Richard Dawkins is a scientist, a writer, and an atheist. When I saw a chance to grab a free copy of his best-selling attack on religion, The God Delusion, I seized it. This month I have read Dawkins’ book and am ready to offer a review.
Some parts of the book are quite interesting and even useful—particularly those near the beginning and the end of the book. Much of what exists between the two is less satisfying reading. For a while, I thought that Dawkins might be engaged in deliberate satire, mocking the earnest but shrill defenders of religion whom he deplores. Alas, Dawkins is equally earnest and equally shrill in his attacks upon religion. His certainty that science provides correct answers to the questions of the universe blinds him to the reality that, at best, he can provide, for an agnostic, evidence that creation and evolution are equally plausible (or, one might add, equally implausible).
I was prepared for better writing. Dawkins’ friend, Douglas Adams, was able to skewer religion while provoking laughter. Although the back cover promises “a hard-hitting, impassioned, but humorous rebuttal of religious belief,” most of what passes for humor is snide sarcasm. I’ve seen better-phrased rebuttals of religious belief in the comments on various blogs, written by amateurs with no published books to their credit.
Logic is an important tool in the pursuit of scientific investigation, but Dawkins employs most of the logical fallacies identified centuries ago by Aristotle. He lists notorious abuses done in the name of religion, as if this was sufficient to condemn all religion. By the same logic, one could condemn science because it has caused pollution and nuclear bombs. He cherry-picks the Bible, reporting the statements he finds least believable without bothering to establish context for any of the quotes he selects. He references religious leaders who reject the truth of the Bible, as if their authority was somehow greater than that of religious leaders who still trust the Bible.
Dawkins firmly suggests that no one should speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children.” He claims that no one can be part of any religious group without years of training and indoctrination. He offers no evidence for this claim. Dawkins speaks disparagingly of any person who does not accept evolution as a scientific fact beyond all doubt. In this book he never presents a shred of evidence that evolution is a scientific fact. (I am aware that he has written other books for that purpose, but somewhere in this book he should at least summarize his case for evolution since he uses opposition to the theory of evolution as a reason to attack religion. Given the poor communication skills he shows in this book, I am not likely to seek to read his books about evolutionary theory.
Dawkins also complains that the topic of religion is given a free pass in society, unlike any other topic. Bizarre behavior that should be unacceptable is allowed if it can be labeled as religious. People are unwilling to confront religious ideas with opposition, although they will debate any other subject. I don’t know where Dawkins has been living. I experience less tolerance of religious diversity than of cultural diversity, gender-identification diversity, or many other kinds of diversity in the world today. Perhaps Dawkins’ exaggeration balances that of the Christians who claim to be persecuted by those who say “Happy Holidays” to them.
Near the beginning of the book, Dawkins offers a usable distinction of theists, deists, pantheists, and atheists. (Rather than pantheists, he should have written panentheists. The former believe that everything is God, while the latter believe that God is contained in everything—a necessary distinction.) Many scientists, Dawkins says, are pantheists, viewing God as a result of the universe rather than its cause. While Dawkins remains an atheist, he shows some sympathy for the thought that a mighty God could develop in a universe of increasing complexity, although he says that a perfect God could not exist prior to such a universe. Nowhere in the book does Dawkins address the idea of entropy (the tendency of closed systems to become less complex over time), but his distinction allows for interesting discussion of these four approaches to belief in God.
When I was in college, I raised this question: Is it easier to believe that advocates of evolution were created or that advocates of creation have evolved? Dawkins provides a fine answer, explaining how religion could be a necessary part of human evolution, reacting to the world as it was seen in earlier times. He writes eloquently about the gaps in human knowledge that once were filled by religion but that now are closed by science. Reversing the metaphor, he speaks of science ripping away barriers to our sight, revealing a far more spectacular universe than our ancestors could sense or comprehend.
Dawkins does not realize, though, that believers find the vast universe unknown to our forbearers to be additional reason to praise the God who called the universe into being and shaped it according to his plan. Dawkins’ confrontation between science and religion is fueled by religious leaders, past and present, who have rejected science as a whole. Yet his approach borders on satire of religious discussion rather than a genuine attack upon religion as a whole. He seems to believe that no one can be scientific and religious at the same time.
To maintain an open mind, one must (from time to time) read the work of those with whom one disagrees. Perhaps the greatest benefit, for me, of reading this book is to confirm that rejection of religion does not result in clearer thinking and a healthier view of life as a whole. Dawkins demonstrates the truth that one can be a brilliant scientist without being an expert in other fields. I thank him for his effort, but I am not convinced by what he writes to abandon my faith. J.