In the preface to his best-selling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins explains the fundamental reason for writing the book: “If this book works as I intend, the religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”
While many of his followers will undoubtedly think of this as a fine and noble aspiration, it is worthwhile pausing to consider what such a claim means, what it presupposes and, if Dawkins is correct in his general scientific naturalism, what it makes of Dawkins himself.
Simply put, Dawkins’ book is a prolonged argument against religious belief. It promotes a scientific worldview as contrary to religious beliefs and argues that maintaining such beliefs in the face of the dominance of this worldview is nothing less than irrational. The unbeliever is the person of reason; the believer is deluded. If you read his book and you are a reasonable person, you will come to the same conclusion as Dawkins; if you don’t concur you are lacking in rationality.
What assumptions are operating in such a stance? What is Dawkins’ implicit understanding of human beings?
The first is, of course, that human beings are reasoning beings, that they can follow arguments and evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion. Indeed, the primacy of reason is central to the whole scientific enterprise, as he regularly reminds his readers. This much is explicit.
However, there is also a second assumption, albeit a less explicit one: that the dictates of reason have the power to compel human actions, that they have a normative significance of human living. Implicit in Dawkins’ understanding of human beings is that if a belief is irrational, then one should not follow or uphold it. To be irrational in the face of evidence is somehow to fail in what it means to be fully human.
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Neil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. With his colleague Cynthia Crysdale, he has written a book on God and evolution (forthcoming from Fortress Press in 2013).