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"Using Occam's razor to cut God's throat", said Brian, summing up this book. I wish I could have come up with something even a tenth as pithy and accurate.

I am uneasy about this book. It comes garlanded with controversy, and one of the reasons I read it was to form my own judgement. Dawkins argues against the existence of God, any God, and as he does so is preaching to the converted, to some degree, in my case, since some of the arguments he advances are those that, in my youth, helped to turn me against the practice of religion. He also sets out, in vivid and impassioned language, a number of reasons why he believes the practice of religion is inherently wrong. So I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with the majority of his arguments, but not being convinced by the book.

My own summary is that his rhetoric wars with his argument. If I was the kind to scribble in the margins of books this one would be cross-hatched with "yes, but..." comments. I haven't got time to write an essay, so will only make one comment here to stand for several.

Chapter 5 is titled "Why there almost certainly is no God," which is odd when the whole book asserts (repeatedly) that there is actually no God. In this chapter, Dawkins argues against the existence of a deity thus: It is not reasonable for there to exist a God who created the Universe, because this requires a being to exist more complex than the created universe, which in turn requires a still greater universe in which the God can have come into existence, which in turn requires a God to have created it and so on. Therefore, by this argument, it is not reasonable for there to be a God. Maybe I am reading carelessly, but I did not see, in this chapter or elsewhere in the book, anything to bridge the gap between the assertion of this chapter that "it is not reasonable for there to be a God" and the assertion of the book that "there is no God". It seems to me that this gap requires some discussion that is not here.

And in fact, thinking about it, this is where my uneasiness has its roots: in the lack of discussion. The book essentially confines itself to the assertions that there is no God, and that the practice of religion is immoral. Fine, but I believe that life, and the practices of religion, are more complex than these assertions allow, and the complexity is not discussed. (For a much richer discussion of practical ethics I would refer people to Jane Jacobs Systems of Survival.)

Many other people have put far more effort into arguing with or supporting Dawkins than I am going to here, and at far greater length. I'm not going to try and draw any conclusions. I'm glad I read the book. It does have the merits of clarity and succinctness.

And as an aside for the interest of science fiction fans: It is dedicated "In Memoriam Douglas Adams (1952-2001)", with the epigraph "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?". It also refers to several science fiction novels and stories by authors including Adams, Daniel Galouye, Carl Sagan and H.G. Wells, as well as to his wife, Lalla Ward.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
28th Feb, 2010 16:51 (UTC)
"this requires a being to exist more complex than the created universe".

I'm surprised an evolutionary biologist argues this, as surely life allows increasing complexity, at the expense of entropy, which is merely a statistical measure, not the 'cleverness' a creator requires.
28th Feb, 2010 16:58 (UTC)
As a good scientist, Dawkins is using the term 'fact' to mean 'something that is so close to certainty that I will regard it as such until something changes.' Nothing is absolutely certain.

He isn't writing this book for people like you and me (though it's an enjoyable read, if by no means his best work) but for people who are actually religious (though he does not expect to convert most of them) or people leaning towards atheism who need just that little push to move them into his (and my) camp.

And he is certainly under no obligation for 'balance' any more than he has to put forward creationist arguments (save to demolish them) in his biology books.

Having read his essays in The Devil's Chaplin and Unweaving the Rainbow I am sure his anger with religion stems from the indoctrination of his daughter when a child by the other side of the family.
28th Feb, 2010 17:36 (UTC)
I'm more interested in trying to understand why religion is so prevalent. I don't believe it is inherently wrong -- that is the kind of judgement that occurs within religious thought. Religion is useful in several ways, a lot of the time, and it also has nasty failure modes. But we don't say the cells are wrong because of cancer and the myriad other ways in which cells fail. We accept that evolution almost always comes with compromises. And religion is part of our evolutionary history. It wasn't like it was beamed down to us by some supreme being.
28th Feb, 2010 17:43 (UTC)
It wasn't like it was beamed down to us by some supreme being.


Have you read Pascal Boyer, by any chance? He has some good points.
28th Feb, 2010 19:38 (UTC)
Looks interesting. Thanks for the pointer.
(Deleted comment)
28th Feb, 2010 19:03 (UTC)
Excuse me, but you are going to have to explain the difference between religion and fairy tales, seeing as the latter are simply worn-down religion. As indeed, are many stories of the saints (it was explained to me in Greece long ago how many of the saints were simply revised versions of the Greek gods.)

I am fascinated by your comment about unsupported assertion, a mistake coth does not make. It is up to the person making the extraordinary claim to prove it, not for the sceptic to disprove it. The idea of gods or god is an extraordinary claim and needs extraordinary evidence. However, there is no evidence of their existence outside human minds. If you think there is then prove it.
28th Feb, 2010 22:36 (UTC)
Dawkins appears to me to be Right but Repulsive.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline M

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