A devil’s catechism

My review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (currently at #4 on Amazon’s bestseller list!) is in the latest issue of Seed, which showed up at my door while I was flying out East. They changed my suggested title, which I’ve at least used on this article, in favor of the simpler “Bad Religion”. You could always buy the magazine to read it, but I’ll give you a little taste of what I thought.

Oh, yeah…Seed does that nice plus of having an artist render a portrait of the author, so there’s also a picture, artfully ruggedized and made much more attractive than I am in reality. Not that I’m complaining.


Dawkins…is not proposing the abolition of religion, but rather that we should acquire a proper perspective on it. Religion is a cultural heritage that should be appreciated for its contributions to history, literature, and art, and he actually advocates more education in the subject. At the same time, its promotion as a guide to absolute truth, as a dogmatic and authoritarian prescription for behavior, and perhaps worst of all, as a substitute for scientific thinking, leads to catastrophic excesses and false conclusions, which he documents at length. We can respect poetry as a window into the human mind and an outlet for the expression of beauty, but we’d laugh at someone that claimed poetry explained cosmology, was grounds for declaring war on another nation, or could cure cancer. But these kinds of claims are made by religion, and readily accepted by a dangerous majority. Dawkins is asking that we recognize religion as a legitimate expression of human feeling, but that we also don’t over endow it with powers it does not possess.

It’s interesting how some reviewers seem to read the book as some kind of slavering, hateful rant against religion, but there’s more to it than that—it’s a rejection of religion as an authority, and a denunciation of the mindset that seems so willing to overlook the fact that religion makes claims of truth, sometimes very dangerous claims, in favor of a reverential and false image of religion as a source of piety, humility, love, and charity.

Don’t worry, no one is planning to chuck your grandma in an oven because she prays…we’d just rather that the baloney Rev. Tilton tells her on the TV does not become government policy, and we’re suggesting that you should look askance at someone who claims to support an idea because a god told him to, rather than because he made a rational, informed decision.

(Oh, and Seed also has a very seductive overview of EO Wilson’s idea for reconciling science and religion, as laid out in his new book, The Creation. I’m skeptical, but I’ll have to read the whole thing before I make up my mind.)


  1. redstripe says

    I just received my copy of the God Delusion in the mail on Monday. Perfect timing too: I got married over the weekend in a beautifully secular wedding ceremony (unlike Prof. Myers’) that contained no mention of God, Jesus, their ghostly friend, the word “bless,” or any other nonsense. The judge carried a book of Sir Francis Bacon and (incredibly?) commented on the solemnity of the occasion without reference to any supernatural power.

    I look forward to reading the Dawkins during the honeymoon.

  2. Greg Peterson says

    The last book that made me laugh as much as “The God Delusion” has was one of Doug Adam’s comic masterpieces. This is a GREAT book…a little big and messy, not always as focused and linear as we might expect from Dawkins, but a sprawling, brawling polemic. It does demonstrate, however, why sometimes someone like Michael Shermer can be useful (or E.O. Wilson, for that matter). It sounds like a cliche, but it really is not possible to understand what it’s like to be infected by religion without ever having been thus infected yourself. It is painfully clear in some passages that Dawkins simply has no idea what it’s like to be a person of faith, how different priorities and standards of “evidence” apply. That’s not a criticism per se, but I do want to put atheists on notice that, as delightful as they will find “The God Delusion,” don’t be surprised if you give it to a believer as a gift, and the believer just doesn’t get it. Maybe she’s offended by it, maybe she just doesn’t see any of Dawkins’s points. But it’s like those color blindness tests, where one must pick the colored number from out of the jumble of similar hues. The believer has a virus, like a computer virus, that not only tells her that “Delusion” is untrue and dangerous, but also whispers to her that she thinks this for very good reasons, and not because she’s infected with a virus. As wonderful an effort as “Delusion” is, it will serve mostly to entertain, encourage, and perhaps embolden those of us who already embrace reason and evidence.

  3. Mrs Tilton says

    I’m not really a Rev., you know, but still, you and your grandmother both should obey anything I say on television as though it were the word of God, erm, I mean Who Himself.

    I’ve read only an excerpt from Wilson’s new book so far, BTW, but the impression I had was that it is not so much an attempt to reconcile science and religion as an appeal for secular and evangelical people to make common cause against a problem that threatens them both. I shouldn’t have thought that notion very controversial in principle.

  4. Steve_C says

    I call that non-comprehension the religious “glitch”.
    Even when you try to point out the glitch, and from many different angles,
    they just can’t seem to wrap their head around it. It’s very frustrating and
    extremely hard to get past it. Shermer and M.Petersen are classic examples.

  5. Steve LaBonne says

    It’s interesting how some reviewers seem to read the book as some kind of slavering, hateful rant against religion

    That occurred even with some of the reviews of Dennett’s book, in which the author bends over so far backward to be fair that I feared for his spine. Seems the delusional are mighty sensitive about attempts to peek at the little man behind the curtain…

  6. says

    I used to review books professionally, and am working on my own review when I have more time to finish it. However, here’s my take thus far:

    It is through no fault of Dawkins that his arguments against religion lack the depth, precision, and poetry of his earlier works, being that the claims of religion are almost always puerile, sloppy, hysteria-tinged, and callow. Do not blame Dawkins for his ease in parrying them, for he does not need to summon all his wit to do so, though he indeed summons all his thunder.

    The God Delusion is a polemical work, not intended to be of the lyrical quality of The Ancestor’s Tale or even the meticulousness of his original work of “advocacy,” The Selfish Gene. In seeking especially to liberate children from the religious labels imposed upon them by their parents and communities, it is a work expressly written to advance an agenda. The God Delusion is intended to be a statement grounded in time and place, not a timeless work; it aims to make its own statement irrelevant.

    I applaud him for taking this stand.

  7. says

    It’s long reached the stage where what Dawkins actually says doesn’t matter – he’s so established in the popular conciousness (both religious and non) as the Big Bad Atheist that most people just assume whatever he’s saying is stridently and evangelically anti-religion. Which is a shame, because whilst he does occasionally come across as someone itching for an argument, much of his writing is much more nuanced than that.

    Bit like PZ, now I think of it…

  8. Gerald Fauske says

    My copy of The God Delusion will not arrive until October- it seems the first print run has sold out and I ordered my copy from a small local bookstore. So, I’ve only scan-read portions of a friend’s copy. The quip on the jacket by Pen and Teller makes an important point humorously.

    The Ancestor’s Tail is a remarkable book. It should be required reading in biology courses. The last five chapters rank among some of the best writing in science. If those chapters do not awaken in anyone both fascination and enthusiasm for the scientific adventure, then they are already dead and gone to . . . feed the worms.

  9. matthew says

    So, to PZ and anyone that has allready read it, it sounds to me like Dawkins is asking people in this book to think and talk about the religions of today as they do the religions of the past. Is that a fair assessment? There are obviously people that spend their entire lives studying and teaching extinct religions, but that doesn’t mean they believe any of them and that likewise doesn’t mean that they don’t think that they are historically significant (and maybe interesting). Seems like a smart proposal to me.

  10. Linda says

    N n s gng plnnng t chck
    Grndm n th vn f sh prys?

    Nt yt, y mn.

    ftr ll, thst hv rndd p blvrs, BCS thy wr blvr, mny tms bfr.

    Hnt: Trtsky, M, th Chns n Tbt n THS cntry.

    [you know, one of the signs that you’re a crank and a troll is that you have to keep morphing your constantly discredited username]

  11. QrazyQat says

    Linda, if you actually think communism is going to take hold in the USA, especially as a result of athesim, well, that’s just silly. Very very silly.

    The communists of the USSR and the PRC were atheist (officially at least, and probably many of them were — although China) as a result of their communism; atheism was not the root of their communism, communism was. This shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, just as it’s clear that religious people “chucked atheists in the oven” (sometimes literally) because of reiligion and what they claimed that religion told them to do.

    If you can’t see the difference, I don’t know what to say.

  12. Steve_C says

    Has nothing to do with them being atheist Linda. Communism/Socialism it not an atheist movement. Tired of this dishonest bullshit.

  13. says

    Actually Linda, those megalomaniacal fellows through people away because they wouldn’t worship them.

    And I think you meant Stalin.

    Or Lenin.

    Or my Great Aunt Phyllis. She never could accept the fact that her sisters’ pound cake was better than hers and so we all appropriately worshiped it. Murderous spinster, my Phyllis.

  14. Watchman says

    Linda, that’s a fair point, but if I may be USA-centric for a moment, I must say that this is neither the Soviet Union, nor Red China. If we all viginantly maintain the consitutional right to freedom of (and from) religion as envisioned and defined by Jefferson, Madison et al, no such attrocities will be perpetrated – by either side. In this we should all be united, regardless of religious or political affiliation. With that said, it’s pretty clear that the bigger threat to that freedom is coming from the far right, not the far left.

  15. Watchman says

    Errr… that should be “vigilantly” …

    I passed over the inaccuracies in Linda’s post because it was obvious what she meant, and I didn’t see her dragging political systems into it. The simple truth is that yes, at certain times and places in history, believers have persecuted non-believers, and vice-versa. That cannot be denied.

    Of course I agree it’s a mistake to equate communism, socialism, or, say, liberalism with atheism. We all know what kind of mind woofs up hairballs like those *coughcoultercough*.

    Isms rarely build death camps – people do, and they’ll use whatever banner suits their purpose. The fact that Hitler used Christianity is not the fault of Christianity. The fact that Christians allowed themselves to be used is not the fault of Christianity. I don’t blame Jesus for the things done in his name. And so on.

    I recognize that these points are arguable. Chalk ’em up to mne man’s opinion. (Mine.)

    It’s all in the implementation. Mankind has a talent for corrupting ideas. This is why its important to protect the ideas that work (like, say, the establishment clause and all it implies.)

  16. AlanW says

    Ummm…the religious have been throwing non-believers and believers in other unproven entities into fire/jail/pits for millenia. The inquisition weren’t exactly a bunch of atheists were they? And they did it because oftheir religion…in the name of their religion.
    The instances you mention of the godless persecuting the religious miss out on several important details: Stalin and Mao didn’t just persecute the religious, they went after anyone that didn’t agree with them; they did so because they were megalomaniacal nutjobs.
    Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Stalin all had moustaches; no-one is saying all their terrible deeds were because of their facial hair and that we should therefore be wary of Charlie Chaplin, Ghandi and Douglas Fairbanks.

  17. George says

    My copy of The God Delusion will not arrive until October- it seems the first print run has sold out and I ordered my copy from a small local bookstore.

    Nor mine! Amazon claims they “shipped” mine on Sept. 21, but USPS has not yet picked it up – six days later! WTF! I guess I should not have ordered using supersaver shipping, because they put me at the end of a long, long line and it now looks like I won’t receive the book until October 12.


  18. says

    I bought my copy from a local indy bookstore (Longfellow Books in Portland, they rule). Haven’t started it yet, but I do see the usual theological suspects launching the usual fallacies and thinly-veiled epithets as Dawkins, and people I like (e.g., PZ) giving it awesome reviews. This is as sure a sign as anything that it will rock major balls.

  19. Ichthyic says

    And they did it because oftheir religion…in the name of their religion.

    the second part of that sentence is accurate, but not the first.

    actually, they did it mostly for political reasons, as the church was losing power at that time.

    nothing motivates like fear.

  20. AlanW says

    the second part of that sentence is accurate, but not the first…they did it mostly for political reasons…

    True, but authority figures don’t garner many points with the populace by being honest about their motives; spin has been around a long time. The one holy and apostolic church didn’t actually say ‘Well, we’re going to torture and kill any who oppose us because it’s bad for business otherwise’ regardless of how close to the truth that may have been. Instead, we get all the fluff about trying to save the immortal souls of the heretics. Plus, you get the added bonus of having a percentage of pious individuals actually believing the spin and doing the dirty work believing it to be the will of god/allah/fsm for free.
    I have no doubt that many missionaries and inquisitors and suicide bombers are/were well intentioned dupes of their lying overlords. The guy on the bus with the c4 strapped to his chest is not doing it for political ends but for religious reasons (and a few virgins too no doubt, same as some of the witchfynders were hoping they’d rescue some girl from eternal fire and damnation by pulling out their fingernails and setting fire to them in this world…as well as make their own merit by doing so).
    Quite difficult to get people to do crazy stuff to make you richer.
    Much easier to tell them it’s for the good of their country.
    Even better to say god wants them to do it and they’ll be rewarded for eternity for going along with your hairbrained scheme.

  21. Dale Stanbrough says

    “The fact that Hitler used Christianity is not the fault of Christianity.”

    Hitler was working against Jews because of his beliefs, fuelled by long held anti-semetism within Europe. The Catholic church certainly blamed all Jews for the death of Jesus – it was only during John Paul II’s time that this was renounced (“come back, all is forgiven!”).

    I remember reading an article about a Jewish child in Australia that got a thumping from the local catholics because “he killed Jesus”.

    Catholocism is therefore certainly guilty of contributing to the Jewish genocide. How much other branches of Christianity held similar beliefs I don’t know.

  22. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “It sounds like a cliche, but it really is not possible to understand what it’s like to be infected by religion without ever having been thus infected yourself. It is painfully clear in some passages that Dawkins simply has no idea what it’s like to be a person of faith, how different priorities and standards of “evidence” apply.”

    How do you explain that Dawkins had two religious periods then? ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins ) Isn’t it more likely that people have different (religious) experiences, and that memories are at least as much a construct as consciousness which neuroscience seems to say?

    Dawkins may or may not had different standards in a bounded rationality, and he may or may not remember this correctly. But he may also be discussing ideal rationality, ie making a coherent view.

    For an interesting idea how cognitive dissonance may extinguish one of several conflicting epistomic comittments in a persons bounded rationality, see Wilkins. ( http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2006/09/why_are_creationists_creationi_2.php ) It may be difficult to reach back to analyse one’s consciousness before a conversion to make comparisons.

    Your review so far is apt, beautiful, concise. You complement PZ on Dawkins’ perspective with Dawkins’ polemics, so now I want to read this book too. (TL adds another book to the growing wish list.)

  23. poke says

    actually, they did it mostly for political reasons, as the church was losing power at that time.

    That is religion.

  24. Michael Kremer says

    Steve_C: “Communism/Socialism it not an atheist movement. Tired of this dishonest bullshit.”

    Karl Marx: “Communism begins from the outset (Owen) with atheism; but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism is still mostly an abstraction.

    The philanthropy of atheism is therefore at first only philosophical, abstract philanthropy, and that of communism is at once real and directly bent on action.” (“Private Property and Communism,” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

    I suppose that if you read Marx in a certain way, what he says would support Steve_C’s claim…

    On the other hand Watchman’s remark about hairballs suggests the interesting equation Coulter = Marx.

    Dale Stonbrough: “The Catholic church certainly blamed all Jews for the death of Jesus – it was only during John Paul II’s time that this was renounced (“come back, all is forgiven!”).”

    Actually this was quite definitively renounced at Vatican II, almost 20 years before JPII: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. … Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” (Declaration Nostra Aetate, Vatican II, 1965)

  25. Torbjörn Larsson says


    You can’t use Karl Marx to discuss de facto communism. But if you did, you can note that “Early forms of human social organization have been described as ‘primitive communism’ by Marxists” (Wikipedia). That would include the socialistic structure of early christianism.

    The largest form, maoism, was based on “political power comes from the barrel of the gun”. Stalinism had a “theoretical base supporting the repression of political opponents as necessary”. And there are plenty of cases of religious communism described “centered on religious principles”.

    As science, politics is a secular tool, and the conflicts comes when religion tries to interfere by dogma.

  26. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “the conflicts comes when religion tries to interfere by dogma”.

    Or when religion has economical powers that politicians, rightly or not, want removed. Conflicts are mostly not oneway streets, of course.

  27. Michael Kremer says

    Torbjorn: First, I should say that I have strong sympathies for socialist/communist ideas, and recognize the ways in which early Christianity reflects some of those ideas.

    Second, well, who should I talk about if I want to talk about “de facto communism”? Would quotations from Lenin do? The above discussion seemed to be about the link between communism and atheism in the Soviet bloc and in China. It is a little hard to tell what people were responding to in “Linda”s disemvowelled comments. QrazyQat admits that the the Soviet and PRC regimes were atheist, but claims that their atheism was the result of their communism, not the other way around. Marx, however, thinks atheism is a necessary first step towards communism. Sounding remarkably like the NRA, Watchman thinks that isms don’t put people in concentration camps, people do. Everyone wants to deny that communism and atheism are identical.

    Well, of course not. But historical (de facto?) communism in the form that dominated a significant percentage of the human race in the 20th century *was* officially atheist and put this into practice with systematic persecution of religious belief (not just Christianity, but Buddhism, for example), closing of churches and temples, driving of seminaries underground, state control of religious institutions, and so on. And “isms” do have an effect, because people do act on their beliefs and ideas.

    It is because of this history that people of faith have a tendency to get defensive and worried when they hear rhetoric such as comparing raising one’s children in the faith of one’s ancestors to child abuse. This rhetoric is really quite similar to that which has been used in the not-too-distant past to justify religious persecution by officially atheist regimes.

    This is not to deny at all that persecution of religions by other religions is a frequent historical occurrence. Our contemporary ideas of religious freedom and toleration developed in part in response to the ugliness of religious wars. Such ideas have now been officially embraced by institutions like the Catholic Church. And yes, the Enlightenment had a big part to play in this (as even the Pope has admitted). There are, unfortunately, many areas of the world in which this lesson has yet to be learned. But what people of faith see in the militant atheism of some — like Sam Harris, and yes, also Dawkins at times — is a turn to a suppression of religious freedoms, though not in the name of some dominant religion. And again, the history of the very real suppression of religion in the only officially atheist states of the last century (as opposed to secular states), plus the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric about people abusing their children, being too far gone for anyone to reason with, etc etc., helps to strengthen these fears — fears that poor disemvowelled Linda, or whoever he/she was, gave voice to.

  28. Torbjörn Larsson says

    I can’t comment on Linda’s disemwovelled comment.

    “Second, well, who should I talk about if I want to talk about “de facto communism”?”

    History would be my guess of tryng to describe that. I see you mention it too.

    “historical (de facto?) communism in the form that dominated a significant percentage of the human race in the 20th century *was* officially atheist”

    As I tried to show, politics controlled the relation to religion, not the other way around. Steve_C commented on that too.

    “But what people of faith see in the militant atheism of some — like Sam Harris, and yes, also Dawkins at times — is a turn to a suppression of religious freedoms”

    They argue atheism from humanist and/or natural science basis, not from a political basis. I’m pretty sure that they also argue freedom of religion. The need for them to argue freedom from religion in addition seems to come from their perception of that it harms society and/or science. In the later case one could say that they at least argue freedom of science and possibly more.

  29. says

    I can’t praise The God Delusion highly enough. IMO it’s a really important book that everyone should read. Sorry to hear you guys in the States are having to wait so long for it – but you’re in for a treat.

  30. says

    My two cents on atheism and communism.

    First, atheism does not imply communism. The non-existence of god does not, in and of itself, imply anything about the distribution of goods or the position of the proletariat or whatever other marxist constructs you want to throw together. Marx could just as easily have argued for communism on gnostic or early christian grounds.

    Second, twentieth century political communism does not imply atheism. Stalin did reconcile with the church in 1943, but he did not renounce communism. He encouraged prayer and officially endorsed a religion, which is not very atheistic.

    Finally, as far as I am aware, “chucking grandma in an oven” seems to have been a purely christian pastime. Neither Stalin nor Mao ever made a really concerted effort to exterminate a race of people, and certainly not in the assembly line fashion that the christians in Germany did.

    They did enslave people and work them to death. However, if this is the big black mark against communism or atheism, we should remember that Christians were responsible for a millenia of mass murder by labor camp, although they called the labor camps “factories” or “plantations” and the workers “debtors” or “slaves” or “serfs.” Still, SSDD. Muslims continue to endorse slavery to this day, and they are certainly not atheists.

    As a side note, I would be very interested in seeing a public statement of atheism from stalin. So far, all I have been able to find is one piece of hearsay from a childhood friend.

  31. Anthony Kerr says

    This is a magnificent book.I’ve been waiting to read it ever since, in February, I learned he was writing it. In that month he rehearsed some of its themes in the Channel 4 documentary “The root of all evil” (it’s on the web) but I felt that in those programmes his anger made him slightly sour, and he did not necessarily come over at his best when confronted with his religious opponents.
    But on the page – wonderful. It is laugh-out-loud funny in many places, and devestatingly scathing almost everwhere. Of particular interest to American readers will be his analysis of the founding fathers and their insistence, thank goodness, on the secularity of the American state.
    I await with great interest its full publication in the US – will it be number 1? Surely – and the reaction to it.
    The sad thing is that a scientist like Dawkins should even have to address this crap; the great thing is that he is around to do it.