BookBrowse Reviews The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

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The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins X
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 416 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2008, 464 pages

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A preeminent scientist -- and the world's most prominent atheist -- asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11.

Whatever your personal beliefs (and I imagine among the readership of this ezine they are both diverse and strongly held) I suggest that there is one thing that the majority of us would be able to agree on, which is that whether we believe in one God, or many, or in none at all, we agree that any deity worthy of our belief is not only robust enough to be able to handle us little people questioning our beliefs as a process of growing, but would actually welcome this process as preferable to blind acceptance.

If you agree with this statement, then you should consider spending a few minutes reading the 6,000 word excerpt from The God Delusion at BookBrowse, which will give you a very good flavor of the book - enough to know whether you'll want to read it in full, and likely enough to hold your own in conversation about it, especially with the many people who have firm opinions on the topic but haven't actually read the book! To quote The Economist, "Mr Dawkins is an atheist, an evolutionary biologist and an eloquent communicator about science, three passions that have allowed him to construct a particularly comprehensive case against religion .... Atheists will love Mr Dawkins's incisive logic and rapier wit and theists will find few better tests of the robustness of their faith. Even agnostics, who claim to have no opinion on God, may be persuaded that their position is an untenable waffle."

What will make The God Delusion difficult to swallow for many is that Dawkins's target is not just the occasional deluded zealot who blows himself up in the name of God but also ordinary everyday religious moderates who, as Dawkins sees it, consolidate the position of fundamentalists by promoting faith as a virtue and enforcing an overly pious respect for religion.

Dawkins cites real life examples of how our respect for religion has got out of hand, such as the church in New Mexico which has gained a US Supreme Court ruling that its members can take a special tea containing an illegal hallucinogenic because they believe that the drug enhances their understanding, without having to produce any evidence that it does.

"Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they 'believe' they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet, when a church claims an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such is the power of religion as a talisman."

Then there are more worrisome stories such as the 12-year-old boy in Ohio who won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words 'Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!' The case was not upheld on the basis of freedom of speech, because freedom of speech is deemed not to include 'hate speech', so instead his lawyer appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion, and won the case.

Dawkins also touches on the brouhaha over the cartoons depicting Mohamed that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. His interpretation of events, apparently based on fact but not fully reported in the news, is quite enlightening.

Some would respond that these incidents, along with the many religious wars being fought around the globe, are isolated incidents, and are more than balanced by all the good religion does. Dawkins's response to this is that every positive aspect of religion can be replaced by equally positive non-religious substitutes.

His arguments are not new, but they are compellingly laid out. What is particularly interesting are his views on why religion is so widespread. Why have we been worshiping deities in some shape or form since before the dawn of civilization, and why do so many people seem even more drawn to religion the further we move into the modern world? After all, if religion was such a "bad thing" wouldn't natural selection (which Dawkins is obviously a proponent of) have weeded it out of our psyche long ago? Not according to Dawkins who believes that religion is a by-product of our mental abilities that developed for other purposes. One aspect of which is that up to a certain age children are "programmed" to believe their parents, which is a good thing for keeping them safe but it also enables "worthless" beliefs to be passed from generation to generation. In Dawkins's view, giving children religious instruction when they are at an age where they naturally accept information supplied by their elders as truth is tantamount to child abuse.

Dawkins's views have been clear since his early books such as The Selfish Gene, but in The God Delusion, for the first time, he sets out to overtly change opinions. Some reviewers feel that his writing is overly vitriolic at times and as such will put off the very people that he wishes to persuade. Dawkins, obviously aware that this would be a likely response addresses this particular point in the opening pages, ending his Preface with the following:

"I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defense. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect? As H. L. Mencken said: 'We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.'

It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else."

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2007, and has been updated for the January 2008 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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