The God Delusion: The First 100 Pages
This month's selection for The Skeptics' Book Club is a book I'd long been thinking I ought to read (and have been told so), so I'm kind of glad to have this excuse to make the time to do so: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.
I probably don't have to explain what the book is about, or who Dawkins is; I'm sure everyone reading this knows all that already. (And if somehow someone doesn't, well, you can click on the links in the previous paragraph.)
As the title of this post implies, I haven't finished the book yet (though I expect to do so before the book club meeting). However, I decided to go ahead and make a post about as much of it as I've read so far, for two reasons: first, because I'm sure I'll have more to say about the rest of the book--and better a few reasonably-sized posts than one really long one--and second, because, uh, it's been way too long since my last post anyway.
So. First of all, let me mention what I'd heard about the book before I read it--the same, I'd imagine, as everyone else had heard about it. In general, theists said that it was a venomous attack on religion, which Dawkins clearly didn't even really understand at all. The godless, on the other hand, said that the supposed venom was grossly exaggerated.
I really wish I could say that the theists were completely wrong here.
Okay, first of all, on the charge of Dawkins not understanding religion: eh, I dunno about that one. Granted, I'm only a hundred pages in, and maybe he makes some major mistakes later on, but so far there's only one thing I've run across I'd really classify as inaccurate or unfair. When discussing the inadequacy of scripture as proof of God's existence, Dawkins points out the contradictions in Biblical accounts, and then laments the ignorance of Biblical literalists who--he assumes--are unaware of them. "...[T]here are many unsophisticated Christians out there who...take the Bible very seriously indeed as a literal and accurate record of history and hence as evidence supporting their religious beliefs. Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth? Why don't they notice these glaring contradictions?"
In my experience--and since Mormon doctrine does include a highly literal interpretation of the Bible, I do have experience with this--Biblical literalists aren't all that stupid, or that ignorant. Yes, they--not all of them, I'm sure, but many--do read the Bible, and they're aware of the contradictions. However, they are also aware of rationalizations that apologists have come up with to reconcile those contradictions (or are capable of coming up with such rationalizations on their own). As I remarked in a previous post, there almost always are ways to paper over an apparent contradiction, if you're creative enough, and maybe willing to bend words a little. Of course, the apologetic "explanations" may strike non-believers as ad hoc and rather desperate, but the fact remains that Biblical literalists aren't necessarily ignorant of the contradictions in the Bible--and nor are they necessarily any more "unsophisticated" than Christians who feel free to interpret the Bible more liberally.
(Actually, there is one other point in the book that puzzled me, and that I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention. At one point Dawkins refers to "the three 'great' monotheistic religions (four if you count Mormonism), all of which trace themselves back to the mythological patriarch Abraham". Guh? The three main religions Dawkins is referring to are, of course, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam...but what possible reason would there be to count Mormonism separately? Sure, many Protestants don't consider Mormons true Christians--but many Protestants don't consider Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses true Christians either, and Dawkins doesn't propose counting them separately. Sure, Mormon doctrine does have some very significant and fundamental differences with the more mainstream Protestant doctrine--but again, the same is true of Catholicism and the Jehovah's Witnesses, and he doesn't propose counting them separately. Sure, LDS church leaders may like to repeat that Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion in the world--but there's little or no evidence that that's true, and many other religions make the same claim. [EDIT: It's been pointed out to me in a comment that it's not really the church leaders who make these claims--the claims are made, and are often repeated by church members in talks and lessons, but they originate from other sources, not from the church leadership.] Besides, if we're just going by raw numbers--well, to pick on the same two examples I've been using up until now, both the Catholics and the Jehovah's Witnesses outnumber the Mormons. So why single Mormonism out as a fourth "'great' monotheistic religion"? I am honestly baffled.
All right, and, for the sake of completeness, there is one other slight inaccuracy I could remark on. Dawkins dismisses a little too categorically belief in God as "an old man in the sky with a long white beard", implying, though not stating outright, that nobody really literally believes in that. In fact, though, some people do believe in God as literally a white-bearded man in the sky--Mormons at least arguably among them; they even have a name for God's home planet or star (Kolob). But this isn't at all important to Dawkins' points, so it isn't worth dwelling on.)
That aside, though, I didn't see--so far, at least--any signs that Dawkins really had any fundamental misunderstanding of religion. He may have gotten some details wrong, but nothing crucial to his arguments, and nothing that isn't forgivable in someone speaking outside his area of expertise. So on that charge, I'd say (at least, again, judging from the first hundred pages) he's mostly innocent.
But on the charge of his mocking and derisive tone: uh, yeah. Let's not kid ourselves. It's there.
"I shall not go out of my way to offend," Dawkins writes at the end of the first chapter, "but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else."
And then thus begins chapter 2: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."
I daresay anyone who believed in the God of the Old Testament might find that sentence just a shade offensive.
This is by no means the only example of inflammatory language. He says that "[w]hat impresses [him] about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along." I've already reproduced above his rather insulting characterization of Biblical literalists. He calls St. Anselm's ontological argument "infantile" and casts it "in the language of the playground", with the argument's proponent, in his relation, resorting to the nonsensical taunt "Nur Nurny Nur Nur".
I am not accusing Dawkins of going against the sentence he ended his first chapter with. He did say he wasn't going to handle religion with kid gloves, and I am willing to believe that he is not going out of his way to offend. He has strong feelings about religion--and, I would say, justifiably so--and so if he's not intentionally restraining himself he tends to write about it in strong language and in jeering scorn. That's understandable.
And, to be fair, I should quote the sentence preceding that last sentence of the first chapter: "It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book." The "unparalleled presumption of respect for religion" is what he had just spent the last seven and a half pages explaining: the fact that religion gets a bye that other practices and belief systems don't enjoy, that society demands that broad allowances be made for religious belief that are not made for any other cause. Therefore, any attacks on religion are perceived as offensive far out of proportion to their real content or intent.
He has a point, and it is something I tried to keep in mind. How, I thought, would language comparable to what Dawkins writes here come across in another context, other than religion? Well, I suppose Dawkins speaks no more harshly about religion than typical pundits do about those of opposing political views. But except in extreme cases such pundits aren't generally attacked as being wildly offensive.
However, there's another factor that I think must be kept in mind here. Political pundits, when they write diatribes against the other side, aren't really trying to win over their opponents. In general, they're writing for people who already agree with them. They don't expect to make converts, and they're not really worried about offending people.
Dawkins, on the other hand, is trying to make converts--or "de-converts". He explicitly says as much in his preface: "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." He acknowledges, of course, that it may be hard to motivate believers to read his book in the first place: "Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this". What he doesn't seem to recognize is the possibility that a believer who does read his book may be so offended by his ridicule that he refuses to take in the message--or may even become more entrenched in his beliefs, as a reaction against Dawkins' mockery.
Again, I am not doubting that Dawkins was being genuine about his intentions in that last sentence of the first chapter. I believe him when he says that he didn't go out of his way to offend. I believe him that any offensiveness is simply because of his refusal to "don kid gloves".
But I think maybe he should have tried those gloves on for size.
I'm not saying Dawkins' outrage is unwarranted. I agree that religion does a lot of damage; I agree there's a lot there that's worthy of ridicule. But ridicule doesn't win converts--and by Dawkins' own admission, that's what he's set out to do. I don't think this is the way to do it. Like the political pundits, he's going to end up--or, since the book was published last year, perhaps I should say he probably already has ended up--just encouraging those who already agree with him. Or, to use a phrase that originated in a religious context...preaching to the choir.
I made a post a long while back on Mormon missionary methods. Now, I may not believe in Mormon doctrine--and I may have serious doubts that Mormonism is really the fastest-growing religion like
And I fear, from the backlash I've seen against Dawkins, that that, in a figurative sense, is just what happened to him. He went to the religious and told them how unsophisticated and silly they were, and they responded by refusing to listen to him and calling him rude. Now, again, I think Dawkins is right; religious beliefs are pretty silly, when you look at them without the lens of indoctrination in the way. But that's not the best approach to use to try to win people over.
Now, one might say--and many have said--that, well, someone has to be blunt and direct; someone has to tell it like it is. And yes, maybe someone does. But that someone shouldn't expect to win many believers to his side. And anyway, others are already doing that; from what I've heard, other major atheist writers--Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris--are even more abrasive than Dawkins. It can also be said that religion doesn't deserve respect; that--as Dawkins says in the prologue--it's already respected far more than it should be. Also true, but, again, if your goal is to win people over, you're not going to do it by insulting them.
I'm not saying I haven't been enjoying the book. Dawkins makes some good points, and some interesting arguments. And really, I wouldn't be having such a problem with it if it weren't intended--according to Dawkins--to turn believers into atheists. As a sermon to the choir, it's excellent. As a missionary tract, though, I have a hard time not seeing it as doomed to failure.
Ah, well. As I said, I'm still enjoying the book, and we'll see what I think of the other 274 pages...