big a question to be decided by 'dialectical prestidigitation'. And I don't think the slippery use of existence as an indicator of perfection is the worst of the argument's problems. I've forgotten the details, but I once piqued a gathering of theologians and philosophers by adapting the ontological argument to prove that pigs can fly. They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong.

The ontological argument, like all a priori arguments for the existence of God, reminds me of the old man in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point who discovered a mathematical proof of the existence of God:

You know the formula, m over nought equals infinity, m being any positive number? Well, why not reduce the equation to a simpler form by multiplying both sides by nought. In which case you have m equals infinity times nought. That is to say that a positive number is the product of zero and infinity. Doesn't that demonstrate the creation of the universe by an infinite power out of nothing? Doesn't it?

Unfortunately, the famous story of Diderot, the encyclopedist of the Enlightenment, and Euler, the Swiss mathematician, is open to doubt. According to legend, Catherine the Great staged a debate between the two of them in which the pious Euler threw down the challenge to the atheistic Diderot: 'Monsieur, (a + bn)/n = x, therefore God exists. Reply!' The point of the myth is that Diderot was no mathematician and therefore had to withdraw in confusion. However, as B. H. Brown pointed out in the American Mathematical Monthly (1942), Diderot was actually rather a good mathematician, and would have been unlikely to fall for what might be called the Argument from Blinding with Science (in this case mathematics). David Mills, in Atheist Universe, transcribes a radio interview of himself by a religious spokesman, who invoked the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy in a weirdly ineffectual attempt to blind with science: 'Since we're all composed of matter and energy, doesn't that scientific principle lend credibility to a belief in eternal life?' Mills replied more patiently and politely than I would have, for what the interviewer was saying, translated into English, was no more than: 'When we die, none of the atoms of our body (and none of the energy) are lost. Therefore we are immortal.'

Even I, with my long experience, have never encountered wishful thinking as silly as that. I have, however, met many of the wonderful 'proofs' collected at LINKS/GodProof.htm, a richly comic numbered list of 'Over Three Hundred Proofs of God's Existence'. Here's a hilarious half-dozen, beginning with Proof Number 36.

36. Argument from Incomplete Devastation: A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. But one child survived with only third-degree burns. Therefore God exists.

37. Argument from Possible Worlds: If things had been different, then things would be different. That would be bad. Therefore God exists.

38. Argument from Sheer Will: I do believe in God! I do believe in God! I do I do I do. I do believe in God! Therefore God exists.

39. Argument from Non-belief: The majority of the world's population are non-believers in Christianity. This is just what Satan intended. Therefore God exists.

40. Argument from Post-Death Experience: Person X died an atheist. He now realizes his mistake. Therefore God exists.

41. Argument from Emotional Blackmail: God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.


Another character in the Aldous Huxley novel just mentioned proved the existence of God by playing Beethoven's string quartet no. 15 in A minor ('heiliger Dankgesang) on a gramophone. Unconvincing as that sounds, it does represent a popular strand of argument. I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: 'How do you account for Shakespeare, then?' (Substitute Schubert, Michelangelo, etc. to taste.) The argument will be so familiar, I needn't document it further. But the logic behind it is never spelled out, and the more you think about it the more vacuous you realize it to be. Obviously Beethoven's late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare's sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn't. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare. A great conductor is credited with saying: 'If you have Mozart to listen to, why would you need God?'

I once was the guest of the week on a British radio show called Desert Island Discs. You have to choose the eight records you would take with you if marooned on a desert island. Among my choices was 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' from Bach's St Matthew Passion. The interviewer was unable to understand how I could choose religious music without being religious. You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed?

But there is an additional point that I might have made, and which needs to be made whenever religion is given credit for, say, the Sistine Chapel of 'Raphael's Annunciation. Even great artists have to earn a living, and they will take commissions where they are to be had. I have no reason to doubt that Raphael and Michelangelo were Christians -- it was pretty much the only option in their time -- but the fact is almost incidental. Its enormous wealth had made the Church the dominant patron of the arts. If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn't he have produced something at least as inspirational as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart's opera The Expanding Universe. And what a shame that we are deprived of Haydn's Evolution Oratorio -- but that does not stop us from enjoying his Creation. To approach the argument from the other side, what if, as my wife chillingly suggests to me, Shakespeare had been obliged to work to commissions from the Church? We'd surely have lost Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. And what would we have gained in return? Such stuff as dreams are made on? Dream on.

If there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents. It is simply assumed to be self-evident, which it most certainly is not. Maybe it is to be seen as yet another version of the argument from design: Schubert's musical brain is a wonder of improbability, even more so than the vertebrate eye. Or, more ignobly, perhaps ,it's a sort of jealousy of genius. How dare another human being make such beautiful music/poetry/art, when I can't? It must be God that did it.


One of the cleverer and more mature of my undergraduate contemporaries, who was deeply religious, went camping in the Scottish isles. In the middle of the night he and his girlfriend were woken in their tent by the voice of the devil -- Satan himself; there could be no possible doubt: the voice was in every sense diabolical. My friend would never forget this horrifying experience, and it was one of the factors that later drove him to be ordained. My youthful self was impressed by his story, and I recounted it to a gathering of zoologists relaxing in the Rose and Crown Inn, Oxford. Two of them happened to be experienced ornithologists, and they roared with laughter. 'Manx Shearwater!' they shouted in delighted chorus. One of them added that the diabolical shrieks and cackles of this species have earned it, in various parts of the world and various languages, the local nickname 'Devil Bird'.

Many people believe in God because they believe they have seen a vision of him -- or of an angel or a virgin in blue -- with their own eyes. Or he speaks to them inside their heads. This argument from personal experience is the one that is most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology.

You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn't impress you. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women, and he was locked up for life. George W. Bush says that God told him to invade Iraq (a pity God didn't vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction). Individuals in asylums think they are Napoleon or Charlie Chaplin, or that the entire world is conspiring against them, or that they can broadcast their thoughts into other people's heads. We humour them but don't take their internally revealed beliefs seriously, mostly because not many people share them. Religious experiences are different only in that die people who claim them are numerous. Sam Harris was not being overly cynical when he wrote, in The End of Faith:

We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them 'religious'; otherwise, they are likely to be called 'mad', 'psychotic' or 'delusional' ... Clearly there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.

I shall return to the subject of hallucinations in Chapter 10.

The human brain runs first-class simulation software. Our eyes don't present to our brains a faithful photograph of what is out there, or an accurate movie of what is going on through time. Our brains construct a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerve, but constructed nevertheless. Optical illusions are vivid reminders of this. [47] A major class of illusions, of which the Necker Cube is an example, arise because the sense data that the brain receives are compatible with two alternative models of reality. The brain, having no basis for choosing between them, alternates, and we experience a series of flips from one internal model to the other. The picture we are looking at appears, almost literally, to flip over and become something else.

The simulation software in the brain is especially adept at constructing faces and voices. I have on my windowsill a plastic mask of Einstein. When seen from the front, it looks like a solid face, not surprisingly. What is surprising is that, when seen from behind -- the hollow side -- it also looks like a solid face, and our perception of it is very odd indeed. As the viewer moves around, the face seems to follow -- and not in the weak, unconvincing sense that the Mona Lisa's eyes are said to follow you. The hollow mask really really looks as though it is moving. People who haven't previously seen the illusion gasp with amazement. Even stranger, if the mask is mounted on a slowly rotating turntable, it appears to turn in the correct direction when you are looking at the solid side, but in the opposite direction when the hollow side comes into view. The result is that, when you watch the transition from one side to the other, the coming side appears to 'eat' the going side. It is a stunning illusion, well worth going to some trouble to see. Sometimes you can get surprisingly close to the hollow face and still not see that it is 'really' hollow. When you do see it, again there is a sudden flip, which may be reversible.

Why does it happen? There is no trick in the construction of the mask. Any hollow mask will do it. The trickery is all in the brain of the beholder. The internal simulating software receives data indicating the presence of a face, perhaps nothing more than a pair of eyes, a nose and a mouth in approximately the right places. Having received these sketchy clues, the brain does the rest. The face simulation software kicks into action and it constructs a fully solid model of a face, even though the reality presented to the eyes is a hollow mask. The illusion of rotation in the wrong direction comes about because (it's quite hard, but if you think it through carefully you will confirm it) reverse rotation is the only way to make sense of the optical data when a hollow mask rotates while being perceived to be a solid mask. [48] It is like the illusion of a rotating radar dish that you sometimes see at airports. Until the brain flips to the correct model of the radar dish, an incorrect model is seen rotating in the wrong direction but in' a weirdly cock-eyed way.

I say all this just to demonstrate the formidable power of the brain's simulation software. It is well capable of constructing 'visions' and 'visitations' of the utmost veridical power. To simulate a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary would be child's play to software of this sophistication. And the same thing works for hearing. When we hear a sound, it is not faithfully transported up the auditory nerve and relayed to the brain as if by a high-fidelity Bang & Olufsen. As with vision, the brain constructs a sound model, based upon continuously updated auditory nerve data. That is why we hear a trumpet blast as a single note, rather than as the composite of pure-tone harmonics that gives it its brassy snarl. A clarinet playing the same note sounds 'woody', and an oboe sounds 'reedy', because of different balances of harmonics. If you carefully manipulate a sound synthesizer to bring in the separate harmonics one by one, the brain hears them as a combination of pure tones for a short while, until its simulation software 'gets it', and from then on we experience only a single note of pure trumpet or oboe or whatever it is. The vowels and consonants of speech are constructed in the brain in the same kind of way, and so, at another level, are higher-order phonemes and words.

Once, as a child, I heard a ghost: a male voice murmuring, as if in recitation or prayer. I could almost, but not quite, make out the words, which seemed to have a serious, solemn timbre. I had been told stories of priest holes in ancient houses, and I was a little frightened. But I got out of bed and crept up on the source of the sound. As I got closer, it grew louder, and then suddenly it 'flipped' inside my head. I was now close enough to discern what it really was. The wind, gusting through the keyhole, was creating sounds which the simulation software in my brain had used to construct a model of male speech, solemnly intoned. Had I been a more impressionable child, it is possible that I would have 'heard' not just unintelligible speech but particular words and even sentences. And had I been both impressionable and religiously brought up, I wonder what words the wind might have spoken.

On another occasion, when I was about the same age, I saw a giant round face gazing, with unspeakable malevolence, out through the window of an otherwise ordinary house in a seaside village. In trepidation, I approached until I was close enough to see what it really was: just a vaguely face-like pattern created by the chance fall of the curtains. The face itself, and its evil mien, had been constructed in my fearful child's brain. On 11 September 2001, pious people thought they saw the face of Satan in the smoke rising from the Twin Towers: a superstition backed by a photograph which was published on the Internet and widely circulated.

Constructing models is something the human brain is very good at. When we are asleep it is called dreaming; when we are awake we call it imagination or, when it is exceptionally vivid, hallucination. As Chapter 10 will show, children who have (imaginary friends' sometimes see them clearly, exactly as if they were real. If we are gullible, we don't recognize hallucination or lucid dreaming for what it is and we claim to have seen or heard a ghost; or an angel; or God; or -- especially if we happen to be young, female and Catholic -- the Virgin Mary. Such visions and manifestations are certainly not good grounds for believing that ghosts or angels, gods or virgins, are actually there.

On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun (tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude', [49] are harder to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too -- and not just seeing it, but feeling it as the catastrophic destruction of the solar system, including acceleration forces sufficient to hurl everybody into space. David Hume's pithy test for a miracle comes irresistibly to mind: 'No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.'

It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage (they had been persuaded to stare at the sun, which can't have done much for their eyesight). But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing. I mean, Portugal is not that isolated. [iv]

That is really all that needs to be said about personal 'experiences' of gods or other religious phenomena. If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:51 pm

Part 2 of 2


There are still some people who are persuaded by scriptural evidence to believe in God. A common argument, attributed among others to C. S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane ,or a liar: 'Mad, Bad or God'. Or, with artless alliteration, 'Lunatic, Liar or Lord'. The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal. But even if that evidence were good, the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken. Plenty of people are. In any case, as I said, there is no good historical evidence that he ever thought he was divine.

The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like: 'Who wrote it, and when?' 'How did they know what to write?' 'Did they, in their time, really mean what we, in our time, understand them to be saying?' 'Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that coloured their writing?' Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus' life. All were then copied and recopied, through many different 'Chinese Whispers generations' (see Chapter 5) by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.

A good example of the colouring by religious agendas is the whole heart-warming legend of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, followed by Herod's massacre of the innocents. When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus' death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5: 2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John's gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: 'Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?'

Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. But they get him there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus, on their return from Egypt where they fled from King Herod and the massacre of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. So how to get them to Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go 'to his own city'. Joseph was 'of the house and lineage of David' and therefore he had to go to 'the city of David, which is called Bethlehem'. That must have seemed like a good solution. Except that historically it is complete nonsense, as A. N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version (among others) have pointed out. David, if he existed, lived nearly a thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier? It is as though I were required to specify, say, Ashby-de-la-Zouch as my home town on a census form, if it happened that I could trace my ancestry back to the Seigneur de Dakeyne, who came over with William the Conqueror and settled there.

Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius -- a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole - but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod's death. Lane Fox concludes that 'Luke's story is historically impossible and internally incoherent', but he sympathizes with Luke's plight and his desire to fulfil the prophecy of Micah.

In the December 2004 issue of Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn, the Editor of that excellent magazine, assembled a collection of articles documenting the contradictions and gaping holes in the well-loved Christmas story. Flynn himself lists the many contradictions between Matthew and Luke, the only two evangelists who treat the birth of Jesus at all. [50] Robert Gillooly shows how all the essential features of the Jesus legend, including the star in the east, the virgin birth, the veneration of the baby by kings, the miracles, the execution, the resurrection and the ascension are borrowed -- every last one of them -- from other religions already in existence in the Mediterranean and Near East region. Flynn suggests that Matthew's desire to fulfil messianic prophecies (descent from David, birth in Bethlehem) for the benefit of Jewish readers came into headlong collision with Luke's desire to adapt Christianity for the Gentiles, and hence to press the familiar hot buttons of pagan Hellenistic religions (virgin birth, worship by kings, etc.). The resulting contradictions are glaring, but consistently overlooked by the faithful.

Sophisticated Christians do not need Ira Gershwin to convince them that 'The things that you're li'ble / To read in the Bible / It ain't necessarily so'. But there are many unsophisticated Christians out there who think it absolutely is necessarily so -- who take the Bible very seriously indeed as a literal and accurate record of history and hence as evidence supporting their religious beliefs. Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth? Why don't they notice those glaring contradictions? Shouldn't a literalist worry about the fact that Matthew traces Joseph's descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists! In any case, if Jesus really was born of a virgin, Joseph's ancestry is irrelevant and cannot be used to fulfil, on Jesus' behalf, the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah should be descended from David.

The American biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, in a book whose subtitle is The Story Behind Who Changed the New Testament and Why, unfolds the huge uncertainty befogging the New Testament texts. [v] In the introduction to the book, Professor Ehrman movingly charts his personal educational journey from Bible-believing fundamentalist to thoughtful sceptic, a journey driven by his dawning realization of the massive fallibility of the scriptures. Significantly, as he moved up the hierarchy of American universities, from rock bottom at the 'Moody Bible Institute', through Wheaton College (a little bit higher on the scale, but still the alma mater of Billy Graham) to Princeton Theological Seminary, he was at every step warned that he would have trouble maintaining his fundamentalist Christianity in the face of dangerous progressivism. So it proved; and we, his readers, are the beneficiaries. Other refreshingly iconoclastic books of biblical criticism are Robin Lane Fox's The Unauthorized Version, already mentioned, and Jacques Berlinerblau's The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously.

The four gospels thar made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalen. [51] Some of these gospels, the known Apocrypha of the time, were the additional gospels that Thomas Jefferson was referring to in his letter to his nephew:

I forgot to observe, when speaking of the New Testament, that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us, to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration, as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics.

The gospels that didn't make it were omitted by those ecclesiastics perhaps because they included stories that were even more embarrassingly implausible than those in the four canonical ones. The Infant Gospel of Thomas, for example, has numerous anecdotes about the child Jesus abusing his magical powers in the manner of a mischievous fairy, impishly transforming his playmates into goats, or turning mud into sparrows, or giving his father a hand with the carpentry by miraculously lengthening a piece of wood. [vi] It will be said that nobody believes crude miracle stories such as those in the Gospel of Thomas anyway. But there is no more and no less reason to believe the four canonical gospels. All have the status of legends, as factually dubious as the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Most of what the four canonical gospels share is derived from a common source, either Mark's gospel or a lost work of which Mark is the earliest extant descendant. Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus personally. Much of what they wrote was in no sense an honest attempt at history but was simply rehashed from the Old Testament, because the gospel-makers were devoutly convinced that the life of Jesus must fulfil Old Testament prophecies. It is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all, as has been done by, among others, Professor G. A. Wells of the University of London in a number of books, including Did Jesus Exist?

Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history, and I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity. In the farsighted words of Thomas Jefferson, writing to his predecessor, John Adams, 'The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.'

Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the film made from it, are arousing huge controversy in church circles. Christians are encouraged to boycott the film and picket cinemas that show it. It is indeed fabricated from start to finish: invented, made-up fiction. In that respect, it is exactly like the gospels. The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.


The immense majority of intellectually eminent men disbelieve in Christian religion, but they conceal the fact in public, because they are afraid of losing their incomes.

'Newton was religious. Who are you to set yourself up as superior to Newton, Galileo, Kepler, etc. etc. etc.? If God was good enough for the likes of them, just who do you think you are?' Not that it makes much difference to such an already bad argument, some apologists even add the name of Darwin, about whom persistent, but demonstrably false, rumours of a deathbed conversion continually come around like a bad smell, [vii] ever since they were deliberately started by a certain 'Lady Hope', who spun a touching yarn of Darwin resting against the pillows in the evening light, leafing through the New Testament and confessing that evolution was all wrong. In this section I shall concentrate mostly on scientists, because -- for reasons that are perhaps not too hard to imagine -- those who trot out the names of admired individuals as religious exemplars very commonly choose scientists.

Newton did indeed claim to be religious. So did almost everybody until -- significantly I think - the nineteenth century, when there was less social and judicial pressure than in earlier centuries to profess religion, and more scientific support for abandoning it. There have been exceptions, of course, in both directions. Even before Darwin, not everybody was a believer, as James Haught shows in his 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt. And some distinguished scientists went on believing after Darwin. We have no reason to doubt Michael Faraday's sincerity as a Christian even after the time when he must have known of Darwin's work. He was a member of the Sandemanian sect, which believed (past tense because they are now virtually extinct) in a literal interpretation of the Bible, ritually washed the feet of newly inducted members and drew lots to determine God's will. Faraday became an Elder in 1860, the year after The Origin of Species was published, and he died a Sandemanian in 1867. The experimentalist Faraday's theorist counterpart, James Clerk Maxwell, was an equally devout Christian. So was that other pillar of nineteenth-century British physics, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, who tried to demonstrate that evolution was ruled out for lack of time. That great thermodynamicist's erroneous datings assumed that the sun was some kind of fire, burning fuel which would have to run out in tens of millions of years, not thousands of millions. Kelvin obviously could not be expected to know about nuclear energy. Pleasingly, at the British Association meeting of 1903, it fell to Sir George Darwin, Charles's second son, to vindicate his un-knighted father by invoking the Curies' discovery of radium, and confound the earlier estimate of the still living Lord Kelvin.

Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find through the twentieth century, but they are not particularly rare. I suspect that most of the more recent ones are religious only in the Einsteinian sense which, I argued in Chapter I, is a misuse of the word. Nevertheless, there are some genuine specimens of good scientists who are sincerely religious in the full, traditional sense. Among contemporary British scientists, the same three names crop up with the likeable familiarity of senior partners in a firm of Dickensian lawyers: Peacocke, Stannard and Polkinghorne. All three have either won the Templeton Prize or are on the Templeton Board of Trustees. After amicable discussions with all of them, both in public and in private, I remain baffled, not so much by their belief in a cosmic lawgiver of some kind, as by their belief in the details of the Christian religion: resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all.

There are some corresponding examples in the United States, for example Francis Collins, administrative head of the American branch of the official Human Genome Project. [viii] But, as in Britain, they stand out for their rarity and are a subject of amused bafflement to their peers in the academic community. In 1996, in the gardens of his old college at Cambridge, Clare, I interviewed my friend Jim Watson, founding genius of the Human Genome Project, for a BBC television documentary that I was making on Gregor Mendel, founding genius of genetics itself. Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant. I asked Watson whether he knew many religious scientists today. He replied: 'Virtually none. Occasionally I meet them, and I'm a bit embarrassed [laughs] because, you know, I can't believe anyone accepts truth by revelation.'

Francis Crick, Watson's co-founder of the whole molecular genetics revolution, resigned his fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, because of the college's decision to build a chapel (at the behest of a benefactor). In my interview with Watson at Clare, I conscientiously put it to him that, unlike him and Crick, some people see no conflict between science and religion, because they claim science is about how things work and religion is about what it is all for. Watson retorted: 'Well I don't think we're for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, "Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose." But I'm anticipating having a good lunch.' We did have a good lunch, too.

The efforts of apologists to find genuinely distinguished modern scientists who are religious have an air of desperation, generating the unmistakably hollow sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped. The only website I could find that claimed to list 'Nobel Prize-winning Scientific Christians' came up with six, out of a total of several hundred scientific Nobelists. Of these six, it turned out that four were not Nobel Prize-winners at all; and at least one, to my certain knowledge, is a non-believer who attends church for purely social reasons. A more systematic study by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi 'found that among Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences, as well as those in literature, there was a remarkable degree of irreligiosity, as compared to the populations they came from'. [52]

A study in the leading journal Nature by Larson and Witham in 1998 showed that of those American scientists considered eminent enough by their peers to have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to being a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain) only about 7 per cent believe in a personal God. [53] This overwhelming preponderance of atheists is almost the exact opposite of the profile of the American population at large, of whom more than 90 per cent are believers in some sort of supernatural being. The figure for less eminent scientists, not elected to the National Academy, is intermediate. As with the more distinguished sample, religious believers are in a minority, but a less dramatic minority of about 40 per cent. It is completely as I would expect that American scientists are less religious than the American public generally, and that the most distinguished scientists are the least religious of all. What is remarkable is the polar opposition between the religiosity of the American public at large and the atheism of the intellectual elite. [54]

It is faintly amusing that the leading creationist website, 'Answers in Genesis', cites.. the Larson and Witham study, not in evidence that there might be something wrong with religion, but as a weapon in their internal battle against those rival religious apologists who claim that evolution is compatible with religion. Under the headline 'National Academy of Science is Godless to the Core', [55] 'Answers in Genesis' is pleased to quote the concluding paragraph of Larson and Witham's letter to the editor of Nature:

As we compiled our findings, the NAS [National Academy of Sciences] issued a booklet encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools, an ongoing source of friction between the scientific community and some conservative Christians in the United States. The booklet assures readers, 'Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.' NAS president Bruce Alberts said: 'There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists: Our survey suggests otherwise.

Alberts, one feels, embraced 'NOMA' for the reasons I discussed in 'The Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists' (see Chapter 2). 'Answers in Genesis' has a very different agenda.

The equivalent of the US National Academy of Sciences in Britain (and the Commonwealth, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, anglophone Africa, etc.) is the Royal Society. As this book goes to press, my colleagues R. Elisabeth Cornwell and Michael Stirrat are writing up their comparable, but more thorough, research on the religious opinions of the Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS). The authors' conclusions will be published in full later, but they have kindly allowed me to quote preliminary results here. They used a standard technique for scaling opinion, the Likert-type seven-point scale. All 1,074 Fellows of the Royal Society who possess an email address (the great majority) were polled, and about 23 per cent responded (a good figure for this kind of study). They were offered various propositions, for example: 'I believe in a personal God, that is one who takes an interest in individuals, hears and answers prayers, is concerned with sin and transgressions, and passes judgement.' For each such proposition, they were invited to choose a number from 1 (strong disagreement) to 7 (strong agreement). It is a little hard to compare the results directly with the Larson and Witham study, because Larson and Witham offered their academicians only a three-point scale, not a seven-point scale, but the overall trend is the same. The overwhelming majority of FRS, like the overwhelming majority of US Academicians, are atheists. Only 3.3 per cent of the Fellows agreed strongly with the statement that a personal god exists (i.e. chose 7 on the scale), while 78.8 per cent strongly disagreed (i.e. chose 1 on the scale). If you define 'believers' as those who chose 6 or 7, and if you define 'unbelievers' as those who chose 1 or 2, there were a massive 213 unbelievers and a mere 12 believers. Like Larson and Witham, and as also noted by Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle, Cornwell and Stirrat found a small but significant tendency for biological scientists to be even more atheistic than physical scientists. For the details, and all the rest of their very interesting conclusions, please refer to their own paper when it is published. [56]

Moving on from the elite scientists of the National Academy and the Royal Society, is there any evidence that, in the population at large, atheists are likely to be drawn from among the better educated and more intelligent? Several research studies have been published on the statistical relationship between religiosity and educational level, or religiosity and IQ. Michael Shermer, in How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, describes a large survey of randomly chosen Americans that he and his colleague Frank Sulloway carried out. Among their many interesting results was the discovery that religiosity is indeed negatively correlated with education (more highly educated people are less likely to be religious). Religiosity is also negatively correlated with interest in science and (strongly) with political liberalism. None of this is surprising, nor is the fact that there is a positive correlation between religiosity and parents' religiosity. Sociologists studying British children have found that only about one in twelve break away from their parents' religious beliefs.

As you might expect, different researchers measure things in different ways, so it is hard to compare different studies. Meta-analysis is the technique whereby an investigator looks at all the research papers that have been published on a topic, and counts up the number of papers that have concluded one thing, versus the number that have concluded something else. On the subject of religion and IQ, the only meta-analysis known to me was published by Paul Bell in Mensa Magazine in 2002 (Mensa is the society of individuals with a high IQ, and their journal not surprisingly includes articles on the one thing that draws them together). [57] Bell concluded: 'Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one's intelligence and/or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one's intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold "beliefs" of any kind.'

A meta-analysis is almost bound to be less specific than any one of the studies that contributed to it. It would be nice to have more studies along these lines, as well as more studies of the members of elite bodies such as other national academies, and winners of major prizes and medals such as the Nobel, the Crafoord, the Fields, the Kyoto, the Cosmos and others. I hope that future editions of this book will include such data. A reasonable conclusion from existing studies is that religious apologists might be wise to keep quieter than they habitually do on the subject of admired role models, at least where scientists are concerned.


The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God's existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You'd better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won't make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don't believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.

There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing is not something you can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to do as an act of will. I can decide to go to church and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don't. Pascal's Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he'd see through the deception. The ludicrous idea that believing is something you can decide to do is deliciously mocked by Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, where we meet the robotic Electric Monk, a labour-saving device that you buy 'to do your believing for you'. The de luxe model is advertised as 'Capable of believing things they wouldn't believe in Salt Lake City'.

But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What's so special about believing? Isn't it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity? What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn't the designer of the universe have to be a scientist? Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him. 'Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,' was Russell's (I almost said immortal) reply. Mightn't God respect Russell for his courageous scepticism (let alone for the courageous pacifism that landed him in prison in the First World War) far more than he would respect Pascal for his cowardly bet-hedging? And, while we cannot know which way God would jump, we don't need to know in order to refute Pascal's Wager. We are talking about a bet, remember, and Pascal wasn't claiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds. Would you bet on God's valuing dishonestly faked belief (or even honest belief) over honest scepticism?

Then again, suppose the god who confronts you when you die turns out to be Baal, and suppose Baal is just as jealous as his old rival Yahweh was said to be. Mightn't Pascal have been better off wagering on no god at all rather than on the wrong god? Indeed, doesn't the sheer number of potential gods and goddesses on whom one might bet vitiate Pascal's whole logic? Pascal was probably joking when he promoted his wager, just as I am joking in my dismissal of it. But I have encountered people, for example in the question session after a lecture, who have seriously advanced Pascal's Wager as an argument in favour of believing in God, so it was right to give it a brief airing here.

Is it possible, finally, to argue for a sort of anti-Pascal wager? Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc. I won't pursue the question here, but readers might like to bear it in mind when we come to later chapters on the evil consequences that can flow from religious belief and observance.


I think the oddest case I have seen attempted for the existence of God is the Bayesian argument recently put forward by Stephen Unwin in The Probability of God. I hesitated before including this argument, which is both weaker and less hallowed by antiquity than others. Unwin's book, however, received considerable journalistic attention when it was published in 2003, and it does give the opportunity to bring some explanatory threads together. I have some sympathy with his aims because, as argued in Chapter 2, I believe the existence of God as a scientific hypothesis is, at least in principle, investigable. Also, Unwin's quixotic attempt to put a number on the probability is quite agreeably funny.

The book's subtitle, A Simple Calculation that Proves the Ultimate Truth, has all the hallmarks of a late addition by the publisher, because such overweening confidence is not to be found in Unwin's text. The book is better seen as a 'How To' manual, a sort of Bayes' Theorem for Dummies, using the existence of God as a semi-facetious case study. Unwin could equally well have used a hypothetical murder as his test case to demonstrate Bayes' Theorem. The detective marshals the evidence. The fingerprints on the revolver point to Mrs. Peacock. Quantify that suspicion by slapping a numerical likelihood on her. However, Professor Plum had a motive to frame her. Reduce the suspicion of Mrs. Peacock by a corresponding numerical value. The forensic evidence suggests a 70 per cent likelihood that the revolver was fired accurately from a long distance, which argues for a culprit with military training. Quantify our raised suspicion of Colonel Mustard. The Reverend Green has the most plausible motive for murder. [ix] Increase our numerical assessment of his likelihood. But the long blond hair on the victim's jacket could only belong to Miss Scarlet ... and so on. A mix of more or less subjectively judged likelihoods churns around in the detective's mind, pulling him in different directions. Bayes' Theorem is supposed to help him to a conclusion. It is a mathematical engine for combining many estimated likelihoods and coming up with a final verdict, which bears its own quantitative estimate of likelihood. But of course that final estimate can only be as good as the original numbers fed in. These are usually subjectively judged, with all the doubts that inevitably flow from that. The GIGO principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out) is applicable here -- and, in the case of Unwin's God example, applicable is too mild a word.

Unwin is a risk management consultant who carries a torch for Bayesian inference, as against rival statistical methods. He illustrates Bayes' Theorem by taking on, not a murder, but the biggest test case of all, the existence of God. The plan is to start with complete uncertainty, which he chooses to quantify by assigning the existence and non-existence of God a 50 per cent starting likelihood each. Then he lists six facts that might bear on the matter, puts a numerical weighting on each, feeds the six numbers into the engine of Bayes' Theorem and sees what number pops out. The trouble is that (to repeat) the six weightings are not measured quantities but simply Stephen Unwin's own personal judgements, turned into numbers for the sake of the exercise. The six facts are:

1. We have a sense of goodness.

2. People do evil things (Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein).

3. Nature does evil things (earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes).

4. There might be minor miracles (I lost my keys and found them again).

5. There might be major miracles (Jesus might have risen from the dead).

6. People have religious experiences.

For what it is worth (nothing, in my opinion), at the end of a ding-dong Bayesian race in which God surges ahead in the betting, then drops way back, then claws his way up to the 50 per cent mark from which he started, he finally ends up enjoying, in Unwin's estimation, a 67 per cent likelihood of existing. Unwin then decides that his Bayesian verdict of 67 per cent isn't high enough, so he takes the bizarre step of boosting it to 95 per cent by an emergency injection of 'faith'. It sounds like a joke, but that really is how he proceeds. I wish I could say how he justifies it, but there really is nothing to say. I have met this kind of absurdity elsewhere, when I have challenged religious but otherwise intelligent scientists to justify their belief, given their admission that there is no evidence: 'I admit that there's no evidence. There's a reason why it's called faith' (this last sentence uttered with almost truculent conviction, and no hint of apology or defensiveness).

Surprisingly, Unwin's list of six statements does not include the argument from design, nor any of Aquinas' five 'proofs', nor any of the various ontological arguments. He has no truck with them: they don't contribute even a minor fillip to his numerical estimate of God's likelihood. He discusses them and, as a good statistician, dismisses them as empty. I think this is to his credit, although his reason for discounting the design argument is different from mine. But the arguments that he does admit through his Bayesian door are, it seems to me, just as weak. That is only to say that the subjective likelihood weightings I would give to them are different from his, and who cares about subjective judgements anyway? He thinks the fact that we have a sense of right and wrong counts strongly in God's favour, whereas I don't see that it should really shift him, in either direction, from his initial prior expectation. Chapters 6 and 7 will show that there is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity. As in the case of our ability to appreciate a Beethoven quartet, our sense of goodness (though not necessarily our inducement to follow it) would be the way it is with a God and without a God.

On the other hand, Unwin thinks the existence of evil, especially natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and tsunamis, counts strongly against the likelihood that God exists. Here, Unwin's judgement is opposite to mine but goes along with many uncomfortable theologians. 'Theodicy' (the vindication of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) keeps theologians awake at night. The authoritative Oxford Companion to Philosophy gives the problem of evil as 'the most powerful objection to traditional theism'. But it is an argument only against the existence of a good God. Goodness is no part of the definition of the God Hypothesis, merely a desirable add-on.

Admittedly, people of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true. But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god -- such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don't like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or -- a more sophisticated solution -- postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos. Theologians can be found buying into all these rationalizations.

For these reasons, if I were redoing Unwin's Bayesian exercise, neither the problem of evil nor moral considerations in general would shift me far, one way or the other, from the null hypothesis (Unwin's 50 per cent). But I don't want to argue the point because, in any case, I can't get excited about personal opinions, whether Unwin's or mine.

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question 'Who made God?', which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.



i. I cannot help being reminded of the immortal syllogism that was smuggled into a Euclidean proof by a schoolfriend, when we were studying geometry together: 'Triangle ABC looks isosceles. Therefore ...'

ii. Zeno's paradox is too well known for the details to be promoted out of a footnote. Achilles can run ten times as fast as the tortoise, so he gives the animal, say, 100 yards' start. Achilles runs 100 yards, and the tortoise is now 10 yards ahead. Achilles runs the 10 yards and the tortoise is now 1 yard ahead. Achilles runs the 1 yard, and the tortoise is still a tenth of a yard ahead ... and so on ad infinitum. so Achilles never catches the tortoise.

iii. We might be seeing something similar today in the over-publicized tergiversation of the philosopher Antony Flew, who announced in his old age that he had been converted to belief in some sort of deity (triggering a frenzy of eager repetition all around the Internet). On the other hand, Russell was a great philosopher. Russell won the Nobel Prize. Maybe Flew's alleged conversion will be rewarded with the Templeton Prize. A first step in that direction is his ignominious decision to accept, in 2006, the 'Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth'. The first holder of the Phillip E. Johnson Award was Phillip E. Johnson, the lawyer credited with founding the Intelligent Design 'wedge strategy'. Flew will be the second holder. The awarding university is BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. One can't help wondering whether Flew realizes that he is being used. See Victor Stenger, 'Flew's flawed science', Free Inquiry 25: 2, 2005, 17-18; ... enger_25_2.

iv. Although admittedly my wife's parents once stayed in a Paris hotel called the Hotel de l'Univers et du Portugal.

v. I give the subtitle because that is all I am confident of. The main title of my copy of the book, published by Continuum of London, is Whose Word Is It? I can find nothing in this edition to say whether it is the same book as the American publication by Harper San Francisco, which I haven't seen, whose main title is Misquoting Jesus. I presume they are the same book, but why do publishers do this kind of thing?

vi. A. N. Wilson, in his biography of Jesus, casts doubt on the story that Joseph was a carpenter at all. The Greek word tekton does indeed mean carpenter, but it was translated from the Aramaic word naggar, which could mean craftsman or learned man. This is one of several constructive mistranslations that bedevil the Bible, the most famous being the mistranslation of Isaiah's Hebrew for young woman (almah) into the Greek for virgin (parthenos). An easy mistake to make (think of the English words 'maid' and 'maiden' to see how it might have happened), this one translator's slip was to be wildly inflated and give rise to the whole preposterous legend of Jesus' mother being a virgin! The only competitor for the title of champion constructive mistranslation of all time also concerns virgins. Ibn Warraq has hilariously argued that in the famous promise of seventy-two virgins to every Muslim martyr, 'virgins' is a mistranslation of 'white raisins of crystal clarity: Now, if only that had been more widely known, how many innocent victims of suicide missions might have been saved? (Ibn Warraq, 'Virgins? What virgins?', Free Inquiry 26: 1,2006,45-6.)

vii. Even I have been honoured by prophecies of deathbed conversion. Indeed, they recur with monotonous regularity (see e.g. Steer 2003), each repetition trailing dewy fresh clouds of illusion that it is witty, and the first. I should probably take the precaution of installing a tape-recorder to protect my posthumous reputation. Lalla Ward adds, 'Why mess around with deathbeds? If you're going to sell out, do it in good time to win the Templeton Prize and blame it on senility.'

viii. Not to be confused with the unofficial human genome project, led by that brilliant (and non-religious) 'buccaneer' of science, Craig Venter.

ix. The Reverend Green is the character's name in the versions of Cluedo sold in Britain (where the game originated), Australia, New Zealand, India and all other English-speaking areas except North America, where he suddenly becomes Mr. Green. What is that all about?
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:56 pm

Part 1 of 2


The priests of the different religious sects ... dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.


The argument from improbability is the big one. In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily to day's most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing. It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument -- but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist's intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

The name comes from Fred Hoyle's amusing image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard. I am not sure whether Hoyle ever wrote it down himself, but it was attributed to him by his close colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe and is presumably authentic. [58] Hoyle said that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. Others have borrowed the metaphor to refer to the later evolution of complex living bodies, where it has a spurious plausibility. The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory. This, in a nutshell, is the creationist's favourite argument -- an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn't understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas -- in the relevant sense of chance -- it is the opposite.

The creationist misappropriation of the argument from improbability always takes the same general form, and it doesn't make any difference if the creationist chooses to masquerade in the politically expedient fancy dress of 'intelligent design' (ID). [i] Some observed phenomenon -- often a living creature or one of its more complex organs, but it could be anything from a molecule up to the universe itself -- is correctly extolled as statistically improbable. Sometimes the language of information theory is used: the Darwinian is challenged to explain the source of all the information in living matter, in the technical sense of information content as a measure of improbability or 'surprise value'. Or the argument may invoke the economist's hackneyed motto: there's no such thing as a free lunch -- and Darwinism is accused of trying to get something for nothing. In fact, as I shall show in this chapter, Darwinian natural selection is the only known solution to the otherwise unanswerable riddle of where the information comes from. It turns out to be the God Hypothesis that tries to get something for nothing. God tries to have his free lunch and be it too. However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.

The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance. But many people define 'come about by chance' as a synonym for 'come about in the absence of deliberate design'. Not surprisingly, therefore, they think improbability is evidence of design. Darwinian natural selection shows how wrong this is with respect to biological improbability. And although Darwinism may not be directly relevant to the inanimate world -- cosmology, for example -- it raises our consciousness in areas outside its original territory of biology.

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn't imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.


In a science-fiction starship, the astronauts were homesick: 'Just to think that it's springtime back on Earth!' You may not immediately see what's wrong with this, so deeply ingrained is the unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism in those of us who live there, and even some who don't. 'Unconscious' is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes in. It is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that 'north' is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on 'up'. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They'd go home and tell their parents -- and, by the way, giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow.

It was the feminists who raised my consciousness of the power of consciousness-raising. 'Herstory' is obviously ridiculous, if only because the 'his' in 'history' has no etymological connection with the masculine pronoun. It is as etymologically silly as the sacking, in 1999, of a Washington official whose use of 'niggardly' was held to give racial offence. But even daft examples like 'niggardly' or 'herstory' succeed in raising consciousness. Once we have smoothed our philological hackles and stopped laughing, herstory shows us history from a different point of view. Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote -- English too often seems to exclude woman. [ii] When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like 'the future of man'. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised. Even those who still use 'man' instead of ,human' do so with an air of self-conscious apology - or truculence, taking a stand for traditional language, even deliberately to rile feminists. All participants in the Zeitgeist have had their consciousness raised, even those who choose to respond negatively by digging in their heels and redoubling the offence.

Feminism shows us the power of consciousness-raising, and I want to borrow the technique for natural selection. Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance. A full understanding of natural selection encourages us to move boldly into other fields. It arouses our suspicion, in those other fields, of the kind of false alternatives that once, in pre-Darwinian' days, beguiled biology. Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly's wing or an eagle's eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes?

Douglas Adams's moving and funny account of his own conversion to radical atheism -- he insisted on the 'radical' in case anybody should mistake him for an agnostic -- is testimony to the power of Darwinism as a consciousness-raiser. I hope I shall be forgiven the self-indulgence that will become apparent in the following quotation. My excuse is that Douglas's conversion by my earlier books -- which did not set out to convert anyone -- inspired me to dedicate to his memory this book - which does! In an interview, reprinted posthumously in The Salmon of Doubt, he was asked by a journalist how he became an atheist. He began his reply by explaining how he became an agnostic, and then proceeded:

And I thought and thought and thought. But I just didn't have enough to go on, so I didn't really come to any resolution. I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn't know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins's books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.59

The concept of stunning simplicity that he was talking about was, of course, nothing to do with me. It was Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection -- the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser. Douglas, I miss you. You are my cleverest, funniest, most open-minded, wittiest, tallest, and possibly only convert. I hope this book might have made you laugh - though not as much as you made me.

That scientifically savvy philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out that evolution counters one of the oldest ideas we have: 'the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You'll never see a spear making a spear maker. You'll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You'll never see a pot making a potter.' [60] Darwin's discovery of a workable process that does that very counter-intuitive thing is what makes his contribution to human thought so revolutionary, and so loaded with the power to raise consciousness.

It is surprising how necessary such consciousness-raising is, even in the minds of excellent scientists in fields other than biology. Fred Hoyle was a brilliant physicist and cosmologist, but his Boeing 747 misunderstanding, and other mistakes in biology such as his attempt to dismiss the fossil Archaeopteryx as a hoax, suggest that he needed to have his consciousness raised by some good exposure to the world of natural selection. At an intellectual level, I suppose he understood natural selection. But perhaps you need to be steeped in natural selection, immersed in it, swim about in it, before you can truly appreciate its power.

Other sciences raise our consciousness in different ways. Fred Hoyle's own science of astronomy puts us in our place, metaphorically as well as literally, scaling down our vanity to fit the tiny stage on which we play out our lives -- our speck of debris from the cosmic explosion. Geology reminds us of our brief existence both as individuals and as a species. It raised John Ruskin's consciousness and provoked his memorable heart cry of 1851: 'If only. the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.' Evolution does the same thing for our sense of time - not surprisingly, since it works on the geological timescale. But Darwinian evolution, specifically natural selection, does something more. It shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well. I think the physicist Leonard Susskind had this in mind when he wrote, 'I'm not an historian but I'll venture an opinion: Modern cosmology really began with Darwin and Wallace. Unlike anyone before them, they provided explanations of our existence that completely rejected supernatural agents ... Darwin and Wallace set a standard not only for the life sciences but for cosmology as wel1.' [61] Other physical scientists who are far above needing any such consciousness-raising are Victor Stenger, whose book Has Science Found God? (the answer is no) I strongly recommend, [iii] and Peter Atkins, whose Creation Revisited is my favourite work of scientific prose poetry.

I am continually astonished by those theists who, far from having their consciousness raised in the way that I propose, seem to rejoice in natural selection as 'God's way of achieving his creation'. They note that evolution by natural selection would be a very easy and neat way to achieve a world full of life. God wouldn't need to do anything at all! Peter Atkins, in the book just mentioned, takes this line of thought to a sensibly godless conclusion when he postulates a hypothetically lazy God who tries to get away with as little as possible in order to make a universe containing life. Atkins's lazy God is even lazier than the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: deus otiosus -- literally God at leisure, unoccupied, unemployed, superfluous, useless. Step by step, Atkins succeeds in reducing the amount of work the lazy God has to do until he finally ends up doing nothing at all: he might as well not bother to exist. My memory vividly hears Woody Allen's perceptive whine: 'If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.'


It is impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of the problem that Darwin and Wallace solved. I could mention the anatomy, cellular structure, biochemistry and behaviour of literally any living organism by example. But the most striking feats of apparent design are those picked out - for obvious reasons - by creationist authors, and it is with gentle irony that I derive mine from a creationist book. Life -- How Did It Get Here?, with no named author but published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in sixteen languages and eleven million copies, is obviously a firm favourite because no fewer than six of those eleven million copies have been sent to me as unsolicited gifts by well-wishers from around the world.

Picking a page at random from this anonymous and lavishly distributed work, we find the sponge known as Venus' Flower Basket (Euplectella), accompanied by a quotation from Sir David Attenborough, no less: 'When you look at a complex sponge skeleton such as that made of silica spicules which is known as Venus' Flower Basket, the imagination is baffled. How could quasi-independent microscopic cells collaborate to secrete a million glassy splinters and construct such an intricate and beautiful lattice? We do not know.' The Watchtower authors lose no time in adding their own punchline: 'But one thing we do know: Chance is not the likely designer.' No indeed, chance is not the likely designer. That is one thing on which we can all agree. The statistical improbability of phenomena such as Euplectella's skeleton is the central problem that any theory of life must solve. 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. Design is not a real solution either, as we shall see later; but for the moment I want to continue demonstrating the problem that any theory of life must solve: the problem of how to escape from chance.

Turning Watchtower's page, we find the wonderful plant known as Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia trilobata), all of whose parts seem elegantly designed to trap insects, cover them with pollen and send them on their way to another Dutchman's Pipe. The intricate elegance of the flower moves Watchtower to ask: 'Did all of this happen by chance? Or did it happen by intelligent design?' Once again, no of course it didn't happen by chance. Once again, intelligent design is not the proper alternative to chance. Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested. Intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. And the higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes. Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/herself/itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman's Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman's Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

Turn another Watchtower page for an eloquent account of the giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum), a tree for which I have a special affection because I have one in my garden -- a mere baby, scarcely more than a century old, but still the tallest tree in the neighbourhood. 'A puny man, standing at a sequoia's base, can only gaze upward in silent awe at its massive grandeur. Does it make sense to believe that the shaping of this majestic giant and of the tiny seed that packages it was not by design?' Yet again, if you think the only alternative to design is chance then, no, it does not make sense. But again the authors omit all mention of the real alternative, natural selection, either because they genuinely don't understand it or because they don't want to.

The process by which plants, whether tiny pimpernels or massive wellingtonias, acquire the energy to build themselves is photosynthesis. Watchtower again: '''There are about seventy separate chemical reactions involved in photosynthesis:' one biologist said. "It is truly a miraculous event." Green plants have been called nature's "factories" -- beautiful, quiet, nonpolluting, producing oxygen, recycling water and feeding the world. Did they just happen by chance? Is that truly believable?' No, it is not believable; but the repetition of example after example gets us nowhere. Creationist 'logic' is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore a designer must have done it. And science's answer to this faulty logic is also always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer? Chance and design both fail as solutions to the problem of statistical improbability, because one of them is the problem, and the other one regresses to it. Natural selection is a real solution. It is the only workable solution that has ever been suggested. And it is not only a workable solution, it is a solution of stunning elegance and power.

What is it that makes natural selection succeed as a solution to the problem of improbability, where chance and design both fail at the starting gate? The answer is that natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed, improbable enough to be far beyond the reach of chance. It is these end products that form the subjects of the creationist's wearisomely recycled argument. The creationist completely misses the point, because he (women should for once not mind being excluded by the pronoun) insists on treating the genesis of statistical improbability as a single, one-off event. He doesn't understand the power of accumulation.

In Climbing Mount Improbable, I expressed the point in a parable. One side of the mountain is a sheer cliff, impossible to climb, but on the other side is a gentle slope to the summit. On the summit sits a complex device such as an eye or a bacterial flagellar motor. The absurd notion that such complexity could spontaneously self-assemble is symbolized by leaping from the foot of the cliff to the top in one bound. Evolution, by contrast, .goes around the back of the mountain and creeps up the gentle slope to the summit: easy! The principle of climbing the gentle slope as opposed to leaping up the precipice is so simple, one is tempted to marvel that it took so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene and discover it. By the time he did, nearly two centuries had elapsed since Newton's annus mirabilis, although his achievement seems, on the face of it, harder than Darwin's.

Another favourite metaphor for extreme improbability is the combination lock on a bank vault. Theoretically, a bank robber could get lucky and hit upon the right combination of numbers by chance. In practice, the bank's combination lock is designed with enough improbability to make this tantamount to impossible -- almost as unlikely as Fred Hoyle's Boeing 747. But imagine a badly designed combination lock that gave out little hints progressively -- the equivalent of the 'getting warmer' of children playing Hunt the Slipper. Suppose that when each one of the dials approaches its correct setting, the vault door opens another chink, and a dribble of money trickles out. The burglar would home in on the jackpot in no time.

Creationists who attempt to deploy the argument from improbability in their favour always assume that biological adaptation is a question of the jackpot or nothing. Another name for the 'jackpot or nothing' fallacy is 'irreducible complexity' (IC). Either the eye sees or it doesn't. Either the wing flies or it doesn't. There are assumed to be no useful intermediates. But this is simply wrong. Such intermediates abound in practice -- which is exactly what we should expect in theory. The combination lock of life is a 'getting warmer, getting cooler, getting warmer' Hunt the Slipper device. Real life seeks the gentle slopes at the back of Mount Improbable, while creationists are blind to all but the daunting precipice at the front.

Darwin devoted an entire chapter of the Origin of Species to 'Difficulties on the theory of descent with modification', and it is fair to say that this brief chapter anticipated and disposed of every single one of the alleged difficulties that have since been proposed, right up to the present day. The most formidable difficulties are Darwin's 'organs of extreme perfection and complication', sometimes erroneously described as 'irreducibly complex'. Darwin singled out the eye as posing a particularly challenging problem: 'To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.' Creationists gleefully quote this sentence again and again. Needless to say, they never quote what follows. Darwin's fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin's effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase 'irreducible complexity', or 'the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable', but he clearly understood the principle of both.

'What is the use of half an eye?' and 'What is the use of half a wing?' are both instances of the argument from 'irreducible complexity'. A functioning unit is said to be irreducibly complex if the removal of one of its parts causes the whole to cease functioning. This has been assumed to be self-evident for both eyes and wings. But as soon as we give these assumptions a moment's thought, we immediately see the fallacy. A cataract patient with the lens of her eye surgically removed can't see clear images without glasses, but can see enough not to bump into a tree or fall over a cliff. Half a wing is indeed not as good as a whole wing, but it is certainly better than no wing at all. Half a wing could save your life by easing your fall from a tree of a certain height. And 51 per cent of a wing could save you if you fall from a slightly taller tree. Whatever fraction of a wing you have, there is a fall from which it will save your life where a slightly smaller winglet would not. The thought experiment of trees of different height, from which one might fall, is just one way to see, in theory, that there must be a smooth gradient of advantage all the way from 1 per cent of a wing to 100 per cent. The forests are replete with gliding or parachuting animals illustrating, in practice, every step of the way up that particular slope of Mount Improbable.

By analogy with the trees of different height, it is easy to imagine situations in which half an eye would save the life of an animal where 49 per cent of an eye would not. Smooth gradients are provided by variations in lighting conditions, variations in the distance at which you catch sight of your prey -- or your predators. And, as with wings and flight surfaces, plausible intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus (and perhaps its extinct ammonite cousins who dominated Paleozoic and Mesozoic seas) has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus 'pinhole camera' eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours. It would be spurious precision to put numbers on the improvement, but nobody could sanely deny that these invertebrate eyes, and many others, are all better than no eye at all, and all lie on a continuous and shallow slope up Mount Improbable, with our eyes near a peak -- not the highest peak but a high one. In Climbing Mount Improbable, I devoted a whole chapter each to the eye and the wing, demonstrating how easy it was for them to evolve by slow (or even, maybe, not all that slow) gradual degrees, and I will leave the subject here.

So, we have seen that eyes and wings are certainly not irreducibly complex; but what is more interesting than these particular examples is the general lesson we should draw. The fact that so many people have been dead wrong over these obvious cases should serve to warn us of other examples that are less obvious, such as the cellular and biochemical cases now being touted by those creationists who shelter under the politically expedient euphemism of 'intelligent design theorists'.

We have a cautionary tale here, and it is telling us this: do not just declare things to be irreducibly complex; the chances are that you haven't looked carefully enough at the details, or thought carefully enough about them. On the other hand, we on the science side must not be too dogmatically confident. Maybe there is something out there in nature that really does preclude, by its genuinely irreducible complexity, the smooth gradient of Mount Improbable. The creationists are right that, if genuinely irreducible complexity could be properly demonstrated, it would wreck Darwin's theory. Darwin himself said as much: 'If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.' Darwin could find no such case, and nor has anybody since Darwin's time, despite strenuous, indeed desperate, efforts. Many candidates for this holy grail of creationism have been proposed. None has stood up to analysis.

In any case, even though genuinely irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin's theory if it were ever found, who is to say that it wouldn't wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory, for, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!


Searching for particular examples of irreducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed: a special case of arguing from present ignorance. It appeals to the same faulty logic as 'the God of the Gaps' strategy condemned by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide. What worries scientists is something else. It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests. As my friend Matt Ridley has written, 'Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.' Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: it gives them something to do. More generally, as I shall repeat in Chapter 8, one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.

Admissions of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore unfortunate, to say the least, that the main strategy of creation propagandists is the negative one of seeking out gaps in scientific knowledge and claiming to fill them with 'intelligent design' by default. The following is hypothetical but entirely typical. A creationist speaking: 'The elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog is irreducibly complex. No part of it would do any good at all until the whole was assembled. Bet you can't think of a way in which the weasel frog's elbow could have evolved by slow gradual degrees: If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, the creationist draws a default conclusion: 'Right then, the alternative theory, "intelligent design", wins by default: Notice the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular, theory B must be right. Needless to say, the argument is not applied the other way ~round. We are encouraged to leap to the default theory without even looking to see whether it fails in the very same particular as the theory it is alleged to replace. Intelligent design -- ID -- is granted a Get Out Of Jail Free card, a charmed immunity to the rigorous demands made of evolution.

But my present point is that the creationist ploy undermines the scientist's natural -- indeed necessary -- rejoicing in (temporary) uncertainty. For purely political reasons, today's scientist might hesitate before saying: 'Hm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog's ancestors did evolve their elbow joint. I'm not a specialist in weasel frogs, I'll have to go to the University Library and take a look. Might make an interesting project for a graduate student: The moment a scientist said something like that -- and long before the student began the project -- the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: 'Weasel frog could only have been designed by God.'

There is, then, an unfortunate hook-up between science's methodological need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to target research, and ID's need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to claim victory by default. It is precisely the fact that ID has no evidence of its own, but thrives like a weed in gaps left by scientific knowledge, that sits uneasily with science's need to identify and proclaim the very same gaps as a prelude to researching them. In this respect, science finds itself in alliance with sophisticated theologians like Bonhoeffer, united against the common enemies of naive, populist theology and the gap theology of intelligent design.

The creationists' love affair with 'gaps' in the fossil record symbolizes their whole gap theology. I once introduced a chapter on the so-called Cambrian Explosion with the sentence, 'It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary history.' Again, this was a rhetorical overture, intended to whet the reader's appetite for the full explanation that was to follow. Sad hindsight tells me now how predictable it was that my patient explanation would be excised and my overture itself gleefully quoted out of context. Creationists adore 'gaps' in the fossil record, just as they adore gaps generally.

Many evolutionary transitions are elegantly documented by more or less continuous series of gradually changing intermediate fossils. Some are not, and these are the famous 'gaps'. Michael Shermer has wittily pointed out that if a new fossil discovery neatly bisects a 'gap', the creationist will declare that there are now twice as many gaps! But in any case, note yet again the unwarranted use of a default. If there are no fossils to document a postulated evolutionary transition, the default assumption is that there was no evolutionary transition, therefore God must have intervened.

It is utterly illogical to demand complete documentation of every step of any narrative, whether in evolution or any other science. You might as well demand, before convicting somebody of murder, a complete cinematic record of the murderer's every step leading up to the crime, with no missing frames. Only a tiny fraction of corpses fossilize, and we are lucky to have as many intermediate fossils as we do. We could easily have had no fossils at all, and still the evidence for evolution from other sources, such as molecular genetics and geographical distribution, would be overwhelmingly strong. On the other hand, evolution makes the strong prediction that if a single fossil turned up in the wrong geological stratum, the theory would be blown out of the water. When challenged by a zealous Popperian to say how evolution could ever be falsified, J. B. S. Haldane famously growled: 'Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian: No such anachronistic fossils have ever been authentically found, despite discredited creationist legends of human skulls in the Coal Measures and human footprints interspersed with dinosaurs'.

Gaps, by default in the mind of the creationist, are filled by God. The same applies to all apparent precipices on the massif of Mount Improbable, where the graded slope is not immediately obvious or is otherwise overlooked. Areas where there is a lack of data, or a lack of understanding, are automatically assumed to belong, by default, to God. The speedy resort to a dramatic proclamation of 'irreducible complexity' represents a failure of the imagination. Some biological organ, if not an eye then a bacterial flagellar motor or a biochemical pathway, is decreed without further argument to be irreducibly complex. No attempt is made to demonstrate irreducible complexity. Notwithstanding the cautionary tales of eyes, wings and many other things, each new candidate for the dubious accolade is assumed to be transparently, self-evidently irreducibly complex, its status asserted by fiat. But think about it. Since irreducible complexity is being deployed as an argument for design, it should no more be asserted by fiat than design itself. You might as well simply assert that the weasel frog (bombardier beetle, etc.) demonstrates design, without further argument or justification. That is no way to do science.

The logic turns out to be no more convincing than this: 'I [insert own name 1 am personally unable to think of any way in which [insert biological phenomenon] could have been built up step by step. Therefore it is irreducibly complex. That means it is designed.' Put it like that, and you immediately see that it is vulnerable to some scientist coming along and finding an intermediate; or at least imagining a plausible intermediate. Even if no scientists do come up with an explanation, it is plain bad logic to assume that 'design' will fare any better. The reasoning that underlies 'intelligent design' theory is lazy and defeatist -- classic 'God of the Gaps' reasoning. I have previously dubbed it the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

Imagine that you are watching a really great magic trick. The celebrated conjuring duo Penn and Teller have a routine in which they simultaneously appear to shoot each other with pistols, and each appears to catch the bullet in his teeth. Elaborate precautions are taken to scratch identifying marks on the bullets before they are put in the guns, the whole procedure is witnessed at close range by volunteers from the audience who have experience of firearms, and apparently all possibilities for trickery are eliminated. Teller's marked bullet ends up in Penn's mouth and Penn's marked bullet ends up in Teller's. I [Richard Dawkins] am utterly unable to think of any way in which this could be a trick. The Argument from Personal Incredulity screams from the depths of my prescientific brain centres, and almost compels me to say, 'It must be a miracle. There is no scientific explanation. It's got to be supernatural.' But the still small voice of scientific education speaks a different message. Penn and Teller are world-class illusionists. There is a perfectly good explanation. It is just that I am too naive, or too unobservant, or too unimaginative, to think of it. That is the proper response to a conjuring trick. It is also the proper response to a biological phenomenon that appears to be irreducibly complex. Those people who leap from personal bafflement at a natural phenomenon straight to a hasty invocation of the supernatural are no better than the fools who see a conjuror bending a spoon and leap to the conclusion that it is 'paranormal'.

In his book Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, the Scottish chemist A. G. Cairns-Smith makes an additional point, using the analogy of an arch. A free-standing arch of rough-hewn stones and no mortar can be a stable structure, but it is irreducibly complex: it collapses if anyone stone is removed. How, then, was it built in the first place? One way is to pile a solid heap of stones, then carefully remove stones one by one. More generally, there are many structures that are irreducible in the sense that they cannot survive the subtraction of any part, but which were built with the aid of scaffolding that was subsequently subtracted and is no longer visible. Once the structure is completed, the scaffolding can be removed safely and the structure remains standing. In evolution, too, the organ or structure you are looking at may have had scaffolding in an ancestor which has since been removed.

'Irreducible complexity' is not a new idea, but the phrase itself was invented by the creationist Michael Behe in 1996. [62] He is credited (if credited is the word) with moving creationism into a new area of biology: biochemistry and cell biology, which he saw as perhaps a happier hunting ground for gaps than eyes or wings. His best approach to a good example (still a bad one) was the bacterial flagellar motor.

The flagellar motor of bacteria is a prodigy of nature. It drives the only known example, outside human technology, of a freely rotating axle. Wheels for big animals would, I suspect, be genuine examples of irreducible complexity, and this is probably why they don't exist. How would the nerves and blood vessels get across the bearing? [iv] The flagellum is a thread-like propeller, with which the bacterium burrows its way through the water. I say 'burrows' rather than 'swims' because, on the bacterial scale of existence, a liquid such as water would not feel as a liquid feels to us. It would feel more like treacle, or jelly, or even sand, and the bacterium would seem to burrow or screw its way through the water rather than swim. Unlike the so-called flagellum of larger organisms like protozoans, the bacterial flagellum doesn't just wave about like a whip, or row like an oar. It has a true, freely rotating axle which turns continuously inside a bearing, driven by a remarkable little molecular motor. At the molecular level, the motor uses essentially the same principle as muscle, but in free rotation rather than in intermittent contraction. [v] It has been happily described as a tiny outboard motor (although by engineering standards -- and unusually for a biological mechanism -- it is a spectacularly inefficient one).

Without a word of justification, explanation or amplification, Behe simply proclaims the bacterial flagellar motor to be irreducibly complex. Since he offers no argument in favour of his assertion, we may begin by suspecting a failure of his imagination. He further alleges that specialist biological literature has ignored the problem. The falsehood of this allegation was massively and (to Behe) embarrassingly documented in the court of Judge John E. Jones in Pennsylvania in 2005, where Behe was testifying as an expert witness on behalf of a group of creationists who had tried to impose 'intelligent design' creationism on the science curriculum of a local public school -- a move of 'breathtaking inanity', to quote Judge Jones (phrase and man surely destined for lasting fame). This wasn't the only embarrassment Behe suffered at the hearing, as we shall see.

The key to demonstrating irreducible complexity is to show that none of the parts could have been useful on its own. They all needed to be in place before any of them could do any good (Behe's favourite analogy is a mousetrap). In fact, molecular biologists have no difficulty in finding parts functioning outside the whole, both for the flagellar motor and for Behe's other alleged examples of irreducible complexity. The point is well put by Kenneth Miller of Brown University, for my money the most persuasive nemesis of 'intelligent design', not least because he is a devout Christian. I frequently recommend Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God, to religious people who write to me having been bamboozled by Behe.

In the case of the bacterial rotary engine, Miller calls our attention to a mechanism called the Type Three Secretory System or TTSS. [63] The TTSS is not used for rotatory movement. It is one of several systems used by parasitic bacteria for pumping toxic substances through their cell walls to poison their host organism. On our human scale, we might think of pouring or squirting a liquid through a hole; but, once again, on the bacterial scale things look different. Each molecule of secreted substance is a large protein with a definite, three-dimensional structure on the same scale as the TTSS's own: more like a solid sculpture than a liquid. Each molecule is individually propelled through a carefully shaped mechanism, like an automated slot machine dispensing, say, toys or bottles, rather than a simple hole through which a substance might 'flow'. The goods-dispenser itself is made of a rather small number of protein molecules, each one comparable in size and complexity to the molecules being dispensed through it. Interestingly, these bacterial slot machines are often similar across bacteria that are not closely related. The genes for making them have probably been 'copied and pasted' from other bacteria: something that bacteria are remarkably adept at doing, and a fascinating topic in its own right, but I must press on.

The protein molecules that form the structure of the TTSS are very similar to components of the flagellar motor. To the evolutionist it is clear that TTSS components were commandeered for a new, but not wholly unrelated, function when the flagellar motor evolved. Given that the TTSS is tugging molecules through itself, it is not surprising that it uses a rudimentary version of the principle used by the flagellar motor, which tugs the molecules of the axle round and round. Evidently, crucial components of the flagellar motor were already in place and working before the flagellarmotor evolved. Commandeering existing mechanisms is an obvious way in which an apparently irreducibly complex piece of apparatus could climb Mount Improbable.

A lot more work needs to be done, of course, and I'm sure it will be. Such work would never be done if scientists were satisfied with a lazy default such as 'intelligent design theory' would encourage. Here is the message that an imaginary 'intelligent design theorist' might broadcast to scientists: 'If you don't understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it. You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don't work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries, for we can use them. Don't squander precious ignorance by researching it away. We need those glorious gaps as a last refuge for God.' St Augustine said it quite openly: 'There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn' (quoted in Freeman 2002).

Another of Behe's favourite alleged examples of 'irreducible complexity' is the immune system. Let Judge Jones himself take up the story:

In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not 'good enough.'

Behe, under cross-examination by Eric Rothschild, chief counsel for the plaintiffs, was forced to admit that he hadn't read most of those fifty-eight peer-reviewed papers. Hardly surprising, for immunology is hard work. Less forgivable is that Behe dismissed such research as 'unfruitful'. It certainly is unfruitful if your aim is to make propaganda among gullible laypeople and politicians, rather than to discover important truths about the real world. After listening to Behe, Rothschild eloquently summed up what every honest person in that courtroom must have felt:

Thankfully, there are scientists who do search for answers to the question of the origin of the immune system ... It's our defense against debilitating and fatal diseases. The scientists who wrote those books and articles toil in obscurity, without book royalties or speaking engagements. Their efforts help us combat and cure serious medical conditions. By contrast, Professor Behe and the entire intelligent design movement are doing nothing to advance scientific or medical knowledge and are telling future generations of scientists, don't bother. [64]

As the American geneticist Jerry Coyne put it in his review of Behe's book: 'If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labelling our ignorance "God".' Or, in the words of an eloquent blogger, commenting on an article on intelligent design in the Guardian by Coyne and me,

Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It's not -- it's a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an 'I dunno' dressed up in spirituality and ritual. If someone credits something to God, generally what it means is that they haven't a clue, so they're attributing it to an unreachable, unknowable sky-fairy. Ask for an explanation of where that bloke came from, and odds are you'll get a vague, pseudo-philosophical reply about having always existed, or being outside nature. Which, of course, explains nothing. [65]

Darwinism raises our consciousness in other ways. Evolved organs, elegant and efficient as they often are, also demonstrate revealing flaws -- exactly as you'd expect if they have an evolutionary history, and exactly as you would not expect if they were designed. I have discussed examples in other books: the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for one, which betrays its evolutionary history in a massive and wasteful detour on its way to its destination. Many of our human ailments, from lower back pain to hernias, prolapsed uteruses and our susceptibility to sinus infections, result directly from the fact that we now walk upright with a body that was shaped over hundreds of millions of years to walk on all fours. Our consciousness is also raised by the cruelty and wastefulness of natural selection. Predators seem beautifully 'designed' to catch prey animals, while the prey animals seem equally beautifully 'designed' to escape them. Whose side is God on? [66]
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 6:57 pm

Part 2 of 2


Gap theologians who may have given up on eyes and wings, flagellar motors and immune systems, often pin their remaining hopes on the origin of life. The root of evolution in non-biological chemistry somehow seems to present a bigger gap than any particular transition during subsequent evolution. And in one sense it is a bigger gap. That one sense is quite specific, and it offers no comfort to the religious apologist. The origin of life only had to happen once. We therefore can allow it to have been an extremely improbable event, many orders of magnitude more improbable than most people realize, as I shall show. Subsequent evolutionary steps are duplicated, in more or less similar ways, throughout millions and millions of species independently, and continually and repeatedly throughout geological time. Therefore, to explain the evolution of complex life, we cannot resort to the same kind of statistical reasoning as we are able to apply to the origin of life. The events that constitute run-of-the-mill evolution, as distinct from its singular origin (and perhaps a few special cases), cannot have been very improbable.

This distinction may seem puzzling, and I must explain it further, using the so-called anthropic principle. The anthropic principle was named by the mathematician Brandon Carter in 1974 and expanded by the physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler in their book on the subject. [67] The anthropic argument is usually applied to the cosmos, and I'll come to that. But I'll introduce the idea on a smaller, planetary scale. We exist here on Earth. Therefore Earth must be the kind of planet that is capable of generating and supporting us, however unusual, even unique, that kind of planet might be. For example, our kind of life cannot survive without liquid water. Indeed, exobiologists searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life are scanning the heavens, in practice, for signs of water. Around a typical star like our sun, there is a so-called Goldilocks zone -- not too hot and not too cold, but just right -- for planets with liquid water. A thin band of orbits lies between those that are too far from the star, where water freezes, and too close, where it boils.

Presumably, too, a life-friendly orbit has to be nearly circular. A fiercely elliptical orbit, like that of the newly discovered tenth planet informally known as Xena, would at best allow the planet to whizz briefly through the Goldilocks zone once every few (Earth) decades or centuries. Xena itself doesn't get into the Goldilocks zone at all, even at its closest approach to the sun, which it reaches once every 560 Earth years. The temperature of Halley's Comet varies between about 47°C at perihelion and minus 270°C at aphelion. Earth's orbit, like those of all the planets, is technically an ellipse (it is closest to the sun in January and furthest away in July [vi]); but a circle is a special case of an ellipse, and Earth's orbit is so close to circular that it never strays out of the Goldilocks zone. Earth's situation in the solar system is propitious in other ways that singled it out for the evolution of life. The massive gravitational vacuum cleaner of Jupiter is well placed to intercept asteroids that might otherwise threaten us with lethal collision. Earth's single relatively large moon serves to stabilize our axis of rotation, [68] and helps to foster life in various other ways. Our sun is unusual in not being a binary, locked in mutual orbit with a companion star. It is possible for binary stars to have planets, but their orbits are likely to be too chaotically variable to encourage the evolution of life.

Two main explanations have been offered for our planet's peculiar friendliness to life. The design theory says that God made the world, placed it in the Goldilocks zone, and deliberately set up all the details for our benefit. The anthropic approach is very different, and it has a faintly Darwinian feel. The great majority of planets in the universe are not in the Goldilocks zones of their respective stars, and not suitable for life. None of that majority has life. However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it.

It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.

Liquid water is a necessary condition for life as we know it, but it is far from sufficient. Life still has to originate in the water, and the origin of life may have been a highly improbable occurrence. Darwinian evolution proceeds merrily once life has originated. But how does life get started? The origin of life was the chemical event, or series of events, whereby the vital conditions for natural selection first came about. The major ingredient was heredity, either DNA or (more probably) something that copies like DNA but less accurately, perhaps the related molecule RNA. Once the vital ingredient -- some kind of genetic molecule -- is in place, true Darwinian natural selection can follow, and complex life emerges as the eventual consequence. But the spontaneous arising by chance of the first hereditary molecule strikes many as improbable. Maybe it is -- very very improbable, and I shall dwell on this, for it is central to this section of the book.

The origin of life is a flourishing, if speculative, subject for research. The expertise required for it is chemistry and it is not mine. I watch from the sidelines with engaged curiosity, and I shall not be surprised if, within the next few years, chemists report that they have successfully midwifed a new origin of life in the laboratory. Nevertheless it hasn't happened yet, and it is still possible to maintain that the probability of its happening is, and always was, exceedingly low -- although it did happen once!

Just as we did with the Goldilocks orbits, we can make the point that, however improbable the origin of life might be, we know it happened on Earth because we are here. Again as with temperature, there are two hypotheses to explain what happened -- the design hypothesis and the scientific or 'anthropic' hypothesis. The design approach postulates a God who wrought a deliberate miracle, struck the prebiotic soup with divine fire and launched DNA, or something equivalent, on its momentous career.

Again, as with Goldilocks, the anthropic alternative to the design hypothesis is statistical. Scientists invoke the magic of large numbers. It has been estimated that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a quite staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. A grant-giving body would laugh at any chemist who admitted that the chance of his proposed research succeeding was only one in a hundred. But here we are talking about odds of one in a billion. And yet ... even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets -- of which Earth, of course, is one. [69]

This conclusion is so surprising, I'll say it again. If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefyingly improbable event would still happen on a billion planets. The chance of finding anyone of those billion life-bearing planets recalls the proverbial needle in a haystack. But we don't have to go out of our way to find a needle because (back to the anthropic principle) any beings capable of looking must necessarily be sitting on one of those prodigiously rare needles' before they even start the search.

Any probability statement is made in the context of a certain level of ignorance. If we know nothing about a planet, we may postulate the odds of life's arising on it as, say, one in a billion. But if we now import some new assumptions into our estimate, things change. A particular planet may have some peculiar properties, perhaps a special profile of element abundances in its rocks, which shift the odds in favour of life's emerging. Some planets, in other words, are more 'Earth-like' than others. Earth itself, of course, is especially Earth-like! This should give encouragement to our chemists trying to recreate the event in the lab, for it could shorten the odds against their success. But my earlier calculation demonstrated that even a chemical model with odds of success as low as one in a billion would still predict that life would arise on a billion planets in the universe. And the beauty of the anthropic principle is that it tells us, against all intuition, that a chemical model need only predict that life will arise on one planet in a billion billion to give us a good and entirely satisfying explanation for the presence of life here. I do not for a moment believe the origin of life was anywhere near so improbable in practice. I think it is definitely worth spending money on trying to duplicate the event in the lab and -- by the same token, on SETI, because I think it is likely that there is intelligent life elsewhere.

Even accepting the most pessimistic estimate of the probability that life might spontaneously originate, this statistical argument completely demolishes any suggestion that we should postulate design to fill the gap. Of all the apparent gaps in the evolutionary story, the origin of life gap can seem unbridgeable to brains calibrated to assess likelihood and risk on an everyday scale: the scale on which grant-giving bodies assess research proposals submitted by chemists. Yet even so big a gap as this is easily filled by statistically informed science, while the very same statistical science rules out a divine creator on the 'Ultimate 747' grounds we met earlier.

But now, to return to the interesting point that launched this section. Suppose somebody tried to explain the general phenomenon of biological adaptation along the same lines as we have just applied to the origin of life: appealing to an immense number of available planets. The observed fact is that every species, and every organ that has ever been looked at within every species, is-good at what it does. The wings of birds, bees and bats are good at flying. Eyes are good at seeing. Leaves are good at photosynthesizing. We live on a planet where we are surrounded by perhaps ten million species, each one of which independently displays a powerful illusion of apparent design. Each species is well fitted to its particular way of life. Could we get away with the 'huge numbers of planets' argument to explain all these separate illusions of design? No, we could not, repeat not. Don't even think about it. This is important, for it goes to the heart of the most serious misunderstanding of Darwinism.

It doesn't matter how many planets we have to play with, lucky chance could never be enough to explain the lush diversity of living complexity on Earth in the same way as we used it to explain the existence of life here in the first place. The evolution of life is a completely different case from the origin of life because, to repeat, the origin of life was (or could have been) a unique event which had to happen only once. The adaptive fit of species to their separate environments, on the other hand, is million fold, and ongoing.

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. We can safely predict that, 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. And, thanks to Darwin, we know how it is brought about: by natural selection.

The anthropic principle is impotent to explain the multifarious details of living creatures. We really need Darwin's powerful crane to account for the diversity of life on Earth, and especially the persuasive illusion of design. The origin of life, by contrast, lies outside the reach of that crane, because natural selection cannot proceed without it. Here the anthropic principle comes into its own. We can deal with the unique origin of life by postulating a very large number of planetary opportunities. Once that initial stroke of luck has been granted -- and the anthropic principle most decisively grants it to us -- natural selection takes over: and natural selection is emphatically not a matter of luck.

Nevertheless, it may be that the origin of life is not the only major gap in the evolutionary story that is bridged by sheer luck, anthropically justified. For example, my colleague Mark Ridley in Mendel's Demon (gratuitously and confusingly retitled The Cooperative Gene by his American publishers) has suggested that the origin of the eucaryotic cell (our kind of cell, with a nucleus and various other complicated features such as mitochondria, which are not present in bacteria) was an even more momentous, difficult and statistically improbable step tha!1 the origin of life. The origin of consciousness might be another major gap whose bridging was of the same order of improbability. One-off events like this might be explained by the anthropic principle, along the following lines. There are billions of planets that have developed life at the level of bacteria, but only a fraction of these life forms ever made it across the gap to something like the eucaryotic cell. And of these, a yet smaller fraction managed to cross the later Rubicon to consciousness. If both of these are one-off events, we are not dealing with a ubiquitous and all-pervading process, as we are with ordinary, run-of-the-mill biological adaptation. The anthropic principle states that, since we are alive, eucaryotic and conscious, our planet has to be one of the intensely rare planets that has bridged all three gaps.

Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement. It needs some luck to get started, and the 'billions of planets' anthropic principle grants it that luck. Maybe a few later gaps in the evolutionary story also need major infusions of luck, with anthropic justification. But whatever else we may say, design certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is ultimately not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger questions than it answers -- it takes us straight back along the Ultimate 747 infinite regress.

We live on a planet that is friendly to our kind of life, and we have seen two reasons why this is so. One is that life has evolved to flourish in the conditions provided by the planet. This is because of natural selection. The other reason is the anthropic one. There are billions of planets in the universe, and, however small the minority of evolution-friendly planets may be, our planet necessarily has to be one of them. Now it is time to take the anthropic principle back to an earlier stage, from biology back to cosmology.


We live not only on a friendly planet but also in a friendly universe. It follows from the fact of our existence that the laws of physics must be friendly enough to allow life to arise. It is no accident that when we look at the night sky we see stars, for stars are a necessary prerequisite for the existence of most of the chemical elements, and without chemistry there could be no life. Physicists have calculated that, if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible. Different physicists put it in different ways, but the conclusion is always much the same. [vii] Martin Rees, in Just Six Numbers, lists six fundamental constants, which are believed to hold all around the universe. Each of these six numbers is finely tuned in the sense that, if it were slightly different, the universe would be comprehensively different and presumably unfriendly to life. [viii]

An example of Rees's six numbers is the magnitude of the so-called 'strong' force, the force that binds the components of an atomic nucleus: the nuclear force that has to be overcome when one 'splits' the atom. It is measured as E, the proportion of the mass of a hydrogen nucleus that is converted to energy when hydrogen fuses to form helium. The value of this number in our universe is 0.007, and it looks as though it had to be very close to this value in order for any chemistry (which is a prerequisite for life) to exist. Chemistry as we know it consists of the combination and recombination of the ninety or so naturally occurring elements of the periodic table. Hydrogen is the simplest and commonest of the elements. All the other elements in the universe are made ultimately from hydrogen by nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is a difficult process which occurs in the intensely hot conditions of the interiors of stars (and in hydrogen bombs). Relatively small stars, such as our sun, can make only light elements such as helium, the second lightest in the periodic table after hydrogen. It takes larger and hotter stars to develop the high temperatures needed to forge most of the heavier elements, in a cascade of nuclear fusion processes whose details were worked out by Fred Hoyle and two colleagues (an achievement for which, mysteriously, Hoyle was not given a share of the Nobel Prize received by the others). These big stars may explode as supernovas, scattering their materials, including the elements of the periodic table, in dust clouds. These dust clouds eventually condense to form new stars and planets, including our own. This is why Earth is rich in elements over and above the ubiquitous hydrogen: elements without which chemistry, and life, would be impossible.

The relevant point here is that the value of the strong force crucially determines how far up the periodic table the nuclear fusion cascade goes. If the strong force were too small, say 0.006 instead of 0.007, the universe would contain nothing but hydrogen, and no interesting chemistry could result. If it were too large, say 0.008, all the hydrogen would have fused to make heavier elements. A chemistry without hydrogen could not generate life as we know it. For one thing, there would be no water. The Goldilocks value -- 0.007 -- is just right for yielding the richness of elements that we need for an interesting and life-supporting chemistry.

I won't go through the rest of Rees's six numbers. The bottom line for each of them is the same. The actual number sits in a Goldilocks band of values outside which life would not have been possible. How should we respond to this? Yet again, we have the theist's answer on the one hand, and the anthropic answer on the other. The theist says that God, when setting up the universe, tuned the fundamental constants of the universe so that each one lay in its Goldilocks zone for the production of life. It is as though God had six knobs that he could twiddle, and he carefully tuned each knob to its Goldilocks value. As ever, the theist's answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained. A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that's very improbable indeed. This is exactly the premise of the whole discussion we are having. It follows that the theist's answer has utterly failed to make any headway towards solving the problem at hand. I see no alternative but to dismiss it, while at the same time marvelling at the number of people who can't see the problem and seem genuinely satisfied by the 'Divine Knob-Twiddler' argument.

Maybe the psychological reason for this amazing blindness has something to do with the fact that many people have not had their consciousness raised, as biologists have, by natural selection and its power to tame improbability. J. Anderson Thomson, from his perspective as an evolutionary psychiatrist, points me to an additional reason, the psychological bias that we all have towards personifying inanimate objects as agents. As Thomson says, we are more inclined to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. A false positive might be a waste of time. A false negative could be fatal. In a letter to me, he suggested that, in our ancestral past, our greatest challenge in our environment came from each other. 'The legacy of that is the default assumption, often fear, of human intention. We have a great deal of difficulty seeing anything other than human causation.' We naturally generalized that to divine intention. I shall return to the seductiveness of 'agents' in Chapter 5.

Biologists, with their raised consciousness of the power of natural selection to explain the rise of improbable things, are unlikely to be satisfied with any theory that evades the problem of improbability altogether. And the theistic response to the riddle of improbability is an evasion of stupendous proportions. It is more than a restatement of the problem, it is a grotesque amplification of it. Let's turn, then, to the anthropic alternative. The anthropic answer, in its most general form, is that we could only be discussing the question in the kind of universe that was capable of producing us. Our existence therefore determines that the fundamental constants of physics had to be in their respective Goldilocks zones. Different physicists espouse different kinds of anthropic solutions to the riddle of our existence.

Hard-nosed physicists say that the six knobs were never free to vary in the first place. When we finally reach the long-hoped-for Theory of Everything, we shall see that the six key numbers depend upon each other, or on something else as yet unknown, in ways that we today cannot imagine. The six numbers may turn out to be no freer to vary than is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. It will turn out that there is only one way for a universe to be. Far from God being needed to twiddle six knobs, there are no knobs to twiddle.

Other physicists (Martin Rees himself would be an example) find this unsatisfying, and I think I agree with them. It is indeed perfectly plausible that there is only one way for a universe to be. But why did that one way have to be such a set-up for our eventual evolution? Why did it have to be the kind of universe which seems almost as if, in the words of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, it 'must have known we were coming'? The philosopher John Leslie uses the analogy of a man sentenced to death by firing squad. It is just possible that all ten men of the firing squad will miss their victim. With hindsight, the survivor who finds himself in a position to reflect upon his luck can cheerfully say, 'Well, obviously they all missed, or I wouldn't be here thinking about it.' But he could still, forgivably, wonder why they all missed, and toy with the hypothesis that they were bribed, or drunk.

This objection can be answered by the suggestion, which Martin Rees himself supports, that there are many universes, co-existing like bubbles of foam, in a 'multiverse' (or 'megaverse', as Leonard Susskind prefers to call it). [ix] The laws and constants of anyone universe, such as our observable universe, are by-laws. The multiverse as a whole has a plethora of alternative sets of by-laws. The anthropic principle kicks in to explain that we have to be in one of those universes (presumably a minority) whose by-laws happened to be propitious to our eventual evolution and hence contemplation of the problem.

An intriguing version of the multiverse theory arises out of considerations of the ultimate fate of our universe. Depending upon the values of numbers such as Martin Rees's six constants, our universe may be destined to expand indefinitely, or it may stabilize at an equilibrium, or the expansion may reverse itself and go into contraction, culminating in the so-called 'big crunch'. Some big crunch models have the universe then bouncing back into expansion, and so on indefinitely with, say, a 20-billion-year cycle time. The standard model of our universe says that time itself began in the big bang, along with space, some 13 billion years ago. The serial big crunch model would amend that statement: our time and space did indeed begin in our big bang, but this was just the latest in a long series of big bangs, each one initiated by the big crunch that terminated the previous universe in the series. Nobody understands what goes on in singularities such as the big bang, so it is conceivable that the laws and constants are reset to new values, each time. If bang-expansion-contraction-crunch cycles have been going on for ever like a cosmic accordion, we have a serial, rather than a parallel, version of the multiverse. Once again, the anthropic principle does its explanatory duty. Of all the universes in the series, only a minority have their 'dials' tuned to biogenic conditions. And, of course, the present universe has to be one of that minority, because we are in it. As it turns out, this serial version of the multiverse must now be judged less likely than it once was, because recent evidence is starting to steer us away from the big crunch model. It now looks as though our own universe is destined to expand for ever.

Another theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin, has developed a tantalizingly Darwinian variant on the multiverse theory, including both serial and parallel elements. Smolin's idea, expounded in The Life of the Cosmos, hinges on the theory that daughter universes are born of parent universes, not in a fully fledged big crunch but more locally in black holes. Smolin adds a form of heredity: the fundamental constants of a daughter universe are slightly 'mutated' versions of the constants of its parent. Heredity is the essential ingredient of Darwinian natural selection, and the rest of Smolin's theory follows naturally. Those universes that have what it takes to 'survive' and 'reproduce' come to predominate in the multiverse. 'What it takes' includes lasting long enough to 'reproduce'. Because the act of reproduction takes place in black holes, successful universes must have what it takes to make black holes. This ability entails various other properties. For example, the tendency for matter to condense into clouds and then stars is a prerequisite to making black holes. Stars also, as we have seen, are the precursors to the development of interesting chemistry, and hence life. So, Smolin suggests, there has been a Darwinian natural selection of universes in the multiverse, directly favouring the evolution of black hole fecundity and indirectly favouring the production of life. Not all physicists are enthusiastic about Smolin's idea, although the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann is quoted as saying: 'Smolin? Is he that young guy with those crazy ideas? He may not be wrong.'70 A mischievous biologist might wonder whether some other physicists are in need of Darwinian consciousness-raising.

It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God. Aren't they both equally uparsimonious ad hoc hypotheses, and equally unsatisfactory? People who think that have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection. The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence.

Some physicists are known to be religious (Russell Stannard and the Reverend John Polkinghorne are the two British examples I have mentioned). Predictably, they seize upon the improbability of the physical constants all being tuned in their more or less narrow Goldilocks zones, and suggest that there must be a cosmic intelligence who deliberately did the tuning. I have already dismissed all such suggestions as raising bigger problems than they solve. But what attempts have theists made to reply? How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?

The theologian Richard Swinburne, as we have learned to expect, thinks he has an answer to this problem, and' he expounds it in his book Is There a God? He begins by showing that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set of types of particle. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse.

Given that the number of particles of anyone type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence that so many should have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time; each should change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne's view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation. 'It is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now.'

Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralizing their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you've seen one electron you've seen them all; that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond and from century to century. It is because God constantly keeps a finger on each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.

But how can Swinburne possibly maintain that this hypothesis of God simultaneously keeping a gazillion fingers on wayward electrons is a simple hypothesis? It is, of course, precisely the opposite of simple. Swinburne pulls off the trick to his own satisfaction by a breathtaking piece of intellectual chutzpah. He asserts, without justification, that God is only a single substance. What brilliant economy of explanatory causes, compared with all those gigazillions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Theism claims that every other object which exists is caused to exist and kept in existence by just one substance, God. And it claims that every property which every substance has is due to God causing or permitting it to exist. It is a hallmark of a simple explanation to postulate few causes. There could in this respect be no simpler explanation than one which postulated only one cause. Theism is simpler than polytheism. And theism postulates for its one cause, a person [with] infinite power (God can do anything logically possible), infinite knowledge (God knows everything logically possible to know), and infinite freedom.

Swinburne generously concedes that God cannot accomplish feats that are logically impossible, and one feels grateful for this forbearance. Having said that, there is no limit to the explanatory purposes to which God's infinite power is put. Is science having a little difficulty explaining X? No problem. Don't give X another glance. God's infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that?

Well, actually, almost everything. A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right. Worse (from the point of view of simplicity), other corners of God's giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being -- and whatever intelligent aliens there might be on other planets in this and 100 billion other galaxies. He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer. That would never do, for, 'If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.' And then what would we find to do with our time?

Not all theologians go as far as Swinburne. Nevertheless, the remarkable suggestion that the God Hypothesis is simple can be found in other modern theological writings. Keith Ward, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, was very clear on the matter in his 1996 book God, Chance and Necessity:

As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself. It is elegant because from one key idea -- the idea of the most perfect possible being -- the whole nature of God and the existence of the universe can be intelligibly explicated.

Like Swinburne, Ward mistakes what it means to explain something, and he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple. I am not clear whether Ward really thinks God is simple, or whether the above passage represented a temporary 'for the sake of argument' exercise. Sir John Polkinghorne, in Science and Christian Belief, quotes Ward's earlier criticism of the thought of Thomas Aquinas: 'Its basic error is in supposing that God is logically simple -- simple not just in the sense that his being is indivisible, but in the much stronger sense that what is true of any part of God is true of the whole. It is quite coherent, however, to suppose that God, while indivisible, is internally complex.' Ward gets it right here. Indeed, the biologist Julian Huxley, in 1912, defined complexity in terms of 'heterogeneity of parts', by which he meant a particular kind of functional indivisibility. [71]

Elsewhere, Ward gives evidence of the difficulty the theological mind has in grasping where the complexity of life comes from. He quotes another theologian-scientist, the biochemist Arthur Peacocke (the third member of my trio of British religious scientists), as postulating the existence in living matter of a 'propensity for increased complexity'. Ward characterizes this as 'some inherent weighting of evolutionary change which favours complexity'. He goes on to suggest that such a bias 'might be some weighting of the mutational process, to ensure that more complex mutations occurred'. Ward is sceptical of this, as well he should be. The evolutionary drive towards complexity comes, in those lineages where it comes at all, not from any inherent propensity for increased complexity, and not from biased mutation. It comes from natural selection: the process which, as far as we know, is the only process ultimately capable of generating complexity out of simplicity. The theory of natural selection is genuinely simple. So is the origin from which it starts. That which it explains, on the other hand, is complex almost beyond telling: more complex than anything we can imagine, save a God capable of designing it.


At a recent Cambridge conference on science and religion, where I put forward the argument I am here calling the Ultimate 747 argument, I encountered what, to say the least, was a cordial failure to achieve a meeting of minds on the question of God's simplicity. The experience was a revealing one, and I'd like to share it.

First I should confess (that is probably the right word) that the conference was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. The audience was a small number of hand-picked science journalists from Britain and America. I was the token atheist among the eighteen invited speakers. One of the journalists, John Horgan, reported that they had each been paid the handsome sum of $15,000 to attend the conference, on top of all expenses. This surprised me. My long experience of academic conferences included no instances where the audience (as opposed to the speakers) was paid to attend. If I had known, my suspicions would immediately have been aroused. Was Templeton using his money to suborn science journalists and subvert their scientific integrity? John Horgan later wondered the same thing and wrote an article about his whole experience. [72] In it he revealed, to my chagrin, that my advertised involvement as a speaker had helped him and others to overcome their doubts:

The British biologist Richard Dawkins, whose participation in the meeting helped convince me and other fellows of its legitimacy, was the only speaker who denounced' religious beliefs as incompatible with science, irrational, and harmful. The other speakers -- three agnostics, one Jew, a deist, and 12 Christians (a Muslim philosopher canceled at the last minute) -- offered a perspective clearly skewed in favor of religion and Christianity.

Horgan's article is itself endearingly ambivalent. Despite his misgivings, there were aspects of the experience that he clearly valued (and so did I, as will become apparent below). Horgan wrote:

My conversations with the faithful deepened my appreciation of why some intelligent, well-educated people embrace religion. One reporter discussed the experience of speaking in tongues, and another described having an intimate relationship with Jesus. My convictions did not change, but others' did. At least one fellow said that his faith was wavering as a result of Dawkins's dissection of religion. And if the Templeton Foundation can help bring about even such a tiny step toward my vision of a world without religion, how bad can it be?

Horgan's article was given a second airing by the literary agent John Brockman on his 'Edge' website (often described as an on-line scientific salon) where it elicited varying responses, including one from the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. I responded to Dyson, quoting from his acceptance speech when he won the Templeton Prize. Whether he liked it or not, by accepting the Templeton Prize Dyson had sent a powerful signal to the world. It would be taken as an endorsement of religion by one of the world's most distinguished physicists.

'I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels.'

But isn't that exactly what any atheistic scientist would say, if he wanted to sound Christian? I gave further quotations from Dyson's acceptance speech, satirically interspersing them with imagined questions (in italics) to a Templeton official:

Oh, you want something a bit more profound, as well? How about ...

'I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.'

Have I said enough yet, and can I get back to doing physics now? Oh, not enough yet? OK then, how about this:

'Even in the gruesome history of the twentieth century, 1see some evidence of progress in religion. The two individuals who epitomized the evils of our century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, were both avowed atheists.' [x]

Can I go now?

Dyson could easily refute the implication of these quotations from his Templeton acceptance speech, if only he would explain dearly what evidence he finds to believe in God, in something more than just the Einsteinian sense which, as I explained in Chapter 1, we can all trivially subscribe to. If I understand Horgan's point, it is that Templeton's money corrupts science. I am sure Freeman Dyson is way above being corrupted. But his acceptance speech is still unfortunate if it seems to set an example to others. The Templeton Prize is two orders of magnitude larger than the inducements offered to the journalists at Cambridge, having been explicitly set up to be larger than the Nobel Prize. In Faustian vein, my friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett once joked to me, 'Richard, if ever you fall on hard times ...'

For better or worse, I attended two days at the Cambridge conference, giving a talk of my own and taking part in the discussion of several other talks. I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. [xi] Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex? Scientific arguments, such as those I was accustomed to deploying in my own field, were inappropriate since theologians had always maintained that God lay outside science.

I did not gain the impression that the theologians who mounted this evasive defence were being wilfully dishonest. I think they were sincere. Nevertheless, I was irresistibly reminded of Peter Medawar's comment on Father Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man, in the course of what is possibly the greatest negative book review of all time: 'its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.' [73] The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not. Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific, and it is one of these other ways of knowing that must be deployed to know God.

The most important of these other ways of knowing turned out to be personal, subjective experience of God. Several discussants at Cambridge claimed that God spoke to them, inside their heads, just as vividly and as personally as another human might. I have dealt with illusion and hallucination in Chapter 3 ('The argument from personal experience'), but at the Cambridge conference I added two points. First, that if God really did communicate with humans that fact would emphatically not lie outside science. God comes bursting through from whatever other-worldly domain is his natural abode, crashing through into our world where his messages can be intercepted by human brains -- and that phenomenon has nothing to do with science? Second, a God who is capable of sending intelligible signals to millions of people simultaneously, and of receiving messages from all of them simultaneously, cannot be, whatever else he might be, simple. Such bandwidth! God may not have a brain made of neurones, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know.

Time and again, my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word 'God' carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence. To suggest that the original prime mover was complicated enough to indulge in intelligent design, to say nothing of mindreading millions of humans simultaneously, is tantamount to dealing yourself a perfect hand at bridge. Look around at the world of life, at the Amazon rainforest with its rich interlacement of lianas, bromeliads, roots and flying buttresses; its army ants and its jaguars, its tapirs and peccaries, treefrogs and parrots. What you are looking at is the statistical equivalent of a perfect' hand of cards (think of all the other ways you could permute the parts, none of which would work) -- except that we know how it came about: by the gradualistic crane of natural selection. It is not just scientists who revolt at mute acceptance of such improbability arising spontaneously; common sense baulks too. To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.

I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn't have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the 'inflation' that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe's existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin's biological one. Or maybe the elusive crane that cosmologists seek will be a version of Darwin's idea itself: either Smolin's model or something similar. Or maybe it will be the multiverse plus anthropic principle espoused by Martin Rees and others. It may even be a superhuman designer -- but, if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. If (which I don't believe for a moment) our universe was designed, and a fortiori if the designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption, the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe.

The last-ditch defence by my critics in Cambridge was attack. My whole world-view was condemned as 'nineteenth-century'. This is such a bad argument that I almost omitted to mention it. But regrettably I encounter it rather frequently. Needless to say, to call an argument nineteenth-century is not the same as explaining what is wrong with it. Some nineteenth-century ideas were very good ideas, not least Darwin's own dangerous idea. In any case, this particular piece of name-calling seemed a bit rich coming, as it did, from an individual (a distinguished Cambridge geologist, surely well advanced along the Faustian road to a future Templeton Prize) who justified his own Christian belief by invoking what he called the historicity of the New Testament. It was precisely in the nineteenth century that theologians, especially in Germany, called into grave doubt that alleged historicity, using the evidence-based methods of history to do so. This was, indeed, swiftly pointed out by the theologians at the Cambridge conference.

In any case, I know the 'nineteenth-century' taunt of old. It goes with the 'village atheist' gibe. It goes with 'Contrary to what you seem to think Ha Ha Ha we don't believe in an old man with a long white beard any more Ha Ha Ha.' All three jokes are code for something else, just as, when I lived in America in the late 1960s, 'law and order' was politicians' code for anti-black prejudice. [xii] What, then, is the coded meaning of 'You are so nineteenth-century' in the context of an argument about religion? It is code for: 'You are so crude and unsubtle, how could you be so insensitive and ill-mannered as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like "Do you believe in miracles?" or "Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?" Don't you know that in polite society we don't ask such questions? That sort of question went out in the nineteenth century: But think about why it is impolite to ask such direct, factual questions of religious people today. It is because it is embarrassing! But it is the answer that is embarrassing, if it is yes.

The nineteenth-century connection is now clear. The nineteenth century is the fast time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. Hence, if somebody like me insists on asking the question, it is I who am accused of being 'nineteenth-century'. It is really quite funny, when you think about it.

I left the conference stimulated and invigorated, and reinforced in my conviction that the argument from improbability -- the 'Ultimate 747' gambit -- is a very serious argument against the existence of God, and one to which I have yet to hear a theologian give a convincing answer despite numerous opportunities and invitations to do so. Dan Dennett rightly describes it as 'an unrebuttable refutation, as devastating today as when Philo used it to trounce Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues two centuries earlier. A skyhook would at best simply postpone the solution to the problem, but Hume couldn't think of any cranes, so he caved in.' [74] Darwin, of course, supplied the vital crane. How Hume would have loved it.


This chapter has contained the central argument of my book, and so, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I shall summarize it as a series of six numbered points.

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a 'crane', not a 'skyhook', for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that -- an illusion.

5. We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion -- the God Hypothesis -- is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far. Various questions now follow. Even if we accept that God doesn't exist, doesn't religion still have a lot going for it? Isn't it consoling? Doesn't it motivate people to do good?' If it weren't for religion, how would we know what is good? Why, in any case, be so hostile? Why, if it is false, does every culture in the world have religion? True or false, religion is ubiquitous, so where does it come from? It is to this last question that we turn next.



i. Intelligent design has been unkindly described as creationism in a cheap tuxedo.

ii. Classical Latin and Greek were better equipped. Latin homo (Greek anthropo-) means human, as opposed to vir (andro-) which means man, and femina (gyne-) which means woman. Thus anthropology pertains to all humanity, where andrology and gynecology are sexually exclusive branches of medicine.

iii. See also his 2007 book God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist.

iv. There is an example in fiction. The children's writer Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, imagines a species of animals, the 'mulefa', that co-exist with trees that produce perfectly round seedpods with a hole in the centre. These pods the mulefa adopt as wheels. The wheels, not being part of the body, have no nerves or blood vessels to get twisted around the 'axle' (a strong claw of horn or bone). Pullman perceptively notes an additional point: the system works only because the planet is paved with natural basalt ribbons, which serve as 'roads'. Wheels are no good over rough country.

v. Fascinatingly, the muscle principle is deployed in yet a third mode in some insects such as flies, bees and bugs, in which the flight muscle is intrinsically oscillatory, like a reciprocating engine. Whereas other insects such as locusts send nervous instructions for each wing stroke (as a bird does), bees send an instruction to switch on (or switch off) the oscillatory motor. Bacteria have a mechanism which is neither a simple contractor (like a bird's flight muscle) nor a reciprocator (like a bee's flight muscle), but a true rotator: in that respect it is like an electric motor or a Wankel engine.

vi. If you find that surprising, you may be suffering from northern hemisphere chauvinism, as described on page 139.

vii. The physicist Victor Stenger (in e.g. God, the Failed Hypothesis) dissents from this consensus, and is unpersuaded that the physical laws and constants are particularly friendly to life. Nevertheless, I shall bend over backwards to accept the 'friendly universe' consensus, in order to show that, in any case, it cannot be used to support theism.

viii. I say 'presumably', partly because we don't know how different alien forms of life might be, and partly because it is possible that we make a mistake if we consider only the consequences of changing one constant at a time. Could there be other combinations of values of the six numbers which would turn out to be friendly to life, in ways that we do not discover if we consider them only one at a time? Nevertheless, I shall proceed, for simplicity, as though we really do have a big problem to explain in the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants.

ix. Susskind (2006) gives a splendid advocacy of the anthropic principle in the megaverse. He says the idea is hated by most physicists. I can't understand why. I think it is beautiful -- perhaps because my consciousness has been raised by Darwin.

x. This calumny is dealt with in Chapter 7.

xi. This accusation is reminiscent of 'NOMA', whose overblown claims I dealt with in Chapter 2.

xii. In Britain 'inner cities' had the equivalent coded meaning, prompting Auberon Waugh's wickedly hilarious reference to 'inner cities of both sexes'.
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