Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion – Book Review

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion might well be thought of as the Atheist Bible: it’s a weighty tome which ambitiously attempts to look at all the areas of religion which seemingly come into conflict with atheism.

Interestingly, I finished the book as the latest bout of outrage flared up over Catholic priests involved in pedophilia, which made some of Dawkins’ points all the more relevant. And as a peace-loving Atheist for easily 16 years, I was interested in how Dawkins might present his denouncement of religion. I half expected some kind of unifying manifesto when he described one of his aims for the book to win some converts for the cause.

But let me cut to the chase of my review right now: I wasn’t completely impressed. Dawkins was clearly aiming to write the definitive book on religion – why even moderate religion helps to uphold the extremists and fundamentalists, why religion shouldn’t automatically deserve unblinking respect and why atheism is the only tenable position. Unfortunately, The God Delusion was terribly hit and miss. In places, Dawkins came across as the Michael Moore of religion – belittling his opposition as ‘religious apologists’ and worse, choosing his facts carefully to support his position. His central chapters are unexpectedly weak – he tries to explain the rise of religion as proof of Darwinian evolution. I could see his point, but I couldn’t imagine a Christian accepting this train of thought. It felt uncomfortable and contrived rather than convincing.

And don’t get me started on his weak closing argument which uses a bhurka as a metaphor for humanity’s lack of knowledge of the universe…

However, in other places, Dawkins offers a comprehensive and damning rebuttal of religion. He makes some convincing parallels between the Afghan Taliban and the growing fundamentalist Christian movement in America which refuses to acknowledge Atheists as even human. Yikes. No, that’s truly terrifying.

Reading The God Delusion reminded me why I made my choice in the first place. One of the upsides of the book was that it really did reaffirm my position (not that I was wavering). From my own point of view though – and this may be different for others – unlike Dawson, I didn’t need science as a replacement for religion. That may be why I was slightly nonplussed by his lengthy ventures into Darwinian territory. I understand that these details were necessary for his argument though, especially since the counter-arguments from religion are patently ludicrous.

Dawkins is also convincing when he points out that the difference between Athiests and Christians is one god – Christians clearly have no problem disbelieving in a whole gamut of Norse, Roman, Egyptian and Greek gods. That example should make it easier for religious people to understand (if they seek understanding of Atheists) how an Atheist can dis-believe in God.

He also efficiently deconstructs the reliance upon the Bible and questions whether a literal stance is viable in the modern world. Hell, like most people he wonders how many religious people actually read the Bible. And he devotes a part of the book to morality and questions whether religion is really necessary as a moral compass – citing the higher crime rates in the most religious states in America as an example that this isn’t necessarily so.

Dawkins cross references his earlier writings extensively. However, The God Delusion works just fine as a self-contained work. And whatever side of the fence you’re sitting on, Dawkins’ work is certainly thought provoking: even when I was disagreeing with some of his ideas, I was questioning my own thinking on the topic. In fact, since reading it, I’ve written some articles of my own, trying to crystalise my position and hopefully reach out to other people questioning their faith. I remember it as quite a frightening time, and I think that’s something which Dawkins failed to address adequately in the book.

One final thing: I think the perception of Dawkins as a fundamentalist atheist doesn’t help his goal of converting other people. When religion is attacked, people dig their heels in, close their minds and look for reasons to undermine your argument. I found that the book was more moderate than I expected it to be, and many of Dawkins’ arguements persuasive but not forceful at all. But then, he was preaching to the converted in my case. I wonder how many people rejected the book because they felt he portrayed religious people as feeble-minded or corrupt?

Still, this is one book that will remain on my shelf to be re-read at a later date. It was worth every penny.

8 Comments

  1. Ted Haggard

    A very poor book review. Gerard McGarry seems to know very little about theology terminology if he thinks Dawkins is “belittling his opposition as ‘religious apologists'”

    The term Apologist applies especially to early christian writers (c 120-220) who took on the task of recommending their faith to outsiders.

    The term comes from the Greek word apologia (απολογΞ―α), meaning a speaking in defense.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apologetics

  2. Phil McRevis

    That the meanings of words change over time.  I see nothing wrong with the way the writer used the word according to its modern usage.  Of course it’s fairly common for Christians to be a bit behind the times.

    x3

  3. Gerard McGarry

    Aw, come on Ted – don’t write off the whole review on the basis of one syntactical misunderstanding! Coming from Northern Ireland, I’ve heard the term apologist used frequently in relation to opposing ideologies. “Republican apologist” is generally taken as someone who thinks blowing people up in the name of politics is acceptable.

    So, in general, ‘apologist’ has negative connotations for me. But thank you for the background info! It really didn’t help though that Dawkins alternately implied that religious minds were incapable of understanding certain aspects of science.

    Is that all that was poor about the review, or is there something else?

  4. Darren

    Just to swing things back the other way πŸ™‚

    I’m looking forward to reading this, been on my shelf for a while, but I think you may have told me what to expect. Oh, and by the way, I believe in ‘one’ god. But then I’m not like the people the good Dr talks of in his book… I do read the Bible.

    Anyway, this is a good review, to say it isn’t on the grounds of semantics is, shall we say a little fundamental.

  5. Darren

    Just to swing things back the other way πŸ™‚

    I’m looking forward to reading this, been on my shelf for a while, but I think you may have told me what to expect. Oh, and by the way, I believe in ‘one’ god. But then I’m not like the people the good Dr talks of in his book… I do read the Bible.

    Anyway, this is a good review, to say it isn’t on the grounds of semantics is, shall we say a little fundamental.

  6. VM

    Almost entirely agreed with this review.

     

    As a biologist I found the talk of the evolution of religion to be a very interesting topic of discussion, seeing as how you don’t see animals praying to some sort of diety. I just never made the connection to it being a self-destructive type of behavior like a moth flying into flames as opposed to an evolutionary side-effect. As you said though, to someone who isn’t aquainted with the sciences it doesn’t do much.

     

    As to people embracing science as opposed to religion: If people poured as much money, time, and work into scientific pursuit as religious ones, then we’d be colonizing new worlds at the moment as opposed to being terrestrially bound. Of course, I’m a bit biased being a scientist here. Besides, a world devoted purely to science in would be far more peaceful than a world devoted to religion. In a world ruled by religion, the worst to happen is a few people clubbing each other to death. In a world ruled by science, the worst to happen would be an unstoppable apocalypse and I forsee this knowledge of possible extinction resulting in the more-or-less cease fire between developed nations that exists today due to the fact that an assault would lead to nuclear wafare (except this cease fire being global seeing as how everyone everywhere would be able to produce some very nasty weaponry). Self-preservation is a wonderful motivator πŸ˜›

    1. Gerard McGarry

      Besides, a world devoted purely to science in would be far more peaceful than a world devoted to religion…I forsee this knowledge of possible extinction resulting in the more-or-less cease fire between developed nations that exists today.

      @VM – Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment. Again, from a non-scientific point of view, I don’t necessarily believe that a science-led culture would be uncorruptible. Dawkins treats science with a similarly Utopian reverence, but I think that people will always manage to bastardise technology.

      I mean, would it stop cultural divides and underdeveloped countries to carry out genocides within their own borders? As you say, the technology would exist. I’m not sure that the Western world would step in to stop genocide in countries they have no commercial interest in. That’s just one example off the top of my head.

      Science is more of an enabler than a philosophy. Certainly, the ability to prove or disprove certain religious claims is important – like revealing the Shroud of Turin to be a fake – but personally I don’t need to be hauling around a bronzed statue of Darwin as my new deity!

  7. davegs

    I can’t believe how many movies are out about one prophecy or another it’s really disturbing, but at least there’s good comedies out now.

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