Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

I've recently read The God Delusion, and I thought I'd post my review.

In summary, the books got some really great parts that made me think, and some parts that seem really amateurish. It kind of seems like Dawkins already had some celebrity status, so he got away with some weak parts in his book. His arguments about the origins of morality and religion, where he draws on his knowledge of genetics and evolution, are very strong; however, I found his argument for why there is "almost certainly" no God unconvincing --- for this reason, I think the book would have been a lot stronger if he'd called it "The Religion Delusion." The final three chapters are mostly just his opinions backed up with anecdotes, until the last section of the last chapter, when he talks inspiringly about how our perceptions evolved, and how science allows us to perceive more of the world than our evolved perceptions allow.

At a high level, although I can understand his reasons for taking a harsh tone --- he believes religion does a lot of harm and gets a free pass --- I think he sometimes goes overboard. When addressing the "argument from religious scientists" in favour of the existence of God, he correctly notes that that's an irrational argument. But then, whenever he mentions a scientist, if that scientist's an atheist, Dawkins goes out of his way to remind the reader of that fact. Furthermore, when he's citing a historical scientist who was religious, he goes out of his way to write that off as everyone back then being religious, or conjectures that the scientist was lying in order to fit in. Richard, if you've said that something's an invalid argument, don't fucking make it. It makes you look hypocritical.

I also felt that he went overboard when talking about Kurt Wise. Most of what he said is also in one of his articles which is online here. Where I felt he went overboard is in calling Wise (or at least, his story) "pathetic." I guess my values are just different from Dawkins' --- I'd never call someone "pathetic" for making a hard choice, no matter how much I disagreed with it. That's just bad taste, IMHO.

The book's title is The God Delusion; however, I found his argument for the non-existence of God really weak. His argument is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit --- he asserts that any intelligence capable of designing the universe must either be designed, or come about through natural selection. Either possibility contradicts the definition of God.

The fact that that was Dawkins' core argument shocked me --- it's really no different than the response to the cosmological argument, "Where did God come from?", and the response is the same --- the point of positing something transcendant is to get around all rules of physics and logic so that you can have something self-caused that causes everything else, thus bootstrapping the whole process. Yes, that's a "skyhook", not a "crane", and yes, that disqualifies God as a scientific hypothesis, but that has no bearing on the probability of God's existence. I was somewhat gratified to read in the Wikipedia article on Dawkins' argument that many atheists didn't buy the argument either.

The parts after Dawkins' argument against the existence of God were excellent, however. Dawkins did a really good job of explaining the development of religion using memetics. This bit was convincing, especially when he brought up cargo cults. I can't do his argument justice, but it's worth reading. Likewise, his discussion of how moral instincts could evolve --- kin altruism, reciprocity, reputation, and conspicious giving to acquire status --- is really enlightening and convincing. He also presents studies with moral dillemas, that show that people have the same moral instincts regardless of their religion. These are the chapters where Dawkins is drawing from the area in which he's expert, and it shows. Fascinating stuff.

Dawkins next examines religious morality, pulling several very immoral bits from the Old Testament. Nice things like throwing women (property) to be gang-raped. He then pulls out a real zinger --- he talks about what a great guy Jesus, and then points out that Jesus moral superheroism comes from departing from the morality of the Jewish Scriptures. That demonstrates that wherever morals come from, it isn't from religious scriptures. (Yes, I'm aware that most Christians believe that Jesus is God and that he could say what he said because of that, and otherwise he'd be blaspheming --- Dawkins' argument depends on the reader already accepting naturalism.)

The next strong point Dawkins makes is that teaching children that faith without evidence is a virtue makes it easier for violent extremists to corrupt people later in life (suicide bombings, terrorism, etc.). That's a fair point, and I'd suggest that it's something religious communities should think about, even if they disagree with Dawkins. If you believe in high moral ideas, you've got a responsibility to make sure, to the best of your ability, that your actions are right and just.

Dawkins' most controversial (in my mind) claim is his likening of religious upbringing of children to child abuse. He isn't clear whether he means that all religious upbringing is abuse, or just some (ie. fire and brimstone). If he's talking about the latter --- which is where many of his examples come from --- he'd definitely find Christian allies.

So, those are the major good and bad points of the book. I'd definitely recommend reading it, as it's got some very interesting stuff --- just be aware that some parts are weaker than others.

Did it knock me off the fence? Nope, I still have no fucking clue if there's a God or not. However, Dawkins' criticisms of religion are strong, and after reading it I'm tempted to define myself as an "agnostic Jesus fan who prays" than a "very liberal Christian." I'm not settled on that yet, though, and I'd been considering that before I even picked up the book.

Monday, March 19, 2007


After three great years together, Cath and I are engaged! My parents were visiting, so we decided that Sunday was a good day for an announcement, since we could tell both sets of parents in person, instead of my family finding out over the phone! Man, I was nervous -- worst case scenario would have been if one family were happy and smiling, and the other were looking at us like we were crazy. I was really relieved when it was smiles all around.

We both have to thank Tiffany's for some excellent service. We went in assuming that there was no way they'd have any ring in our price range, but we figured taking a look couldn't hurt. When we told them what kind of ring we wanted and what our price range was, their sales person was nice, didn't turn up his nose at us, and showed us what they had. And their rings were much more beautiful than comparatively-priced rings from other jewelers.

They had a ring which was closest to what we wanted shipped into the store, and Cath absolutely loved it. And, here's the kicker -- we saw the ring on Saturday, and when we told them that we were telling our parents on Sunday, the sales person we talked to took a taxi across town that afternoon to get it re-sized on the same day so that we would have it when we made the announcement. Now that was above and beyond the call of duty!

So -- if you're shopping for an engagement ring, I recommend Tiffany's. Their service is great, and they do have nice rings at prices comparable to other jewellers.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Toronto Star: You've made an enemy today

I got a call around noon today. It could be Cath calling me in the middle of the day, so I decided to answer it. I was making a cup of espresso at the time, so I quickly smoothed over the cup of grinds and screwed it into the machine, and ran to the phone.

Me: "Hello?"

Phone: (silence)

Me: "HELLO?"

Phone: (CLICK!) "Hi, this is Bonnie calling on behalf of the Toronto Star...."

Me: "OK, WHY did you think it was acceptable to call me at my home?"

Phone: "I didn't call you! My computer called you!!!"

Me: "OK, well, can you ask your computer never to call me again, and take me off your calling list?"



In my view, by being a for-profit private company, the Toronto Star is acknowledging the principles of capitalism. By those principles, I have the right to the products of my own mind, my own effort, and my own time. By phoning me in my home, as with all forms of direct marketing with which I am familiar, the Toronto Star is expecting me to give of my time without compensation. I find it quite offensive that a capitalistic entity, would expect me to give them something for nothing. In my opinion, this is not an ethical act in a capitalistic system based on free trade between entities.

So long as the Toronto Star continues to engage in this practice, they aren't going to see one cent of my money. And I encourage others to take the same attitude with them.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Beef Enchiladas!

My cold finally started feeling a little better, so I felt like I could handle something a little heartier than bean stew, and like I had the energy to cook. So I took out my copy of The Mexican Cookbook that my parents got me for Christmas, and looked at the recipe for beef enchiladas that I'd been eying.

Fresh from the oven

A single enchilada, ready to eat

These things are pretty good! Corn tortillas, filled with browned beef, a salsa-like tomato sauce, and cheddar cheese, topped with more sauce and cheese. Nice and hearty, really hits the spot. All the use of the skillet made a lot of smoke, though!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Carlton Invitational 2007

Challenge: Make up better captions for these pictures. (This shouldn't be hard.)

"I got a medal -- w00t!"

"Too happy? I think not!"

Sabreurs, epeeists, and foilists: working together.

"When I'm done with this pizza, I'm eating your brain."

Lots of alcohol.

She who led the alcohol-gathering expedition. May she forever be sideways!

Yeah. They rock, and they know it.

"But what's everyone else going to drink?"

Post-Christmas Cooking

This is a pizza florentine, cooked on the pizza stone my girlfriend gave me for Christmas. I got the recipe from a cookbook my sister gave me a year ago. Standard bread dough base, homemade tomato sauce, spinach, sliced hardboiled eggs, blanched almonds, and mozzarella cheese.

Here, we see a moussaka I made with my girlfriend. We used a recipe from a cookbook I picked up in Greece. Tasty, but contains an obscene amount of olive oil.


This is a test post for my new blog.