on November 11, 2006
I read numerous reviews before I bought this book. Because of the controversial nature of the topic I was very interested in the perspective of the reviewer. Often this perspective was easy to guess but not always. So to make this review more valuable to the reader I would like to state my background first. I am a 50 year old active Catholic who has slowly become disillusioned by religion starting as a child when told my Protestant friend would not go to heaven. For years I existed on "faith" since I personally could find no evidence that God existed. As a Catholic there is also a good helping of "guilt" for good measure. I am also a very strong Constitutionalist and believe that the only way to get along is to have freedom of and freedom from religion. With the recent surge of religious fundamentalism and its effects on politics I have become increasingly concerned about what Dawkins calls the American Taliban and the push for a Christian Theocracy. This actually scares me more than Al-Qaida. The words "Faith" and "Belief" have been morphed into the word "Truth". This new "Truth" has caused me to do a lot of searching for answers for what really is true.
Richard Dawkins book was extremely helpful and was the first book I have read on the Atheist side of the fence. I found Chapters 1 through 4 and 7 through 9 easy to read. Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 10 were more scientific and a hard read for the average person. I actually needed a dictionary at my side to get through those chapters. I particularly liked the section in Chapter 3 on Pascal's Wager which I had mistakenly credited to Einstein in the past.
What I had found so interesting is that he expressed ideas that I had been developing in my brain for years, but did not feel free to discuss with others. (although he can state them more eloquently than I can). The result is that I have been pushed from a 5 to a 6 on his scale of belief.
The book is not only preaching to the Atheist choir, but to all those who a truly open minded enough to form there own opinions about God and religion. If you are in this category it is certainly worth purchasing.
Previous reviews stated that Dawkins was mean spirited and blamed religion for social evils. I did not find this to be the case, and I found that he was as fair minded as someone who believes as he does can be.
on October 28, 2006
I've just finished reading the 141 reviews above mine, and I think they're utterly fascinating--almost as interesting as the book. And the scores--the numbers who find each review helpful--are equally remarkable.
Some reviewers, delighted to find their opinions supported by Dawkins, use the opportunity to bask in their superior intellects and display their generous contempt for those who disagree.
Other reviewers feel personally attacked by this book, fending it off as best they can so they can retain their illusions, which are obviously valuable and meaningful to them.
Actually, you don't even have to read the reviews to see which is which. Just look at the numbers. If you see very few finding the review useful, you'll know the review was written by someone opposing Dawkins' ideas. And if the majority find the review helpful, that means it agrees with Dawkins.
This tells me that most of the people who are bothering to read the reviews are already pro-Dawkins--and it bodes ill for his hopes that his book will convert the believers.
It won't convert many believers, not because it is wrong--it isn't--and not because it isn't well-written--it is--but because whatever else you can say about faith, it isn't easily extinguished. For those who have it, it is the only life raft on a limitless ocean. Those who don't have learned how to swim, or plan to.
The most annoying reviewers, from my point of view, are those whose remarks demonstrate they haven't read the book (such as the fellow who insists Einstein was a believer), or those who feel Dawkins doesn't have the Biblical knowledge to back up his conclusions.
He doesn't need any Biblical knowledge. None of us do, when it comes to the question of belief. Memorizing the Bible neither adds nor subtracts from our ability to feel faith.
And that's the bottom line for me. I am unable to accept an assertion of any kind supported by nothing more than faith. I need some kind of truth, some kind of evidence.
There are or might be moments when I am jealous of those capable of faith. I would love to believe, when a loved one dies, that he or she is going to a better place and that we'll meet again some day. What a lovely, comforting thought. Would that it were true, or that I could believe it. But I don't--and it makes this life and every moment in it more valuable to me.
I once asked myself how a person totally unfamiliar with religion, might choose among the world's offerings, might decide to adopt one of the world's thousands of religions. I could find no way. They all claim they're right and all the other religions are wrong. But are any of them right?
Now I'm thinking similar thoughts about God. I saw a website recently that compiled the names of all of the gods, worldwide and throughout history. They found 3800 different gods or supernatural beings. If I were inclined to believe, which one would I choose and why?
Dawkins points out that we're all atheists. We don't believe in Amon-re, Zeus, Thor, Apollo, Odin, etc., etc., etc. He just goes one god further.
on December 21, 2006
Many have criticized this book for not speaking in a voice that could influence religious fundamentalists away from their delusion. There is no way the topic can be discussed that would have any hope of doing this. It would be akin to writing a book that through gentle persuasion would reason a paranoid out of his delusions. Ain't going to happen.
I believe the intended audience is those who already have grave doubts, and are looking for a well reasoned examination of the issue. I was impressed by the simple and straightforward approach to resolving a basic question: "since we can't know for sure if God exists, shouldn't we all be agnositics?"
I also enjoyed his definition of a pantheist (I'll leave that for the reader to discover).
The opening sections on Einstein and his "religious" beliefs, and a general discussion of pantheism and deism are worth the price of the book just by themselves.
As an aside -- those reviewers who cite Einstein's religious conversion away from atheism have clearly not read even this much of the book.
Written with great humor and wonderful quotations -- I am sure there is something here to offend just about everyone -- but also with great courage and forthrightfullness.
Before considering Professor Dawkins's bestseller, a mention must be made of the over 300 reviews here posted as well as the assorted blogs, debates, and article the book has provoked. Reading through these, whether pro or con, one can not help but notice a clear and unnerving trend, not unlike one sees in reviews regarding works on the Middle East conflict; those who agree with his thesis from the outset almost always offer resounding and unadulterated praise without considering even the possibility of flaws in his methodology or logic. Of course, at the same time, those who hold his position as heresy rarely respond in any logical method to his position and rarely even seem willing to acknowledge the professor's obvious strength's as a writer. Such failure of reasoning on both sides points to a disheartening decline in the state of the western intellectual tradition that should give every person pause.
As a great fan of Professor Dawkins's previous work, "The Selfish Gene," a book that provided me with considerable food for thought several years back and profoundly altered my thinking, I looked forward with some excitement to "The God Delusion." Reading the new book on recognizes quickly that this is in fact one book, with three goals. Professor Dawkins imagines these goals as not only compatible, but structural to the argument he seeks to build. As for me I am less certain.
The first part restates much of what might be found in "The Selfish Gene," albeit more briefly and with some editions based on more recent scholarship. There is no need to review the whole of thesis, his obvious purpose will suffice; defending Darwinian evolution from the current relentless and often absurd assault it now suffers at the hands of certain individuals who prefer to shout at the storm rather than consider an umbrella. Now "The Selfish Gene," was nothing short of brilliant, and Dawkins here again demonstrates much of what makes him a gifted writer of science, explaining the strengths of Darwin's theory, and devastating many of the positions of those who argue against it. Other works of course cover this same ground, but there can be no doubt Dawkins here shines.
Of course, these points are not the goal of Dawkins's work, but only the foundation of a broader argument. From there he moves into an evolutionary thesis for the origin of belief and religion. Here he remains on firm ground, though many may find it disquieting, even as he moves to the next logical position that evolution and the cosmos requires no deity to explain itself. And it is from there that the Professor moves onto shakier ground as he seeks not to simply discount the evidence often cited for a supreme being, but rather argue against the possibility of its existence. Of course, the logical difficulty of proving an absolute negative - for example, "there are no blue dogs," are legion -- yet this of course does not deter the professor who approaches the subject with a zealot's fervor. Yet, many of the arguments here stand as both pugnacious and flawed, moreover revealing that while well versed in science, professor Dawkins might consider a few classes in philosophy, not to mention religion so that he might recognize that the Anglicanism in which he was raised is not the totality of all Christianity and, moreover, Christianity is by no means the totality of religion.
One might take his arguments one at a time, but I will focus on one, it having received great attention. Dawkins posits "A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right." Of course this ignores the prevalent notion of both the Jewish and Islamic tradition that God exists both inside and outside his creation, and thus cannot be fully known. Moreover, he likely would not like this argument applied to cosmology; the fact that it grows increasingly complex as our understanding grows does not make the next more complex factor less likely, but merely outside of our current grasp. The effort to understand this with probability as a method of rendering a supreme being unlikely comes across as self serving and holding to a standard the professor would surely not wish to apply to science.
Yet it is in the final piece of his work that Professor Dawkins becomes the most vitriolic and, in fact, a bit sophomoric as he attacks religion by pointing to all the evil in history rendered in its name. The effort appears like the work of a rather polemic inclined undergrad, especially as the Professor fails to consider the good brought by religion, nor seriously consider the degree to which concepts arising from religion have influenced or even founded much of the secular humanist philosophy he holds so dear. Moreover, Professor Dawkins shows no taste for considering the considerable evil done in the name of atheism. Regarding these, however, he has no stomach for discussion, writing curtly ""We are not in the business of counting evils heads, compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity." Yet that is exactly what he does when it comes to those of faith, ignoring the torture and murder of many, often due to their particular commitment to religion done in the name of "reason" by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their ilk. Instead, Dawkins contrasts theoretical atheist utopia with the religions practical and often horrific evils. Sadly, such an effort generates much heat and little light. Had he been willing to engage the more interesting and complex issue, he might well have concluded that humanity is capable of much horror and violence, for many motivations. But then, such a conclusion would hardly serve his narrow polemic goals.
Nothing in the world should be held as not subject to reason. Unfortunately, Professor Dawkins could well have used more of it in engaging in his efforts. While one can certainly render cogent arguments for atheism, indeed many have, the effort here seems more designed to score easy points by burning straw men at the stake. No doubt, this review will receive votes for and many more against, not based on its reasoning, but simply based on people's particular faith on which side of these issues the reside. But then again, most seem inclined to simply march along side their ideological kin, rather than engage in serious consideration of such weighty matters.
on May 9, 2013
"As ever when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful."
As I kicked off a second reading of Richard Dawkins' 2006 chart-buster, I was reminded of a secondhand conversation to which I was privy at a (now-obsolete) home electronics store. A slick-haired, middle-aged man stands a few paces away, clearly fixated by the latest inventory of high-definition televisions. As a store clerk approaches the shopper remarks, "You ever wonder how it all works? I mean this is just...wow."
The clerk, as if being tested on his knowledge of the trade, seizes the moment with avidity, launching into a monologue on the mechanics of flat panel operation. (Paraphrasing): "Well, sir, you can direct a cold cathode light source, such as a fluorescent lamp, through a light shutter made up of pixels coated with tiny precision filters and get color images that way, as in the case of an LCD monitor, or you can discharge electricity through pixels filled with a rare gas mixture and watch as color phosphors are stimulated to produce visible light. We call the second type a plasma displ-."
The glassy-eyed patron, with all the disinterest he can muster, interrupts, "Oh I'd rather not know. Takes some of the magic out of it."
Mystery, of course, allows the imagination to run wild. Absent a mechanistic explanation for a video monitor, a shooting star, an earthquake or, say, the appearance and evolution of life on earth, our minds latch onto those ideas we find most intuitive or comfortable, be it magic, mysticism or other notions of our own devising. Before we located better answers, we were quite content attributing weather, disaster, war, famine, constellations and star movements, migratory patterns and the rest to divine agency. For much of our early history "God" was the placeholder for human ignorance.
Fast forward to present day, and we see that the lineaments reaped by modern society (like the HDTV) were borne out of a firm unwillingness to accept these default, untested answers and an insatiate thirst for deeper understanding. It was this aggrandizing spirit of discovery through which science was born. The process of replacing supernatural causality with natural causality is one that continues to this day. As God has been pushed further and further into obscurity by the never-stagnant march of science, does that, by extension, make God a delusion? Has our wealth of knowledge elbowed God out of the cosmic arena? Richard Dawkins believes so.
To borrow his own phrase, Dawkins has been a "consciousness-raiser" for all things science, and is among the most distinguished practitioners living today. His work in gene-centric approaches to evolution and original ideas on memetic theory have spawned fresh avenues of research. Like many scientists, Dawkins' quest to deconstruct reality has not diminished the grandeur of the cosmos but rushed in a deeper intimacy and awe. And in doing so, he believes science has drawn the curtain back far enough to declare God a giant fallacy wrapped in a cocoon of faith and religions mere vestiges of earlier ignorance.
GODS AND GODDESSES
In his 2006 meisterwerk The God Delusion, based on his earlier documentary The Root of All Evil?, Dawkins assumes a two-pronged approach: he seeks to demonstrate first the untruth of revealed religion and secondly its detriment to society. In consonance with other atheist literature, his thesis is that supernatural gods almost certainly do not exist and that society would be better off without the religions that have congealed around themf.
Of all the "New" Atheists, Dawkins tends to attract the most flack, both from the theist camp as well as from some of his co-thinkers (Frans de Waal comes to mind). This may be connected to the fact that he is the most publicly visible, or it might simply be due to his expressing views particularly controversial to American ears. Whatever the case may be, his scientific prowess and nigh immortal ability to convey scientific concepts through rhythmic prose cannot be denied.
Those put off by his public persona may find themselves wooed into acquiescence, lost in his literary gait. However cantankerous Dawkins may seem while perched on a stage, his writing reflects a decidedly more even-handed, sometimes even glancingly humorous scientist trying sincerely to get at the truth. Sure, some of the adjectives he throws around in reference to religion may be a bit undiplomatic, but that is only to be expected given the bottomless rabbit hole of religious ruminations. Overall, I found his approach equitable and well thought out, as will be customary to anyone familiar with Dawkins' craft.
He makes clear at the starting gate the conception of God he is challenging in this book: "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us." (p. 31) This subsumes not only theistic ideas of God but deistic versions as well. As the chapters unfold, he frequently narrows in on the Abrahamic triumvirate of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
While Dawkins may not be blind to the psychological utility of religion or its merit as a moral motivator, he is above all concerned with whether or not it is true. And it is in this vein that the first half of the book positions itself. Dawkins engages many of the popular arguments in favor of God's existence (while satirizing a few of the spectacularly weak ones), laying each of them to rest or at least exposing their glaring flaws.
As a specialist in biology, he reserves the greatest expositional force for dismantling the argument from design. With characteristic lucidity he explains how Darwin's bold idea completely upended the design argument once and for all. Exercising Daniel Dennett's analogical idea of cranes and skyhooks, Dawkins remarks, "Natural selection is the champion crane of all time." (p. 73) Unlike the top-down, skyhook hypothesis of a designer, evolution by natural selection is a gradated, bottom-up process where genetic configurations can only be understood post hoc. Dawkins stresses repeatedly that natural selection is not driven by chance but by fitness. He then concludes that while natural selection and design are alternatives, only the former is actually an explanation (since the latter merely regresses it) and more importantly, is the only one of the two buttressed by evidence. With descent by modification, one could hardly ask for an idea which more handily routs the chronic refrain of religious creation myths.
In response to the cosmological version of the design argument, that of a finely tuned universe, Dawkins brandishes the familiar one-two stroke of the anthropic principle and Rees' multiverse hypothesis. Whether a non-natural agency existing outside of space and time or swarms of buzzing universes is a more satisfactory explanation of the facts may largely be a subjective verdict, especially considering that both currently occupy the same threshold of evidence: zero. At any rate, given what once was ascribed to God and later dislodged by science, Dawkins asks what possible reason could we have for thinking "God did it" will win out here?
PRAYER AND NOMA
Considering how many prayers are pitched to the skies each day as devotees inveigle their deity of choice to accomplish some change in the world, we might expect to find some observable results. To date there have been several well-controlled, double-blind studies on the efficacy of prayer. In each of these studies, the null hypothesis was confirmed (i.e., prayer was shown to have no effect on patient condition). As Dawkins points out, one of the largest and most significant of these studies was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which of course was trying to prove the opposite. Templeton solicited Christian petitioners across America and provided them with the first name and last initial of 1,802 patients to pray for. The whole unctuous charade lasted for months, and the results were published in the American Heart Journal in April 2006. No relationship observed.
Met with a vacuum of evidence, many religious apologists instead take a different approach. Rather than aimlessly looking for something concrete, they resort to the notion of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria). Popularized by Gould and swiftly adopted by apologists as a pivotal bulwark of their faith, it is the idea that science and religion occupy entirely separate domains of reality. Essentially, "God" and its attendant effects are immune to the scientific method. But as Dawkins illustrates with the multi-million dollar Templeton study, religion is quick to embrace science when there is even a slight chance the evidence may fall in its favor. This clearly indicates that "NOMA is only popular because there is no evidence to favour the God Hypothesis." (p. 59)
On several occasions he lends an ear to more "sophisticated" theologians, though he does not tread around them lightly. He gestures toward more rigorous ripostes to his arguments, but ultimately decries them as fantastical. According to Dawkins, the (Christian) theologian's appetency to allegorize the more troublesome and contradictory bits of the Bible and insert dreamed up concepts in their stead amounts to nothing more than arbitrary speculation. One could discern the zealous fans of Harry Potter and other fan fiction who dispute every minute detail of their revered lore as being not too distinct from the theologians of today, whose armchair musings fall on the deaf ears of the congregations of America. In the end, Dawkins says the constructions of modern theology are "just shamelessly invented." (p. 35)
THE ROOTS OF RELIGION
Following his competent disassembly of the God hypothesis, he moves on to probing more underlying questions: Where did religious beliefs come from; if patently false, why are they still around? I found this section of secondary interest and feel he devoted a bit too much space to what essentially was a lot of speculation. He attempts to weave his pet memetic theory into a quasi-evolutionary explanation for the survival of religion into modernity, with some success. I think the psychological and emotional utility of religious beliefs are sufficient to explain their lasting power on human culture. That's not to say Dawkins' exploration here isn't worthwhile or interesting.
DO WE NEED GOD TO BE GOOD?
Easily my favorite section of the book is "The Roots of Morality", where Dawkins deciphers the riddle of ethics and morality. While he harbors no illusions that science can help us discern right from wrong (contra-Sam Harris), he argues that our capacity for doing so indeed has a scientific explanation. First, the pillars of empathy and altruism are traits readily observable in several other species. Moreover, this governing sociality is most predominant in the higher primates, just as we would predict. Under an evolutionary view of life, then, it is no stretch to say that such cooperative attributes were biologically and culturally selected for as an avenue towards greater fitness. If true, this would mean that basic decency codes and what we today call moral behavior long anticipated religion.
Even if one doesn't find a Darwinian ontology compelling, Dawkins argues that the religious alternatives have no merit whatsoever. A Celestial Watchman and binary afterlife are typically heralded as motivators for good and, repressors, demotivators for evil. In response, Dawkins has this to say, in what might be the single most poignant quote of the book:
"If there is no god, why be good?
"As Einstein said, `If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.' Michael Shermer, in The Science of Good and Evil, calls it a debate stopper. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would `commit robbery, rape, and murder,' you reveal yourself as an immoral person, `and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you.' If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good. I suspect that quite a lot of religious people do think religion is what motivates them to be good, especially if they belong to one of those faiths that systematically exploits personal guilt.
It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness." (p. 226-227)
In short, a conscience is not so easily discarded. A humanistic view, rather, is the view that people are fully capable of knowing right from wrong and do not need childish incentives to act ethically toward our brothers and sisters. Human solidarity, empathy and the lessons derived from social experience account well enough for moral behavior. This Dawkins regards as the more adult moral psychology. In contrast, an ethic that even in implication is dependent upon eternal punishment as a demotivator for bad behavior seems to me to be the deficient one.
Of equal importance to our justification for goodness (why be moral) is the epistemological (what is moral). Christians often wonder, `For people who don't regard the Bible as the Word of God, from where do they get their morals?' Dawkins showcases with great effectiveness the ethical flimsiness of the Abrahamic holy books, visiting a sampling of the Bible's problematic narratives and itemizing the divine prescripts that not even the most ardent men and women of faith follow. We all separate the virtuous bits from the primitive barbarism. How do we do this, Dawkins asks? By filtering them through our own ethical intuitions. The very fact that each of us passively edits these texts tells us that wherever our moral sense comes from, we are all tapping into the same source. And it's most certainly not holy books.
For even better, book-length treatments of this topic, look out for de Waal's recent exposé The Bonobo and the Atheist, Hinde's Why Good is God, Buckman's Can We Be Good Without God? and Hauser's Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
Dawkins concludes with a more abstract section on how ethics have progressed across the ages. He calls this the shifting moral zeitgeist, and I found the insights here very compelling. As we catalog history, on issues like the abolition of slavery or emancipation of women we see a broad, cross-cultural convergence, perhaps reinforced by social feedback loops or "a complex interplay of disparate forces." (p. 272) It seems to follow inescapably that morality is not something handed down from above, but is to be found within ourselves. It is not eternal, nor is it absolute, but is constantly being refined and improved.
The closing sections of the book Dawkins devotes to the dangers of dogmatic religious faith, which is really a dispraisal of fundamentalism in all its forms. While there is definitely great harm done under the banner of religion, the vast majority of Christians, Muslims, etc. worldwide do conform to the shifting moral zeitgeist, are persuaded by scientific evidence, and are dismissive of static, unflinchingly literal interpretations of ancient literature. The alarms he sounds, while attention-grabbing and unspeakable, describe more localized problems rather than endemic ones. I did, however, find his consciousness-raising on the doctrinal labeling of children very poignant.
"...Isn't it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs they are too young to have thought about? I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labelled as belonging to one particular religion or another. A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents." (pp. 315, 338, 339)
Stow overhead everything you’ve heard about Dawkins, and check your epistemic commitments below deck. The arguments laid out in The God Delusion are thought-provoking, eloquently made and deserve a fair hearing from seekers on both sides of the aisle. One cannot be said to have properly surveyed these conversations before having read and engaged both halves. And given its international penetration and status as a modern cultural icon, Dawkins’ treatise is a great place to start. While I found some of his challenges less than airtight (the “who designed the designer” argument has never hit home for me), and perhaps there were some missed opportunities for delivering a truly comprehensive counterstroke to theism (for my money, the problems of evil and (un)intelligent design and the arguments from divine hiddenness and inconsistent revelations carry more heft in undermining religion), this is a compelling presentation of why 1 billion people and counting don't believe.
Dawkins has penned a manifesto to sit alongside Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Baron d'Holbach's The System of Nature, Bertrand Russell's essay Why I Am Not a Christian and Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Necessity of Atheism. Irrespective of one's persuasion, with The God Delusion Dawkins has shown, as several others before him, just how rational a position atheism is, despite its historical unpopularity.
Richard Dawkins, well known writer on evolutionary theory, begins this volume by quoting from Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) (page 5): "`When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.'" This is a volume that religious readers will despise and that nonbelievers will probably speak well of.
There certainly are questions one can raise about this volume. For instance, Dawkins claims that the founders of the United States were not overly religious. However, research clearly shows that religious sources were among the most commonly cited in the lead up to the American Revolution. And the colonists were a religious people; some colonies had been, in essence, theocracies. However, such cavils are not directly relevant for the thesis of Dawkins.
The book runs along the following lines:
First, Dawkins explores standard arguments on behalf of God's existence and disposes of each of these. Some might argue that he attacks some straw men here, but--overall--this is a readable critique that will be compelling for some and not for others.
Second, he addresses why, in his opinion, the idea of the existence of God is unlikely.
Next, he asks why religion has become widespread. He adopts an evolutionary approach to address this. He ends up speculating that (page 174): ". . .there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question." In short, we tend to reify the values of our parents and other respected figures. If those values are religious, then people will accept those religious values with little question. He follows this discussion up by addressing why morality is so widespread, since many equate morality and religion. He examines a series of studies that suggest that both believers and non-believers accept fairly similar moral positions. Dawkins' question (page 226): "This seems compatible with the view, which I and many others hold, that we do not need God in order to be good--or evil."
Other questions are addressed as well, such as the contention that there is a gap in human life that God fills, the down side of the confident absolutism of many religious people, and so on. The book is well written and literate. In the final analysis, though, its basic contention is such that those who begin reading the book in agreement with Dawkins will like it and those in disagreement (if they read the book at all) will be appalled. Nonetheless, for those interested in the recent books focusing on the subject of the validity of religion, this is a must read.
on September 24, 2006
One reviewer tells us that "There is no debate (NONE!) between science and religion. ........The biblical writers didn't intend us to take them literally, that is obvious. They were addressing metaphysical/spiritual matters with literature. So where's the debate?"
Where? Simple! Religionists will certainly not leave the determination of facts to scientists since as we have seen, they continue to make implausible empirical assertions about everything from the age of the earth to the literal exitence of angels. They also try to force religious ideas into the educational system. On the other hand, scientists (especially atheist scientists) are not about to leave moral and spiritual questions up to religionists (at least I won't).
Of course, even more important is the global political factors. The zeal with which those infected with religious fire try to convert the world and prevent folks from behaving in certain ways is astounding. Violence is always a possiblity when the belief is strongly enough felt. I was raised in a religious home, but overall, I now feel frightened by religion.
Dawkin's never fails to engage the issues intelligently and frankly. This book is no exception. Read with an open mind and try to not worry about what the meaning of life without God might be. It does have meaning but you must not let fear of death or hell get in the way of reason.
on October 1, 2006
Very few scientists are religious, and highly successful ones are the least religious: a study in 1998 suggested that only about 7% of members of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA believe in a personal God. There are some, of course, who mention God from time to time as a poetic way of personifying nature, and Einstein is often claimed as a religious man on the basis of remarks of this kind, notwithstanding his perfectly clear statement that "the idea of a personal God is quite alien to me". Today nearly all working scientists can identify with the mathematician Laplace, who said that he had "no need of that hypothesis" when asked by Napoleon why he did not mention God in his book. Richard Dawkins, however, goes much further than this; for him, belief in a personal God is not just an unnecessary hypothesis, but a major source of evil in the world. No wars, he says, have been fought in the name of atheism, but many have been fought in the name of God, and much of what we call ethnic persecution is in reality religious persecution. Belief in God, therefore, is not just something to be politely set aside, but something to be actively opposed. A large part of the book is devoted to justifying this position, much more radical than the vague agnosticism that nearly all of his academic colleagues will readily agree to.
Lke an earlier famous atheist, Bertrand Russell, Dawkins has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible that goes far beyond that of most Christians. He quotes chapter 19 of Genesis, which tells us that the "uniquely righteous" Lot offered his two virgin daughters to satisfy the lusts of the men of Sodom who arrived at his house wanting to sodomize the angels who were visiting him: "do ye unto them as is good in your eyes". Likewise he produces ample evidence of what has long been obvious to any intelligent reader of the Bible, that it is simply impossible for every word to be the literal truth, because it abounds with internal contradictions. Dawkins is perfectly aware, of course, that the more sophisticated Christians recognize the absurdity of belief in an old man with a white beard up in the sky; that they readily accept that there are many inaccurate statements in the Bible and that the God of the Old Testament is very hard to hold up as a role model for humanity; and that they do not advocate applying the penalty of death prescribed in chapter 20 of Leviticus for cursing one's parents. For most such Christians the Old Testament is an embarrassment, but Dawkins is not convinced that the New Testament is as much of an improvement as is sometimes claimed, and describes "atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent". The more general problem is that once you accept that there is much that is repellent in the Bible how do you justify picking out the bits that you like and ignoring the bits you don't like?
If Dawkins were merely trying to demonstrate that religious belief is irrational, there would be little point to his book: most of his academic colleagues accept that already and need no further convincing, and his religious opponents will not read the book anyway, except perhaps in search of passages they can use against him in their hate mail and websites. Nonetheless, people who are broadly in agreement with him do need to read the book, because of his contention that religious belief is not just irrational, but is also dangerous. He gets angry when he reads of "a Muslim child", aged four, when what is meant is a four-year-old child of Muslim parents, or when religious massacres in what used to be Yugoslavia are euphemistically called "ethnic cleansing". His aim, therefore, is to make his readers angry as well.
Dawkins is, of course, famous as an evolutionary biologist, and he also discusses the appearance and survival of religious beliefs from an evolutionary point of view. In the words of the novelist Barbara Trapido, "People have no sooner got themselves born than they start to imagine the gods want them to flatten their heads, or perforate their genitals, or arrange themselves into hierarchies based on the colour of their skins. The gods require them to avoid eating hoofs, or to walk backwards in certain sacred presences, or to hang up cats in clay pots and light fires underneath them." For this sort of thing to make evolutionary sense there must be a survival value for the individual in religious belief. What can it be? Dawkins explains it in the same way as he explains the habit of moths of burning themselves to death by flying into candle flames, not as something beneficial in itself but as an unfortunate by-product of behaviour that in nearly all circumstances is indeed beneficial, namely flying towards a light source. For religion, he suggests that it is nearly always beneficial for small children to believe what their parents tell them, with the consequence that they believe not only in the dangers of playing with fire, but also in whatever nonsense their parents tell them as well.
on March 17, 2007
...much like the hoards of straw men Richard Dawkins knocks down in this rather self indulgent book. The God Delusion is a powerful and convincing polemic, and Dawkins has lots of fun using his powerful, playful and scientific mind to pick off a number of shibboleths of religious types: the hypocricies, fallacies, pretensions and abuses of fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, tribal religions that insist on the brutal circumcision of young women.
Much of what Dawkins says on these issues is powerful, wide ranging, and true, and it does no harm to knock down these malevolent straw men again in a widely researched and up to date polemic (for instance, I was alarmed to discover that there is a school in Gateshead UK, near where I grew up, funded by the Blair government, that teaches Biblical creationism).
However what I really wanted to gain from this book was not a bravura performance of knocking down established religion (I, like most people, already know of the dangers of religious trends such as those inherent in Bush's America and the Islamic world), but a hole plugging argument that lays down clearly the premises for evolution and why it is a scientific theory, not just a theory, whether physics is coming close to formulating a theory on the true cosmic origins of the Universe, and why it was that the earth happened to have the exact physical conditions, against nearly impossible odds, for life to develop.
The key scientific chapter in the God Delusion that addresses this, sandwiched between all the sociological debunking of established religion, is Chapter 4: 'Why there almost certainly is no God'. Dawkins admits this chapter contains the central argument of his book, yet he provides little scientific sustenance for what I presume is the most likely type of person to read this book - a highly intelligent, educated person who is most likely atheist or agnostic, but perhaps hasn't yet found genuine comprehensive scientific explantions to put the possibility of some form of divine (not theistic) being to rest fully and completely.
Dawkins tries to convince us that the intelligent design hypothesis (the argument used by 'sophisticated' theologians such as the Bishop of Oxford) is wrong, and evolution is the best crane, or 'skyhook' to bridge the gap between our limited intellects and the seeming statistical improbability of the universe (something) arising out of nothing. Evolution he skims over rapidly, including a short shrift defence of those who say it is flawed by fossil gaps. Consulting the index I notice that the process of evolution takes up only three pages of a book that is over four hundred pages long. I would have thought several more pages on the subject were necessary in such a book, given the central importance of evolution to the atheists claim. The anthropic principle, which tries to explain why the six fundamental necessary conditions for life (established Cambridge physicist Martin Rees's 'six numbers') sit in a magical goldilocks band, neither too high nor too low, to enable human life to develop. Remarkable! Why is this? As Dawkins ultimately admits, we don't know. He goes on to suggest a number of putative physical theories such as 'multiverse theory', but the real nub is that we don't know. Most super smart physicists, such as Martin Rees, admit this, and Dawkins rebukes Rees for handing over the issue to the theologians. And, of course, theologians don't know either (beyond postulating God as an explanation for all this), but nor does anyone, not even Richard Dawkins.
And that is the fundamental problem. God's existence (or at least, some supreme being or intelligence) can never be proven, but disproving it is no easy job. There will probably always be mysteries of the unvierse that our relatively tiny human brains, advanced though they are, will never comprehend. That is why I remain a sceptic, pretty much an atheist, but always wondering at the back of my mind whether there is something more, some grand and great explanation over and above the rationalism of science, that accounts for things. Towards the end, Dawkins reconstructes Hamlet's friendly rebuke to Horatio: 'There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio, than are ever dreamt of in your philosophy' to remove the 'your', to have it mean that science, the revealed reality of things is greater than the wild speculations of philosophy. I am not sure. Science is phenomenal, but can it explain everything, really everything? I prefer Shakespeare's original. Maybe it is the case that no human, not even Richard Dawkins, can know everything there is to know about the Universe, and why we are here.
on January 8, 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed TGD, and appreciate the logic with which it was written. It does indeed point out the absurdity of an intelligent creator and at least the typical monotheistic idea of God. It is also a good introduction into rational thought vs. religious thought, and forces the reader into following a scientific system of reasoning when looking at evolution, rather than a religious and dogmatic one. The only problem that I see is that the language used may be out of reach for those with less than a college degree, and even some with one. At times Dawkins covers some very dry subject matter, but if you stick with it he eventually brings it all back to his thesis.
It's a definite must-read for those questioning their faith, looking for an alternative to religious explanations of life as we know it, and atheists seeking more scientific evidence against an intelligent creator god.