Sunday, March 04, 2007

The God Delusion

In his introduction to The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins tells a story about his wife: When she was a child, her parents sent her to a school she disliked. If they had known she disliked the school, they would have found a different school for her -- but they didn't know because she didn't tell them. Dawkins says to those readers who might be uncomfortable with religion, but don't realize that there are alternatives available, "This book is for you".

I never was such a person; I grew up nonreligious. So, I can't say how good the book would seem to that part of Dawkins' audience. But I do have something to say about some of the good points in the book, and answers to some of its critics.

Let's begin with a critic.

In his review in the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr complains, "...Dawkins has written a book that's distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow.... Dawkins spends much time on what can only be described as intellectual banalities...." He complains, too, that Dawkins doesn't answer what he (Orr ) considers the more subtle and sophisticated arguments for religion/belief in god (of course they're not the same thing).

So what? In daily life, and the world most of us live in, complex 500-page treatises using words like "deontological" are not what matters. What matters is that fundamentalists -- the people that Orr doesn't want Dawkins to waste his time on -- are electing school board members who prevent kids from getting a decent science education. They're electing legislators who pass laws against women's right to choose. Those are the people the unbelievers-in-the-street need to answer, and for them, Dawkins provides a useful, "Cliff's Notes" survey of the issues.

As he goes along, Dawkins mentions lots of articles and books that people can read if they want to learn more about any topic. Frankly it was a relief not to have to keep switching back and forth between what I was reading, and footnotes at the back of the book. Many people who would prefer an unpretentious (maybe I should all-cap that -- UNPRETENTIOUS) non-academic book about the problems with religion are going to like this one.


Does Dawkins dis religion? I think that sometimes that depends who's looking. He says upfront that he will not be any gentler with religious points of view, then secular positions that he disagrees with. When you read the "ARGUMENT FROM SHEER WILL" that he quotes from the Hundreds of Proofs of God's Existence at the website of the Silicon Valley Atheists, you might think he's oversimplifying -- OR you might think that he's just pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. The argument is: "(1) I DO believe in God! I DO believe in God! I do I do I do I DO believe in God! (2) Therefore, God exists." (Is that middlebrow? Well, what joke isn't?")


There is a difference, though, between criticizing religious ideas and organizations, and picking on people who are religious. And Dawkins clearly recognizes that difference. How else could he have worked with a friend who is a bishop to get several religious leaders to sign a petition urging the government not to allow creationism to be taught in government-funded schools?


Actually, I think Dawkins is harder on scientists with whom he disagrees. Probably he's too quick, at times, to doubt the sincerity of people with whom he disagrees. Still, since he names names quite a bit, readers are free to find out for themselves what these people have to say.


The last chapter on how science enriches our lives is beautifully written and I enjoyed it. I don't think it's a full answer to how humanists manage to lead happy & moral lives, but that's not a criticism. A writer can only do so much in one book. Maybe people who think Dawkins should have written some other book(s), will go ahead and write them!

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