First, the book sets out to convince believers of the futility of their beliefs by way of logic. I think the book is setup for failure because of this. But, still, the book did have a few points of note:
- Belief has as much impact as falling in love - Both cannot be explained, but have to be experienced. A lot of people consider religious experience “miraculous” and hence proof that God exists. Some people even have specific Gods speaking to them (when the God asks them to do something immoral, we call these people schizophrenic) or find evidence in God’s actions through all the positive events in their life. Interestingly, like love, there seems to be only one God you can love at a time (even though the modern society approves of affection for multiple siblings, parents, grandparents, children, it does not allow love and affection for multiple partners).
- Belief has caused more misery than the absence of it. Violence has always been committed between people of opposing beliefs.
- Believers are not rational in their belief. They might use rational explanations to convert someone else to their point of view, but inherently a belief is never rational only something “intuitive” or “experiential”.
- Scriptures are not sources of morality. Every holy book has incidents that sound disgusting, grotesque and fail even as allegory or tales to draw morals from. This is true for any holy book that has been handed down over 1000s of years. We have all been meandering towards more liberal moral rules and these scriptures written/spoken in an age when it was not so liberal, fail to guide people in today’s world. This goes to show, our morals are not drawn from history but from the present. Religion is not a basis for morality.
- If not for religion, the next equivalent belief is patriotism. They both have similar basis (or absence of basis) and in several countries, one could be mistaken for the other. It only goes to show, if not for religion, the mind is capable of building other artificial constructs, so even in a hypothetical world of only atheists, we are likely to still have violence thanks to such constructs.
- All religions have myths and incidents that are hard to prove, or are uncertain. Dawkins quotes a fascinating cult that grew around someone called John Frum, and yet, despite its recent origin, there is no certainty that he even existed.
- Culture, art, aesthetics grew with religion (it is true for most religions I know of), but is not necessary for religion to exist for that. Though, religion does impose interesting restrictions (e.g. the ban on using human faces in Islamic art).
I think this book is a good read for atheists, and agnostics who would like to understand why people are religious. But, the book falls vastly short of its goal of converting believers into non-believers, mainly because:
- Belief is not rational, Dawkins glosses over this by stating you “should” be rational about your belief. But that gets us nowhere.
- Humans love status quo. They do not bother about religion unless something drastically happens to make them question their beliefs. Most people are happy to exist with as little curiosity as possible. People born into a religion, continue to believe in one.
- You need social support structure. It is easier to be a non-believer in places where you need little or no support from family (e.g. cities). If you depend on family/friends for support, it is almost unthinkable to question your belief for fear of losing the support.
It also does not help that Dawkins asserts that it is “enlightened” to not believe in God. I think there is nothing “enlightening” about it, it is just a matter of not believing something without evidence. That does not give atheists the right to act, just like most fundamentalist believers, that they are special.
I also think the question “Does God Exist?” is immaterial to the way we live or how we live. Blaming uncertainty or events that are beyond our understanding on an imaginary being, is simply a coping mechanism at worst, and morally, should not frame our relationship to other people.
This would have been a much better book if he had covered the culture and way of life that encourages religion (and vice versa) among major religions (here is a paper on why Europe is less religious than the American continent). I think it is primarily the way of life that people of a religion follow that has most impact on their beliefs rather than logical, rational thought. Most religions make it really hard to get out of those cultural habits, and think about a life without religion.
I really like this anecdote he quotes:
“Tell me,” the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked a friend, “why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?” His friend replied, “Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth.” Wittgenstein responded, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?”.
I think this quote can as easily be applied to the question of god.
But, I do think this is an essential book. Just like religions need extremists to propagate, atheism or even absence of belief needs people like Dawkins and Hitchens to bring attention to the existence of an alternative to religion, even though I do not approve of their shrill voices against the religious and claims of emancipating the believers. It is unfortunate, but silence is rarely heard.