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. 🙂
(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. 😉
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?