Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book: The God Delusion

The God Delusion is a difficult book to adequately summarise in a single post. Richard Dawkins covers many different topics, so trying to pin down a central theme is somewhat of a challenge. But if I were forced to provide a brief description of the book, I would say that The God Delusion is a description of what it means to be an atheist living in the 21’st century, and a portrayal of how most atheists view the world, society and religion.

Dawkins’ main aim of the book is to raise four consciousness raising messages: (1) that atheism is a realistic aspiration for any individual; (2) natural selection describes the complexity of life better than the Creator hypothesis; (3) children should not be labelled by their parent’s religion; and (4) atheists should not be apologetic about their beliefs. Although Dawkins focuses on these four central themes, he also explores other topics, such as the origins of religion and the evolutionary origins of morality.

The most significant message of the book for me was Dawkins’ message that there is nothing wrong with unbelief. On page 1:

[This book is intended to] raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who his happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.

In Chapter 4, Dawkins focuses on the well known creationist argument that design was responsible for life because biological complexity is too improbable to have arisen by chance. Dawkins argues that both chance and design were not responsible; rather, the third option, natural selection, caused complex life by breaking down improbability into small pieces. Although I disagree with Dawkins’ argument that refuting design refutes God (at least, this is what I think he argues), his arguments for evolution are, as always, his strong point.

However, I thought the weakest part of the book was Chapter 3. Dawkins’ critique of philosophical arguments for God seems far too simplistic; he hurries through each argument, and as a consequence they are only superficially covered. I feel there are better books out there that provide more comprehensive responses to philosophical arguments for theism.

Finally, I have difficulty with Dawkins’ confrontational style. I absolutely share Dawkins’ concern regarding religious fundamentalism, but I think his abrasive approach to religious belief in general not only polarises religious debate, but also hinders constructive dialogue between those on opposite sides of the fence who are willing to speak to each other.

In conclusion . . .
Although I admire Richard Dawkins’ views on biology, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the antagonism he expresses towards religion in general. Although the book provides a clear summary of atheistic beliefs, arguments and concerns, its confrontational tone in parts might turn some Christians off from reading it altogether. This, I believe, is sad, as there are many parts of the book that provide positive and refreshing insights into what it means to be an atheist.

Have you read the God Delusion? If so, what did you think of the book?

17 comments:

CyberKitten said...

It's on my Reading List for the Summer. I'm hoping to start it next month - and hoping that I won't be disapointed by it!

Cori said...

I really enjoy Dawkins' style of writing. I'm only as far as the first chaper, so should probably hold back any thoughts, but it bothers me that he assumes that people believe in one religious system or another because they were brough up that way, but anyone who is atheist is only atheist because of their incredible intelect. I know many atheists who are atheists by default (and are severly lacking in intelectual application to religious, philisophical, or scientific thinking) and people of faith who found their faith through the application of careful, deliberate thinking and the use of their intelect! This kind of stereotyping is exactly what I was writing about in my blog article titled 'Colonial Cross-faithism'. As Kevin says, this kind of patronizing attitude is hardly condusive to open dialogue. Having said that, I'm looking forward to reading more of Dawkins - his ideas and style of writing are really great to engage with.

Izz said...

That review makes me drop this book from my book-a-month list. I thought, on previewing it at Exclusive Books, it was a text with an objective view on both sides, atheism and religion, and demonstrating how the two clash to distabilise the normal running of life in countries such as those in the middle east. I have saved me a couple bucks by bumping into your straight forward review.

Mark said...

I got the book in December and read about 3/4's of it. I watched a lot of his footage on youtube aswell.

I would say it is a must read for the religious, and non religous aswell. It provides thought provoking arguments and Richard Dawkins helps others understand what athiesm is all about.

I have to agree with Kevin that he becomes very forcefull and unrespecting of others views and beliefs at times. He may seem to know what he is talking about and may have the recommendations, but I get the sense at times that he talks in a very condescending tone to those who hold a belief in a deity.

Secondly I feel that most could not really read this book due to the fact they just dont care. I lent the book to a friend of mine and he read half of the 1st chapter and gave it back saying "no offense, but I dont need, or want to read a book like this", he was immedietly put off by the writers use of tone.

Anyway, enough babbling. There is a reason I only read a three quarters of it, and that was because I became bored and "indifferent", as I paged through I started to not care.

weird?

Laughing Boy said...

I do wish Christians would read this book, (though Dawkins did not write for them as I'll show) but I doubt many will. Few, it seems, read good Christian books! If they do they just might see just how little dry ammo even the world's most ardent atheist has in his arsenal.

Of course there are many parts of the book I take issue with, but in the interest of brevity I'll just comment on one and even on that point I'll skip the details and just give an overview.

As is often the case in anti-theistic or particularly anti-Christian diatribes, I felt a mixture of anger and happiness that the author knew so little about the subject he was addressing.

Why would a person publish a book with the intended purpose of destroying any reasonable foundation for Christianity (among other things) and yet make no effort to understand Christianity? Could Dawkins have expected to un-convert Christians without getting inside their perspective and guiding them out with honesty and integrity, not to mention congeniality. Yes, it seems so.

Why?

Well, I think I found the answer. In an debate with fellow Oxford professor (and Christian) Alister McGrath, McGrath noted that Dawkins was largely ignorant of Christian theology, to which Dawkins replied:

"I have, of course, met this point before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about. The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content. I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer. How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?"

-Science and Theology News, April 2005

WelI there you have it! A book on a subject the author proudly proclaims he knows nothing about. Hurry while supplies last!

Mark said...

Laughing boy, I understand what your trying to say but I dont believe Richard's intent was at attacking the christian religion.

Rather it was used due to its popularity and it tends to be the "image" of religion.

I also picked up that he did not really understand much about the religion but I at the same time it didnt make his book less impactful by what he wrote about. His arguments were still valid in the scientific world.

Even though I no longer consider myself part of christianity or any other religion, strangely enough I still stumble into christian book shops browsing. I am always dissapointed because they do not have anything worthwhile, all the books are the same. If christians intend on keeping their faith existant they need to start addressing issues and become more "adventerous" in their writings and start tackling modern day issues.

I bought a book from a christian bookstore(on evoloution) which I havent read yet, but will start soon. What was funny about this is when I walked in with my non christian girlfriend and myself being very indifferent, I asked the girl at the bookstore if she had anything on evoloution. I was not too familiar of the subject and was keen to get a grasp on it for my own knowledge. Whe I asked her just look at me and laughed and said "well.... we are christian so we dont believe in evoloution", a little bit annoyed i turned around and said "Im athiest, so im not christian, thats why I asked." The expression on her face, she looked at me as though I said I worship satan.

She was about 16, the point being is that everyone needs to come out a bit and start exploring past their horizens. Richard Dawkins should have grasped a greater understanding on christianity before he started using it christians need to start grasping science before they use it in their books and sermons.

Ps: I apologised later and showed her the book I found in the very same store. i explained to her I was interested in seeing what christians had to say about it(not much obviously, when I found only one book in the entire store ;)

Laughing Boy said...

You're point is well taken. I'm just saying when Dawkins directly addresses Christianity he shows he is ill-informed.

If christians intend on keeping their faith existant they need to start addressing issues and become more "adventerous" in their writings and start tackling modern day issues.

There are lots of "adventerous" Christian authors addressing modern day issues...but I doubt you'll find them in a Christian bookstore. They're mostly for KJV bibles and "Footprints" posters.

Try Amazon.

shrimplate said...

It's perfectly OK and logical to formulate arguments from basic precepts without embracing totalitarian comprehension of some subject or other.

There are many Christians whole fully reject, say, Manicheism without ever having developed a complete understanding of that religion. And I must add that many Christians also reject evolutionary theory out-of-hand even while demonstrating ignorance of it. (The YouTube video with Dawkins facing off against Ted Haggard is a nice example.)

People who try to use this as argument are simply attacking the messenger, rather than addressing the facts.

shrimplate said...

"who"

Laughing Boy said...

There are many Christians who fully reject, say, Manicheism without ever having developed a complete understanding of that religion.

First: It's not as correct to say that Dawkins does not posess a complete understanding of Christianity as it is to say that he lacks even the most rudimentary understanding of Christianity and the historical evidence regarding it.

Second: That might be ok if he didn't publish a book about it. I expect an author (atheist or Christian) to know his subject, be it Manicheism, evolution, or whatever. Is that too much to ask?

Lui said...

"I thought, on previewing it at Exclusive Books, it was a text with an objective view on both sides, atheism and religion, and demonstrating how the two clash to distabilise the normal running of life in countries such as those in the middle east."

How the two clash? The conflict in the Middle East has absolutely nothing to do with atheism in any form, and a lot to do with various species of irrationality confronting one another.

It may be true that Dawkins does not know all that much about Christian mythology and its history, but in the "bagging things you know nothing about" department, Christianity itself leaves him utterly for dead. It makes claims about the universe that no human being can possibly corroborate. It precludes knowledge of anything else, and demands for itself its own magesteria, as though we were somehow just supposed to grant it one by sheer weight of adherents.

I reject the notion that Dawkins "lacks even the most rudimentary understanding of Christianity". He knows only too well how it operates, and how it targets the heart in order to snatch the brain (it's pretty obliged to do this, for otherwise it wouldn't get anywhere. When your heart has been won over, the mind tends to follow behind, and this is exploited to the maximum by religion to win adherents). As Dawkins has said in another book: religion might claim to have the answers, but what reasons has it ever given us for taking those claims seriously? Not much, apparently, hence all the gratuitous threats of damnation for not going along with the herd (or we can cherry pick and throw out the nasty bits and still pretend that we get our morality from our religion). Whenever people have tried to deduce things about the universe by consulting their faith, they have been wrong. Imagine what a staggeringly amazing book the Bible could have been if it has indeed been authored by a deity. It has errors, inconsistencies, and disturbing implications about the nature of God that are counter to what Christians like to advertise about his “compassionate” nature. It is, in short, not the work of a deity but rather of humans living in a specific social context, trying to rationalise their own existence.

It’s these sorts of contradictions – contradictions between what Christians say of their own God, and what we should expect to see in the real world if that God actually exists - and obvious weaknesses that lead me to think that complaining that Dawkins doesn't know his subject matter is, frankly, giving that subject matter too much credit. If Christianity itself is making utterly contradictory claims for everyone to see, then shouldn’t we be adult enough to admit that it’s not something we should, as adults, take seriously in the first place? It’s in this sense that Dawkins (rightfully) places Christianity – and all other religion as well – into the category of unsubstantiated mythology. Elaborate nonsense is still nonsense. Given that Christianity has so often been wrong (and what are we supposed to make of claims like those of John Paul II, who said that the assassination attempt against him failed because some saint “guided the bullet” away from his vital organs – how in the world could he possibly know that? Does anyone here honestly entertain the notion that the man was right to say what he did and that anyone should believe him?) and that we have made so many accommodations to its unsubstantiated claims, and have politely forgotten its massive interference with intellectual progress - the burden is on the faithful to show that there is anything in it worth bothering with. So far, the closest I have come to receiving such a sign are claims that it has beneficial emotional effects and that it gives life a sense of meaning. I’m sure it does, for many people. That, of course, does not make its claims true. It just makes it claims comforting, if you can believe them.

Be that as it may, I am interested in knowing what specific cases of ignorance on Dawkins’ part you are referring to. Where does Dawkins make claims about Christianity that are caricatures or worse? I’ve read the book, and thought that it was pretty good. Not brilliant, but definitely valuable. I especially liked the final chapter.

Laughing Boy said...

I am interested in knowing what specific cases of ignorance on Dawkins’ part you are referring to. Where does Dawkins make claims about Christianity that are caricatures or worse?

That's a tall order. There is so much to find fault with. By the way I actually agree with Dawkins on many things he says in The God Delusion. Some examples:

1. Religion should be debated in the open like anything else,
2. Agnosticism is not a good option.
3. The Great Prayer Experiment was pathetic.
4. Science and religion should be integrated.
5. Aquinas' Proofs don't "prove" the God of the bible.
6. Feigning belief (Pascal's wager) is ridiculous.
7. Some people don't have good reasons for what they believe (those who do are unimpressed by the book).
8. Unquestioning faith, based on no evidence, will conflict with science and history.
9. The government shouldn't fund religious education in science classes.
10. Etc...

But when it comes to understanding Christianity, well...

This post is way too long as it is and I'm only addressing a few points superficially. I might try to put together a more comprehensive rebuttal at my blog if I find the time. If so I'll link from here.

In the meantime...

The entire "Argument from Scripture" section has too many errors to recount, but here are three examples of ignorance from that section. These are not interpretation-type errors, but I-did-not-read-what-I'm-criticizing-type errors.

p. 92 - There is no 4th option for C.S. Lewis' so-called Mad, Bad, or God trilemma. Would you say that a person was just mistaken (not insane) who repeatedly claimed: a) to be God, b) to have been in existence before Abraham, and c) that everything in the Scriptures points to himself? Lewis was right.

p. 92 - "The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like: Who wrote it and when?"

Dawkins seems to be unaware that thousands of biblical scholars have been investigating these very questions for well over 1000 years and the consensus among scholars is that we do know who wrote the gospels and when. Two well-respected scholars among many currently publishing books for general audiences are Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright.

p. 94 - After saying we should dismiss the gospels because the authors were biased and had an agenda, he goes on to (poorly) refute the trustworthiness of the gospels by quoting two atheists with no credentials in text, form, or source criticism. They show their ignorance of the subject matter, and since Dawkins is likewise ignorant, he swallows it whole. Among their many errors, two are very easy to point out. 1) No gospel account mentions "worship by kings", that's from a Christmas carol, not the bible. 2) Flynn is trying to make the point that Matthew made up things that would be most impressive to Jews (Davidic lineage, Bethlehem birthplace), while Luke made up things that would be most impressive to Gentiles (virgin birth, worship by kings). However, Luke does not mention a visit by magi (not kings) while Matthew does! Both Matthew and Luke mention the virgin birth. Ten minutes spent reading the first chapters of Matthew and Luke (for themselves) and these errors could have been avoided.

After weak attacks on just a few verses of Matthew and Luke, Dawkins assigns the whole of Scripture to the trash heap (p. 97)

All of Chapter 7 is a caricature of Christianity (and Judaism). It reads like the long-running "Blogging The Bible" feature at Slate.com which is supposed to be comical. But on page 253, I was literally stunned a the super-nova of stupidity that Dawkins seemingly considers a logical tour-de-force. In attempting to paint the doctrine of the atonement as not only sado-masochistic, but "barking mad" he states the "awkward fact" that Adam never existed. Now up to this point he has, as far as I can tell, been attempting to layout what Christian theology teaches. Of course we are to understand that Dawkins isn't buying any of it, but he's trying to show how insane the whole enterprise is on it's own terms. So after setting up the ideas of original sin and atonement and the pivotal role played by Adam and Jesus he then...well any attempt on my part to paraphrase what Dawkins says in the second full paragraph this page (253) would only detract from the spectacular logical flame-out. If you have trouble seeing it, I'll help you out. The Scriptures do not teach that Adam and Eve were symbolic. People who claim that Adam and Eve were symbolic should indeed be silenced by Dawkins argument, but again those people think pretty much everything Jesus did including the resurrection was symbolic and would probably be unfazed. But if Dawkins is attempting to address orthodox Christianity, which should be his target, then its a big, embarrassing swing and a miss.

But the biggest example of Dawkins ignorance of Christianity is that he does not even know what James Cameron knows; it's about the Resurrection. Christian teaching itself acknowledges that if the resurrection is a lie it's all over. But Dawkins does not address the resurrection at all. I'm guess he thinks it's too silly to even consider, but he thinks that about the whole she-bang. So why focus on mere details when he could drop Christianity with one shot? I think it's one of two reasons: 1) He's too ignorant of Christianity to know what to aim at, or 2) He's read the evidence regarding the resurrection and decided he didn't want to take it on. Given that it seems he hasn't even read the first chapter of Matthew and Luke for himself, I'm betting on reason #1.

Lui said...

I think you may have inadvertently caricatured what Dawkins was trying to convey in at least on of your refutations: “The Scriptures do not teach that Adam and Eve were symbolic. People who claim that Adam and Eve were symbolic should indeed be silenced by Dawkins argument, but again those people think pretty much everything Jesus did including the resurrection was symbolic and would probably be unfazed.”

Dawkins doesn’t claim that Scripture teaches that Adam and Eve were symbolic; he is really just saying that, GIVEN THAT they were not actually real people who existed, that EVEN IF we charitably allowed that they were only meant to be symbolic people, that the whole enterprise is silly. That Adam and Eve were not real is a fact that must have been known to an omnipotent God, and, presumably, to Jesus. If you want to argue that they were real people, then you are falling back on special pleading. Of course Jesus may have believed that they were in fact real people, but then he could not have been divine. The only way to reconcile that he was divine and that they were not symbolic people is to deploy circular reasoning. You are assuming that they were flesh and blood human beings, but this is something that cannot be corroborated. And to talk about the first man and woman on earth is to say something about the real world, but it goes counter to what evolutionary theory predicts (and what the evidence shows), which is that evolution works with smooth continuities, not sharp discontinuities.

Another point you raised: “Dawkins seems to be unaware that thousands of biblical scholars have been investigating these very questions for well over 1000 years and the consensus among scholars is that we do know who wrote the gospels and when.”

I think he was referring more to people in general, who usually don’t look into these things very deeply. Indeed, he mentions your scholars in a nearby sentence: “Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.”

“p. 92 - There is no 4th option for C.S. Lewis' so-called Mad, Bad, or God trilemma. Would you say that a person was just mistaken (not insane) who repeatedly claimed: a) to be God, b) to have been in existence before Abraham, and c) that everything in the Scriptures points to himself? Lewis was right.”

I’m somewhat confused what you mean here, because the fourth option that Dawkins invoked was his own. He means only to say that the possibility that Jesus was honestly mistaken implies only that Lewis’ options are not an exhaustive list and that a more benign (and still non-supernatural) option is available.

Anonymous said...

Hello sir,
I guess that you could call me a Christian in the sense that I have faith in a certain understandings of the gospel.
I see a lot of similarities between you and me. I see in your methods and search for truth things similar to my own.
You take no cheap shots. You are honest and sincere.

Anonymous said...

Atheism cannot exist without christianity.

Kevin Parry said...

Anonymous wrote:
Atheism cannot exist without christianity.

Excellent point! But I don’t know if I fully agree with you. Atheism is simply lack of belief in god or gods. So if religion did not exist, then every person would be an atheist (but they wouldn’t call themselves that).

Lui said...

"Atheism cannot exist without christianity."

I would say that atheism wouldn't exist by name, because there would be no "theism", hence nothing to place "a" in front of. It's kind of like Homer Simpson's "There's no 'dishonourable' without 'honourable'!" That the word theism exists doesn't mean that the claims of theism hold true, or if they do, then the claims of any concept ever conceived hold true. I'm surprised that anyone can possibly find this word play in any way compelling. If I invented something and you didn't believe it, say "Pink Centaur, Master of all Existence", and then I retorted "Acentaurism cannot exist without Centaurism", does that go towards making what I (pretend to) believe true? And does it make any difference that many people happen to believe in some form of god?

Anyway, Christianity isn't the only form of theism. What if someone said "Atheism cannot exist without Islam"? Would you object to that? If so, why?