The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

September 25, 2009

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.