(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: A witty, razor-sharp attack on religious belief of all varieties. As one might have expected, Dawkins pulls no punches whatsoever and does not hesitate to heap scorn on foolish beliefs where appropriate. Atheists will cheer it; believers will probably be appalled and bypass it, which is unfortunate, since this book presents a great deal of legitimately new and interesting information, and closes with a passionate and powerful defense of atheism that every theist should hear.
I wrote in the post “A Book Review Policy” about the circumstances by which Richard Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion, came into my hands. I have now completed it, and on balance, I thought it was excellent (and not just because I’m in it – about which, more later). However, such a blanket description does not do justice to the book as a whole. It was not a single, level plain, with every section of similar quality and tone. Rather, it was more like a mountainous landscape, with many peaks and valleys.
I will say that this book proved remarkably difficult to sum up concisely. After reading the first chapter of The God Delusion, I thought it was a brilliant and moving defense of atheism with a very unfortunate choice of title. After reading several more chapters, I thought the title, though still unfortunate, was an accurate summary of the stance which the book takes. After completing it, however, my opinion was altered yet again. As I said, on balance I did enjoy the book greatly, and would recommend it, though with some reservations which I will detail.
First, a few words about the title. As I have said before, I do not advocate using words like “delusion” or “brainwashing” to describe religion in general. Such pejorative terms have the effect of fostering divisiveness between atheists and theists, when we can instead win more converts and more support by presenting a more positive picture of ourselves and our goals. Although we should not spare the harsh criticism when appropriate, and it often is, the majority of believers are ordinary, reasonable people and we should not alienate them by using terms of insult that make it easier for fundamentalists to spread stereotypes about us. While Dawkins’ title is accurate in the literal sense, it carries too many negative connotations, and is likely to turn off the people who genuinely need to hear his message the most. Someone knowing nothing about this book but the title might perceive it as far more negative than it actually is, and I do wish he had chosen a different one.
With that said, let me turn to the book itself. The first chapter was probably my favorite of the entire book. In a splendid preface, Dawkins explains his intent to act as a consciousness-raiser, to enlighten people who might not be happy with their religion but did not know that leaving it was even an option. He defines what he calls Einsteinian religion, after Albert Einstein who, like many other scientists, held religion to consist of a reverence toward the universe as best as we can understand it, not worship toward a supernatural creator. Although Einstein is often invoked by modern-day proselytizers unaware of his true views, Dawkins lists, in an amazing and very informative section, a variety of quotes from preachers of Einstein’s own day who harshly denounced him for his nontheism. One which I found especially interesting was from the founder of the Calvary Tabernacle Association, who wrote to Einstein to demand that he still his “blasphemous tongue”, and claimed that Christians across America would soon demand that Einstein take his “crazy, fallacious theory of evolution” and leave the country, presumably to return to the Nazi-led Germany where he came from.
Dawkins also airs his righteous indignation toward the widespread but absurd belief that religion is something above questioning or criticism, and that opinions drawn from religion are somehow automatically worthy of respect in a way that other opinions are not. This is a pernicious meme, and I am glad to see it strongly challenged. I do have one criticism of this section, though: Dawkins discusses a 2004 Ohio case where a boy’s parents sued for his right to wear, to public school, a t-shirt that said “Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder”. He claims that “the parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn’t: indeed, they couldn’t, because free speech is deemed not to include ‘hate speech’”. This may be true in England, but it is not true in America, where the First Amendment does protect all speech whether it is “hate speech” or not. However, on balance this was an excellent section, and Dawkins makes a powerful and convincing argument that religious opinions, which often cause hatred, harm and discrimination, should be just as subject to criticism as any other kind.
The middle section of the book is a fiery and uncompromising polemic against religious belief. Dawkins displays a razor wit when it comes to incomprehensible and cruel religious ideas: he calls the God of the Old Testament a “megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”, along with about half a page of other epithets and calls the Catholic doctrine of saints “shamelessly invented”, among other things. However, he makes it clear that his opposition is to all religious belief, and remarks that the likely response along the lines of “The god Dawkins doesn’t believe in is an old man with a beard on a cloud. I don’t believe in that god either,” is a deliberate tactic of distraction, whose “very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly”. I laughed out loud when I read that, as well as at several other points through the book where Dawkins delivers some particularly cutting remark against a ridiculous belief.
In the following chapters, Dawkins dissects, briefly but lucidly, the arguments historically offered by theologians for God’s existence. Then (in a chapter titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”), offers his own novel argument for atheism. It is an expanded version of a claim often made by atheists, that invoking God as an ultimate answer really does not explain anything at all. However, he enlarges on it at great length, suggesting that the stupendous improbability of a vastly complex and intelligent deity just existing with no prior cause at all should be sufficient reason to completely discount that hypothesis, just as we discount the hypothesis that the world as we see it came into being through chance. This is an interestingly original argument, although I doubt many believers will find it convincing.
The book then moves to the evolutionary origins of religion. Drawing on arguments made by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, he proposes that religious belief is a byproduct of some other evolutionary adaptation, such as the need for children to instinctively believe whatever their parents and authority figures tell them as an aid to learning and survival in an uncertain world. The memetic explanation – that religious beliefs evolve like living things, with those whose characteristics make them best suited to proliferation thriving at the expense of others – is also brought in and explained with surpassing clarity (not surprising, since Dawkins is the creator of the word “meme”).
The last few chapters of the book concern morality, both the immoral practices often sanctioned by religion and the origins of non-religious morality. Dawkins casts an appropriately glaring spotlight on the hatred and nastiness often displayed toward atheists by those whose religious beliefs purportedly make them superior citizens. Some of the most novel and important information of the book was presented here. For example, the case is discussed of a 1969 police strike in Montreal that caused an outbreak of rioting, looting, robbery and other crimes. This event has been used by religious believers to argue that the moral restraint of God is needed to make humans behave; but cleverly, Dawkins draws the opposite lesson, noting that Montreal’s citizens’ religious beliefs did not prevent this undesirable outcome. He also brings up the important point, which needs to be more widely pointed out, that most of America’s most dangerous, crime-ridden cities are smack in the Bible Belt. The chapter also contains a very interesting, and new to me, account of an experiment conducted by the biologist Marc Hauser and the philosopher Peter Singer which found that, in a series of tests posing moral dilemmas which the test subjects were asked to resolve, there was no statistically significant difference between the answers of atheists and theists.
Dawkins then moves on to the immoral practices condoned in scripture, and the changing societal attitudes that have led us to reject them. Of course, we have not all moved on; he tells the horrifying story of an experiment where young Israeli children, between ages 8 and 14, were presented with the Old Testament story of Joshua’s slaughter of Jericho and asked to evaluate the morality of his actions. A shockingly large majority of the children indicated that Joshua was doing the right thing, because wiping out religions other than Judaism and preventing the dire peril of Jews intermingling with non-Jews constituted sufficient rationale for genocide. And yet when the same story was presented to another group of Israeli children, except that this time it was set in ancient China and not presented in the context of Judaism, an equally large majority disapproved of the action.
This leads into his next point about the divisiveness of religion and how it extends and prolongs conflicts, such as the religious wars in Northern Ireland or the Middle East, that could otherwise be tamed much more easily. Dawkins gives examples of evil actions directly provoked by religion, both ancient and modern, and eloquently makes the point that even moderate religious faith often fosters dangerous fanaticism by creating an environment in which any religious belief is “respected” and held exempt from criticism.
In what will likely be the most controversial chapter of the book, Dawkins argues forcefully that inculcating children with religious ideas of depravity, hell and damnation is equivalent to child abuse. He quotes numerous accounts of people who are still trying to throw off the cult-like beliefs they had been brought up with, people who were estranged from their loved ones and split apart from their families because of religious differences. He also discusses the heartbreaking story, previously unknown to me, of Edgardo Mortara – a Jewish child living in Italy who, in 1858, was kidnapped from his weeping parents by papal police and taken away to be raised a Catholic, never to see them again – all because his Catholic nursemaid had secretly baptized him. Once this was discovered, of course, the powers that be reasoned that he had to be taken from them, because a “Christian child” could not be permitted to be brought up by Jewish parents. Dawkins gives lengthy examples of Catholic newspapers piously defending this abduction as a just and necessary action. But lest one feel too sorry for Edgardo’s parents, Dawkins also points out that they could have instantly rejoined him if only they, too, had consented to a meaningless splash of water on the head. Religious irrationality hurts people on both sides, he argues, and scorns as little better the religious labeling of children who are far too young to possibly make that decision for themselves. He argues persuasively that people should cringe when they hear labels like “Christian child” or “Muslim child”, as opposed to the more accurate “child of Christian parents”, and that respect for diversity does not and should not compel us to accept factually false or morally harmful beliefs.
And now, readers, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: Yes, I am in this book. Not by name, it’s true, but Richard Dawkins favorably quotes my website and provides the URL! I was reading the chapter on morality when I came across this passage:
One way to express our consensual ethics is as a ‘New Ten Commandments’. Various individuals and institutions have attempted this…. Here is one set of ‘New Ten Commandments’ from today, which I happened to find on an atheist website.
- Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
- In all things, strive to cause no harm.
- Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
- Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
- Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
- Always seek to be learning something new.
- Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
- Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
- Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
- Question everything.
This little collection is not the work of a great sage or prophet or professional ethicist. It is just one ordinary web logger’s rather endearing attempt to summarize the principles of the good life today, for comparison with the biblical Ten Commandments.
As any regular reader of mine may recognize, those are my words: they are the principles from my essay “The New Ten Commandments“. The book’s footnote to this section gives the URL to Ebon Musings. I have no problem admitting that my jaw literally dropped open when I read this page of the book, and I acknowledge that it made it somewhat more difficult for me to write this review in a spirit of impartiality. Nevertheless, I will attempt to sum up my thoughts on the book as objectively as possible.
The God Delusion is not just a rehash of well-known atheist arguments, although it does contain that information and that is a good thing, because there are a great many people who still have not heard it. However, it also contains useful evidence that was previously unknown to me and, I think, to a great many atheists, and this makes it a valuable find. (Who knew that some radio stations have the effrontery to defile John Lennon’s beautiful song “Imagine” by changing its lyric “…and no religion too” to “…and one religion too”?) An atheist will find much in here of use when debating the religious, and I do recommend it for that reason. It also contains some genuinely stirring declarations of atheist pride, such as the following:
Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind.
I very nearly found myself cheering out loud when reading passages like this. These are things that society needs to hear, and that need to be said as loudly and as often as possible; and no one alive today that I know of can make that case with greater force or passion than Richard Dawkins. That said, it is unfortunate that many people who need to hear this message will not read it. This is largely because many religious people will avoid the writings of atheists no matter what they say, of course, but Dawkins himself must also bear some responsibility because of choices of word use such as the book’s title, which will encourage theists to play to their prejudices and disregard it. I do not claim that his criticisms are unfair: the beliefs he attacks really are ignorant and ridiculous, and in many cases harmful. In any case, as Dawkins himself argues so well, it is foolish and dangerous to hold religious beliefs above criticism or to treat them differently from other kinds of ideas. I acknowledge all these points, and yet I still think his rhetoric could, in several places, have been toned down to convey the same point in a manner less likely to make people feel as if they are being personally insulted. I did enjoy this book; I did find it useful, and I recommend it for other atheists. But it is probably not the first book I would recommend to a theist genuinely seeking to learn what atheism is all about.