The Battle for Truth and Reason
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” you might cry, “Richard Dawkins is banging on about God again! Hasn’t he already been there and done that? Why does he keep up this strident crusade against religion?”
As with most exaggerations, there is a little truth to this objection. But Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide is only the second of Dawkins’ fifteen books to focus on religion—many of the rest address the topic, but they are mostly about the life scientific.
In any case, Dawkins is correct to insist that the argument about god is still one a necessary one, for, while so-called New Atheism has diffused into the broader public sphere, the untruths taught and the evils caused by religion are still manifold—and not just in the Muslim world. As Stephen Fry has argued, the broader value of New Atheism lies in its merciless skewering of sacred cows and championing of reason and debate: values we would do well to remember at a time when politicians and the public often scream at each other instead of talking (tune in to BBC Parliament, if you dare). Besides, one can’t consistently argue that Dawkins’ science books are good but his critiques of religion are tiresome, for they are both rooted in the same principle: that truth matters above all else.
This is the central theme of Outgrowing God: reason, truth, and critical thinking are values to be cherished, especially given the threats they face. Dawkins is specifically talking about the religious nonsense instilled into children by the faithful, but his point has broader relevance in an era that pundits have labelled post-truth.
Despite the lies and fatuities of Donald Trump and the grievance studies left, science and truth have been advancing daily—the first picture of a black hole was taken recently, to give one magnificent example. And lies, falsehoods and spin probably go as far back as humanity does (and certainly as far back as religion). Nonetheless, it is—and always has been—necessary to fight those who demand that reason be supplanted by faith, whether faith in the divine or in political leaders.
Growing out of God
Dawkins’ latest book is an important sally in that battle. Divided into two parts (the first mostly on god, the second on evolution and science), it tackles big subjects, from the beginnings of myths and Biblical history to the sources of morality, the evolution of religion and altruism, and the beauty of evolutionary and scientific explanations. Some of the arguments will be familiar to those who have read The God Delusion, but the book is not just a rehash of that landmark work for younger readers.
Dawkins deftly does away with the need for a divine designer of the universe, reiterating his argument that such a creator would have to be extraordinarily complex to set up and guide the universe, and that such complexity only comes about late in the universe with the advent of bottom-up design—the god hypothesis is therefore “a crashingly obvious non-explanation.” While sophisticated theologians may lament Dawkins’ philosophical naiveté, they will once again fail to counter this deceptively simple point which is, in fact, unanswerable.
The universe works perfectly well without a designer. Dawkins reminds us that, over the centuries, the advances of science have squeezed the god of the gaps into tinier and tinier corners, until now his only abode is the deepest and most mysterious workings of physics. But science, as Dawkins argues in a masterful final chapter, has provided an explanation of the biggest problem of all: the complexity and seemingly designed nature of life on Earth. If Darwin could do that, then the theologians who repose their hopes in the deep unknowns of physics should be quaking. If they were wise, they would give up on natural theology and fall back on waving their hands and muttering about faith and the ground of all being (deep down they must know that god’s time is limited).
In the chapter on the evolution of religion, Dawkins imagines an inquisitive and intelligent child who grows out of the silly beliefs her parents have taught her; in the same way, the reader is invited to question her preconceptions and leave aside childish things. This can be applied to society too—a truly enlightened society must outgrow god, or at least banish him as far as possible from the realm of inquiry and public debate. But what does a person or a society that outgrows god grow up to believe in?
Growing Up and Embracing Science
Perhaps the finest parts of the book are the explanatory sections. Dawkins has lost none of his extraordinary gift for elucidating complex scientific facts and ideas in ways which are understandable to everyone, while not dumbed down. The second part of the book contains some beautiful and cogent discussions of Darwinism, the formation of snowflakes, the surprising but powerful principle of bottom-up design, and embryological processes, to name but a few.
In that final chapter, Dawkins gives various examples of counterintuitive truths discovered by science, from the fact that we have all probably drunk some of Julius Caesar’s urine to the genuinely spooky and unsettling discoveries of quantum physics. But, although the findings of science can be overwhelmingly frightening (you and I and your grandmother are mostly empty space) they are also exhilaratingly beautiful. Get over your initial fear and your mind will be opened up to the profound beauty of the universe and its workings. How paltry god is in comparison! Even if understanding quantum physics is beyond the mental capabilities of most of us, the disturbing but beautiful findings of that field impress themselves on all but the dullest minds.
Time, then, to outgrow god and embrace a scientific and rational life, as far as possible. The elegant final chapter urges us to take courage from science, for it has the best chance of solving the mysteries of the universe and the truths and beauties revealed by scientific inquiry are worth overcoming one’s fears for.
Dawkins: a Hypocrite, a Grump, a Cold Fish?
One charge which could be levelled against Outgrowing God is that its author is a hypocrite: after all, Dawkins rails against the indoctrination of children into religious beliefs and yet here he is, writing about atheism for youngsters.
But that charge is defused near the beginning of the book. Critiquing the labelling of children in accordance with their parents’ religion, Dawkins makes it clear that he would no more wish a child to be called an atheist child than a Christian child. And the very nature of the book itself belies such a charge, for, while it is an accessible critique of religion, it is not an attempt to indoctrinate anyone into atheism; rather, it challenges the reader by presenting arguments and asking her what she thinks. Many of the chapters end with questions. The lesson of the book is not be an atheist but think for yourself.
Another charge laid at Dawkins’ door is that he is a humourless grump, a cold fish. The most perfunctory glance at any of his books would disabuse anyone of this notion, yet it is a useful grenade to lob at atheists because it plays into the stereotype that they seek to strip religious people of a source of inner joy because of their own bitterness and cynicism. Outgrowing God, however, is very funny. In one passage, God is trying to figure out how to forgive all of his creations. Dawkins gives him a monologue. Here’s an excerpt: “Let me see, I can’t just forgive them, their sin is too great … why don’t I turn my own son into a human and have him tortured and killed on behalf of all humans? Yes, that’s what I’d call a worthy sacrifice. Kill not just any old human, but God in human form! Now you’re talking. That’s the ticket.”
Dawkins admits that this is mockery—perhaps even savage mockery—but he does not think it is unfair. The Pauline doctrine of the sacrifice of Jesus is horrifically nasty and stupid and deserves contempt. But my point is that Dawkins is not just a grump; he makes serious points, but often in humorous ways. The book shows his gift for outlining theological doctrine accurately, but in such a way that its inherent absurdity is shown up.
As for the cold fish criticism, Dawkins evinces such a warm joy in science throughout this book that such a charge barely deserves a reply. His deep love of poetry and literature is also to be found in this latest work; he praises the beauty of the King James Bible’s poetry, particularly the Song of Songs (“the only sexy book in the Bible”) and Ecclesiastes.
A Solid Addition to the Dawkins Oeuvre
In discussing religion, Outgrowing God resembles The God Delusion, of course, but as a book designed to encourage critical thinking and spark wonder at the world of science in young people, it also harks back to The Magic of Reality. It is also reminiscent of Unweaving the Rainbow, perhaps his finest work, in its exuberant enthusiasm for the world revealed by scientific inquiry, an enthusiasm which gives the lie to the age-old complaint that science is an arid discipline, destructive of the poetical impulse. And the influence of both The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable can also be felt in the chapters that concisely outline evolutionary theory and bottom-up design.
But Outgrowing God goes beyond Dawkins’ previous works. It discusses Biblical history and the nature of morality in greater detail, and finds new facets of science to impart to the reader, as well as new ways of looking at previous ground (his accounts of enzymes and embryology are truly breathtaking, incorporating wonderfully cogent explanations of some very complex processes).
In a sense, this book is a beginner’s guide to Richard Dawkins, a synthesis of the major preoccupations of a long career. If you are familiar with his work, you will find delight in the writing and even some new arguments to ponder. If you are not, this is a good place to start, before working your way back to the more detailed books. It is a short and easy, but enlightening, read. It would also make a particularly good present for any curious and intelligent young person.
A Wider War
Jerry Coyne has described New Atheism as a front in a war against superstition and the supernatural—but it is more than that. Both New Atheism in general and Dawkins’ new book in particular, form a front in the battle against closed-mindedness and unreason of all types. The book is just the latest sally in this ongoing conflict—and it is an important one.
Richard Dawkins is one of the great scientists and science communicators of our time, and Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide shows that he does not mean to relinquish those titles any time soon. It is a paean to truth and reason, written in the hope that more people will rally to the defence of those values at a time when they are being hastily abandoned in favour of unreason. Dawkins writes so well that his hope of helping society grow up might just be fulfilled.
His latest book keeps alive the most essential argument that we can have.