Monday, December 04, 2006

Review: 2 Books on Anti-Religion

I finished Dawkin's The God Delusion and Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation in the past few weeks.

Its really interesting to finally see a contingient of humanity stand up against religion. That's interesting because its basically fighting for nothing. These atheists (although Harris is quick to point out that "atheist" is a silly word, read below) aren't trying to convert you per se, they're trying to tell you that your religion is pretty silly.

Both agree that we are ALL atheists when it comes to some religions. For example, most of us are atheists to Zeus nowadays (sorry dude). In fact, everyone is probably an athiest to hundreds of different religions. Just pure atheists go one religion further and actually believe in none. They go on with the idea that the word 'athiest' is rather silly in that we don't often categorized un-members of something (although I can think of a counter-example in the word "unemployed").

I absolutely loved Dawkin's earlier books The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene. The biggest fault of the God Delusion for me was that Dawkins tends to get angry at times. I understand that in his videos of talking to indignant religious people (youtube on "root of all evil"), but there doesnt seem to be much purpose for it in a book. It was an unwelcome distraction (reminded me of Aronson's The Social Animal where he kept being overly politically correct with facts like "men often have more muscle mass than women - Not to say women can't be strong!!! its just that..")

Letter to a Christian Nation is all of 80 pages and can be read in one bus ride (QED). Its clean and concise and worth it given the modest investment.

Both books bring up plenty of Bible contradictions (they both focused on only the Bible it seems) and meta-views of the universe (e.g. if one believes the universe is so complex as to have only been possibly created by a creator, then how was the yet-even-far-more-complex creator created?).

I don't expect either of these book to change many minds given that I doubt many people who are religious will read them. Of decent value is Dawkins discussion on the misconceptions of stem cell research and evolution. He says that many religious people tell him that the universe (or the eye, or the cardio-vascular system, or any other sufficiently complex system) could not have developed by accident. To which he points out as the biggest misunderstanding of evolution.

That evolution is never by accident. Its by massively parallel trial and error (Note that genetic algorithms in artificial intellgence work this way, a million computers (or simulated computers) try a million different slightly different attacks at a problem, the best approach is kept and forms the basis for the next million approaches. All losers are unmercifully deleted). That "part" of an eye is truly an advantage over your neighbor that has no eye at all. And that if your other neighbor has even a better part, his vision gives him an advantage over you. In other words, the eye did not evolve overnite. It began as something that could barely detect light and dark, and slowly got better and better as it evolved to provide more advantage to its owner.

Anyway, these books are just some more fun examples of world religions. Dawkins tells one story of describing an aboriginal religion that involved witches that fly in the night and shoot poison darts at bad people (i.e., "sinners"). To which a priest at his table laughed at what nonsense that religion was. To which Dawkins basically replied that the priest's religion didn't make much more sense itself (plenty of tense moments therein).

The overtones are of course that more people die and more wars are fought for religion than anything else. That God sure wants us to kill each other it seems. Both authors would be happier if religion simply didn't exist. Overall, there isn't any terribly unobvious stuff in there, but both are good reads.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your review on the two books. I myself believe in God, however I also believe that the argument between religion and anti-religion is always very enriching for both sides (especially intellectual ones).

Nevertheless, I would like to comment on several points you mentioned in your review (which were probably also mentioned in the books which I to-be-honest havent read yet).

First, I would like to comment on the criticism of the term "atheist". atheist simply means that the person doesnt believe in God, and doesnt believe in all religions in general. The word itself doesnt imply good or bad, it's just a way of classification that's more of a language issue rather than a religious one. Religious affiliation is in a way (from a linguistic point of view) similar to nationality, "christian" or "jew" is not that different (as a classification) than "american", "european" or "asian". An american belongs to no country except USA. It doesnt make him less of a citizen that he doesnt belong to the other countries. Also, the fact that the various religions disagree with each other doesnt make them of less value, and it doesnt make atheism of higher value.

Also, I would like to point out that my favorite arguments for atheism are those directed at the idea of a God and not the teachings of a specific religion (which was mainly Christianity in those 2 books, probably due to how american culture such as "bible is the #1 seller book" and "religion means christianity" and "if christianity is wrong then all other religions are").

The arguments used against Christianity (even if proven true and valid) would only mean that Christianity is flowed, and those arguments can't extend (as much) to other religions like Buddism or Scientology or Islam, which are harder to criticize from a scientific background, as they do not contradict with science, along with many others ofcourse. In fact, finding flows in Christianity would actually help most other religions and support them (and many of the flows in christianity were actually suggested by other religions, like scientology and islam, before atheists started using them).

Also, I would like to add that the reason why religious people are regarded as more backwards, aggressive and damaging is not because of their religion (whatever it was), but it's rather because of the fact that the great majority of people (nowadays) follow some religion or the other, and most of the time, a great majority of people are idiots. So it makes sense that the great majority of religious people are idiots, which I admit is true.

However, if you look at each of those religions where it's (or was) a minority (and best examples are obtained from times when those religions were just emerging), you'd find that the opposite case is true, and that the religion's followers were the great intellectuals and the poeple who did not follow those religions were the less intellectual ones (since they were the majority).

What I want to express here is that one cannot dismiss the idea of the existance of God by just dismissing one religion, or by showing the faults of the followers of that religion (since you normally get good followers and bad followers in every religion, or category of people). You cannot claim that Christianity is a terrorist religion by looking at the inquisitions and crusades (if the Vatican went kamakazi for some time, it doesnt mean that Christianity is bad, it means the Vatican was corrupted by politics for a while) or claim that Islam is a terrorist religion (which is a very common misconception) by looking at Bin Ladin and ALQaida and the likes (which probably form much less than 1% of muslims during the worst era in Islam's History, and during an era when muslims actually stopped following their religion as much due to oppression, wars and other problems that haunted them for 500 years on average).

And even if someone actually manages to find contradictions in all religions in the world. Then its the easiest thing for people to believe in a religion of their own where they believe in a God, and where the rest is their own experience (or maybe science, or aliens).

However, what I found as the greatest misconception in your review was when you said "Both authors would be happier if religion simply didn't exist". I would just like to remind you that during their golden ages (both Christianity during the rennessance, and Islam during its golden era), religion contributed so much to science and philosophy because religion itself pushed scientific advances in so many areas and religion encouraged (and yes, although the pope hates condoms, it still encourages) people to come up with scientific advances. Probably Islam has more credit when it comes to pure sciences, as muslims (following islamic teachings) preserved earlier (mainly greek and indian) sciences and came up with various advancements (in the name of religion, and in many cases inspired by it), such as time-measurement devices, and astronomy (which helped them find their prayer times) as well as almost every field in science and art. On the other hand, Christianity encouraged and inspired a lot of philosophers during the middle ages.

Even Zues of the greeks has had a great effect on mathematics and if you look at the history of (i am not sure of the exact field but it's probably) cubic and quadratic equations, then you'd find that those equations and their research started through preachings of greek preists (and probably through Zeus Himself).

I agree that atheism has to be accepted and respected as much as any other religion or belief system. However, my comment's aim is just to point out that those books are about christianity not religion and that actual anti-religion books should talk more about philosophy and the idea of God rather than christianity and the bible. In short, American culture (both religious and atheist) has to understand that:
religion != (christianity & bible)

sorry if i wrote too much!
btw... Mailinator is AWESOME!!!

nice blog man..
keep up the good work..

janya said...

Atheism is nothing more than another religion. The same way religions insists on their view of the world, atheism insists on its own.

Believing in evolution could be a belief in itself, and I found it somewhat orthogonal to traditional religious beliefs or affiliations.