The God Delusion – eventually illuminating

A friend of mine, who is a staunch atheist, has been recommending this book to me for years but I’ve never got around to reading it until now. I don’t really know what I was expecting from The God Delusion but I have to confess, I found the first half of it pretty heavy-going. Dawkins is keen to squash any possible arguments that might be put forward for God early on and, while I can see the sense in that, the effect is a little dreary. There’s also a lot of attention paid to the scientific evidence that supports atheism, some of which made my head spin a little bit. I was certainly out of my depth when we got to genes and memes! Still, I waded on- you can’t really make the case for atheism without the science bit. Dawkins himself is very clear on this point. It is because religion often eschews reason and evidence that he rails against it so much. On that note, I really found Dawkins’ passion for the illumination that science can bring quite endearing. It’s almost as if science is the alternative he proposes to religion, not a new religion, not a cult of science, but a veneration for learning and appreciating the beauty of nature. Of all the ideas Dawkins explores in this book, I thought the most resonant one was that atheism does not have to be bleak and depressing. In fact, Dawkins quotes a brilliant passage by Bertrand Russell to this effect:

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”

I thought that was rather wonderful, and by the end of the book I had decided that I thought Richard Dawkins was rather wonderful too. After the slightly snide tone of the first half, he eventually emerges as a man who cares deeply about others and about the detrimental effect he feels religion has on the world as a whole. There are some entertaining (or frightening- depending on how you look at it) bits where he gives some examples of the kind of hate mail he and other atheists have received from the militantly religious and there are some other, incredibly moving, letters that he has received from people who have been traumatised by religion in one way or another.

If you’re interested in anthropology, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It includes the sometimes astounding results of a range of studies designed to test people’s moral faculties. One of the best is the study done by the Israeli social psychologist, Tamarin, who asked a thousand Israeli schoolchildren to answer questions on an account of the battle of Jericho (Joshua 6:24). The story is that Joshua invaded Jericho, burning the city to the ground and killing all its inhabitants. Tamarin asked the children whether they approved these actions. 70% of them approved and only 30% disapproved. The comments given by the children are pretty horrifying too. They include things like “Joshua was right to exterminate the people. It was bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land, one will also become impure.” Indeed, a lot of the comments showed a repulsion towards racial mixing. The control group of Tamarin’s study, meanwhile, consisted of Israeli children who read the same passage, but in their version the word ‘Joshua’ was replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ by ‘Chinese Kingdom.’ Only 7% of children in the control group approved of General Lin’s actions and the rest characterised them as genocide. Looking at that, I think a lot of people might concede that Richard Dawkins has a point when he claims that religion’s greatest tragedy is that it can make good people do very bad things.

Worth a read then? I think definitely. If you’re interested in natural science, you’re bound to get a lot out of it and if you’re interested in people and what makes them tick, there’s a huge amount of insight to be had in this book. Even if you just want to see what all the fuss is about, I still think it merits a look. Read just a couple of chapters even, from the second half – some of what you’ll find in there is genuinely eye-opening and not to be missed.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The God Delusion – eventually illuminating

  1. Anthony

    Memes’n’genes are more thoroughly examined in some of his other books, but I’d say that this is really more concerned with the philosophical attack on religion which, though often grounded in science, can also exist and make perfect sense when wholly detached from it. Because of this slightly different emphasis there’s a sense in which this book relies on the reader being somewhat acquainted with the contents of Dawkins’ other books (Blind watchmaker, Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype etc) in which, as I say, the science is laid out more clearly. Having said this, it would probably be a little harsh to present this as an outright criticism of The God Delusion.

    Where I think he does come a little bit unstuck is in his rendering of religious belief (his process of setting up a variety of strawmen and striking them down). I don’t mind the venom and passion – I think the critique of him as a fundamentalist zealot is wholly misguided, preoccupied as that point so often is with the increasingly fashionable declaration of equivalence between religious and scientific conviction (they are surely completely different modes of thought, only comparable iin a very superficial sense). Moving on from that point… I agree with the besotted reviewer: Dawkins’ attitude often comes across as really quite endearing.

    I think the philosophy is a little weak – or perhaps thats just a compromise made in order to be granted access to as large an audience as possible. Its not that the arguments are dishonest or logically incoherent, only that the religious beliefs he attacks are setup with such fragility and evident weakness that the conclusions are easily drawn. He doesn’t seem to strive for much empathy with religious faith, too often contenting himself with (a very effective) rejection of it. He says that the devoutly religious are mistaken when they say that atheists can’t live fulfilled lives – and as an atheist I would agree with this – though I wouldn’t feel the need to protest that I too can be spiritual. But I would also point out that in failing to immerse himself fully in the internal (ostensible) logic of religious faith, Dawkins is missing out himself. Not on understanding the truth of the matter or anything like that, but more with regards to getting why people might be religious in the first place, and why they might feel the need to assert that belief. It is in this sense alone that I think one can say Dawkins is blinded by his atheistic conviction.

    But maybe a lot of my opinion is so personal as to be meaningless; just a bit of a snobbish attitude towards the popularisation of complicated issues. Because overall its such an important book – specifically because of the coverage it has received. Overall, I think its very valuable politically and sociologically, and utterly sound (though understandably incomplete) in a scientific sense. Philosophically I’d say its immaculate but perhaps unambitious in the arguments it sets out to deal with. Although its always nice to see a religious strawman being torn down.

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