Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: The God Delusion

Let me be up front about a few things before I launch into this review---
1. I was raised ELCA Lutheran
2. I had a period of being agnostic in college that ended when I returned to my Christian roots following being in a car accident.
3. I've been out of college for a lot of years and have forgotten how to cite and quote.  If I'm doing it wrong (which surely I am), my excuse is I'm 11 years rusty and will save figuring it out for when the kids are in high school.
4. I still don't know in a complete way how I feel about this book or what its ultimate effect will be on my world view now that I've finished reading it.
5. If you're offended by any questioning of your faith or religion, please stop reading now.

Now that we've gotten all that out of the way, here's the review.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is an Oxford scientist who was raised Anglican but became an atheist.  This book is his manifesto about why people shouldn't and needn't believe in God.  I was lead to read it by a Well Trained Mind forum thread entitled "If you are an "Ex-Christian, may I ask why?".  I feel that if your faith (regardless of what it is) goes untested, then it's useless and static.  I hadn't been challenged in that way in a long while so I decided to take the plunge.

Dawkins argues his point that God does not exist from several angles.  After an introduction, he first discusses the arguments for God's existence that are presented by noted theologians and lay people.  He systemically points out logical fallacies that exist in these arguments. Next, he devotes two very heavy, verbose, and term laden chapters to scientific arguments against the existence of God.  It actually took me two weeks of on and off reading to wade through those chapters.  In them, Dawkins argues for the superiority of evolution over creationism or intelligent design and his assertion that existence of religion is the by product of evolution (i.e. religion had a positive quality that enabled those who had it to be the survivors in the natural selection process) and that is why it exists, not because there is a God.  His chapter entitled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" ends with his central argument summarized in these six points:

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.  In the case of man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer.  It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.  The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability.  It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.  We need a 'crane', not a 'skyhook', for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbably complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.  Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings.  We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that--an illusion.  

5. We don't yet have have an equivalent crane for physics.  Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology.  This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism does for biology.  This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck.  But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.  But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.
(God Delusion p. 157-158)

See what I mean about heavy and verbose?  And this was the summary!
The final chapters are dedicated to the question of do you need religion to be moral and all the evil that exists in the world as a direct result of religion.

Reading the book has lead me to question some of my religious beliefs and why I have held them.  When asked in the past why I believe in God by others, I generally point to two instances in my life when I felt God directly intervened.  Dawkins argues for the possibility that those who have had personal experiences with God are likely being deceived by a hallucination or a misfire of the brain or they're just plain mistaken.  When he references the 1917 report that 70,000 pilgrims in Fatima, Portugal saw "the sun tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude", he says,

It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie.  Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance.  Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage(they had been persuaded to stare at the sun, which can't have done much for their eyesight).  But any of these probabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing.  I mean, Portugal is not that isolated. (God Delusion p. 91-92)

As an example of his humor which is scattered throughout the book, that passage was footnoted with "Although admittedly my wife's parents once stayed in a Paris hotel called Hotel de l'Univers et du Portugal."

Furthermore, I found myself agreeing with most of what he wrote about the terrorism and abuse performed in the name of religion today and the violence of God in the Old Testament.  Overall, it was an interesting and eye opening read.  His writing style, though tedious during the scientific parts, is generally clear, occasionally funny, and has what I found to be a remarkably respectful tone towards religion given the subject matter at hand.

Finally, you're probably wondering---do I still believe in God after reading this book?  I don't abandon life long beliefs over one book, but it made me think.  It made me question.  It makes me want to know more about religion, science and faith.  How do you reconcile these?  Can you?  You'll see me read a lot more books on those topics in the coming months because of this book.


Anonymous said...

I read your review and just had to post a comment. First of all, this book will be on hold at the library as soon as I leave your blog. :) I have been in limbo for many years, questioning my faith or really ALL faith, and also trying to find what is right to teach my children. It is difficult. I know there really isn't going to be a simple answer, but I do enjoy the learning process. You are right, I think faith is useless is unchallenged.

Thank you for taking the time to post this review, and linking it from TWTM.

Kim said...

Found you over at 52 in 52. #1 and the first part of #2 sound just like me! I didn't have anything so significant as a car wreck to turn my mind back to God...I guess God's just been dripping on my for a long time.

I have found that doubt and critical thinking are *necessary* for me to have faith. I question everything, and I'm a lover of empiricism. Yet I believe science doesn't ask (or answer) all the questions people have about life ... and I believe the bible and the life of faith don't either. For me they are complementary and not mutually exclusive. I am constantly questioning, and I agree with Anonymous that an unchallenged faith is a weak faith indeed.