Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Club: The God Delusion

We started a book club with some friends who enjoy reading some of the same books we do.  For our latest selection we read and discussed Richard Dawkins's lightning rod book The God Delusion. It was a religiously eclectic group consisting of two Christians, a Muslim, and two skeptics. 

Over some of the best grass-fed steaks in town, complimented by a great red wine, we got down to business talking about religion and The God Delusion. First of all, I just thought it was fantastic that they even read the book. Not many Christians or Muslims would do this. But they did - which speaks to their open-mindedness to new ideas (remember they are all philosophically liberal). 

No surprise: not everybody loved the book as much as me. One book club member had to stop reading it since she was reading it over the Christmas holiday and was having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. Another finished it and actually liked it, and the third member was about half way through, but had enjoyed what she had read so far.  I've read the book twice, but I actually have some criticism of the book - which is that Dawkins's tactics suck. 

But before I criticize "the Dawk," let me first sing his praises. The God Delusion is a timely and well deserved critique of religion, and it exposes the general public to the arguments against religion. He is especially critical of religious fundamentalism. His criticisms of fundamentalists religion are well-deserved given the threat it poses to stable societies everywhere. His arguments and prose are both devastating and beautiful.  He, in my opinion, eviscerates all of the rational arguments for religious belief, and he does it in such a well-written English polish, that it's difficult not to be convinced and entertained. 

OK, now for some of my criticisms of the book. My first is that  people are usually not convinced out of their faith based on the devastating logic that Dawkins uses. Why? Because most people don't believe because of theological arguments for the existence of God. Therefore, atheological arguments don't normally destroy their religious belief; which is usually grounded upon subjective religious experiences, family tradition, social group cohesion, and personal meaning. Carl Sagan agrees when he said, "You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, but a deep seated need to believe."

Second, Dawkins can be just a bit derogatory - at times he even uses the pejorative "faith heads" for believers. This may be appropriate when aimed towards New Earth Creationists or other varieties of fundamentalists. But to apply it to those of a more liberal religious belief is inaccurate, misplaced, and not very helpful. Given the insults, it's not surprising that believers feel talked-down-to while reading the book; this, probably more than his criticisms of their faith, cause people to close the book. 

On the other hand, remember that Dawkins is just using words. He's not saying believers will burn in hell for eternity, nor is he calling for a fatwa, murder, or persecution of them (something believers have done to unbeliers in the past, and which continues in some parts of the world today.) 

But let's be honest: atheists can be big ol' jerks sometimes. Atheists like Dawkins are correct to feel threatened by religious dogma and faith because it is anti-rational, it can cause people to believe strange things and reject well-established scientific facts about cosmology and evolution (Dawkins's big bone of contention). But "New Atheists" such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens need to remember how believers feel about their religion and at least try not to offend others (as Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, Paul Kurtz, John Shook, and Guy Harrison do in their books on religion). Perhaps they could learn from the example of Charles Darwin who was married to a believer, and was much more sensitive to others religious sentiments. He was also once a believer, and could probably remember what it felt like to believe. On the topic of religious beliefs he says: 

It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follow(s) from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.
 In contrast, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (although I agree with many of their arguments against religion) lose the battle for peoples' minds early on because they come off as being insulting and arrogant. Therefore, they preach mostly to the choir of already convinced atheists. But what needs to happen instead, is for bridges to be built between skeptics and believers. What really changes people's minds about atheists are for them to know one. There is much more that unites believers and skeptics than divides us. But believers won't know this, until they know you.


  1. Josh,
    Dawkins has a response to those who disagree with their style, in a response to Neal DeGrasse Tyson. It's quite entertaining.

  2. One of my favorite Dawkins video clips out there! I actually think Dawkins is sometimes unfairly characterized (just like theists say he sometimes mischaracterizes them). I thought both Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dawkins make excellent points in this clip, but I find myself agreeing with Tyson more now. But I think both viewpoints are important and valuable. We need to hear them both.