Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Book Review: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

I have just completed a trilogy.

Not C.S. Lewis' "Space" or Narnia trilogies. Nor the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I have read the so-called "New Atheist Trilogy," comprised of g-D is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, The End of Faith by Sam Harris and now The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

Although the books contain many similarities and cross-reference themselves, each brings a different emphasis borne of the distinct backgrounds of the authors.

Dawkins brings the perspective of a biologist; Hitchens shows his status as a man of letters; and Harris incorporates his philosophical background.

Dawkins, however, marries at least two backgrounds better than the others, although Hitchens touches on all three. Dawkins especially demonstrates his knowledge of science and letters. However, Dawkins isn't especially skilled at rhetoric or argument because he overargues and thereby shows weaknesses in his polemic.

A hallmark of modern atheist argument is to claim that they are governed by the evidence. They assert that they cannot make a "leap of faith" because they need hard evidence to be convinced. Dawkins abandons this position when he turns the argument on its head by ridiculing those who aren't convinced of macroevolution because of interspecies gaps in the evolutionary chain or record as "gap worshippers." "The creationists' love affair with 'gaps' in the fossil record symbolizes their whole gap theology." (p. 127.) Given the gap in the record, isn't it more like an atheistic or agnostic to demand proof, any proof, of a bridge in this gap? At bottom, then, both sides are making some leaps in filling in gaps. Therefore, atheists or agnostics are unentitled to seize the ground of claiming they are only following the evidence.

Dawkins' book brought to mind a trial strategy. When an attorney makes promises during opening statement, he or she better deliver. The failure to do so can crater that advocate's credibility before the jury. It's very effective to quote those promises and then demonstrate they remain unfulfilled in the closing argument.

Dawkins' introduction offers that opportunity. Dawkins makes high claims at the outset. For example, "Perhaps you have been taught that philosophers and theologians have put forward good reasons to believe in God. If you think that, you might enjoy Chapter 3 on 'Arguments for God's existence'-the arguments turn out to be spectacularly weak." (p. 2.) Regarding the next chapter, Dawkins promises: "I hope you will gain enlightenment from Chapter 4 on 'Why there almost certainly is no God'." (p. 2.)

Accordingly, Dawkins essentially assures he will demolish the arguments for God's existence and go further to establish "there [is] almost certainly ... no God." He sets the bar high. And then he doesn't deliver. While he does discredit some of the weaker arguments that have been posited for God's existence, such as St. Anselm's ontological argument (pp. 80-83), he fails to disprove that God could have created the universe. In my mind, this is one of the linchpins of the debate (the other is what to make of Jesus). Everything else--such as whether religion has been perverted--is window dressing.

And his effort to deliver constituted the core of this book. Thereafter, the book tapers off with related, but essentially tangential, excursions about whether religion constitutes child abuse or leads to other abuses. (See, e.g., Chapters 8 and 9.)

An aspect of modern atheist literature is to call those who claim to be governed by scripture to account for not reading it or understanding it. This criticism could just have likely been leveled within the church but it is amusing to read it from those outside of it. Dawkins too proffers this critique, but to his credit, he goes further. He underscores the literary value of the Bible, and encourages nonbelievers to read it. (pp. 340-44.) "[A]n atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education." (p. 344.)

Dawkins' book provides a perspective that any critical thinker--especially those with a Christian world-view--needs to read and process. Unchallenged, naive belief does no service to the Church.

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