Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Contagious Boil on the Face of Religion: Book Review - The God Delusion (2006) - Richard Dawkins

Book Review - Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.

Dawkins is the contagious boil on the face of religion. Religion tries to squeeze him out to get rid of him, but he spreads his ideas and influence all the more. He holds back no punches as he releases, what seems to be, his apologetic against religion. While controversial religious ideas and practices are at the forefront, interestingly, some of the book seems to be an advertisement for natural selection and scientific endeavor, rather than what the title exclaims.While you expect a book all about faith and theology; at times you find yourself delving into the intricate insides of evolutionary biology and are left wondering whether he forgot the title of his own book.

Ebbs and flows exist between the highlighting of why Christians (not to mention Muslims and Buddhists), are naïve in their belief systems, to that of scientific progress. The issue then is really whether this is a book about science or religion? If it is the former, then the book should be called something like The Origins of Life and Natural Selection, but if it is really The God Delusion, then the author should not wander off into justifying scientific process (unless it is closely relevant to the argument).


For more, check out another of Pete's Blogs - Richard Dawkins & Alister McGrath - "The Delusions!"

Some argue that a scientist should avoid attempting an exposition on religion; that the two do not mix, and they should not cross paths. This is really Stephen Jay Gould’s brainchild regarding, what he calls, NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria). The thesis is that science and religion exist in two different planes, one that is about empiricism and one about ultimate meaning and morality (: 77-85). Science still has much to say within the realms of religion, for example, the scientific progress in cosmology, or the debates about evolution/creation and the origins of life and even in the scientific rationality behind miracles and seemingly ‘super-human’ feats (like rising from the grave). While Gould may be right in saying that science says little about how we are to live, and eternal life and such, science still offers much to inform and sharpen theological thinking. McGrath highlights the idea of POMA (partially overlapping magesteria) which is helpful in understanding that there is a ‘crossfertilization of science and religion (McGrath, 2007: 19). The point being, Dawkins has just as much freedom to speak out and discuss religion as does a professor of protestant theology. While his ideas are forthright and at times offensive to people of faith, he is nonetheless entitled to an opinion, and for those opinions to be challenged. Admittedly, when he is discussing scientific progress and ideas though, it is more refreshing than having to stomach the continual mockery of religious fundamentalism.

The question begs asking - is Dawkins too offensive towards religious followers? He mentions he is ‘tame’ compared with other literature (: 16), and that religious followers are just overly cautious about religious material. Unquestionably, to the person of faith, he is, at times, rude and offensive. Take the following statements:
  • ‘A popular deity on the Internet at present – and as undisprovable as Yahweh or any other – is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who, many claim, has touched them with his noodly appendage’ (: 76).

  • ‘…visionary religious experiences are related to temporal lobe epilepsy’ (:196).
While arguments regarding the existence of God are appreciated, the occasional sarcasm and humour detracts from any intellectual pursuit. Epistemologically speaking, what matters, is whether there is any substance underneath the rhetoric of ‘religious naivety and stupidity’ which is worthy of his readership?

Amongst the pages of The God Delusion, Dawkins occasionally provides some rigorous apologetics against religion that are difficult for even the most intelligent theologians. In relation to morality he questions the Christian who asks, ‘If there is no God, then why be good?’ He fires back at the questioner, arguing that this question presupposes that the only reason the Christian is good is because they believe in their God. Then if the Christian says, ‘No, wait a minute, I am not good just because of God in my life,’ the response is that there is no need for a God then.

Dawkins though, falls short earlier on when he describes the idea that every human has a sense of morality. He falls short, not because of the interesting, abbreviated monologue and reasoning from biologist Marc Hauser (: 254-258), but because he simply makes the assumption that because of this universal sense of morality, there is no need for a God (: 258). He says this sense comes from our evolutionary heritage. The counter argument is clear:What if God placed in human hearts a sense of morality?What if this sense of good and evil did not merely evolve from natural selection but was conveniently designed that way from a deity?

Another persuasive apologetic Dawkins offers is his scathing attack on Scripture (: 117-123). It is not so much that he is right in his assertions, but that his comments are hard to respond to in affirmation of the importance of Scripture. Take for example, the comments that the Scriptures about Jesus were recorded well after Jesus’ death and thus are erroneous (: 118). One must enter into detailed analysis of the effectiveness of oral communication in the first and second centuries to refute the argument. This apologetic about the validity of the Scriptures can disturb any Christian who is not well versed with oral tradition, exegesis and the Synoptic Gospels. Dawkins mentions that Luke ‘screws up’ his dating of events, that the Christmas story is recorded incorrectly and that the recorders of the gospels were fallible and had hidden agendas (:118-119). His presuppositions about Scripture begin to become weak though, when he says, ‘The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen…’ (: 121). The canon was never ‘arbitrarily’ chosen, like some lucky dip competition. The canon was divinely orchestrated by the self-revelation of God, through the use of fallible human beings. The canon (Scriptures) will undoubtedly and continually be debated by scientists and the like, in relation to providing evidence to substantiate the claims of its authenticity.

One of the techniques Dawkins uses in The God Delusion is the discrediting of religion, predominantly Christianity, through the use of stories, analogies and witty comments. While the stories he tells are no doubt empirically true, most stories he uses are so far beyond what any Christian would call orthodox faith. His arguments are thus diminished, because what he is parading around as orthodox responses to faith and reason are in fact emanating from people not upheld and respected by orthodox religion. He quotes angry letters written to him from so called Christians (: 242-243), as if this is the common letter writing technique from Christians. He tells of the agonizing sexual abuse of a seven year old by a Catholic Priest, as if this action is common practice amongst believers (: 357). He speak of the murders caused by religious fanatics, like 9/11, or suicide bombers, or the persecution of the Jews inWorld War II (: 23-24), as if that is the common way that religion is expressed within society today. His stories may be entertaining for some, but they fail terribly at offering readers a clear, balanced picture of religion today.

There are some comments Dawkins makes, that could apply to either side of the science/religion debate. Take for instance, ‘…perhaps you need to be steeped in natural selection, immersed in it, swim about in it, before you can truly appreciate its power’ (: 143). A theist would argue that perhaps Dawkins needs to swim about in the pool of theological ideas before he can truly appreciate God and faith. He also says, ‘It is utterly illogical to demand complete documentation of every step of any narrative…’ (: 153), which of course is only meant to refer to science, but surely it could also refer to the realms of spirituality? Is it not just as illogical to demand theologians to explain every step of their theological presuppositions? As McGrath says, Dawkins makes the transition, ‘from a scientist with a passionate concern for truth to a crude anti-religious propagandist who shows a disregard for evidence’ (2007: 27).

McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion is a helpful rebuttal to the work of Dawkins. While questioning your own belief system at times, havingMcGrath touch on the exact aspect of Dawkins ‘theology’ and then show you why it is skewed from the truth is pleasing. Take for example the role of science and religion. When reading Dawkins, the thought rises about whether everything should be scientifically proven. Then McGrath writes, ‘Scientific theories cannot be said to ‘explain the world’ – only to explain the phenomena which are observed within the world’ (2007: 16). McGrath shows you how to bring stability and intellectual dialogue to a heated debate, and how to engage the ideas of Dawkins in ways that are not written for entertainment sake, but for the sake of discovering the truth.

If the aim of The God Delusion was to sell numerous copies while increasing the financial coffers of scientific research there is success. If the aim was to write a persuasive, rationalistic, intellectual exposition about why following God was delusional, he missed the mark. He nonetheless produced a provocative account of religion melded with science that raises the eyebrows of people of religion and provides entertainment to the religious cynics and the atheists. It seems Dawkins never intended to write an apologetic against religion, but rather to offer readers a frank, passionate bleat about religion and a convicting plea for the embracing of evolutionary biology. All in all, it seems that the contagious boil on the face of the religious community is not going into hiding anytime soon.

  • For more, check out another of Pete's Blogs - Richard Dawkins & Alister McGrath - "The Delusions!"

- Book Review of The God Delusion by Pete Brookshaw (Aug 2011).

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