Review of The God Delusion for Friends of the Southeast Steuben County library "Books Sandwiched In" program in 2015
When I agreed to join the Books Sandwiched In committee I warned them that I might not have too many useful suggestions as I only read books about compost. And God, muttered Brad, in reference to my then most recent letter to The Leader.
The letter was in response to some Catholic columnist who was quite disparaging about atheists who “choose” not to believe in God. My response was that non-belief is not a choice, but rather the logical outcome of learning and thinking about the world around us, somewhat similar to a child realizing that the Tooth Fairy is not the only explanation for the money under her pillow.
So I suggested, and offered to review, The God Delusion, which I had only recently discovered. The author, Richard Dawkins, is an Englishman who is sometimes called the world’s best-known atheist. I ceased believing in God some 50 years ago, a fact which was, until recently, known only to my family and very close friends. I am now as outspoken as Dawkins and so I worried about my ability to review his book in an impartial manner. The solution seemed to be to follow the PBS system and have an opinion from the other side.
By great good fortune, as I was wandering towards the checkout at Wegmans, my eye fell on this book with the wonderful title “How to Know God Exists – Scientific Proof of God” What more could I ask for. Not just arguments in favor of God’s existence, but scientific proof! Then I worried that I had not chosen a book of sufficient gravitas to go head to head with Dawkins, a biologist and scientist of some note (he is a doctor of Science which is a couple of levels higher than a PhD). As it turns out Ray Comfort (the man who – unlike theologians and philosophers before him – is able to prove that God exists) has in the past challenged Dawkins to a debate and cites him in this book. His book also uses many of the same arguments that Dawkins does, with startlingly different conclusions.
So how to review in 35 minutes two diametrically opposed views of the world? I have decided to concentrate more on the books, than on what they say, although of course it is impossible to separate one from the other.
The first thing I will look at is the motivation for writing each book.
Then I will assess the quality of the arguments put forth, trying to evaluate objectively whether these arguments support the authors’ basic premise.
And along the way I will read passages chosen to illustrate writing style, use of language and persuasiveness allowing you to decide for yourselves the intrinsic worth of the books. It is possible that the passages will have been chosen because I totally agree – or disagree with them! Again I leave you to decide.
So let’s begin.
Ray Comfort is from New Zealand, now residing in California. He is the founder of the Way of the Master Ministry, Living Waters Publication and the author of some 60 books, including God Speaks, Made in Heaven and God has a wonderful plan for your Life, all published by his company. His stated reason for writing this book was – and I quote - “People are going to hell, and they need to be warned.” The book is written for a popular audience and I suspect, perhaps unkindly, that there was a strictly commercial motive.
Dawkins’ is the author of books like the Blind Watchmaker, the Selfish Gene, and Climbing Mount Improbable, published by Norton and in paperback by Penguin. His stated motive for writing this book was to raise consciousness in four areas. He also expressed the hope (but not the expectation) that anyone reading the book would be an out of the closet atheist by the time they finished it.
To reduce the arguments of both authors to their simplest form, Comfort says that you can‘t have creation without a Creator while Dawkins says that evolution is a much better explanation for how we got here, than God. It could also be said that Comfort starts from the given that God exists and sets out to support that belief, while Dawkins starts with the thought “Does God exist?” and tries for over 400 pages to ANSWER THE QUESTION.
To support his argument Comfort uses the example of a Coke Can. (1) Page 14. This example may have been tongue in cheek, but he cites other examples such as a high-rise building and various inanimate objects. His foray into showing that the living world was designed involves a banana which he (again tongue in cheek) compared to the coke can with a wrapper and a pull tab. Predictably atheists made fun of him but he claims that he’d “rather risk someone making a monkey out of (him) for presenting evidence that God exists, than to have scientists make monkeys of us all by claiming that we’re related. We’re not.”
All I can say to that is that Mr Comfort has obviously never even met a monkey, let alone comforted a tiny, traumatized orphan. They are just like us.
Further support of the idea of a Creator springs from “proving” that evolution is just a flawed theory and not a fact. And this is where his scientific – which he defines as knowledge-producing - proof comes in. His science is based on intellectual knowledge, subconscious knowledge (we just know) and experiential knowledge (I have had a religious experience). His intellectual arguments against evolution are that it is “absurd in the highest degree” to think that the truly amazing variety of life we see around us got here by chance. The next logical step is that if it did not get here by chance then it must have been designed by a Creator, a belief summed up – and repeated in the sentence “All I need is eyes that can see and a brain that works.” Dawkins has quite a lot to say on this subject as well, citing many natural wonders, including one of particular interest to anyone who has looked at Glass from the natural world at CMoG (sponge Euplectella)
In the chapter titled “Is Evolution Scientific?” Comfort begins with this paragraph: The foundation of atheism is a belief in the theory of evolution. If evolution can prove that we got here by purely naturalistic means, then belief in a Creator would be unnecessary. So in their desire to eliminate God, many people to choose to believe that evolution is true – without first examining the evidence to make sure the facts support it.”
To test the validity of the theory of evolution, he examines how the universe began, how life came from non-life, and how we got such a diversity of life. He, personally, - and like most of us - has no answer to any of those questions. But instead of trying to understand the answers that scientists have proposed, he immediately defaults to the position that the universe and life in all its complexity must have been created by God. “Remember, if a Coke can coming into existence by itself is obvious nonsense, why is the Big Bang theory any more scientific?”
And (5 – p. 38) “There are only two choices: Either no one created everything out of nothing, or Someone – an intelligent, omnipotent, eternal First Cause – created everything out of nothing. Which makes more sense?”
The last thing I will say about Comfort is to quote his 100% scientific proof of God’s existence – his words not mine – If you will seek God’s forgiveness through the gospel, He promises to personally reveal himself to you. That’s your ultimate proof.
In a sense he is right. If you believe God exists, then he does – for you. But belief didn’t create the world.
So that takes care of Comfort, now I can talk about the important book. And I do think it is an important book. It is also a long book and fairly dense in terms of information and argument. It is not, however, hard to read. Going through it for the second time I began listing the passages I wanted to read aloud. I soon realized that I would need a couple of days to include them all. So I must reluctantly confine myself to discussing his four areas of consciousness raising plus one or two passage to show why it is such a delight to read.
If I have one major criticism of his book it is that he talks about all this conscious raising, but does not spell out exactly what the issues are, so that I could just cut and paste his list. Nor does he put consciousness raising in the index so that I could just turn to the relevant page. No, with total disregard for a reviewer like me, he makes the reader compile his own list, or read the book again, carefully noting each page on which the phrase is used. Two are easy, but the other two that I have identified are so closely related that I fear I may have missed one. No matter, I will just label another section as the fourth c-r. Just about any section would qualify!
To introduce the concept of consciousness raising he talks about the feminist movement, and I will quote his introduction to Natural Selection as a Consciousness raiser at some length. It is, after all the central argument in the book:
He then goes on to talk about the late Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and other marvelously zany romps through fantasy and science.
Adams underwent a conversion first to agnosticism and then (quite late in his short life) to atheism as a result of reading two of Dawkins’ books, ones which – he takes pains to point out did not intend to convert. “… it (evolution by natural selection) all fell into place p. 142.
Natural selection is central to the book. The early chapters – The God Hypothesis and Arguments for God’s Existence – look at what other people think or have proposed. He defines deism, polytheism, agnosticism and secularism. For the last, he frequently quotes the Founding Fathers of the United States, adding the opinion that they would be appalled by the current state of religiosity.
Chapter 4 – Why God almost certainly does not Exist – deals with probability, dismisses completely that chance had anything to do with making the world what it is, and offers natural selection as a more intelligent explanation than Intelligent Design. In fact, he does exactly what Comfort fears most: by showing the beauty and simplicity of evolution, he makes God redundant. He is supported in his claim by one Peter Atkins, and Woody Allen, no less. P 144
In the later chapters Dawkins tackles the anti-atheism arguments such as If there is no God why is there so much religion, or How can we be moral without a religion to guide us or What’s wrong with religion anyway? He looks at these from a Darwinian perspective and does indeed find that religious activity springs from behaviors which ultimately benefit mankind in terms of natural selection. He is fairly scathing in his assessment of what is wrong with religion P23
That leads to the c-r which is so important to him that he states it again and again. He says in the preface “p.25. (There is no Catholic child, etc)
He views as indoctrination at best and abuse at worst, the common practice of imposing your religious beliefs on your children long before they are able to think for themselves. P 367. In a section showing that we do not get our morals from the Bible, for which we can be extremely grateful, he rips into the Bible as the scripture with which he is most familiar. he asks “Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it?” p281
Then he gives details of a study in Israel where a large group of school children were read the story of Joshua and the sacking of Jericho. P289.
Then the children were asked “Do you think Joshua acted rightly or not?” What do you think the answers were? 66% totally approved of Joshua’s actions, some going as far as to say that he eliminated the danger “that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim”. The oldest of these children was 14, the youngest 8.
There was second, control part to the experiment in which Joshua was replaced with “General Lin” and Israel with China. In this group only 7% approved of the General’s actions.
His third c-r – atheist pride -stems from the fact that his wife, when asked by her parents why she had not told them she was so unhappy at school replied “I didn’t know I could” He argues that it is quite alright for a child to break away from its parents religion, even to reject religion completely. In his words “ You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.” He argues very convincingly that there is a need for those of us who think the same way to speak out. P.27.
And what should we be speaking out against? This is what I am calling his fourth c-r, and I am unable to keep my own feelings out of this part. Like Dawkins I want to call attention to the unacceptable intrusion of religion into every day life, particularly here in the US. Me talking: the first amendment may indeed grant freedom of religion, but it in no way allows freedom FROM religion. To admit to being an atheist is a death-knell for any hopes of entering public life, where the most important qualification for office seems to be the most strident proclamation of faith. Back to Dawkins: The status of atheists in America today is on a par with that of homosexuals fifty years ago…p 26
This has come about because of the underserved respect that religion is accorded, not to mention the tax breaks. It is enough for someone to say “it’s against my religion” and everyone falls over themselves to accommodate those beliefs, no matter how outrageous, out of respect! This book has some hilarious passages. They are funny in the way Stephen Colbert is funny. Both men quote other people’s beliefs or statements almost verbatim, but with a sly comment that shows just how ridiculous they are. However, I am certain that many Americans, and many Muslims, would not laugh – they will be too busy taking offense. Or in the case of the Danish cartoons, manufacturing offense. He quotes Douglas Adams again: P42.
Adams died in 2001 and Dawkins’ book is dedicated to him with the quote:
“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?” I would add, If you do believe in fairies, keep it to yourself, and don’t expect me to believe in them too.
Even if you have serious doubts about evolution and tend towards Comfort’s view of creationism, you have better things to do in this life than to read his book. It is poorly written, ill-informed and illogical. It will do nothing to make you think about anything or to consider your beliefs in a different light, or even to uphold that which you already believe.
Even if you have grave doubts about evolution and are quite certain that you will never give up on God and the religion you currently espouse, please do read The God Delusion. This book makes you think and question from page one. It presents cogent arguments, and many memorable quotes from amazingly unexpected sources. Just see, for example what Barry Goldwater said about religion and politics – no wonder he didn’t win! Whatever you think of his views, Dawkins’ erudition is stimulating and his writing is a joy to read. He may not change your mind, but I very much doubt you will feel that reading his book was a complete waste of time.