It Could Be Better: Part 1
1. Most of what Dawkins discusses is ground I’m already familiar with. Part of this I can attribute to the widely popular nature of the book and the infusion of its ideas into the blogosphere and wider atheist discourse. I suppose I can attribute the rest of my familiarity with having been a non-believer for twenty years or so.
2. I find Dawkins’ attempts at contemptuous humor toward believers to be deeply off-putting. You can make your point without being a jerk. However, I do realize that being a jerk sells books because it attracts controversy and thus, far greater levels of attention. Alternatively, perhaps he is trying to entertain his readers and venting frustration, too? How well does that approach work if you are trying to talk to anyone who isn’t already an atheist or agnostic, or at the very least, leaning heavily in that direction? I’m guessing that the general populace of believers wasn’t his target audience.
3. His references are quite sloppy when compared to academic writing. There are many quotes and borrowed concepts throughout the book that lack endnotes or footnotes. I doubt that Dawkins is making stuff up, but I do see this as lazy writing. That may be fine for the informal world of blogging, but if you are trying to write a book that encourages skepticism, rigorous references would be useful. I expected more from a person who hails from the world of academia. Besides, gosh darn it, it would be nice for his readers to be able to look up his sources and reuse those quotes and concepts in other venues.
4. Dawkins shines when he is discussing science. His discussions of evolution and cosmology were quite eloquent and held my interest more than any other part of the book—at least so far. The man is gifted in this respect and his experience as a scientist shows. His writing flows with articulate grace when he presents scientific concepts in digestible prose for the layperson.
5. When Dawkins discusses non-scientific topics, his writing seems to meander a bit. I found myself skimming out of boredom. I know that part of my boredom comes with my familiarity with these topics. The thing is, I was already familiar with much of the science that Dawkins presents, and yet, those passages held my full attention. In some places, it even sent chills up my spine.
6. His critiques mostly focus upon the Abrahamic concept of a deity and/or spiritual concepts. He focuses upon Christianity in particular. What about other deities from other spiritual practices? What about religions that don’t center upon a deity? This is a weakness that I see in many atheists’ critiques of religion (including my own critiques). Maybe he’ll get to that later in the book?
So far, I find myself yearning for a book that isn’t The God Delusion. The book that I would like to read would be an anthology upon religion that has contributions from authors across many disciplines: biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, cosmology, history, philosophy, etc. It would be nice to read a book on religion with perspectives that aren’t solely filtered through the experience and knowledge base of someone who specializes in the biological sciences. Dawkins tries to make The God Delusion a kind of “Jack of all trades” and consequently, sometimes his presentation of the topic seems a bit thin. I can sense when Dawkins is explaining concepts that aren’t native to his discipline (ethology and evolutionary biology) and I suspect this is one of the greatest weaknesses of the book. Kudos to Dawkins for trying to discuss the topic across such a broad diversity of fields of study, but still, I am left wanting more.
Also, my “dream anthology” would strongly tone down the “theists are idiots” attitude. I guess what I’m looking for is a book that is far more scholarly in nature, and I would hope that such attitudes wouldn’t tend to pass muster within that genre. You can challenge someone’s ideas without being mean spirited.
Plus, as my regular readers already realize, I don’t see spiritual and religious folk as mentally challenged, schizoid basket cases. I may find their beliefs inscrutable and beyond credibility, but I’m still happy to share conversation and coffee with them. Although this might sound odd to some nonbelievers, I’m open to learning a thing or two about myself and humanity during the course of such a conversation. Hell, I’ve even been head over heels in love with a few religious/spiritual folk.
I know: I’m probably tainted by religious people cooties. I’m damaged goods. You probably should ignore me.
Anyway, I do realize that being a minority in a world of believers certainly leads to a good bit of frustration because of the marginalization and discrimination that we face, but nevertheless, angry contempt will only take us so far. Take a tip from the way LGBT folks have fostered their move deeper into the mainstream: let people get to know you as human beings and show them that your lives are as mundane as theirs are. Publicly insulting large portions of humanity is guaranteed to earn a lot of attention in a short period of time, but the animosity that is generated will only work to counter the long term goal of moving out of the margins and into common society. Hatred and contempt reap hatred and contempt.
I do understand that The God Delusion is in some respects, the first of its kind: a wildly popular book that discusses a basis for atheism and does so by approaching the topic from many angles. There’s no doubt that it has drawn a good deal of attention and generated a lot of discourse. Nevertheless, I’m still longing for something more. I’m going to try to finish the remainder of the book, but sometimes I find my attention wandering to the scenery outside my window…
PS: If anyone knows of a book that fits the criteria of “my dream anthology”, please let me know. I’d love to read it.
PPS: My pre-existing dislike of Dawkins’ haughty attitude led me to purchase my copy of the book used. I’d rather not give my money to that guy, even if it passes through the hands of a corporate proxy.