[The Science Book Club I am a member of read this book in June 2007. Our group review is located at: http://www.massline.org/ScienceGrp/GodDelusion.htm. My personal commentary on the book is given below.]
I’d have to say that overall this is probably the most effective single book against religion that I have read. Because of that it must be rated quite high, regardless of whatever secondary defects it has (and there are plenty!). I’ll give it an 8 on a scale of 0 to 10.
One of the strengths of the book is that it marshals a large number of different sorts of arguments against religion, including some which are not so commonly presented and some which are fairly “radical” (such as that inculcating religion in young children should be considered a form of child abuse). Dawkins doesn’t pussy-foot around by showing “respect” toward religious belief even while criticizing it. Just the opposite; where he thinks some religious stance is idiotic, or otherwise does not deserve any respect, he frankly says so. This is quite refreshing in this sappy “pluralistic” culture of ours where the expected policy is to respect other people’s opinions no matter how goofy they are! My only complaints on this score are that Dawkins doesn’t go quite far enough for me in his ridicule of the ridiculous, and his denunciation of the despicable.
Almost any section of the book could be strengthened in a variety of ways, but still—overall—the book seems to me to present the sort of assault against religion which might actually have some effect on those religious people who might be prevailed upon to read it. (Of course not very many will.) The book has been on the best seller list, but those buying it are probably mostly liberal atheists-of-a-sort and agnostics, or at least those who already have serious doubts about religion. But even many of them might have their existing attitudes against religion fortified by reading this book.
Dawkins, like most writers against religion, seems to be writing for multiple audiences; such as to “raise atheist pride” (where presumably his target audience is atheists); to get the non-religious to more forcefully oppose the religious indoctrination of children; as well as to disabuse the religious of their delusions. But Dawkins does a much better job than Daniel Dennett does, for example, in keeping his primary target—Christian believers—in focus, and avoiding the tendency to shift the audience to his fellow academics.
While I doubt that the recent group of books opposed to religion will have any major and immediate effect on the great mass of those who are strongly religious (in part because few of them will read these books), I’m sure they will serve to help wean a number of individuals away from their infantile religious fantasies, and also serve to change the intellectual milieu in English-speaking countries somewhat, by making opposition to religion more prominent and acceptable. And that is all to the good!
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The book is a good book, and deserves to be rated highly and widely read, primarily for the effect that it might well have on those religious or “sort-of religious” people if they can be prevailed upon to read it, and also for the information and arguments it provides for those of us who seek ammunition with which to confront the religious in direct conversations. But the effect it had on me personally varied enormously from section to section, and sometimes from sentence to sentence. I’ve been an atheist for 49 or 50 years now, and have written a few essays against religion myself. So, as far as I am personally concerned, the main issues—that there is no God and that religion is bunk—were settled long, long ago. In fact, on a personal basis, I find the whole topic rather tiresome. I hate to have to bother with it at all!
But I do have to bother with it, not only because some friends and family members have been infected and brain-poisoned by religion, but also because I care what the people in general think, and want to do what I can to help disabuse them of religion and other forms of superstition and ignorance. Still, I really have to say that it is a tremendous nuisance to have to spend so much time on religion when there are so many other things to think about, many of them much less scientifically settled! So, I come into books like Dawkins’ with a bit of a resentful chip on my shoulder from the get-go: “Is it really necessary to go down this road of thinking about all the things that are horribly wrong about religion yet again?!”
Consequently, whenever Dawkins uses a weak argument, or omits a stronger one, or makes a slightly unjustified concession to religion, or falters for a moment, I feel like jumping all over him. When he says on page 2 that “‘the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe”, I want to scream “Only in the sense that ‘Leprechaun Hypothesis’ is a so-called scientific hypothesis about the universe.” Yes, sure, at one time the “question” of God’s existence could have been considered a scientific hypothesis. At one time it was a scientific hypothesis that the world is flat rather than round (i.e., approximately spherical), but today it sounds downright stupid to say something like that! The matter has long since been settled, for Christ-sake, and that is why it is no longer a reasonable or legitimate “scientific hypothesis” that the world is flat. I know, I know; for the target audience the matter of God’s existence is not settled, and Dawkins wants them to at least try to approach the question from a scientific perspective (which they view as begging the question, in any case). But in reality the question has been scientifically settled, and the “hypothesis” has been totally disproved. So he could have at least phrased things in a better way.
It is little things like that (and there are many of them), as well as some considerably bigger things, that made Dawkins’ book something of an agony for me personally to read, at least in parts.
The book starts off on a very bad note with the concession to religion of saying that the Einsteinian sort of pantheism deserves respect. Actually, Einstein, for all his greatness, should himself be criticized on this point, for muddling the issue about the existence of God. After all, what is the real point of calling the Universe, or “existence”, by the name of “God”? Isn’t it the sign of someone who should know better not being entirely able to break free from religion? The “quasi-mystical” feeling that people get about the universe is in fact often an irrational religious impulse, to be analyzed, understood, and reinterpreted rationally. Sure, admire the sunset all you want, marvel in a new scientific discovery, and be impressed by the vastness of space. Just don’t start talking about “God” when you do so, please!
Dawkins’ own field of study is evolutionary biology, and of course he quite appropriately gives a lot of attention to evolution vs. religious notions about the origin of animals and human beings, and to disabusing the Creationists of their arguments about missing links, gaps, and so forth. I think all this is entirely appropriate in the book. Even my own wife became an atheist in her high school years when she was faced with the stark choice of Darwin or God. So this is definitely a central topic when criticizing religion. But, perhaps not so strangely, Dawkins is in one way actually much too focused on evolution. He thinks the way to “more or less” prove that God does not exist is through considerations of the evolutionary alternative to the origin of animals and humans. This is why he entitles his chapter 4 “Why There Almost Certainly is No God”. That would have been quite well and good, if he had also added a later chapter “Why There Definitely is No God”. He couldn’t do that because the science which actually proves that no such thing as a “god” can possibly exist is not evolutionary biology, but rather cognitive psychology, and he doesn’t fully understand this.
Early in the book Dawkins quotes Julian Baggini as explaining the meaning of an atheist’s commitment to “naturalism” [or philosophical materialism]: “What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values—in short the full gamut of phenomena that give richness to human life.” (pp. 13-14) But is this just a matter of subjective belief or commitment or of “faith”?
Dawkins himself goes on to say: “Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist [or what we Marxists and many others prefer to call a philosophical materialist—S.H.] is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles—except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand.” But what both Baggini (apparently) and Dawkins don’t seem to understand is that this conception of mind and consciousness is not just a matter of “belief”, but something which has been scientifically determined to be true! We now have a generally accepted scientific explanation for mind and consciousness as attributes of certain sufficiently complex organizations of matter (brains or very advanced computers), and according to this science there cannot possibly be any such thing as a disembodied mind (such as “God” is supposed to be). This is the real proof that no god can possibly exist; we now know that mind is the result of certain complex organizations of matter. (Or better, that what we call “mind”, “consciousness”, etc., are ways of looking at the functional operation of brains or their equivalents.) This is not just a “belief”; it is scientific fact, just as much as the fact of biological evolution.
It is amazing to me that even most atheists, even those writing tomes against religion, don’t seem able to grasp that there is now a scientific proof that “God” does not exist! They see the conflict between many conceptions of God and evolutionary science—as well they should. But evolution cannot completely prove that God doesn’t exist because, as some of the more sophisticated religious people contend (including the Catholic Church now, I think), God can be supposed to have created human beings through the mechanism of evolution. To really completely prove that God cannot possibly exist you must analyze the concept of God itself, and show that it makes no scientific sense, that—in fact—it is inconsistent with science. And the most relevant science for doing that is not evolutionary science, but rather cognitive psychology.
If you don’t apply the appropriate science to a problem, you will not be able to come to a fully correct conclusion about the matter. This is why I have to laugh at Dawkins for his half-assed “almost certainly no God” position.
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When it comes to philosophy, Dawkins—like most scientists—is hopelessly lost. Here is my proposed explanation for why this seems to be such a common phenomenon: Scientists are used to looking up information outside their immediate field of research by simply getting a reputable book or two on the subject and seeing what they have to say. So if our biologist Dawkins wants to find out something about particle physics, he opens a textbook or two on physics (or talks to a physicist friend or two about it) and sees what they have to say on the topic. This sort of approach works fine in science, or at least for those parts of science which are settled and incorporated into textbooks. But it doesn’t work at all in philosophy! The reason is that philosophy—as it is normally practiced in this society—is not at all scientific in its approach or methods or conclusions. There is no bit—not even one!—of “philosophical knowledge” that is generally accepted (let alone universally accepted) by the philosophical community. You cannot open any book on philosophy and expect to find at least some basic truths about philosophy that virtually every philosopher accepts as true and certain. There is (in this society) no such thing as settled philosophical knowledge. I’m not saying that there are no actual truths in philosophy; merely that there is at present no list of propositions—whether true or not—that the philosophical community as a whole has reached a solid consensus on. Thus the scientist’s method of initial investigation of an unfamiliar sphere of science fails miserably when it is applied to philosophy. Their method leads to laughable superficiality, one-sidedness, and naivety in their philosophical views.
Dawkins’ absurd commentary about Kant’s categorical imperative is a prime case in point:
[Kant’s] famous categorical imperative enjoins us to ‘act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law’. This works tidily for the example of telling lies. Imagine a world in which people told lies as a matter of principle, where lying was regarded as a good and moral thing to do. In such a world, lying itself would cease to have any meaning. Lying needs a presumption of truth for its very definition. If a moral principle is something we should wish everybody to follow, lying cannot be a moral principle because the principle itself would break down in meaninglessness. Lying, as a rule for life, is inherently unstable….
The Kantian imperative seems to work for truth-telling and some other cases. It is not so easy to see how to broaden it to morality generally. [pp. 231-2]
The issue is not whether Kant and Kantian philosophers have tried to argue for the correctness of the categorical imperative against lying in this way. Of course they have. The point is that the argument is bullshit! Nobody, of course, has ever seriously argued that lying can be willed to be universally desirable! But Kant and his followers, at least, have often argued that we should always and everywhere tell the truth, and that is ridiculous too, as anybody with an ounce of common sense knows!
Not only are “little white lies” exceedingly common and socially necessary, there are times when lying is not only not wrong, but in fact when it would be morally wrong not to lie! Consider an extreme case to prove the point: Suppose a berserk individual with an ax comes running into the room asking where some innocent child went and says “Tell me where the kid went or I’ll kill you!” Should you tell him the child ran into the closet where she is hiding, or should you lie? (Or should you stand mute and invite the maniac to kill you?!) Only a Kantian philosopher would have problems with a question like this!
As hard as it is to believe, Kant did in fact claim that lying is always and everywhere wrong!1 And the absurdity of this shows that the categorical imperative approach is completely erroneous. Virtually all the common practical moral maxims (against lying, stealing, killing, etc.) are generally valid, but not always valid. And moral maxims themselves must be judged for their appropriateness in particular situations by reference to more important or more abstract moral principles.
Moreover, it is not just that the categorical imperative approach leads to unreasonable absolutes when it comes to generating various moral maxims (which in a less absolute form are generally reasonable). In addition to that severe problem, the categorical imperative principle—if taken seriously—leads to the generation of utterly absurd “moral maxims”, and this shows that it is a completely foolish idea which is unusable as a means of deciding on the morality or immorality of anything. Suppose, for example, that someone decides to become a shoemaker. Can we “will” that everyone should become a shoemaker? Of course not! If everyone did, then no one would be a farmer, and we would all starve to death!2 Hence, according to Kantian “logic”, becoming a shoemaker must be highly immoral!
It is true that Dawkins is correctly trying to argue in this section of his book against there being moral absolutes, either based on God’s commandments as supposedly reported in books like the Bible or on God-like cosmic principles such as Kant’s categorical imperative. But he has such a superficial understanding of the issue that some of the time he ends up arguing against his own basic position, or at least muddying the waters.
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Dawkins’ book would actually be better and stronger if he cut out some things entirely. One such is his obsessive, extremely annoying, simple-minded, essentially useless, weak analogy between Darwinian natural selection and the twisted fate of various ideas in human culture, which he (and others following him) have grandiosely dressed up as a pseudo-profound theory under the name of “memetics”.
If I once again hear
Another of Dawkins’ very misleading and annoying old ideas, the “selfish gene”, is only briefly mentioned (thank “God”!).
But I thought the very last section of the book, “The Mother of All Burkas”, was really 1) off topic, and 2) wrong headed, and served only to end the book in a really off-key fashion. The simple notion in this section is that human beings evolved to perceive and comprehend only the middle range of phenomena, be they the limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can directly perceive (visible light), the middle range of the sizes of things that we are most familiar with (specks to mountains), the middle range of time intervals we mostly concern ourselves with in daily life (split-seconds to centuries), and so forth. Apparently he got into all this as a way of showing that science extends these mundane horizons and is capable of bringing awe to us, a better kind of awe and wonder than people seek in religion. But that point would have been worth a paragraph or two at best.
In actual fact it is just not true (as he falsely claims) that our nervous system is equipped to understand phenomena only in these narrow middle ranges (because our nervous system is able to use glasses, microscopes, telescopes and other scientific instruments). Nor is it true that we cannot really “understand”, get extremely familiar with, and even get bored by, phenomena which lie outside these ranges. With instruments we extend what we can see, comprehend and appreciate to the whole universe. Sure, if you have never looked through a microscope, the tiny things below the normal range of human vision will seem wondrous and mysterious, but if you are a professional microscopist, much of that will soon become very routine and unremarkable. If you are a professional astronomer (or even a serious amateur), talking about millions of light years will soon become no more unusual or incomprehensible than talking about dozens of miles. Dawkins makes way too much out of our unaided abilities in an age when only the senses of very few people remain totally unaided by instruments of any kind.
Dawkins has a way of latching onto simple and often misleading ideas (“selfish genes”, “memes”, “the middle range” of perceptions, and so forth, and getting wildly carried away with these ideas. I really wish he would stop doing this! My primary friendly advice to Richard Dawkins is this: Try harder to avoid the falsely “profound”!
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As I have argued elsewhere it is possible for even atheists to have a residue of religion in them.3 Dawkins, too, seems to have just a bit left. First there is his marveling at "God-as-the-Universe", which seems to be close to the sort of pantheism that Einstein and Spinoza fell into. Then there is his failure to understand that from a scientific point of view the existence of God is not just very unlikely, but rather absolutely impossible. But there are a number of other little things that lead me wonder about our atheist campaigner as well!
For example, in his little section on “Inspiration” (just before the “Burkas” stuff) Dawkins says some more things that make me wonder just how clear a thinker he is about materialism and such. He is talking about how some of us have been “lucky enough to be here”, to have been born. Is he suggesting that “those of us” who have not been born(!!) are still actually people, and therefore very “unlucky” people?? Later on the same page (p. 361) he says that if we who are here waste a second of our existence “couldn’t this be seen as a callous insult to those unborn trillions who will never even be offered life in the first place?” Er, Mr. Dawkins, don't you realize that non-existent people cannot be insulted nor have any other sort of unpleasant thing done to “them”??
There is something very nutty about those who count “potential” or “imaginable” or “nonexistent” people as “people” at all, let alone talk about their viewpoints or us actual people mistreating them, insulting them, and such like. This treatment of potential people as actual people is one of the absurd things that leads Christian fundamentalist fanatics to assassinate doctors who perform abortions, and bomb Planned Parenthood clinics. It is the sort of nonsense that leads the Catholic Church to oppose condoms, I guess because the use of condoms amounts to “murdering” those who would otherwise have been born! I am somewhat shocked to see Dawkins thinking even partially in such a confused and goofy sort of way.
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I can’t say I really learned much of anything by reading The God Delusion. There were some nice comments along the way, a few nice quotations I hadn’t seen before, and so forth. Some sections were quite well done and enjoyable to read, such as his discussion of cargo cults. But I want to end by repeating what I said at the very beginning of this review: Regardless of my own personal feelings about the book, and my own reactions to it, I really do think that this book will lead some people (even if only a number of wavering youths) to abandon religion. I really do think that this book will be a valuable addition to our arsenal against religion. And I really do sincerely hope that many people who are under the spell of religion (as Dennett puts it) will read and reflect upon it. Whatever its secondary shortcomings, this is a good and valuable book.
—Scott H. (June 25, 2007)