Book Review: The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Amazon) is a snappy, readable book about, basically, how God doesn’t exist (or exists only with vanishingly low probability). Greater minds than my own have already reviewed the book (NYT ) and pronounced it brilliant or stupid or flawed or whatever. Here I’ll confine myself to neurotheological and Buddhist aspects.

The most basic problem with this book is that it completely fails to take into account the connection between religion and any process of personal development and/or the biological “correlates” of that process. To the extent religion is to some extent a highly corrupted version of meaningful, biologically-based insights about how to be happier, many of Dawkins’ points would need to be modified or recast.

On p. 37 Dawkins claims he will not be “concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems of philosophies of life.” That’s a great distinction to be made, but at the same time Buddhism and Western monotheism are similar in that they are both socially dominant systems of belief and thought, and rather than arbitrarily excluding one, why doesn’t Dawkins incorporate Buddhism into his thinking as a way to better define the topological contours of religion and religious behavior ?

Surprisingly for a biologist, Dawkins mentions “neurotheology” only once, in a dismissive tone. On pp. 168-169, he says:

The proximate cause of religion might be hyperactivity in a particular node of the brain. I shall not pursue the neurological idea os a ‘god centre’ int he brain because I am not concerned here with proximate questions…If neuroscientists find a ‘god centre’ in the brain, Darwinian scientists like me will still want to understand the natural selection pressure that favoured it.

This seems like a particular devious way to dodge neurotheological questions. Perhaps the existence of a ‘god centre’ (more accurately, religiously-connected neural circuitry or structures) can be considered a “proximate” issue, but attempting to understanding it, rather than simply ignoring it, could help in grasping the “ultimate” cause, which for Dawkins is the Darwinian one. Would Dawkins focus on the evolutionary reason for the existence of the visual faculty without bothering to learn about the structure of the eye?

The cutest idea in this book, new at least to me, is that religion survives due an evolutionary tendency for children to believe what their parents say. This provides a scenario for a gradual decline over decades and centuries of Bible-thumping religions, as in each generation some percentage of believers, however, small, discard the religion of their parents and produce non-religious kids, as I did—to the extent that one day my oldest son came home from elementary school and asked me, “Daddy, who is this guy they were talking about in class today called ‘Cheeses’?”. Compare this to Dennett in Breaking the Spell, who provides no roadmap other than that people will or should stop believing just because he thinks religion is so stupid.

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4 Responses to “Book Review: The God Delusion”

  1. Peter Tarsio Says:

    The Darwinian case for the evolution and the origin of species is Dawkin’s document of truth or maybe another form of religious scripture in place of the Bible. Just the other evening PBS was broadcasting ‘Inherit the Wind” and I could not help thinking how appropriate that was in lieu of the fact that I was reading Dennett’s book on dispelling religion. Well Spencer Tracey is great in the movie he definitely raises the old questions and issues and the ranting and raving goes on all through the movie to let the viewer know that this is so important, at least in those days. Now today many of Bible Bangers and the Secular Humanists along with the Scientists are still at it with no end in sight. Still looks like “give me that old time religion” bit is still lurking around whoever believes in the LORD kind of of thing will never go away. The shear stupidity of these warring factions don’t know when to give up. Yes you are right in saying that Dawkins says nothing to shed light on other systems of belief, but Buddhism is neither a belief or a philosophy let alone a religion. I think that inimitable Alan Wattswould certainly concur on this point if he were alive today. God is not the problem so much for that, but we are humans with a large brain and intellligence and here is where the universe begins and ends. An explanation for everything is laudable, however consciousness itself is the real essence of our existence and evryone seems to know that, but try to go to the lab and figure it out is last thing we can do but again that is certainly an option that will be considered by the scientificly minded and again what is the end of this?

    Peter Tarsio

    Peter Tarsio

  2. James McGrath Says:

    Thanks for the review of Dawkins’ book and for having a blog about neurotheology! My own blog is at and I frequently find myself discussing many of the same topics, so I look forward to reading more of your posts, and hope we’ll have opportunity to cross-link and cross-reference each other.

  3. Peter Tarsio Says:

    I can’t think of a more appropriate time in our history where we can see that with the coming elections that the religion card is being blatantly displayed by various candidates that believe that their faith is going to complete the ultimate plan contained in that great book of inerrant absolute truth that they consider to be America’s solution to all our
    political and economic woes. Or the more sinister plan that the deluded
    have for us since their faith is so strong. I think that Dawkins has stated the case clearly, but is anyone listening to him since all the signs appear to imperil us again as another group of zealots want to ruin America even further simply by the fact that they will never read this book or
    change their mind which reason has left behind.

  4. Numenware, a blog about neurotheology » Blog Archive » Book review: Letter to a Christian Nation Says:

    […] key element is the teaching of religion to children. This was highlighted by Dawkins in The God Delusion as well as by Sam in his new book. Although there is a natural attrition away from religion even […]

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