Finally getting around to The God Delusion
Okay, I’m only six years late to the party, but I’ve finally got around to reading it, so here are my thoughts on a book I’ve been avoiding more or less since it was published – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
First, I should say that I read the paperback edition. This may be important, as it included a new preface, which helpfully dealt with a number of common responses to the book (such as “I’m an atheist, but…”, acceptance of religion as a fact of life, and descriptions of Dawkins as a fundamentalist equal to those he criticises), and mentioned that a few other unspecified changes and corrections had been made to the text. I found it a useful addition, heading off common objections before getting down to the substance. In some cases, I think people would benefit from reading this preface more than the actual book.
And the book’s nothing if not ambitious. It attempts to show that God doesn’t (or almost certainly doesn’t) exist, explain why religion is nevertheless so common, deal with common questions about belief and morality, make the case for religion in all its forms being dangerous, persuade that religion should be excluded from education and upbringing, and finally inspire at the majesty of a world viewed from a scientific perspective. Any of these could be the subject of a short book on its own, and a comprehensive treatment is obviously impossible, but the book holds together well within the limitations of space.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting to encounter – I had a vague expectation that the book would be 400 pages of angry ranting about sky-fairies – but from the very first page, I was pleasantly surprised by Dawkins’s openness and humour. He marshals his arguments well, dealing with them thematically in a well-planned progression, and both anticipates and deals with possible objections with a perception and understanding that I’d been led to believe he lacked. More than once, I read his arguments thinking “what about…” only to find him addressing my question a couple of pages later.
Dawkins also injects a good amount of balance – he may be arguing his case, but he isn’t just throwing every available weapon against religion. Unlike many outspoken atheists, he recognises the overwhelming likelihood that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, even while mentioning that arguments to the contrary have been attempted. And he goes out of his way to defend the Roman Catholic church on the subject of child abuse, giving the scandal a wider perspective which has been generally lacking. He may be arguing a case, but it’s encouraging that he also seems to care very much about fairness and honesty.
It’s often said that Dawkins has an aggressive tone, and I found the section on Intelligent Design to be both interesting and helpful in considering this reputation. ID is most definitely something that Dawkins knows a lot about (he can construct his arguments without ever leaving his area of professional expertise), and it’s a subject on which I (and most moderate believers) would agree with him wholeheartedly. I found him to be very fair and balanced on this, but couldn’t detect any difference in style between this section and the rest of the book, suggesting that any criticism of his tone may be caused by sensitivity to criticism of dearly-held beliefs, rather than an objectively aggressive manner.
I confess I found some sections rather longer than they needed to be. Maybe it’s an indication that I’m not completely convinced by the idea of memetics, but 50 pages of often evidence-light speculation on the origins of religion seemed to drag a little, and I might have skipped to the next section if I hadn’t been wanting to cover the full text. I’m glad I persisted, because the part at the end covering cargo cults was very interesting, adding a lot of detail to an idea I was familiar with. Obviously, a book of this type will never cater for all tastes or needs, and others will undoubtedly have found this useful, but personally, I’d have been happy to see some ruthless editing in this area.
In some cases, Dawkins appeared to be making a statement which made me sit up and make a note of a quibble or objection, only to conclude much later on the basis of further passages that he wasn’t saying what I thought he was saying, or that his view was rather more subtle than I’d appreciated. I’d be surprised if I was alone in that, and it should serve as a warning to anyone intending to quotemine his book for ammunition. It could be argued that he should be clearer, and I’d have some sympathy with that, but he covers a lot of ground for a relatively short book, with a style that’s generally more polemic than academic, so I wouldn’t want to make a big deal of it.
Bearing that in mind, there were some points where I thought Dawkins was overreaching. His view that religion is uniquely responsible for all manner of conflict is plausible, but I’m not convinced that all (or even most) conflicts wouldn’t be justified in other ways in the absence of religion. And I can’t let it go that he quotes the NAS statistics I recently picked apart. He contrasts them with the general population, which is a more justified comparison than the prison survey, but depending on whether respondents were questioned on labels or specific beliefs, you can get very different responses, as Dawkins knows. That’s a more recent survey, though, and he goes on to give a lot more supporting data, which makes this a minor infraction.
And there were other areas where I found that I didn’t entirely agree with his arguments. Some of his opinions on various sorts of agnosticism fall into this category, I’m not convinced that a truly deist God is a question science can answer (although this is academic as such a God is functionally useless in the real world), and as something of a pragmatist, I feel naturally drawn towards the sort of strategic alliances and recognition of common ground that he decries in his section on NOMA. But if he argues his case well, as he does, he’s entitled to serious consideration, and I’ll probably be chewing over his views for a while yet.
It’s a good book, probably a great book. It doesn’t offer the final word on any of the subjects it covers, but as a single work covering all of them, it’s hard to imagine anything much better. If I have a complaint, it’s that Dawkins has covered a whole load of subjects that I was intending to address, and better than I would do, so if I write about them having read the book, it’ll look like I’m crudely rehashing his material. That’s not a problem with the book, but from a selfish point of view it’s very annoying.