• Book Review: The God Delusion

    July 7, 2015

    god delusionI’m glad I waited to read this book till at a point in my life where I wasn’t doing so just to disprove it for myself and other good Christian people. Having watched a nearly intolerable degree of religious irrationality splashed across news sites for the past few years as the country has addressed gay marriage, my frustration with most things church-related was at an all time high when I cracked The God Delusion. I was primed for Dawkins’ attacks on faith. In the end, I found the ardent atheist’s conclusions to be a mixed bag.

    Does God exist? Dawkins is insistent repeatedly that he does not, even though his reasons would seem to require at least an incredulous agnosticism. One chapter is titled, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” Even if I bought Dawkins’ arguments that followed, that pesky word “almost” would demand I hold out at least the unlikely possibility of God’s existence. Dawkins does not and will not. He says, “… We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

    For Dawkins, evolution by natural selection rules out the possibility of a complex supernatural creator. The fact that everything moves from its simplest state to a progressively more complex form renders as nearly inconceivable the possible existence of an unfathomably more complex Creator at the start of it all. I see his point and understand how he got there, but in the end he’s making an argument from the absence of evidence, every bit as much as the religious man or woman is. Perhaps predictably (and tragically, to Dawkins mind, I’m sure), I just couldn’t get where he was. Too much of a leap.

    Dawkins is more successful making his case against religious expression than he is against God’s existence. He takes to task fundamentalists of the world’s three major Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–by simply reading to them their own sordid history of oppression and willful ignorance. It really is a devastating case he presents. “The will of God” has given men and women throughout time all the license they felt they needed to commit horrific crimes with absolute certainty of divine blessing.

    Yes, Dawkins overreaches at times, as when he says, “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” That may be true of more fundamentalist believers, but I know plenty of very thoughtful Christians who are happy to add to their knowledge of the universe and will trade a literal understanding of Scripture for a metaphorical one if evidence demands it, as in the case of the creation accounts in Genesis. These people of faith do not see science and the Bible in conflict, and they don’t reflexively defend their scriptural interpretation when science objects. Dawkins is working off a caricature of believers when he suggests otherwise.

    And Dawkins fails to convince that the world without religion would be markedly kinder or gentler than the world with religion. As Dawkins admits, two of the twentieth century’s greatest villains, Hitler and Stalin, were unmotivated by religion (Stalin was even an Atheist).

    Still, I kept thinking as I read, I wish I could put a copy of this book in every Christian’s hands and know that they would read it seriously, not simply in an effort to find the holes. The holes are there, but they are in nearly every book on every subject. Put aside the holes, I would say, and take to heart the lessons we can learn from Dawkins, the lessons that we need to learn. We need not agree with the author on the matter of God’s existence to reap good things from his book. Consider the terrible trail of misery the major world religions have left behind–Christianity very much included. Absorb the author’s extensive retelling of the sometimes-outrageous stories in Scripture, and the inconsistencies within the Bible, and honestly ask, “What do I do with these things? How do I interpret these stories? How do I derive a set of moral values from them?” (For what it’s worth, there’s a wonderful chapter in The God Delusion that makes the argument that none of us, not even the fundamentalist, derives his or her values from the Bible.)

    Much has been made by the author’s friends and foes alike that Dawkins is something of a bully in his writing, that he’s rude toward and dismissive of anyone who disagrees. I have to say, I was rather surprised by the degree of civility he maintained. I know from experience how hard that is to do when you are convinced of someone else’s stupidity. Yes, Dawkins gets sassy. Yes, he’s more terse and condescending at times than he should be, and I suppose that will hurt his credibility in some minds, but I didn’t think he was harsh. He very deeply believes that religion is damaging, and his tone bears that out. I can’t fault him for that.

    The God Delusion is neither the first nor last word on atheism, and perhaps not even the best, but as a book of its genre and subject, it holds up well, and is worth the reading, whatever you think of its conclusions.

    Posted in: Book Reviews, General

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