The divine comedy
The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins Bantam Press,416pp, £20
With The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins cements the reputation as a crusader against the ology that is steadily eclipsing his fame as the author of The Selfish Gene. The stand-off began when his own subject, Darwinian evolution, came under threat from proponents of Intelligent Design. I can understand Dawkins's rage at this kitsch and trashy image being placed on a level with his fine art. But his antipathy has spread to religion in general, leaving his huge body of admirers uneasy about his visceral stand.
Dawkins is no dusty, incomprehensible man of science, but is passionately in love with his subject. He is at his best on the intricacies of natural selection ("you need to be steeped, immersed in it, swim about in it, before you can truly appreciate its power"). He coins the term "Einsteinian religion" for the wonder and awe that many people, including scientists, have for truth and the natural world, which satisfies in them a God-shaped need.
But following this concession, no religious belief is spared in The God Delusion. Chapter two, "The God Hypothesis", is a maniacal dance trampling over the monotheistic religions. The gods may, as he argues, be nasty and the creeds may defy logic. But most of Dawkins's readers are his own congregation, and don't really need to have their noses rubbed so comprehensively in all this. Other educated people aplenty cling to faith even though it is at variance with the logic of daily life: in their minds it occupies a different dimension, and proving scientifically that it is nonsense is irrelevant.
On the topics of the roots of religion and morality, we are on more traditional evolutionary territory. Yet Dawkins is less than comfortable in the realms of psychology (he refers to an "evolutionary psychiatrist", a non-existent species). He does not explore the alpha-male reincarnation of Abrahamic gods. His opinions on abortion and euthanasia seem to have been hurriedly formulated for the purpose of this book.
Dawkins's theory that organised religions are a "by-product" of natural selection is, on the other hand, entirely credible. Both the hierarchical structures and the tribal "in-group morality and out-group hostility" of religious institutions are clearly traced, in The God Delusion, to phases in archaic socio-sexual structures. But his examination of the origin of individual religious awareness, the nub of the matter, is inadequate. It was probably our ancestors' first consciousness of personal demise that created the need for the supernatural, but Dawkins makes no reference to burial of the dead and the grave-goods that accompanied them. This is surely the pivotal event that enabled prehistoric man to overcome the horror of his own physical end and gave him a false but sanguine belief in eternal life that proved to have survival value.
In spite of the evidence that holding religious belief has become part of human nature through natural selection, Dawkins looks upon it as superfluous and the root of much violent evil. But however clever his reasoning (and it is clever), The God Delusion sounds like a personal vendetta, complete with elitist undertones and some uncomfortably dictatorial passages. In the preface, he expresses the hope that religious readers who open the book will be atheists when they put it down. That is academic arrogance - and shows negligible insight into the way humans behave.