Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins This book is so well known, it seems almost pointless to review it. If you are a believer, you will not like it, though you're probably aware of that.

Dawkins' explicit aim is that “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down” and that unbelievers shouldn't be ashamed to say so, to which end he presents a detailed and cross-referenced set of arguments, examples, discussions and thought experiments, touching on science, philosophy, psychology etc. Many of his points are familiar (e.g. where did god come from, how do we explain suffering?), but some are fresh and intriguing. He does have a tendency to repeat himself and be annoyingly strident, but in general he makes a very good case.

Dawkins knows the Bible well and relishes exposing its grisly (genocide, gang rape, innocent sacrifices) and contradictory aspects (omniscience and omnipotence are contradictory – how can god have the power to change is his mind?), asking if you pick and choose only the nice bits, who decides which to follow and which to ignore? With a background in evolutionary biology, he is particularly incensed at and fearful of the rise of creationism, under the guise of “intelligent design”, giving considerable time to debunking irreducible complexity, the “god of the gaps” and the idea that evolution is the same as chance.

There are two themes he keeps harking back to. One is the injustice of the way we are expected to be tactfully respectful of people's religious beliefs in a way that does not apply to other irrational beliefs, yet it’s the doubters who are expected to provide “proof” (even though it’s impossible to prove a negative), coupled with the injustice of the need to appear religious in some circles, especially US public life (George Bush Sr doesn’t think atheist should be citizens or considered patriots). I’m sure it’s no coincidence that a pertinent Douglas Adams quote is on page 42. The other hobby horse is the wickedness of "indoctrinating" children in a religion, which he even likens to actual abuse: "there is no such thing as a Muslim child", just as there is no such thing as a Conservative or Republican child. He mentions that only about one in twelve British children break away from the religious beliefs of their parents as evidence of the power of such indoctrination.

He is sneakily arrogant at times, quoting big names such as Einstein and where the quote doesn’t appear to say quite what he wants it to, he assumes they expressed themselves badly and actually meant something else (“I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote”)!

Marx was snappier, but Napoleon had the same idea rather earlier when he said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the ruler as useful”.

Overall, Dawkins confirmed and clarified my unbelief, which is what I was wanting.



MAIN POINTS

BIBLE

Dawkins knows the Bible well and relishes highlighting the brutality of the Old Testament god, then says that’s too easy a target so he will focus on a more generic god, but still harks back to OT examples at regular intervals.

He makes the obvious, but often overlooked point that the Bible was written a very long time ago, but long after the events it describes, in a very different culture and translated through multiple languages. Chinese Whispers. Also, some of the writers probably had motives of which we are unaware but which are pertinent to interpreting what they wrote. On p118 he compares the different nativity accounts to show how contradictory they are both with each other and known historical facts. He also points out that earlier translations, the adjective for Mary meant “unmarried”, rather than “virgin”.

If the story of Adam and Eve is symbolic, where does original sin come from? And why was Jesus painfully and humiliatingly killed for a symbolic sin?

Some examples of the “immorality” of the Bible:

• Lot offered his daughters to a nasty gang (to be raped) in place of the angels they had wanted.

• Bloodthirsty ethnic cleansing, e.g. Joshua in Jericho.

• Abraham being willing to sacrifice his young son, Isaac.

• God punishing everyone by flood, including babies and animals.

• Leviticus 20 lists numerous sins for which the penalty is death, including cursing your parents, working on the Sabbath and adultery.

• Jesus exhorted people to leave the families (as cults do today).

• What is the moral message of spilling the blood of an innocent (whether an animal or Jesus) to atone for the sins of others?

• Is the inconsistency of anti abortionists supporting the death penalty and gun ownership in a similar vein? Which life is sacred? And why is euthanasia wrong if they’re going to a better place?

But if you pick and choose only the nice bits, who decides which to follow and which to ignore? You can’t claim Biblical authority if it’s subjectively selective. Morality comes from elsewhere.

We can still enjoy the Bible as literary and cultural heritage in the same way as we enjoy the Greek myths and Chaucer.

RELIGIONS

If religion is so good for our moral wellbeing, why is atheist antipathy restricted to words, whereas religions often resort to violence to gain support?

It’s often assumed that moving from polytheism to monotheism is some sort of progress – so Ibn Warraq suggested the logical progression is to subtract one more god and end up with atheism!

Surely Roman Catholicism is polytheistic? A trinity, Mary in multiple forms (“Our Lady of Fatima” and “Our Lady of Lourdes” etc), saints as demi-gods, ranks of angels etc.

Religion is expensive: building shrines, supporting priests and ultimately leading to death in some cases, yet it appears across the globe, so there must be some evolutionary advantage to its existence, even if there is a parasitic aspect. Human survival is complex and our babies are born very immature. They need to believe and obey parents about dangers around, so they’re equally credulous of irrational beliefs. Also, children are inherently dualist (mind and body are separate, so the mind can be a disembodied spirit) and teleological (inferring purpose in everything): both make fertile ground for superstition of all kinds.

Religious beliefs are collective memes, that evolve in context with each other, echoing human psychology (dualism and teleology), further tweaked by priests.

The “cargo cults” on the Pacific islands (e.g. re John Frum) are similar, but arose independently on different islands. Each rewrote their own history to fit events.

Religion does not correlate with “good” morals: the US is more religious than the UK, but has more crime, murder, abortion and divorce – and Republican states are worse than Democrat ones.

As Steven Weinberg said “with or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things it takes religion.”

Tamarin paraphrased the story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho to Jewish children. When it was a Jewish story they fully approved of the genocide; when it involved Chinese names, they didn’t.

PRAYER

Ambrose Bierce defined “pray” as “to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy”.

He quotes an experiment where some patients were prayed for and some not and of the former, some were told. The ones who knew they were being prayed for fared slightly worse than the others. The methodology wasn’t rigorous, but if it had shown that prayer worked, few would question it.

PROOF AND FAITH

Personal experience is the most convincing proof to those that have it, but the least convincing to anyone else.

If lots of people believe something, it’s religion; if one person believes it, it’s madness. So what’s the difference between god, an imaginary friend and MPD?

In general, religious belief is correlated with lower education, lower IQ and less interest in science.

We look for patterns: in marks on a page, clouds in the sky etc and our brains are especially attuned to see faces. Thus we easily interpret other things as faces, voices and visions and we’re more likely to think a shadow is a burglar than the other way round.

Temporal lobe epilepsy, and direct stimulation of the temporal lobes, can induce visions very similar to those described by some religious people.

Arthur C Clarke observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, so would aliens be viewed as gods?

If we accept arguments from personal incredulity, then we should accept Derren Brown actually has supernatural powers, even though he denies it.

George Bernard Shaw said “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunk man is happier than a sober one.” Even if it’s comforting, that doesn’t make it true.

Science can be proved or disproved, debated and, if necessary, revised; scientists are prepared to change their minds. Believers are unquestioning and no amount of evidence will change their minds.

CREATION AND EVOLUTION

It doesn’t matter if life is improbable; it only needs to happen once. But in fact, if the odds are 1 billion to 1 against, that still means there should be life on 1 billion planets.

The reason the Earth is perfect for us is that we have evolved here, to our environmental niche.

Improbability and complexity are not “solved” by intelligent design; evolution is the answer.

Evolution does not say that things happen randomly, by chance, but rather, by natural selection.

Just because something is so complex it seems improbable doesn’t mean it’s a case of “irreducible complexity”. He answers the oft cited question of “what’s the use of half an eye/wing?” on page 149.

Irreducible complexity does exist, but only if there are interim stages that are no longer there, e.g. an arch that will collapse if you remove a single stone.

Young Earth creationists believe the universe began after the domestication of the dog! This is a scale error equivalent to saying New York to San Francisco is 7.8 yards.

PHILOSOPHY

If complex things can only be explained by the existence of a designer, that designer must the most complex of all, so who designed him?

“God of the gaps”: why do people assume god is the answer? Such an approach accepts ignorance, rather than driving scientific progress.

Does the fact that suffering (including the holocaust) provides opportunity for bravery, sympathy and generosity make it OK from a loving god?

Omniscience and omnipotence are contradictory – how can god have the power to change is his mind?

What sort of god values belief (which is outside one’s control) over kindness and good works?

Altruism either ensures the continuation of one’s genes (aided by the consequent trust and prestige) or is reciprocal/symbiotic, to a similar end. It was especially important in small kinship groups and is not diminished by our knowledge of that, just as our desire for sex is not diminished by contraception.

Hauser’s and Singer’s thought experiments (train tracks) find similar responses from everyone, regardless of their religion or lack of it, so you can be moral without god.

If we need the threat of eternal damnation (or promise of heaven) to be good, then we are without morals and only worthy of the fires.

Morality shifts externally and religions catch up, so again, morality is not coming from religion. Christians had slaves; liberal Lincoln (who freed the slaves) was nevertheless racist by today’s standards; civilian casualties in Iraq cause outrage, but they’re far fewer than those in WW2. We think of Hitler as worse than Caligula or Genghis Khan, but was he, or is it just that he was more recent and we have film footage?

GLOSSARY

• Theist: believes in a supernatural intelligent creator who still supervises and intervenes.

• Deist: believes in a supernatural creator who doesn’t subsequently intervene, so it’s “watered-down theism”.

• Pantheist: a non-supernatural synonym for nature and natural laws, so really just “sexed-up atheism”.

• Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP): i.e. where there is a definite answer, but we don’t have the evidence to settle it. Disbelief in god should fall into this category because it is conceivable that it could be proved and even if not, you can consider probability.

• Permanent Agnosticism on Principle (PAP): only relevant for things that are impossible to prove, such as whether my experience of the colour green is the same as yours.

• Non Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA): saying science and religion are separate is a cop-out, to sideline the creationist/Darwinian divide.

• Teleology: everything has a purpose, including weather, coincidences etc.

• Dualism: mind and body are separate, so the mind can be a disembodied spirit.


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