Dec 06

Advent Triptych of Atheism: Richard Dawkins ‘The God Delusion’

Proven By Science7 comments • 1,330 views

As a change from other reviews, I’m not going to touch much on the intellectual content of this book. This book is selling incredibly well. It has garnered a LOT of publicity in the US (I gather) and is a bit of “surprise” christmas hit in the UK – currently 5 in Amazon UK’s chart (when pre-orders for the new Harry Potter are 1 and 2). That it has become a big seller, that it is widely read and discussed, is its principal success. Could it be that the much-commented on “Darwin’s rottweiler” invidiousness of his writing has been to this deliberate effect? Either way congratulations of a sort are in order.

My objection to Dawkins recent crusade has been that he is no longer deserving of both his earlier self (thoroughly readable and often entertaining) and his current professorial endowment set up “to contribute to the understanding of science by the public”. He really isn’t doing that any more is he? There is no need to insist on an opposition between science and and any inherent religious inclination – it seems to happen naturally anyway, so why put people off science before they work it out for themselves?

But the sales volume imply he is reaching out to the public, and contrary to some kneejerk criticisms it isn’t just the self-selecting converts who are reading it – not if the media discussion its kicked up is anything to go by. The cultural references in the book are thoroughly super-annuated, over the heads of anyone under 30 (Bob Newhart?!) and his stabs at humour/satire are knuckle-bitingly awful (though not as bad as his open letter to George Bush a couple of years back now). So my guess is that the readership is skewed towards an older demographic – the “Grumpy Old X” market sells well these days, and “where X=atheist” is just how this book reads. This is only natural as the man himself is of retirement age – i don’t expect my own Dad to make a connection with the public at large. Then again that’s not my Dad’s job.

I was going to go into Terry Eagleton’s spectacular foot-shooting* review, but again the internet is ahead of me. But I will summarise it by defending the straw man criticism he and others raise. Dawkins is indeed mostly assaulting unsophisticated theologies in this book – but those are still VERY REAL theologies held by many people, not the rarified beliefs of a theological elite. My own attitude to more sophisticated theological arguments (such as the one sketched out by the atheist ex-marxist Eagleton) is that their variety and plurality degenerates into an unstable private language that disqualifies them from coherent or rewarding argument anyway – the precise opposite of scientific discourse. Also I just don’t believe in a god, innit.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Douglas Adams. This is fitting because though I do peronally love and admire much of Adams’ work (unfashionable as it seems to admit) he also did his very best work at the very start of his career (Dr Who’s City of Death, Radio Hitchhikers) and ended up playing just to his loyal audience of fans. He died too young to get grumpy.

[* in the modern “unintentional self defeating” sense, not the original “cowardly self harm to get out of near-certain death” sense.]


  1. 1
    Pete on 28 Dec 2006 #

    Adams also was a lot stronger on the point that it doesn’t really matter if God exists or not, if he is going to act as disinterested as he has done in recent human history. Indeed the only real response any semi-conscious God could have surely is a shuffle of embaressment and buggering off to hide for being rubbidge.

    Th real triumph over religion comes out of apathy, not logic, since faith has now pretty much set itself up against reason. You do not convince someone not to believe, they stop believing because they don’t need to. And on the whole, this is what has happened in the UK (CoE at least).

  2. 2
    Andy M on 29 Dec 2006 #

    God I hate Richard Dawkins (ho ho).

    You know that bit at the end of ‘The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe’ where the ruler of the universe turns out to be some mental bloke living in a shack whose standards of proof are so exacting that he doesn’t even trust his memories of his own observations and isn’t really sure if his cat exists… did Adams know Dawkins when he wrote that?

  3. 3
    Alan on 29 Dec 2006 #

    “doesn’t even trust his memories of his own observation” seems like an essential rubric to follow to me. in fact i could make this a core observation for pt 3…

  4. 4
    Alan on 2 Jan 2007 #

    I completely forgot to wedge in a reference to possibly the most succinct criticism of RD that I’ve come across this year. In this clip from an episode of South Park:

    “… he learned using logic and reason isn’t enough – you have to be a dick to everyone who doesn’t think like you.”

  5. 5
    Chris O'Connor on 12 Jan 2007 #

    I want to invite you and your readers to join us in reading and discussing Dawkins “The God Delusion” during Q1, 2007. I’m working on getting him in a live chat session for some time in March 2007, but nothing is set in stone. If this chat happens you are welcome to attend.

    We had Richard Dawkins for a live chat back in 2003 where we discussed “Unweaving the Rainbow.”

    BookTalk – online reading group and book discussion forum

    Chris O’Connor

  6. 6
    Alan on 12 Jan 2007 #

    Thanks for the heads up chris – it would seem that a lot of FT readers are more down on RD than I am. I do actually LIKE him, despite everything I’ve said here.

  7. 7
    mince on 12 Jan 2007 #

    It’s true Adams handled these matters more gently. You may be right in pointing to age and social posturing as motivating factors, with his brief being a bit of a thin cover. Still you could argue that there’s nothing like a bit of rabble rousing to get people to have a think about stuff.
    In terms of delusions, you can’t be sectioned under the mental health act for being a Christian, per se. If you were going through a manic phase and thought you were Christ, that is different.
    In terms of facing the existential issues of solitude, injustice, universal indifference and death without mum, I don’t want to sound girly but deep down I kind of hope there is a nice chap incharge of it all, with good reason for all the screwing around. But I expect there isn’t. Still I’ll keep him around as a philosophical band aid until RD lets me know what caused the Big Bang.

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page