So which category do you fit in to? Theist, agnostic or atheist. These are the choices Richard Dawkins offers up in his best-selling book from 2006 exploring the existence of God.
Dawkins openly implores his readers to stand up and be counted as an atheist, bearing atheist pride, comparing it to the Gay Pride Movement – “Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out (atheists), the easier it will be for others to join them.”But he freely admits how difficult this is to achieve – “Organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats.”And at times Dawkins comes across as a cat toying with its prey, tossing a mouse up in the air, over and over again, seemingly in retaliation for years of constant abuse from religious zealots. While I don’t deny him his fun, it does add a sense of his ego to the book.
The first half of the book discusses definitions of theology and reasons why God doesn’t exist. The second half goes on to explore religions and why they exist, and is a welcome relief from the heaviness of the first half. While I don’t disagree with his arguments, I feel he loses much of his audience through his use of complex language. He uses words I’ve never come across before –
ratiocination, logomachist, epistemology, yoctosecond and (my favourite) dialectical prestidigitation. Surely if he wants to connect with the religious masses, most of which would not be as educated as he is, he needs to use simpler language.
Also while his conviction is admirable, I can’t help but think that he’s preaching to the (non) converted. Despite his hope that religious people will view their beliefs with a different mind after reading the book, it’s likely that many won’t start or give up after a few pages. For this book is an atheist’s delight, and most likely too confronting to unconvert those with strong religious faith. It opens so strongly in favour of atheism (“It is intended to raise consciousness – raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one”) that he would have been more successful in changing the minds of religious stalwarts by hitting them about the head with the book instead.
Where this overly long and complex book (“I must beware of riding off on my favourite steed Tangent, far from the main track of this book”) comes alive and is at its most compelling is when Dawkins considers how religion impacts our society and why it exists throughout the world. Chapters 7-9 discussing the Bible, fundamentalism, absolutism and child indoctrination are accessible
and the most readable. The exploration of Bible passages and their full meaning changes the appropriateness of verses I learnt by rote while attending Assembly of God Sunday school classes. If only I’d been given the full story at that age. The anecdotes of religious “child-abuse” give a real human element to his arguments.
While undoubtedly his heart is in the right place (“My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing”), Dawkins is a pot-stirrer, and he can’t help pushing the argument as far as he can go. “What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after the truth as the supreme virtue?” he ponders. “Indeed, wouldn’t the designer of the universe have to be a scientist?” Always the scientist, Dawkins cheekily imagines God as one too!
Of course there is another legitimate theological option, one that Dawkins ignores completely. I like to call it the apathetics, those who don’t care one way or the other whether there is a god or not. Dawkins just assumes that everyone cares as much about theology as he does, and presumably
anyone reading this book cares enough to not be apathetic. Still it should have been discussed by him, as this group is likely to be a significant proportion of our society.
So if you are a theist, an agnostic or an atheist consider reading this book. Just try not to trip over Dawkins ego along the way, and if you’re apathetic don’t let him catch you reading it, he might not be impressed!