Friends and acquaintances have recommended Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to me since it was published six years ago, but I’ve only gotten around to reading it now. After all the reviews and responses already written about it I doubt I will say anything new, but then again if humanity were limited to saying new things 98% of authors would be out of a job. So here are my impressions:
1) The book is already dated. After 2004, when high voter turnout among Evangelical Christians helped reelect Evil Tyrant George W. Bush of the Blood Stained Hands to a second term, a bunch of books came out prophesying the rise of a theocratic Christian Fascist dictatorship, because, you know, Bush invaded a Muslim country and prayed and stuff. The God Delusion is one of those books. Since then, President Obama, World Citizen and Prince of Peace, campaigned with language so religiously charged it would make even Bush blush, and he seems to like vaporizing Muslims with drone attacks as much as Bush liked invading Iraq, but no one talks about theocracy anymore. One would almost suspect that those books were politically motivated.
2) The God Delusion is a polemical work written for a wide audience, so you cannot expect every argument to be detailed nor every criticism to be fair, or even particularly sound. Dawkins spends (or wastes) much of his time arguing against clumsy Christian apologists, but not in a way that furthers his own cause. For example, against those Christian apologists who make a big deal out of famous scientists who believe in God, Dawkins argues that people of faith represent a tiny minority of scientists and that he finds them strange. This discussion consumes half a chapter. Both arguments are arguments from authority, and pretty much worthless for knowing if God exists or not, but that is what you expect from this kind of book whether written by a Christian or Atheist.
If a book of apologetics is going to be truly effective it has to occasionally rise above this kind of argument. Dawkins, however, shows a superficial understanding of religion when he should be showing a deep one. For example, his dismisses the millennial tradition of the Indian subcontinent that the many Hindu gods are manifestation of one ultimate reality as “sophistry”. The only sophist here is Dawkins: there is nothing stupid about the idea that the ultimate reality underpinning the universe is impersonal and unknowable to man, but that man can encounter it though mystical union aided by archetypes or mediums like gods and gurus. In fact, the idea has much in common with the pantheism that Dawkins admires in the previous chapter.
After dismissing Hindu polytheism, he lumps in Roman Catholicism as a polytheistic religion because Catholics believe in saints and angels. You can only do that if you have little understanding of what Catholics mean by God, a self-sufficient, all powerful being who calls the universe into existence out of nothing, besides whom a finite creature like the Archangel Michael or the Virgin Mary, however powerful, is utterly small and dependent. This brief discussion of polytheism comes in chapter two and is indicative of much of what is to come: Dawkins is fine as long as he is arguing on his home turf of evolutionary biology, but is out of his depth as soon as he tries to handle certain philosophical or theological concepts. He has a hard time understanding theological terms, not because he is stupid, but because his training is so thoroughly scientific. Concepts that do not readily fit into his categories are dismissed out of hand, and that is unfortunate.
3) His depiction of religion as the source of all strife and warfare in the world is tiresome. Religion is sometimes an element of warfare, sometimes an excuse for it, but not the sole cause of most wars, not even Europe’s 17th century Wars of Religion, the troubles of Ireland or the atrocity du jour in the Middle East. (Some of the Crusades were primarily religious, which is probably why they failed. Was the early spread of Islam by the sword primarily religious? I don’t know enough about it.) On the other hand, his anecdotal accounts of people suffering under religious-inspired guilt complexes are a reminder that there are perverse forms of religiosity as well as benign ones.
4) I’ll end on a positive note: what I found endearing about the book was Dawkins’ conviction that no one is excused from exercising rational thought. Some people feel like religious themes are off topic, or that we must go out of our ways to not offend the religious sensibilities of others; Dawkins will have none of that. Expecting people to be able to give reasons for what they believe or do is not the same as insulting them. If they feel insulted, they are the ones with the problem. If they issue fatwas against you or wish you would burn in hell for asking uncomfortable questions, it is a good sign they are being irrational.