Thoughts on The God Delusion

God Delusion
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.