Thursday, December 13, 2007

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

(Book Review)

I probably shouldn't make what is going to be a long review even longer by adding a long introduction, but as this is a bit different from the kind of book I usual read, I feel it would be appropriate to write about how this landed into my hands in the first place.

Richard Dawkins is of course a household name (famous enough to even get mocked on "South Park") and I've been vaguely aware of him and his work since my Calvin days, in the way we're all vaguely aware of several authors and thinkers we never actually bother to read.

I started to become interested in him during the days of TV Links (may it rest in peace) as I mentioned earlier. TV Links had some links up to his lectures, along with lectures of creationist programs, and, although science was never my strong point, the back and forth on philosophical issues was pretty interesting and it seemed like just the perfect thing to have on in the background while doing some mindless task like washing the dishes or cleaning the apartment.

Although I wasn't always comfortable with what Dawkins had to say, I found him a fascinating figure to listen to and began to seek out his lectures on the net. He was thought provoking, quick on his feet during a debate, articulate, and seemed extremely bright.
--Although perhaps we Americans are a little too captivated by a British accent. If something is said in a crisp clean British accent it sounds incredibly intelligent to us no matter how bizarre the actual content is. I call this the "Christopher Hitchens Syndrome". (Speaking of which, I was recently talking to two highly educated, well read, political aware Brits, who had no idea who Christopher Hitchens was when I brought him up. Could it be he's a complete unknown in his native land?)

Anyway, in most of the videos he was speaking in, Dawkins kept referencing his book. "This is explained in more detail in my book." "I cover that in my book", etc. You know how these book tour videos go.

So, whilst in Fukuoka for the Japanese Proficiency Test last week, I was browsing through an English bookstore looking for an interesting book that I could enjoy over a cup of coffee in the neighboring Starbucks, and this one caught my eye.

I don't write a lot about my personal faith on this blog because my religious beliefs aren't as strong or as set in stone as my political ones. If you asked me if I believe in God my answer is likely to vary depending which day you catch me on. In my more optimistic moods: yes, in my more pessimistic ones: no.

I was worried that this book would take away even the slight hope I have, and I was hesitant to buy it. But in the end, the curiosity to see what was inside won out. (I also thought it might be a nice counter weight to my weekly discussions with the Jehovah's Witnesses).

It is a very interesting read, and if I were to consider this book simply on how enjoyable it was to have in a coffee shop with me, it would rate very high.

It did not make a complete atheist out of me though, which was Dawkin's intention in writing it.

I'd love to go into detail and write my opinion about every part of this book, but a complete review that examined every argument Dawkins's makes would end up being just as long as the book itself. So in the interest of brevity I'll just say that as I read the book at various parts my reaction was either:

A). Hey, that's a really good point.
B). That's an interesting point, but I already know what the religious response is going to be.
C). That's not really a strong argument.
or occasionally D). Thinking about this is giving me a head ache. I'll come back to this part.

The strongest parts of this book are, as you would expect, the scientific parts. And fear not, this is science for the layman. Fascinating reading even for people like me who decided long ago that science was not my friend.

The philosophical parts are also interesting, but slightly disappointing in that Dawkins at times doesn't seem to fully understand the theological ideas he is arguing against, or fails to anticipate the theologians' response. In this respect it is obvious that Dawkins doesn't come from the hard Christian education background most of us (me and my regular readers) did.

I must not be the only one who noticed this, because Dawkins addresses this criticism in the preface to the paperback addition, but he brings it up only to dismiss it. He quotes a long section of "The Courtier's Reply" and says, "to expand the point, most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first emersing ourselves in Pastafarian theology, etc." All this holds good as long as Dawkins is in the realm of science. When he enters into philosophy/theology, a bit more of a religous background would not hurt him at all.

Admittedly part of the problem is that religion in all its incarnations and competing belief systems is too much of a moving target to nail down effectively. Dawkins can't resist taking aim at the biggest juiciest part: the people who not only believe that God exists, but believe that they know exactly what he wants and force their own narrow view of God onto everyone else, and even invent a horrific eternal hell for disbelievers. Most of the book is focused against those people.

However in the strongest part of the book Dawkin argues against the existence of God full out, expanding his range to include deists and agnostics as well.

The core of his argument against God is the same one Betrand Russell used in his essay "Why I am not a Christian" (which I, and I'm sure many of you, had to read in my introduction to philosophy class at Calvin). Dawkins admits there are many things about the beginning of the universe which we don't understand and may never understand. He, like Russell before him, however argues that the problem is not solved by simply referring back to God, because now we have to explain where God came from. And since God is a complex intelligent being, we have just increased the complexity of the problem not simplified it.

...And this is where my headache begins to come in, because I already know what the religious response is. That God is outside the laws of time and space and cause and reaction, and always has existed and always will and doesn't need to have his origin explained. Dawkins of course would counter that this is just declaring something by fiat and doesn't even make sense at any rate. And he's right but...

But then how did everything get here? Where did the big bang come from? And even if science could answer these questions, wouldn't that leave us with just a new mystery to solve ad infinitum? At some point wouldn't we have to revert to some sort of God figure? But then where did God come from? Is it legitimate to claim that God doesn't need a cause? And my headache continues.

And although I enjoyed having Dawkins force me to think about these issues, I still maintain my agnosticism at the end of all of it.

(I'm not doing justice to his argument by the way. You should read the book for full effect).

The last 3rd of the book deals with the social problems caused by religion. Not surprisingly Dawkins again levels his aim primarily at the extremists, but he also claims that the moderates are responsible for fostering a climate in which the extremists are allowed to breed.

Although I'm oversimplifying Dakwkins, the argument that the moderates enable the extremists is an argument that can be used against any belief system or political philosophy. When I was hanging around in conservative circles back at Calvin I was all but accused of complicity in Stalin's death camps because of my beliefs in democratic socialism. Around the same time I myself tried to convince my church pastor that preaching about the sinfullness of homosexuality enabled hate crimes. (Hmmm, although upon reflection I have to say I'm actually not sorry I said that. I do believe a lot of the hate crimes against homosexuals would disappear if the Church reversed it's stance. Still it is dangerous logic.)

Dawkins would like for society to stop regarding blind faith without evidence as a virtue, and subject people's religious beliefs to the same kind of scrutiny and debate that everything else in society is subject to.

While half of me thinks this is a good idea, the other half of me worries about identity politics. This is probably an example of something that works when we criticize the majority, but could offset a lot of problems when applied to minority religions as well. For an example of what I mean watch this video on youtube in which Dawkins expresses his opinions on Mormonism. Truth be told it's somewhat similar to my own beliefs, and yours as well (although you would never say it so bluntly, let's face it this is more or less what you believe or otherwise you'd be sending in for your free book of Mormon and asking how to apply for membership). The reason you and I don't go around saying this all the time though is because we remember the religious persecution the Mormons faced, and no-one wants to go back to that period. So out of respect for the identity politics of religion, we hold our criticism mute.

...Or am I being unfair to Dawkins? Yet another issue I go back and forth on, as do most of us, about how to deal with various religions in a multicultural society. If the issue was clear cut, I guess we wouldn't have been having the culture wars for the past 50 years. At any rate, Dawkins offers some interesting thoughts.

As with his philosophic arguments, I'm truncating Dawkin's arguments here out of necessity. There's a lot more stuff in his book , most of which I agree with actually. I'm tempted to comment on it all, but I can't go on with this post forever.

In closing: I'm always reluctant to give out book recommendations because I think people need to read books for their own reasons and not someone elses. But several of you in my blogging circle regularly touch on religious issues with a lot more insight, subtlety and intelligence than I can usually muster (Christman, Guam, Whisky, Bork, Meg). Should you ever come across this book and find time to read it, I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

Update: the amount of red ink spilled over this book, book reviews and critiques, is a bit overwhelming. For that reason I stayed away from reading a lot of book reviews on the net. For better or for worse, the ideas on this book review are entirely my own, and not formed with the benefit of informed reading. After writing this, however, I did come across a review of this book by none other than Alvin Plantinga. Worth reading here.
Link of the Day
A Double Standard on Migrants?

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