The Delusion Sets In
Eloquent. Passionate. Provocative.
These are just a handful of words that can be said to try and describe the classic Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. As a deliberately argumentative, educational and thought-provoking book, Dawkins attempts to cease any living thought that we are all subject to the demands and expectations of a higher being.
As reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald, Jon Casimir stated:
“The God Delusion systematically tackles centuries of arguments for a Creator, from Thomas Aquinas’s proofs to Intelligent Design, pulling them apart to show what makes it unworkable. Where science has not yet debunked a position, Dawkins argues the answer is unlikely to be God”
As an atheist, it’s difficult to read this book without feeling a certain inclination to agree with Dawkins’ full throttle perception on religion. In fact, it is surely impossible to review this book without some level of subjectivity, given the controversial nature of the topic at hand. Where believers sees ignorance and misinterpretation, non-believers see reason and logic – who are we to believe the sensational and often supernatural anecdotes from a religious text when there is physical and scientific evidence on the contrary? Why should we endeavour to obey an almighty, albeit invisible, God when there is no physical proof of his (or her) existence? How can we state that it is our moral duty to believe in words from a scripture when most of it is contextually and socially outdated, not to mention based on hearsay?
Through his liberal use of provocative and argumentative scientific reasoning, Dawkins endeavours to pull on the sensitive strings of society by making readers question their belief systems, while at the same time fighting against the widespread notion that belief is personal and can’t be questioned. Dawkins’ intellectual war also targets the polite wall erected between science and theology in recent decades and that we must ‘respect’ religion when it should be our nature to question and argue. He expresses clear despair that the delusion people have invented is regularly imposed on innocent children through fear and underlying hatred of those different to them. For Dawkins, religion is no better than a plague on human thought and reason and it’s imposition on children a form of mental and emotional abuse.
It’s a powerful argument to pose. For those whose mouths dropped open upon reading the last paragraph only proves Dawkins’ point that religion ought to be respected has been embedded in our minds. While you can question someones political beliefs, social decisions or even taste in music, why can’t the notion of religion be questioned liberally?
The God Delusion is a wonderfully written, beautifully crafted investigation into a strongly sensitive topic. While the first few chapters can be somewhat overloaded with evolutionary and biological science methodologies, the book is a truly exceptional addition to literature. It is a cultural and social exploration of a phenomenon that continues to be a critical part in the lives of millions of people and has simultaneously caused pain, grief, war and social exclusion. Dawkins tells real-life stories that would have the potential to trigger outrageous moral panics, he highlights inequities in extremely religious societies and is liberally quizzical on the religious traditions that are, in no way, congruent with our current social and cultual contexts. It is a liberal and academically-supported attack on a topic that has too often been denied a serious investigation. Dawkins, following on from his highly acclaimed anti-religion predecessors such as Christopher Hitchens, puts on the police cap and leads a scathing investigation that questions anyone and everyone.
Analysing the content of the book highlights a few areas where criticism from readers would be most prevalent. Perhaps the three most common would be the language tone, the catholic-centric analysis and the density of scientific explanations, particularly in the first few chapters. Dawkins’ is very mindful of these criticisms, acknowledging most in the preface of the book, yet it is interesting to see what triggers these criticisms.
The first criticism relates to the tone of language used in the book. Many have stated that there is a distinctive arrogance in the book and that Dawkins’ tone is aggressive and uninviting, provoking anger rather than consideration or re-evaluation. While other have criticised the sparcity of information on particular religious branches. For example, author Greg Easterbrook states:
Though Dawkins rightly catalogs religion’s many deficiencies, he fudges or simply skips over virtues. Set aside whether or not God exists: it is factual that religion is at the core of much of the world’s philanthropy. Faith has underscored many social equity movements, from abolitionism in the United States to Gladstone’s social equality movement in Dawkins’ United Kingdom to the present day, in which religious organizations such as World Vision ask that the wealth of the West be shared with the poor of developing nations. Obviously a person need not be religious to be philanthropic, but the knowledge that religion inspires generosity should not be sneezed at.
What I find most problematic about this comment is that there appears to be a strong belief that Dawkins denies the generosity that some people may be encouraged to undertake through religious ‘codes of ethics’. Instead, Dawkins challenges the thought by stating that religion does not necessarily “inspire generosity” because the term ‘generosity’ is defined differently by each religion. As a result, the view to be ‘generous’ is not something that is inspired by religion, but rather a product of hundreds and thousands of years of evolution whereby humans living in small communities would develop ‘ethical behaviour’ through custom, tradition and everyday chores. As Dawkins explains, while some may be inspired to ‘do good’ through the visions of their religion, it is not something religion has created. There is therefore no ‘denial’ of the philanthropic ability of religion, but rather an evolutionary explanation as to why humans have this philanthropy embedded in their genetic code.
While there will be many arguments for and against this book, it is (undoubtedly) a very interesting read that would interest believers and non-believers alike. Although being weighed down in the beginning by a lot of scientific technical jargon, Dawkins does a remarkable job at championing the theory of evolution through an enthralling (sometimes wonderfully arrogant) academic debate on the world’s most ‘controversial’ topic – does God exist?