Friday, March 26, 2010

TGD: Let's Get Started

This is my first post going through Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. This series is going to be a long one. I don't want to interrupt my usual Monday post until I'm finished, so I'll be posting these later in the week, typically on Thursday or Friday. For those f you following along at home, I'm using the 2008 paperback edition. I'm going to skip the preface to the paperback edition for now. That preface contains Dawkins' response to common objections to the book. I'll refer back to it if/when I make those objections myself.

The God Delusion opens with a preface in which Mr. Dawkins describes his four main goals in writing the book. His first goal is to raise awareness about the viability of atheism as a belief system. "You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled." This message is aimed primarily at people who were raised with religious belief, but have become dissatisfied with that belief.

I don't object to this statement, although there is a flip side to this coin. Just as many people grow up religious and don't know that atheism is a realistic possibility, many people who lack religious beliefs don't know that faith is a realistic possibility. They don't know that you can be religious without turning off your brain. To paraphrase Mr. Dawkins, "You can be a person of faith who is intelligent, rational, balanced, and intellectually fulfilled."

Dawkins' second goal is to raise awareness about the power of science to provide explanatory "cranes" that help us understand the universe and our place in it. I'm not exactly sure what kinds of explanations Mr. Dawkins believes that science is capable of providing, but I don't expect to see eye to eye with him on this point. Many scientists overestimate science's reach and its explanatory powers.

He cites the example of natural selection as a "crane" that provides an explanation for the origins of life. Natural selection has the advantage of being firmly rooted in the physical sciences. Explanations that try to address more fundamental questions, such as the origins of the physical universe, wouldn't have that advantage. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Dawkins addresses this issue.

Dawkins' third goal is to raise awareness about how we refer to children of religious parents. For example, he says that we shouldn't talk about Catholic children, but rather, children of Catholic parents. I think this is a reasonable goal, especially in the case of young children, who can't possibly share their parents beliefs.

Dawkins' fourth goal is to encourage atheists to be proud of their beliefs. He talks about the stigma attached to the word "atheist" and about the discrimination that atheists face, particularly in the US. He believes that atheists need to be more open about their beliefs if things are going to change.

I'm actually supportive of his efforts here. I'm obviously not an atheist myself, but I don't think that atheists should be forced to hide their beliefs. Nor do I think they should be discriminated against.

Beside these four goals Dawkins also makes it clear that he intends to show that religious belief is a dangerous delusion. This is the central message of this book, and it's the point that I disagree with most strongly. As this series continues, we will go through this book together and I will respond to this argument as it develops.

I hope you're looking forward to it. I know I am.


  1. I object to your statement that very young children can't possibly share their parents religious beliefs. As the child of Christian I very early came to believe and I have never stopped believing to this day. My children evidence on a daily basis, by their speech and behavior that they have faith, and not only that, they have the spirit of God working in them, which goes beyond parroting what their parents say. So I would disagree most strongly with you and with Mr. Dawkins on this point.

  2. My wife, the children's pastor, seconds your objections. I will admit to having not much direct experience with childhood faith. I wasn't raised in a religious family, and I have no children myself.

    I still think it's fair to say that pre-verbal infants don't share their parent's beliefs. So the question becomes, at what age can we reasonably say that a child has developed religious views of its own? It seems to me that the answer should vary from child to child.

    I'll take another look at the issue when it comes up. Unfortunately, according to the preface the issue isn't brought up until chapter nine (out of ten) so it'll be awhile before we get there.

    In the meantime, thanks for your comment. I appreciate the feedback.