The God Delusion

4 12 2006

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion reminded me a lot of my grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies. They were delicious – but I’d wince every time I bit into one of those unfortunate pieces of walnut. Take out the walnuts and they would be practically perfect.

Dawkins too has thrown in his fair share of walnuts, which ultimately detract from the overall experience. Dawkins’ walnuts are moments of fuzzy logic or anecdotal evidence. Fortunately though the book is mostly brilliant – and therefore worth a read.

In the book Dawkins makes the assertion that belief in god is not only illogical but is also detrimental to both the individual and to the society. He said once in an interview that he hopped that when one finished this book, one would be an atheist. Well, I’m done with it, and I am indeed an atheist. Since I was, however, when I started, I don’t know how good of a job the book would do at conversion, but nevertheless I think it is at least a good way, for anyone who wants to, to understand atheism.

The first two chapters, while interesting, are more of an introduction into the meatier chapters. The third chapter, Arguments for God’s Existence, truly starts the book by examining the common arguments for the existence of god. This chapter starts by a look at Thomas Aquinas’ five ‘proofs’ of god. Only one of the five is regularly invoked today, and that is the Teleological Argument – which Dawkins returns to in the next chapter. As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins does an excellent job of picking apart this idea of intelligent design.

The other arguments for the existence of god that Dawkins looks at are the ontological argument, the argument from beauty, from personal ‘experience’, from scripture, from admired religious scientists, Pascal’s Wager, and Bayesian arguments.

Chapter Four, Why There Almost Certainly is no God, delves into the nature of atheism and on a larger scale rebuts the arguments mentioned in the previous chapter. This chapter starts with what I believe to be one of the most import points of the book: evolution is not a process of chance.

The argument from improbability states that complex things could not have come about by chance. But many people define ‘come about by chance’ as a synonym for ‘come about in the absence of deliberate design’. Not surprisingly, therefore, they think improbability is evidence of design. Darwinian natural selection shows how wrong this is with respect to biological improbability.

Dawkins clearly explains the natural processes which answer such religious objections as ‘irreducible complexity’ and the supposed ‘gaps’ in the evolutionary tree. This section should be read by all creationists – if not to change their mind at least to show them that there is an extraordinary difference between what they think evolution is and what it actually is.

It is true that not every religious person takes the Genesis creation story to be literally true. Most religious apologists can believe that evolution happens, and rely on the creation of life – the beginning – as proof that there must be a creator. Dawkins uses the story of Goldilocks as an analogy for our existence. Everything has to be just right in order for us to exist. Everything in the universe has come together in such a way as to allow life to exist on this little blue planet. There are two arguments derived from this information, the argument of design and the anthropic principle. One could see how improbable it is that all of the conditions are right for life and say that there must be a creator who made it all happen. Alternatively, one could see that the large majority of planets do not support life – that only a very small minority of planets will find themselves in the ‘Goldilocks zone’. And since we’re here thinking about it, our planet necessarily is one of those in that small minority. Dawkins discusses these both in detail, and explores each arguments repercussions.

Chapter Five, The Roots of Religion, examines what else, the roots of religion. While this ultimately goes to refute the argument from scripture, it is perhaps one of the most fascinating chapters of the book. This chapter introduced me to ‘evolutionary psychology’ a field which I didn’t know existed – but one which I found to be incredibly interesting. While this chapter is way too complex to recount here, I will briefly say that it covers the biological, psychological, and societal reasons for religion.

Chapter Six, The Roots of Morality: Why are we Good?, follows the previous nicely. This chapter should certainly be read by anyone who thinks that without religion people would have no ‘morality’. Again Dawkins looks to science to show that being ‘good’ isn’t something that we choose, it is part of our evolutionary and sociological history.

In one section of this chapter, Dawkins sites studies in which people were given a hypothetical situation and asked what they would do given a choice between two actions. He uses data collected by the Harvard biologist Marc Hauser.

Where Hauser goes beyond the philosophers is that he actually does statistical surveys and psychological experiments, using questionnaires on the Internet, for example, to investigate the moral sense of real people. From the present point of view, the interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons.

In a representative situation, a doctor has five patients, all of whom are dying of a different organ failure. Then he notices that there is a perfectly healthy man in the waiting room. If he kills the healthy man and takes his organs he can save the lives of the five men, if he lets the man live, all five will die. This is a typical situation – the goal here is to test Kant’s principle, “that a rational being should never be used as merely an un-consenting means to an end, even the end of benefiting others.” And as the study shows: “Ninety-seven per cent of subjects agreed that it is morally forbidden to seize the healthy person in the waiting-room and kill him for his organs, thereby saving five other people.”

Along with other examples, Dawkins shows that people of extremely different races, religions, and backgrounds, have remarkable similarities in their sense of morality. What is most intriguing is that Dawkins continues on to explain why these religiously-independent morals exist.

Chapter Seven, The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist, starts to take on the second part of Dawkins’ thesis. Here he begins to map out why he thinks religion is not only useless, but destructive. This chapter emphasizes that those who would hold up the bible, the Torah, or the Koran as the source of our morality either don’t practice what they preach or are perhaps the most immoral people in the world. He provides a handful of the many many examples of the morality of these books – and it becomes terrifying to realize how many people indeed do take the bible as their moral code.

Chapter Eight, What’s Wrong with Religion? Why be so Hostile? is a brief examination of the evils of religious belief. From the obvious examples of the crusades and 9/11 to the harm religion does on individual psyches. He talks about the dangers of moral absolutists and even address the distinction between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’.

Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ So did Bertrand Russell: ‘Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.’

As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers. The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith. This is one reason why i do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called ‘extremist’ faith. The teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.

And this is one of those walnuts. While Dawkins has a valid point, his use of a slippery slope argument does not help him make it. While a slippery slope argument can be either valid or fallacious, I was not convinced of the link between suicide bombers and those religious people I know who are moderate enough that they can stand being around me. Dawkins, throughout the book, makes many valid arguments as to the destructive nature of faith that I’m not sure if this last one should have even been addressed. I would encourage potential readers of this book not to take this as representative of the overall book.

Chapter Nine, Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion, looks at the damage religion does to children. Dawkins goes far beyond the common idea of religious ‘brainwashing’. This chapter should be required reading for anyone planing on bringing up children in a religious household.

The final chapter, A Much Needed Gap?, addresses the question, ‘does religion fill a much needed gap?’ Dawkins looks at religion in terms of consolation and inspiration – something I think he does a good job at given the nature of the subject. Dawkins acknowledges that faith can be just as consoling as something real, but that it may be misguided.

There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. It is all of a piece with the infantilism of those who, the moment they twist their ankle, look around for someone to sue. Somebody else must be responsible for my well-being, and somebody else must be to blame if I am hurt. Is it a similar infantilism that really lies behind the ‘need’ for a God? . . .

The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it. And we can make it very wonderful indeed.

In the final section of the chapter, and of the book, Dawkins uses the Muslim burka as an allegory for the way religion limits or distorts our world view. He talks about our inability to imagine things that we don’t need to in order to exist in our world. The brain is, after all, an evolved organ. But science allows us to broaden our world view. Which in turn allows us to depend less and less on the supernatural as an explanation for the natural world.

I am here offering my recommendation of The God Delusion. While it might not change your life, I found it to be absolutely fascinating. It opens up to our consideration the idea that religion is not something we ‘need’ – but rather it is a bit of evolutionary junk that has understandable and natural (not divine) beginnings.

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2 responses

12 01 2007
Chris O'Connor

I want to invite you and your readers to join us in reading and discussing Dawkins “The God Delusion” during Q1, 2007. I’m working on getting him in a live chat session for some time in March 2007, but nothing is set in stone. If this chat happens you are welcome to attend.

We had Richard Dawkins for a live chat back in 2003 where we discussed “Unweaving the Rainbow.”

BookTalk – online reading group and book discussion forum

Chris O’Connor

16 01 2007
Mitchell

Thank you for the invite! If the live chat does happen, I hope i’ll be able to attend!

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