You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The God Delusion

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins discusses the phenomenon of religion from a scientific and psychological point of view. He begins with a review of agnosticism and atheism, and then soundly refutes the various "proofs" of God's existence. He does discuss the "God of the gaps", that God is the explanation that people use for phenomena that they don't yet understand. This sort of attitude is vulnerable to scientific inquiry and leads to irrational arguments against scientific discoveries. I was about to be disappointed, as all this covers familiar ground on any book on atheism. But he soon moves to more interesting subjects.

Dawkins introduces the anthropic principle, which states that any improbability of the our existence must be judged with the fact that we are here to wonder about our existence at all: we evolved on the minority of worlds capable of supporting life. Even if the odds are very tiny, we are certain that it did happen at least once. (I now wonder whether this is related to the religious idea that man is at the center of the universe and the purpose of history is to create me.)

Dawkins then talks about theories on the origins of religion. One principle pointing towards the usefulness of religion is that it is important for children to believe what their parents tell them so they can be safe. He suggests that religions may be built on other parts of our biology. And of course he mentions memes, ideas that spread themselves using the medium of the human mind. Religion is a meme that has attached itself to minds and won't go away. He brings up cargo cults and how they all sprung up in the same way around the world, an indication of how well superstition works.

The book gets more interesting when Dawkins raises questions about morality. He points out that we have a moral drive that precedes religion, and religious discussion is often worked around moral ideas that we already have. In Chapter 7, "The 'Good' Book and the Changing moral Zeitgeist", we see how depraved the God of the Old Testament is, how he commit many immoral acts. Dawkins also questions whether the New Testament is any better. He then goes on to talk about the distorted morals that are produced by modern religion.

He reserves his strongest language when he talks about how children are indoctrinated into religion, in the chapter titled "Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religions". Indeed, for many children, the idea of Hell is very psychologically damaging. It seems that many religions don't feel they can survive without putting a strong fear into children, as if the finality of death is not enough. Finally, Dawkins discusses ways to fill the needs of inspiration and consolation that religion provides.

Despite the weak intro, the book finishes strong. (I suppose dispensing with proofs of God is mandatory for any book of this type.) He covers religion from many angles without getting too deep into any. I really appreciate the discussion of religion and morality and the evolutionary basis for morality. Dawkins enlightened me on subjects such as group selection and theories on the origins of religion. I didn't necessarily need to learn more of Yahweh's atrocities in the Bible, but it's always entertaining to hear about.

I have studied religion from a philosophical, psychological, and anthropological point of view. Dawkins doesn't discuss these last two much, other than talking about wish fulfillment and invisible friends. I don't know if he considers other views of religion as relevant, but what he does provide is a good picture of a scientific, biological view. A-

Note: I have read comments on Amazon and elsewhere claiming that Dawkins is out of his field with this book and should stick to biology and leave theology to the experts. I see two problems with this criticism. The first is pretty obvious: Does anyone really need any specific expertise in imaginary creatures to debunk their existence? What does it really mean to study theology, which is a study of "supernatural" inventions? Everybody has an opinion on the existence of God, regardless of their education in specifics. And different religions invent different variations, so does each one need to be studied in each religion in order to refute them in turn?

The other critique is that of all people, Dawkins is a scientist in a strong position to discuss the persistence of religion as a human invention, with his invention of the concept of memes and how they propagate. I think he brings a good perspective on the issue. His comments on religion as an evolutionary product are enlightening.


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