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.