Thursday, April 05, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

My book club's selection this month was The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As a devoted Christian I was very game to read this book, as I want to understand the atheist position as much as possible. However, looking forward to being challenged by one of atheism's brightest minds, I was very quickly disappointed. This book is one long, tedious exercise in third-rate argumentation -- strawman and red herring fallacies, cherry-picking, ad hominem, and character assassination. As one of the other club members pointed out, Dawkins makes use of debating techniques we learned not to use in the seventh grade.

The premise really boils down to this: God is unlikely to exist because religious people are jerks and idiots (esp. Christians), religious dogma is silly (esp. Christianity), and some ideas about God are contemptible (esp. biblical). Chapters begin with promising titles ("The God Hypothesis" and "Why There Almost Certainly is No God"), but never deliver. "The God Hypothesis," for example, never actually spells out what the God hypothesis is. Instead, we get page after page of cherry-picked examples of the worst and silliest that Christianity has to offer, along with Dawkins' pompous rants and endless quotations underlining his deep contempt for religion and religious people. All I could gather from this is that the "God hypothesis" is little more than "God sucks."

The initial chapter, with sections titled "Deserved respect" (anything atheistic) and "Undeserved respect" (anything religious, esp. Christianity) is what sets the tone for the rest of the book, and warns astute readers that what lies ahead is a decidedly propagandistic view of the subject. Dawkins doesn't bother to build up his argument, but immediately draws conclusions for his readers through frequent use of the word "enlightened" to describe anyone and any idea that agrees with his premise. His bigotry is most revealed in a response to a book written by Stephen Jay Gould (now dead and unable to defend himself) titled Rocks of Ages, in which Gould effectively says that science answers the "how" of existence while theology answers the "why." Dawkins, who is so unable to grasp that an eminent evolutionist could believe such a thing, states that Gould could not possibly have meant what he wrote and ascribes it to an undue respect for religion. As an interesting aside, I should mention that Dawkins refutes Gould's idea of these 'non-overlapping magisteria' by stating: "...a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?" I agree with Dawkins here, but apparently nobody has given him the memo that intelligent design has no place in the science classroom.

I do not doubt that much, if not all, of what Dawkins presents in criticism of Christianity is true. Some notable (and not so notable) Christians have said and done very silly, even contemptible, things. But does this necessarily represent the sum of Christianity? It is Dawkins' duty to present as accurate a picture of his subject as possible and to defeat the best it has to offer before he can claim victory. But he says little of Christianity's merits. In cases where Christians have accomplished laudable things, such as with Rev. Martin Luther King, their faith is written off as meaningless coincidence. Where such dismissals are impossible, the facts are simply omitted. Nowhere in the book could I find mention of the role British evangelical Christians played in bringing about the end the worldwide slavetrade. Dawkins is British, and I would be surprised if he were unaware of this historical fact. (There is also a movie on this topic in theaters right now.) There is also no mention of the Christian foundation of modern science, industrialization, and modern democracy (for a good review of this see Dinesh D'Souza's What So Great About America).

The true propagandistic nature of Dawkins book is revealed through lack of any meaningful discussion of the atrocities committed by atheists. Dawkins mentions Hitler, if only to bring into question the nature of his religious background, but fails to address Hitler's second in command, Martin Bormann, who was architect of the Holocaust and a staunch atheist. His discussion of Stalin, however, is a painful exercise in twisted logic. Dawkins does not attempt to argue that Stalin was anything but atheist, but concludes that Stalin's atheism had nothing to do with his vile actions. He correctly asks, "What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things" but concludes, astoundingly, "There is not the smallest evidence that it does." This is, in fact, quite wrong. Jeffrey Dahmer claimed that he did terrible things, because, in a universe without God, it's all meaningless. (Perhaps, now that Dahmer is dead, Dawkins will presume to speak on his behalf and claim that he didn't really mean it.)

On a large scale, you can examine the line of reasoning taken by the members of the communist Khmer Rouge for their slaughter of millions of their own countrymen. They had a vision of their ideal society, and the most effective way to accomplish it was to wipe out the old society and begin fresh with the children. When you believe there is no God, you make the rules. As Dostoyevsky put it, "If God is not, everything is permitted." Not only has atheism influenced bad behavior, it has done so disproportionately compared to all religions combined. Dinesh D'Souza explains that the oft-mentioned Salem witch trials resulted in 25 deaths and the Spanish Inquisition may be responsible for as many as 100,000 deaths; yet communsim is responsible for an estimated 100 million deaths. Nevertheless, Dawkins conveniently arranges his assumptions so that he can dismiss the obvious and arrive at precisely the point he wishes:

  • When a Christian does something bad, his faith is at fault. When a Christian does something good, his faith is irrelevant.

  • When an atheist does something bad, his atheism is irrelevant. When an atheist does something good, his "enlightened" atheist beliefs are responsible.
I haven't finished the book, and it doesn't bode well for the rest of it as the first few chapters follow the exact same format: interesting and provocative titles followed by monotonously endless rants, attacks, and sloppy reasoning that never address the point of the chapter. Wading through all this to get the salient bits reminded me a little of Gandalf's description of interrogating Gollum -- eventually you get a piece of useful information, but not without much aggravation.

Dawkins makes the claim in his preface that, if he's done his job right, religious readers will be atheists by the end of the book. The problem is getting them to the end of the book -- he is assuming that a religious person can be persuaded to read through over 300 pages of endless insults and attacks (one of our Catholic members, admirably, managed to do this). Furthermore, the only way Dawkins can accomplish his goal is if said reader is a complete ignoramus, with no knowledge of history or religion whatsoever, and lacking convictions of any depth. But perhaps this describes the type of converts Dawkins wishes for.


Blogger OldeForce said...

Brother-in-law is a doctor, and believes that religion is a disease - some catch it and some don't. Of course, as a far-left lib and doctor, he believes that he is, in fact, a god. [Yes, I realize that this is not always the case, but I spent a dozen years working with doctors and their investments and they - for the most part - thought that their views on everything were the only correct views. Until you pointed out tax law that would put them in jail!]

4/05/2007 11:57 PM  
Anonymous Tony F said...

Dear Mr/Mrs Fudge: A well expressed critique and I tend to agree with your comments about The God Delusion - definitely not one of Dawkins better works. However, may I commend to you and your book club his 1976 masterpiece "The Selfish Gene". This should quickly, if indirectly point out to you the absurdity and delusional aspects of all religions. Best wishes for your future enlightenment.

4/06/2007 5:25 AM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...


Thanks for the recommendation, but it is unlikely I will read any of Dawkins' other books.

A belief is a delusion only if one persists in believing something that is demonstrably wrong. Nobody has ever been able to prove God's existence one way or another -- but one may still assess the validity of an assumption about God's existence by judging its fruits.

Christianity, which assumes that a loving consciousness created the world, has produced many worthwhile things in spite of its missteps and frequent misapplications. It produced modern democracy, modern science, industrialization, and individual rights.

Humanism, which assumes that man is the measure of all things, has not produced anything worthwhile. Atheistic societies are often marked by mass-slaughter, oppression, and poverty. If you are to judge by the fruits, which belief is delusional? I guess it depends on what you want.

It's ironic, too, that while evolution scientists like Dawkins understand that the goal of living things is to survive and perpetuate, he ignores the fact that atheistic cultures within economically viable societies stop reproducing. The only people in Europe reproducing themselves at replacement rate are Muslims. Non-immigrant (read: humanist) Canadians are not reproducing at replacement rate, and Japan is far below replacement rate. Once the religious and economic movites are removed, people stop reproducing. One is forced to conclude that prosperity + atheism is cultural suicide. Unless you want to promote poverty or the inevitable extinction of humankind, how can you make a convincing argument that atheism is the correct belief?

The real delusion is the belief that there is any such thing as morality without God. The physical laws of special and general relativity along with the law of relativity of human value reactions tell us that there is no absolute reference frame for anything. Without God, by what standard do you judge something? Without God, morality is a matter of opinion.

One of my atheist friends lamented the fact that atheists don't have communities the way religious people do. The reason for this is that atheism has no unifying belief. How can you when man is the measure of all things? You have billions of people on this planet, which means billions of unique experiences. What one thing can bring them all together? Nobody has found anything yet.

Finally, we have the inescapable fact that the universe came from somewhere. If you trust modern science, then you accept that the universe and everything in it came into being at the big bang -- it all came from somewhere else, and since nothing is its own cause, that cause has to be above and beyond nature (the physical world) and is therefore supernatural. Whether you believe the universe is a conscious creation or just a quantum fluctuation in the vacuum energy of some super-universe (an equally untestable idea as God, by the way), the fact of the supernatural is inescapable. Belief that the material world is all that exists is delusional.

If someone can convince me that Dawkins (or any other author) gives serious treatment to these points without the insulting blather, I would give it a chance.

4/06/2007 7:23 AM  
Blogger Francis W. Porretto said...

I find myself wishing that The God Delusion gets the widest possible readership -- because it's self-refuting. Dawkins doesn't seem to know the difference between reasoning and venting. But then, he enjoys venting so much that it would be naughty to nurse him out of the habit.

4/07/2007 7:56 AM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

Thanks for the link, Fran, I enjoyed your post very much.

A couple of things stood out:

It's not the first time a scientist, professional or amateur, strutted beyond his competence and made a total ass of himself.

It's amazing to watch the shift that takes place when an intelligent man strays out of his area of expertise. We have a famous Nobel Prize-winning physicist in our department, who has impressed me with his humbleness when it comes to topics in his own field. He admits when he doesn't understand something and will ask for someone to explain it to him. But when it comes to theology and politics (anti-religion and liberal) he knows what he knows.

But what's truly remarkable about Dawkins's tirade is his assertion that "highly intelligent" persons can't sincerely believe in God -- that we who claim to believe in God must be either stupid or lying.

Physicist Paul Davies claims in the preface of The Mind of God that when he wrote God and the New Physics many of his colleagues confessed to him that they believed in God. I'll have to track down the source, but some poll indicated that at least 40% of scientists in this country are religious. Dawkins is such a bigot that he simply can't conceive of this.

As you say, faith is born of interior events that can't be proved or disproved. Such was my conversion. But what I can say, with confidence, is that my faith is entirely consistent with the observable world.

4/07/2007 10:16 AM  
Blogger Rusticus said...

For shame, Stickwick, that you didn't mention Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters "Where God Went Wrong", "Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes" and "Who is this God Person Anyway?"

Reading any of those would have knocked enlightenment into your thick, backwards, faith-darkened, delusional skull of yours, you moron.

Tongue away from the cheek, you said "When a Christian does something bad, his faith is at fault." It could be added that it's still the fault of his faith, even when the faith explicitly teaches the opposite of the Christian's behavior.

It's easy to find bad examples from a history that spans 2000 years. It takes an act of great hubris to ignore anything good from that same span.

4/08/2007 2:21 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

It could be added that it's still the fault of his faith, even when the faith explicitly teaches the opposite of the Christian's behavior.

I'm not sure what you mean by that, Rus. Could you elaborate?

It's easy to find bad examples from a history that spans 2000 years. It takes an act of great hubris to ignore anything good from that same span.

That's the nature of propaganda. It's not so much in what's said, but in what's left out.

4/09/2007 10:42 AM  
Blogger Rusticus said...

Sure, take the Spanish Inquisition. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!)

The anti-Christians love to use this one as an example of the evils of Christianity, even though there is nothing in the scriptures that supported that nonsense and it flies in the face of the two Great Commandments.

Bad behavior of a Christian is blamed on the faith, even though the faith condemns such behavior.

Does that make my point more clear?

4/09/2007 12:41 PM  
Blogger Dan Marvin said...

I have one for you to review Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. You can either get the book or here is a clip from the DVD. I am here to help with the truth. The evidence is compelling if you have an open mind and are truly searching for truth, if not we will see in your review.

Just a concerned family man,


4/09/2007 1:19 PM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...


I get it now. I just misread you the first time.


We're on the same page. I've read about halfway through Strobel's book (I have many of his books, in fact) and agree that it offers compelling arguments. I didn't realize there was a DVD for Creator, and will check it out.

What I found extremely compelling was Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God. This book, along with conversations I had with Dr. Schroeder, were instrumental in my conversion from agnosticism to Christianity. So compelling is the evidence for the universe being a conscious creation that I've decided to quit academia once I have my Ph.D. and pursue a career in the church teaching Christians about the congruence between science and faith.

The fact that science-faith books are so exciting and well-written is probably why Dawkins' book was especially disappointing. I guess I was expecting the same intellectual level from atheism's best, but it wasn't to be found. I also flipped through Michael Shermer's latest, and though it's less grating than Delusion it still seems to lack the intellectual depth and honesty of the work done by believing scientists like Schroeder and Paul Davies (The Mind of God). Check these out if you haven't already.

4/09/2007 1:43 PM  

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