Book Review: The God Delusion

I’m fascinated by religion and the need we humans have for it. And I suspect that many others are as well. However, as any culturally fluent individual understands (at least tacitly), it’s not exactly the choice topic to discuss at cocktail parties with guests whom you don’t know very well. Unless, of course, you want to risk being perceived as a gauche individual. In a similar fashion to politics (yet more intense), religion has a tendency to escalate tensions between people in a fiery way that usually ends in a nonsensical shouting match.

That religion tends to create controversy is not, however, a sufficient reason to avoid being critical of it, even publicly.  I think is because cultural fashions come and go.  Consider this: I suspect at one point in American history it was socially taboo to openly criticize slave owners too.  Just imagine if no one had the courage to rock the boat with slave owners (think “master-slave morality“).  Other people’s religious beliefs, both intentionally and inadvertently, affect all of our our personal lives, often in negative ways.  In other words, the foolish beliefs of others can cause very real harm to innocent bystanders.  My question is this: should rational people politely respect these types of beliefs?

Richard Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is a brave, yet much needed, polemical critique of religion (even moderate religion) for modern day atheists. And parts of it certainly come off as offensive. Offending others, however, is not categorically a thing to avoid doing. In fact, sometimes it’s mandatory! As Daniel Dennett wrote:

I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.

Perhaps you’ve heard a line of reasoning similar to the following: you’re an atheist (?), well then, you must be an immoral heathen too! Even an amateur logician would be able to tell you that this argument is absurd, yet I frequently hear variations of this argument muttered from the mouths of people who are otherwise very intelligent.

Dawkins asserts that atheists can be “happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled” and he is absolutely correct. It’s not within the scope of this essay to provide the scientific evidence behind why this absurd claim needn’t necessarily be true; however, I do intend to use this anecdote to make a further claim (and one that Dawkin’s promotes too).  The current fashion in America is to view atheism as a dirty word that is associated with some nasty connotations.

In America, it’s acceptable to say you reject the gods and tenets of certain religions, but heaven forbid you call yourself an “atheist”. The problem, however, is that there is some confusion over what atheism really is, because there are at least two ways to think about atheism.

Here is how Wikipedia defines atheism:

Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.

So in the first sense, almost every human is an atheist of some gods. In the second sense, atheist is a word for the dogmatic belief in something we cannot yet prove with empirical evidence or logic. I believe that atheists (at least intelligent ones) use the term in the broad sense when discussing religion. I concede, however, that when the term is used dogmatically in the second sense, it can be as offensive as religion itself is. Allow me, then, to reveal my personal bias and religious views since they certainly influence what I’m writing in this essay. I am committed to the first kind of atheism.  There are many different fashionable euphemisms to describe the type of atheist I am.  However, if I must use one, I prefer “possibillian“.

Dawkins, in a witty fashion, elucidates on the first type of atheism when he wrote the following. “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”  In other words, if one is willing to reject any of these gods, then that individual is an atheist in at least one sense of the word.  And what methodology does one use to reject these types of gods?  Shouldn’t this same methodology be used to evaluate all gods?  I’ll leave it to the reader to ruminate over the logical implications of this point.

Along with atheism, “God” itself is a confusing word that can have subtle, but distinctly different meanings. To some children (and sadly to some adults too), God is a Colonel Sanders looking figure who sits on a cloud and interferes in our lives (by helping people win football games for example). But to renown scientific figures like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, the word God is often used to describe the supreme mystery that science cannot yet (or never will) explain.

As such, it’s entirely disingenuous to equate these two usages as equal.  A theist’s version of God is much different than, say, a deist’s or a pantheist’s. When scientific geniuses, like Einstein, used the word “God”, then, it does not necessarily imply that they meant it in the same context that today’s theists would have us believe.  Although, theists obviously have an incentive to have us believe otherwise in order to support their goofy beliefs.

According to Dawkins, Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God. However, there is a reason to believe that Einstein may have been an agnostic. When Einstein said or wrote things like “God does not play dice”, he was not speaking literally though. Religious texts run deep in most people’s literary background and, as such, we often use religious terminology metaphorically and poetically. Even atheists of the dogmatic variety inadvertently do this on occasion.

I think many critics of Dawkins, especially those who haven’t read his work, unfairly accuse him of attacking all notions of “God”. He’s not. In fact, he makes it explicitly clear that he is out to attack the theists’ version of God and not Einsteinian versions of God.  And as I alluded to earlier, if one is already willing to reject some gods based on lack of evidence or logic, why not follow the same methodological and logical implications that would reject theistic notions of God as well?

Strangely, many people are quick to protect the sacred irrationality of religion, again, particularly in America. I have my own theory as to why this is and it relates closely to Argumentative Theory. My reasoning goes like this. Arrogance affronts us, even if we know that the arrogant person is correct (actually, I think it affronts us more so in people who are correct). And we humans have this fascinating self-preservation mechanism that often lets our ego get in the way of searching for truth.  In other words, we’d rather win than be right.   As such, I suspect that this is why many open and liberal minded people come to the defense of religion (even if they don’t agree with it) and dislike the militarism they perceive in people like Dawkins. They’re simply looking to argue with someone and want to defend the religious, whom they likely feel are ill equipped to defend themselves in argumentation.

The trouble with this sort of defensive passivity towards religion, though, is that real harm is inflicted on real people because of foolish and irrational beliefs (read some history books for examples). Religion can (and has been) used to justify doing a lot of harmful things (again, history books are littered with examples). If we allow ourselves to be sensitive to some absurd faith based claims, then how can we shun other ones that are equally as absurd, but culturally different? For instance, some religions have faith that illegal narcotics allow them to come into contact with their God. Should we make a legal exception for these individuals?  How about for prayers in schools? How can the open-minded person deny these individuals their right to worship their God, where ever and when ever they choose? For this reason, I think Dawkins makes a compelling case for actively fighting against religion’s influence in places where it doesn’t belong, namely public places.

In the end, Dawkins reminded me that religion stems from the uniquely human and narcissistic desire to believe that the universe was created for our benefit.  News flash: it wasn’t.  Science tells us that we are incidental and accidental.  Not surprisingly, this thought makes some people uncomfortable.  The point of science isn’t to make people comfortable though, it’s to discover truth.  Personally, I think the great Umberto Eco offers up some consoling words to those who embrace their atheism: “When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.”

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

 

email

20 Comments on “Book Review: The God Delusion”

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Dawkins, in a witty fashion, elucidates on the first type of atheism when he wrote the following. “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.””

    I go further than Dawkins and see that there is not one conception of the singular God he rejects, but many. So it appears to me from this quotation Dawkins equates the Old Testament God with the New Testament God, the Jewish God with Allah with Shiva, but I’m not so sure these are the same. Conservative Christians reject the God of Progressive Christians and vice versa, same for Orthodox Jews and Bu-Jews (Buddhist-leaning non-practicing Jews). Atheists themselves reject different Gods, or rather concepts of Gods, as well as reject different atheisms and agnosticisms. This to me is the more interesting conversation–the one where we try to understand exactly what people believe and why, and how these beliefs evolve over time, and what impact these beliefs and non-beliefs have. Einstein always struck me as a Deist, or as a kind of hands-off God who existed in the laws of the Cosmos but didn’t get involved in the day-to-day dealings of humans. But that’s just the point–people aren’t neat boxes of beliefs, people aren’t perfectly rational or perfectly irrational, and my belief is that it’s better to accept THIS about people and seek to understand the mysterious nature of the other than to condemn or be intolerant.

    • Anonymous says:

      “to renown scientific figures like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, the word God is often used to describe the supreme mystery that science cannot yet (or never will) explain.”

      This is also the case for a large number of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. It strikes me as disingenuous for you to claim that Scientists see God as a supreme mystery but not believers.

      • Greg Linster says:

        Duff, I think you missed the point.  If they believe in the Einstein notion of God, then, by definition, they aren’t a Christian.  Accordingly, they probably shouldn’t go around calling themselves something they aren’t.  What makes one a Christian?  According to Wikipedia, “Central to the Christian faith is the gospel, the teaching that humans have hope for salvation through the message and work of Jesus, and particularly, his atoning death on the cross. Christians also believe Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Bible.”

        • Anonymous says:

          You always think I missed the point. LOL

          Wikipedia doesn’t define Christianity, or God for that matter!

          • Greg Linster says:

            And I suppose you think I missed the point too 😉

            Anyway, let’s get philosophical and start with the basics.  What beliefs make one a Christian then?

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t think you missed the point, but I do think that you don’t know very many Christians, or at least your point of view seems too abstract and not engaged with real people and their real beliefs. Most Christians I know have indeed expressed something almost word for word like “the word God is often used to describe the supreme mystery that science cannot yet (or never will) explain.”

            What makes one a Christian? According to whom? Sects of Christianity have been arguing about this for at least 1700 years. I contend that there is no one essential characteristic or quality nor set of characteristics or qualities that all who claim to be Christian would subscribe to. There are family resemblances between Christianities, sects, historical time periods, individuals, a single Christian individual’s beliefs across time, etc. but no essential nature.

          • Greg Linster says:

            You’re playing nonsensical games involving semantics, Duff.  Are you really suggesting that one can be a Christian without believing that Jesus is the son of God?  If so, then the word “Christian” is meaningless.  The purpose of language is to help us categorize and communicate ideas.  When you expand definitions of words to make them mean anything you want them to mean, then language is pretty useless. 

          • Anonymous says:

            I’m not making a claim that definitions of words mean what we make them to mean, I’m taking a stance similar to Wittgenstein that there is no *essential* single quality that defines a category. Many Christians would agree that believing that Jesus is the son of God makes one a Christian, but not all Christians. For instance there are many people who attend church who aren’t quite sure about this notion, but who identify as Christian on their census forms, etc.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Duff, some of these positions are more open-minded than others though, right?  I think that’s an important point to reflect on. 

      As I mentioned, being intolerant isn’t categorically a bad thing.  In some contexts it’s needed. 

  2. Larry Sanger says:

    Greg, the thing that you (and Boghossian) haven’t adequately articulated or defended is precisely your (reported, or proposed) intolerance.  In one interview, Boghossian said some quite amazingly intolerant things, such as, “We
    need to treat faith-based claims in exactly the same way that we treat racist
    claims.  They just have no business at
    the adult table. They should be stigmatized.”  You say that people should not “politely respect” religious belief, approvingly quoting Dennett as saying there is nothing wrong with asking others if their religious belief is a delusion.  Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, depending on the context of course, and I don’t think it’s necessarily intolerant.  It is not intolerant, in other words, merely to express disagreement, not even if the disagreement is expressed forcefully.  Do you think that’s what people are complaining about when they criticize the nastiness of the likes of Dennett and Dawkins?  I don’t.  The mere expression of atheism, merely saying, “I think your belief is a delusion,” is not necessarily to stigmatize those religious claims.

    Stigmatizing involves imposing various kinds of social pressure, subtle and not-so-subtle.  For example, suppose you invite a colleague over to a party and the colleague, to your surprise, talks about how he has found Jesus.  Suppose you say, “Get out of my house, there is no room for you at the adult table here.”  In that case, you are definitely stigmatizing the believer.  Do you propose to go that far?  If not, then what exactly do you mean when you imply that “rational people” need not “politely respect” religious beliefs?  Perhaps it would be something more like this: “I think people with religious beliefs are like children.  Or they’re stupid.  Or they are borderline psychotic.”  Are those the sorts of things you want to feel free to say?

    In short, what do you mean by “religious tolerance” and what sort of tolerance do you think needs to go?

    By the way, what about people like Plantinga, who claims to have a perfectly rational belief in God?  Is his belief one that you need not “politely respect”?  Even in a philosophical context?  And if not, what does that mean?

    I hope you realize that there is an enormous difference between the institution of slavery, which by definition involves forcing others to labor without pay while removing their freedom, and entertaining beliefs and engaging in religious practices.  While slavery and religion were both, throughout history, ancient and nearly universal institutions, the former is at root practice and the latter is at root a belief.  The practice we can and should be done with.  The belief is another kettle of fish.

    Frankly, I suspect that a lot of the growing intolerance of religion is politically motivated, not motivated by a sincere desire to make society a more rational place.  One does not find such intolerance for New Age fads that are loopier than the tenets of Christianity.  Liberals and libertarians have increasingly put their historical habits of tolerance on hold when it comes to religion, because they see religious sentiment as the source of policy issues that they want changed.  So they do an end run around political discourse and attack religion, poisoning the well of religion-based policy arguments, and making the world safe for their preferred policies.  You should realize that this is precisely what the terrible 20th century totalitarian regimes did to religion as well.

    I would not shed many tears if religion as a significant institution were to die out in my lifetime.  But I would want that to happen naturally.  I don’t want universities, governments, or even smug intellectuals to try to force the issue.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Larry, when I say that we should be intolerant towards faith based claims, I mean specifically in public affairs (including education).  I don’t want to put words in Peter’s mouth, but I think that is what he meant by “the adult table”.  I certainly didn’t mean to imply that one should burst into a fit of rage and ridicule someone at a dinner party for mentioning that they believe in Jesus.  That would not only be absurd, but it would be crass and tactless.  Sadly though, I  know that there are certainly some atheists who do things like that and I get the impression that you think I’m one of them.  I’m not, I try to be very respectful and urbane in social situations.  However, many theists want their faith based beliefs to be valued at “the adult table” and I don’t think they have any business being entertained there.  In these cases, I think the intolerance is acceptable. 

      I’m also sensitive to the notion that religion is very comforting to some people.  If private religion makes someone feel better, than so be it.  What they do or believe in their private life is their business, so long as it doesn’t cause harm to others.  If an individual wanted or invited me to debate them about their beliefs, I probably (context matters here) would oblige.  Also, to be fair, I know many folks who are religious and realize that their beliefs have no business in shaping public policies.  Sadly we don’t talk about these people very often in religious debates because they aren’t extreme enough.  I certainly respect their right to believe what they want to believe and for having the wisdom to realize it has no business in politics or education.

      Many theists, however, think that creationism should be taught over (or at least alongside) evolution.  Do you agree with them?  Do you think that their faith based justifications should be welcomed into the debate at “the adult table”?  If so, how do we argue against them?  Using reason would be rendered futile if we were to allow faith based claims into these debates, right?  If, on the other hand, you agree with me, then I think you could potentially be accused of being intolerant too.  But remember, intolerance isn’t a categorically bad thing.  Sometimes it’s desperately needed, but it depends on the context of the situation.   

      At this point, I think I’ve addressed your inquiries regarding how I view “religious tolerance”, so I’ll move on to your questions about Plantinga.  Simply put, I think he makes a terrible argument (I suspect that you agree with me).  I’m admittedly not very familiar with his work, but I know that he claims the following: “There is no logical inconsistency between
      the existence of evil and the existence of an all-powerful,
      all-knowing, wholly good God.”  I certainly respect Plantinga’s right to make a philosophical argument to support his belief of God, even in an educational setting (the beauty of the humanities!).  However, people make philosophical arguments for myriad of silly things frequently.  Surely, we shouldn’t seriously entertain all of them at “the adult table”, right?  If he wants his views to be taken seriously in, say, politics or educational philosophy, then I think the onus is on him to provide some evidence that competes with the evidence presented by the “adults”.

      For what it’s worth, I am also very critical of loopy New Age fads.  And I absolutely agree that most religious intolerance is politically motivated.  However, I don’t necessarily see the fault in this.  I think people have a damn good reason to be upset when others’ religious beliefs, indirectly and directly, slow down scientific research that may potentially save their loved ones lives or by affecting laws which prohibit certain people from, say, getting married.  A fundamental issue here is obviously that it’s very hard to separate religion and politics.  Goofy New Age fads may affect political matters indirectly too, I’ll grant you that, but they do so in a much subtler way than does religion.

      In the end, I think we agree on a lot more than may initially meet the eye.  Perhaps, we’re just arguing as a means of signalling and counter-signalling (this is why I mentioned Argumentative Theory in the essay).  Either way, I’ve enjoyed the dialogue immensely and thank you for the thoughtful response.  I’ll give you the last word if you want it, Larry.

      • Larry Sanger says:

        Greg, give me more time to reply, but in the meantime, can you clarify (since you’re embracing Boghossian’s phrase) what you mean by “at the adult table”?

        • Greg Linster says:

          Sure.  By “the adult table” I mean the place where important decisions are made.  So I would say that people like politicians and administrators, who determine policies, would be the type of people who sit at “the adult table”.  Also, I don’t really have any strong tie to the phrase, I was simply using it because you referenced it in your first comment.

  3. JW says:

    Here’s my problem with “militant atheism”: How many people
    has Dawkins persuaded to become “born again infidels” through the power of his
    persuasion? My guess: A few. And what is the NET gain from that? Do we have a
    society where wars are less likely to break out or bad things in general are
    less likely to happen? I highly doubt it. More likely, it’s taken us in the
    other direction, because he’s creating an us vs. them effect.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Thanks for the comment, Justin.  I guess I see where you’re coming from, but I think there is probably a net gain overall.

      Here are a couple of questions that I’m curious to hear your responses to.  1) Should we allow ourselves to get dominated by someone’s religious beliefs in public life? 2) If not, then what is the right way to respond to militant theists?

      • JW says:

        This would be easier for me to respond to with a concrete
        example of “getting dominated by someone’s religious beliefs in public life.” I’ll
        use the examples you cite in the post:

         

        Using religion to justify doing harmful things: If my life
        or my child’s life depended on persuading a maniac not to kill us, would I take
        a Dawkins-like approach? Mmm, I think that’d be more likely to get us killed
        quicker is all. More likely I’d try to calmly reason with them about their
        motivations, and ask if it is really their religious beliefs that are making
        them want to do this.

         

        Illegal narcotics: I see this being a debate centered around
        legality and the proper role of government rather than the accuracy of their core
        beliefs.

         

        Prayers in schools: Is your concern that they are wasting
        part of the school day with their prayer? Or that they are coercing you to pray
        or what? Again, I see this is a political issue more than a religious one. I am
        a strong believer in naps, and we can quibble over the accuracy of that belief,
        but the real question is whether a school should allow me to take naps. I see
        no need for a Dawkins-like attack on the theory of naps.

        • Greg Linster says:

          My concern is that prayer is initiated by school leaders.  Given that we live in a multicultural nation, it seems absurd to me that our schools endorse some religions over others.  Shouldn’t all religions deserve equal treatment in our schools?  Why does Christianity get such a privileged status?  I’m arguing that it shouldn’t; it should be treated like all other religions.

          If a student wants to take time out of their day to go pray by themselves or with other students they should have that right.  Prayer, however, should not come from the top down, in my opinion.  I think it’s incredibly unfair and insensitive to other people who don’t share the beliefs of Christianity.

          • JW says:

             I don’t disagree, but the point you’re making is a political one, not a Dawkins one.

          • Greg Linster says:

            You’re right, but this gets back to a point I made earlier about the separation of religion and politics, i.e., it’s  hard to stop religion from bleeding into politics.  Furthermore, it seems that many religious folks don’t necessarily agree that there should be a separation (or at least they don’t vote that way).  While I may be technically attacking these individuals political views (as you suggest), these political views ultimately stem from religious beliefs.  As such, I think it’s fair to say that the political views are derived from the religion and not the other way around.  Political views, then, are often just religion in disguise.

  4. Michael Green says:

    He is incorrect too.  Science and religion go hand in hand.  “GOD Based Magnetism” explains it. 


Leave a Reply