Monday, 11 December 2006

Book: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: The complete and unabridged guide to the atheist agenda against religion and the institution commonly referred to as god.
I will openly admit it: book reviews are still very much an enigma to me. By now I have developed some structure for reviewing movies, but with books it's a less systematic seat of the pants thing. The God Delusion makes things even harder: it represents such a conclusive and systematic approach to a subject, I simply cannot find anything to cling to as far as criticism is concerned. So I will approach it the way I tend to approach a review when I don't really have much to say: I will summarize, to one extent or another, what the book is trying to say. Before that, I will just mention that Richard Dawkins is an Oxford biologist who first became famous with a book he wrote 30 years ago called The Selfish Gene.
Dawkins starts by defining the scope of the issue he wishes to discuss, or attack, depending on your point of view. He quickly defines the "god" term he wishes to address, and makes it pretty clear it is not the god commonly referred to by Einstein or Hawking, which is closer to the Spinoza god, but rather the overseeing god that pretty much all religions talk about.
He then moves on to surveying arguments for the existence of god, from things like "the world is so beautiful there has to be a designer" to arguments based on supposedly holy scriptures. Systematicness is the rule of thumb here and elsewhere throughout the book, and one by one he presents an argument only to counter it using what is commonly referred to as the scientific methodology (i.e., the gathering of observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to the principles of reasoning - a definition copied from Wikipedia). Interestingly enough, Dawkins does not despair from turning every stone and presenting every pro-religious argument he can come up with, at least to the best of my familiarity with pro-religion arguments; say what you may say about what Dawkins, he does not shy away from an intellectual challenge.
At a pretty early stage of this relatively long book he moves on to express his agenda on why there is almost certainly no god. Again, it is all countered by pro-god views and all explained using the scientific methodology, but if you want this chapter to be summed up in one sentence then it would be the argument that the probability of the god we tend to delude ourselves with truly existing is extremely low. Very extremely low.
Dawkins recognizes that his arguments would be incomplete without explaining why a concept as flawed as religion manages to have such a firm grip on humanity; usually, when something is in our way the way religion is/was in the way of people, you'd expect us to get rid of it. Yet, most of us embrace it. Here, Dawkins relies on his background as an evolutionary biologist to suggest a wide array of theories, mainly along the lines of religion being a by product of evolution. A basic interpretation of mine to the idea, in order to explain what I am trying to say here about Dawkins' arguments, is to compare the urge for religion to the urge for sex: we all know why evolution has programmed us to like sex - it's in order to ensure the survival of the species; yet we still like sex when we use a condom or a pill, knowing fully well the species will have zero benefit tonight.
Next on Dawkins' agenda is the tackling of an idea commonly used in order to support the concept of religion: the arguing that without religion we would have no morality. Immediately he disqualifies this argument by saying that if the only reason a person does not kill and rape is because of that all seeing surveillance camera up in the sky, then by definition that person is immoral. He then moves, again, to offer evolutionary related reasons as to why we prefer to be good to one another; basically, that humanity has spent most of its time in small, tight, communities, where being good to one another offered significant advantages to the group; today, we call this effect synergy and team work and we look for it when we interview potential employees.
After that, Dawkins moves on to a full collision course: a blunt attack on religion, exposing it for all the bad things in it - the racism in it, the advocating for mass killings, the slavery it approves of, and much more. Dawkins is often desribed by his adversaries as an atheist fundamentalist, and as a result his attack is followed by equally lengthy and detailed explanations on why he has so much against religion and why he thinks the world would be a better place without it (or rather, why he considers the world to be that much worse with it). Special attention is given to the introduction of religion to children, which Dawkins considers to be one of the worst, often government endorsed, crimes humanity is performing upon itself, thus perpetuating all the bad things that come with religion and ensuring the the suffering of later generations.
In conclusion, Dawkins provides an uplifting finalle with his take on looking at life and for seeking explanations. Again, it is heavily based on science and the wonders of this world as we begin to discover them. If you seek a single sentence summarizing all of Dawkins' arguments in one sentence, it is that religion limits our view of our world to the tiny slit on a woman's burka, while science is there not to expand that slit but rather to get rid of the burka in the first place.
Now, those who know me will know that my opinions are pretty much identical to Dawkins', and that as far as I am concerned this book is a sermon preached to the preacher. Yet I argue that such an argument would constitute a great disrespect to this book, as Dawkins' arguments are much articulated at a level much higher than I can ever hope to achieve. I can only say it that many times: the book is truly a conclusive attack on a problem, so conclusive that it is rare to find such an approach not only when discussing religion but in any discussion; it is a fine example of what a thoughtful human being can come up with if he/she sets their mind to it.
And it's not only its conclusiveness and depth that make it good. The book is very fluently written, and given the issues and the level of its discussion it is an easy book to read. Not only easy to read, but also fun to read: Dawkins is no comedian, but he does mix in a joke or two often enough to keep the reader amused; he certainly is capable of serious yet humorous writing. I'll sum my personal evaluation of Dawkins up this way: The God Delusion was my first interaction with Richard Dawkins, but by the time I finished reading it I was owning five of Dawkins' books (and very much looking forward to having the time to read them).
I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, if only for the fine example it represents on how to approach an issue and properly discuss it. I would dearly love to hear others' opinions on it and its arguments, most especially the opinions of those who disagree with Dawkins; naturally, I don't care for things like "may he rot in hell", preferring to stick to constructive arguments, of the type that sticks with the scientific methodology. I severely doubt such arguments can be found, if only because Dawkins is a one mean intellectual; but I would definitely like to be surprised on this front, if only for the intellectual challenge it would bring along. In any case, I will not accept arguments claiming that religion is exempt from being argued scientifically, because I see no reason for that exemption to be granted; that is, in fact, one of the main arguments Dawkins is presenting when discussing what is wrong with religion: if you can't argue for or against it, how can you ask for it to be accepted?
This free "out of jail" card religion, flogged about on a regular basis, is something I find most annoying, and I'll explain with an example. I would dearly love, for example, to buy The God Delusion as a gift for my friends and family; after all, books of such excellence do not come by on a frequent basis. However, I know perfectly well that if I was to give this book to certain members of my family they will find it so offensive I will be risking the severing of family ties; I dare not speculate the potential effects such a naive act can have on my life. Poisonous books have been written before: Main Kampf is a good example. But The God Delusion is no more such a book as, say, Alice in Wonderland is; it is an exemplary work of thought and intellect, and Dawkins is a humanist of the first rank. And this, my dear reader, is probably the best example that I can give in support of Dawkins' message.
Overall: On a scale of 1 to 5, The God Delusion ranks 6 stars. Yes, it is that good.


Anonymous said...

This review (more like a summary) is FAR too long. Unless you can tell me your thoughts in less than one paragraph, I'm not interested. I have also read The God Delusion and would rate it 7 out of 5. Your epic review however, gets a 1.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I appreciate the honesty. While I would like to please, I clearly acknowledge that my reviews are primarily meant for myself; if you don't like them, feel free to set your browser elsewhere.
That said, being that The God Delusion is some 375 pages long, supplumentals aside, I believe it has at least two paragraphs. I wonder how you managed to survive it.
Anyway, jokes aside: I'm fully aware of my reviews being far from state of the art; but I do not think length is the problem, I would point more towards the contents. This particular review was aimed primarily at the two people I know who actually tend to read my reviews. Both of them will probably find The God Delusion to be rather offensive, hence the going through lengths to sum it up and show it's not made of pure evil.

P.S. Feel free to identify yourself next time; I don't bite.

Uri said...

Don't listen to anyone Moshe.
You have the ability to express yourself at length, and even when you're wrong (i.e. I don't agree with your opinions) it's always interesting to hear them.
And that very quality served us well when we were copying your homework a couple of decades ago.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence.
The guy was right: I did what we did in Sifrut (literature) class all these years ago in school. When we didn't know what to write, we'd just smear a lot of shit relating to the material at hand and hope to get away with it. The fact a lot of people back in school (and also in uni, by the way, where my notes were still popularly circulating several years after my graduation) liked that was a blessing as well as a curse.
In this particular case, I still see the value of summing up the book. And I'm also tired of the instant gratification culture (I think you taught me that term when I wanted to buy the PC game Red Alert - Tiberian Sun) that seeks out an instant black & white summary of everything when nothing can really be summed up this way.

Anyway, thanks again. Your comment's timing is good: I'm exploding with tension at the moment.
It's nice to have friends you can rely on.

P.S. Jo has asked me to mention that you should see the complaint letters I often write to companies and institutes that disappoint me. They tend to be very lengthy, but it's mostly to do with my attention and respect for little details.

K Williams said...

Hey Moshe (yes, i'll make contact soon! It looks like thre have been 'developments'!...). Keep up the offensive work man! If somebody can go through a whole book and not read a blog page of text, well what can one say?
I thought the rating line was obvious good enough. And, reading through your blog too one can quicly figure out where Moshe and religion sit.
By the way, I have not read the full review yet! I bought the book early December but I am waiting till we're away later this month and take it with me. I cannot wait!...

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thanks, Mr K.
If you're looking for another excellent book on the subject, try Carl Sagan's new book The Varities of Scientific Experience. It's not as conclusive as God Delusion, but it's certainly as good and probably better in the thought provoking department.
Don't worry about making contact - things have been quite hectic for us lately...

Mike said...

I'm about halfway through this book, and I think it's the most liberating thing I've ever read. I wish I had read it years ago.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You remind me that I really need to write a proper review for this book rather to replace the above, which is basically a summary of the book.
As for your comment, I can't say the book changed my views much because I was an atheist (or rather, a skeptic) before I was 10. What the book did do for me, though, was to sharpen my views. I now have a much better specified, for lack of better words, position on religion.

Moshe Reuveni said...

...And I still hold it as one of the very best books I have ever read; the top award goes to Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.