‘The God Delusion’

I just finished reading the book, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It’s a wonderfully well thought-out critique of religion, and the God hypothesis. Dawkins focuses on why a belief in a supernatural being is so ubiquitous, and further examines the arguments in favour of the existence of God, and explains how scientific evidence contradicts them. He also tackles the social and psychological purposes which religion claims to fulfill, such as morality, consolation and inspiration, and argues why these functions are fulfilled even in the absence of religion. The book ends with a chapter on how the broadening of the horizons of our knowledge through the advancement of science reveals a beautiful and diverse universe, governed by simple and elegant laws, which doesn’t really need a supernatural element for us to perceive beauty.

It is impossible to write a review of this book without mentioning my personal views. If you read the “About me” page, you can probably guess that I am an atheist. I was lucky to have been born into a family which was only mildly religious, though a benevolent personal God(s) was always there, for consolation and inspiration. As I grew up I gradually began to think for myself, and have become a proud, if tactful(since none of the persons closest to me is blindly religious, definitely not fundamentalist, and I respect their faith) atheist.

It’s a must-read for all those who have wondered, at some point in their lives, whether God exists.

An afterthought(25 June): Since writing this post, I have had discussions with a couple of friends about religion, and I think I need to add a few more thoughts here. One of them is an agnostic, and the other a believer. Neither of them could understand why an atheist should be so hostile to religion, if so many people indeed find comfort in faith. I don’t have any problem with faith, but I feel that these are things which one should work out for oneself. Indeed, the believer friend has a beautiful faith, that the universe is full of intentions(whether it is true or not is beside the point), which gives her hope and comfort. In fact, I believed in something similar for a while myself.

Unfortunately, such enlightened faith, acknowledging science and savouring scientific knowledge of the world, is rare and doesn’t reflect the blind faith of an overwhelming majority of the religious people in the world. Just look at the attack on evolution by creationists in the twenty first century, that too in developed countries like the USA today, and you will see what I mean. I understand and sympathize with the (verbal) hostility of Dawkins towards religion. In fact, it’s a stance every true scientist should take, in my opinion, since religion has tried too much in the course of history, to discourage scientific enquiry and encourage unquestioning faith as a virtue.

Besides, it beats me why people should find comfort in believing something like creationism, that all evidence points to be false. Why does a better, more beautiful and apparently true knowledge of the world drive them to despair? Probably there is a psychological role for faith, but I think it’s ultimately down to education and consciousness raising. I don’t think the atheists of the world live in quiet desperation. Quite the contrary. I think most of them would have become atheists because of a certain level of satisfaction in learning more about the universe, and perceiving it as it is, without needing the comforts of beliefs which they find false anyway.

13 thoughts on “‘The God Delusion’

  1. I think the best ever philosophy about religion, God etc.. that I have ever come across is in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings. If we go through his works on various forms of beliefs like Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga (each of which he has preached and is published as individual books) and various other things like Advaita etc.., we can see how clearly he has explained that religion, God etc.. are percieved by different people in each of these different ways. Some practices (like Bhakti) will look like blind belief with no logic, some practices (like raja yoga/meditation) etc.. comes with a whole lot of scientifically accepted logic.

    The good part about his teaching and his works is that he is able to present these concepts to the audience in the way they are comfortable with it while emphasising the fact that all these practices have just one final goal of “self realisation” – which in “logical” terms is to realise all the powers that the human mind has and use that for our own peace of mind and that of others.

    And I firmly continue to believe in the fact that we human beings have a whole lot more powers which we are not aware of or do not know how to bring it out – and religion/God is different ways to help in bringing that out! And somehow I have come to conclude that this is what Swami Vivekananda also preaches and hence I just love his works and preachings.

    I will be forever indebted to our Achamma who used to regularly take me to our Trichur Ramakrishna Ashram and exposed me to all those great books there at about the right age when I could think and judge for myself :-). I know she has put you also on almost the same path as she put me on :), not sure if you ended up taking interest in Swami Vivekananda’s works, if not I would highly encourage you to read that in case you get a new perspective on all these things from his work.

    Love,
    Gopu.

  2. I haven’t really read much of Swami Vivekananda’s works. I believe too, that we have a lot more powers than we are aware of and know how to use. It’s acknowledged in psychology that the conscious mind is only the tip of a mysterious and magical iceberg. In fact, I have been very fortunate to have experienced a tiny glimpse of those powers, when I play the piano. It’s an experience that’s very different from others, especially when I play a long piece, when I sometimes have the eerie feeling that it’s someone else within me who is actually playing, because my conscious mind is more like a supervisor!

    Perhaps it is a nice perspective on religion, as a tool to get in touch with your inner powers. But all that is beside the point of the post. I have no problem with labeling the mysterious power of the mind as God. But that is not the sense in which most people are religious. Especially in the West, there has been an active suppression of science by blind faith, which is prevalent even today. It is this inflexibility and aversion to skepticism that should be condemned.

  3. >> I have no problem with labeling the mysterious power of the mind as God.

    I believe that this “mysterious power within us” is really what is termed as God by our ancient rishi munis. Our upanishads emphasise the “Aham Brahmasmi” fact so much that there can be no doubt that our ancient defenition of religion has/had a sound basis.

    >> But that is not the sense in which most people are religious.

    Agreed, but thats the mistake of people, not religion :-). Its like some jerk of a music director makes a hell of a tune out of “raghupati ragahav rajaram”, the blame should go to the music director, the original raghupati raghav rajaram still remains pristine!

    >> >> In fact, I have been very fortunate to have experienced a tiny glimpse of those powers, when I play the piano.

    Good, thats a form of “karma yoga” 😉 – you are realising your powers through purity of work 🙂

    >> I haven’t really read much of Swami Vivekananda’s works.

    I would higly recommend reading it .. Get the collective works (its like 7 volumes or so), maybe your ammamma might have it, or get it from Ramakrishna Ashram. Skip all the bhakti and worship related parts, theres a lot that Swamiji talks about the “logical” part of religion, let me know what you think after reading that.

    Love,
    Gopu.

  4. >> thats the mistake of people, not religion

    Perhaps. But that mistake is a very disruptive one. Perhaps the most beautiful explanation of the different psychological/spiritual stages of development of a person’s mind is given by the American psychiatrist, M.Scott Peck in his magnificent work, The Road Less Travelled .

    “* Stage I is chaotic, disordered, and reckless. Very young children are in Stage I. They tend to defy and disobey, and are unwilling to accept a will greater than their own. Many criminals are people who have never grown out of Stage I.

    * Stage II is the stage at which a person has blind faith. Once children learn to obey their parents, they reach Stage II. Many so-called religious people are essentially Stage II people, in the sense that they have blind faith in God, and do not question His existence. With blind faith comes humility and a willingness to obey and serve. The majority of good law-abiding citizens never move out of Stage II.

    * Stage III is the stage of scientific skepticism and inquisitivity. A Stage III person does not accept things on faith but only accepts them if convinced logically. Many people working in scientific and technological research are in Stage III.

    * Stage IV is the stage where an individual starts enjoying the mystery and beauty of nature. While retaining skepticism, he starts perceiving grand patterns in nature. His religiousness and spirituality differ significantly from that of a Stage II person, in the sense that he does not accept things through blind faith but does so because of genuine belief. Stage IV people are labeled as Mystics.

    It is indeed striking that most of the people are at the second stage, and they cannot truly reach the fourth stage without developing skepticism, and through just blind faith. So while I acknowledge the beauty of Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy, and religious ideas in general(though I have not read them much, I doubt I’d be very interested in its finer details), I am more concerned by the fact that most people are generally stuck, perhaps due to cultural, educational and psychological reasons and pressures, at the second rung of the ladder, which possibly is just a historical accident and not a necessary characteristic of society.

    Personally I’m not very interested in researching deeper into the intricacies of the fourth stage. I think a widespread and universal ascent to this level of consciousness is possible only when there is a stable and secure society, where individual talents, traits and differences are encouraged and nurtured. And this possibility is seriously threatened by a lack of skepticism in people, and the inertia of societies. So while you are talking about the virtues of the mystic state, I’m not arguing against them, but just expressing my personal stance regarding the likelihood that discussions of such deep mystic thoughts and powers are irrelevant to most of the people in the world today.

  5. >> It is indeed striking that most of the people are at the second stage ..

    I think its ok to be in that state as long as the individual himself/herself is not hurt by it and he/she doesnt hurt his/her environment because of his/her beliefs, thats the whole idea of tolerance right ? At one point in time I also used to think that getting rid of all religions completely or just unifying everything to one religion will solve a lot of the worlds problems. But with time you come to realise that such an approach doesnt help a bit – the fundamental issue is the intolerance in each of our minds, if not religion we will find some other way to create problems – colour/income/skills – intolerance if present in a person will surely find a way to vent itself out.

    On the other hand I agree that for the advancement of a society (though what is advancement is itself is a very debatable topic), it would be better to get people move onto Stage3 or Stage4. For that I think the religious education provided to children growing up needs to be better – they should be shown not just the mystic part of religion, but also the logical part of religion which unfortunately doesnt happen often.

    >> Personally I’m not very interested in researching deeper into the intricacies of the fourth stage.

    Neither am I 😉 .. But inquiring about it pops up with some tips every now and then which can be implemented easily in day to day life with good results – like some tit bits about controlling destructive forces like ego, anger etc.. which can help in all aspects of life. What I mean to say is that the interest in the “logical” part of religion is not necessarily to be able to go to himalayas and grow a beard and become a sanyasin :), it puts certain things in perspective and tries to tell you to make better use of whatever time we have in this life!

    >> such deep mystic thoughts and powers are irrelevant to most of the people in the world today.

    Yup! Swami Vivekananda always used to say that dont feed religion to the poor, give them food. So yes, religion is useful only once your basic necessities in life have been met. It tries to logically tell a person to be thankful for what he has and try and help those who are not so lucky. The pure capitalist principles of the west is almost succesful in making the people believe that a person is poor just because he did not work hard or he is not “smart” enough to make money, that is not a healthy trend either.

    So there has to be someone who teaches compassion and humility and basic human values to each kid and make him/her aware that luck and fortunes dont last for ever and to be able to see oneself in the shoes of another person etc.. So that education is what I call as “religion” – and that is indeed what the goal of religion is if you look into a lot of our old religious works and true religious leaders. Unfortunately the other shades and colours of religion got added by people for their selfish benefits and what we mostly end up seeing is a religion far from what it was supposed to be!

    Love,
    Gopu.

  6. >> I think its ok to be in that state as long as the individual himself/herself is not hurt by it and he/she doesnt hurt his/her environment because of his/her beliefs, thats the whole idea of tolerance right ?

    Agreed. But I think there is reason to think that being stuck at this state doesn’t particularly help in situations of crisis, like the one we are facing now(ecological). Besides, I think the fact that children are so naturally inquisitive suggests that stage two is not where a person is meant to stay for life. It has definite survival value, perhaps it is through this trait to believe what the elders say, that crucial wisdom concerning survival is passed on to the next generation. But as a child grows older, it is natural to question his or her beliefs and convince himself of their validity through reasoning.

    >> At one point in time I also used to think that getting rid of all religions completely or just unifying everything to one religion will solve a lot of the worlds problems.

    I donot think that getting rid of religions will solve the problems. All I say is that children should be encouraged to think skeptically and work out their religious beliefs for themselves. Besides I don’t think atheism amounts to an annihilation of our traditional values or culture. I mean, I can still enjoy the tales of the Ramayana, and savour the morals it conveys, though I view it as mythology and do not believe in its literal truth.

    >> I think the religious education provided to children growing up needs to be better – they should be shown not just the mystic part of religion, but also the logical part of religion which unfortunately doesnt happen often.

    Exactly!

    >> But inquiring about it pops up with some tips every now and then which can be implemented easily in day to day life with good results – like some tit bits about controlling destructive forces like ego, anger etc..

    I admit that is a good motivation.

  7. >> Besides, I think the fact that children are so naturally inquisitive suggests that stage two is not where a person is meant to stay for life

    I agree. If someone is taught all the various theories around a particular subject and he/she chooses one theory and sticks to it, then that is his/her choice/limitation etc.. But if someone is taught only one theory on a particular subject and he/she sticks to it, then it is bad teaching. And no doubt there is lots of bad teaching all around us in schools and colleges that this is just one more in the list :).

    I dont participate much in the discussions on bad teaching and bad “education system” because I myself have not done anything to make it any better, whereas I have all the freedom to be a teacher and try and make a difference myself. But you betcha one day I will become a teacher, hopefully a good one, thats my dream 🙂

    Love,
    Gopu.

  8. >> But you betcha one day I will become a teacher, hopefully a good one, thats my dream

    I have no doubt you’d make a damn good teacher! 🙂

  9. I got a copy of the book and I have but just started reading it, starting at the preface.

    One thing I felt, looking at your blog entry and the review of the book is that both seem to mix God and religion. I feel that is wrong. God has never created religion though I am not sure of the converse.

    I belive in God, but not in religion. But on a philosophical note, religion is a way of life to link with God, than God him/herself. That is what I felt. You finding trance or self-realisation in playing piano is a typical example of Karma yoga in play, very appropriately pointed by Gopu. Similarly there are other ways of achieving self-realisation like Raja yoga, sahaja yoga, bhakti yoga etc. Some like Meera might have found self-realisation in Bhakti yoga, while Lord Krishna himself appeals to Karma yoga.

    I fully agree with Gopu. You should read Vivekananda’s works, esp those on karma yoga. He clearly debunks many myths like Fate etc. They are real eye-openers and for once, you get back to the glorious cultural past of India we are so proud of. If you ask me about the best philosophical works, I would certainly name Vivekananda to the top of the list.

    In Bhagavat Gita, Lord says that all are equal to Him, irrespective of his stature, deeds etc. So a murderer or a thief or a priest are all equal to Him. That may not be totally what a religion will teach. It teaches about heaven and hell and all. But when I think about these, how fun it will be to live in eternal heaven eating whatever you want, listening always to music, doing only what you want to do? After a while it is going to get boring. Garuda purana talks about hell and the different punishments awaiting sinners. But God himself says sinners are no different to him. So how is the gap coming?

    That is why I feel the gap is created by closely coupling God and religion. Both are different. Treat religion as a way of life. Athiesm is also a religion because it is a way of life. Being agnostic also is as much.

    Above, I have given references to Hindu God and related works because I am more aware of them. I am sure every great works in all religion would carry similar message.

    1. I understand what you mean by saying religion is a way of life, in that sense atheism is also a religion. In fact, the book The Road Less Travelled which I have cited earlier defines religion as an outlook of life.

      But for me personally, I am not comfortable with a religion having a God as an omnipresent and omnipotent power or energy or whatever one could call it, because it is just not consistent with science. Especially since God(whatever that is) is generally considered to be a cause for everything that happens, while science suggests that everything that happens is pure chance. And I personally find that much more liberating and interesting, though probably the same cannot be true for everyone.

      And as for the feeling I have when I play the piano, I don’t understand what karma yoga is. All I know and care about knowing is that the feelings are a result of millions of neurons firing in my brain, which give rise to a perception of intense joy. The “I” and “me” itself is created by the neurons as a means of organising the vast amount of information that the brain receives and processes- Phantoms in the Brain by V S Ramachandran talks about this beautifully.

      1. Actually, several books seem to have confused you. I have also worked on similar lines earlier and felt science is emphasizing that God is there. More about it later (I am leaving for lunch 🙂 )

      2. Why do you say I seem to be confused? In fact, I think I am quite clear about what I am saying… 🙂 Perhaps I am not putting it very well.

      3. Again, it is a mistake to club God with religion. Don’t do that. Religions may say about God being ultimate and most powerful etc. They may also propagate other messages which are not intended to be told by God. Instead I believe in an omnipotent God, not the religion. To believe that everything happens by chance is too much. Actually, science itself says that nothing happens by chance, there should be a reason behind every incident; some are explicable with our current capability, others are not. For that matter, what is the guarantee that the science we know is correct and accurate across the universe? Generally magnetism is considered far more powerful than gravitational force, but it is not possible to find another planet where the converse is true? Science may not be universal as we want it to be. Similarly, what is the guarantee science itself will not discover God in future?

        Let me ask you a question – can you name a perfectly random incident in the universe? There is no such incident. To the same question, one of my ex colleague answered “the outcome of tossing a coin”. On the face of it, it appears to be a random occurance. But what is the guarantee that it cannot be accurately reproduced, given the exact same force applied to the coin to flip it, maintaining the exact atmospheric temperature and pressure, at exactly the same gravitational force, at the same time of the day etc etc? Then it ceases to be a random effect and it might be possible to always win a head or a tail, at will. So I always say, to science nothing is random or by chance. In fact, I would attribute the “everything by chance” theory more applicable to God than science – He sits without manipulaing any of the worldly incidents. Nature works with minute precision.

        I felt you are confused because you seemed to derive literal meanings from books. I might be mistaken. Better to interpret those books in your terms and come to a conclusion. You might reject some parts and accept others with modification.

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