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The God Delusion

November 12, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Richard Dawkins might be the most famous atheist in the world right now. He’s certainly well known for his work as a biologist, giving us the concepts of selfish genes and memes. Of course, he’s probably reviled for this strident atheism more than anything he’s said about evolution. Creationists profess to love him for his outspoken anti-religion views; after all, atheism is incredibly unpopular and linking it with evolution can only inspire more dislike of the idea. Dawkins certainly isn’t doing anyone who wants him to be quiet in order to make evolution more palatable any favors with this book.

The book opens with a discussion of Einsteinian religion – a sort of non-supernatural pantheism – which Dawkins attempts to separate from typical religious theism. He then ventures into what is probably the worst chapter of the book, entitled “The God Hypothesis.” There are some great lines in the chapter, such as, after listing the multitude of domains for Catholic saints:

What impresses me most about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along. It’s shamelessly invented.

The chapter is largely a grab-bag of various hot button issues relating to religion: NOMA, atheism and evolution, the efficacy of prayer, secularism and the founding fathers, etc. Sadly, there are several problems in the first two chapters. Dawkins shows a distinctly European view of free speech when he says something like, regarding a student wearing an anti-gay t-shirt to school,

The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn’t; indeed, they couldn’t, because free speech is deemed not to include ‘hate speech’.

That’s a bit maddening to those of us who value freedom speech, no matter if others like the speech or not. I’m disappointed that Dawkins gives credence to the idea of “hate speech” being an exception to freedom of speech. He should know that anti-religious speech is a prime candidate for such a designation.

The second major problem of the first couple chapters involves his discussion of secularism and the founding fathers. Neither side in this debate typically does a great job illustrating the complexity in the religious beliefs of the founding fathers of our country; fundamentalists like David Barton make quotes up in an attempt to argue that they were all evangelicals and atheists often make sweeping claims about the secularism of the founders as a whole. Dawkins plants himself firmly in the latter group. He makes nonsensical statements like claiming anti-religion statements made by some founding fathers are “compatible with deism, but also with atheism.” Who cares? The founding fathers have written plenty about religion and it’s safe to say none of them were atheists. A few were deists and a few more were fairly secular. They were certainly not all secularists. Dawkins makes an even more egregious error in quoting John Adams as saying “This would be the best possible of all worlds, if there were no religion in it,” which is completely out of context (Adams dismisses the claim in the very next sentence). Dawkins is unacceptably sloppy in his treatment of the issue.

Thankfully, Dawkins moves on from his lackluster attempt at being a historian in the next few chapters. He tackles the arguments for God in the following chapter. It’s tempting to criticize him for being dismissive in this chapter, as his treatment of certain arguments is less than thorough. It must be said that the arguments he dismisses are typically fairly weak, so he’s really not giving them any less than they deserve. You just have to wonder if, in a book meant to persuade those who disagree with him, that’s the best tactic. He really shines in combating the design argument, as you might expect from a biologist who’s written eloquently on the subject elsewhere. He tackles the argument from personal experience, which seems to be the most difficult one (or some variant of it) to dislodge in the minds of the religious. Dawkins presents an admirable argument, but in the end the argument just doesn’t appear amenable to logical counter-arguments. Perhaps someday someone will come up with an effective argument against it, but for now it seems we’ll have to be content with logical, but ineffective, attacks.

Dawkins moves through the standard issues people have with not believing in religion – Why does religion exist? Why should we be good without it? What’s so bad about? His treatment of those issues is solid, if not especially impressive. It’s all, of course, well written and entertaining, but you occasionally find places where you wonder if he really is trying to convince those of the sort of unattached middle, as he describes it.

In my opinion, the most provocative chapter in the book is his chapter about raising children in a religion. Dawkins argues that raising a child with mainline religious instruction is tantamount to child abuse. I can’t say I’ve seen many skeptics and secularists make that argument before. Sure, most will agree that extreme fundamentalist parents are warping their children and many will support state action against parents who are members of the Christian Scientist denomination – where medical care is eschewed in favor of prayer – and deny their children proper care. That’s a bit of a jump from saying that any mainline religious upbringing is child abuse. Dawkins makes a good case that such teachings are harmful – the story he uses of a woman who believed a friend who died when they were children was in hell because she was Protestant is especially powerful. I’m inclined to agree with Dawkins, though the real question (for me) is where we draw the line for state involvement. Anything more than we currently have here is hard for me stomach.

I have my doubts that this book will do what Dawkins intends. All you have to do is look at most of the reviews of his books (aptly summarized here). His arguments are mostly ignored, then he’s castigated for being strident and dismissive. Oh well. Still, he’s done a solid job of laying out the case against religion. Well worth a read.

Categories: Religion
  1. November 14, 2006 at 7:54 pm

    You caught me right in the middle of it – actually, I’m in chapter two. I’m taking it slow as it’s enjoyable, and I want it to last. I appreciate your insight and critical thoughts.

    One minor issue – I suspect that if you lined up all our presidents, you’d find every one of them religious, publicly. It’s required, and I doubt it was different in the time of our founding fathers. Few had the liberty to deal squarely with the subject – look what happened to poor Paine. So I think it is futile to analyze the leanings of the FF based on their public pronoucements. Such writings meant for public consumption should taken with a large grain of salt.

    Jefferson’s private letters to Adams are revealing.

    Best we can say though is we just don’t know what they believed. I can only guess that, given the large number of atheists among people of accomplishment, that there was likely a larger than average percentage of the FF’s who quietly enjoyed non-belief.

  2. November 14, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    My comments are partly based on the fact that none of the founding fathers revealed themselves as atheists in their private correspondence. But yes, it’s hard to know their actual beliefs. Atheism seems unlikely, as it was almost nonexistent before Darwin, but a little more non-belief than we know about is possible.

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