Thursday, March 01, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

I'll try not to write much here, since this book has already been written about way too much. Briefly, my opinion is that this book doesn't break a whole lot of new ground, but it puts some common arguments for atheism in popular language and is an enjoyable read. For the most part, it's well-argued and well-written, and I would recommend it to anyone remotely interested in religion.

Where I think some people may have a problem, however, is that Richard can be a real dick about it sometimes. He tries to remain respectful to religion, and does OK for the most part, but the book is still full of snarky little comments putting down religious folk. While these can be funny, it would have been nice to see someone argue a position without explicitly putting down the opposing position.

In addition, sometimes he can get a little too informal and end up undermining his own arguments. For example, in a section about the consolation that religion can provide, he mentions that there are both happy atheists and miserable atheists; happy Christians and miserable Christians; etc etc. Then he ponders whether, in general, atheists are less happy than religious people, and writes something like "there might be statistical evidence for this. I dunno! But I bet all religions would be about the same." Dude. You're a scientist. Look it up. Especially in a book relying on the idea that beliefs should be supported by hard evidence, the least he could do is look up some evidence rather than relying on his hunches. (Incidentally, I did look it up, and as with most things in science, the link between religion and happiness is complicated).

However, don't take this to mean that Dawkins is some extremist atheist who relies on blind faith as much as many strict adherents to a religion do. The cores of his arguments are grounded in scientific evidence and valid reasoning. In other words, his beliefs are based on reality - the same reality that anyone else can observe, verify, and would likely draw the same beliefs from if they really thought about it. Because of this, most of what Dawkins concludes is almost certainly true.

"Almost" is a key word here. Dawkins himself never becomes so convinced in his own reasoning that he leaves no room to be proven wrong. When speaking of the existence of God, he admits the old cliche that "you can't prove a negative"; i.e., you can't conclusively disprove God's existence. So, he explains why there almost certainly is no God.

[TANGENT] I'm no philosopher, but I have always been confused by the "can't prove a negative" thing. If something's existence entails definite, observable consequences, and those consequences are not observed, then that thing's existence is disproven. It's a valid argument of the form "If A then B...Not B...Therefore Not A". So if I say my god is infallible, and she said she would appear to me on March 1st 2007 in the form of a talking polar bear sitting on my front lawn eating Cheetos, and I don't see this polar bear (which, by the way, I don't), then my god certainly does not exist. It's proven. Of course, this only applies to my god, not all gods, which is perhaps what the "can't prove a negative" rule is really talking about. And perhaps it does not apply to the Christian God, which, I think, has been intelligently designed to avoid positing many concrete observable consquences, and vaguely defined enough to wiggle out of any failures to observe the few that exist. [/TANGENT]

Dawkins provides some good arguements showing why there is no reason to believe that God exists, and perhaps more importantly, shooting down some of the popular arguments for His existence. It probably won't convince anyone to change their mind, but perhaps atheists can clarify their reasons for believing what they do, and religious people can better understand why atheists disagree with them (and, if they care about justifying their beliefs with reason, try to prepare counterarguments to Dawkins' in order to strengthen their reasoned faith).

I would recommend the book to atheists, religious people, and people like me who are less easily labeled. At the very least, it will make you think about your own beliefs, which, I believe, is always a good thing.


Anonymous said...

While I agree with most of what you had to say, I actually found that Dawkins' snarky little comments putting down religious folk were the best parts of the book. Remember that when presented with two extreme points of view, the truth does not always lie somewhere in the middle; one side might just be wrong.

Phronk said...

That's true, and I did enjoy the funny snarky bits. But the book would probably get its point across better without them...i.e. the people who the comments are directed at would take it more seriously. It's possible to argue with someone even if they are blatantly wrong. Like, little kids have some wacky beliefs, but their teachers aren't like "you think the sky is blue because it reflects the ocean, Billy? Hah! Do you believe in fairies too, fairy boy?"

Nancy said...

Hey Mike,

I just read the God Delusion as well. I was strangely underwhelmed by the book and couldn't put it in words. I guess I was hoping for less boring and more proof. And yeah, he is a dick sometimes. Have you ever watched his documentary about atheism? Sometimes he was just yelling at the other person because he couldn't understand why they couldn't see his point. Not usually the best way to convince people. Unless you are a polar bear. I'll do anything a yelling polar bear tells me to do.

Bowling again next weekend?

Phronk said...

Hey Nancy!

Yeah, I saw "The Root of All Evil?" (as if the question mark makes it less dickish). I find that he is usually respectful, but can get a little carried away sometimes. Though I don't know if I could keep from being a dick if I was chatting with Ted Haggard. (it's funny that he was in that movie before the whole "I was gay and bought drugs I never used but now I'm cured" controversy)

Yes, more bowling needs to happen!

Christina Hancock said...

Come Lord Jesus Come

Is this what you want for my life
Do i just need to learn the great purpose of sacrifice
Do i lay my heart on the line
So it can be devoured by lions
Do i get nothing in return
So i can see the ultimate discern
Am i the string that holds it together
But feels like it will brake and wont last forever
Do i give up what i crave
And stand here in the pit to be brave
You are the rock that i stand upon during a flood
And you did shed your pure sin free blood
So tell me Lord what is your desire
My heart hurts and burns with love like fire
You paid the price for my lack of faith
I have dreams of you I'm running this race
The world is filled with total disgrace
People will fall while the beast they chase
I don't want this world full of sin
I want to please you and win
Conquer the flesh, let my spirit begin
Oh Lord fill me with all you have
So i can do what's right and make you glad
Show me the way to go on this road
This place we call earth i call home
Let your spirit arise and let my burdens of lack
Be taken away off my back
I want a love i can not have
It's you i need very bad
So open my eyes to your heart Lord
And let your will be done with so much glory
Let me end this disrupted story

Nancy said...

I found the perfect description of Dawkins " Englishman who exudes a calm sense of his own superiority. His characteristic facial expression hovers between a smirk and a sneer" (Dniesh D'Souza in The Virtue of Prosperity).

P.S. I won a coffee in Roll up the Rim tonight.

D. A. N. said...

I have one for you to review Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. You can either get the book or here is a clip from the DVD. I am here to help with the truth. The evidence is compelling if you have an open mind and are truly searching for truth, if not we will see in your review.

Just a concerned family man,


Phronk said...

I actually have Strobel's "The Case for Christ" (it came free in a bag that some Christians were handing out), which I've considered reading. However, after doing a little research, most sources seem to think that Strobel is extremely one-sided, even though he claims to present a balanced report. I really have no interest in spending time and money on someone who purposefully misrepresents an issue to support some pre existing agenda. You could argue that Dawkins does the same thing, but really when you read the book, you see that he at least considers both sides.

I appreciate your concern, but it is clear that both you and Lee Strobel have a specific idea of what "the truth" is. I hope you consider that you may be wrong (just as I might be) and keep your mind open as well.