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The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Right, so let's see if I can review this book. Probably not briefly. -- nope, not briefly at all. So a short version: I liked it. Much of it wasn't new to me; I had some comfort from going over old facts and arguments again, like a hobbit reading family trees, but that's me. Much of it was new: studies of moral responses, horrors in the Bible I hadn't heard of before, horrors in modern varieties of Christianity, details of cargo cults. Much of it wasn't new only because I've already invested a lot of time in atheism vs. religion reading; for someone more content with having escaped religion, and not involved in "But Stalin and Hitler were atheists!" or having really wondered why religion is so common ("people are stupid" isn't a good answer), it could be quite enlightening. Even with my experience, I've found it hard to sum up the book, and when I've gone back to look things up or re-read sections I've found things I'd already forgotten. And as always, his writing is enjoyable reading.

In the past year there's been a label applied to a handful of books by big-name atheists on their atheism, or on religion. "New Atheism", though considering Democritus or the Carvaka or Voltaire or Bertrand Russell one could ask how new any of this is. New for the past few decades of the USA, perhaps. Some call the books militant or shrill; others call them passionate or uncompromising. Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, arguing that religion should be studied as a scientific phenomenon, and also giving his own try for a naturalistic explanation of it; Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis, which I haven't read; Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: a History which actually isn't mentioned so often but I should be; and now Dawkins.

So what's the point of another book on atheism? He puts that right in the first page of the preface: to raise consciousness, to tell people that they don't have to have a religion, that they can leave, that they can be happy and moral and fulfilled without belief in God. Most or all of my readers are in science fiction and/or academic settings, so this may seem at first like a silly goal. But even I, in my own sheltered circles, have met two people surprised that I was an atheist -- surprised in the sense that I was the first they'd knowingly met. One a classmate in the top magnet high school in Chicago, the other a college student at Indiana University I was tutoring in math. Not to mention an ex-Jehovah's Witness I know, who perhaps was helped by books like this, or could have been.

I've seen reviewers excuse alleged faults on the ground that the book was polemical, not argumentative; I think that the above is what they meant, that it was most concerned with showing possibility, not proof. That said, there's a lot of argument in it, and I didn't think it was particularly flawed -- but I admit I like Dawkins, and agree with him.

He has three other points of "consciousness-raising". One is the power of natural selection, which while it "itself is limited to explaining the living world, it raises our consciousness to the likelihood of comparable explanatory 'cranes' that may aid our understanding of the cosmos itself." Another is on the mislabelling of children with religion: "That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not. There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child." Just as children are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics.

And finally:
"atheist pride. Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind. There are many people who know, in their heart of hearts that they are atheists, but dare not admit it to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves. Partly, this is because the very word 'atheist' has been assiduously built up as a terrible and frightening label. Chapter 9 quotes the comedian Julia Sweeney's tragi-comic story of her parents' discovery, through reading a newspaper that she had become an atheist. Not believing in God they could just about take, but an atheist!"

And for American readers he makes the point of how atheists are regarded like homosexuals fifty years ago. Today a gay can be elected, but not an open atheist. He thinks this causes, and is reinforced by, people being reluctant to "come out"; he hopes his book will encourage people to do just that.

Chapters One and Two define his target. He starts with "Einsteinian religion", the awe of and admiration for the universe, sometimes called pantheistic, which Einstein is often quoted for. He notes that the theists of Einstein's time knew full well he wasn't one of them, and attacked him for it. Whether or not you want to call such feelings religious, or a religion, it is not supernatural religion -- and the latter is Dawkins's target, the belief in an intelligent supernatural being which created and designed the universe and everything in it, including us. With the usual addition of being personal: of listening to and answering prayers, of saving this person (but not that one!) from traffic accidents, or helping a team (butnot their opponent!) win a football game, not to mention demanding worship and laying down sexual laws. Liberal theologians may define Gods which seem less silly, less intimately involved, but the Thirty Year's War was not fought for the sake of a Deist Creator, nor were the Twin Towers destroyed for deism or pantheism, and people don't pray to the law of gravity. Then he talks about the secularism, deist or not, of the Founding Fathers, and how that contrasts with political life in the modern US. After that, "The Poverty of Agnosticism", saying that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis just like any other, and that while certainty is hard to find, God is in no way special in that respect -- science deals with probabilities, not certainties, and the debate over whether God can be proved to exist or not overlooks the question of whether God is probable, or believing in him reasonable. A lack of certainty between two possibilities does not imply equiprobability.

Chapter Three is "Arguments for God's Existence", where Dawkins lists and dismisses some classic arguments, from Aquinas and Anselm, from personal experience, from Scripture, from appeal to religious scientists, and Pascal's Wager. This chapter offends many people, as Dawkins dismisses loads of theological argument (as did Hume[1] before him.) But I have trouble finding fault. Aquinas appealed to a need for a First Cause or unmoved mover, an idea that there must be a perfect goodness for us to measure goodness by, and the argument from design. The first two carry little weight, and the third died with Darwin. Then there's Anselm's ontological argument, another philosophical stinker. Personal experience, he admits, is quite convincing to those who have such experiences. But not so to the rest of us, and he tries arguing from psychological facts, especially optical and other illusions, that one should be wary of taking such things at face value.

Chapter Four is "Why there is almost certainly no god", an argument from improbability, or from regress. Invoking God to explain some piece of design or complex just leaves us invoking something even more complex; it's the old "Where did God come from?" argument.

Chapter Five is "The Roots of Religion", his own take on why humans are religious. A good Darwinian, he's not satisfied with things like "people are stupid" or "religion fulfills some need". Quoting Dan Dennett: "To an evolutionist, religion stands out like peacocks in a sunlit glade." Such extravagant expenditures of time and energy require a real explanation. So there's the possiblity of direct advantages from religion (not that that proves any truth value!) but he spends more time on by-product ideas, that religion comes about through overuse of our tendency to attribute mind and purpose to things -- humans are instinctive dualists -- combined with the tendency of children to believe what they're told -- adaptive when being told not to eat those mushrooms, less so when told someone has to be sacrificed to keep the sun going. And as he notes, while every society has had religion, every society has had cold viruses as well -- ubiquity proves neither truth nor advantage (to us). He also has a fascinating few pages on cargo cults, a case where we can watch the rapid rise and mutation of messianic religion.

Chapter Six is on morality. Whether atheists can be moral is old, old hat; of more interest to me was his description of studies of moral feelings, particularly by Marc Hauser with trolley dilemmas. Chapter Seven continues the theme, attacking the morality of the Bible -- lots of horrors in the Old Testament, and while the New had some improvement, it also introduced Hell, and the bizarre sacrifice-to-self of Jesus. ("If Jesus had been executed twenty years ago, Christians would wear little electric chairs around their necks.")

I'm running out of steam, so I'll start giving section headings, with brief comments:

8. What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?
  • Fundamentalism and the subversion of science
  • The dark side of absolutism (execution for blasphemy; Christian and Muslim intolerance)
  • Faith and homosexuality
  • Faith and the sanctity of human life
  • The Great Beethoven fallacy (continuing the abortion debate from the previous section)
  • How 'moderation' in faith fosters fanaticism

    9. Childhood, abuse, and the escape from religion
  • Physical and mental abuse (discounts the modern sex abuse scandal, focuses on the guilt and fear caused by Christian upbringing)
  • In defence of children (on choosing what children would choose, if they were educated about alternatives)
  • An educational scandal (Creationism in a British publically funded school)
  • Consciousness-raising again (on inflicting religious labels on children)
  • Religious education as a part of literary culture (on not ignoring the Bible, especially the King James, for English speakers -- and I'll mention Dennett's suggestion that a comparative religion course be mandatory)

    10. A much needed gap?
  • Binker (on the invisible friends of early childhood)
  • Consolation
  • Inspiration
  • The mother of all burkas (on the very narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum which is visible light, and the expansive view science has given us.)

    [1] "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."
    An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

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    ( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
    Feb. 16th, 2007 03:59 am (UTC)
    I like the idea of "Einsteinian religion" for I fall into that category. I am filled with wonder at the universe. I always felt kind of sad for folks who believe in the design rather than evolution of nature, for I find evolution both more believable and cooler! Isn't it more miraculous, more wonderful, to know that order can come from chaos with just a few simple physical laws?

    I don't proseletize atheism, because I do feel reverence and I do have inexplicable faiths, such as the faith that human beings are basically good creatures. On the other hand, I do not believe in some all-powerful, interventionist deity. At most, I feel we are all a part of this blessed thing we call life, and thus joined in a union of wandering souls.

    I probably won't read this book. There are so many others on my list. But I'm glad to have read your review and glad that atheism is gaining visibility.
    Feb. 16th, 2007 07:48 am (UTC)
    *double-checks the overdue library book*

    Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: 'To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.' In this sense I [Dawkins] too am religious, with the reservation that 'cannot grasp' does not have to mean 'forever ungraspable'. But I prefer not to call myself religious because it is misleading. It is destructively misleading because, for the vast majority of people, 'religion' implies 'supernatural'. Carl Sagan put it well: '... if by "GOd" one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity."

    ...Nevertheless, I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs, and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two, is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.

    Whew! I started typing all that to show Dawkins seems to feel Einsteinian religion/reverence is perfectly compatible with being a proselytizing atheist and being optimistic about human nature, at least in the right environments. I'd forgotten that the next paragraph ended with high treason... harsh language, but I easily see his point, having seen Einstein trotted out by many a Christian to defend their side. You can probably guess which words in your second paragraph he'd pick at (as would I, were I to go pick.)

    I've noted that my own tolerance is inversely proportional to exposure. In a time under Bush and attacks on abortion and gays, in Indiana, and when I've been exposing myself to Orthodox Jews on Usenet, I'm a lot more militant than I was at Caltech or San Francisco under Clinton.

    Glad you liked (heck, read!) the review.
    Feb. 16th, 2007 08:20 am (UTC)
    (after a bit of thought)

    Right, so, avoiding concepts like intellectual treason, or pickiness-for-attack, let me pick on ambiguity. If a supernaturalist talks about a union of wandering souls I imagine they have a picture of actual souls, dualist substance, wandering around. If they talked about blessed they mean blessed *by* god, or a gift from god. When someone like you with science training and a habit of sometimes calling herself atheist but also a habit of hanging around neo-pagans says such things, I don't know what you mean. Should I take it as pure but heavily influenced metaphor, on one end, or godless but not soulless vitalism on the other end? (This goes way back to UU discussions in SF. :) )

    Similarly, when Dennett talked in Darwin's Dangerous Idea about the Tree of Life, and every organism being related to each other in a direct physical way -- not just sharing DNA but every cell having split off from another cell, and a redwood really being our N^Nth cousin, that was cool. When someone else just talks about believing that all life is connected then they *might* mean just that, but there's a good chance they mean something I'd regard as foofier. Or that they don't know what they mean, but like the feeling of thinking everything's connected, somehow. (Which also seems kind of foofy.)

    Then there's also (shades of UU again, and whether everyone really did have "inherent worth and dignity") what it'd mean for humans to be basically good creatures, and whether that's something which actually need inexplicable faith, but that's another question.

    Sorry! Don't mean to be picking harshly on you -- I'm feeling a bit like the People's Front of Judea, warring on the Judean People's Front. On a big scale the potential differences here shouldn't matter... except Dawkins would argue they do, or can. Like Einstein being drafted, or how Deists were originally attacked as virtual atheists, but are now credited to the other side.
    Feb. 16th, 2007 08:33 am (UTC)
    Essence and Consequence
    Everytime I go to bed a new idea pops into my head. I just thought that something behind the "inherent worth" debate might be the divide between essentialism and consequentialism; also between substance and process. Do people *have* inherent worth and dignity? That question annoys someone like me: what does that mean? How could we measure such worth? (Plus the UU question about whether Hitler had such worth, or whether one could forfeit it.) If it were phrased "we should treat people as if they have inherent worth and dignity" then that's something I can think through the consequences of and evaluate.

    Similarly I've thought of mind as a process of brain, itself a biological machine, from age ten or younger, while soul seems like a substance term. Thus, perhaps, my allergy to the term outside of specific safe contexts.

    Dawkins talked about consciousness raising; something either he or Dennett talked about in the past was what Dawkins did to essentialism. Species seem like one of the most solid examples of "natural kind", thus probably a lot of revulsion at the idea of mixing them, but post-Darwin they're really just populations of individuals, and post- Modern Synthesis they're populations of alleles packaged up in individuals. There's a lot of consciousness which still needs raising in that direction, me thinks, with support from cognitive science on how we impose categories on things.

    Hey, if nothing else I like these thoughts; thanks for provoking them!
    Feb. 16th, 2007 05:12 am (UTC)
    Excellent review.

    Dawkins, IMHO, misses the point. He particularly misses it when he says (I have not read the book, so I am quoting you, now, from the preface) that people can be happy and fulfilled without a belief in God. In my observation, that is not true of some people, and there are more of those people than there are of those who can get along.

    So, again IMHO, arguing about whether God exists is pointless. One needs, instead, a way for those who do not feel the psychic need for such beliefs to communicate effectively with those who do.

    It is good for those who are effective scientists to pause for a moment and consider how those who are not effective scientists can distinguish the information they get from the scientist from that which they get from the priest. We have been pretty lucky over the past few centuries in that the better-educated priests recognize the validity of the scientific method in those areas where it can be successfully applied. That is breaking down in some areas. e.g. Midwest USA.

    I don't know enough to go into all of the reasons, but I can count. Militant atheism is a dead end in society. There are too many areas where science does not and can not provide answers, and people have to make choices. If they need reassurance, they are prey for any demagogue who will give it to them. There are plenty of demagogues around. One may not logically need the existence of God, but one does need faith to operate. In some cases, the stronger the faith, the greater the success of those holding it. That is an observation of phenonema. Sports to military training to jihads are based on this. Sometimes one hears "It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something." There is truth in that, not about God, but about people. And of course, all the evils Dawkins associates with God are due to people. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.

    That is why I like to encourage people to look for areas of commonality, rather than spending time and spite arguing over likely hypotheses that can never be tested. I have little argument with what you present from Dawkins as likely hypotheses. It's just that it is irrelevant. There are many people who need the opiate of the masses; those who are devoted to the truth need to recognize that truth and begin to deal with it.
    Feb. 16th, 2007 07:35 am (UTC)
    Quick reply: what of heavily secular Europe? Or South Korea, split 25% Buddhist, 25% Christian, 50% non-religious? They seem to be getting along.

    Information distinguishing: the origin stories of many religions, especially Western ones, is rooted in miracles and prophecy. Christ talked about faith but he was also big on the water walking, loaves-multiplying, sick-healing, and of course dead-raising, and allegedly *cough* fulfilled a zillion Old Testament prophecies. These days, sci/tech dispense near-miracles like candy and have unprecedented predictive power. People may believe in faith healing; few people believe in it to the exclusion of modern medicine.

    Militant atheism being a dead end: how can we know? We live in what's probably the most atheistic time in history, not the sign of a dead end.

    Even if people do need an opiate -- and I'm going to be an optimist and call that not proven, with faith (hah) in human potential to open their eyes -- that doesn't mean we can afford to put up with virulent Abrahamism. If the surrounding religion were Buddhism or Shinto there'd probably be a lot fewer problems.
    Feb. 16th, 2007 12:37 pm (UTC)
    I don't think we can afford to "put up" with virulent anything, and think that "I'm right and the rest of you who think differently are wrong and evil" is not a productive position to take, even if one of the folks taking that position does turn out to be right - that's only about positions that are not subject to verification, of course. In your reply to fanw, I disagree with the quote on the "intellectual treason" of trying to confuse a "physicist's" spirituality with one full of mythology. There is common ground, and one reduces the fears and hatreds between different groups by emphasising it. Or by subjugating, exiling, or eliminating the other group. The examples you mention where folks are getting along (and people do pretty well here in the N.E. neck of the US) foster a spirit of tolerance of other faiths. My objection to Dawkins and the "intellectual treason" stand is that it is a needlessly intolerant position.
    ( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


    Damien Sullivan

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