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.