Book Review: The God Delusion

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dawkins’ The God Delusion is by far the most frustrating book I’ve read in a very long time. I so desperately wanted to love it, as it’s been recommended by several people whose opinions I value. But the best I can go is two stars out of five: the author makes some very good, very perceptive, very necessary points, but they are swallowed up by all the points he doesn’t quite land (including his central point), and by the tone of the book in general.

The author declares that the anthropic principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence” (p. 136). However, the anthropic principle, on its own, is of no explanatory value: it is tantamount to arguing that the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds because the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds. It is a tautology at best: as Dawkins uses it, the presence of life in the universe is explained by the presence of life in the universe (we’re here because we’re here), which is not so much to provide an answer as it is to beg the question. As such, the anthropic principle is not an “alternative” to the creationist stance, as Dawkins claims. It is not an “alternative to” anything. It is a starting point, not a conclusion.

Dawkins espouses natural selection, in part, as the means by which the anthropic principle worked itself out in the case of planet Earth. In this regard, he does a fairly decent job of arguing his case: it is an actual explanation for the ways in which life came about on this world. Many may find it more convincing than the creationist stance–for that matter, so do I. But it is still only AN argument, as is the creationist stance itself. The same may be said of the other mechanisms he suggests whereby the anthropic principle may have found expression in our solar system/universe. They are each continuations of the anthropic principle; without them that principle applies to nothing. While Dawkins accuses religious thinkers of misunderstanding the anthropic principle, one is left with the distinct impression that he has not understood it himself (or that he has, and has chosen to use it anyway, hoping no one will notice the difficulty).

This, however, is not the biggest issue I take with his book. In the final analysis, Dawkins is an elitist and a bully. Throughout the book, contrasts are drawn between the atheist sophisticate and the unsophisticated religious thinker, the “Brights” and the “Dims,” if you will. He makes it very clear, if implicitly so, that disagreement with the Darwinian point of view equals a lower-level intellect, immaturity of mind, etc. It is impossible, in his opinion, for a rational thinker to arrive at any conclusion other than his own. Thus far the elitism. As for the bullying: the natural outcome of Dawkins’ attitude to what he considers unjustified opposing viewpoints is itself fairly Darwinian. One wonders how many “Dawkinsians” came to their position freely, and how many did so because to do otherwise would consign them, willy-nilly, to the stupid, uneducated junk pile? In the case of the “evidence from majority scientific opinion,” how likely is a scientist openly to embrace a religious worldview if the inescapable consequence is being (literally) laughed out of her profession? Ultimately, Dawkins does not allow for honest opposition or argument, not unlike the religious thinkers he criticizes.

Again, Dawkins makes a number of very good, quite necessary points with which even lifelong religious adherents might easily agree. The idea of pasting religious labels on children before they are able to form any concept of what the labels mean is ludicrous and potentially harmful, whether psychologically or simply as affects intellectual openness and honesty. It is laughable for Christians to embrace scientific discovery when it supports what they believe and reject it as soon as it begins to contradict. And so on. Ultimately though, the tone of the book (at least in my opinion) overshadows its content. It is a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who insists that others think as they do in order to be judged intelligent. This is exactly what Dawkins does, again and again throughout the book.

I am no disciple of any particular faith tradition, but having read this book I am also no disciple of Dawkins. The points he makes are often good; the manner in which those points are made is off-putting at best, completely alienating at worst. The old saying is true: you catch more flies with honey. Dawkins has chucked the honey pot out the window.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: The God Delusion

  1. I think that you make some important points. I loved the book because it came at a time when I needed it desperately and subsequently helped shift my perspective and soften the landing.

    In the time since, I have become a bit disillusioned with Dawkins. When he sticks to science, he is wonderful. He has interesting viewpoints about atheism. I like his writing style but, as of late, many of his views outside of the realm of science have left me wanting.

    1. Yeah, I felt a little stupid taking on the scientific aspect of the book, because science is decidedly NOT my thing. So it’s quite possible that the points at which I found the scientific proofs lacking are simply points that I failed to understand completely…

      My biggest issue with the book is still the general snottiness of his approach, though: I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t appreciate being told that my intellect is lacking simply because I disagree with someone’s point of view (thus the whole Toad thing). I’m almost compelled to disagree with him just because he’s told me I can’t. I’m stubborn that way…:o)

      I’m afraid that, atheist though I may be, I will never be in tune with New Atheism proper, because while I recognize the harmful side of religious belief, I’ve known too many wonderful people, of different faiths, to believe there is no redeeming value at all in holding such belief. The guy who finally brought about my change of heart, Malcolm Murray, approaches the subject with much greater humility than Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris: I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m right and here’s why. Which to me is a much better way to broach such a touchy subject than Dawkins’, whose attitude to me seems to be: You’re all wrong, here’s why, and if this doesn’t change your minds, then who needs you?

      **I knew when I wrote this review that I was going to town on your book (the second sentence–“I so desperately wanted to love it, as it’s been recommended by several people whose opinions I value”–was partly in reference to you, actually). I hope I did not offend. I still think he makes some excellent points; I just wish he wasn’t so belittling about it…**

      1. I love myself some snark, but I totally get what you are saying about Dawkins’ attitude. I think, while I did feel it was abrasive, I felt that I had been pushed around and put down by the religious. As juvenile as it sounds, it was nice to perceive them as getting a taste of their own medicine.

        It got through to me in a way that I am not sure a calm, reasoned tone would have at the time. As I have grown and simmered, I don’t feel the need for such tactics. I never really used them myself, anyway.

        I totally understand why people are turned off by Dawkins. If I came across his writings at another time in my life, I would have been appalled. At the end of the day, it takes all types and I’m glad the book was there for me when I needed it.

        I’m not offended at all. 🙂

    1. I’m relatively new to the subject (at least for any other purpose than debunking it), so there are a wealth of things I haven’t read that I would like to. One of the better aspects of Dawkins’ book is the fairly exhaustive bibliography–I think I may just start working my way through it…

      1. There’s also a ton of books that have been written since God Delusion, so don’t miss out on those. I’ve read a bunch, but there are lots I still need to work through.

      2. Depends on what style you like. I’ve recently read Greta Christina’s “Why are you atheists so angry? 99 things that piss off the godless”, which is really fun and direct.

        But I’m now working on “Atheism for Dummies” (don’t laugh, it’s actually great) which is by Dale McGowan, and a really good summary of not only current atheist thought and writings, but the history too. This just recently came out, so his bibliography is more current.

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