Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Non-fiction - "The God Delusion"

This is the third book of the bunch of atheist books I have read in past couple of moths, the other being Breaking the Spell (D. Dennett) and A Letter to a Christian Nation (S. Harris). I think I liked "Breaking the Spell" best, perhaps because the author of that book tried not to be overly critical. Richard Dawkins speaks his mind and is unafraid of saying things that are confrontational. Since my natural inclination is to avoid confrontations, Dawkins's style makes me uncomfortable.

However, after having read the entire book and after seeing Dawkins's documentary about religion called Root of All Evil, I admire Richard Dawkins's stance much more than the other two writers.

I must say that I liked reading "The God Delusion" - it is very well written, does not bog down in some esoteric philosophy, and of course I agree with 100% of what it says. The book begins with the discussion of which God is being talked about. There is the very personal God of the Bible and then there is the God-as-nature view. To illustrate the distinction the author recalls Einstein's position on all this. Eisnstein sometimes used the word "God" and as a result he was often mistaken for a believer. He was not, as he said himself:
"I am a deeply religious non-believer. This is somewhat new kind of religion.

I have never imputed to Nature a purpose of a goal, or anything that could understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a mgnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly [...]

The idea of personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive."

For this statment Einstein got severely critized by priests, ministers and rabbis.

The other theme that starts the book is the social convention that gives too much respect to "faith". I indirectly witness this myself. There is a teenage girl I know, who recently celebrated the Winter-eemus (link) - a fake holiday made up by computer gamers. She made a yellow crown from paper and wore it in school. When someone made fun of her for celebrating Winter-eemus she seriously said "Are you making fun of my religion?". The fun-poker freaked out, and started to appologize profusly. This little story illustrates Dawkins's point that it is socially unacceptable to critize or question someone's religion.

The following chapters discuss various "proofs" of existance of God and what is wrong with them. My favorite the one that says "God is a perfect being. To be perfect you have to exist. QED".

Perhaps the two sections I found most intersting were the chapters titled: "The Roots of Religion" and "The Roots of Morality: Why are we good?". Thes chapters covered ground similar to "Breaking the Spell", trying to come with a testable hypothesis on how religion came about. Dawkins presents few new ideas that were not in Dennett's book. One idea he explores is that religion is simply an accidental by-product of some other human trait. For example, the fact that children tend to believe what they parents tell them is an adaptation that helps children survive - they don't need to test everything (like don't put your finger in the fire). But as a result children will believe if their parents tell them that world is sitting on top of a giant turtle, which is on top of even bigger elephant.

The chapter on morality answers - very convinvigly I think - the question where morals come from. Some of the discussion is puntuated by quotes from the old testament - which prescribes some things that today we would not consider moral (for example death sentence for committing adultry).

As I noted at he start, Richard Dawkins is often considered hostile to religion. He dedicates a chapter to explaining his position. His view is not that he is hostile, but that we are not used to religion being questioned in this way. In other areas of human relations much more "hostile" arguments are considered quite normal - in politics or in science. I must say that I admire his courage for going against such strong social conventions.

When I saw the "The Root of Evil" documentary, some of the scenes were quite depressing. The conversation with some religious people were quite frigthening. They know they are right and are willing to kill those who do not believe the same. Very nasty tribalism at a large scale.

However,the book presents some hopeful thoughts. In particular Dawkins talks about our social "zeitgeist", which is the set of conventions we consider normal today. This "zeitgeist" is slowly getting better. He illustrates his point by quoting from some prominent thinkers, when they say things about slavery or women's rights that are completely unacceptable to our ears. The example of slavery is a good one, considering that no societal group today (no matter how "backwards") advocates keeping of slaves. Just 150 years ago this was not so.

The book ends with a plea for an appreciation of the human life and life in our world. We do not need a supernatural being, we need to appreciate the beauty of life and world around us, just knowing how rare and precious it is. I'll end with a quote from Douglas Adams that appears at the start of the book:
"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beatiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"


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