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.


The Belief Book

This is another one of the books that has been sitting on my desk for longer than it should have. This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for your support of

I don’t remember where I first heard about The Belief Book by David G. McAfee and Chuck Harrison, but I do remember coming across very positive things about how it explained religion to children.

 The Belief Book is a slim, 74 page paperback, aimed at “readers and thinkers of all ages, including kids and kids at heart.” The nine chapters (including introduction and conclusion) map out the path questions take to becoming religions.

People have questions! They form stories to help answer them. These stories are passed along from generation to generation and gradually they become beliefs. These beliefs are people’s creations, they create myths and gods, which go on to become religions.

I appreciate the simple, straightforward manner in which the information is presented. I also like that they define the words they are using to clarify their points, and provide examples of the way the words are used, for example on page four they define Believe, God and Religion:


  1. To think a thing is true or that something is real. “Dave and Chuck believe definitions are important because they have seen many people get angry or upset because they disagree about a word’s meaning.”
  2. Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something. “Dave and Chuck believe definitions are important and they believe in always telling the truth.

They also define words in the text, such as “logical” on page 30.

A mix of the things you’ve tried, like Brussels sprouts, and the stories you’ve heard, have led you to some beliefs that are log-i-cal. Logic is what makes sense based on the facts. Dave and Chuck think that following the evidence and looking at all things with a logical mind is the best way to get good answers to big questions!

 The Belief Book is a quick, fun, simple read, that touches on really big ideas. I will probably read it to the children at some point in the not too distant future — most likely the older one, it is still a bit advanced for the little one, and once they’re reading on their own, I’ll probably put it on their bookshelf for them to discover.

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fathermothergod: doing your part for the Cause

This is another one of the books that has been sitting on my desk for longer than it should have. This post contains some affiliate links. Thank you for your support of

I’ve put down Dennet’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (see previous post) — an excellent read, but rather heavy — in favor of Lucia Greenhouse’s fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science — the blogger over at Emerging Gently assured me it was a “quick read” and I needed a break from deep philosophical musings.

fathermothergod is indeed a quick read, I finished it in a little over a day, and it hit all the emotional buttons. My husband found me in tears and told me I didn’t need to finish the book, I did anyway, I had to even though I knew how it was going to end. The story told in fathermothergod simultaneously validates my own experience, and gives me a preview of (and new perspective on) what I may face in the future with family members who remain steadfastly in Christian Science.

My father, much like Greenhouse’s, was a convert to Christian Science; my mother converted “out of convenience.” The father-know’s-best attitude that prevailed throughout echoed my childhood as well. Greenhouse’s father took a more extreme path with his practice of Christian Science than mine did, choosing to become a Christian Science Practitioner and then Teacher. Greenhouse’s father reminds his children on p. 59 that

you are in a sense doing your part for the Cause. There is a real need for Christian Science worldwide, and this is one way you can play a part. An important part.

The Cause of Christian Science can be quite compelling. For those who have the opportunity to participate it is seen as a “real gift” as Greenhouse’s father, my mother, and countless other Christian Scientists have said.

As a child, Christian Science was hard to explain as a religion in which I participated, but I can only being to imagine how hard it was to explain being a Christian Scientist Practitioner’s daughter. Greenhouse recounts her father’s reaction to her decision to get glasses, and how this is seen as a failing on her part, really, shouldn’t she give Christian Science a chance?

fathermothergod touches on some of the elephants in the Christian Scientists living room: secrecy surrounding illness, the idea that Christian Science must be protected (from what, I’m still not sure), the tremendously large abstract concepts that young children are expected to understand and demonstrate. Mortal mind, error, protective work. Having been raised in Christian Science, I found myself nodding knowingly when Greenhouse’s parents espouse these beliefs, I find this story quite relatable, and I feel the deepest sympathy for her non-Christian Science family members.

Reading about Greenhouse’s mother’s health challenges difficult, as was the family drama that played out around it. The line between respecting decisions — even when you disagree with them — and stepping in to intervene is a very fine. Regardless what you choose to do, you will be criticized by someone for your actions.

My parents sought medical care when my father’s health began to fail. It was selective and inconsistent, but I credit the medical intervention that was given with the extra ten years we had with Dad. As my mother put it once, she’d seen too many people “radically rely themselves into an early grave” and she wasn’t going to let that happen. It was difficult, his health problems started while I was still immersed in Christian Science (and attending Principia), and by the time he died, I was well on my way out.

I highly recommend fathermothergod, it demonstrates many of the concepts of Christian Science in their real-world application and not just abstract theories. fathermothergod also does an excellent example of portraying the emotional strain placed on children of Christian Scientists, as well as the relationship complexities when non-science family is involved.

Breaking the Spell

This is another one of the books that has been sitting on my desk for longer than it should have. This post contains some affiliate links. Thank you for your support of

This may not be the greatest book review/summary as I am in the process of recovering from one of many viruses that have been circulating the school yard. My apologies in advance. 

A while back an exchange with Matt of Jerico Brisance (check out the impressive bibliography page) led me to picking up a copy of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book arrived and then sat on my desk. I started it enjoyed it greatly, got part way in, put it down (I think the holidays happened), and then it sat some more, somewhat overlooked on a shelf.

I have the hardcover edition of Breaking the Spell which feels a little intimidating and very authoritative. It is not a light read to be skimmed in an afternoon, even the dust jacket makes for heavy, thought provoking, reading:

In a spirited argument that ranges widely through biology, history and psychology, Dennett explores how religion evolved from folk beliefs and how these early “wild” strains of religion were then carefully and consciously domesticated. 

In an effort to more clearly define my reading goals, I put a book mark at the end of the book just before the Appendices start (cutting the reading down to 339 pages from a total of 448), in doing so, Dennet’s central policy recommendation jumped out at me:

[My recommendation] is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they willfully pass it on, they are to blame. (p. 339)

As I am on a quest to educate myself, I decided I really should start at the beginning and dutifully flipped back to the Preface where Dennett begins by openly acknowledging his bias as an American, and offers insight into why he has chosen such a “provincial” focus — namely, religion in America. I like his style.

Breaking the Spell is neatly divided into three main sections, then divided into eleven sub-sections, that are further broken down into 3-7 sub-sub-sections, rather like a the outline for a history paper. Throughout, Dennet poses thought provoking questions to the reader and provides brief summaries of what is to come in upcoming chapters.

As far as I can tell, Dennett is not arguing that religion is good or bad, he is arguing that region should be studied, questioned and examined. Religions make extraordinary claims, that should be looked at critically, tested, and studied. Sadly, as Dennett points out, there is the time-tested argument against this:

If anybody ever raises questions or objections about our religion that you cannot answer, that person is almost certainly Satan. In fact, the more reasonable the person is, the more eager to engage you in open-minded and congenial discussion, the more sure you can be that you’re talking to Satan in disguise! Turn away! Do not listen! It’s a trap!

Christian Science replaces “Satan” with “error” or “malicious animal magnetism” but the idea is the same. It’s a trap!  Issues, with “Satan” (or “error”) aside, religion influences too many people for it not to be studied. It should not be immune.

I don’t recommend reading this book while you’re sick. It requires you to think, which can be tricky when your head feels like it is wrapped in wool and there is unbearable pressure behind your eyes.

I look forward to reading the other book in my pile by Dennet: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Update:  I have since attempted to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I’m having a hard time grasping the concepts as completely as I’d like. Eventually I hope to finish reading, and review the book in question, but for now it has moved to my “come back to it later” stack.

Raising Freethinkers

This is another one of the books that has been sitting on my desk for longer than it should have. This post contains some affiliate links. Thank you for your support of

After reading through Parenting Beyond Belief, I got my hands on the follow-up book, Raising Freethinkers. If you have children (or are thinking about having children), and you have not read these books, go do so now.

I really wish this book had been around in the 1980s when I was growing up, that my parents had read it, and acted on it. I was regularly sent the message that thinking is great, exploring other religious views is fine, questioning is wonderful, but at the end of the day Christian Science is the One True Religion (TM), and the only reason to pay attention in a science class is because you need to get good grades — because for some reason good grades are important in a world mired in the Adam Dream. I digress.

Raising Freethinkers is the follow up book to Parenting Beyond Belief, it is the “practical guide” and a gimmicky green faux-sticker boasts that it includes “more than 100 activities” (aka ways to encourage thought). It also includes pages of resources at the end of each chapter, with extensive lists and summaries of books, movies, websites, blogs, and organizations offering insight, advice, guidance, facts, and support. These alone make it worth the shelf-space.

There are nine chapters, an introduction and appendices. The chapters are done with a brief introduction followed by a Q&A style series of questions relating to the topic at hand. I found it to be a quick read, and there are little colored flags for areas I plan to go back and re-read when they relate more to situations that arise.

Chapters one and two deal with encouraging the inquiring mind, and introducing ethics, and yes, you can be ethical without God getting involved. Chapter two also discusses humanist discipline, which focuses on the “Five Es” exampleexplanation, encouragement, empathy, and engagement.

I’ve throughly tagged Chapter 3: Secular Family, Religious World which discusses the importance of religious literacy — the four main reasons are

  1. To understand the world
  2. To be empowered
  3. To make truly informed decisions
  4. To avoid the “teen epiphany”

Religious literacy is also important because they are going to have to interact with people who hold different beliefs, and I want to protect them from, not from all religion experience and information, but what the author of this chapter, Jan Devor terms “an emotional hijacking that interferes with their own reasoned decision making.” I’m going to use the resource guide and check out some of the basic-overview books on religion they recommend, because I’m not as literate on religion as I’d like to be.

Another chapter I know I will return to is Chapter 4: The Physical Self. This chapter really stood out as what was completely missing from my Christian Science upbringing. On p. 100 the question What are the basic humanist principles related to the body? The answer is about as far from the one I was given in Christian Science as possible:

  1. Health and safety come first.
  2. Our bodies are good and natural.

The author of the chapter, Amanda Metskas goes on to elaborate on these points, while my brain sits boggling at those concepts — in Christian Science accidents are unknown to God and we are always safe in God’s loving care. Man is spiritual, not material. I could pull out more CS-platitudes, but if you’ve read this blog (or were raised in Christian Science) you could probably come up with a few dozen more without too much effort.

Not needing to feel ashamed about one’s body is huge, being honest (and age-appropriate) with children about bodily functions, reproduction, etc. is important. My parents never really talked to me about sex, the over-arching message I got was my body was icky, sex was to be avoided until marriage, then submit in marriage, because if you husband isn’t happy he’ll go somewhere else. Sexual submission was not Ms. Eddy’s take on the issue, her views were differently messed up.

Chapters five and six talk about a life worth living and celebrations, while chapter seven discusses life and death. Chapter eight examines the human need for community — something we continue to strive for, and chapter nine is a “grab bag” of ideas that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else.

I highly recommend both Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers for anyone who is raising or interacting with children on a regular basis. We should focus on educating our children so they can make their own decisions, not indoctrinating them.

Parenting Beyond Belief

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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My husband and I are making the conscious decision not to raise our children in Christian Science, and while we have talked about the idea of attending a church, after a childhood of non-negotiable church attendance with our parents, there are other things we’d rather be doing with our Sunday mornings. We are striving to raise children who think for themselves on religious and ethical matters, and who are generally kind, empathetic people, and while my mother insists that Christian Science provides a “wonderful framework” to stretch children out of shape provide support and guidance, it is not a path I feel comfortable taking — I can not sustain the mental gymnastics, nor do I want to pass the guilt and irrational fear of malicious animal magnetism on to them.

In the process of seeking a different path I came across Parenting Beyond Belief, A collection of essays intended as a resource of opinions, insights, and experiances related to a single issue – raising children without religion – and the many issues that relate directly to it (Parenting, xi). I read it straight through in three days — quite a feat with little ones helping.

Parenting is divided into nine chapters, each contains several essays on various topics, with notable contributors including Penn Jillette and Richard Dawkins.  There is also a forward, preface, glossary, a list of general additional resources, and biographies of the contributors. There are also more topical resource lists at the end of every chapter. These are incredibly helpful if you’re trying to find books on a more specific topic — holidays, death, science, etc.

After my first read-through the books is liberally sprinkled with colorful little flags and margin notes. I fell in love with the book in the Preface where McGowan tells the reader

… there’s little attempt to dictate authoritative answers. Our writers suggest, inform, challenge, and encourage without ever claiming there’s only one right way…. And a good thing too — secularists are a famously freethinking bunch. It’s the attribute that ended us up as secularists, after all — that desire to consider all points of view and make up our own minds. (Parenting, xi. emphasis mine)

Nothing in this book is divinely authorized. Everything can be questioned, discussed and explored. To some extent my parents encouraged me to read widely and draw my own conclusions, and as long as my conclusions came back to Christian Science being the One True Religion, that was fine. So, being able to question everything — and come to my own un-pre-ordained conclusions — is a very liberating idea.

McGowan hits on another wonderful idea on p. xii, the notion that secular parents are not alone, even though the societal default assumes some form of church-going culture. While being in Christian Science was incredibly isolating — it is a very small movement, I could at least walk into any Christian Science church on Sunday and be able to follow along and have some sense (misplaced though it may be) of community — and it is part of the default church-going culture.  Being out of Christian Science is an even more niche group, and thankfully, I have found community through my blog and activity in the Facebook groups.

As I explore my path away from Christian Science, I know that Parenting Beyond Belief will likely play a role as I work on clarifying my thoughts as I try to explain my beliefs to my children and encourage them to think for themselves. There will be no divine inspiration, instead there will be lot of reading and questioning in the years ahead.