Friday, May 18, 2007

The God Delusion

My review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Several years ago in the mist of the whole "Harry Potter books are satanic" craze I decided that rather than base my opinion of the books on the hearsay of others that I should find out for myself. I have since read all of the series and do not share the opinions of the doomsayers. It is with this same attitude that I decided to read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the Oklahoma City bombings and other religiously based irrational acts Dawkins’ book gives us many highly thought provoking questions to consider.
Dawkins’ expertise is in the field of biology. For decades he has been somewhat of a science superstar in England. In my opinion Dawkins has done as much for the field of biology as Carl Sagan did for astronomy. This book is best when it focuses on the evolutionary causes and effects of human and animal behaviors. Chapter after chapter details the likely origins of many of our social behaviors, including religion. Far from being overly bogged down in scientific jargon and Latin genus species names his decriptions and analogies of how natural selection shapes the world are amazingly clear and easy to follow. If you were to read this book looking for a proof that God did not design the universe it is likely that these chapters would confirm that belief.
Focusing primarily on Islam, in the next chapters Dawkins creates a very graphic picture of our modern world. He details many archaic laws and traditions that are based on religious dogma of Islam. Example after example show that, at least in practice, Islam is far from the religion of peace that many apologists assert. It was hard not to be repulsed by the influence of this religion. These chapters seemed very similar to stories that I’ve read in books by Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.
If any Christian conservative were singing Dawkins’ praises after the sections on Islam they would find them quickly rethinking that when he continues on to Christianity to decry the offenses committed in the name of Christ. Deliberately avoiding the cliché references to the crusades he paints an equally chilling picture of what life would be like under a Christian theocracy. Admittedly most offense are not to the level of the Taliban but, Dawkins believes that this is only because Christianity has not yet gained the complete government control that the Taliban had.
Many scientist are content to accept that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisterial”. Meaning that science should not attempt to prove or disprove matters of faith and religions should not be attempting to decide matters of science. For the most part I share this philosophy. As I have pointed out in other posts the problem typically comes when religion and science are not content to let each other co-exist in peace. When a religious person take offense at the age of the Earth posted on signs at the Grand Canyon and attempts to get the geologists to change the signs to reflect an age consistent with a literal interpretation on the Old Testament you have a conflict. There are multiple such conflicts, the most inflammatory of these being abortion. The point is that there will always be at least some conflict no matter how hard the parties try to avoid it. Dawkins suggests that the only way to truly and permanently avoid this conflict is to abandon religion all together. Dawkins and I parted ways here, if only slightly. Although I felt that many of his explanations were very persuasive I still think that he is attempting to apply logical proofs to matters of faith. Faith is, by definition, illogical. Spoken like a strict positivist Dawkins make the claim that if something is not testable by empirical means then it, in this case religion, should be avoided. Personally, I think that Dawkins has not looked at the other edge of that same sword. A person of faith could just as well claim that because science does require evidence then it should be avoided with the same zeal as Dawkins would avoid religion.
In spite of the title and the examples that I’ve stated I did not feel as other reviews have that the book was nasty and mean-spirited. Quite the opposite is true. I have no doubt that Dawkins wrote this book with a sincere heart and a genuine concern for the future of the human race. It took me months to read the book because I wanted to really give it a far shake and not just a cursory read. After I finished reading it through I checked out a CD copy and listened to it at work. Dawkins read it himself so the original feeling an inflection that he, the author, intended was represented. He is British and those who think that British accents sound snobby will not be disappointed. I have never felt this way so I did not get that at all. In fact his gentle voice made me at ease and in many ways reassured me that what I had read earlier was not meant in a gruff tone at all.
Although I disagree with some of his more extreme conclusions I really enjoyed this book. That being said, I would not recommend it to anybody who is very sensitive about having their beliefs challenged, because it definitely will. The very fact that I have been reading it has made for a few awkward moments with friends and family members. Unlike many I do not have to agree 100% with an author in order to give his work a fair hearing. As uncomfortable as they are to hear, many of the points raised in the book will not be easy to ignore, nor should they be.

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