The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I read this book as part of an ongoing discussion on theism/atheism with a friend of mine. He suggests a book, then I suggest a book. My suggestion was Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker, but my friend wanted to read this one instead. I had not read either and, obviously, this book had received a fair amount of press. I went along.

TheGodDelusionI have not read any of the recent books of this type (e.g. Hitchens’s god is not Great, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation), so I cannot provide any opinion on the relative merits of this book versus those. What I can give you is my opinion regarding whether Dawkins succeeded with this book. Ultimately, I think he did not.

Dawkins is an outstanding scientist. He has been involved in many battles with creationists over the course of his career. I think these battles have probably colored his opinions for the worse. Dawkins is not simply an atheist, he is an anti-theist. This book is not so much a discussion of why he does not believe in a god, but why he thinks no one should and why he thinks belief in a god is an active evil. At least, that is almost certainly the only thing his purported audience, theists, will get out of it.

Dawkins is strongest in conveying his passion for science, which is why I would strongly recommend The Selfish Gene (an excellent book) SelfishGeneor one of his other science-focused books, rather than this book if you want to read something by Dawkins. In The God Delusion, he seems primarily to be venting his frustrations with theists and creationists rather than presenting a dispassionate argument regarding either the existence of gods or the net benefit of religion regardless of its truth.

An example is his devotion of six of the first eight pages to re-capturing Einstein for the atheist side. There is no doubt that Einstein is often invoked by theists as one of their own. This is generally due to quotes such as “God does not play dice” and the like. Dawkins is right that Einstein had, if anything that can be called religion in the sense theists use the term today, a Spinozan awe of nature. He did not believe in a personal, interactive god. Anyone remotely curious about this could discover the truth of the matter with only a little digging. But whether Einstein was a militant atheist or a fundamentalist Christian is absolutely irrelevant to the question of whether anything supernatural exists. This particular appeal to authority should have been beneath Dawkins.

If keeping score of which famous person is an atheist and which a theist were limited to the initial chapter, it would be forgivable. It is not. Dawkins spends far too much of this book determining who belongs on which side. He knows as well as anyone that the truth or falsity of a particular religious claim is not affected one iota by who holds that particular belief. The resolution of where on the religious spectrum Albert Einstein, Stephen J. Gould, Thomas Jefferson, Stephen Hawkings, Joseph Stalin, or Adolf Hitler fall is absolutely irrelevant to argument regarding the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being. Unfortunately, Godwin’s law applies. Dawkins loses by being baited into these sideshow debates by theists.

Dawkins does have good points to make. The problem is that the well-made points are (1) likely to already be known by atheists and (2) unlikely to be noticed by theists because the theists will be hung up on his discussions of personalities and whether the actions of certain men or groups are representative of either atheists or theists generally. Neither audience is likely to find the book edifying.

“The God Delusion” is not a scientific text, but a polemic. It is entertaining, if you have an interest in these theist vs. atheist wars, but it is a poor introduction to the arguments regarding the existence of the supernatural. It is even worse as a contribution to any discussion regarding the question of whether religion is a net positive or net negative. Dawkins even speculates, at one point, as to what research might someday show if a rigorous experiment were carried out. The prediction is foolhardy, because I would gander it is not far from an even question whether Dawkins is right. More importantly, he cannot win. Proof will not be helped by his own speculation. Conversely, if he is disproved, he will have achieved for the atheist side one of those self-inflicted wounds he so often bemoans.

I wonder whether Dawkins’s true purpose was to pen a call-to-arms rather than to persuade theists of their error. I do not think the book succeeds if the former, it is largely a failure if the latter. Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, but he is an unconvincing anti-theist polemicist.

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7 Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for a fascinating review. I haven’t read any books of this nature, but am interested in the subject matter. This review at the Guardian has made me want to read Karen Armstrong’s book in defense of religion, and I would like to read the other side of the argument too. Following your analysis I would maybe read Richard Dawkins for entertainment, but not for substance.

  2. Kerry says:

    I am glad you enjoyed it, Sarah. I, of course, focus on fiction here, but read the book and had some thoughts about it. I blog.

    The subject matter is, to me, very interesting. I am always interested in why people believe what they do, whatever their beliefs are. People are fascinating.

    That book does sound very interesting. While my friend and I are going very slowly (it will probably be six months before my turn comes around again), I will probably suggest this work (so I have an excuse to read it too). Part of Dawkins’ failure was he tried to do too much (convince an audience that what they believed was not true and, also, that their belief was an active evil…he lost them at “hello”) and went too far (religion is a tool neither good nor bad in itself, I think, and, in many ways, a precursor to therapeutic psychology).

    Anyway, thank you for pointing me to that book. It sounds like it has the potentional to be much more interesting and thought-provoking for my friend (and for me) than the Dawkins polemic.

  3. Excellent review. I also am a fan of Richard Dawkins (The Ancestor’s Tale is one of the best science books I have ever read), but I have not felt compelled to read this book so far. First, I already am a non-believer, so I don’t think the book would “do” anything for me and second, I get fed up with polemics if they go on for too long – and an entire book certainly seems too long.
    Dawkins latest book, however, The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution has received great reviews so far and I think it may probably be more successful in influencing people’s thinking – at least I hope so.

  4. Kerry says:

    Thank you very much, Anna.

    As a fellow non-believer, I think you were wise to avoid this one. You would not have learned much, if anything, that you did not already know. The polemics probably would have become a little tedious for you.

    I can imagine The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution is much, much better. Dawkins sparkles on evolution. Thanks for bringing my and my readers attention to it.

    And, I think you are right, he has a better chance of influencing opinions with that book both because he is more skilled in presenting the scientific case for evolution and because evolution is something which people of any (or no) faith can accommodate in their beliefs. At least, I hope so too.

    Thank you so much for your comment.

  5. John Self says:

    I should come out of the closet at the outset and say that everything I have ever read by Dawkins on religion, I have agreed with 100%. I think it comes down to my sharing with him a very black-and-white, literalist viewpoint. Dawkins is entirely uninterested in the question of whether religion has been a force for good (or he should be, but he gets drawn into it). Instead the question for him is simply: Does the personal Christian God of popular belief exist? to which he answers Of course not. Any discussion of religion beyond that, he argues, is like debating what colour the fairies are at the bottom of your garden.

    I picked up The Greatest Show on Earth earlier this month and hope to read it soon. Meanwhile, here is one of Dawkins’ best passages on the wonders of life on our planet:

    Fling your arms wide in an expansive gesture to span all of evolution from its origin at your left fingertip to today at your right fingertip. All across your midline to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria.

    Many-celled, invertebrate life flowers somewhere around your right elbow. The dinosaurs originate in the middle of your right palm, and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole history of Homo sapiens and our predecessor Homo erectus is contained in the thickness of one nail clipping. As for recorded history; as for the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Jewish patriarchs, the dynasties of Pharaohs, the legions of Rome, the Christian Fathers, the Laws of the Medes and Persians which never change; as for Troy and the Greeks, Helen and Achilles and Agamemnon dead; as for Napoleon and Hitler, the Beatles and Bill Clinton, they and everyone that knew them are blown away in the dust of one light stroke of a nail file.

  6. I thought The Selfish Gene excellent, and the more challenging The Extended Phenotype also very good.

    The Blind Watchmaker made his points eloquently, and without vitriol.

    But I preferred Dawkins when he left the conclusions evident, nowadays it feels rather like he waits by my front door with pamphlets hoping to spread the bad news. He’s the Jehovah’s Witness of atheism.

    I’m not even slightly religious, Christianity seems to me a logical nonsense (of course, one could say much the same for quantum physics and yet it’s true, as a believer might say in reply), but I think Dawkins has long since become a terrible advocate for his cause.

    He’s also a bit too much of an absolutist, tons of Christians have no issue at all believing in god and evolution both, it’s only certain fundamentalist strains that deny evolution – the majority just figure god fiddled with it a bit on occasion to get the right outcome. He spends his time debating a fringe, and asserting it’s the mainstream. It’s not.

  7. Kerry says:

    John,

    Thank you very much for your comment. I think Dawkins would have been well served to stick to the question of “Does the personal God of popular belief exist?” And, as I hope I made clear, he is brilliant when discussing evolution. I think he was too fed up with some of the nonsense he has encountered, and submitted a subpar (for him, at least) book.

    In a belated defense of Dawkins, it does not take much surfing the web to see the kind of arguments Dawkins routinely faces. I understand his frustration.

    That passage you quote is absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

    I look forward to any thoughts you post on The Greatest Show on Earth. The Selfish Gene is one of my favorite non-fiction books of all-time, due to its clarity, depth, and consciousness-shifting brilliance. I hope The Greatest Show is something of a return to form.

    Max,

    Thanks for the excellent comment. The trend I have noticed with at least some of those who debate theists/creationists is that they deal with so many crazy arguments, they stop ignoring ridiculous assertions and logical fallacies out of frustration with the frequency they are raised. At some point, they all seem to get drawn into no-win situations out of frustration with some of the inanities with which they repeatedly are confronted.

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