Monday 24 September 2007

On reading Richard Dawkins

Some thoughts on The God Delusion, which I've just finished reading.

It's a highly enjoyable, wonderfully-written piece of iconoclastic, rationalist polemic. The first third of the book - in which Dawkins smashes a path through a variety of religious totems - is probably the best, despite being scatter-gun rather than systematic in its choice of targets. I also enjoyed the riotous deconstruction of scripture and the tirade against religious education in later chapters.

Dawkins' demolition job on the philosophical grounds for belief is more cursory and less satisfying than the more scientifically-based chapters. And the attempt to explain the persistence of religion in evolutionary terms didn't quite convince me. It may be because I'm not a scientist (and generally, the book made me painfully aware of the deficiencies of my scientific education) and come from a humanities/social sciences background, but I found this account quite reductive. I'm not sure evolutionary biology can adequately explain religion any more than it can account for Marxism, or painting, or cricket. Some reviewers (like Terry Eagleton) have criticised Dawkins for a lack of familiarity with theology: I wanted more sociology, social psychology and politics.

Dawkins didn't quite make a (de?)convert of me. After reading his book, I'm probably at No.5 on his 10-point scale between strong atheism and strong theism - 'Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism' - where I might have been at 3 or 4 before. But what the book has definitely done is renew my belief in secularism and provided it with some powerful ammunition. Here's Dawkins' reply to those who say we should automatically 'respect' religion:

I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?

Oh - and the book has left me with a desire to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of evolutionary theory - probably by reading more books by Dawkins.


Anonymous said...

I'd personally recommend The Blind Watchmaker as a great introduction to evolutionary theory. Very clear explanations, with a good dose of wonder thrown in.

Martin said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Andrew. I'll add it to my Amazon basket.