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 June 9, 2016
First off, I have read the bible more than once. (Ok twice, but more than once sounded better). So, you know, save your judgement. (The book actually recommends being familiar with religious texts.)
I enjoyed this book!
You can definitely tell from the title, it is a book with an agenda. I think the purpose is for people with questions to feel ok about having those questions. And there are definitely parts where Dawkins argues atheists have it more right than agnostics. So, there's that. BUT there is so much awesome science in here! My inner geneticist and evolutionary biologist were so enthralled. Rocks are mostly made up of space guys. And I "really" wasn't at my thirteenth birthday cause the atoms that make me up today are different than the ones from then. What?! Quantum physics n stuff.
Anyway, the best part is that the main theme is it is ok to have questions. Ask them, try to figure out their answers, because those questions don't make you a bad person. I was kinda scared for this review to pop up on my fb. But I am a person who has questions. And I don't think that's a bad thing. I would #sorrydad but he knows about my questions. And he still loves me. So, #bestdadever
Lastly, it took me over a year to read...I really wanted to understand all the nitty gritty genetics. Dense. Unlike the rock. Which is mostly space! Haha remember???!
on June 20, 2016
A brilliant book that any intelligent, informed, rational person should read (note: that requirement excludes well over 50% of America, "In God We Trust"). I had already reached my own conclusion there is not a God(s), but this book eloquently addresses every angle of the question. He emphasizes that morality is not inherently derived from religiosity--thank you! He rightly cites other authors such as Sam Harris who have expounded on how religion has undermined the human civilization and continues to do so as Christians, Muslims and Jews live in perpetual war over whose imaginary "God" is real. Today's world events should make any sane person seek out a rational alternative explanation to "faith." The most interesting and informative section was the last chapter on evolutionary biology (Dawkins's expertise) that discusses how and why life on Earth has evolved (yes, evolved) so that we, as humans, see medium objects moving at medium speeds, such that we cannot grasp the sheer magnitude and extent of the universe around us--thus how and why religion so conveniently filled the gap for those unwilling or unable to think beyond their own fears.
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.
on April 27, 2007
I listened to The God Delusion as an audiobook, and found it fascinating. I've engaged in debates with my husband over it, and he hasn't even read it yet! Such is the substance of a very thought-provoking book. My husband insists that atheism is as much a religion as any other religion, but I beg to disagree. As Dawkins quotes, I think, Bertrand Russell, in the book, if I didn't exist for all the millennia before my birth, why do I insist that I have to exist in some form after my death? It's just not important. People insist on an afterlife because they are so self-centered, it is an affront to them to think that they can ever completely cease to exist. Ernest Becker in his sometimes brilliant "The Denial of Death" also addresses this question and states that humans insist they must have a soul to elevate themselves in importance as individuals. Also interesting is the fact that the atoms in ones body are recycled throughout ones life so how can one claim unique existence.
Dawkins brings up hundreds of points that stimulate lively discussion, which is the purpose of his book. While some of his arguments aren't as complete as they might be -- like the important role that religion, as a form of superstition and explaining the unexplainable -- has played in human history, the book has many ideas that deserve to be stated, and driven home. I especially identified with his characterization of God in the three major religions as a judgmental, ruthless, punishing dictator. That to me more clearly than anything, proves that this God is nothing other than a human's personification of a human. Because only humans have the qualities attributed to this supernatural being.
As a person with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology myself, I fully understand his reliance on the argument that Darwin's theory of natural selection provides the simplest and most elegant explanation of the complexity and diversity of life on earth. The science of probability explains why earth happened to be one of the planets on which life could evolve (see this week's newspaper articles on another true earthlike planet discovered elsewhere in the universe. Dawkins himself will I'm sure applaud the evidence that we are NOT unique). The power of science over religion is that by applying the scientific method we can continuously narrow the realm of things we don't know. To me this is far more powerful than the leap of faith, which requires one to cease to ask any questions at all.
I also think Dawkins does an admirable job of destroying the idea that in the modern world we have to rely on a supernatural being to explain anything. While the author obviously picks and chooses among his source materials to document his views, he nonetheless does a thorough job in such documentation. I think he has written a highly informative book that stimulates intellectual re-examination of a topic that will never go out of style.
on March 14, 2007
Dawkins has a great range of arguments that point to the non-existence of God that anyone should read, whether they agree or not because it will challenge, clarify and strengthen thinking.
Dawkins does a disservice to his book by aggressively going for the jugular from the first word as this will deter many readers he would probably want to reach.
Also, the endless list of people he quotes as stating something to support/ not support the existence of God becomes like a school-yard "he-said, she-said, then he-said" which no one can really win. Richard D: this comes across as petty bickering and makes you seem unpleasant, however right you might be; don't alienate your audience!
By blaming religion for the deaths in the Crusades through to 9-11 etc on religion, Dawkins misses the point. Religion has always been hijacked for other purposes, usually delivering greater power and wealth to a very small number of people. So, it is not religion that is the issue. By hijacking this to support his argument, Dawkins commits the same 'sin'.
Similarly, he quotes various points of culture (current or historical) as if they were directly religious, such as the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, when they are more the extension of some (current or historical) cultural aspect of the people involved with the religion at some point. The fuss in the west about headscarves has made it an icon of Islamic identity that mean some Muslim women will wear it to make a point or as a protest against western imperialism.
Even if you are an atheist from Europe or N America, you still have a strong sense of what is 'right or wrong' based on the culture of the society you were marinated in as you grew-up. After many hundreds of years of Christianity in Europe, the laws of European countries reflect beliefs from Christianity. Thus, religion provides/ed societal rules that adults only become conscious of when moving to another country. In other countries, everyone does certain things consistently differently and this may lead to the realisation that one society's way of acting is just as good an alternative as another.
Hence, Dawkins could probably have looked at the considerable similarities among beliefs and cultures of The Children of Abraham and the hypocrisy of claiming hair-splitting differences in the name of God.
This is a controversial book that everyone should read as it's shadow will stretch long in the future and wide across the people of this planet. If you don't know the arguments for and against the existence God, do you really have a right to an opinion?
The God Delusion is a great read, very stimulating and very clear about what it wants to achieve: reducing the probability of God's existence to almost zero - and I agree, agree that God can't quite be ruled out.
on March 17, 2007
I quite enjoyed this book as a discussion of the large improbability of a god, a dissection of current arguments, an analysis of the dangers that religion poses and a scant discussion of a new area of research on the evolutionary origins of religion. This last part seemed sort of underanalyzed, especially since Dawkins' previous cogent discussions of evolution have been so enlightening. Perhaps the research in this area is not that complete but Dawkins wanted to mention it nonetheless. Unfortunately I read this book shortly after reading 'The Selfish Gene' and 'The Blind Watchmaker' both by Richard Dawkins. These books were pretty amazing and awe-inspiring discussions of important topics. Reading the god delusion I couldn't help but get bored at times, not because of the writing but simply because I felt that I was wasting my time on something that I had realized when I was 13.
on November 16, 2006
Critics of Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion ultimately characterize his work as both angry and vitriolic, or more tamely, polemic. These are unhelpful descriptions as each fails to ask the question whether Dawkins has something to be angry, vitriolic or polemic about. Too many cultural commentators want to engender what they claim to be a thought process, but is in all actuality a feeling, that we should find a middle road between the mandates of science and the insights of spirituality. The bargain such people strike to make has value, but only where we can manage to clearly differentiate between those areas of life which science can and has spoken to, and those where it has not.
A number of reviewers from prestigious newspapers, periodicals and journals have already commented on what they see as the merits and missteps of Dawkins' book; however, many of them have not wrestled with several of the critical insights in his work. To resort to the ambiguous but doubtlessly effective (at least as measured by persuading people not to be bothered with Dawkins) charge that his analysis is angry, is to be unwilling to meet Dawkins on the grounds of his arguments. It should be said that, in the interests of fairness, Dawkins is surprisingly willing not to resort to similar vagaries. While a portion of his book does deal with fundamentalism and its various confused pulpiteers such as Dobson, Falwell and their ilk, this is only a small section of his book. That he is willing to bear the responsibility for pointing out what these people actually believe, their hopes for reshaping American culture, and how their beliefs impact hard science should not mean that we relegate Dawkins to the same heap of exasperation we do fundamentalists.
Perhaps it is the biologist within Dawkins that leads him to believe a parallel exists between biological cancer and similarly suspicious malignant ideological growths. While many of us wish to overlook fundamentalists with the hope they will simply go away, Dawkins fears this might not only be naïve, but irresponsible. History is full of moments when society has regressed, labeling dissent the path to eternal damnation instead of earthly wisdom. While it might be that the inherent practical nature of the American people will be offended by the objectives of religious fundamentalism, rebel and find our historical balance, we easily forget that this balance is many times found only because of the clarion call from those who see the creeping influence and suspicious agendas of fundamentalists and require that we respond. A certain shame should be accorded to those who view with equal exasperation the fundamentalist and those who believe they can not be dismissed, but must be responded to.
As a scientist, Dawkins is privy to a particular question which contemporary culture largely believes remains unanswered, but science does not. This question is the hot-button issue of evolution. For many, belief in evolution is somehow inter-related with issues like abortion and homosexuality. No doubt, within the realm of ideological inquiry, we may successfully frame almost any issue in majestic terms that invoke non-quantitative words which have, at their core, the ability to project and then protect the idea that certain questions are unanswerable through rigorous scientific inquiry.
At its base, the question of evolution echoing in the head of the average person probably has less to do with science and more to do with the implications from scientific inquiry and theory in general. People's intuition subconsciously registers the threat that evolution presents; namely, that naturalism may be a task master no less demanding than certain religious systems. The idea that we may have only one opportunity to experience life adds a certain intensity within it which many currently avoid by pushing their hopes, aspirations and expectations (of themselves and others) into an afterlife. Additionally, among profound thoughts, few exceed the evolutionary realization that life on this planet is precious, inter-related, and that the environment must be viewed as a holistic organism within which we individually and collectively play an important role.
What scares Dawkins is probably the realization that for many people, the insights of evolutionary theory are believed to be inseparable from a descent into animalistic hedonism. Never mind that ideas like morality have equivalents in the animal kingdom, as do love, nurturing and protecting life. If one of the fundamental truths of the natural universe is Darwinism, we should share a certain amount of alarm with Dawkins that the implications to evolutionary science are being so poorly received. Man owes no duty to myth or to tradition, and finds progress only in those moments in time when verifiable truth is allowed to dictate how we engage reality. In this sense, Dawkins bears the vanguard of members of the natural sciences like Galileo who believed that any supposedly spiritual truth which could not bear the light of modernity was not worth protecting in the first place.
For those who wish to somehow tiptoe around the theory of evolution, Dawkins is perceived as hostile. To those who believe something important might actually be at stake by understanding where life comes from and how it develops, Dawkins is fighting for a solitary focus on what we know, not what we wish to believe is true. This latter point has not only important philosophical, scientific and theological outcomes, it has immense practical value by freeing the abused spouse or child to realize that what they wish to be true - that the abuser loves them, but is unaware of how to show it - is simply a prison from which they can only escape by separating what they wish was true from what can be verified as loving.
To his credit, Dawkins takes his scientific and philosophical critics seriously and responds assertively. Those who see his book as bracing are not being fair - if scientific inquiry is to mean anything it must not blanch at challenges which attempt and endlessly find some open hole through which they can see the shortcomings to a particular theory. Dawkins is never better than when defending the difference between science and theology, where one sees ignorance as limits to inquiry and knowledge versus the other as the gap only a creator god can fill. In a successful effort to be intellectually serious, Dawkins carefully uses examples of fundamentalists within hard science. This is probably because they are a rare species (perhaps his critics wish his biologist's sense of the need to protect endangered life was more acutely directed towards them), but more likely because he knows well they can create straw men which he does not appreciate being used on him. Dawkins' treatment of the classical arguments for intelligent design, Anselm and Aquinas' postulates for the proof of God are treated similarly respectfully, which is not to say they fare well in his hands.
It would surprise me if this book did more than add fuel to the fire; however, if we wish to employ a literary euphemism such as this, it would be appropriate to state that sometimes fire is nature's way of regulating itself (as the blow-down effect in the northern woods suggests). If so, the fire Dawkins is building may be an important part of our growth in consciousness. People who look to Dawkins with a critical eye towards what he suggests about internal spirituality should be careful as this was not the primary, or even secondary, thrust of his analysis. The purpose of this book was to deal with a particular set of concerns which Dawkins believes represents a bulwark to the progress of humanity. In a hat-tip to this inevitable criticism, towards the end of his book Dawkins does present a middle way which suggests a vehicle for transitioning between where most humanity is and the implications of evolutionary biology. While well-intentioned and certainly not without its merits, I much prefer writers who consider evolution's insights fixed and have moved on to wrestle with how we reshape religion into conscious personal enlightenment.
To be a spry debater is not to be mean. Many who mistake Dawkins' assertive and direct style for vitriol do so less because they believe his attitude prevents civil discourse, and more in the hopes that society can advance without calling ineptness for its inadequacies, and confusing current limits of human knowledge with the inevitability of supernatural explanations. At his base, Dawkins does not feel compelled to believe without proof, an attitude which some believe has value only within the sciences. Among the many insights to this book, perhaps the one which will stick with most is the simple realization that we have no need of beliefs which can not be tested or of ideas which give solace but wither under scrutiny. What we may hope for should not be what we believe, lest we give in to any number of delusions, only one of which is, as Dawkins describes, The God Delusion.
on October 5, 2006
I think, like many other reviewers, that this book is a breath of fresh air. A candid, lucid, intellectually rigorous and honest treatment of religion that additionally unmasks everything that religious protectionists have done to shroud and shy away from proper intellectual scrutiny. Dawkins rightly recognises how the term "have faith" is loaded into our children to have the drug like effect of "don't question", and highlights the pernicious anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism that is the feature of too many of today's religous teachings.
This book will strike a chord with like minded educated people, who are already on Dawkin's intellectual wavelenght. He has done an admirable job in presenting an intellectual toolkit that rational people can use to reach a confident and rational conclusion. However, this book left me wanting more in two distinct ways.
Firstly, Dawkins style of writing and his use of non everyday language, whilst elegant and intellectually rigorous, is unlikely to have mass market appeal and therefore may render the text as intellectually inaccessible to many of those in society who could most benefit from his liberating arguments.
Whilst I can't think of anyone better who could summarise and make accessible the finer points of natural selection, one needs to realise that the competition for mindspace is operating at a much more mass market level. On my local church billboard, for example the banner reads "GOOD - GOD = O". Rubbish? of course it is! but effectively populist and far more accessible to the common person than phrases like "the spectroscopic nemesis of Comte's positivism". Dawkins mass marketing of atheism has a way to go, although I wish him the best of luck.
Secondly, this book didn't address how rationalists can positively respond and act to stem the tide of fundamentalism and the cancerous way in which these absolutist 'values' ('restrictions') are being imposed on everyone (believer or non-believer) through the manipulative political-power wielding religious organisations. I put this book down wanting some outlet for that shared sense of frustration, but found none offered between the pages other than gaining a sense of problem shared.
Perhaps a challenge for your next book, Mr Dawkins?
on November 10, 2006
Dawkin's writing is always passionate, here though is a polemic that screams urgency on nearly every one of its 350 odd pages. Clearly born of a growing dismay at the re-encroachment of religion into not only moral but political discourse, Dawkins has set out his lifelong objections to both the irrationality of religious belief and also to the damaging effects he argues it has on society and above all to children. In a particularly controversial and biting chapter he condemns the religious indoctrination of young people as a form of child abuse greater than that of the catholic priest sex scandals.
I find Dawkin's prose electrifying, provocative and at times beautiful, particularly here when describing the compatibility of awe and wonder at the universe with the atheistic position. Dawkins attempts to rebut most of the historical arguments for God's existance, refute the claim that morality is dependent on at least a belief in God (if not his actual existence) and in general the idea that religion serves as some kind of Platonic noble myth keeping society sane, happy, moral and together. He ends the book by arguing that children should not suffer the abuse of being force fed religion, and instead should be raised as rational beings, helping to create a mature society in which scientific method determines questions of fact and philosophical reasoning that of moral value.
I'm an aetheist, though I have a much too pessimistic view of human nature to call myself a humanist, but upon finishing the book I was rather swept away for a short time in a kind of hope that reason can indeed one day abolish dogma and superstition to produce both a fairer and a happier society. I'm rather left thinking though, that perhaps that could only be in a society of cloned Richard Dawkins, or at least of an unlikely human society where most people have a level of intellect and courage even approaching his. At one point in the book he refers to a positive correlation between intelligence and atheism without drawing any negative conclusions as to how difficult that leaves turning the mass of not so intelligent citizens into rational moralists.
Due to his well known scientific dismissal of group selection theory, and despite a long discussion of 'memes', he doesn't seem to take on board the rather unfortunate but plausible possibility that whilst religion may be a clutch of often nasty Darwinian 'misfirings', selection processes involving memes may mean that those cultural groups who clothe these evolutionary blanks in the memetic robes of religion may in fact inevitably survive over those which don't. This is arguably something we are witnessing in parts of Europe where the increasingly secular populations are simply being replaced by the more fertile muslim populations. The survival of the religious 'go forth and multiply' meme vs the humanist feminist 'woman have the right to careers' meme seems to have one predictable outcome, both for the memes and the cultures that bear them. Consider, Amsterdam, the citadel of European humanism, now a place where homosexual couples are afraid to openly show their love for fear of being beaten up for offending religious sensibilities.
Another criticism in an otherwise excellent book, is that Dawkins spends far too little time rebuting the absurd charge, commonly thrown at him, that he is an atheistic 'fundamenatlist'. And absurd as the comparison with Islamic radicals or Bible literalists may be, it is one that has become almost a deep rooted Pavlovian criticism of Dawkins even amongst highly intelligent intellectuals. This is an accusation, incidently, which Dawkins admits here is acutely painful to him.
This is a brilliant and inspirational book and deserves to be read by as many people as possible. Although unlikely to be read with fair minds by religious believers, hopefully its fate is to become more than simply a 'Bible' preaching to already converted aetheists. I would imagine Dawkins aim in writing this book was to provide an inspiration for those wishing to fight the cancerous return of unthinking dogma in public life. In this, I'm certain he has succeeded magnificently.