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August 15, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

4 out of 5 stars

Richard Dawkins is one of the most eminent Evolutionary Biologists around today, and also one of the most eminent atheists around today.  He has participated in a conference about how science should be the next evolutionary step beyond religion (people with an ATHENS login or online subscription can read the New Scientist report on the conference here), written numerous books on why religion is a Bad Thing™, and has accordingly been accused of being a "fundamentalist atheist".  He has also been hilariously lampooned in a two-part South Park story aired around the time of the afore-mentioned conference.

Dawkins uses The God Delusion as his manifesto for advancing the population of the world beyond religion, and a convincing one it is too, at least to the converted such as myself.  Unlikely to sell very highly in religious circles, and having spawned a number of counter-arguments, such as McGrath & McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion?, one wonders about the effectiveness this will have in converting the religious and the religious apologists. 

But this is not, in fact, Dawkins' aim.  Dawkins instead seeks to explain his opinion as to why religion is bad, and, by extension, why something needs to be done.  Interesting points he makes include the question of why religion is automatically afforded so much respect (citing an example of an American sect that won an exemption from the laws surrounding hallucinogenic drugs as their belief was that taking these drugs was the path to God; in the wonderful teenage phrase, not taking drugs is "against their religion"), that religion in moderation should not be tolerated as it provides a justification of fundamentalism and extremism, and that what we in the UK would consider as Christian fundamentalism is mainstream in the US.  He also rails against the indoctrination of children under religion, and calls for a paradigm shift in referring to children not as a "Christian child" or a "Muslim child", but rather "the child of Christian parents" or "the child of Muslim parents"; he maintains, quite rightly, that children should be able to choose religion once they are old enough to think for themselves, and not have it thrust upon 'em before they know what's hit them.  He uses political affiliation to provide a counter-example here: no one would refer to a "Tory child" or a "Marxist child".  

The God Delusion, like most books, is divided into a number of chapters; each chapter in this book is titled with a question or statement to be tackled: "A deeply religious non-believer", "Arguments for God's existence", "What's wrong with religion? Why be hostile?", etc.  The chapters tackle subjects including the roots of religion, the roots of morality, why religion cannot be moral (if said morality is derived from the holy book), focussing mainly on Christianity.  The root of Dawkins' arguments comes from his own particular field of specialty, evolution, and he uses natural selection to argue how and why religion and morality arose, and how he foresees a world without religion as the next step in the evolutionary path of religion.

Generally speaking, the book is particularly readable, and Dawkins conveys his message clearly and eloquently throughout.  The bit I struggled with most was chapter 5, "The roots of religion", which contained a lot of fairly Darwin-heavy reading.  For someone who thought they "got" the theory of evolution and natural selection, I can tell you that it was a tough read, and I'm now re-evaluating that assumption.  However, it is worth persevering; there is much joy to be found in chapter 6 "The roots of morality: why are we good" that outlines how morality might have evolved, along with — importantly — evidence to support the theories.  There are also stories later in the book of the journeys people have made when trying to reconcile a religious upbringing with the rationality they have gained as an adult, and one moving story of a man (I think a scientist himself) who ultimately chose religion.  

I award it 4 stars for a particularly high-level of writing, as would be expected of an academic such as Dawkins (the "Further Reading" list appears to formatted according to the Harvard system), and for the logic, strength of argument, and evidence presented.  The harder-going midsection around chapter 5 already mentioned is what loses the book the last star, but I really can't recommend this book enough. 

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