Is God a Delusion?

Someone who was seriously committed to public understanding of science would be careful in their use of scientific and medical terms. On the official medical definition of “delusion” there is no possibility that belief in God could be considered a delusion. But given a choice between scientific integrity and book sales…

Like most of the serious reviewers, we found The God Delusion a deeply disappointing book. Terry Eagleton famously compared it to reading a book on biology written by someone whose sole knowledge of the subject is having once read the Book of British Birds. Even great admirers of Dawkins, writing in Nature and Science, damned the book with faint praise, and Nature ran an illustration of Dawkins as a sandwich-board man proclaiming ‘Renounce God and be Saved’.

At no point does Dawkins seriously engage with the arguments for religion or the existence of God, and some of the points he makes are ludicrous: a shining example being the claim that ‘becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science’ – Mendel became a ‘monk’ when he was 21 and began his experiments 13 years later. Alister McGrath produced a ‘rapid rebuttal’ called The Dawkins Delusion and John Cornwell an elegant riposte called Darwin’s Angel.

He does mention ‘good scientists who are sincerely religious’ (including John Polkinghorne) but says that he ‘remains baffled by their belief in the details of the Christian religion: resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all.’  Although the Resurrection is genuinely astonishing, the idea of forgiveness of sins is not so far from Dawkins’ own field or experience and it would be interesting to know why he finds this particularly problematic. He knows about Evolutionary Game Theory and should be aware that, under wide conditions, strategies involving forgiveness (such as Generous Tit-for-Tat) outperform ‘selfish’ strategies like Tit-for-Tat. Furthermore a fascinating result from Nicholas’ collaborators shows that, even if you have the option to impose costly punishment on Defectors, it is often better not to use it.

Dawkins is, of course, almost equally bemused by Quantum Theory – mercifully String Theory doesn’t even make the index. It is not an accident that thinking deeply about the fundamental nature of reality can yield a paradoxical picture that is repugnant to common sense. John’s book Quantum Physics and Theology – an Unexpected Kinship offers a deep and insightful exploration of some of the parallels. As John Cottingham puts it in his book The Spiritual Dimension ‘Given that we allow physicists to invoke entities whose nature they can approach only via such indirect means…it seems hard to deny in advance to the religious adherent any similar right to speak of a divine reality that transcends the resources of directly descriptive language.’

Of course, God is not an Object on which one can do experiments – God inevitably transcends science. It is easy to say that an idea is absurd when you don’t understand it. But since we have no idea what constitutes the Dark Matter and Dark Energy that seem to make up over 90% of the Universe, the idea that ‘nothing can be true unless it is well-understood scientifically’ is ludicrous. And the idea that ‘you should not believe anything unless it can be scientifically proven’ is self-refuting, since that statement is itself beyond science’s power to prove.

However if a Loving Ultimate Creator exists then God cannot be less than personal: one of the many reasons the doctrine of the Trinity makes so much sense is that it shows how God can be both personal and more than personal.

It is also worth remarking that, in evolutionary terms, belief in God in general, and perhaps the major Abrahamic faiths in particular, appear to be clearly beneficial.  Religous people have more surviving descendants, and there are strong positive correllations between religious belief and practice and mental and physical health.  Of course there are some deranged people who profess strong religious beliefs: there are also mad scientists and deranged people who think they are Napoleon.  But on any objective measure, for the great majority of people, religious belief is positive for health.  Does a visceral refusal to accept this lie behind the desire of people to misapply scientific terminology to stigmatise people they disagree with?

See also the page on Can God’s Existence be Proved? and the Starcourse Blog on Ian Semple’s Guardian Article

“a refreshing contrast to the polemic and misinformation that have characterized much of the writing in this area” William Phillips

“Richly nuanced responses … simply a fantastic resource” Francis Collins

“Wonderfully accessible, informative and authoritative.” Alister McGrath

“an important contribution” Martin Nowak

“this matters to every man and every woman” Onora O’Neill

“of universal interest. Many readers will welcome this accessible format” Publishers Weekly

“antidote to Richard Dawkins … intriguing … a thought-provoking work” Library Journal

“deals eloquently with many of the issues…in the science-religion debate.” Times H. E.

“commendably clear…those who would most benefit from reading it are… atheists who believe that the religious are manifestly irrational” FT.

“remarkably even-handed …lucid explanations … a valuable lesson” Physics World

“rich…digestible..intriguing” Church Times

“evokes the shimmering beauty of a stained glass window … will repay rereading and rereading” Living Church.

One Erratum has been found in Appendix A – see here.

The new Polkinghorne Q&A website is now here.