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Book Review - The God Delusion

While reviewing unfinished blog entries, I came across this one. I'd originally intended to write a very in depth review of this book, but never quite got around to doing it, and it's now been years since I read the book. Still, what I'd already written wasn't bad, so I figured it was worth cleaning up a bit and posting on the blog.

After putting it off for over a year and a half, I finally read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. There were a couple reasons I put it off so long. First, when the book first came out, I was just coming to grips with non-belief, and I was still too embarassed to take the book to the cashier. Second, even as I did become more comfortable with atheism, I thought that the book would just be a lot of preaching to the choir. However, thanks to the urging of a few people, I decided to go pick up the book, and I'm glad I did.

To be honest, for me, a good portion of the book was preaching to the choir, but not quite as much as I'd feared. I anticipated 420 pages of dissecting arguments for the existence of gods, pointing out inconsistencies in religious doctrines, and reasons why non-belief is the more rational choice. And while a good part of the book does address those points, that's only about half of it. The rest of the book deals with different but related issues, such as the roots of religion, the basis for morality, and reasons for speaking out against religion.

I have read several unfounded complaints of the book. Just consider the first editorial review on the book's Amazon page by Publisher's Weekly.

For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe...

While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense..."

He insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force, but he is less convincing in arguing that the world would be better and more peaceful without it.

Admittedly, some sections use strong language, particularly introductions to chapters, but I never read anything as scornful, nor particularly intolerant. Yes, Dawkins described Yahweh as "psychotic," but that was in the context of the atrocities of the Old Testament (such as Jephthah and his daughter from Judges 11). And after re-reading the section on Aquinas, I think Dawkins was justified in calling it like he saw it - Aquinas's arguments weren't all that good.

The last part of this review is something I've seen used as the sole argument of some reviews. It has nothing to do with the proposition of whether or not a god exists, only the consequences of belief in a god. And personally, I think Dawkins did address that aspect fairly well, though I guess that's a matter of personal opinion.

I don't entirely agree with all of Dawkins' arguments, but I still recommend this book.


Added 2010-11-23 Thinking about The God Delusion again, I recall a certain passage that I found really funny (just about the only humorous passage from the book). As luck would have it, it was one of the parts available from Google Books. I'll included the lead in for context. So, here's the passge, from page 86:

More recently, the physicist Russell Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an inititiative, funded by - of course - the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improves their health.

Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients, nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying - otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than for somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently thta would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.

The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous amount of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:

What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the control group?... Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr Evans in the next-door bed... What as that, Lord?... Mr Evans received a thousand prayers per day? But Lord, Mr Evans doesn't know a thousand people... Oh, they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean John Ellsworthy?... Oh, right, you used your omniscience to work out with John E they meant. But Lord...

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