Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review of "The God Delusion"

I struggled a bit trying to rationalize posting this on my math-oriented blog. I finally came to the conclusion that (a) the book in question is largely biology science-themed, (b) it regards a subject that does in fact make me pretty angry, and (c) by the end of the review I do touch on topics of probability and statistics. Hence the posting here.

I've read several chapters of Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and I've got to say that it's disappointing. It's a worthwhile project ("consciousness raising" on why it's admirable to be an atheist), one that I've wanted to do myself in the past, but this doesn't quite fit the bill. Mostly it's a matter of style. It's simply to wordy; it's too discursive; it's too English. Dawkins seems unable to go more than a a single page without some lengthy outside quote; it feels like I just barely get into his train of thought before having to repeatedly jump into some other person's anecdote, poem, or metaphor. I used to take pleasure in nonstop tangents and wordplay like this, but I've found that my patience for it has died out.

I need something that's a bit more punchy, personal, and directly to the point. I would prefer a manifesto and we don't get that here. Dawkins clearly demonstrates a great deal of literary and cultural knowledge, but I find it altogether distracting. In addition, the foils that he's primarily skewering generally seem to be a batch of kindly, woolly-headed, liberal English archbishops, which seem like very faint opposition. Apparently one of the most common clerical responses that Dawkins hears is "Well, obviously no one actually believe in a white-bearded old man living in the sky anymore", which seems entirely off-topic to someone such as myself who lives in American society. He feels compelled to say things like "This quote is by Ann Coulter, who my American colleagues assure me is not a fictional character from the Onion," which again, is completely distracting and quizzical to the American reader.

I'll say this: Dawkins has great book titles. "The God Delusion" sounds like exactly something I'd been looking for, perhaps an explanation or theory of exactly why so many people's brains cling to religion. But frankly that's not what you find between the covers. The keystone Chapter 4 is titled, "Why There Almost Certainly is No God". That sounds compelling, and I could almost start sketching the chapter out in my head, using the modern statistical science of hypothesis testing as a model. But unfortunately the entirety of the chapter is taken up by Dawkins cheerleading for why the theory of natural selection is so great. Great it certainly is. But at best this chapter explains why God is unnecessary for the specific purpose of explaining the evolution of species. People use the idea of God for many, many purposes beyond that, and I think that a far more offense-directed argument needs to be made to fulfill the promise of Chapter 4.

Given Dawkins' focus on biological science and evolution, he has a razor-sharp sensitivity to arguments that "Such-and-such an organ is so complicated, it must have been designed by God"; he spends swaths of several chapters fighting them. Okay, that's a reasonable thing to be irritated by, but here's two observations. One is that I can summarize his argument in a single line. The response to any cleric's "What is the probability that organ X or universe Y could have appeared spontaneously?" should always be "Enormously greater than the probability that a sentient, all-knowing, omnipotent, thought-reading, personally attentive, prayer-answering God could have appeared by chance!" There, I just saved you about 3 chapters.

Secondly, I cannot help but take away the impression that we're fundamentally winning against such arguments. Dawkins makes a good point that a "mystery" to a scientist represents the starting point for an intriguing research project; whereas for a religious person it is a stopping point whose dominion must be reserved for God (historically, complete with threats of violence against exploration). But clearly the "God of the gaps" proponents are being pushed further and further back, perhaps even with greater velocity over time. Whereas previously they would point to organs such as an eye or wing as being impossible to evolve (and since having had the opposite be demonstrated), they have now, according to Dawkins examples, retreated to areas such as microbiology and the flagellum of bacteria. Presumably next will be quantum physics, and beyond that, some unidentifiable regress. My point here is that Dawkins' examples seem to take the emergency out of the issue, and at least from his focus on biological science, it seems like there's little we need to do to disprove God except to support ongoing biology research. I suppose that's good news, but I was looking for more of a direct call-to-action.

In Chapter 5 ("The Roots of Religion") Dawkins has some speculation on the question of "Why does religion exist?". To me, I felt like this was very specifically the promise of a book title "The God Delusion". But Dawkins has no specific thesis, he only has a loose collection of a half-dozen tentative speculations. The most tantalizing are the sections called "Religion as a by-product of something else" and "Psychologically primed for religion" (the centerpiece being, maybe children are mentally wired to implicitly trust what their parents say, so as to pass on key survival skills, and that leaves our species vulnerable to mind-viruses such as religion). It's an intriguing section, but it's short, Dawkins doesn't develop it greatly, nor does he stake out a specific position for it. My preference would be for him to have developed a specific, detailed thesis on the subject before presenting it in a book called "The God Delusion".

In summary: A commendable project, a great title, but a disappointing and distracting read for the American reader.

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