the God Delusion

One of my goals for this year is to read my way through a stack of books that have been sitting on my desk for months now. They are about atheism, religion, philosophy, science, social issues, parenting, and a few works of fiction. We’ll see how far I get. 

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I finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Dawkins, while obviously well educated, and a brilliant scientist, does not come across as the sort of person I’d like to have over for a small dinner party.

I feel many of Dawkins’ ideas have merit, however I feel they are often better expressed by people other than Dawkins himself – I much prefer how some of these ideas are put forth in McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief, and I prefer Dennet’s style in Breaking the Spell (it is worth noting Dawkins cites Dennet’s work several times).

The first two chapters offer preliminary introduction and background on religion and God(s). Dawkins focus is mainly on the Big Three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism, with Christianity receiving special attention because it is the one he is most familiar with.

I found Dawkins’ “Arguments for God’s Existence” Chapter 3 to be shallow, perhaps this was intentional. Why put up good arguments for a deity that you don’t believe in? Chapter 4, “Why there almost certainly is no God” was slightly better, I enjoyed his Ultimate 747 argument (p. 113).

The Roots of Religion, Chapter 5, was a most interesting read. Dawkins’ speculates on Darwinian imperative, advantages of religion, group selection, religion as a by-product of something else, psychological priming, and closes with a discussion of Cargo cults of the Pacific.

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with morality, and the changing moral zeitgeist. He touched on the idea that our morals are of Darwinian origin — we have an evolutionary imperative to be moral. Dawkins also poses the question if there is no God, why be good? Dawkins goes on to elaborate on this point on p. 227

It seems to be to require a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all be come callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness.

Old and New Testament morality take a hit in Chapter 7, while it used to be acceptable to stone adulteresses, that is now frowned upon. As Dawkins sees it, the Bible hasn’t changed its position on the issue, our moral zeitgeist has. People who were considered progressive in 1902 would not be viewed as forward-thinking in 2001.

Chapter 8 focuses on the damage that has been caused by religion. With subheadings that include (but are not limited to) Fundamentalism and the subversion of science; The dark side of absolutism; and How ‘moderation’ in faith fosters fanaticism it is clear where Dawkins’ is going, trotting out the worst examples of what religion has done in modern times. It is a disheartening read at best.

Children, Abuse and the Escape from Religion is the focus of Chapter 9. Dawkins briefly touches on physical and mental abuse – focusing on Catholic priest sex scandals, the baptizing and kidnapping of children of non-Catholic parents, and female genital mutilation. The topic of circumcision (which is also genital mutilation) is not discussed, nor are the deaths of children under the care of radical relying Christian Scientists – I suspect this is less of a problem in the UK.

Dawkins also focuses on the issue of children being given religious labels. To him, saying a child is Catholic is as preposterous as saying a child is Marxist. I agree with him, the child is a child of Catholic parents, and the child should be free to choose (or reject) Catholicism. Many religious practices would likely die out if it was not for indoctrinating children at an early age.

Relating a Supreme Court case pertaining to Amish children, Dawkins points out that the Amish children never volunteered to be Amish; they were born into it and they had no choice (p. 331). If they had a choice — and we given all the facts — would they choose to be Amish? They don’t get to find out, as the Supreme Court decided the parents’ fundamental right to freedom of religion outweighed the state’s interest in educating children. Dawkins is openly disgusted, and I am horrified.

I am not sure what to make of Chapter 10, A Much Needed Gap. Dawkins speculates

Does religion fill a much needed gap? It is often said that there is a God-shaped gap in the brain which needs to be filled: we have a psychological need for God …. and this need has to be satisfied wether God really exists or not. But could it be that God clutters up a gap that we’d be better off filling with something else?

Further in the chapter he recognizes religions power of consolation, which while it undoubtedly offers, does not necessarily make it true. Here Dawkins’ mentions Dennets’ belief in belief vs. belief in God, and how if you don’t believe you’re encouraged to continue to profess until you do (I tried this with Christian Science, the result is miserable failure). Chapter 10 has more interesting thoughts, and concludes with the analogy that religion is like a burka limiting our vision.

I hesitate to recommend The God Delusion. While Dawkins’ ideas have merit, I feel that his target audience is already affirmed atheists who have made up their mind and are looking for arguments and evidence to support their views, he provides this in spades. The person fully indoctrinated by their religious beliefs is unlikely going to change their mind after reading his work.


9 thoughts on “the God Delusion

  1. Christ Centered Teaching says:

    You wrote, “Old and New Testament morality take a hit in Chapter 7, while it used to be acceptable to stone adulteresses, that is now frowned upon. As Dawkins sees it, the Bible hasn’t changed its position on the issue, our moral zeitgeist has.”

    Christ saved a woman from stoning in the New Testament. Clearly that practice changed.

  2. Christ Centered Teaching says:

    As for the question, “Does religion fill a much needed gap in the human brain? “, I would say a quick survey of all world religions and all non-theistic disciplines such as atheism and Buddhism would say yes, man clearly has a need to worship someone or something. That is why all atheist countries become dictatorships or are in process moving into a dictatorship.

    • kat says:

      That is why all atheist countries become dictatorships or are in process moving into a dictatorship.

      Can you cite examples of this? Thanks.

      • tildeb says:

        “…non-theistic disciplines such as atheism…”

        It’s not a discipline… unless you mean ‘critical thinking’. And, no, we need worship nothing. And for crying out loud, the United States is the primary example of what a non-theistic government is: purely secular. Religious belief when politicized is EXACTLY what a totalitarian state requires: a god-like central authority to which all must submit individual autonomy.

  3. tildeb says:

    This was an important and very popular book to flesh out why religious belief in gods or a god is identical to the medical definition of what constitutes a delusional state.

    That’s not an easy subject to popularize but Dawkins has done just that.

    How has this delusion come to be widely accepted and privileged in the public domain? This is what Dennett has been working on: to urge us to study religious belief not through theistic privilege but as a psychological phenomena – why are so many of us willing to believe in belief while disallowing reality to play any role establishing the likelihood of its truth value?

    Harris has explained the danger we face empowering delusional thinking with assumed but undeserved respectability – how it is the ‘moderate’ religious believer who is the problem… who grants cover and respectability to religious belief that continues to give birth and then nurture not just religious extremism but bigotry, misogyny, and profound prejudice. Hitchens has eviscerated the very idea that it is somehow okay to camouflage delusional thinking with sophisticated piety. His work on exposing the vile work of Mother Teresa in particular reveals just how harmful it is to real people in real life when we presume that belief in belief does not cause so much real pain and real suffering when it does.

    The nature of such delusional thinking when used in the public domain to justify certain legal and social privileges granted to various religious traditions is what Boghossian builds upon from the epistemological angle: how can we justify claims that supposedly describe reality without allowing reality itself to arbitrate these claims? Again, only by deluding ourselves,

    Note that what Dawkins has really done is two important things. The first is that he has offered a way to unite so many atheists with public respectability who are willing to be outspoken critics of the pernicious effects caused by privileging and acting upon religious belief. This influence in creating this public movement cannot be understated. The second is his introduction of the ‘meme’… an information unit that transfers social ideas. Understanding memetics is already having a profound effect in understanding by what physical mechanism causes a psychology effect that explains how people delude themselves and learn to believe in belief.

  4. Bill Sweet says:

    Of the heap of arguments for God rejected by atheists, would atheists say that as far as an argument goes, Christian Science’s “impersonal” root-notions for God, the seven non material or human names for God, represent a better argument than material descriptions of God?

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