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.