The God Delusion, the Science Delusion, and the Middle Path between Spirituality and Science

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Delusion”, according to The New Oxford American Dictionary, is “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument”. Delusion, despite—or perhaps because of—its negative implications, seems to be a popular subject, judging from a plethora of books that contain the word “delusion” in their titles. Even a cursory search on the Internet yields such titles as: The Atheist Delusion, The Biofuel Delusion, The Brand Delusion, The Capitalism Delusion, The Debt Delusion, The Democracy Delusion, The Disease Delusion, The End-of-the-World Delusion, The Green Revolution Delusion, The Food Delusion, The Free Will Delusion, The Hypnotism Delusion, The Infinity Delusion, The Job Delusion, The Leadership Delusion, The Love Delusion, The Mother Nature Delusion, The Net Delusion, The Self Help Delusion, The Two-State Delusion, and The Witchcraft Delusion. The diversity of subjects dealt with in these books suggests that almost anything can become the object of a delusion. To this large list of books whose titles contain the word “delusion” must be added two other recent books: The God Delusion and The Science Delusion.

There are actually several books with title of The God Delusion. By far the best known and most controversial among them has to be Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, originally published in 2006.1 As an evolutionary biologist known as the author of such popular books as The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1987), Richard Dawkins considers the “God hypothesis”, namely, the idea that “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”, a delusion because “creative intelligence, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it”. “Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design”, the subtitle of The Blind Watchmaker, succinctly shows why Dawkins considers the God hypothesis a delusion, an idiosyncratic belief, for it is contradicted by the accumulated evidence of evolution uncovered by biologists, cosmologists, and other scientists.

Considering that science relies on the rational argument of hypothesis building and empirical testing in discovering the laws of nature in the world around us, we would hardly expect science to be a delusion that shares the same kind of irrationalities with other idiosyncratic beliefs. In other words, the very expression, “the science delusion”, appears to combine two words that are mutually incompatible. But here again, there are several books with the title of The Science Delusion, some written by proponents of the God hypothesis in response to Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and his reliance on the rational argument of science to expose an idiosyncratic belief in God.

Of the books bearing the title of The Science Delusion, the one by Rupert Sheldrake is noteworthy in that it is written by someone who is well known for his original contribution to science, including his innovative hypothesis of “morphic resonance” in evolution.2 Science, according to Sheldrake, is a delusion in the sense the prevailing dogma in science today considers the universe as purposeless, following the fixed laws that can be explained in terms solely of material causes. In fact, the idea that matter is the only reality in the universe, including our consciousness, instead of being treated as a paradigm, has been turned into an ideology, a belief system, which Curtis White calls “scientism” in his book also with the title of The Science Delusion.3 As a belief system, scientism has its own trappings of conformity, peer pressure, and prestige among scientists. So confident are scientists in the answers they have derived through their rational inquiry that they are trapped in what Sheldrake calls the biggest scientific delusion: “The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details need working out but, in principle, the fundamental questions are settled.”

That both religion and science can become delusions should not trouble us much as long as they constitute “non-overlapping magisteria”, as Stephen Jay Gould characterizes them, addressing to separate issues and employing different methods with different goals.4 The problem is that religion and science do overlap and concern themselves with the same sort of questions such as how the universe came about, how it works, and how life came into being. And it is because religion and science overlap in their endeavors to answer these fundamental questions that we witness the kinds of heated debates and vicious exchanges between religionists and scientists as illustrated by the appearance of books with titles like The Atheist Delusion, The Christian Delusion, and The Dawkins Delusion: Atheism vs. God.

What should our attitude be regarding delusions for the rest of us, who also seek answers to these questions, but do not want to be caught up in heated debates and vicious exchanges? Delusion, to be sure, is something to be avoided. Buddhists, for example, are well aware of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. As the Buddha reminds us, “a person who is greedy, hating, and deluded, overpowered by greed, hatred, and delusion, his thoughts controlled by them, will destroy life, take what is not given, engage in sexual misconduct, and tell lies; he will also prompt others to do likewise.”5

The Buddhist notion of “impermanence” seems to serve as a useful guide for us in dealing with delusions, in overcoming idiosyncratic beliefs. This is so because what is today regarded as a delusion may have once been treated as a reality, as an undeniable truth, and what is today regarded as a reality, as an undeniable truth, may turn out one day to be a delusion. What we need to do is, then, to treat every idea, whether in religion or in science, as a tentative proposition whose relevance and validity are defined only in a specific context of the world evolving around us, in which our consciousness is intimately involved.

What we need to avoid is to develop an attachment to a particular idea or view, whether in religion or in science, for attachment sooner or later turns into fundamentalism. To be sure, science has emerged as the most reliable method of obtaining knowledge of the world around us ever since the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth was shown to be a delusion. But science that treats consciousness as a mere epiphenomenon of brain activity does not show us the path we need to follow in order to accomplish spiritual maturation, or enlightenment, for it alienates us from our own experience in our relationship to the world around us. Spirituality does have a place in our life as evidenced, for example, by the effect of prayer in maintaining health and that of meditation in cultivating compassion. As the God delusion represents one extreme and the science delusion the other extreme, what we need to do is to follow the middle path, in this case, between spirituality and science.

  1. Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
  2. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, London: Coronet, 2012.
  3. White, Curtis, The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, New York: Melville House, 2013.
  4. Gould, Stephen J., Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, New York: Ballantine, 1999.
  5. Anguttara Nikaya, 3:65.