Review of "The God Illusion" by RichardDawkins

I was quite disappointed by the book because the author sets up several "straw men" that he easily knocks down and avoids deeper issues. Dawkins does not seem to distinguish between religion and the exploitation of religion, especially political disputes that are packaged as religious disputes. In fact, he claims the opposite, that ethnic strife is usually religious strife. He also lumps all religious attitudes together, people who believe in the literal truth of the Bible (or other religious texts) and those who think that such books have been written by people and should be read in their historical context and take from them only what is valid today.

The best part of the book is Chapter 5, "The Roots of Religion" where he addresses the question of why religion is so widespread amongst humans. But that is only one tenth of the book and the rest seems to ignore that part. (I found a much better discussion of the topic in an article by R. M. Henig "Darwin's God" in the March 4, 2007 issue of the NY Times magazine.)

If we accept that a human society that is religious may have advantages over other societies we can see why political leaders may want to foster or manipulate religion. For similar reasons leaders may want a different religion than that of another state. Many theological disputes may seem absurd, but they are simply excuses. The original theological difference between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches was whether the Holy Ghost emanates from the Father and the Son or only from the Father. Of course the real reason was political antagonism between the Western and Eastern successor states of the Roman Empire. In modern times we have the supposedly religious dispute about the teaching of evolution. As Thomas Frank has pointed out (in "What's the Matter with Kansas") the subject has been used as a divisive issue to cause people to vote against their own financial interests. While it may not be easy to find the exact boundaries between genuine religious motivation and political manipulation, the issue exists and Dawkins ignores it completely. (Unfortunately, he is not the only one. Karen Armstrong often ignores the political undercurrents behind the so called "theological" disputes.)

Dawkins explains the persistence of religious beliefs as a result of religious instruction and, in effect, "brainwashing" of children. However, there are beliefs that are not supported by any organized religion and are still widespread. A good example is the superstition about "evil eye." It exists amongst Christians, Muslims, and Jews (in Europe and the Middle East) and it is not part of any of these religions. It also exists amongst Hindus in India. What maintains people's belief in the "evil eye"? Because this superstition has not been sponsored by any major religion or political ruler, the reason for its survival should provide hints about the human need for religion.

Dawkins quotes selectively from the Bible to show that it does not teach morality. In doing so he ignores parts where religion has pioneered concepts of social justice. My favorite is from Leviticus 19.9-10: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger ..."

I share Dawkins' view that there is no personal God, a concept first stated by Spinoza. Einstein is one famous supporter of this view and Dawkins quotes from him. But then he goes on to argue that there is no God at all. I cannot see why this issue is important. For my part I find comfort and peace of mind when I pray, even if no one may be listening to me. And I find it even more helpful when I pray with others.

(A shorter version of this review has been posted on

May 7, 2007