« Escape From the Entropic ProviderGritty Canadian Forces Ad »

The God Delusion : Richard Dawkins


  03:55:12 am, by Nimble   , 1358 words  
Categories: Reviews, Books, Religion, Science

The God Delusion : Richard Dawkins

Link: http://www.amazon.ca/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.ca%2FGod-Delusion-Richard-Dawkins%2Fdp%2F0618680004%2F&tag=thecerealkill-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=15121&creative=330641

I think it's a sign of the times that the number of books professing frustration with religion are on the rise.

In Dawkin's case, the times are ripe for a book like this. As an evolutionary theory promoter, he has witnessed galling inroads of attempts to throw out evidence-based science, particularly evolutionary theory, in classrooms. He has been heavily quote-mined (e.g. here) by the sorts of people promoting this Trojan Horse. Radical well-funded fundamentalist Islamist sects have taken the world stage with violence, and many developed nations have reacted with their own fundamentalist rise.

I suppose it's also a sign of the times that at the time of this writing, this book is the number one best seller on Amazon Canada, and at a mere number seven south of the border.

So what has Dawkins to say in this small tome, this time focusing on religion?

If you have been watching the cultural interactions on the religious spectrum all the way from atheist to fundamentalist, much of the topic matter will be familiar to you. If not, doubtless you will find a considerable deal of the material surprising.

Many of the points are well-made. Others are good points, but fleshed out somewhat sparely with the same issue or metaphor used to excess, and really could use another angle on them (as other authors have skilfully done). A thorough revision for a second edition would be a good idea, truly.

The book is dedicated in memoriam to Douglas Adams, a highly appropriate person to dedicate the book to. It is not done flippantly.

The book covers quite a few topics, and I won't get to them all, but I want to point out a few spots.

Gould has been credited with promoting the phrase Non-Overlapping Magisteria. In a nutshell, this means that science shouldn't tread on religion's turf, and vice versa.

Dawkins does an admirable job of demonstrating that this is a poor position. Many religious tenets do make testable claims, such as the power of prayer, which do fall into the scientifically testable realm.

Other parts of the religious "turf", like morals, for example, are not solely religion's domain either. As Dawkins demonstrates in other parts of the book, taking the Old and New Testament at face value for moral tales demands that you make judgments about whether certain Biblical tales and entreaties are a moral example or a moral vacuum. Sometimes, this is the source of many inter-sect rivalries*1.

The question can be phrased through other questions: how do we make the decision that offering your daughters to a hungry mob to protect your male guests is less than honourable? Why does the concept of stoning people to death for infidelity sicken us? Why do many of us (although not all) abhor slavery?

It would seem to indicate that there is another set of criteria with which to judge these matters. That goes against the concept of morality itself flowing exclusively from the Bible. It also means that it's not a "non-overlapping magisterium", and that yes, we can investigate morality.

Dawkins uses these and others to take some time to demonstrate that, despite incredulity, it really, truly is possible to be an atheist and moral and happy, despite not believing.

One final point on "non-overlapping magisteria": despite any such agreement, if all of a sudden, God appeared to everyone, it's unlikely that religion would refrain from stepping on the "magisterium" of science.

Dawkins spends some time defining and refining what our default position should be, in the absence of evidence, and he takes some time to show that it ought not to be merely "50:50 split straight down the middle". He also takes some time to contrast the Deistic version of God, which quite a number of regular scientists hold, with the personal God of Abraham.

There are examples and metaphors he uses that are starting to become cliché, but this could be just my jaded years of reading. One is Bertrand Russel's Orbiting Teapot. The idea is simply this: you can't prove that the Orbiting Teapot does not exist. If you do not believe in the Teapot, does this specifically make you a Teapot Atheist?

The analogy is meant as a contrast when you try to label atheism as a "religion", and it really is honest in that regard. Perhaps you are an atheist about Thor, or about Vishnu, and your atheism would be almost as shocking to believers as atheism is to theists today. There is a short video clip about the Orbiting Teapot which comes more alive in his short documentary than in this book. The clever paragraph:

"We're all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

It's true, but it comes across a little trite, in video or in print.

He makes much ado about "Who Designed the Designer?", when it comes to some theological arguments. It's a fair enough point, but glib theologians and philosophers can wordcraft arguments around this easily (e.g. here). Perhaps not truly, but certainly convincingly to some, so more different angles on some of these topics would be a welcome change in the book.

One of the more contentious beliefs of Dawkins is that religious indoctrination is child abuse. To be fair, I'd concur that some of it truly is, as I've seen more than my share of people under its yoke or just outside it that just snap. Looking at this chapter, I get the impression that Dawkins gets a lot of horror stories, and many of those written by people to share their experiences. Personally, I just split the world into shades of good and bad parenting, and if fervent belief makes a parent torment their child daily with visions of hell, I'd classify that in with bad parenting in general.

The Roots of Religion section deals with how religion comes about, but it proffers the many hypotheses people have come up with. Illustrative, yes, definitive, no, but another good example of how science does investigate things in religion's "domain".

I had heard about so-called "cargo cults", but the section on cargo cults and the formation of a religion, in this one particular story involving a scam artist, John Frum, who got the natives to spend their wages in anticipation of his return with a "new money stamped with a coconut", was particularly interesting. John Frum's lack of return still 19 years later was no cause for concern; one devotee told David Attenborough that if they were still waiting for their saviour 2,000 years later, he himself could certainly wait more than 19.

I must admit that I'm a little surprised at the popularity of the book, and I wonder what will happen once the topic matter it covers sinks into the collective consciousness of our society.

The other question, the answer to which I must sheepishly admit curiosity: where will this book be banned?

It's a very interesting read (if rough in spots) and covers more topics than I have gone into here.

Recommended controversial reading. For goodness sakes', though, don't show it to your evangelist parents :)

(*1:Sometimes, quote-mining is involved here. Take a look at the contrast in tone between a pro-Sabbath-keeping sect and an anti-Sabbath-keeping sect:

The Sabbath provides weekly relief from the "painful toil" (Gen. 3:17) of making a living, freeing us to find fellowship with God and refresh our spirits in a "day of rest." For that reason it is a gift of God's grace for mankind ("the Sabbath was made for man," Mark 2:27), fulfilling the purpose of the blessing God pronounced upon it at Creation.
(emphasis mine)

After the Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to pick some grain on the Sabbath day, Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27)...

...The Pharisees were overestimating the importance of Sabbath restrictions. Jesus responded to them not by expanding the Sabbath, but by reducing it.

Even though the "pro" site quote-mines Mark 2:27, it rests more authority upon Old Testament entreaties.

You can see people coming to blows over something like this, though.)

No feedback yet