The God Delusion

I've recently finished reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I was pretty determined to not read it when it first came out since a) I object to specifically indulging in writing that I know I'll agree with --- I suspect that searching out compliant opinions leads to foam-mouthed Daily Mail reader behaviour and obstinate old man disease, and b) Herr Dawkins has been on a bit of an ego/PR trip in recent years, in an area which he's not really all that qualified to talk about. But then, as he points out in the book, it's not like religious "authorities" are really qualified to say anything meaningful about well... anything, so when Jo got a copy, I decided to steal it and finish it before her ;) On the whole, I have to say well done to Mr D. Okay, so the style is pretty rough --- much less honed than his sublime The Selfish Gene --- but I think that's a concious effort to come across as a nice and normal chap to all the Joe Faithfuls that he's hoping to convert. And he has done his homework --- lots of nice factoids and references, although one gets the impression that his library at home is entirely filled with books called "Why God Is A Big Fat Lie" and other, similarly subtle titles. (Incidentally, what a pity that aetheistic books tend to be as ravingly, lowest common denominator as their religious counterparts --- and even more of a pity that intelligent people like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins don't try to buck the trend.)

Stylistically, it would also do the atheism case good if Dawkins could refrain from introducing any religious opinion with the prose equivalent of rolling eyes, nudges, winks and other unsubtle indications that he believes the religious speaker to be a credulous moron. Yes, Richard, we know you think the religious view is wrong --- the title rather gives that away --- but it would be much stronger and less infuriating to paint the opposing view in a neutral light and then destroy it on equal terms. Since his logical case is mostly robust (apart from some guff that seems to imply that any God must be so complex that He must have evolved Himself), the eye-rolling does him a disservice. On the other hand, especially in the later parts of the book where the style improves, Dawkins pleads rather nicely that he is a deeply non-confrontational person and that his passion for debunking dangerous and irrational points of view is what gets painted by others as militance. Undoubtedly the mix of ego and oft patronising tone don't help, but as a similarly non- confrontational person whose passion for debunking illogical or fallacy-laden arguments regularly gets them into trouble, I can certainly sympathise.

I've only encounted a few dodgy points in the argument, and there is plenty of new stuff to me, which surprises me. I suspect that a lot of people like me come to atheism from just observing the social structure of religion (as a way of controlling populations etc.) and the lack of need for a supernatural actor in well, everything outside the Church. I suspect that growing up in Northern Ireland, with its particular brands of religious nutters and the devastation of the pseudo-religious Troubles may have contributed to that view. But Dawkins has spent a good amount of time reading around and asking the a posteriori obvious questions... phrasing religion in terms of an evolutionarily stable strategy is a neat trick which he's well-qualified to perform, and happily his answer doesn't end up stinking too much of teleology. Dawkins does definitely have a talent for exposing the obvious questions that we just never thought about asking, and I felt as embarrassed at my short-sightedness reading The God Delusion as I did when reading The Selfish Gene. Incidentally, TSG is my favourite pop-science book for that very reason --- I initially didn't read it because I thought I knew everything it would say, but its elegant main point --- that the gene rather than the organism or group is the agent of natural selection --- immediately allows more complex behaviours at higher levels, such as altruism. Many of the same techniques (and, in fact, arguments) are re-deployed in The God Delusion to good effect --- it's not so much sleight of hand as a paradigm shift of the Necker Cube type. Dawkins also convincingly challenges ideas like the idiom that good scientists should state themselves as agnostic rather than atheist, making me wish I'd thought more about it than to buy into the initially appealing idiom: pretty much all of us implicitly use a prior-probability/Occam's Razor argument to not bother being religious, so the evidentiary basis clearly had something stringer than 50/50 to say on the existence of God.

One vague point is a possible misconception that characteristics of publicly elected individuals will be distributed with a spread representative of the public: this isn't actually correct if elections are run in a first-past-the-post style, which will have the effect of artificially clustering representatives around the modes of the public distributions. It's an interesting point, though, and I'll return to the issue with a speculative trudge through the deficiencies in the most prominent brands of democracy soon ;) Finally, in a nice touch, Dawkins doesn't have a particularly strong response to the suggestion that having all the squillions of electrons in the universe behave exactly the same way is weird, therefore God must be managing it. In fact, in quantum field theory it's completely natural to view electrons and other fundamental particles as excitations on a set of coupled manifolds distributed through spacetime. In a sense, there really only is one electron --- the whole manifold. It's particularly apt that this view was espoused by Freeman Dyson, who Dawkins awkwardly satirises (in a cringeworthy burst of excitement at his own comic genius) on the previous page.

So, on the whole, it's neither great literature, nor a patch on The Selfish Gene, but The God Delusion is fairly entertaining, well-researched and even those who are used to justifying their rationally-grounded lack of faith will find new, or more cogently-expressed, arguments to add to their arsenal. As for whether it will convert anyone else, who knows, but that such a book can both exist and shift so many goddamn units reflects well on the true distribution of public piety at a time when several prominent politicians in the UK have been declaring the importance of their faith and their belief in faith schools etc as a valid, and socially useful tool. Worth reading, whatever your prejudices.


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