An excellent book, very well-written and thoughtfully argued. Stimulating and challenging - at times scathing - but something which definitely propels one to delve deeper into the reasons for belief - or indeed lack of them.
Dawkins' central thesis seems to be that the evolutionary process of natural selection, as propounded by Darwin and bolstered by the amalgamation of much subsequent indicatory evidence, provides a viable and real alternative to the "God Hypothesis" - indeed it blows it out of the water. But, why then - if blatantly false - is religion so ubiquitous? Evoking theories of evolutionary psychology and the human need for consolation and meaning (as well as the scientific ignorance of our ancestors), Dawkins explains the popularity of religion in purely secular terms.
But what, then, about morality? How can we derive our principles of right and wrong if not from an absolute source of incontrovertible authority (God / revelation)? Again Dawkins responds by explaining how the roots of morality have Darwinian origins and includes a chapter on how the moral lessons of traditional religion (quoting biblical scripture, although I suspect his treatment of the Quran or other sacred texts would be equally unsympathetic) are not that endearing anyway. Why be so hostile though - isn't religion a good thing, a quaint yet harmless cultural phenomenon? Well no, look at the fundamentalists, terrorists, homophobes and other fanatics being spawned by the religious project in increasingly large numbers. Dawkins is unequivocal: religion is dangerous and we need to protect ourselves from it.
So what's the solution, what do we do? Simple, answers Richard with customary gusto: take a strong dose of courage followed by an even stronger one of rationalism, then cast off these restrictive fetters we've inherited from childhood. Grow up, for God's sake (no pun intended), and breathe the fresh, fragrant air of twenty first century scientific freedom! Our experiments have revealed, after all, that there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden.
This, in a nutshell, is a synopsis of the book and something, I must say, I found to be an exhilarating read. I approached the book with an open mind, determined not to allow the predilections of my preconceptions taint my appreciation of his arguments, and was sufficiently enthused to write directly to the author (I await his response). It's always refreshing to have your beliefs challenged, and Dawkins is an expert at doing that. He also has a brilliant knack of reducing complex scientific content down to digestible chunks (peppered with generous offerings of very entertaining humour), and this adds considerably to the readability value of the text. It's not for nothing that Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, demonstrating his ability to explain - in simple terms - science to the layperson. Also worth pointing out is one of the key benefits of the book in the way in which it collates into a single place so many of the classic as well as modern arguments for belief versus disbelief, making it into a cutting-edge handbook for reference.
So what of the key questions the text raises? How can people of faith come to terms with the structured and forceful arguments outlined above? Can we marry faith with modern twenty first century scientific rationalism or are the two fundamentally incompatible, consigned to follow paths of mutually irreconcilable divergence?
I, for one, remain content with my faith as a Muslim after reading Dawkins' book. Although appreciating the validity of many of his arguments, and recognising the negative impact that extreme religion can have, I'm not convinced entirely by the argument for blind and random evolution. Too many holes exist for my liking, and a "leap of faith" is required similar to what the religious person must commit to. I also found his section on the "anthropic principle" to be singularly unconvincing. Cosmology and the origin of life is something science is still stabbing in the dark at (although Dawkins says he has "faith" the answer will be found as the discoveries of science continue). I choose to have faith that the answer has been given to us, whilst fully respecting those who choose to disagree. Ultimately, it's the personal prerogative of each individual to forge an understanding of existence unique to them, whether buttressed by an accepted world-view or not. Dawkins challenges and stimulates us into believing that there is nothing outside of ourselves - we are the sum and substance of billions of years of chance occurrences and all supra-natural entities our ancestors believed in are nothing but the fictions of human imagination. What we choose to believe, though, is our individual and independent choice.