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Thursday 5 October 2006

The God Delusion [DrDave]

The God Delusion is the latest work by Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and (in)famous, outspoken atheist.
To someone familiar with his previous works, The God Delusion seems to be the book that Dawkins has been itching to write for 30 years. Earlier works, such as Climbing Mount Improbable and The Blind Watchmaker skirted around the subject of the existence (or rather non-existence) of a creater, but in a respectful manner, relying instead on weight of scientific argument to convey their point. This book, on the other hand, is a no-holds barred, unapologetic, unrelenting attack on all forms of organised religion. Dawkins is cutting lose here and apparently loving it.
His early disclaimer that theists will take offence at what he says, but that it really isn't his problem, is refreshing and a welcome break from today's religious apologists who go out of their way to avoid critiscising theism. He makes it very clear that the time of appeasing religion is over - why should religion be deserving of a special respect that you wouldn't afford to someone who believed in, for example, fairies at the bottom of the garden?
He goes on to systematically, rationally and amusingly destroy virtually every pillar of religion (with specific focus on Christianity). St. Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways are demolished, the ludicrous ontological argument is rightly ridiculed, even Pascal's Wager, that irritant of rationalists for so long, is shown to be rather ridiculous. His treatment of the nativity uses quotes and references from the bible itself to show that it couldn't possibly have happened how we were brought up to believe. And the brief, yet comprehensive, dismissal of Intelligent Design's Irreducable Complexity myth is one of the finest summaries of natural selection I've ever read, and should be required reading for anyone who is fond of quoting the eye as an example of design.
This book quite rightly never out-and-out claims that a personal god, even less a deist god, doesn't actually exist. Instead, it devotes most of its time on this question to what it calls "The God Hypothesis". Dawkins makes the bold move of claiming that the existence of an interested god is a scientific hypothesis. He's right of course, a universe with a god would be quite different from a universe without one, and it should therefore be subject to scientific method.
Dawkins proceeds to use theist claims against them: If life is too complex to have emerged spontaneously, that it must have been designed by an intelligence, then who designed the designer? By appealing to the absurdity of infinite regress, and invoking anthropic principle, Dawkins concludes that while we can't say a god doesn't exist, we can certainly claim that one probably doesn't exist. It is an interesting argument that works by wielding a weapon creationists have themselves used for centuries.
There is a danger in this approach however, that theists will seize upon this idea of god being a scientificly testable entity and attempt to use it to muscle religion into the science curriculum - of course they would be spectacularly missing the point, but when has that ever stopped them?
I found it enlightening to absorb all of these arguments set out so clearly and logically, even for a dyed in the wool atheist such as myself. Dawkins presents arguments and ideas that many of us have probably suspected, but didn't have the required perspicacity to express. It is also bewilderingly brave. The book's conclusions and the use of ridicule and incredulity along the way should be as offensive to theists as they are appealing to rationalists. It wouldn't surprise me if the Children Of Abraham (Middle East Branch) don't take this somewhat personally.
In conclusion, having blitzed through most of the book in an uncharacteristic three day marathon, my verdict is that The God Delusion will be viewed alongside other classic popular science books like A Brief History of Time or Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot. It is that good. It should certainly be required reading for atheists, agnostics or theists with doubt. I'm not sure it will convert any believers, but it would certainly test their faith.


  1. Still reading it at the moment so I'll reserve judgement until I've finished it.. however, he is a stunning author who has never disapointed in the past.
    He's a brave old fella tho ain't he.. I don't think I would have the balls to publish a book such as this in the current screwed up climate!
    One thing it did seem to be missing however.. a foreword by Mr Adams :(

  2. Dave, nice appraisal - spot on. I agree, it's a startlingly lucid deconstruction of theist aguments. Again, even for an athiest like me, it's like having smudged glasses cleaned. I suspect there won't be many blinkers removed from theists, but at least it may give athiests courage to 'come out', even in the face of prejudice.I agree with Dave, it's an immensely important book that everyone should have the opportunity to read, epecially given todays apparent downward spiral towards belief systems that haven't moved on since the middle ages.Some confort can be drawn, I think from the fact that (at the time of posting) it's the number one best seller on Amazon. Go on, buy it, and while you're at it, buy another copy for your best friend. You owe it to them, theist or not.

  3. Amazingly, I did buy it off Amazon and then went back to buy a copy for my best friend!
    One of the ideas proposed by Dawkins in this is the idea of memetic selection being the reason why religion propogates so efficiently. This idea fascinates me because it makes so much sense. He expands upon his work in The Extended Phenotype in which he proposes that the genes that are perpetuated by natural selection due to a particular advantageous behaviour need not necessarily exist in the organism displaying the behaviour. Parasitic relationships being the obvious case, in which a parasite passes on its genes to the next generation by virtue of the behaviour expressed by the genes of the host.
    The fascinating proposition is that humanity and religion exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship: humanity evolving through genes passed on to the next generation, religion evolving through memes passed on to the next generation. Since natural selection occurs in both parasite and host, it becomes obvious that aspects of religion that favour being passed onto the next generation will be selected.
    Consequently, over the millenia, religion has become the perfect, self-perpetuating linguistic virus. Shaped to promote passing on to the next generation, discouraging questioning of the specifics of the ideology, even threatening elaborate punishments for those who reject it.

  4. From the BBC thread on the interview:
    #356. How dare Dawkins compare The Flying Spaghetti Monster (Ragu be upon him) with a fictional omnipotent being such as this so called "God"? I find this remark deeply offensive and I hope the book doesn't contain any images of The Flying Spaghetti Monster (Ragu be upon him) or I'll have to burn some effigies and Union flags etc.
    Dawkins: Don't even consider an apology, I'm just too offended. Anyway I won't be able to hear you since I'll have my fingers in my ears and be shouting "lalalalala"


  5. The only real shitter is that the popularity of this book has delayed my Amazon order being fulfilled. How bloody annoying since I was hardly slow off the mark as it was!

  6. The sunday times ran an article this weekend which amounted to a bit of a slagging and the assumtion that athiesm requires faith. Essentialy having 'faith' that there isn't a god. The author clearly has no understanding of science, the scientific method or what drives men of science.
    I'd expect something like this in the Daily Mail & am truly dissapointed in the Times.

  7. Here's an interesting review from a Southern Baptist. It is surprising in that it isn't frothy, and even reads like a reasonable critique - though many of the points he makes, especially in the closing paragraph, are lazy, weak arguments.
    It's nevertheless interesting to see how someone with a radically different world view to a rationalist interprets the contents of the book and underlines why books like this and reasoned argument will never convince a true theist. The memetic structure of religion is now resistant to rationality in the same way that tuberculosis is now resistant to modern medicines.

  8. I'm also amazed that it's number 3 at Amazon US - maybe it's been bulk bought by book burners? Though more sensibly it's heartening to see people, here and in America, willing to give it go.On the Dawkins website he launches into one about the unmissable film of the moment, Jesus Camp,183,Surviving-Jesus-Camp,Josh-Timonen

  9. Yeah, I've seen the trailer for Jesus Camp & it's...scary. One thing that I find hearteningtoo huber, is that (as of yet) I've seen no calls to ban this book by evangelicals in the US. Maybee they've learned their lession from the attempted ban on Harry Potter.

  10. I did theology & philosophy at A level and politics, philosophy & economics for my first degree so this stuff has always been of accute interest to me. EED is stuffed with bright people who also actually give a shit about this stuff so it's no surprise that this has caused a lot of interest.
    Dawkins is a great intellect. Absolutely brilliant to listen to someone like him on the Paxman interview widely available on youtube. I've ordered this book and look forward to reading it. At the same time I'll post one early comment on this; in the Paxman interview Dawkins is asked if he thinks god exists. He says that he doesn't know but he thinks that it is "very very unlikely". Dawkins has enough issues with the 'faithful' without also opening himself up to dodgy logic. We have no clue if god exists or not and any being who could exist at that level (or not) is well beyond any possible understanding on our part.
    So to be precise at a scientific level, god is empirically untestable at the current state of science. Soren Kierkegaard had this right for both the atheist, the agnostic and the theist; he said that god was logically unknowable. To believe required the 'leap of faith'. Believing in god does require that. Believing in the non-existence of god requires the same sort of intellectual commitment which is a decision that has no empirical basis whatsoever. If you want to make that choice, good for you, however both are not a product of logic.
    HOWEVER if you want to talk about the validity of the world's religions and their "contribution" to the world I am absolutely and totally up for that debate. It is single-handedly the greatest shame inherent in our civilisation.

  11. You'll love Chapter 3: "Why God Probably Doesn't Exist". Dawkins treats the "God Hypothesis" as just another scientific theory, since, as he rightly points out, a universe with an interested God would be very different from one without. Therefore the existence of a God is a scientific hypothesis that can be subject to scientific method (if not current science).
    From this standpoint, he compares the God Hypothesis to other pre-universe theories such as big-bang-big-crunch models, darwinistic universe models, brane theory etc and the conclusion he comes to is that though we know basically nothing about the validity of all of these hypotheses, the God Hypothesis is the only one that suffers the problem of infinite regress - who created the creator? It therefore becomes improbable.
    I like this reasoning, it's refreshing to read an argument that doesn't fall into the trap of assuming the existence of a God is the default state, forcing the burden of proof on those who deny its existence.

  12. I'll reserve my position on this until I've read the book Dr Dave since clearly we've got a very bright bloke in the mix and there's no point duking this out without having heard his point of view. However, although I've got a number of questions about your post above, the one that is the howler to me is "the God Hypothesis is the only one that suffers the problem of infinite regress - who created the creator". Yes it's an absolute brain-blower but since *we* exist it doesn't matter whether you think it's a bit tricky about god, or humans, or trees or plankton.
    Matter exists. What was the cause of matter? *Everything* has the problem of infinite regress - it's unsolveable whether you think god is at the head of the chain or not!

  13. The issue of infinite regress in this case is more of a logic argument that uses the theist position against itself and highlights its flaws. If you believe: "the universe is too complex to have occured naturally, therefore it must have been designed", then you fall foul of infinite regress - an interested creator God must have a degree of complexity that makes it similarly unlikely to have occured naturally.
    To clarify, I'm prefectly well aware that the nature of a God would be cloudy at best and to make assumptions about its complexity is risky. But we can set a baseline by using the theist claim about the flagelum. The flagelum is a 100nm bacterial structure that propels micro-organisms. It is frequently trumpeted as an example of design. I believe it is reasonable to assume that any creator God would be at least as complex as a flagelum and therefore unlikely to exist naturally, by the theist's own argument.
    So, what was the cause of matter? Well, the difference between matter and God is that we know (insomuch as anyone can know) that matter exists. We don't know why it exists - "why" used here not to imply a purpose incidentally, more a process - but science is working on it. At least matter has the advantage of being a "property" of the physical universe and not an unsupported contrivance.

  14. Dave you're a clever bunny but that doesn't do anything for the argument. The problem with infinite regress is simply *everything* fails infinite regress whether it "exists" or even if it is an idea which can't be proved.
    Infinite regress says that X can't exist because you can't show pre-X. It doesn't matter whether X is god, a donut, crosshatch eed or the spaghetti monster.
    It's the fundamental problem which no human being has ever been able to address. But it's got bobbins-all specificity to 'god' - it applies to absolutely everything that exists or the idea of everything that could exist. Everything fails infinite regress therefore as an argument it's universally true but also utterly useless about 'god'.

  15. I actually agree with you, and I think I'm not explaining Dawkins' position very well. Okay, think of it in a different way...You brought up Mr Kierkegaard earlier and his "God is unknowable" quote. Without wishing to put words in his mouth, my understanding of this is that it was a product of the limited understanding of his time. Were he alive today, he might have said "pre-universe is unknowable" and conveyed the same meaning. He's right of course, whether in a theistic sense or in my broader interpretation. Pre-universe is unknowable, so all we can do is speculate.All of these theories: deist, pantheist or theist Gods, Darwinian universes, flying spaghetti monsters, they're all created equal and we can't really say anything about them. Nor can we know the "pre-x", as you call it, up to a certain point.Nevertheless, these theories make predictions and the universe as it currently exists is the outcome of those predictions. To remain in this "sphere of validity" as I've described it, each theory has to result in the universe as we currently see it. The "scientific" hypotheses among them naturally do this, since science builds hypotheses to match observations. The disinterested creator God in the deist philosophy remains valid, since when this entity knocked off, physics took over. I suppose even the pantheist entity remains in this sphere.However, what we can do at this point is relegate most theist notions of an interested God. Let's take christianity as an example we're all most familiar with. Christianity predicts that our universe should currently have the following properties:It is less than 6000 years old;Mankind was created not evolved;All life on earth was destroyed in a giant flood except for a sample of the biosphere at the time which survived on a boat.You may argue that it is somewhat harsh to judge this religion solely by what is written in its bible, but I would ask what else we have to go on? You may come up with contrived retcons like "God put fossils on earth to test man's faith", but that seems sloppy to me.By any measure, Christianity does not describe the universe as we see it. Therefore, it is less probable than the other hypotheses.

  16. You insects continue to amuse meh

  17. Dave I see the point and if Dwarkin is attacking Christianity then fairy muff but as far as I understand it his point is about god vs non god and that is indeed, as you say, where we get to the pre-x problem.
    Interestingly enough there is a lot of stuff in many religions about the 'otherness' or 'unknowability' of god which you could translate as a pre / extra physical existence suggestion i.e. god is 'other' than the observable or 'without' matter and existence. Ironically, this is the other side of the coin of the place where the ontological argument came unstuck. But there is a strong trait in christianity which suggests god is other and without and therefore one shouldn't apply causality to god as observed in the known universe. Nice try is what I say. The argument still holds.
    Religion doesn't really try to describe the universe per se as some empirical or theoretical observation or statement. Its primary task is to attempt to describe the relationship between man (and other beasts and things) and god. To the extent that religion does lay some stuff down about how shit is, it doesn't describe the universe any better or worse than the science contemporary to it at the time the major books were written. One wouldn't describe newtonian physics as "less probable" and therefore dismiss them - they are just less complete and less detailed than required to understand stuff as we now understand it.
    The argument that a book written 2,000 years ago cannot reflect an essential underlying truth because it suggests things which are scientifically disproven now can't really hold because running it to its logical conclusion it'd be "the bible can't be true because it doesn't contain a scientific explanation for the existence of god". You're arguing rice vs spaghetti. Both may be a valid choice but they've got rock all to do with each other as essential propositions :)

  18. The thing is, the bible is pretty much "it" when it comes to christianity. It is the user manual which you need to follow to the letter otherwise you're effectively making stuff up.
    The analogy I always roll out at this point is that of a video recorder. If you nip down to Currys and pick up a VHS machine, you get a manual with it. Now, the manual tells you how to run your new purchase, gives you some dos and don'ts. What would happen if you thought "right, I like the bit about only using VHS cassettes in the machine, but I'm going to arbitrarily ignore the part about only using 220V electricity"? What would happen is that you would break your video recorder.
    The bible is a manual for christianity. With so much at stake (considerably more that a broken video recorder), you would be a fool to discard bits of it because "they don't sound right". You either believe it's the word of God, or you don't. If you don't then you're not a christian. Forget modifying parts of it to fit with the cultural zietgiest, as far as I know there is nothing in there that says "modify these rules depending on society's needs".
    I would argue therefore that the accuracy of the bible is very much up for debate. And the outcome of this debate reflects the validity of christianity.
    At this point moderates would claim that it is the meaning behind the bible, more than the events, that is the important part. Okay, treat it as a fable that was just to put a point across? Sounds reasonable? Well, no, not really. Christianity is a hypothesis that states that an all powerful creator is capable of extraordinary acts. Taken in this context, the flood, the destruction of Gamorrah, the miracles of Jesus are all entirely possible. If you reject that these events happened, then you're effectively describing the scientific view of the world with a bit of morality tacked on for good measure.
    And which stories are we to discount? Did Adam and Eve eat an apple and create original sin? (if not, then why did Jesus die?). Did Moses really speak with God on Mount Sinai and recieve God's ten commandments? (if not, where did they come from?). Did Jesus even really rise from the dead? Who decides which part of the bible are literal or parable?
    Do you see what I'm getting at? The bible, as the only window on God's will, must be taken at face value, otherwise the entire religion is invalidated. Therefore, if elements of it do not conform to scientific observations then either science is wrong, or religion is wrong. I don't see that there's room for both.