Contrary to the mainstream religious belief, incredulity and skepticism regarding the ultimate nature of truth, existence of God and eschatological claims of scripture is not an entirely modern phenomenon. In his famous thought experiment Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, Ibn Tufayl the famous Muslim philosopher of 12th century Spain, aesthetically described discovery of God as the “joy without lapse, unending bliss, infinite rapture and delight” and inability to find Him as “infinite torture”. The curious and always speculative protagonist of the fable remains incessantly engaged between cosmological antinomies such as those put forward by contests between classical Greek eternalism and scriptural creationism; or the ones related to human origins such as spontaneous generation (understandably so, considering the scientific milieu of 12th century) or simple creationism as proposed by orthodox religion.
Ibn Tufayl’s classic as well as other such theologically flavored thought experiments of pre-modern period, for instance Avicenna’s “Floating Man”, can be characteristically distinguished from modernist discourse in three important ways: their peculiar guarded speculative approach towards theology, the careful selection of premises mostly leading towards theistic conclusions and most importantly aesthetics of literary exposition.
There were of course exceptions raising more formal agnostic queries regarding nature of God, for example the physician Zakariya Razi and Avicenna himself; however these undertakings, even though penned by intellectuals who were primarily scientists did not go as far as to purport an outright rejection of faith. In modern times, the western philosophical tradition having roots in enlightenment, especially Kant and Hume, provided basis for a scientific endeavor that gave rise to more formal and popular agnosticism – and indirectly atheism – whose main proponents were among logicians, paleontologists and physicists whose writings while popularizing science as it was never done before in the history of scientific culture, also extended the domain of science to purely philosophical realms including metaphysics, ethics and theology. Yet, the religion was never presented so antagonistically in opposition to reason as it is done so remarkably by Richard Dawkins in God Delusion.
Based upon extreme scientific naturalism, Dawkins’ thesis casts the proposition that atheism is a natural consequence of human evolution. All kind of religious faith, being impossible to be vindicated empirically, is necessarily dissonant with reason. Religion, as interpreted by Dawkins, is at the the root of much that is going wrong in the world. Moreover, the idea of God in human consciousness can be explained away as a naturally evolved impulse to believe in an omniscient and omnipotent entity, an indulgence which is byproduct of “something useful” or simply speaking an error in the grand evolutionary process.
Unlike some of his predecessors, for instance Thomas Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Stephen. J. Gould, who chose to describe themselves as agnostics rather than atheists, Dawkins does not accept the idea that outright atheism is simply dogmatic due to its unwarranted metaphysical claims about the non-existence of God without enough empirical evidence. Therefore, religion and science does not belong to two “non-overlapping magisteria” – a term coined by Gould – limited to their respective domains. Consequently, any question or claim related to existence of God should be strictly considered a scientific question; simply, because it cannot circumvent other cosmological queries concerning origins of human life and universe.
The approach of Dawkins is rightly expressed as militant atheism by many intellectuals as he is in favor of dismantling all practical religion and every procedure that facilitates or establishes basis for its survival. As explained succinctly by Karen Armstrong in her new book The Case for God, the approach taken by Dawkins has a peculiar reductionist tendency which is remarkably similar to religious extremists as each considers the other as the “epitome of evil”. In both discourses, oversimplifications and gross generalizations necessitate wrong premises, ultimately bringing out the absolute worst of the other; no wonder therefore, why Dawkins invoke the likes of Ibn Warraq and Christopher Hitchens to argue that a tolerant and respectable view of religion is equally reprehensible for all the wrongs committed by religious extremists. Indeed, the superficiality of logical analysis in such discourses does not demand intellectually laborious critique as similarities are not hard to draw.
The nature of God, as understood by Dawkins to present his case against religion, is vulgarly anthropomorphic. The reader is almost duped into believing that all theists, irrespective of the particular creed they ascribe to, believe in some kind of spirit out there; a kind of superhuman entity which Dawkins pejoratively equates with Russell’s ‘Cosmic Teapot’ or ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’. The idea of universal symbolism towards some transcendent ineffable entity beyond the capacity of vocation of language seems alien to Dawkins’ naturalist preoccupancy. The religious belief, therefore, as he vociferously advocates, is something stupid, naive and incapable to be hold by an intelligent and unbiased rational being.
Due to his proclivity towards oversimplification in matters metaphysical, Dawkins seems to advertently disregard the inherent ineradicability of unknowing in the nature of acquired religious truth. He does not acknowledge the fact that no theist claims explicitly that he is in possession of the ultimate sacred truth, except the reductionism loving religious extremists. The scripture itself closes the door on such kind of claim by contending that “there is nothing like the likeness of Him“. All we have are symbols pointing towards the nature of ultimate truth concerning God and sundry eschatological issues.
Probably due to his aphilosophical bent, Dawkins is apparently unable to comprehend that for a theist, there is beauty in this astonishment; a sense of awe that tends to make him humbly aware regarding the degree of obscurity of his own self in the macrocosm. But he would at least agree that science, no matter how much it achieves in reducing complexity that surrounds us, also shares this sense of awe with religion as it also had to consistently rely on an act of faith.
On this particular note, conjuring probability model to disregard the so-called God hypothesis is outrageously strange. Dawkins’ conclusion that “God almost certainly does not exist” cannot be philosophically taken as a knowledge producing utterance unless ‘probability’ is taken as synonymous for ‘truth’; a subtle yet important point, that was profoundly framed by Karl Popper in his Logic of Scientific Discovery:
…we must not look upon science as a ‘body of knowledge’, but rather as a ‘system of hypothesis’; that is to say, as a system of guesses or anticipation which in principle cannot be justified but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know that they are ‘true’ or ‘more or less certain’ or even ‘probable'”.
Because of strict evolutionary perspective that he sets up for himself, it was incumbent for Dawkins to give some kind of Darwinian origins to morality. Ultimately entailing the biological evolution of human intellect, this is perhaps the crassest assertion of the book; amounting to claim that our ancestors were less capable or probably less intellectually equipped to be objective in apprehending the ultimate reality. As Iqbal mentions in his second lecture on nature of religious experience, any such view regarding intellect being a product of evolution would “bring science into conflict with its own objective principle of investigation”. To find an appropriate expression of this conflict, he quotes Wildon Carr:
If intellect is a product of evolution the whole mechanistic concept of the nature and origin of life is absurd, and the principle that science has adopted must clearly be revised […] How can the intellect, a mode of apprehending reality, be itself an evolution of something which only exists as an abstraction of that mode of apprehending, which is the intellect? If intellect is an evolution of life, then the concept of the life which can evolve intellect as a particular mode of apprehending reality must be the concept of a more concrete activity than that of any abstract mechanical movement which the intellect can present to itself by analyzing its apprehended content.
Dawkins wishes to portray the book as a consciousness raiser of sorts: regarding atheism being more reasonable than agnosticism, religion being the root of all evil, religious education being equal to child abuse, religion and morality being completely uncorrelated and atheism being an objective conclusion not to be ashamed of rather the only rational position one can possibly hold with a sense of pride. I think some of the aims were partially achieved, especially raising the atheist pride by providing a kind of polemicist manual to hold tightly.
But perhaps the real strength of the book lies in questioning the innermost religious convictions of the people who are equally awed by the respective magisteria of religion and science and want to bridge gaps. Regarding the kind of evidence that would convince him regarding the existence of God, Bertrand Russell once replied that if a voice from the sky would reveal to him each and every thing that is going to happen in next few hours and that would eventually happen also, he may consider the possibility of existence of God. I sincerely doubt that even in the face of such evidence, Richard Dawkins would even come close in considering the truthfulness of God hypothesis. To borrow the quip that he himself quotes in the book, he does not merely believe in non-existence of God, he knows.