Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Before I get to the book review proper I want to speak a little bit about an odd situation I find myself in recently. I am not big on audio books. Or podcasts. Or radio programs. Really anything which is just spoken words. Honestly I'd rather be watching something or reading something instead of listening to something. Unless, of course, part of me needs to be focused somewhere else, such as driving on long car trips. Then these become a much-needed relief from the tedium of monotonous tasks while allowing me to focus a sufficient part of my attention to the task at hand. Recently I've found myself in a situation where I have quite a bit of time where I can not only listen to audiobooks, but they're actually quite beneficial to helping time pass. And with the assistance of my local library I can actually listen to (hopefully) hundreds of audio books through the power of my trusty (albeit somewhat dated) kindle.

I wasn't entirely sure if I should review these book on the blog. After all, it's not like I'm properly ''reading'' them and I'm still reading books in a more traditional format in my spare time. But considering that this will continue to expose me to a variety of books, and there's at least one person who asks for my opinion on the literature I'm exposed to, I decided it was worth giving it a try. My hope is from this point on to provide a review of an audio book I've listened to every Tuesday, as well as continuing my reviews of text books I've read every Thursday. I'm sure my writings will continue to go unnoticed by the majority of the internet, but it may also prove beneficial.

I'm beginning, perhaps somewhat inauspiciously, with The God Delusion, by renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. I started with this because I figured it was one of those pretentious books I probably should have read, but never got around to reading because I was busy reading books about robot tanks. But with plenty of time available to me, it seemed like as good an opportunity as any. (And I suspect this trend of listening to books I probably should have read but never got around to will continue if I proceed with this experiment.)

The audiobook is actually read by both Richard Dawkins and his wife, Lalla Ward, which I actually want to talk about first and I have a suspicion my opinions on the reader's performance will factor into quite a few of my reviews. In the case of The God Delusion Dawkins makes use of a variety of quotations from numerous sources, and occasionally utilizes dialog to help illustrate points. Lalla Ward is a great asset because she helps let you know when Dawkins is quoting something or keep track of the different voices in an argument which, while it could certainly be done with a voice actor, are much easier with two voices instead of one. Also the book is written in a very conversational tone with the reader so having the author himself read it makes quite a lot of sense. It makes you really get the sense that Dawkins is trying to have a conversation with you about his viewpoints and makes the experience, of the audiobook at least, that much more personal.

I have not had much experience with Dawkins previously. I had been vaguely aware he was a strong atheist and proponent of science, as well as religious people not caring for him terribly much. Other than that I had very little knowledge of his exact viewpoints. This book was very enlightening as to Dawkins's own views on a number of subjects, as well as the precise reason why so many religious people seem to hate him. Dawkins certainly doesn't pull any punches in this book and calls a variety of arguments made by theists as childish, fatuous, vacuous, or downright insane. Even the title of the book stems from Dawkins's thesis that religious belief, in all its hundreds of varieties, is merely insanity made legitimate through its ubiquity.

I find myself of two opinions on Dawkins's rancor towards religion, to the point of calling religious education of children as the equivalent of child abuse due to the long-lasting mental effects it has. On the one hand, I'm left with the feeling that in his opposal to religion he goes to the opposite extreme, which may be off-putting to people who are still wavering on whether or not they believe in a deity. On the other hand, I can see how Dawkins, who has been debating with theists on whether or not god exists for decades, is probably just utterly exhausted with the whole process. In his refutation of a variety of arguments for the existence of god, both ''evidence-based'' and ''logic-based'', quite a few are arguments that have been put forth for decades, if not centuries, and have been tidily dismissed as insufficient for years. I can see how year after year, hearing the same dozen arguments brought up again and again as if this time it'll really stump him, would wear a person down. So while I may not entirely agree with his vitriol, I can at least somewhat understand the source of his frustration.

Dawkins also covers a variety of other subjects, such as talking about the different possible origins of religion and how institutions could grow and survive over time. Dawkins of course goes much further to explain why religion is no longer necessary for these causes. For example, knowledge of how the world came to be the way it is, once a central point of a variety of cultures' creation myths, can now be explained through various fields of science such as evolutionary biology and physics. And although explanations may not be complete, such as the competing hypotheses about the Big Bang and the nature of the universe, science and the quest for more information will continue to provide us with better and more complete knowledge.

People are of course quick to point out that even if religion is no longer necessary to tell us how we got here, religion can still be a source of morality for people. (Although a distressing number of people still think the world was created in six twenty-four hour days less than ten thousand years ago.) But as Dawkins counters, there are plenty of people who live good and moral lives without any influence of religion at all and it is still possible to live a full and happy life as an atheist. So clearly religion is not necessary to be a good person and there are numerous examples of philosophers attempting to define morality without relying on religion anyway. Besides, as Dawkins provides with extensive examples, the Bible as a document written, transcribed, and edited over hundreds of years is contradictory to the point of being schizophrenic and much of the morality it proposes is utterly barbaric by modern day standards. So if we're using the Bible (or any holy scripture) as a source of morality we're ultimately picking and choosing which parts we're going to use rather than strictly adhering to it. And at that point, do we really need the book to tell us to do? Aren't we capable enough on our own to decide what is right and wrong?

Dawkins also goes into a great amount of detail about how religion can be a force for bad in the world, which is also a very strong source of his frustrations with the entire affair, and touches on two specific examples. The obvious example is the large amount of religious conflict which has occurred throughout history and across the globe. Of course this is one of the first arguments anti-religious people bring up and there is inevitably a lot of quibbling and back and forth. However Dawkins goes even further to say that religious belief, even moderate religious belief, provides a safe haven for extremist ideologies to grow. Something that has become all the more relevant in recent years as the political situation deteriorates even further in the Middle East and, rather concerningly, increasingly reactionary and inflammatory rhetoric becomes common place here in the United States as well.

Dawkins's other main complaint is that religion establishes a pattern of belief without evidence, or sometimes in the face of all contradictory evidence. As much as people like to say that he believes in evolution, he goes to great lengths to explain the large amounts of evidence used to justify that belief. And most importantly like all scientists and the science-literate, Dawkins is willing to change those beliefs based on the revelation of new evidence. Religious belief, however, often makes it a virtue to believe without evidence, or in the face of evidence, and encourages people to remain steadfast in their beliefs despite whatever new evidence comes their way. On a related note, Dawkins also cites examples where religion makes a virtue of contentment and ignorance, while discouraging inquisitivity and curiosity. Many things which aren't easy to understand, an example being the concept of the trinity, are explained away as a mystery which is beyond human comprehension. Very often people like to say there are things which we'll never understand or hope to understand and that's where god is, similar to a god of the gaps argument where gaps in knowledge are explained away as god. However, there have often been claims made in the past that we'll never truly understand some aspect of knowledge, which only ends up being overturned much later by additional research. Saying that there are things humans are incapable of understanding is ultimately short-sighted and to reveal yourself ignorant of history. Which makes progress all that harder to achieve. While I may not agree with Dawkins's contempt for religion in general, I can at least understand a little bit of where he's coming from.

I've really only touched upon a handful of things talked about in this book, and Dawkins goes over quite a lot of material, summarizing at various points the absolute plethora of talking points he's covered. I will concede that Dawkins is far more polemic in his writing and goes to greater extremes than some other people, but I can at least understand why he feels the need to express himself the way that he does. It's certainly a thought-provoking book, but I fear in issues of religion it may not be very useful in changing people's minds.

- Kalpar

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