Book #12 (March 7, 2010): The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins is one of my favorite writers. His 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which I read quite a few years ago, provided me with one of those rare moments as a reader when a single book caused me to look at the world in a completely different way. It’s about the evolution of altruistic behavior, the instinct in organisms (including humans) to perform acts that benefit other organisms at some cost to the altruistic organism’s own survival. The striking insight of the book is that natural selection, the process by which organisms evolve over time, doesn’t work at the level of the organism but at the level of the organism’s genes. Dawkins demonstrates, with almost mathematical rigor, how behaviors that may seem counter to the survival of the organism are actually conducive to the gene’s survival. It is — trust me on this — an exciting idea, and it helped me understand evolution in ways that a conventional understanding of natural selection didn’t. From what I’ve read elsewhere, it helped a lot of scientists to understand evolution better too.
Dawkins is an amazingly lucid thinker, clearheaded and capable of putting his ideas down on paper in a way that’s rarely boring and easily accessible to readers without degrees in biology. The God Delusion, from 2006, is his most recent book. It’s about atheism and why there’s nothing wrong with it. He doesn’t have to convince me that there’s nothing wrong with it, because I’ve been an atheist since I was 12, but it’s nice to see someone turn out nearly 400 pages of reasons why my decision in that regard was a fine and intelligent one. Here are some of the things that Dawkins talks about:
- The vast majority of scientists are atheists and science really does have something to say about the existence of God.
- There’s no such thing as a logical proof for the existence of God
- No openly atheist politician can be elected to public office in the U.S. (putting atheists roughly in the position of gays 40 years ago).
- Having faith in things for which there is no evidence is not a noble thing. It’s an idiotic and dangerous thing.
- Morality is quite possible in the absence of a belief in God and much of what’s in the Bible is flagrantly immoral.
- “Scientific creationism” is complete bullshit.
- Indoctrination of children in religious beliefs before they’re old enough to make up their minds is a form of child abuse. (I’m guessing this will anger people more than anything else in the book.)
There’s more, which is why it requires a 400 page book for Dawkins to talk about it. If you have strong religious convictions, I don’t recommend that you read this. It will just make you angry. But if you’re wavering on the subject, I beg you to please, PLEASE read it (or at least the first 100 pages; after that it starts bogging down a bit in scientific details that are well explained but that are still heavy going). And if you’re an atheist who thinks that there’s something wrong with your own beliefs or who is tired of other people suggesting atheism is some kind of character defect, you owe it to yourself to read it.
My girlfriend Amy pointed me to an Internet video of Dawkins answering questions after a talk on religion at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, VA. It’s an excellent introduction to Dawkins and his ideas on the subject, and if you’re curious about the book you should probably watch it first. Heck, you should watch it even if you don’t plan to read the book.