I’ve just finished Richard Dawkins’ polemic ‘The God Delusion’ (for the second time). Doing so has been quite a personal journey, which has taught me a lot about myself.
My first read of the book (about three years ago) left me with an uncomfortable taste in my mouth. While I admired his dissection of the Aquinas ‘proofs’, and agreed in principle with his demonstration that religion can be explained by Darwinian selection, I couldn’t help but feel he was being too polemic.
Having been baptised as Church of Scotland, and brought up as a Christian, I couldn’t help but picture the kindly parishioners of my local village church wiping the fizzing flecks of Dawkins’ spit from their faces as he lectured apoplectically against them. While the scientist in me could find no fault with his logic, the part of me tied to my religious past pulled away from it, telling me that there was maybe a better way to deal with extremism than being extremist yourself (which was how I perceived Dawkins at the time). I guess I still felt that moderate religion was OK (even although I knew that it was not faultless).
I came back to the book three years later having seen a lot more of the world. In particular, I had really discovered the Internet’s ability to host and disseminate opinion. I read with growing horror the articles posted online which vindicated Dawkins’ aggressive stance. I’ve watched blogs like Bad Astronomy and Pharyngula continue the fight against willful ignorance, and the slow creep of ‘intelligent design’ into schools across the West. Reading it again, I started to realise that Dawkins was adopting the correct scientific stance. Science in a way is polemic – scientists choose carefully from a handful of theories that fit the current evidence, and contest it in debate until fresh evidence disproves them, leaving behind a strong theory that fits the data and enlightens us as to how a portion of the Universe functions.
‘The God Delusion’ definitely proved to be a much better read on the second go. I seemed to have missed quite a lot of incredibly fruitful arguments (either by accident or purposefully by my vestigial religious self). I now accept his argument that even moderate religion is faulty (the latest Catholic Church revelations are enough to convince most of that point). If you still think he’s overly polemic, a quick perusal of the Internet will show you he’s mild in comparison to his opponents.
I subscribe to a modified form of Positivism (the only ‘true’ statements humans can make about the Universe must be verifiable, while being aware that this principle is violated at the quantum level, where ‘truth’ is superseded by wavefunctions). On my first read of the book, I accepted that the statement ‘there is a God’ was amenable to an assignment of probability. On my second read, my estimation of the probability went down significantly. A year ago, I would have described myself as agnostic. I now think the probability of God’s existence is low enough that I would describe myself as atheist.
Hardly a timely book review, I know, but his assessment of religion is essential reading for everyone. If you’re a religious person, and you believe that you can defend your beliefs logically, I urge you to test yourself by reading this book. If you don’t believe in logic…then I’m not sure why you read this blog.