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The God Delusion

Entry 702, on 2008-02-20 at 21:35:44 (Rating 3, Religion)

I recently finished reading Richard Dawkins' book, the God Delusion. Dawkins is one of the world's most prominent atheists and critics of religion and especially creationism, so it was certain that I would find his book interesting. In fact, it was one of those rare books that I actually made notes about as I read and I thought I might like to share some of my observations and conclusions here.

On one of the first pages was a quote from Einstein which explains his concept of god. He said "I don't try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it." Clearly the claim by some religious people that Einstein believed in god is very misleading if not outright wrong.

In a discussion of the efficacy of prayer Dawkins cites a study run by Herbert Benson (a believer) which was funded by the Templeton Foundation (a pro-religion organisation) which monitored 1802 patients and found those who knew they were prayed for had *more* complications. I know that other prayer research has had contradictory results. In fact the research as a whole gives widely varying results which usually indicates there is no real effect.

Dawkins is often told he should keep out of religion because he is not a theologian. I have recently been reaching the conclusion that theology is often a rather un-intellectual pursuit, perhaps on a par with the study of UFOs. When you study something which has no basis in reality this is perhaps inevitable. My conclusion on this is supported by Thomas Jefferson who said "A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution."

Some people who try to defend the literal truth of Jesus' life quote the stories of large numbers of people witnessing key events in his life. But Dawkins points out that mass visions aren't unusual. In 1917 at Fatima, Portugal 70,000 pilgrims saw the Sun tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down on the multitudes. Should we take this story literally? And if we don't why take the Bible stories literally?

Its beyond doubt that the Old Testament is full of fake stories but what about the New? To demonstrate the absurd inconsistency of the New Testament the book mentions an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) which said Christ should be born in Bethlehem. John's gospel says he was surprised that he was *not* born there. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along and they move to Nazareth much later. Luke has Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and they had to go to Bethlehem for a census (which was the city of David who lived there 1000 years earlier which makes no sense). Obviously neither testament can be trusted.

Also in reference to this prophecy, which is probably the most important and prominent one in Christianity, Dawkins says that Matthew traces Joseph's descent from David by 28 generations, but Luke mentions 41 generations. And there is little overlap between them! If Jesus was born from a virgin what part did Joseph play in all this any way? Obviously its just all made up to fulfill the prophecy. How can anyone be so stupid to believe this stuff?

What sort of contribution do Christians make to modern civilisation? Not very much. Our society is built on science so how much contribution to Christians make to science? A web site listing scientific Nobel prize winning Christians mentions 6 (out of 700 total). But on closer examination it appears that 4 of those didn't get a Nobel Prize at all, and one is probably not a believer. A study in Nature in 1998 showed 7% of members of National Academy of Sciences in the US believed in personal god. Both of these only show the elite members of the scientific community but clearly Christians are hugely under-represented there.

Perhaps the lack of Christians in the top ranks of science is because they aren't too bright. A meta-analysis of intelligence and religiosity published by Mensa in 2002 showed 39 out of 43 studies showed a inverse relationship between religious belief and intelligence. It seems that if you are a believer you're probably also a bit thick!

I'm sorry but I derive a sort of perverse pleasure watching creationists (or their cousins, intelligent designers) being torn to shreds by scientists. Dawkins quotes the case of Michael Behe who was shown to be totally clueless in the famous Dover trial. He claimed in 1996 that science would never find an evolutionary pathway for the immune system. In the trial he was shown 58 peer reviewed papers, 9 books, and several text book chapters which described this path. His only response was to insist that wasn't enough, but he then admitted he hadn't even read most of them! Behe's credibility: zero!

What about the origin of the Universe and the fact that the physical constants seem fine tuned for life. This is one fact that many scientists find mystifying. Dawkins points out that this doesn't support god because explaining a complex, fine tuned Universe is the result of an even more complex god just moves the question back one step.

An interesting possibility which might explain the fine-tuned Universe comes from some work by Lee Smolin. He has come up with a Universe evolution theory which claims Universes are born in black holes. Fundamental constants of new Universes are slightly different from the one they came from. Only Universes which can last a long time and make stars (and then black holes) can make more Universes so natural selection occurs. This is Darwinism on the scale of the whole Universe! I freely admit this is highly speculative but it is a start on explaining one of the greatest mysteries in science.

This blog entry is getting quite long and I'm less than half way through the book! I will continue this tomorrow, but you can leave any comments with this entry now.

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Comment 1 (1178) by WF99 on 2008-02-23 at 14:39:20:

I've always heard that Einstein believed in a god -- of course, I've also always been told that Hitler's plans for a master race sprung from his atheism.

I agree with pretty much everything you've cited, except for this point:

"Also in reference to this prophecy, which is probably the most important and prominent one in Christianity, Dawkins says that Matthew traces Joseph's descent from David by 28 generations, but Luke mentions 41 generations. And there is little overlap between them!"

Matthew traces Jesus' ancestry back to Abraham, and Luke traces it back to Adam. Matthew traces Jesus' paternal ancestry, and Luke traces Jesus' maternal ancestry.

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Comment 2 (1180) by OJB on 2008-02-23 at 19:24:53:

OK, I didn't check that sort of thing and I guess you know your Bible fairly well, I only reported what was in the book. I would be surprised if there weren't some errors, especially in the interpretation of the Bible, which isn't exactly Dawkins' core area of expertise!

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Comment 3 (1181) by OJB on 2008-02-23 at 19:31:18:

What about the second part of that section regarding the virgin birth? Is that part believed by all Christians or just Catholics? I find it so hard to remember which parts of the whole silly story different sects believe! (yeah, I'm being a bit confrontational there)

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Comment 4 (1187) by WF99 on 2008-02-24 at 12:19:33:

It's believed by all Christians. And I only find it necessary to point that out because I believe it important for an atheist to be absolutely sure of what they're invalidating before debating a Christian. I know several Christians who, even if bested at several points, will feel smugly victorious if they can prove an atheist wrong once. You remember our earliest discussions. I used to be one of them.

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Comment 5 (1188) by OJB on 2008-02-24 at 14:05:20:

Yes, you have a good point. I generally avoid debating the details of the Bible, first because its not a subject I know that much about, and second because its so open to interpretation. In this entry I was just listing off the points Dawkins made in his book. I would be surprised if he didn't have a few errors in such an extensive and wide ranging discussion, but I think the vast majority of what he says is accurate and relevant.

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