Thursday, June 05, 2014

Book Review (#53 of 2014) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion
2.4% of Americans claim to be atheist. As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins puts great faith in natural selection to develop nature as it should be. Why should he be so alarmed, then, that there are so many who believe in the supernatural or are deists? Perhaps the belief in the supernatural has aided the species' survival. Perhaps it's very important to our evolution as a species. Dawkins does not give this idea much thought, however. While he does address possible biological and psychological reasons for why people believe in God, he separates the world into "enlightened" and "unenlightened," which many find offensive.

Weaknesses of the book:
In Black Holes and Baby Universes, Stephen Hawking says that if the universe is unlimited in scope then the laws of physics were the same at its creation as they are now. The universe was not created nor can be destroyed--it just is. However, if the universe is actually limited in scope, then the laws of physics didn't apply at its creation as they do today. Some outside entity, like God, must be responsible for its creation. Hawking said that he chooses to believe a Grand Unifying Theory of physics will explain everything from how the universe started to why I drank coffee this morning; he rejects God as the other explanation for these events. This is one way of looking at the problem that Dawkins leaves out or even ignores. Many people find it easier to believe in God than some grand unifying theory of everything-- that has yet to be discovered or proven.

Dawkins also criticizes the various ways in which those who believe in God claim that he works because the working is so inefficient or implausible. If a Creator God does exist, wouldn't he be infinite compared to anyone-- even Dawkins-- such that it would be silly for anyone to critique his efficiency or rationality? This idea doesn't dawn on Dawkins, which makes some of his critiques sound petty. Likewise, Dawkins defends religious freedom and belief as diversity, but he rails against tax money going to a British school that teaches a 6,000 year old earth and literal Noah's Ark. If you believe in an infinitely powerful being that created the universe, it's only a small step to believe he could do it in any time frame or in any way he so chose-- it's therefore illogical to say "that's just too much."

On a smaller level, Dawkins selectively quotes from the Old Testament and criticizes passages and comments on its incomprehensibility without consulting any scholar's explanation of that text and its context. That carelessness (why even go there if you're not equipped?) makes me doubt other areas that Dawkins makes confident claims on. He holds up John Shelby Spong (whose work I've reviewed earlier this year) as an "enlightened" person even though Spong's beliefs are a mess of blatant contradictions. Dawkins' tone is different than that of Christopher Hitchens, who had no problem having many friends who had different beliefs. Dawkins makes it clear that he will have nothing to do with those who are not at least inclined to believe as he does-- a philosophical problem that he never works out.

He also attacks Christians specifically for "immorality" and being the perpetrators of "evil," while holding up atheists or even just general deists as "enlightened" and "moral." He highlights the hatemail he receives from purported Christians as support of this, but likewise ignores the billions of dollars and time and effort that Christian charities spend around the world in humanitarian aid.

Dawkins, like most atheists, ignores the problem of evil-- although Dawkins actually claims to address it. He, like Christopher Hitchens and others, hold up certain acts as "good" or "evil" even though it's not clear from what basis he can judge. A Jew or Christian can say that murder is wrong because man was made in God's image. Dawkins never explains why he thinks murder is wrong-- he just states that it is. Dawkins gives some ideas from evolutionary psychology to explain morality-- altruism as a biproduct of natural selection-- and religion -- our desire to love is a biproduct of the desire to reproduce as a result of the processes of natural selection.

He also never deals with the why problem of natural selection. Dawkins addresses pretty thoroughly Michael Behe's work on irreducible complexity. He explains how natural selection creates an avenue for cells and organs to mutate piecemeal, in a trial-and-error fashion, over billions of years in order to come into the "right" solution to be the working parts we know today. But Dawkins never addresses the why-- for example, say the eye develops its intricate parts piecemeal over billions of years. The eye allows the brain-- which also must develop along with the eye-- to receive information from signals of light. But how did those cells know that there was such a thing as light from which it could receive data? Why did it develop to receive that data? Why did it mutate in the first place?
You can ask the same question of all body parts and species. How did it know to pass the learned information from its trial-and-error process onto the next organism? There is also no evidence--fossil or otherwise-- that such microscopic piecemeal trial-and-error advancements were made.

Dawkins purports that since we see natural selection in process today and do have fossil record of species evolving, then it stands to reason that every part of every thing developed in such a piecemeal fashion. As Dawkins writes, ultimately you get something that is statistically-speaking highly improbable. But each step along the way wasn't so improbable, it's just that now we see the end result of billions of years of these trial-and-error processes on millions of planets and we happen to be the cosmic winners. That, in a nutshell, is what non-atheists find very dissatisfying. 


Dawkins spends much of the beginning of the book attacking nonsense theories and generally making fun of non-atheists. He readily acknowledges how he's been criticized for his attitudes but does not care as he seems himself as having the moral high ground-- even though it's not clear from what basis he can call something "moral" or not.

A couple of oddities in the book. He acknowledges that when the police went on strike in Quebec, chaos ensued. Non-atheists often argue that removing God from our believes removes the moral restraint of people, just like removing police from an area creates chaos and violence (Christians call this "common grace"). However, Dawkins thinks that if Christians are right then there should have been no problems in Quebec since he bets that most of them believe in God in some way or another. 

Another oddity is toward the end in his defense of the Catholic church from accusations of pedophilia. While he admits to being abused by a priest while in a Catholic school he hated, he has such fond memories of the whole upbringing that he thinks it's a shame that the church has been "unfairly punished" by lawyers.  His overall point is that the teaching of the Catholic church-- especially that there is an eternal hell to fear-- is the worst crime.

Strengths:

Dawkins forcefully attacks certain arguments that Christians often fall back on-- irreducible complexity, Pasal's wager, etc. He also has a chapter where he assails several anti-abortion arguments often used by Christians. All Christians need to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that they have. For many, this will boil down to a personal experience that seemingly defies scientific explanation. Someone who goes from being an alcoholic to completely clean after getting on his knees, turning to Christ, and confessing his sins. Someone who feels happier and much more fulfilling than she did before becoming a Christian. Someone who had terminal cancer and was prayed for by a church and saw the tumors miraculously disappear-- something for which his doctors could give no explanation. Someone who went into a hut in the deepest part of Africa and met a reportedly demon-possessed woman who spoke perfect English and knew exactly who he was-- despite her never having learned the language or left the country. Dawkins rejects these experiences as either impossible, or at best not something proveable. Jesus' resurrection is one of those events. Even the most skeptical Bible scholars acknowledge that "something happened" that turned Jesus' followers from cowering and disappointed into highly-motivated impoverished martyrs for their beliefs, foresaking their former power, prestige, and religious/cultural beliefs.

All Christians should be a bit more humble about what they believe. Dawkins is correct that most of the endless debating and name-calling among religious circles is about things people cannot possibly know. Most evangelicals I know are convinced that they are the most correct in their theology-- that their denomination/church/team is therefore somewhat superior to the others (whether they admit it or not). But it takes a lot of chutzpah to believe that of all the billions of people who have existed on the earth, God ordered things such that you personally ended up in the right branch of the right denomination of the right religion with the right heritage such that you are the "most correct." Most people do not recognize that they are bent toward _______ denomination because they were raised that way or it happened to be the first church they encountered after choosing Christ (call it "by the grace of God" if you will). Christians should also be more knowledgeable about the brain, chemistry, psychology, cognitive biases, and other physical processes that influence how we perceive God, the world around us, and ourselves.

As such, I would recommend this book as a good starting point for Christians and non-atheists to start to get introspective as to why exactly they believe what they believe. 3 stars out of 5. 

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