The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Uniquely, I’m someone who first read The God Delusion as a Christian and now I’ve read it for a second time as an ex-Christian. In my first reading, the book didn’t convince me to abandon my faith. Looking back on my original review, I still concur with many of the points I raised in criticism of it. You see, I was no idiot as a Christian. And this is part of the problem with Dawkins’s book: his tone, from the get-go, is that you’re a moron if you believe in God. He characterises the most profound dilemma of my life as foolishness.

Dawkins does not get why people gravitate to religion. He has never understood the view that human nature is broken. This is the driving force that causes people to seek salvation, redemption, spiritual awakening, etc. The feeling that there is something incomplete or malfunctional in man, such as “original sin.” When a religion addresses this need, that is why people flock to it. And this deep psychological attachment then becomes the reason why the religionist cannot be reasoned with. I now believe the view of human nature as “fallen” to be erroneous, but this key issue is not even addressed by Dawkins’s book and it is the very cornerstone of religion.

The God Delusion can basically be split into two parts, each comprising roughly fifty percent of the volume. In the first half, Dawkins makes the argument against God from an evolutionary perspective – the view that complex things are always formed out of simpler things. This is the basis from which Dawkins argues that God, if he exists, must have been something incredibly simple, because a vastly complex God would have required a creator, in the same manner that the theist argues the universe requires a creator. In arguing this way, Dawkins simply does not get what is meant, philosophically, by the idea of a “first cause” or an “uncaused cause.” It is a reference to something wholely outside of the constraints of space-time, something formless and timeless that encompasses all that is in the material realm – something wholely other. I confess that, as a Christian, I gave up on the book at this halfway point, because Dawkins failed to make his case in laying the groundwork.

The second half of the book is mostly concerned with slamming religion as a force for evil. Much of what Dawkins says is true, and a torch should definitely be shone on it all. The trouble is, the Christian is not overly concerned with the atrocities done by others, or the horrors done in the past in the name of Christ. The Christian sees his religion as a personal relationship with God, and his only concern is his own standing before God. And if the Christian feels that his religion is beneficial force in his own life, that’s primarily what matters. A great deal of what Dawkins says will sit in the mind of the Christian reader as a huge ad hominem argument against religion that will have no effect.

One very controversial moment in the book was Dawkins’s suggestion that it might be a good idea to prevent parents raising their children in a religion, on the grounds that such indoctrination is a form of child abuse. I don’t know which is scarier: the idea of parents controlling the education of their own children, or the state dictating it.

The God Delusion only scratches the surface of the problem of religion. The tone and content serve as little more than an effort at mutual atheist backslapping. An expert in evolutionary biology, who attempts to tackle a bigger subject that inevitably strays into philosophy and metaphysics, only reveals how out of his depth he is.

In fairness, I’ve concentrated on the negatives, but there’s a lot in this book that is good. It’s just not nearly good enough.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

I’m always interested in filling in gaps in my knowledge, and evolutionary biology is a big one. For many years I was a believer in creationism, but since abandoning Christianity, I am more open to the idea of evolution (since I’m no longer being simply told what to believe).

I approached this book believing in evolution but doubting the precise mechanism by which it is claimed to work (natural selection). My objection is based on the fact that evolution has never been simulated in a computer. It’s supposed to be an automatic, non-conscious process, and yet we can’t replicate it artificially. Why? Time to learn from the experts.

Well, I didn’t get an answer to my question. I was delighted to read that Dawkins had taken it upon himself to attempt to simulate evolution on his little 64K computer (this was the 1980s, remember). He claims to have created insect-like creatures that he terms “biomorphs.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain the argorithms that he used to achieve that. I am left to wonder how much of his results were more akin to faces in the cloud than to actual complexity that gives an organism a definite survival edge. Certainly, Dawkins’s program has never been superceded by a better one that shows the principle of natural selection operating on a bigger scale.

Nevertheless, evolution happens; no question about it. Dawkins provides brilliant and very engaging accounts of the development of the eye and echolocation in bats. He expertly debunks creationist objections, explaining how cumulative selection works – nothing like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and creating a Rolls Royce by random chance.

The book unfortunately begins to falter about halfway through and continues plunging to the finish (at least for the lay reader), as it tackles the finer points of evolutionary theory, delving into obscure areas with the titles punctuationism, Lamarckism and taxonomy. He can be long-winded at times, and needlessly arrogant. I could stand the arrogance if he really was as right as he thinks he is, but when he strays out of his field of expertise into metaphysics, he’s completely inept. He has no concept of time other than as a forward-moving arrow, and so, when he thinks of the idea of God, he can only describe him/it as a highly complex organism needing a creator of its own. You can’t tackle metaphysics without delving into philosophy. Dawkins’s unexamined assumption of “materialism” doesn’t cut it.

In the end, I gained some valuable knowledge about evolution, but my main contention was only reinforced. How can you say natural selection is an unconscious process when the organisms doing the the evolving are conscious?

And what is consciousness? The Blind Watchmaker would have benefitted from a chapter on consciousness, discussing the theories on what it is, specifically whether it is an emergent product of evolution, or a metaphysical precursor to the evolutionary process. For reasons that are too lengthy to go into here, I side with the latter. Unfortunately, one may specialise in evolutionary biology, while knowing little or nothing about psychology and metaphysics. This lays the basis for making hugely wrong conclusions, when diverse fields of enquiry overlap. Nevertheless, The Blind Watchmaker is recommended reading.