The God Delusion. Photo (cc) somefool.
The God Delusion. Photo (cc) somefool.
I bought this a while ago when it came out in paperback because Sainsbury’s had it on special offer. I’ve read it, but haven’t commented on it for a few reasons. Partly because I seem to have bought a faulty copy. The God Delusion is a vicious angry screed against religion, or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know because my version is, in contrast, polite and reasoned. By and large that makes it a more dangerous book, because although I don’t think there’s anything particularly new in it, it is presented well and puts forward both a positive view of atheism and why Dawkins thinks religion is a problem. To the joy of theists though there are a couple of disappointing sections.
One is use of the term Neville Chamberlain Atheist. I don’t like it. It’s inelegant. It’s used describe those who would appease relgious demands by equating them with the British Prime Minister who initially appeased Hitler, but then took a stand and decided to take Britain to war, despite a large number of people in Parliament still favouring appeasement. It’s not just the equation with Neville Chamberlain that I don’t think works. There’s an unspoken implication that fundamentalists are similar to Nazis. I don’t think that works either. The Nazis were openly unpleasant people and you couldn’t be a Nazi if you belonged to certain groups. Fundamentalists are in contrast more insidious. They have room to police everyone in their belief system. Whether or not Dawkins is to blame for the term is uncertain from the book, because he also cites Michael Ruse in this section so it’s possible he got the term from him. I haven’t read Ruse’s article because it appeared in Playboy and I’m not really willing to ask for it on inter-library loan. Orac has said something similar (about Neville Chamberlain, not Playboy), and Saint Gasoline disagrees. Personally I’d argue that the term should be something more like Tony Blair Atheist after someone who respects another’s beliefs despite the lack of evidence and assists them in inflicting damage on other people because of faith and poltical expediency.
While that was inelegant another section was truly bad. I didn’t like is the bit on God as a meme at all. He describes an experiment similar to Chinese Whispers. In one experiment a group of children demonstrate how to make a Chinese junk from paper by origami to another group. This group then teaches a third generation and so on. In another experiment one group of children draw a junk and pass the drawing along to a second generation to copy and so on. He predicts that by the time you get to the tenth generation the origami method will still be transmitted with high fidelity whilst the drawing will have mutuated. Similarly because religion is an imitated series of practices rather than an end product religion too can be transmitted by a meme.
This sounds reasonable, or at least it did in 1999 when Dawkins first described the experiment in the preface to The Meme Machine. He hadn’t actually run the experiment at the time but you can’t do everything. Moving on to 2006 and the Junk appears again. Dawkins still hasn’t done the experiment but nonetheless argues from the results about how culture propagates. This bothers me deeply because I thought that one of the things about experiments is that you need to do them. I appreciate he’s a busy man and he may not have the time. But he has chosen to write on the subject. Would it be reasonable for me to talk about heredity based on my thought experiment? Would it still be reasonable for me to recycle the same thought experiment seven years later without doing it? If a creationist did this they would be mocked mercilessly. Thankfully the meme concept has absolutely no bearing on the existence or otherwise of gods, but it sticks out as a low point in what is otherwise a very good book. I suppose this would at least indicate that I’m thinking about his arguments rather than purely accepting them in his authority, which is just as well as the rest of his arguments are all sound and rational.
One of the sections I particularly liked was on the Hitler was an Atheist / Christian argument. I assumed Hitler was a Christian because he said so. This isn’t enough for Dawkins and here he goes much more deeply into Hitler’s beliefs and concludes that the evidence is shaky enough that you can’t be certain he was a Christian. He may have used Christianity as a vehicle for his beliefs, but it wasn’t necessarily a belief he shared. This is where he demonstrates that he has a right to be indignant when people refer to him as a fundamentalist. This is much more representative of the thought in the book and the two points I bring up above cover around six pages of the four hundred and twenty in the book.
I’ll be honest it’s not radically changed my view of atheism, because it expresses a lot of what I thought anyway. However if you live in a less atheist-friendly environment like Texas I can see how publishing books like this and outing yourself can help. While Dawkins is firmly anti-religion he is also pro-human and the world might be a better place if a few more people were like that.