A little (ok, not so little) book review

I’ve never written a book review at Amazon before, and I just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion recently (people get so mad about it, I just had to read it!). So I decided to post a review of it. Granted, there are already over 1600 reviews of the book, and thousands more comments on the reviews (thanks especially to one or three trolls with a habit of posting pseudo-logical gibberish in reply to nearly every review, and to many of the comments). But hey, why not, right? So, I thought I’d put a copy of my review here. Here ’tis. πŸ™‚

(4/5 stars) Worth reading & examining for yourself (posted October 1, 2010)

A lot of people get fired up about this book, so I wanted to read it to try to see what the fuss is about. And from many of the reactions I’ve seen to Dawkins, I had the impression that he must be veritably livid himself – all but foaming at the mouth as he spits cruel, cruel attacks at his poor (religious) victims.

That really isn’t what I found in The God Delusion.

Of course, Dawkins doesn’t write with the cool detachment and (extreme) caution of a good philosopher; he’s a scientist, and he writes with a scientist’s frustration in the face of a too-common dearth of reasoned thought and scientific literacy in lay society. Yes, the frustration shows through, but I don’t see why anyone should fault him for that. People have committed gross atrocities in the name of “God” — that is rightly very frustrating. But the book is not written in the style of a polemic; it’s a reasoned argument, and it has the feel of such at almost every point. The humor is a nice break now and then, and he does get a bit quote-happy sometimes – but the quotes are interesting, so I enjoyed them as well.

One thing I noticed was that I had to keep reminding myself that Dawkins was using the word “God” in a specific way; early in the book he explains precisely what he means by “the God hypothesis” and thereby what he means by “God”. In a nutshell, that is a supernatural intelligent being that designed and created the universe and everything in it. This is a basic (many religious people would probably want to add to it) but common definition (this is kind of an essential – gets the essence of it – concept of God that many, even across religions, would agree is true of their God).

(Side-note: there is a philosophical/logical problem with the notion of a supernatural entity fiddling around with the physical universe, and that’s why I had to keep reminding myself that Dawkins was arguing against God as commonly conceived – otherwise I wouldn’t see why he’s cold as he is toward agnosticism.)

Of course, if you think “God” is some kind of pattern in nature (or is nature itself), then Dawkins’ arguments aren’t going to work against your “God” – but you’re also not talking about the God described in the scriptures of the major world religions, you’re not talking about a personal God who created the universe and listens to your prayers and gave commandments and rules etc. to prophets … in short, you’re not talking about the kind of God that most people talk about, or go to church to worship, or believe works miracles from time to time, or in whose name people have committed atrocities. That is the kind of God that Dawkins is arguing against.

And he does a fine job of it. Not a perfect job, but then I doubt I’d say that anyone has done a perfect job of arguing their point on any difficult and debated position. In the chapter on morality, it felt clear that he is not a moral philosopher – but that’s probably a good thing, as moral philosophers can’t even manage to agree on whether moral statements (like “it is wrong to kill”) mean anything at all. Dawkins OTOH is writing for people in the real world. πŸ˜‰

His chapter arguing that religion is akin to child abuse sounded like it would be too extreme, but on reading it, a lot of what he had to say made a lot of sense. I grew up in an area with a lot of Amish, and Dawkins does strike pretty hard at them – but it seemed fair, and his condemnation of the rest of us for helping to forcefully perpetuate the culture seemed more so. I know the feeling of lament that we often have about old traditions dying out (particularly when they aren’t our own traditions); but I also have to wonder why we should lament the fading of outdated traditions more than we lament the limited life possibilities available to the actual people who are trapped unwittingly or even grudgingly in those traditions. Dawkins rightly calls us out on this.

…I still don’t understand why people get so angry about The God Delusion, though. It’s an argument, and the great thing about arguments is that if you disagree, you can try to dissect the argument and prove it wrong (or show why your own argument is stronger or more cogent). You can learn a lot from an argument whether you think it’s right or wrong – so why get mad?

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2 thoughts on “A little (ok, not so little) book review

  1. Enjoyed your review, but even more so, the comments. I especially liked your ‘spot on’ rebuttals to Bruce Bain.

    Almost like two attorneys arguing over semantics and textual interpretations of a prior submitted brief or testimony. Here’s a quick link: http://tinyurl.com/273rxh9

    I see where his technique in reviewing others books are similar in methodology to his submitted comments on yours [he’s done 220 reviews]. I’ll assume w/o plowing through them that he attempts to rebut negative comments on his reviews in a similar fashion.

    In his review of ‘How to Write an Essay’, he stated:

    “One other feature which I appreciate, is one that I generated spontaneously for my own reviews and the commentaries written about the reviews. That is the distinct numbering of ideas as it appears on page 55 of this book.”

    CONCEPT MAP

    REASON 1

    REASON 2

    REASON 3

    REASON 4

    “In reviewing books, I am often surprised to find that so many people living in this Scientific Age, have cultivated nothing more than personal opinion to express themselves. In that context, they can tell you in commentaries about books, that they “believe” one thing or the other, but unfortunately they lack the expertise to discover facts about their subject, and offer an argument based upon facts. Books like this can help to overcome writing that is based upon confused understandings.”

    Using this approach on your review, he appeared to attack anything he deemed subjective or opinion based, but in so doing, he injected his own subjectivity, and harped too much on semantics, to which I feel you won in rebuttal hands down.

    It reminded me of a time when I commented on a review of Michael Behe’s ‘The Edge of Evolution’, and was jumped on by Tim Beazley, a retired lawyer who like Bain, loves to harp on semantics (twist your words), make false statements (“you said [this]), quote-mine on occasion, and even throw out invectives (he hates ID proponents).

    To see what I mean, you can go to pg 5,6, & 7 of a 1/5 star review by Jimho N’Krumah. I felt it was a fun exchange, and am annoyed that Amazon removed all of his comments, as well as his buddy John Kwok’s. You can somewhat get the gist of it though, since I quoted him in part, sans the ad hominems.
    http://tinyurl.com/2attqu3

    By the way, your penchants almost exactly match mine, ‘cept for the physicist designation. I do biomedical engineering stuff, as well as some evolutionary studies as of late. I accept intelligent design as a hypothesis, but nuanced somewhat from the current consensus views.

    Cheers,
    Lee Bowman

  2. Thanks for the comment, Lee.

    I did check out some of Bain’s reviews briefly – an interesting cross-selection of books, no doubt. I notice he uses the popular phrase “four horsemen of the new atheism” in several of his reviews and comments, and found myself wondering if he ever slips and types in “apocalypse.” πŸ™‚

    But what amazes me most is that he apparently has the time to so actively haunt the review threads of books like Dawkins’ and post his characteristically ritualized replies to so many reviews and following comments! It must be a full time job! (I wonder if it is?)

    And it must be ultimately unsatisfying, if his goal is actually to persuade others that the new atheists are wrong, given the universal response he garners … and that he doesn’t seem ever to consider that some of the folks who (occasionally) give him a calm, clear explanation of why he is wrong about this claim or that may really have a point.

    Edited to add: While I said in my second reply that I was only going to indulge Bain the one time, I did specifically challenge him for a citation on one of his claims, so I felt obliged to reply to the quote and comments that he posted in answer to my challenge. So, I’ve just posted a third reply; I expect it will be my last to Bain, as I have other things that need doing and more productive ways to spend my time. πŸ˜‰

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