A devil’s catechism

My review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (currently at #4 on Amazon’s bestseller list!) is in the latest issue of Seed, which showed up at my door while I was flying out East. They changed my suggested title, which I’ve at least used on this article, in favor of the simpler “Bad Religion”. You could always buy the magazine to read it, but I’ll give you a little taste of what I thought.

Oh, yeah…Seed does that nice plus of having an artist render a portrait of the author, so there’s also a picture, artfully ruggedized and made much more attractive than I am in reality. Not that I’m complaining.


Dawkins…is not proposing the abolition of religion, but rather that we should acquire a proper perspective on it. Religion is a cultural heritage that should be appreciated for its contributions to history, literature, and art, and he actually advocates more education in the subject. At the same time, its promotion as a guide to absolute truth, as a dogmatic and authoritarian prescription for behavior, and perhaps worst of all, as a substitute for scientific thinking, leads to catastrophic excesses and false conclusions, which he documents at length. We can respect poetry as a window into the human mind and an outlet for the expression of beauty, but we’d laugh at someone that claimed poetry explained cosmology, was grounds for declaring war on another nation, or could cure cancer. But these kinds of claims are made by religion, and readily accepted by a dangerous majority. Dawkins is asking that we recognize religion as a legitimate expression of human feeling, but that we also don’t over endow it with powers it does not possess.

It’s interesting how some reviewers seem to read the book as some kind of slavering, hateful rant against religion, but there’s more to it than that—it’s a rejection of religion as an authority, and a denunciation of the mindset that seems so willing to overlook the fact that religion makes claims of truth, sometimes very dangerous claims, in favor of a reverential and false image of religion as a source of piety, humility, love, and charity.

Don’t worry, no one is planning to chuck your grandma in an oven because she prays…we’d just rather that the baloney Rev. Tilton tells her on the TV does not become government policy, and we’re suggesting that you should look askance at someone who claims to support an idea because a god told him to, rather than because he made a rational, informed decision.

(Oh, and Seed also has a very seductive overview of EO Wilson’s idea for reconciling science and religion, as laid out in his new book, The Creation. I’m skeptical, but I’ll have to read the whole thing before I make up my mind.)


  1. #1 redstripe
    September 27, 2006

    I just received my copy of the God Delusion in the mail on Monday. Perfect timing too: I got married over the weekend in a beautifully secular wedding ceremony (unlike Prof. Myers’) that contained no mention of God, Jesus, their ghostly friend, the word “bless,” or any other nonsense. The judge carried a book of Sir Francis Bacon and (incredibly?) commented on the solemnity of the occasion without reference to any supernatural power.

    I look forward to reading the Dawkins during the honeymoon.

  2. #2 Greg Peterson
    September 27, 2006

    The last book that made me laugh as much as “The God Delusion” has was one of Doug Adam’s comic masterpieces. This is a GREAT book…a little big and messy, not always as focused and linear as we might expect from Dawkins, but a sprawling, brawling polemic. It does demonstrate, however, why sometimes someone like Michael Shermer can be useful (or E.O. Wilson, for that matter). It sounds like a cliche, but it really is not possible to understand what it’s like to be infected by religion without ever having been thus infected yourself. It is painfully clear in some passages that Dawkins simply has no idea what it’s like to be a person of faith, how different priorities and standards of “evidence” apply. That’s not a criticism per se, but I do want to put atheists on notice that, as delightful as they will find “The God Delusion,” don’t be surprised if you give it to a believer as a gift, and the believer just doesn’t get it. Maybe she’s offended by it, maybe she just doesn’t see any of Dawkins’s points. But it’s like those color blindness tests, where one must pick the colored number from out of the jumble of similar hues. The believer has a virus, like a computer virus, that not only tells her that “Delusion” is untrue and dangerous, but also whispers to her that she thinks this for very good reasons, and not because she’s infected with a virus. As wonderful an effort as “Delusion” is, it will serve mostly to entertain, encourage, and perhaps embolden those of us who already embrace reason and evidence.

  3. #3 Kristine
    September 27, 2006

    I used to review books professionally, and am working on my own review when I have more time to finish it. However, here’s my take thus far:

    It is through no fault of Dawkins that his arguments against religion lack the depth, precision, and poetry of his earlier works, being that the claims of religion are almost always puerile, sloppy, hysteria-tinged, and callow. Do not blame Dawkins for his ease in parrying them, for he does not need to summon all his wit to do so, though he indeed summons all his thunder.

    The God Delusion is a polemical work, not intended to be of the lyrical quality of The Ancestor’s Tale or even the meticulousness of his original work of “advocacy,” The Selfish Gene. In seeking especially to liberate children from the religious labels imposed upon them by their parents and communities, it is a work expressly written to advance an agenda. The God Delusion is intended to be a statement grounded in time and place, not a timeless work; it aims to make its own statement irrelevant.

    I applaud him for taking this stand.

  4. #4 gengar
    September 27, 2006

    It’s long reached the stage where what Dawkins actually says doesn’t matter – he’s so established in the popular conciousness (both religious and non) as the Big Bad Atheist that most people just assume whatever he’s saying is stridently and evangelically anti-religion. Which is a shame, because whilst he does occasionally come across as someone itching for an argument, much of his writing is much more nuanced than that.

    Bit like PZ, now I think of it…

  5. #5 matthew
    September 27, 2006

    So, to PZ and anyone that has allready read it, it sounds to me like Dawkins is asking people in this book to think and talk about the religions of today as they do the religions of the past. Is that a fair assessment? There are obviously people that spend their entire lives studying and teaching extinct religions, but that doesn’t mean they believe any of them and that likewise doesn’t mean that they don’t think that they are historically significant (and maybe interesting). Seems like a smart proposal to me.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    September 27, 2006

    I bought my copy from a local indy bookstore (Longfellow Books in Portland, they rule). Haven’t started it yet, but I do see the usual theological suspects launching the usual fallacies and thinly-veiled epithets as Dawkins, and people I like (e.g., PZ) giving it awesome reviews. This is as sure a sign as anything that it will rock major balls.

  7. #7 Ichthyic
    September 27, 2006

    And they did it because oftheir religion…in the name of their religion.

    the second part of that sentence is accurate, but not the first.

    actually, they did it mostly for political reasons, as the church was losing power at that time.

    nothing motivates like fear.

  8. #8 Jason Spaceman
    September 27, 2006

    Albert Mohler, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; he no likey Dawkins’ book.

  9. #9 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 27, 2006

    “It sounds like a cliche, but it really is not possible to understand what it’s like to be infected by religion without ever having been thus infected yourself. It is painfully clear in some passages that Dawkins simply has no idea what it’s like to be a person of faith, how different priorities and standards of “evidence” apply.”

    How do you explain that Dawkins had two religious periods then? ( ) Isn’t it more likely that people have different (religious) experiences, and that memories are at least as much a construct as consciousness which neuroscience seems to say?

    Dawkins may or may not had different standards in a bounded rationality, and he may or may not remember this correctly. But he may also be discussing ideal rationality, ie making a coherent view.

    For an interesting idea how cognitive dissonance may extinguish one of several conflicting epistomic comittments in a persons bounded rationality, see Wilkins. ( ) It may be difficult to reach back to analyse one’s consciousness before a conversion to make comparisons.

    Your review so far is apt, beautiful, concise. You complement PZ on Dawkins’ perspective with Dawkins’ polemics, so now I want to read this book too. (TL adds another book to the growing wish list.)

  10. #10 Michael Kremer
    September 28, 2006

    Torbjorn: First, I should say that I have strong sympathies for socialist/communist ideas, and recognize the ways in which early Christianity reflects some of those ideas.

    Second, well, who should I talk about if I want to talk about “de facto communism”? Would quotations from Lenin do? The above discussion seemed to be about the link between communism and atheism in the Soviet bloc and in China. It is a little hard to tell what people were responding to in “Linda”s disemvowelled comments. QrazyQat admits that the the Soviet and PRC regimes were atheist, but claims that their atheism was the result of their communism, not the other way around. Marx, however, thinks atheism is a necessary first step towards communism. Sounding remarkably like the NRA, Watchman thinks that isms don’t put people in concentration camps, people do. Everyone wants to deny that communism and atheism are identical.

    Well, of course not. But historical (de facto?) communism in the form that dominated a significant percentage of the human race in the 20th century *was* officially atheist and put this into practice with systematic persecution of religious belief (not just Christianity, but Buddhism, for example), closing of churches and temples, driving of seminaries underground, state control of religious institutions, and so on. And “isms” do have an effect, because people do act on their beliefs and ideas.

    It is because of this history that people of faith have a tendency to get defensive and worried when they hear rhetoric such as comparing raising one’s children in the faith of one’s ancestors to child abuse. This rhetoric is really quite similar to that which has been used in the not-too-distant past to justify religious persecution by officially atheist regimes.

    This is not to deny at all that persecution of religions by other religions is a frequent historical occurrence. Our contemporary ideas of religious freedom and toleration developed in part in response to the ugliness of religious wars. Such ideas have now been officially embraced by institutions like the Catholic Church. And yes, the Enlightenment had a big part to play in this (as even the Pope has admitted). There are, unfortunately, many areas of the world in which this lesson has yet to be learned. But what people of faith see in the militant atheism of some — like Sam Harris, and yes, also Dawkins at times — is a turn to a suppression of religious freedoms, though not in the name of some dominant religion. And again, the history of the very real suppression of religion in the only officially atheist states of the last century (as opposed to secular states), plus the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric about people abusing their children, being too far gone for anyone to reason with, etc etc., helps to strengthen these fears — fears that poor disemvowelled Linda, or whoever he/she was, gave voice to.

  11. #11 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 29, 2006

    I can’t comment on Linda’s disemwovelled comment.

    “Second, well, who should I talk about if I want to talk about “de facto communism”?”

    History would be my guess of tryng to describe that. I see you mention it too.

    “historical (de facto?) communism in the form that dominated a significant percentage of the human race in the 20th century *was* officially atheist”

    As I tried to show, politics controlled the relation to religion, not the other way around. Steve_C commented on that too.

    “But what people of faith see in the militant atheism of some — like Sam Harris, and yes, also Dawkins at times — is a turn to a suppression of religious freedoms”

    They argue atheism from humanist and/or natural science basis, not from a political basis. I’m pretty sure that they also argue freedom of religion. The need for them to argue freedom from religion in addition seems to come from their perception of that it harms society and/or science. In the later case one could say that they at least argue freedom of science and possibly more.

  12. #12 Anthony Kerr
    October 2, 2006

    This is a magnificent book.I’ve been waiting to read it ever since, in February, I learned he was writing it. In that month he rehearsed some of its themes in the Channel 4 documentary “The root of all evil” (it’s on the web) but I felt that in those programmes his anger made him slightly sour, and he did not necessarily come over at his best when confronted with his religious opponents.
    But on the page – wonderful. It is laugh-out-loud funny in many places, and devestatingly scathing almost everwhere. Of particular interest to American readers will be his analysis of the founding fathers and their insistence, thank goodness, on the secularity of the American state.
    I await with great interest its full publication in the US – will it be number 1? Surely – and the reaction to it.
    The sad thing is that a scientist like Dawkins should even have to address this crap; the great thing is that he is around to do it.

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