Few people, with the notable exception of perhaps Christopher Hitchens (who is perhaps better known as a warhawk than an atheist), are as outspokenly critical of religion as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion represents his first effort at a book whose entire text is (ostensibly) an attack of religion—his previous works, such as The Ancestor’s Tale have been mostly scientific works about evolutionary processes or mimetics.
Having heard Dawkins in various other contexts—a few interviews, some previous books, &c.—much of the book wasn’t new to me. Almost as if the entire religious debate writ small, The God Delusion contains its fair share of recycled material and careworn phrases. Which is not to say that Dawkins isn’t an excellent writer—indeed, his slew of successful books is what pushed him into prominence—and that he isn’t very thorough in his attack of religion.
There were a few portions in particular that stood out to me, and which I found particularly interesting. The first was a lengthy chapter about mimetics: mimetics, or the sort of “evolutionary” passing of “memes” (units of cultural information)1. I find this kind of social science fascinating, because what we’re talking about here is how culture is passed on generationally. I think even religionists would agree with most of the tenets here, even if their noses would crinkle at some of the terminology that Dawkins uses. Dawkin’s question is Assuming no supernatural impetus for its longevity, why is religion such a healthy and persistent meme?. He reasons that the answer must either be that religion does cultural good or that it’s caused by a “mis-firing” of other impulses. His eventual conclusion is—grudgingly—a mixture of both. But I am now inspired to go find some other works on mimetics.
The other particularly poignant section, and apparently Dawkin’s pet peeve, is the way in which young children are immediately labeled with the religion of their parents, as though the largely arbitrary matter of a progenitor’s religion was somehow congential. 5-year-olds can be “Christian children” or “Muslim children” or “Buddhist children,” and yet you would never heard children referred to as “Marxist children,” “Contractarian children,” or “Anti-establishment anarchist children.” Given my vehement stance for intellectual liberty, this seems to me a rather good point. Kids are too young to know any better: parents obviously think that they are doing their kids a favor, but are they really? Personally, I think this sort of nonsense only increases sectarian tension.
The God Delusion had some good points, but overall I must admit that it didn’t blow me away by any stretch of the imagination. But a solid Dawkins work, to be sure, with a few high points that make it worth recommending.
- You’ve probably noticed this word before if you read blogs at all. “Memes” in this context are generally a sort of ‘chain letter’ phenomenon, whereby some repeatable activity is passed on by connected individuals. The very word was coined by Dawkins in one of his earlier books.[↩]