This book, clearly aimed at younger readers, repeats many of themes from his earlier 2006 book THE GOD DELUSION, boiled down and made even more pointed. The first part of the book is structured as a series of “but what about?” questions; the author challenges belief in God, and then answers objections along the lines of, but if there’s no God, what about this? What about that? The second part is a multi-part answer to the final “what about” question.
I’ll try to boil down the books to a simple sequence of questions and answers. [[ Some asides of mine in brackets. ]]
Q1: Do you believe in God?
A1: Which one? There’s a long list of gods of past cultures that no one believes in anymore. Yahweh, the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, started out as the tribal god of ancient Israelites who, they believed, looked after them as his ‘chosen people’. Yet Christians and Muslims seem to believe in other assorted gods: the devil; the holy trinity; mother Mary; and all those Catholic saints, quite analogous to the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods. [[ It’s as if humans have never escaped the animist mindset that ascribes agency to every natural phenomenon. ]]
Q2: But what about the Bible? Isn’t it true?
A2: How do we know any book is true? We do know that the books of the Bible were written in ancient languages, from word-of-mouth storytelling, and then translated many times. The game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ [telephone, in the US] shows how stories change each time they’re told. Most likely the stories in the Old Testament are legends, like the stories of Homer. In the New Testament, the gospels were written decades after the events they portray, and after all those letters of St. Paul, who didn’t seem to know much about Jesus’ life. The Biblical canon wasn’t established until 325 AD. Other gospels were left out on the numerological grounds that there could be only four. And the four we have are inconsistent, and prone to mistranslation. (e.g that Mary was a ‘virgin’). The idea of miracles has to be carefully considered given how frequently people are mistaken, or fooled by conjurers or con-men.
Q3: What about the non-miraculous stories in the Old Testament?
A3: Consider how myths start. There’s no independent evidence that Abraham actually existed, or that the Jews escaped Egypt led by Moses; you’d think the latter would have been noted in Egyptian history. Yet there is evidence of the Jewish captivity in Babylon…about the time the books of the OT were first written down. Thus those stories are influenced by legends of other peoples, e.g. Gilgamesh and Greek mythology. No modern theologian thinks that Adam and Eve, or Noah’s Ark, are history.
Myths can begin as stories based in fact, and grow in the telling. We’ve seen this in recent history: how isolated Pacific Islands during World War II came worship American cargo planes (cargo cults) and on one island a cult formed around a visit by John Frum – “John from America.” It’s easy to see Mormonism as another modern cult, given the circumstances of Joseph Smith’s claims. People indoctrinated into religion as a child have a hard time shaking it off. Every tribe has its origin myth. Myths have poetic beauty, but they’re not history.
Q4: But isn’t it necessary to follow the Bible, the ‘Good Book,’ for its moral wisdom?
A4: Whether or not God is real or a fictional character, we can judge whether he is good or bad. The stories of Job, of Abraham and Isaac (a story involving a different son in the Qu’ran). God seems not only cruel, but insecure – he even calls himself a ‘jealous’ god. The early Hebrews were polytheistic in a sense: they didn’t doubt the existence of rival gods, they just believed their own Yahweh was more powerful. The commandment about not killing only meant, don’t kill members of your own tribe. God of the OT kills other tribes right and left, and loves the smell of burning meat. All those stories of Hebrews killing tribes in places they were told to settle would today be called ethnic cleansing.
What about the NT? Jesus said some nice things, but St. Paul dwelled on the idea of babies being born in sin. The doctrine of atonement, of God needing to sacrifice his own ‘son’ Jesus, born just so he could be tortured and die in agony, is macabre and nasty and deserves to be ridiculed. (Why not just grant humans forgiveness and be done with it? [[ Because blood sacrifices were common in primitive tribal religions of the time, and so the idea was worked into the legend of Jesus. ]] ) And how does the condemnation of Judas make sense, if his betrayal of Jesus was God’s plan?
So the character of God does not seem especially nice.
Q5: But don’t we need God in order to be good?
A5: Most people think someone of a different faith is preferable to an atheist, as if belief in a higher power is necessary to know right from wrong. Why would this be so? Because a holy book is a book of rules, without which we’d have no idea what is right or wrong? Or perhaps because people act good if they believe some policeman in the sky is watching them. Thus ‘god-fearing.’ Yet there’s little evidence that belief in God or Hell makes people nicer. Prisons are full of believers, and very few atheists. Of course, some people think *other* people need such beliefs to be good; this is the idea of belief in belief.
The traditional 10 rules (there are two versions) aren’t valuable as a guide to being good or bad; the first two are only about God being jealous. No one observes the fourth. The sixth applies only to one’s own tribe. The tenth considers the wife to be the property of the man. In the NT Jesus endorsed the OT ‘Law’, repudiated his own family, and took petty revenge on a fig tree. His ‘golden rule’ is familiar from many cultures. Anyway, if we can pick and choose which rules to follow, then we must have some sense of good and bad outside those rules.
Q6: So how do we decide what is good?
A6: Our brains have evolved to include certain tastes and desires, including the desire to be nice to other people [[ more about this later ]]. Our sense of right and wrong has changed – about slavery, the inferiority of different races, of allowing women to vote – because society has evolved, from interaction with people different than ourselves, through social debates, and so on. There are two broad classes of moral philosophy: absolutionists, who think some things just are right or just are wrong, and consequentialists, who considers the consequences of an action, who suffers or does not. –Here author imagines a long debate about abortion between two women, one on each side. Deontologists propose ideas like Kant’s categorical imperative, or the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance’ is setting social standards [[ this is the idea that you design a society so that whatever role you might play in it you would not be unhappy ]].
So even if God does exist, we don’t need him to be good.
This leads to the ultimate ‘what about’ question – doesn’t the world look obviously designed? So we move the second part of the book, about evolution.
Q7, Surely there must be a designer?
A7: Author imagines a cheetah and a gazelle and observes how each seems designed for its role. Also how a chameleon’s tongue works. Considers the complexities of the eye. These are all problems that need to be explained. The solution is evolution by natural selection. The fact that there are often flaws in these supposed ‘designs’ is evidence of that evolution: the human eye’s blind spot; the nerve that connects to the voicebox; goosebumps. History is written all over us.
Ch8: Steps towards improbability.
All of these designs seem high improbable; don’t they need a designer? No, that’s no solution at all, despite William Paley’s hypothetical example of finding a watch found on the beach. The solution is to imagine, e.g., the cheetah being change a little bit, in some random direction. The change might help, or not. The change is random, but the result is not, it’s determined by how well the animal survives in its environment. Darwin used the example of how the domestication of horses and dogs have led to vastly different breeds. Humans did that selection; in the natural world, nature itself does the selection. Thus an excellent eye can result from a change to a slightly less excellent eye, and so on, all the way to a very poor eye that’s better than no eye at all. [[ And our eyes may be excellent but they’re not perfect, which is why so many of us where eyeglasses; so much for intelligent design. ]] The problem with imagining a designer is that God himself is even more improbable than Paley’s watch; complex things take time to evolve. [[ I.e, where did God come from? If eternal, why not just allow the universe to be eternal? This is another example of human nature’s propensity to attribute agency to the natural universe. ]]
Ch9, Crystal and Jigsaw Puzzles
An ordinary rock may not require a designer; what about a cubical crystal? But crystals form spontaneously, due to the arrangement of their molecules. We can understand snowflakes similarly, and viruses, and proteins.
Ch10, Bottom up or top down?
Of course creatures don’t appear from scratch; they arise from previous generations of creatures. DNA isn’t a ‘blueprint,’ it’s more like a recipe. [[ Or like origami steps, fold here then fold here, without having any idea what the result will be. ]] Houses are build top-down, from a blueprint; organisms arise bottom-up by following relatively simple rules. An example is how birds flock. Computer programs illustrate this. DNA provides instructions for how cells divide and grow. And when those instructions change a bit – through mutation of individual genes – the child animal will be slightly different than the parent animals. And some will enable the child to live longer, or have more babies. That’s natural selection. Everything about us thus evolved, including the tendency to like music and sex, and including religion.
Ch11, Did we evolve to be religious? Did we evolve to be nice?
Since almost everyone believes in some sort of god, should this have a Darwinin explanation? Probably so. It starts with the human tendency to believe in agency – that an effect must have a conscious cause. Thus animism; how the Greeks imagined a different for thunder, for rivers, for fire, for the sun, etc. Yahweh was originally the storm god of the Canaanite people from whom the Jews descended. Sacrifices might have grown out of coincidences repeated. We notice false positives; they become superstitions. We often don’t notice false negatives, e.g. not realizing mosquitoes spread disease. Sorting these out is what experiments, and science, is all about. Skinner instilled superstitions into pigeons. Similarly, gamblers develop lucky shirts and habits. Superstitions evolved to rituals that were instructed to children – pray five times a day! Some intelligent children grow up and realize the evidence of the real world doesn’t support such advice. Religion is a byproduct of how child brains are shaped by natural selection to believe parents, teachers, and other elders.
Another explanation might be how beliefs of one tribe might prevail over beliefs of another tribe, e.g. by encouraging the sacrifice of warriors through belief in an afterlife or martyrs’ heaven. Indeed, the spread of Islam, and Christianity, came through military conquest. Also, shared beliefs and rituals bond societies together, promoting solidarity, or perhaps promoting the dominance of kings and priests.
Recall the idea that natural selection promotes niceness. But there’s a basis for nastiness too. The result is a balance, and it’s this balance that has shifted in recent centuries. So why would niceness evolve? Because natural selection favors individuals who take risks to help close relatives; even at risk to oneself, because doing so still passes on the individual’s genes. In small tribes or villages, this would tend toward everyone, since everyone could be in the same extended family. The flip side is: be hostile to everyone not in your tribe. Another behavior is reciprocal altruism: be nice to someone if they are nice back to you. This exchange of favors is the basis for all trade, and thus our global civilization, with its complexity in which each person performs only a specific role, and goods are exchanged among all of them.
12, Taking courage from science
Darwin’s explanation of natural selection was a prime example of how when we didn’t understand something, we assumed God must have done it, until someone figured out a natural explanation. Some discoveries seem to controvert common sense. But this has happened over and over. There are some examples…
- Every time you drink a glass of water, it’s likely it contains a molecule that passed through the bladder of Julius Caesar.
- A cannonball and a feather drop at the same rate (ignoring the friction of the air).
- The moon is weightless and continuously falling around the Earth.
- Earth orbits the sun, not vice versa.
- South America and Africa were once joined.
- Supposedly solid matter is mostly empty space.
- Setting off on a spaceship moving close to the speed of light, you would return hundreds of years after you left.
[[ This chapter echoes Dawkins’ earlier book THE MAGIC OF REALITY: HOW WE KNOW WHAT’S REALLY TRUE. ]]
All of these are examples of how science has upset common sense. The most alarming might be quantum theory, which sounds bizarre but which has been confirmed over and over. The courage to accept these results is the courage to give up belief in God.
The insight of evolution doesn’t require high math; why didn’t Aristotle get it? Or Newton? Because, like the examples above, it meant entertaining a notion that seemed contrary to common sense. Lots of ideas seem crazy; those survive for which the evidence is there. Thus we now understand the age and size of the universe. Those clinging to God don’t need him to explain life, so they move on to other ‘gaps,’ e.g. what caused the big bang? Why are the fundamental constants what they are? This leads to ideas of an anthropic universe—because if they were different, we wouldn’t be here. Or the multiverse in which only a few are anthropic. There might be billions of unfriendly parallel universes. Is this true? We don’t quite know yet. But following the evidence where it leads has worked over and over in the history of science. So why cling to gods?
As in his earlier book, he doesn’t attempt to explore the reasons religious persist, aside from the bit about how shared beliefs and rituals bond societies together, which admittedly is most of it, but for complex reasons not explored here. The current rise of the “Nones,” people in the US who claim no affiliation with any particular religion, is I suspect mostly the effect of the relaxing of social structures, with fewer and fewer people living in tightly-knit communities where the beliefs and traditions are taken for granted and never questioned. The ones who do question them – the “some intelligent children” in the description above – move away to the big cities, where other social bonds, other than those based on shared religious faith, exist. Though some of them, surely, remain with their communities and families, following traditions and playing along with belief, because it’s easy enough to do so. (Someone once wrote a whole book about priests, never mind laymen, who’d lost their faith in God and all those Biblical miracles, but stayed on in their positions, filling their social roles, because of the great difficulty that renouncing their faith publicly and losing their social connections.)