It Could Be Better: Part 1

So, a few days ago I purchased The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  I’m just shy of half way through.  Here are my initial impressions:

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.

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~ by timberwraith on January 8, 2011.

17 Responses to “It Could Be Better: Part 1”

  1. I am currently reading “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris. I am about half way through it, and I’m enjoying it so far.

    http://humanitarikim.wordpress.com/

  2. Hmmm… A book that fills the “has works from a variety of authors” would be “The portable atheist,” however it’s put together by Christopher Hitchens who isn’t the softest guy in the world. (Though the articles in there are by their respective authors and not all him) Perhaps Daniel Dennett might be of interest to you. He’s one of the “four horsemen” but is by far the softest of the four. (His focus is on philosophy)

    Personally I liked The God Delusion. (Got an autographed copy too!) It was actually what made me become an atheist; however, I was it’s targeted audience: someone with atheist leanings, upset about religion’s effect on the world, yet not really sure what I was.

    To be honest, I really don’t think Dawkin’s book is aimed at religious people. I think it takes the stance that they’re probably to far gone to save, and as such is primarily a stress release valve, sort of like softcore atheist porn.

    I first read the book about four years ago and have since evolved in certain views broached in the book, but I still found it enjoyable.

  3. Yes, I’ve heard “The Portable Atheist” is a must read. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Humanitarikim, welcome to my little blog. 🙂

    Godlesspaladin, I believe it was an introductory philosophy course that led me to shift from non-religious theism (belief in a deity with no accompanying religion) to agnosticism. That was a while ago and the memories are a little “blurry” at this point.

    Was there a particular line of thinking or theoretical framework that Dawkins illustrated which you found particularly persuasive?

    Btw, thank you both for the reading suggestions.

  5. It is interesting to see how different people will see the same book, going in with different filters.

    My views about about the variety of religious people is similar to timberwraith’s. My only axe to grind going into the book was a hope to avoid reading something that sounded like it came fro the self congratulatory skeptics/atheists of my college days.

    I found the first few chapters to have a negative tone. I didn’t finish the chapters about the arguments for and against the existence of a god. I found them painfully, annoyingly, obvious……which is the point.

    The rest of the book, was fascinating and I felt like I had my mind opened. I found the suppositions for why human beings create religions to be fascinating as well as the alternative sources of fulfillment for “needs” people think they need religion for. I definately want to get a copy of Bertrand Russell’s quote about death.

    Luckily, my library had a number of his books including this one, so reading it cost me nothing 🙂

  6. @Timberwraith funny you should mention a philosophy course. When I deconverted and discovered atheism I was taking a medieval philosphy course where we had to read Boethius and St. Augustine. I joke that it was so painful to try and get through their bulky and awkward ramblings that I lost faith in god. ~_^

    Was their a particular line or anything that Dawkins said to push me off the fence? I honestly can’t think of anything. (Ok, full disclosure, I was actually watching the documentary “The root of all evil?” which is basically The God Delusion in tv form, hosted and narrated by Dawkins. He hated the title because he thought it was absurd, but the producers insisted in order to stir up controversy)

    But yeah, no one thing in particular, I can just remember lying on my bed and letting the whole thing soak in, that’s what did it.

  7. Ok, full disclosure, I was actually watching the documentary “The root of all evil?” which is basically The God Delusion in tv form, hosted and narrated by Dawkins.

    You watched it on TV instead of reading the book? Cheater. 😉

  8. I know! I’m not a real atheist then since I cheated. *sobs* Does that make Dawkins a tele-atheist? Wait, I doubly cheated because I watched an illegally uploaded copy of the show on the internet! Crap! That makes me a cheating illegal pirate atheist criminal! *sobs some more*

  9. That’s OK, godlesspaladin. Before the US supreme court legalized sexual intimacy between same sex couples in 2003, I too was an atheist criminal.

  10. Thought I’d let you know that my experiences and reactions, reading the same book, were a parallel of yours–except that, alas, I bought my copy new. My view, when it comes to atheism–as anything else–is that I prefer to read people who’re sincere and display proofs that they have thought deeply on the subject and are not out to gore any oxen. The Epicurian approach is miles above this sort of thing, and Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura a great classic. (Can’t think of the English translation now–On the Order of Nature, I think.)
    -Arsen Darnay

    [PLEASE NOTE: I copied this comment from the Moderation & Delusion thread. Hence, my user icon appears in this comment instead of Arsen Darnay’s icon. It appears that this comment was incorrectly posted to the Moderation & Delusion thread rather than here. -timberwraith]

    • Arsen, I have to admit, I’m having a hard time finishing the book because I’m just not enjoying reading it. I’ve read very little since completing my tentative review. I only blew $9 on a used hardback, but honestly, I would have enjoyed using the money for some nice Chinese food instead. Mmmmmm. Now I’m hungry. I want some Hunan tofu…

      I’m with you on the whole “ox goring” thing. I’d like to read a book on religion that comes at it from multiple angles—one that discusses the good, the bad, and the neutral. I’d also like to see a book that does comparative studies across different kinds of religions and cultures. That’s the sociologist in me speaking and so far, she’s really being starved by Dawkins’ book.

      Hah! I think I made a pun and it wasn’t even intentional.

  11. The God Delusion was my first Atheist book I’ve ever read and since then I’ve read just about all of them from the “Four Horsemen”. While they all have their different tones and approaches, I distinctly hold a sentimental spot for Richard Dawkins’ book. Its multi-faceted approach gave me the courage to be calm in a frightful and confusingly major transitional period of my life, Conservative Christian to an Anti-theist. Its no bullshit manner gave me the power to defend my new life propositions and most of all allowed me to realize the underlying dangers in religious psychology. Without it, I stay timid about my thoughts. Without it, I’m a closeted atheist. No, this book was not an appeal to the already knowledgeable atheists who have established self-confidence in their ideas. It was written for us who grew up in a religious family and from day 1 didn’t have a say in our indoctrination because we didn’t realize we could have a voice. It’s for the uncertain people who are so intrigued that God isn’t possible that they read about it in secret. I vividly remember a time when a boy, scared to let his ideas be free because EVERY SINGLE relationship he established was based and dependent on this idea that I was adherent to God, heard about a book that was sweeping minds throughout the world. He nervously went to Border’s and bought that book with the confrontational anxiety that he knew it may bring. And after the reading it was proud to take a step out and reveal who he was.

    This is an important to understand while reading The God Delusion.

    The section “Tread softly, because you tread on my memes” may be an interest to you, knowing your sociology background. Meme is a coined term from Mr. Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene”.

  12. While I am generally a mild and polite type of atheist, I think I identify with Virologic’s response the most. I’m not an “angry” or confrontational person, but that was possibly my first time reading a book in which someone criticized religion in that tone, and somewhere inside I rejoiced. My religious friends and family are dear to me, and I don’t think of them harshly, but it was a relief to see my views confidently and loudly defended for the first time.

    Having said that, I mainly commented to ask if you’ve read any of his actual science books, instead of just the anti-religion ones. His science writing really is where he shines. You said you dislike him, but it’s not like he’s actually a bad person. He devoted his life to science, and he’s clearly very knowledgeable and passionate about it. It would be upsetting to anyone to spend your entire life studying the wonders of biology, while watching for years and years as religious people continue to paint evolution as a lie and banning their children from learning about it. Sometimes anger is justified.

  13. Just saw your comment on mine. The kind of books you’d like to read are just not being published (though some are being written) — or they are at so high a level of abstraction (surveys) as to have too little in the way of nutrition (to continue your pun motif). Anti-books are plentiful. Works of the middle way, which accept the phenomenon but not the dogmatism, are almost impossible to publish, by the way. The market wants religious books that pander to believers, or anti-religious books that appeal to another audience. And, yes. There is also a kind of New Age third category which accepts anything and everything in an absolutely uncritical and unthinking way, zero intellectual rigor — and those, of course, would not appeal to you either. That leaves us… Well, I know a pretty good Chinese eatery down my way…

  14. My apologies to those who I haven’t had time to respond to and to those who have been floating around in my moderation queue. I’ve had a really busy, emotionally draining week and I haven’t had the time or motivation to frequent the internet. Sorry, folks.

    Virologic! Hey, I didn’t recognize you until I looked at your e-mail address in my moderation queue, today. Welcome to my blog, you!

    Mackenzie, just to be clear, there are plenty of people I intensely dislike who I’m sure are perfectly fine human beings when they are interacting with people other than myself. I understand that my annoyance with someone doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. However, bad person or good, my annoyance ensures that I’ll be more than happy to maintain my distance. I’m pretty certain this means I won’t be reading any more of Dawkin’s books because, well, it would be an unpleasant task and I’d be wasting my money on books that I will never finish reading.

    Btw, I did mention in items 4 and 5 of my original post that I do recognize that Dawkins is quite talented in writing about science. If his area of scientific expertise focused upon cosmology, astronomy, or quantum physics, I think I could very well overcome my personal distaste for him and read any books he wrote upon such topics. I find those particular areas of science to be deeply fascinating… so much so, that I can look past my distaste for the author. Unfortunately, Dawkins’ focus is upon biology and biology interests me slightly more than reading the telephone directory. My loss, I suppose.

    Virologic and Mackenzie, I have a new post brewing in my head that addresses some of the stuff y’all have brought up. I think I’ll post it today.

    Arsen, I strongly suspect that the kind of book I’m looking for might be found in a university bookstore somewhere. As I mentioned in my review, I’m looking for something more substantial and balanced with actual footnotes and academic-quality research to back it up.

    I’m also looking for something written with an anthropologist’s ethic. This ethic centers upon the realization that the study of any group of people one is outside of brings the possibility of bias against the subjects who are studied and the objectification of the studied. An outgrowth of this bias and objectification is the dehumanization of the populace who is studied.

    You’re right, Arsen, the mainstream publishing industry probably isn’t interested in publishing “middle way” books that address religion, spirituality, and related topics. Perhaps I’ll have to take a trip to the University of Minnesota and comb its bookstores. Until then, shall we dine in that eatery? Do they have vegetarian options?

  15. […] my previous post, I wrote a preliminary review of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. In that review I […]

  16. […] Part I […]

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