Review: The God Delusion
Update: The cracker is gone. The post is worth reading because PZ explains how the puffery around the supposed sacredness of communion wafers is linked to finding excuses to torture and kill Jews. Something to consider if you have an urge to treat treacly Catholic nonsense, from opposition to birth control to sanctifying women who die in childbirth to acting like communion wafers and embryos are more important than people, like it’s harmless goofery. It’s interesting to see the emails he got, which resemble ones I’ve gotten in the past from people whose minds have been completely ruined by religion. Except they’re even more crazy. I can say that most half-crazed emails I get make me laugh, but the pitiful ones from true believers just depress me. They’re just broken people, and I blame the church.
Sorry it took me so long to write a proper review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I half expected the book to be a hateful screed against religious people, since it was treated that way by critics, but as usual when it comes to these things, religion is being sheltered from criticism by conflating criticism of it, or even mockery, as if it’s as bad or worse than hurting actual human beings. (Recent example: Caterwauling over the desecration of a cracker of a length and volume that the death of human beings rarely gets. People, blasphemy is a victimless crime.) The book actually takes the view that I do of most religious people, which is that they’re the primary victims of religion, either because of the brainwashing by their own or the violent oppression by those who follow other religions. If anything, Dawkins’ meme theory tends to make him more sanguine about religious people than I feel, as he thinks that religion has somewhat taken a life of its own and infects hosts, which are believers. My cynicism about the motivations of those who use religion to exploit and control people tends to color my views, but he’s absolutely right to look at religion as its own entity that can be examined for how it spreads and survives without necessarily getting into a pissing match over whether or not the people who actively push it are bad, or if some are bad, or whether or not the bad outnumber the good or whatever.
I think what made this book so offensive is not that Dawkins is a meany-meanhead, but because he’s perfectly happy to have some fun with ridiculous ideas. But more to the point, he violates an unspoken social rule, which is that people with a minority view are the ones who carry the burden of explaining themselves, and replaces that with the argument that the people with the more outrageous claims bear the burden of proof. True, the latter is actually a pretty standard rule in logical argumentation, but nevertheless we can expect howling and wailing because most people are used to the might-makes-right social order. You see a similar situation with the arguments about homosexuality. Homophobes actually bear the burden of proof in a logical argument, because their claim (that people who engage in this behavior have an obligation to the rest of us to cut it out, even though they aren’t hurting anyone) is more outrageous than the default claim that people should be free to do what they want as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. But in a similar way, they caterwaul and scream because they want to stick with the might makes right method.
The book is well-ordered and well-argued. First, he demonstrates why faith requires more defense than non-faith, because the existence of a god or gods is far more improbable than such beings not existing. He argues it well, drawing on science heavily, but in sum it comes down to the argument that if the complexity of the universe requires a god to explain it, then you need an even more outrageous explanation for where god came from, which creates this ever-growing pantheon of gods like an endless stream of images when you face two mirrors together. Or you could assume complex life evolved, and he shows you why that’s a better, more satisfying explanation.
Okay, the atheist position is the more logical one. Which is where the debate starts to fall apart, because religious defenders move onto the next argument, which is that we need religion/religion is inevitable. This makes me bonkers, and Dawkins explains why—its a sleight of hand. Saying that it’s beneficial to believe in god doesn’t make god real, any more than me saying that a million dollar deposit in my bank account would be beneficial makes it true. Really, to me the argument should stop there, but people do get infatuated with the Noble Lie (and its corresponding misanthropic insinuations that most people are sheep that need lies to exist), so Dawkins does take some of the major arguments that go under the headline, “Okay, So What If There’s No God, We Need Religion Anyway”. He shows that the claims about religion’s benefits are highly overrated, which is probably where people get the idea that this is a long book bashing religion as a force of pure evil. It’s not so much that as he’s showing that it’s not good and doesn’t produce the good results promised. (Though he does get into some parts where he argues that religion does bring evil into the world that might not exist without it, while caveating that to death with acknowledgment that people will do bad things under many banners.) Sadly, he stops by showing that the promised benefits are not there, and doesn’t go further into some cause/effect analysis that I think would go even further in arguing against religion.
Two examples: Arguments for social order and arguments for consoling the dying/the grieving. In both cases, it can not only be argued that religious people/communities are no more morally superior or consoled than non-religious people, but that they’re worse off. On the moral front, it’s well-established that the religiosity in geographical regions of the U.S. correlates with poor community outcomes, with the crime rates, poverty rates, divorce rates, and even STD and unplanned pregnancy rates being higher in more religious areas. That’s pretty damning evidence against the argument that religion just makes people better and communities work better. But what he doesn’t address, is what I’m interested in, is the idea that the more a community spirals out of control, the more the people in it are driven into the arms of religion. I suspect that could be a cause that might be illuminated with more research.
On the consolation of death fears thing, there’s actually been research done that shows that the more people fear death, the more they have this cluster of religious and especially conservative religious tendencies, including misogyny. Which casts an interesting light on Dawkins’ observations that people that believe they’re going to heaven nonetheless seemed terrified of dying, often far more than atheists ever do. (He quotes Mark Twain saying he was dead for billions of years before he was born, and that didn’t cause him any problems, which tends to be my view on death.) Dawkins argument—that if religion is supposed to console you about your death, it’s doing a terrible job because the religious are not coping very well with thoughts of their own mortality—is great, but I’d like to go a step further. Say that there’s a correlation between fearing death and being religious, and it’s because the fear of death and existential crisis in general drives people towards religion. Doesn’t that make religion even worse?
I say yes. Existential crisis is an ordinary human flaw, completely understandable. It gets us all at various times. When religious leaders exploit people’s fears like this in order to line their own pockets or increase their own power, I get angry. It’s a total grift. People have a need—to be consoled about their own deaths—and religion sells them a bunch of lies that don’t even do a good job, in no small part because they’re lies. It’s pretty disgusting, if you step back from it. But no one likes to have it pointed out to them that they’ve been had. We’ve all seen it in the situation where someone is dating someone that is No Good. Their level of defensiveness about their choices rises as they become more aware that the partner of their choice is trouble. You know, until the day when they wake up and realize that the energy they’re putting into defending a bad choice would be better used elsewhere.
For what it’s worth, I can already see the followers of various Abrahamic religions gathering their arguments defending religion by referring to religions they don’t follow, like Buddhism. Suffice it to say, that line of defense always amuses me.