Review of The God Delusion by

Book cover for The God Delusion

Full disclosure: I was brought up Christian (Protestant), although my family wasn't particularly observant--we went to church, less frequently as I grew up, and my dad would read from the Bible each Christmas (the nativity story, naturally). As I approach the third decade of my life and am shocked to find myself becoming an adult, not just legally but intellectually, I slide further and further along the scale from agnostic to atheist. Although I was raised Christian, I don't think I was ever a theist, for the reasons elucidated by Dawkins in Chapter 9.

Even though my conviction of atheism has grown stronger in past years, I've avoided reading The God Delusion. Truthfully, Richard Dawkins rather scares me at times, by dint of his vociferous opposition to religion. However, reading this book turned out to be a good call. Firstly, I found that I do share most of Dawkins' opinions on these issues. Secondly, the book itself is pretty entertaining, and for the most part espouses logical arguments. Finally, it allowed me to do away with the spectre of Dawkins hanging over my inclinations to atheism.

Dawkins has set the bar high for himself in The God Delusion; first he attempts to justify atheism, then he tries to show that religion is harmful as well. He succeeds in the first count, and he makes some compelling arguments for the second count. Unfortunately, The God Delusion creaks and groans under the weight of hyperbole and overemphasis. Intelligent though he may be, succinct he is not!

The first four chapters establish Dawkins' topic (religion religion, as opposed to the reverential "Einsteinian" religion he believes many scientists practise), contemporary attitudes toward atheism in America and Britain, arguments for God's existence, and arguments against God's existence. The latter two chapters of this quartet are of particular interest; Dawkins adequately summarizes the major arguments for God's existence. His criticism of them is slightly less robust, owing mostly to an overuse of rhetorical questions and his incredulous tone, as if he can't actually believe people would use these arguments. Still, I appreciated his deconstruction of Pascal's Wager, where he exposes it as patently untenable: you can't fake belief.

Chapter 5, "The Roots of Religion," is less remarkable. If one is truly interested in the origins of religion from an evolutionary perspective, there are probably better books available on the subject. Dawkins can't do it justice in a book crammed full of so many other discussions.

Chapters 6 and 7 challenge the assertion that religion is the only way to impose morality on society. In particular, I liked how Dawkins deprecates the Bible as a source of morality: a literal interpretation of the Bible would yield a moral system considered abhorrent by most people today, yet a symbolic interpretation requires some sort of external criterion by which to judge which parts are "symbolic" and what exactly they symbolize. Dawkins makes it clear that while religion may enforce--i.e., police--morality, it cannot provide the golden rule for morality ex nihilo.

My favourite chapters, however, were chapters 8 and 9. Finally Dawkins gets to his pet subject: the harm caused by religion. These are the most interesting and certainly the most controversial chapters of the book; if you try reading The God Delusion and find it hard to get past the first couple of chapters, skip ahead to chapter 8. It's worth slogging through just these two chapters, if none others. I agree with Dawkins' opinion that raising children in a particular faith is irresponsible--it's indoctrination. I don't begrudge raising children in religious communities or to practise religious rituals, so long as those children are educated to think critically about their faith and beliefs--and are not ostracized if they choose to reject religion. My only regret is that Dawkins makes a massive digression into the abortion debate that seems tangentially related to his main point at best....

The last chapter, chapter 10, is an adequate peroration but far from the inspiring exultation of science that Dawkins may have intended to shoehorn into the end of his book. It piqued my interest in re-reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, which much better captures the sentiments Dawkins expresses here.

As much as I enjoyed The God Delusion, it should have been better. Too many rhetorical questions, too many "atheist prejudice horror stories," and Dawkins can't help but belabour every single point. Also, the tone of most of the book is just a little too smug--to be fair, Dawkins goes out of his way to express his respect for his intellectual opponents. Yet there's a distinct sense of incredulity that people actually believe some of the arguments he has set out to debunk. While I enjoy smug humour to a certain extent, The God Delusion often tried my patience.

Theist, deist, or atheist (or whatever other permutation you've decided to concoct), I do think The God Delusion is worth reading. If anything, it's the perfect storm for creating more debate--for "consciousness raising," as Dawkins puts it in his book--and that makes it commendable. Plus, it's dedicated to Douglas Adams. Like Dawkins, I miss Douglas.


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