Book review: The God Delusion

A number of books on the theme of faith and reason have been published lately. I just finished one of them, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This book gives a broad view of a number of questions in the faith-and-reason debate, all written with Dawkins’s characteristic style and wit. I enjoyed reading it, and although much of the material was familiar to me, I still feel like I learned a few things.

Dawkins starts out by laying out exactly what sort of God he believes is a delusion–i.e., a supernatural being. Actually, he starts out by describing what he means by “Einsteinian religion”, the use by scientists of religious terminology in a metaphorical or pantheistic sense, because that is not the kind of God he means. He has some good quotes, like this from Einstein, which he used to sum up Einsteinian religion:

“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.”

Or this from Carl Sagan, which explains very nicely the pitfalls of using “religion” or “God” in the sense that Einstein did:

“…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.”

Dawkins sums up his own views by saying:

“…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.”

I agree with what Einstein said and I like the way he said it, but, while I wouldn’t word it as strongly as Dawkins does, I can see the value of the point he’s making and I have to reluctantly admit he might be right. I broached this topic with a couple of people who like to think about things like this and it generated some excellent discussion; I’d be interested in hearing other opinions too.

Dawkins describes the God hypothesis–the variety of beliefs that people hold about God, and how (or whether) they try to accommodate these to facts about the world we live in–and gives a brisk run-through of arguments for God’s existence (that’s “run-through” as in “run through wih a sword”, as he gives brief but compelling reviews of the difficulties with each one). There was nothing particularly new and exciting here but I think he did a good job of covering his turf very readably and wittily. He follows this up with an explanation of why there almost certainly is no God.

He devotes a couple of chapters to how we came to be religious animals and to where our sense of right and wrong comes from, discussing human psychology, the possible adaptive value of religion, and memes. (Daniel Dennett covers the origins of religion more thoroughly in his recent book Breaking the spell, by the way, and I list some other books on this topic on the Thinking Meat reading list.)

The chapter on what our moral sense tells us was particuarly interesting. His main point was that whatever people may say about getting their ideas of right and wrong from the Bible, that’s not really the case. The Old Testament is notoriously blood-soaked and violent, and the God depicted there is often morally unsavory to a high degree. (I have long found the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac particularly repugnant, but there are plenty of other stories to make a decent person cringe, and you have perhaps seen the open letter purportedly written to Laura Schlesinger detailing some of the more offensive Biblical injunctions.) Christians who don’t take the advice of the Old Testament literally are using some other moral yardstick by which to measure what they find in the Bible, rejecting the bad and keeping the good–meaning that scripture is not truly the basis for their moral code.

There’s a fair amount of consensus about that moral yardstick that defines good and bad behavior for us, although over time the consensus changes (Dawkins describes each age as having its own “moral Zeitgeist”). Dawkins reported on a study done about 40 years ago by Israeli psychologist George Tamarin that looked at how Israeli children reacted to a passage from the Bible about Joshua and the battle of Jericho, something we might today describe as a massacre. When over a thousand Israeli schoolchildren were asked whether they totally approved, partially approved, or totally disapproved of what Joshua and the Israelites had done in taking over the city of Jericho and slaughtering its inhabitants, 66% totally approved and 26% totally disapproved. When asked to explain their thinking, they gave religious justifications, including statements about the danger of learning bad ways from others of a different religion. (And some of those who disapproved did so on the grounds that property was lost as well as lives, and that property could have been put to good use by the Israelites.) When a smaller control group was given the same story, but with the names and places changed so that it was about a fictitious general who lived in China 3,000 years ago, only 7% totally approved and 75% disapproved. This was a striking and discouraging instance of the influence of religious prejudice on the moral sense of children. (You can read more in this Skeptic paper by John Hartung.)

Dawkins spends a chapter on the dangers of religious fundamentalism (and even moderate religion, he says, provides the climate in which fundamentalism can grow). There is plenty of material available to prove his point; this is ground that Sam Harris covered more thoroughly in The end of faith.

The final chapter is a summary of how life can be full of beauty, meaning, and inspiration despite, or perhaps even because of, an absence of the supernatural. This is also well-trodden ground, but I always relish seeing someone expressing these ideas, especially as beautifully as Richard Dawkins can do it, because in my opinion they cannot be disseminated too widely. He mentions a number of books that you can go to for more in this vein.

Overall I’d say this book is valuable as an overview and a pointer to other resources. He includes a bibliography and a list of organizations that support atheism, humanism, free thought, etc. The list is also available on the web site for the Richard Dawkins Foundatino for Reason and Science. I’ve heard people say that The God Delusion is preaching to the choir, and while it may be well presented and engagingly written, it’s not likely to reach the people who really need to read it. But I wonder if it might be a very useful thing for young people who have had a religious upbringing and are in the process of leaving the religion in which they were raised. I wish this book had been around 24 years ago when I was going through my own struggles with leaving the Catholic church. Maybe there were other books that would have helped and I just didn’t find them, but Dawkins’s excellently and compassionately written summary of the key issues might have eased the transition considerably for me. I hope the book finds its way to other people who might find it similarly useful.

19 Comments

  1. While this is one of the most useful blogs in my RSS feeds I feel that I should take issue with this posting. Having just struggled through Dawkins The God Delusion it seems to me to be one of the best examples of the straw man hypothesis I have ever seen, Dawkin’s sets up a particular view of religion, which he then attacks (religiously). He takes no account of historical context. In is in effect a rant, a poorly argued one at that.

  2. Thanks Mary for a great blog. I just wanted to comment on Dave Snowden’s analysis of Dawkins, The God Delusion. I would argue that the historical context of religion in society is irrelevant to whether in 2007, God actually exists, i.e. whether we are deluded about his existence. He either does or does not irrespective of any history. Additionally, any argument may be called a rant by someone who does not agree with an argument, but that does not add anything to the discussion. I think Dawkins makes a coherent argument for the idea that society is deluded about the very existence of God, since there is simply no persuasive evidence to support the general belief for a deity.
    Mark

  3. I fully agree that the historical context is not relevant to the question of if God actually exists (and I make no assertion in that respect). It is however highly relevant to the form of Dawkin’s argument whcih attacks religion on the basis of asserted historical fact. I am fairly clear that I do not think Dawkin’s “God” exists, either the one he attacks, or the secular one that he attempts to put in its place.

  4. Sagan’s assertion that “This God is emotionally unsatisfying,” seems to place undue limitations on our emotions. Sagan was probably just mocking the masses, who are too simple and stupid to be satisfied by science. I, however, am perfectly able to find satisfaction in science. Aren’t you? I assume even Dawkins grants that evolution leaves us awestruck and disease leaves us mourning and murder
    makes us regretful and summer makes us joyous.

    My friend once left a car with a worn-out parking brake idling on a hillside while he took a leak, in defiance of god. God’s vengeance was great, and he bashed the car against the trees, where it was stuck until god saw fit to bless us with summer and land mudless enough to tow a car uphill on.

    My friend learned that the only effective worship in this case is attentive use of brakes. He knows that god doesn’t care if he crosses his fingers or begs for blessing in his mind. “But the bible says that if you pray, god will help you,” whines Dawkins. What about Job? This man was pious as all get out and God smote him hardcore. Wow, can you smell the straw man burning?

    And the jews! Their religion is not only vicious and nationalistic, it’s *effective*! Joshua’s victory is not a moral question, jews are not confused on what it represents (unlike liberals lamenting the passing of North American aborigines). In history, it has many times been “us or them” for the jews. Of course they’re going to be glad of any process that has resulted in jews still existing after all these centuries of wandering. Their breeding program has succeeded brilliantly. Their [non-]assimilation into other cultures is unique and also unbelievably successful. I have faith in judaism. In the end, what does evolution teach us about morality? Existence is right. The jews aren’t going anywhere.

    We cannot condemn the jews or their God without abandoning our own. This is why it is so important to recognize the divinity of processes like evolution. We cannot simply forget what we learn from science the moment it comes time to judge another culture or make a moral decision. To do so is sacrilegious. Militant nationalist judaism is no different from a rose’s thorns.

  5. I’m going to keep it simple and just state that belief in God is a matter of Faith. Faith, being a belief that doesn’t rest on logical proof NOR material evidence. Whether one choses to believe in the existence of a God is personal. Why does Dawkins set out to prove otherwise? Dawkins seems a bit delusional if he believes he’s doing anything other than preaching to the(his) choir(atheists…)

  6. Dawkins’s point is that faith in God often involves beliefs that do rest on material evidence: whether miracles happen, whether prayers are answered (and even though Job’s weren’t, many churches still teach that God often does answer them), how the world and living things and human beings came to exist. One of the chapters of “The God Delusion” addresses the question of why bother trying to change people’s minds about God, and his basic argument is that religion can and does lead people to interfere in the lives of others in destructive ways, ranging from teaching children religious dogma rather than science in biology class all the way to killing non-believers. (Not to mention the harm it does to children raised with demonstrably false beliefs about the world they live in.)

    And to Greg, yes, I do find emotional satisfaction in science, and I would guess Dawkins does as well. (His book “Unweaving the rainbow” is about the meaning and beauty to be found in science.) If Sagan was thinking about the mass appeal of science, I hope he was wrong and that most people are capable of finding emotional satisfaction in it.

  7. Teaching children stupid things, and killing people is not confined to religion. Religion just picks up on the general human condition in that respect. Religion is not necessary to emotional satisfaction, but neither is it, of itself a negative. The use of false evidence has its own history in science by the way.

  8. No, killing people (and the gamut of behaviours that can be easily linked with this) is not confined to religion. But religion does it so effectively, so methodically, and has such a widespread influence that it is one of the pre-eminent means of distributing ideas that promote such evils. I dispute that Dawkins’s view of religion is a straw man–in my experience plenty of people who I have encountered (and my upbringing was not religious) would happily nod in agreement at the God as depicted by Dawkins.

  9. Toby, I am sure that a lot of religous people if asked might accept Dawkin’s defintion of God, but it does not follow that Dawkins has defined God. His view is strongly patriarchal and culturaly constrained. If he purported to attack a particular instantiation of religion then your argument would be legitimate, but he attacks all religion and is thus clearly guilty of the straw man fallacy.

    Religion kills people more effectively? The first and second world wars were not fought around religious issues. Eugenics which purports to be science based has used for some fairly nasty purposes.

    You should also take account the way in religion has changed things for the better, created medical systems, led campaigns for social justice. I make no special claim for religion here. I just object to cheap steriotyping. The later Tudors used the fear of catholic revival to justify some pretty nasty uses of torture and general political supression. You lable something as evil and make it the cause of whatever you oppose. Its a human tendency and not a nice one. Dawkins uses religion the way the Tudors used catholicism and you are going along with it.

  10. One criticism I have seen of Dawkins’ book is that he cherry picks the worst elements of religion, while relying on strict semantics to say that everything bad done in the name of science is in fact not “real science.” This can be turned around easily: the crusades are not “real religion.”

    Any word can be defined in such a way as to ignore the good or evil done in its name. Is it enlightenment or just a cheap trick to define religion as “that which allows mankind to come together in mutual understanding and harmony through the establishment of shared memes?” Can we selectively define science to include that which makes humanity great and knowledgable while ignoring its role in making us vicious (A-bombs) or jaded (cultural and ecological awareness meet) or stratified (industrial revolution meets world economy). I sure would like to think so, but I’m partial to cheap tricks.

  11. Dave

    I agree, Dawkins seems to be focused on Judaeo-Christian religions–I assume that is what you mean by “culturally constrained”? That’s a fair comment, and Dawkins may have been better with this degree of specificity in his book.

    I don’t dispute (er, obviously) the mass killings of the World Wars and plenty of other examples, but it is somewhat inaccurate of you to paraphrase my comments as “religion kills people more effectively”. Maybe my writing was unclear. My point is that due to the sophistication of religious structures, and the widespread dissemination of religious ideas, religion is ONE OF (apologies for capitalisation, other forms of emphasis are not possible in this message box) the most effective means of distributing and promoting evil’ ideas, such as but not limited to murder. Religion in and of itself does not lead to murder (et al), but does lead to the spread of ideas that lead to extreme, negative and damaging actions. It is also, in many cases, according to those who hold to these ideas, the very inspiration for those ideas.

    That is not the full story of religion, but a critical part of it. None of this dismisses the genuine and lasting good done by religion and religious organisations and structures. I do not believe that “all religion is bad”, or that all religious experience leads to bad actions. To believe such is foolish, in my view, and ignores the obvious truth.

    This is a somewhat separate argument though–strongly related, but not the same as whether God exists, or whether religious beliefs are sensible, logical, rational, etc. This links to Greg’s point as well.

    I can only agree with your last para Dave, and Greg’s last post, but I don’t find your criticisms particularly compelling, or ultimately significant, compared of Dawkins’s overall argument, with which I essentially agree.

    Toby

  12. Dave, it is a shame that the word faith has acquired such a bad reputation. It seems you might be using it in a derogatory manner here. I don’t think Toby implied that he has faith in Dawkins thesis in the absence of any evidence for his contention. More generally, we must distinguish between different types of faith. Religious faith is a faith in that which is nonsensical and unknowable. This is invalid. However, faith in that for which there is evidence is valid. I have faith that Pluto revolves around the sun, although since the time it was discovered, it has not done so even once.

  13. … but then finds that he still agrees with some of Dawkins’s fundamental arguments.

    Faith? Well, I wouldn’t characterise it as such. Yes, I agree with some of the statements made that disagree with Dawkins, but this is not a dichotomous situation, surely? I do not feel I have to agree with everything he writes 100% to agree with his overall argument about the existence of God.

  14. I like that – it is not a dichotomous issue. To me, “God is dead” is about as tired a refrain as has ever been uttered, so what I see from Dawkins is simply “there’s us, and there’s them, and they believe in God, and we’re better than them.” Dawkins is very dichotomous.

    But if I came at it from another perspective, I wouldn’t even notice his obsession with dichotomy, I may instead be impressed with the thoroughness with which he shows us that God is dead.

  15. Dawkins may well have established that “God” as decribed by Dawkins does not exist – the essence of my original comment that this is a strawman (or strawgod but hopefully not a strawdog ….)
    However he has not established, nor can given the nature of his arguments that religion has the consequences he claims.
    It behoves anyone taking a position based on science not to engage in either/or dichotomies.to ensure that arguments are not based on steriotypes and are logically and rationally construcuted. Dawkins does that cause no favours by taking a polemical and il considered position. You may agree with this conclusion without agreeing with the form of the argument or his evidence

  16. It is a painful experience to have a hero disappoint you. I have admired Richard Dawkins from the time I read The selfish gene, at the age of twenty. It was one of the most important reading experiences of my life. Since then, I have read all his books with great interest. Until this one: The God delusion.

    While reading, I started wondering if Dawkins is symbol blind? He appears to be. He admits that he should not take the Bible stories literally, but then refuses to discuss them as symbolic accounts.

    Dawkins wants to make an impossible split. On the one hand, he tries to examine the origin of religion objectively, on the other hand he denounces it fiercely. Because of this ambivalence of attitude, it feels as a curiously deformed book. I felt as if I was attending a lecture about the habits of an animal, with the lecturer continuously making asides about how pathetic the creature is: ‘This animal is a disgrace to the entire class of mammals!’ (free after Dutch cartoonist Gummbah).

    This book is so narrow in its scope. I find it strange that I haven’t read anything about pretty straightforward aspects of religion. I haven’t read a thing about the nature of ritual. Nothing about the phenomenon of people’s lives being saved from an addiction by religion. Nothing about the relation between religion and the emotions conveyed by ‘secular art’. What I read about praying, to illustrate once more Dawkins’s approach, was a discussion of a scientific and double-blind study after its statistical effect. Conclusion: the independent variable of prayer does not have an effect on the dependent variable under research. Deep sigh…

  17. I think he laid out his purpose pretty clearly when he said he was trying to reach people who had been brought up to believe in God but who had doubts and questions, and demonstrate why 1) there likely isn’t a God of the type who takes a personal interest in human lives, answers prayers, punishes sins, etc., and 2) the absence of such a God doesn’t remove the meaning, beauty, and joy from life. You’re right that there are a lot of interesting questions about the psychology of religion that he could have discussed and didn’t, but if he had that would have been a different book with a different focus.

    Some have said he’s naive to expect believers to read his book and have their consciousness raised, and maybe they’re right, but I think he did a pretty good job of covering the turf he set out to cover. For what it’s worth, I wish this book had been around when I was leaving the church many years ago.

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