Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review: The God Delusion

After quite a few recommendations, I finally got around to reading Richard Dawkins' pro-atheism book, "The God Delusion". Now, with such an incendiary topic, there are bound to be polarized opinions on the book*. But I stay true to my agnostic beliefs by falling directly in the middle. I'll treat the book in two parts -- its writing and its arguments. First, the writing. I've read Dawkins' previous book, "The Selfish Gene", and I enjoyed it. But with "Delusion", Dawkins has a very large axe to grind, and he wastes no time -- in the intro he asks us to "imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues" -- forgetting to ask us to "imagine no ancient statues", since those the Taliban destroyed were, um, religious. His biases continue throughout the book, whether quoting only religious nuts (or, "assholes" as I call them) that harass atheists scientists (without referring to even the possibility of atheists harassing believers) or of freely ascribing belief to dead scientists that he identifies with, "Certainly their writing on religion in their own time leave me no doubt that they would be atheists in ours" while bemoaning believers that do the same to dead agnostics/atheists. Basically, this is very much written as a pro-religion text aimed at fellow believers. But in this case, the belief is negative. However, even with this caveat, it was mostly a fun, thoughtful read. If you can deal the the ever-present hubris**, you'll find some good food for thought. Next, the arguments. My major problem with his arguments is one he blows off early on -- his response to agnosticism. He sees the question of theism as a temporarily unprovable problem of science. He argues that while we don't have the technology/insight now to absolutely (dis)prove the existence of God, he thinks we will. This is, to me, a laughably inane argument. If there is a being that is omniscient and able to bend or break the physical laws of the universe at will, any attempts to identify this being by laws it controls is doomed to failure. This is the basis of my agnosticism, and my belief that anything more stringent, for or against, is a non-scientific belief. Otherwise, his arguments are fairly solid. He glosses over the implications of the Copenhagen Interpretation of the universe needing a consciousness to escape from a permanent indefinite state and the odd issue that life*** seems to be the only exception to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, to argue that, based on our current data and Occam's razor, that a God is less likely than not. Not impossible, by any means, but less likely. Again, an extremely strong argument for agnosticism and a weaker one for atheism. The final half of the book, on the memetic origins of religion, was very interesting. Dawkins makes a good argument that our morality does not currently come from religion (though doesn't make one that it previously might have). He also makes a good argument for not indoctrinating kids into religion, though his implication that religious indoctrination is more harmful than child sexual abuse is so far beyond offensive that it was hard to finish the book. But this was one of several anti-religious claims that he supported solely by anecdotal evidence**** -- the same kind of behavior that he mocks regularly when done by people in the name of religion. He also glosses over atrocities done in atheist regimes, claiming that these were done by atheists, not in the name of atheism. No believers killed in the Soviet Union or China were available for comment. Because, you know, they were dead. Because of their beliefs. So, get it, read it, talk about it with your friends. But don't expect anything vaguely approaching Dawkins' previous work -- he is clearly angry and hurt, and he's striking back. At times with reason, often with humor, but always with the fervor of a true believer. I give it 3 out of 5 stars. * Not so much on my post -- the poles here are "Meh" and "Huh". ** If this sentence isn't hubristic, I'd like to know what is: Maybe the psychological reason for this amazing blindness has something to do with the fact that many people have not had their consciousness raised, as biologists have, by natural selection and its power to tame improbability." *** Except puppies. Those definitely increase entropy constantly. Delightful entropy, but definitely entropic. **** Including a shocking claim that Bush Sr. didn't believe that atheists were really citizens, in spite of no record of this and no others present at the time recording or remembering the claim. Not exactly peer-review evidentiary standards

1 comment:

magpie said...

That sounds like a horrible book. May I recommend a change of pace? I just started reading Zealot.