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the complete review - religion
The God Delusion
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B+ : sharply and entertainingly written, but a bit too free-wheeling and far-ranging
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus, lots of opinions
From the Reviews:
- "He is spectacularly inept when it comes to the traditional philosophical arguments for God, such as the cosmological, the ontological and the arguments from design. (...) Dawkins is so dismissive and often so skewed or superficial that he doesn't make much contact with Christians like me. Real challenges to theism certainly exist, but he tends to skate over the top. He is at his best and most likeable when his deep love for science and enthusiasm for sharing it, his evangelical zeal, I'm tempted to say, come to the fore." - Barney Zwartz, The Age
- "Mr Dawkins is an atheist, an evolutionary biologist and an eloquent communicator about science, three passions that have allowed him to construct a particularly comprehensive case against religion. Everyone should read it. Atheists will love Mr Dawkins's incisive logic and rapier wit and theists will find few better tests of the robustness of their faith. Even agnostics, who claim to have no opinion on God, may be persuaded that their position is an untenable waffle." - The Economist
- "In The God Delusion, in lively, even provocative style, Dawkins sets out to demolish God; to assess the costs of religion and the evils to which it can be put; and to re-orient the debate on the whys and wherefores of life and humans within it. This is not a wholly destructive enterprise. (...) The God Delusion is a fascinating book, designed to tease as well as please. It is written in more than one style. (...) Both are expressed in sparkling language, which makes the book not only a pleasure to read but also a stimulus to thinking across this widest of spectrums." - Crispin Tickell, Financial Times
- "It is a spirited and exhilarating read. In the current climate of papal/Islamic stand-off, it is timely too. There is no hesitancy or doubt here. Dawkins comes roaring forth in the full vigour of his powerful arguments, laying into fallacies and false doctrines with the energy of the polemicist at his most fiery. (...) This book is a clarion call to cower no longer. Primed by anger, redeemed by humour, it will, I trust, offend many." - Joan Bakewell, The Guardian
- "Dawkins does not admit sympathy for believers, or acknowledge the extent to which religion may constitute their sense of identity. He disregards the risk that attacking a people's religion may amount to an attack on them as a group. Some comments and quotes in this respect are reckless. The most shocking quotes, though, are all from the Bible. His greatest polemical asset is having that particular God on his side." - Marek Kohn, The Independent
- "That I must give a howling boo to much of The God Delusion is a recommendation. Again and again, it forces the reader to ardent thought. (...) As a critic of faith, Dawkins is thus pretty lame; as the bard of materialist myth, his only rival is Philip Pullman." - Murrough O'Brien, Independent on Sunday
- "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. (...) As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it. (...) There is a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste, and The God Delusion springs from, among other places, that particular stable. At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann." - Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books
- "Ungeduldige Leser werden es nur dann mögen, wenn ihre Unduldsamkeit der Religion gegenüber hinreichend stark ist." - Uwe Justus Wenzel Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "(A) very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories, anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument." - Thomas Nagel, The New Republic
- "In spite of the evidence that holding religious belief has become part of human nature through natural selection, Dawkins looks upon it as superfluous and the root of much violent evil. But however clever his reasoning (and it is clever), The God Delusion sounds like a personal vendetta, complete with elitist undertones and some uncomfortably dictatorial passages. In the preface, he expresses the hope that religious readers who open the book will be atheists when they put it down. That is academic arrogance -- and shows negligible insight into the way humans behave." - Margaret Cook, New Statesman
- "Dawkins is, of course, quite right to express horror at Biblical fundamentalism, especially in the neocon form that centres on the book of Revelation. But it is not possible to attack this target properly while also conducting a wider, cluster-bomb onslaught on everything that can be called religion. Since this particular bad form of religion is spreading rapidly in the world, we urgently need to understand it: not just to denounce it but to grasp much better than we do now why people find it attractive. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins does, that they are being childish." - Mary Midgley, New Scientist
- "Here he has marshaled his full case against the existence of God, and the result is compelling, fairly familiar and often entertaining.(...) (U)ltimately, he makes an interesting case for dumping our "overweening respect for religion" and demanding that religious people justify their faith." - Emily Bobrow, The New York Observer
- "The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins's cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. (...) Dawkins has written a book that's distinctly, even defiantly, middlebrow. (...) None of Dawkins's loud pronouncements on God follows from any experiment or piece of data. It's just Dawkins talking." - H. Allen Orr, The New York Review of Books
- "What Dawkins brings to this approach is a couple of fresh arguments -- no mean achievement, considering how thoroughly these issues have been debated over the centuries -- and a great deal of passion. The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy. (...) Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience." - Jim Holt, The New York Times Book Review
- "The God Delusion is carefully crafted, elegantly constructed and skilfully argued. And although the author may be rather rude about God and some of his followers, he is still at pains to point out that atheism is no more than a realistic aspiration, not a moral imperative." - Robin McKie, The Observer
- "Dawkins' tone ranges narrowly from strident to snide. (...) Dawkins is deluding himself if he thinks The God Delusion would impress any reasonably informed theist. He seems completely unaware, for example, of the works of the great mystics, or of seminal works such as Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy. His characterization of God and religion amounts to caricature." - Frank Wilson, The Philadelphia Inquirer
- "It has been obvious for years that Richard Dawkins had a fat book on religion in him, but who would have thought him capable of writing one this bad ? Incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory, it has none of the style or verve of his earlier works." - Andrew Brown, Prospect
- "The God Delusion is a fine and significant book, and this is largely due to Dawkins' willingness to employ the sharp edges of his intellect to cut through a paralyzing propriety whose main effect is to stifle conversations -- about religion, about intellectual responsibility, about politics -- that we very much need, at this particular moment in our history, to be having. (...) Dawkins is at his best in his exposure of one of the big lies of our time: the claim that there is simply no conflict between religion and science. (...) Indeed, it should be said that while it deals with matters of the utmost gravity and urgency, The God Delusion, particularly in its early chapters, is a very funny book." - Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Richard Dawkins' new book about religion is unapologetically Benthamite in approach, and consequently is long on contempt (though it is rarely good-humoured). It is also sophomoric, repetitive and, on occasion, startlingly poorly written (.....) Dawkins is both sublimely indifferent to what a religious conception of human beings actually involves and altogether more confident than most moral philosophers are that secular sense can easily be made of the idea that every individual human being is precious." - Jonathan Derbyshire, Scotland on Sunday
- "But it's not anger that fuels this work. If anything, it's exasperation, the frustration of a man who sees himself directing people to their own noses. And a surprising and controversial thing about The God Delusion is that fanatical religion is not its target, though he does spend time imagining a world without it. Dawkins rejects all belief in the supernatural, even at its mildest. (...) The God Delusion is unevenly weighted, often repetitive and less eloquent than Dawkins's previous works. But that doesn't mean it fails. It takes flight when he moves beyond the yes/no argument about God to explain why evolution has created an abundance of religion." - Jon Casimir, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Exasperation is the dominant note: it irritates our author beyond endurance that religion is so often given a respectful hearing. And theology infuriates him even more. (...) Despite the hyped-up praise on the dustjacket ("my favourite book of all time"; "a heroic and life-changing book"), this is a deeply disappointing effort, when compared, for example, with Dawkins' brilliant earlier work, The Selfish Gene. Some of the earlier energy and ebullience remains, but the book is too hectoring, too insistent, too one-sided, and too irritable to change the views, let alone the life, of any fair-minded reader." - John Cottingham, The Tablet
- "Dawkins is Britain's most famous atheist and in The God Delusion he gives eloquent vent to his uncompromising views. (...) The moral of the story is that if you want an understanding of evolution or an argument for atheism, there are few better guides than Richard Dawkins. But treat with extreme caution the pronouncements of any one who takes his political cue from an ex-Beatle." - Kenan Malik, The Telegraph
- "I'm in awe of Dawkins, and of the ease with which he makes tricky science clear, but I'll eat my Sunday hat if this book persuades even the most hesitant half-believer to renounce religion -- not because he fails to make his case, but because to defeat an enemy you have first to understand it, and Dawkins is just too baffled and disgusted by faith even to try to see its point." - Mary Wakefield, The Telegraph
- "Where I think Dawkins goes wrong is that, like Henry V after Agincourt, he does not seem to realize the extent to which his side has won. (...) Dawkins treats Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers in the Islamic world, and in the harm it does. Richard Dawkins’s even-handedness is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced." - Steven Weinberg, Times Literary Supplement
- "Theologische Finessen wären allerdings auch unerheblich, weil das Buch über weite Strecken unerheblich ist. (...) Heraus kommt ein ausnehmend hochmütiges, neodarwinistisches Weltbild, das im Vollgefühl seiner allein selig machenden Wahrheit den Gott des Naturalismus anbetet und am Ende die Frage aufzwingt, ob Dawkins biologistische Kirche nicht ein gut Teil Schuld daran trägt, dass die neue amerikanische Pest, der Kreationismus, so erfolgreich die geistige Landschaft verstrahlt." - Thomas Assheuer, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
It seems like there's recently been a spate of books trying to help readers see reason regarding the god-concept and religion.
Some have tried to offer scientific explanations for belief and the continuing popularity of religion -- Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, Daniel C. Dennett's book on Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Breaking the Spell -- while others argue more aggressively for The End of Faith (Sam Harris, who also offers Letter to A Christian Nation).
In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins joins in, offering a sort of all-points attack and summary.
Dawkins has been on the battlelines for ages, and this is his most sustained and direct book on the subject to date.
(Needless to say, defense of religion continues apace too, though with fewer titles trying (or able) to reach a general audience; among the only ones we've covered is Alister McGrath's flailing attempt to demonstrate that it's actually The Twilight of Atheism)
The God Delusion tries to do several things, including demonstrate that it is highly unlikely that there is any deity (so extremely unlikely, in fact, that one can say: there is/are no god(s)), show the evolutionary reasons why mankind succumbed to religion (and continues to cling on to it), as well as explain why religion is (or aspects of it are) bad.
It's a lot to cover, and, especially in the places where Dawkins is not entirely thorough, leaves some of his arguments and approaches vulnerable to attack.
On the whole, however, he offers a solid attack on the god-concept and religion and makes a good case for dumping both.
And he does so, for the most part, entertainingly.
Dawkins gets off to a terrible start, suggesting in his Preface that readers might want to:
Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.
Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings', no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money ('God wants you to give till it hurts').
While many of these outrages likely would not have occurred (or continue) in the historically familiar form, mankind's capability and eagerness for hurting (and mass-slaughtering) fellow man (and woman) is certainly not limited to cases requiring a religious basis, and other excuses are and would have been readily found; Dawkins tackles (and acknowledges) this much later in the book, but it's a poor point to start off his book with.
Fortunately, matters improve quickly.
An early point he makes (though perhaps one that would have been better saved for the end of the book) is that religion gets far too great a free pass in society.
I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies.
It's a point worth more discussion, since many of the problems caused in modern society arise from the fact that (some) religious belief is treated with almost complete but also undeserved respect.
Certainly, people should be allowed to believe most anything they want, including something as silly as the existence of a deity, but once having those beliefs affect society and others they must also be open to challenge and criticism -- polite challenge, one hopes, of course, but challenge nevertheless.
This almost complete deference to religion has, as Dawkins later also notes, unacceptable and devastating results on the innocent (and thus eventually on society as a whole), specifically in the popular practice of foisting religion on children, i.e. indoctrinating them rather than allowing them to develop the critical faculties necessary to make reasoned decisions at an appropriate age about matters of belief (and everything else).
Dawkins is a scientist, and his approach -- to everything from the question of whether or not 'god' (or gods) exists to why there is such a thing as organised religion -- is a scientific one.
As Daniel Dennett did in Breaking the Spell, Dawkins wants to examine the evidence.
Part of the problem with this argument is that many religious folk will have none of it, their god-belief being a matter of faith.
This is, of course, a no-win (or no-lose) argument, but Dawkins shows reasonable patience in suggesting why the scientific approach is the valid one.
Dawkins is willing (and eager) to take on all comers (i.e. all deities, and more), summing up that his attack is not (just) against any specific god-variant but rather against the larger 'God Hypothesis', which he formulates as:
there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.
Or, as he then puts it more bluntly:
I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.
Dawkins is unimpressed by most of the popular 'proofs' of the existence of god(s), and he tackles -- in fairly summary form -- a few of the main ones.
Aquinas' 'proofs', the ontological argument, and the like are word games (and infinite regresses) that don't offer 'proof' in any way he has much use for (though some philosophers and theologians would argue they are more persuasive than he gives them credit for).
He is equally (quickly) dismissive of arguments from experience, beauty, and scripture.
Indeed, he rushes through all of these because none really offer proof of the sort he's looking for, and it's in the section on 'Why there almost certainly is no god' that he gets to his main point.
Here comes the direct confrontation specifically with those who argue for 'Creationism' and so-called 'Intelligent Design'.
Apparently improbability is: "easily today's most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God", and it's this one he demolishes most forcefully (and at greatest length).
This is the battlefield, and Dawkins' take-down also explains why the American Creationist-supporters are so desperate to show Darwin was wrong --- as Darwinian evolution puts one hell of a stake through the very heart of the god-hypothesis.
All of this has been shown and explained before, but this is also Dawkins' home turf, and his presentation of the arguments is both efficient and a useful reminder of why the Creationists are so misguided (and doing such damage).
The central thrust is, of course, that natural selection does a great job of explaining the complexity of all aspects of our world (and that 'Intelligent Design'-theories fail quite miserably).
(And he nicely reminds readers that the irreducible complexity argument is the nail in the Intelligent Design coffin (since that's what their god (or intelligent designer) would amount to, not of Darwin's theory (since no (other) example has been found yet).)
(Dawkins also goes in for the usual debunking of 'Intelligent Design' arguments and approaches -- convincingly enough.
Much of it seems (or should) too silly to bother with, but given how seriously many still take it it is probably warranted.)
Natural selection also offers an explanation for why religion itself exists and thrives (or thrived), and Dawkins goes over that familiar argument as well.
This is slightly more controversial stuff, and harder to 'prove' scientifically (as Dawkins is well aware of, and acknowledges), but also of some use.
Dawkins also goes on to cover questions such as the question of morality and religion (feeling obliged to even wonder whether atheists can be moral, and the like), as well as whether or not religion might serve other uses in society and for the individual.
Much of this is more debatable that the actual god-hypothesis, and in a sense Dawkins is more vulnerable to criticism here, but he presents his case fairly effectively (if perhaps drawing on too many examples of fringe-individuals who send e-mails ...).
An issue that does deserve close attention is then addressed in the section on 'Childhood, Abuse and Religion', as he argues passionately against the indoctrination of minors:
Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.
This is among Dawkins' most important points, and one hopes it will lead to more debate in society.
Dawkins' unfortunate comparison with childhood sexual abuse likely will strike people the wrong way, but should not take away from his basic point: foisting religion -- specifically the belief in one deity (who is better than everybody else's deities) -- on impressionable young minds is among the most damaging things one can do to another human being (and, by extension, on society).
(Interestingly, Dawkins does not adequately address the fact that many older minds apparently only really take to religion -- and specifically fanaticism -- once their critical faculties are (one would think) fully formed (i.e. adult).
This is certainly an issue than warrants closer examination.)
As Dawkins notes, acknowledging that there is no supernatural creator in heaven (or elsewhere) or anything of that sort, and that most of mankind has been living under a delusion for most of civilisation does not mean that we have to toss out the many appealing side-effects that have resulted:
an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education.
And of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions.
We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.
And, as he also showed, we don't need it as a basis for morality (indeed, as he demonstrates, the Bible -- the Old Testament in particular, is pretty poor basis for morality in this day and age).
The God Delusion offers little that is new but packages the arguments against belief in god(s) and against the practise of religion entertainingly and well.
Those who are baffled by the whole god-belief phenomenon might find it all a bit obvious, but perhaps there is a middle ground audience of those who, without really being convinced of its foundations and believing there's some efficacy to religion -- some reason to give it a special place in society, beyond (much) reproach or criticism -- which might be nudged by Dawkins' arguments towards seeing religion for what it really is: nonsense that does more bad than good -- and has in it the seeds for the very, very bad -- and that, at the very least must be judged with the same scientific and critical rigour everything else that affects us all is.
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The God Delusion:
Other books by Richard Dawkins under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Richard Dawkins, born in Nairobi in 1941, is Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford.
He is the author of numerous books.
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