As materialism, represented most prominently by Darwin and Marx, was introduced into this culture, atheism was the next step for many intellectuals who had already ceased relying upon the Bible as a source of truth.
A commenter on a previous article of mine, which explained my reasons for accepting Islam, struck a deal with me: he would read a book of my choosing which supports faith in God if I would read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins has become a figurehead for the so-called New Atheism–a movement of scientists, journalists, and philosophers whose most outspoken supporters are, alongside Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennet. It should be noted that New Atheism is emphatically not new, for its progenitors have not contributed any genuinely unique ideas; rather, they have rehashed for the mainstream reading public the works of scientists and philosophers from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The reason why New Atheism looks new is that it has now integrated itself into the mainstream like never before. Before the 2000s, only publishers connected to atheist or freethinking movements released books by these authors, with very few exceptions.
I have chosen to write specifically about The God Delusion, because, despite what it lacks in originality, its loud rhetoric and audacious claims have captured the attention of millions of readers. Not unlike his Christian fundamentalist adversaries, Dawkins takes a “hard-line” stance on every issue, arguing that science has (or will have) all of the answers to everything, while no other source of knowledge has any of the answers to anything; religion, particularly, is of no good to anyone; religious people may have morality, but morality is always derived from the zeitgeist—the “spirit of the times”—never from scripture.
In pursuit of this conclusion, he critiques the morality of a particular religious text, the Bible, and then attempts to apply his results to religion at large. Perhaps if he had checked out all the available data (other religious traditions), he would have realized the one-sidedness of his conclusions. In several particularly egregious passages, Dawkins suggests that all scientists who have religious faith, or even tolerate religious faith, are either dishonest or mentally unstable. Religion is not only anathema for scientists; according to Dawkins, religion should not even be considered a “proper field, in which one might claim expertise,” and that it is no better than “fairyology” (16). At least several hundred PhDs in religious studies are awarded each year! What honest academic in any field would make the self-serving claim that another entire field of study is illegitimate?
It is precisely for these reasons that so many books have been written in response to The God Delusion, by religious and non-religious authors alike. The book remains extremely popular, however, if only because of the level of controversy it has provoked. Generating much heat and little light, the book is easy to criticize but hard to forget.
Dawkins’ enthusiasm for nature is sincere and admirable, and his scientific achievements are considerable. But it’s difficult to maintain the same respect for a scholar who claims that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis—to be treated just like any other—and expects his readers to accept this without any explanation.
One of the recurring themes in The God Delusion is the author’s inability to distinguish between his own definition of God and the definitions upheld by actual believers. Dawkins responds to the Intelligent Design hypothesis as follows: The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer (158). The argument from irreducible complexity, the central premise of Intelligent Design, presents examples of complex biological structures like the human eye as evidence that the life was designed with guiding intention rather than having sprung about “by chance.” But how can they (the Christian apologists), Dawkins asks, explain the existence of such an undoubtedly complex being as God? Who designed the Designer? Dawkins suggests that we should think about God as within the laws of biology, carrying over our knowledge of the genesis of species and organisms to model the implications of God’s existence—a conceptualization which, from the standpoint of theology (and, one would hope, science), is a grievous error. It is excluded from our definition of the Creator that He himself was created (or even had a beginning in time).
Dawkins suggests that God is a hypothesis proposed by man as an answer to questions about the universe that were, at one time, unanswerable, but which science is now answering. Yet his definition, if it amounts to as much, is completely irrelevant (and, it is needless to say, incorrect) because it does not at all correspond to the way most religious people actually think about God. It certainly does not conform to the thought of those who believe that religion and science are separate but compatible sources of knowledge—yet it is exactly the definition he needed in order to accomplish his conclusion. It is as if I tried to convince a scientist that he lived inside a neutron by defining “neutron” as “your house.”
Islam teaches that knowledge of God’s nature apart from His revealed attributes is beyond the capacity any human being. It would be tantamount to idolatry to associate any aspect of the creation with the Creator, and for a human being to form an conceptualization of something, he or she must draw from a stock of memories derived from experience and observation. Therefore, our understanding of God must be limited by that which is provided through revelation. Adjectives such as “supernatural” and even “complex” are inappropriate for describing God. It is folly to attempt to approach the subject of God’s existence by any other means than through revelation; all other options are equivalent to blind guessing. But if one denies scripture as a source of knowledge, the only logical position to take is agnosticism, having shut out the only source that could have provided information about God.
It has been established that the notion of God being a scientific hypothesis is foreign to the mind of a religious (or at least Muslim) person. But how should our scientific faculties respond to the hypothesis that God can be evaluated as a hypothesis? Whenever a scientist chooses to apply an established methodology to a new problem, it is first necessary to establish that the phenomenon is, in some manner, observable. Can it be perceived with the naked eye? If not, what instruments are required to facilitate its observation? Needless to say, the spiritual world does not fall within the parameters of empiricism. The nature of God—Who is unlike any created thing, and Who, needless to say, cannot be observed in this world—is a subject which science, a discipline that describes the properties of observable reality, cannot address.
According to Dawkins’ reasoning, absence of evidence is almost as good as evidence of absence, leading him to conclude that “there almost certainly is no God.” Borrowing an argument from Bertrand Russell, who ought to have known better, Dawkins compares belief in God to belief that there is a “celestial teapot” floating around the sun, which is too small to be observed (52). The believer in this teapot insists that it would be horrible presumption on the part of anyone to deny him on the basis of rationality and science. It is hard to imagine that both Russell and Dawkins could advance such a childish analogy. Two propositions are not equally likely to be true just because neither of them is directly observable. The human race has at all times and in all societies worshiped God, whereas atheism is a greenhorn in the history of ideas—and no one actually believes that there is a teapot floating around the sun. God’s prophets, the ones who experienced His revelation directly, were real human beings who lived and died in this world, who brought mankind out of spiritual darkness into the light; and the light of this revelation penetrates any authentic experience of the Divine—experiences whose significance is automatically dismissed by the materialist before the question of God’s existence is ever brought up. For the materialist, only the material world exists. And although this view rests upon no real proof, the materialist postures as though he holds the key to every truth of existence.
My adversaries would counter that anyone could write a work of fiction and pass it off as revealed scripture. This argument is anticipated by the Qur’an, which challenges anyone to produce even a single chapter that compares to it:
“And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Surah like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (if there be any) besides Allah, if your doubts are true.” [2:23--Yusuf Ali]
The call to divine unity at the heart of all authentic scriptures testifies to their common origin. And again, the argument from imitability follows the same kind of assumption that underlies the cosmic teapot argument. We have on the one hand prophets, men of flawless character, pristine examples for human conduct and conveyers of the most profound statements about the nature of reality. On the other hand, we have a hypothetical opportunistic storyteller who intends only to deceive. The burden of proof lies upon him who would equate the two.
It is true that most of Dawkins’ attacks on religion are directed specifically at Christianity and the Bible. His book would invite many fewer complaints if he had stopped there, and had not gone on to declare that, “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.” (37)
Dawkins assumes that the anthropomorphic god of some portions of the Bible (which he cites) is equally attested in Islam. He is further misguided by his notion that “The oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, and the clear ancestor of the other two, is Judaism” (Ibid.). Yet there is a consensus even among secular scholars that “Judaism” bears little relation at all to the ancient Israelite religion described by the Bible. And the claim that Judaism preceded Islam makes no sense at all to a Muslim, because, while Judaism was largely developed in Judea during late antiquity, and only definitively codified by Moses Maimonides in medieval times, the original religion of the Israelites was the religion taught by Abraham and Moses—which was Islam, or submission in body and soul to the one God—and, again, this was quite different from the way Israelite religion is presented in much of the Bible.
To fully round off his argument in The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to demonstrate that Darwinism furnishes a decent system of morals, but he ultimately fails to provide a non-theistic justification for behaving according to them. He may employ natural selection successfully to explain some biological purposes morality may serve, but he never offers an answer to the question “why behave morally?” The following two quotations are illustrative:
Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual’s psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale. I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. (221)
Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo? (Ibid.)
In Dawkins’ materialist morality, there is no justification for acting out of pity, or generosity, or any other emotion, when from that action one cannot expect a return, and when that action is not reducible to a determined product of natural selection, conceived for the specific purpose of self- (or genetic-) advancement. So why, I would ask Dawkins, should we continue pitying, and giving generously, and loving? He indeed acknowledges the harms that can result from excessive emotions:
Sexual lust is the driving force behind a large proportion of human ambition and struggle, and much of it constitutes a misfiring. There is no reason why the same should not be true of the lust to be generous and compassionate, if this is the misfired consequence of ancestral village life. (222)
The universal sexual urge that “passes through the filter of civilization to emerge in the love scenes of Romeo and Juliet” does not always produce such beautiful consequences (222). And the “filter of civilization” is not always so civilized to begin with. See how crudely the female body is marketed to Western television audiences in every form of advertisement; how pervasively peoples’ desires are manipulated for financial gain; how women in every sphere of professional life are adjudged not by their opinions or skills, but by their appearances. Excess of pity, generosity, and other emotions can also lead one to great harm.
Yet Dawkins would have it that human beings eschew the evolutionary “misfiring” that has supposedly brought about religion, while he endorses other misfirings” that make us generous without hope of reciprocation, or piteous of the plight others who can be of no benefit to us if we help them—with no consistent rationale. Perhaps because Richard Dawkins enjoys pity, love, generosity, and sexual desire. Dawkins does not, on the other hand, like religion. He chooses which to accept and which to abandon based on whim. Dawkins is otherwise correct in pointing out that the desirability of an idea has no effect on its truth value. In other words, we shouldn’t choose to believe God exists just because we think the idea has positive effects upon human behavior. But it is another thing entirely to claim, on the one hand, that materialism has all the answers to human morality, and yet to ignore the actual human suffering attributable to the “survival of the fittest” mentality, in the twentieth century alone, through genocide, apartheid, and racial discrimination in all forms.
A materialist worldview is incapable of affording answers to questions of ultimate meaning and value. Yet from an Islamic perspective, generosity, love, pity, and sexuality all have a well-defined meaning. Generosity, pity, sexual activity (within the confines of marriage), and goodness of all forms are rewarded, while stinginess, disdain, and all forms of badness are punished. Again, religion is able to answer questions of ultimate meaning that science is not even equipped to ask. Reading The God Delusion, one cannot help but feel the tenuous stretching of a misapplied idea by an author attempting to use what he knows, Darwinism, to comment upon what he knows not: philosophy, ethics, and religion.
As for the take-home message of Dawkins’ book, I will allow the author himself to express the point:
The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism – as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion…. Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe. (306)
Is this what Islam really teaches? So far Dawkins’ discussion is sorely lacking in a fair appraisal of the Muslim sources. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert? (306)
Having dismissed the morality of only one text, the Bible, it is not only unfair but patently dishonest to apply the derived conclusions to all religions in general. Only a handful of world religions claim the Bible as their central text, and Islam is not one of them. Dawkins’ defamation of the Prophets Abraham and Moses, peace be upon them, may be soundly extracted from the Bible, but it has absolutely no place in a discussion of Islam or what the characters of these great men were really like, for that matter.
And his contention that all morals derive from the zeitgeist—the “spirit of the times”–not from scripture, falls flat from the same problem of insufficient evidence. This argument is dependent upon first dismissing the notion that the morals of religious people are actually derived from their scriptures, which Dawkins is only able to do in the case of the Bible. And as I have mentioned, only a handful of the world’s religions are based on the Bible.
Dawkins’ mantra of “Religion itself, not religious extremism, is the problem” has a semblance of balance and fairness. He vows to pull no punches with any religion, and to apply the same strict standards throughout. If this were the case, though, we might expect Dawkins to always back his claims with research of the greatest fidelity and rigor. But let us remember: Dawkins doesn’t consider religious studies to be a legitimate field of inquiry. Therefore, he instead incorporates the work of other non-specialist atheists like himself, such as Sam Harris and Ibn Warraq, which frees him from ever having to worry about difference of opinion, ambivalent results, or any of the other natural difficulties and ambiguities encountered in real research. Despite his endorsement of freethinking and intellectual honesty, Dawkins is remarkably dogmatic and selective in his consistent selection of non-scholarly sources on Islam. He freely quotes from and apparently admires the work of far-right Christians like Patrick Sookhdeo whenever it fits into his polemic against Islam.
The more rigid and biased the Orientalist sources, the better for Dawkins. The God Delusion is filled with the same insipid lines that are today inciting hatred and distrust from Westerners. Dawkins indulges in the myth that violent verses in the Qur’an “abrogate” and thus nullify peaceful ones based on temporal priority:
Sookhdeo goes on to explain how Islamic scholars, in order to cope with the many contradictions that they found in the Qur’an, developed the principle of abrogation, whereby later texts trump earlier ones. Unfortunately, the peaceable passages in the Qur’an are mostly early, dating from Muhammad’s time in Mecca. The more belligerent verses tend to date from later, after his flight to Medina. (307)
The supposed “many contradictions” are given no further explanation. It seems doubtful that Dawkins has even read the Qur’an. Furthermore, in seizing upon the example of suicide bombing, Dawkins adopts a classic line of islamophobic conspiracy-mongering:
Could it be that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in Britain, nor following an eccentric and extremist interpretation of their faith, but rather that they came from the very core of the Muslim community and were motivated by a mainstream interpretation of Islam? (307)
A mainstay of the Clash of Civilizations discourse is that Third-World conflicts always demand cultural or religious explanations, which usually borrow to some degree from Colonial-Era oppositions such as rationality versus irrationality or civilization versus savagery. On the contrary, if every country in the Middle East were populated mostly by atheists, those countries would suffer from exactly the same problems they do now as predominantly Muslim countries. If this comes as a shock to you, reexamine your history and political geography. And if potential suicide bombers in conflict-rife countries were all atheists, they would be no less likely to become suicide bombers.
See, for comparison, Japan’s motives for introducing kamikaze pilots during the Second World War. Just as it was for Japan, whose economy was rapidly diminishing in comparison to rising power of the United States, so it is in the Middle East: born of desperation, suicide bombings allow numerically inferior forces lacking in competent technology to nevertheless launch precise and damaging strikes against conventional forces. The tactic of suicide bombing has become so widespread because of its relative effectiveness vis-a-vis conventional forces and its loudness in proclaiming a political message. Whatever theological trappings frame suicide bombings in the Middle East and South Asia, were built up around it, as a way of justifying it and pushing for its mainstream acceptance (a goal which it has, thankfully, never achieved). The position of Warraq and other neo-Orientalists overlooks the very important separation between causes for violence and its justifications. Moreover, any argument that suicide bombing conforms with the “mainstream interpretation of Islam” is flatly contradicted by mainstream Islam’s unanimous consent that suicide is a grave sin.
It comes as no surprise that most of Dawkins’ ire toward religion is directed outside of Britain. He criticizes American Christianity, Islam, and Catholicism to no end, but concerning the Anglican church, the one in which he was raised, he has only fond anecdotes to relate. And despite his atheism, Dawkins remains firmly embedded in a discourse that is distinctly Christian and, needless to say, Western. “Atheism,” one of my instructors told me, “is, and always has been, a Christian heresy.” It is a product of the West’s passage through two crucial historical phases. The first of these was the Reformation, during which Christendom shook off the dominion of the priesthood, which Lutheranism denounced as non-scriptural and corrupt.
The Reformation first shook Christendom awake from the darkness of church dogmatism, forcing it to reevaluate both itself and its surroundings. Before the Reformation, laypeople were strictly prohibited from reading the Bible. The Church rightly assumed that allowing people access to the Bible would lead them to protest against the many non-scriptural strategies it had developed in order to take their money and keep them in a state of subjection. Islam never underwent a Reformation because it never suffered from any problems that would have created the need for such an event to occur. Interestingly, in its early years the Protestant nations established considerable contact with the Ottoman Empire, with whom it explored the mutually beneficial possibilities of trade and military alliances against the Catholic powers. Indeed, as a religion that eschews priesthoods and hierarchies, and places a great deal of emphasis upon individual piety, reflection, and engagement with sacred texts, Islam won its share of admiration from Luther himself.
From this first revolution flowed two currents: Protestantism and a reformed and much more self-conscious Catholicism. The second major sea-change in Western Christian thought came with the Enlightenment, during which critical scholars began to undermine the authority of revelation through the discipline of textual criticism, which began with the work of Richard Simon and Jean Astruc. Scientists were, for the first time, able to conduct research and think openly about the natural world free from the magisterial authority of revered church doctrine, whether derived from the Bible, Galen or Aristotle, whereas during Medieval times a scientist had been no more likely to be praised for a new discovery than executed for it. During the Enlightenment, critical scholars first began to expose problems in the text of the Bible that challenged traditional narratives about its origins.
Obviously, this revolution was fundamentally dependent upon the success of the prior one—people would have never developed critical interpretations of the Bible if they had been prohibited from reading the Bible in the first place. And if the Protestant Reformation had never leveled such a formidable challenge against papal authority, free exchange of scientific ideas may never have been enabled in the West.
From this second revolution flowed three streams. The first—Fundamentalism, reacted against Modernist theology, whose interpretation of modernity took it in a more liberal direction. Fundamentalism is a movement of selective conservatism, asserting the infallibility and historical reliability of the Bible, even at the expense of science and reason.
The second inheritance of the Enlightenment is Liberal Christianity, which, though accepting its basic claims, still seeks to maintain a traditional religious identity. Modern Liberal Christianity asserts that its faith is totally compatible with the dictates of reason and of modern scientific theories such as human evolution. Included under the heading of Liberal Christianity is Unitarianism, which solves the scriptural and logical dilemmas of the doctrine of the Trinity by denying the divinity of Christ and affirming the oneness of God, and Deism, which denies the reality of miracles, asserting that God, who created the universe, has no active role in its maintenance, but merely watches the unfolding processes of nature as an outside observer. Most of the men who founded the United States of America were either deists or Unitarians, or subscribed to some other brand of Liberal Christianity.
Atheism, arising as it has from the formerly devout scholarly culture of the Enlightenment, is the trajectory of post-Christianity most closely identified with a rationalistic and humanistic outlook (a full explanation of what these terms mean would push far beyond the scope of this article). As materialism, represented most prominently by Darwin and Marx, was introduced into this culture, atheism was the next step for many intellectuals who had already ceased relying upon the Bible as a source of truth. The intellectual elite in Western Europe had taken all the steps of dismantling traditional origin narratives, challenging the reliability (in particular, scientific accuracy) of scripture, and isolating of the church from all scholarly domains of inquiry and from government—without a scripture or a church with real influence, traditional theists would find in Christendom precious little ground to stand upon.