Top critical review
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on 23 August 2013
When I received my copy of The Irrational Atheist I wasn't sure what to expect. While doing research on the internet for opinions about the book I basically found two kinds of reviews: the glowing, `Vox demolishes the New Atheists' review and the `don't bother reading this, the book is full of strawmen and logical fallacies' review. Because the negative reviews almost never gave any examples of the strawmen and fallacies used I began to wonder if perhaps these negative reviews were written by people who just didn't like the book and didn't read it all the way through, so gave it a one-star review anyway to spite the author.
Well, after reading the book myself (cover to cover by the way), I found that the negative reviews were spot on. There are so many problems with the book I think I will begin with what I agreed with the author about because Vox did manage to point out a few major problems with the New Atheists' books. For example, he refuted Richard Dawkins' Boeing 747 argument against god and as far as I could tell showed that Sam Harris' Red State/Blue State argument was not only a poor guide for discerning the morality of individuals, but that it actually showed the opposite of what Harris intended.
Vox was also successful in pointing out the great historical errors that many atheists make: the common mistaken belief that religion is the number one cause of war and that religion has always battled against scientific progress. Now, note that I said the error that many atheists make, and not the New Atheists. This is because the New Atheists have never made these two statements in their books while many "internet atheists" have. So, while Vox wasted an entire chapter and part of another one erecting a strawman against the New Atheists, he did refute those atheists who do make such claims.
Now for the bad...
A lot of reviewers make a lot of ballyhoo about Day's use of FBI data to refute the idea that religion causes a lot of problems in society, but Day actually cherry-picked the data if you look at the 2005 hate crime statistics he used. The fact is that the data flatly refutes Day's claim that religion doesn't cause that much conflict. The fact is that religion is actually the second - yes, read that again, the SECOND - leading cause of hate crimes, in 2003, 2005 and 2006 (those were the only years I checked). Why did Vox's data show the opposite? Well, Day only looked at the figures for murders caused by religious hate crime, not violence and threats of violence. I'm reminded of the book "How to Lie with Statistics" right about now...
When you get to the chapters on the individual atheists, this is the heart of the book that I'd heard was fantastic, but again what I found were several cases of strawmen, Vox taking the New Atheists out of context, and counter-arguments that just did not stand up to the facts when I looked into them.
Take for example the following quote by Vox in the chapter about Daniel Dennett,
"The most interesting thing about Breaking the Spell is not the way it differs from the other three atheists' cases against religion, but the way it specifically refutes them. After Harris does his excellent Chicken Little imitation by clucking about how religion is going to end life on the planet at any moment, Hitchens metaphorically calls the poison control center on it, and Dawkins slanderously asserts that it is worse than child molestation, it comes as a bit of a shock to read Dennett's calm declaration that the secular proposition that religion does more harm than good, to an individual or to society, `has hardly begun to be properly tested,' let alone conclusively proved."
When I read this passage I first believed Dennett was referring to whether or not religious belief was potentially dangerous. After looking up the quote myself it seems that the way Vox presents this partial quote is misleading. Dennett says,
"Even the secular and nonpartisan proposition that religion in general does more good than harm, either to the individual believer or to society as a whole, has hardly begun to be properly tested, as we saw in chapters 9 and 10."
I read both chapters nine and ten to see what Dennett was referring to and it wasn't religious violence or how dangerous religion is. In chapter nine Dennett talks about the studies that show religion seems to improve health and notes that it's not known for sure either way yet. In chapter ten Dennett discusses the subject of morality and religion and concludes that the "presumed relation between spirituality and moral goodness is an illusion."
Vox clearly took Dennett out of context because it wasn't the dangerous consequences of religion Dennett was referring to, but health and morality, which Dennett agrees with the New Atheists in that religoin often causes people to act in violent ways.
In the chapter titled "The Red Hand of Atheism" Vox makes use of the old Communists-killed-a-bunch-more-people-so-atheism-is-worse-than-Christianity canard. Here, his entire premise is based upon the fallacy cum hoc ergo propter hoc. He fails to show how atheism was the cause of the Communist atrocities in any way and ignores the fact that it was the Communist ideology, not atheism, which is why I was shocked to find this statement in the chapter,
"The reason Communism has so habitually devolved into violence is because it is an impressively stupid vision that violates both basic human nature in the form of the individual's desire for material betterment as well as the economic law of supply and demand. Its early institution was such a disaster that Lenin was quickly forced to revise some of his more dysfunctional policies, but he was the first in a long, lethal line of Communist leaders who made a practice of always attempting to force their populations to fit the Communist mold instead of adjusting the utopian vision to fit humanity."
Exactly! And when people do not want their property seized the Communists take it by force and further oppression takes place. The answer is right under Vox's nose the entire time, but again, his goal is not historical truth but Christian propaganda.
One of the more surprising things I learned is how badly the chapter on Sam Harris was argued. Based upon the hype I'd read in reviews and Vox's bold and confidant (or perhaps more accurately overconfidant) chapter title, "The End of Sam Harris," I was expecting some major butt-kicking. Unfortunately, this alleged butt-kicking never came. While I agree that Vox pointed out Harris' error with the Red/Blue State argument as I pointed out before, he also pointed out that, unlike as Harris seems to imply, most suicide bombers are not Muslim. He also points out the fact that, unlike what Harris argues, the wars of religion have not caused "millions of deaths in the last ten years." Vox gave a high estiamte of around 750,000. While Harris was wrong about the total number dead Harris' point is still valid in that many needless deaths have occured due to beliefs that are no more real than that of Santa Clause. Roughly half a million deaths have occured due to religious wars in the ten years prior to the publication of The End of Faith.
Out of the fifteen arguments Vox presented against Harris in that chapter only three were valid. The other twelve were either Vox taking Harris out of context or he misread Harris.
The other chapters follow much the same pattern as the one about Harris, with strawmen, quotes taken out of context, and mostly what I call nitpicking; the focusing on statements and arguments that are minor and not central to a book's main premise. Take, for example, this enormous case of nitpicking by Vox in the chapter on Richard Dawkins. Vox writes,
"In Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins writes: 'By more general implication, science is poetry's killjoy, dry and cold, cheerless, overbearing and lacking in everything that a young Romantic might desire. To proclaim the opposite is one purpose of this book, and I shall here limit myself to the untestable speculation that Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science for some of his inspiration.'
Of course, this speculation is as improbable as it is untestable, given the centuries of evidence demonstrating that science is largely incapable of providing the inspiration for passable poetry, much less the sort of great art that religion has reliably inspired for millennia."
Vox spends several pages arguing against this unimportant opinion of Dawkins'! Who cares!? It was merely Dawkins' opinion and he even admitted as much!
I could go on and on with many more issues with Day's book but, ultimately, while he pointed out a handful of errors with the New Atheists' books, Vox mostly misses when he aims and doesn't pay enough attention to the main arguments of the New Atheists, choosing instead to nitpick their books to death, leaving most of their main arguments untouched.
Before I close out this review I'd like to make a plea to anyone who may read The Irrational Atheist and later decide to write a review for the book. Please, please, please check Vox's refrences for yourself! With so many reviewers singing praises for this book and going on about how well researched it was, check out Vox's so-called facts for yourself because more often than not he is wrong. Don't take Vox's word - or anyone's for that matter - and check the facts and the author's sources yourself.
I honestly cannot recommend this book since the arguments are more often than not poor and the personal attacks are uncalled for. I know the theists seem to believe that the New Atheists should be fair game after their ridicule of theists in their books but the difference is that the New Atheists only ridiculed religious beliefs and some Christians' lapses in reasoning. They did not get personal like Vox did and that really subtracts from the book I think.