Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Richard Dawkins:
The God Delusion [2006]

      Our group consists mostly of atheists, with 1 Christian and 1 or 2 agnostics (depending on how ‘atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ are defined). So you might think that we would rate this book extremely high. But, oddly enough, we were quite divided in our appraisals, with two of the atheists giving it a zero (on a scale of 0 to 10)! Even odder, the highest rating, a 10, came from our Christian, though the rest of us thought she didn’t understand the book. Our group average came out to a very middle of the road 5.75.

      Kevin thinks Dawkins does a “shitty” job of actually trying to convince people. The whole point of the book, he says, “doesn’t make any sense since it was written as a rant.” Ron said that it is hard to rate this book: “It’s an interesting book; Dawkins gave it a good try. But the book won’t do much for real believers. It’s aimed more toward people on the fence.”

      Rosie said her feelings were very much like Ron’s: “Why does Dawkins alienate people so early on?,” she asked. She thought Dawkins was very smug, very sarcastic, and in addition, too wordy: “He needs terribly to be edited. He and Dennett both have such a long way of saying what could be said succinctly.” Rosie did like the very end of the book, about the “middle view” of the world that humans have, with respect to distances, lengths of time, and so forth. She said she went back and forth on whether to give the book a rating of 0 or 7, but finally settled on 0!

      Rich commented that the Dennett book [Breaking the Spell] “was terrible”, and that The God Delusion is a much better book. He said, however, that Dawkins is a bit arrogant, and that it is unsophisticated and counterproductive to call fundamentalists “idiots”. The first half of the book especially gave Rich this impression. He also said, however, that based on Dawkins’ definition or conception of what atheism actually is, he now considers himself an atheist and not an agnostic.

      So it seems that much of the disappointment in our group about the Dawkins book comes because we hoped to see something a lot more effective in the battle against religion. Scott, however, wonders if it is even possible to write an effective book that will serve to convince most people who reject a rational and scientific approach in the first place. What would such a book be like? Presumably it can't be rational and scientific!

      Kirby is our expert on the topic of religion, so it was interesting to hear his opinion of The God Delusion. Kirby started by saying that some critics of the recent bunch of anti-religion books (including those of Dennett, Harris and Dawkins) claim they represent some sort of “atheist fundamentalism”, because they are less compromising and conciliatory toward religion than was formerly the case. But as for himself, Kirby says he “loves these books”. He adds: “You’re absolutely right that these books aren’t going to convince fundamentalists. They (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.) just alienate a bunch of people, but that doesn’t bother me! They’ve done a service to bring a lot of this sort of stuff to the forefront.”

      John liked some things about the book, and disliked other things. He especially appreciated the chapter, which he called “the high point of the book” and “almost brilliant”, showing that we definitely do not need God or religion to be moral! On the other hand, he thought the chapter giving Dawkins’ list of possible explanations for the impetus toward religion that people seem to have was very weak, mere opinion or guess work, and didn't really demonstrate much of anything about why so many people believe in God. But John did add in summary of the book, well, “He tried!”

      Scott’s views are, like Kirby’s, overall more sympathetic to Dawkins’ book than those of many in our group. Both of them gave the book an 8, and think that it is probably about as effective in combatting religion as any single book out there today. It has the virtue of coming at religion from many angles, and from addressing all the major sorts of arguments the religious have in support of their irrational “faith”. Scott agrees that this type of book will likely be much more effective for readers who already have some considerable doubts about their religious indoctrination, and just need some additional support in ridding themselves of it completely. It is, after all, very hard to help those who refuse to be helped at all.

      But while Scott thinks the book is capable of serving a very good and positive role over all, he nevertheless has a whole long list of secondary criticisms of it, and found a lot of passages in it very annoying from a personal perspective. One example is Dawkins’ concession to the wishy-washy sort of Einsteinian pantheism, and the acceptance as reasonable of the identification of God with the Universe. Another is his failure to really understand that a scientific conception of mind as a functional characterization of brains in action proves that there cannot possibly be any such thing as a “disembodied mind”, and therefore that there cannot possibly be a God. It is not a matter (as his Chapter 4 title has it) of "Why There Almost Certainly is No God" (based on considerations of evolutionary science), but rather of why there definitely cannot be a God (based on considerations from a different science, i.e., cognitive psychology). Yet another serious error comes with Dawkins’ totally erroneous conception of Kant's Categorical Imperative principle, and his consequent semi-acceptance of it. Then there is his usual annoying (and essentially useless) weak analogy between Darwinian natural selection and the fate of ideas in human culture, which he (and others) have grandiosely dressed up as a pseudo-profound theory by the name of memetics. In addition to these fairly serious defects, there are many small comments throughout the book that made Scott cringe. Scott wrote a several page review of the book where he elaborates on these points. But he wishes to reiterate that—despite these numerous weaknesses and problems—he still feels that The God Delusion is overall a very useful and important book in the war of science and reason against religion, superstition and ignorance.

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