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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent theologian, terrible scientist, 26 Dec. 2013
This review is from: The God Delusion (Paperback)
Richard Dawkins trained as a scientist, he admires scientists, he would like to be a great scientist. He is unfortunately doomed to failure. Despite being extremely good at popularising science, he has a fundamental failing as a scientist. A scientist has a theory and sets out to prove the null hypothesis. In contrast a theologian has a theory and sets out to prove their theory. Richard Dawkins is an excellent theologian (for a clearer explanation of my definition of theologian please read my discussion on this posting with PRTM).

As with all Professor Dawkin's work, including his attempts at original research, the God delusion begins with a theory - actually in this case something more than that.. an assumption. His assumption is that God does not exist, this is a perfectly reasonable position to take. A theologian could clearly write a book on this basis, the God Delusion is a good book written on that basis. A scientist would never attempt to test this as the null hypothesis is impossible to define let alone test.

All the arguments in the God Delusion are aimed at someone's perceived definition of God, whether or not this represents correct perception on behalf of Professor Dawkins - this is not likely to be exclusive. The book cannot possibly address everyone's definition of God.

The book therefore fails in scientific terms, but it does succeed as a work of theology and I found it very thought provoking. I am not convinced that Good and Evil do not exist. Nevertheless, this is very well argued and beautifully written.
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Showing 1-10 of 15 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Jan 2014 17:17:51 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 3 Jan 2014 16:51:49 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jan 2014 15:34:23 GMT
Yes, I am glad you enjoyed the book as well (if for all the wrong reasons). I hate to challenge anyone's faith but I'd really like you to take a second to address your position.

There is nothing wrong with reading this book as a theological tract. In this respect it is excellent. However, if you are going to tell me that you truly believe that this book is supporting agnosticism please forgive me if I question either your honesty or your rationality. I suspect however, from the tone of your reply that you are certainly rational and I hope honest enough to accept that this book (as the title suggests) is supporting atheism.

I have read Dawkins book, what I disagree with is his continual use of absence of evidence as evidence of absence. For example, and it is only an example, he uses experiments that do not prove the power of intercessory prayers to prove prayer doesn't work. All that actually can be said was that in his own terms he dismisses prayer. That is his right but don't assume there has been a scientific proof that interventional prayer does not work. If you ask me to pray for £10, I may not get £10 either because the prayer is inappropriate or because the way I carried out the prayer was wrong or because the God I was praying to is the wrong God.

I suspect you will dislike this argument because you don't believe in God or prayers... but ask yourself would it be any different if someone was to set up an experiment to prove that evolution was wrong. The experiment would be to take a bacteria and heat it to the point that kills 99% of these bacteria. Right says the creationist, if your fancy evolution "theory" is right the 1% that remain should be resistant to heat - that is what you said would happen by natural selection - right? What a shame when you cultured the bacteria again you find 99% die when the heat goes up... bang goes evolution. Right?

Well actually no, it is wrong. The experiment is flawed no one said that selection always results in a change in population (the selected population has to be genetically different). In this case the surviving bacteria were just spores. When the spores germinate they are no more resistant than the rest of the population. The prayer experiment is similarly flawed, those with faith in God would see that. The evolution experiment is flawed, those with faith in Dawkins would see that.

Basically Dawkins continually gives examples of hypotheses where the null hypothesis cannot be disproved - so far so good. If my hypothesis is that a sentient power causes earthquakes then clearly the null hypothesis that the earthquake occurred without a sentient entity cannot be disproved. God has not been proved - the Dawkins conclusion, God does not exist. If my hypothesis is that replicating molecules were created by a deity, failure to disprove the null hypothesis in this case certainly means there is no proof of God's existence - Dawkins conclusion there is no God. I could go on ad nauseam, on every point the God hypothesis is not proven. The Dawkins hypothesis that God does not exist is not even posed (not in any scientific way - perhaps from the point of view of theology?).

I hope PRTM would accept this and like the book for what it is, a work of theology. I hope that PRTM does not assume that god(s) don't exist, he just thinks that such things are unlikely, which is not the same thing. This is in no way Richard Dawkins position, he fervently believes God does not exist and has said as much on numerous occasions, be does backtrack occasionally depending on the audience or to try to put some science gloss on his views. I fear however, that PRTM may fall into that group of fundamentalists who are so consumed by their religious fervour for the Dawkins model of atheism that any suggestion that their prophet has feet of clay will be taken as frank heresy. I fear that I might already have done enough to place me in the unenviable position of being burnt at the stake if Professor Dawkins views ever become accepted as the state religion.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jan 2014 02:09:39 GMT
Last edited by the author on 3 Jan 2014 04:31:25 GMT
PRTM says:
"However, if you are going to tell me that you truly believe that this book is supporting agnosticism please forgive me if I question either your honesty or your rationality. I suspect however, from the tone of your reply that you are certainly rational and I hope honest enough to accept that this book (as the title suggests) is supporting atheism."

No that's not what I'm telling you. Agnosticism is irrelevant. Theism is the positive belief here. Atheism is the lack of that belief: a-theism, i.e. without theism. You mention the null hypothesis, atheism is roughly analogous to the null hypothesis when it comes to the god hypothesis. It is the default position. Theism/atheism is about belief or lack of belief in the existence of god(s). Agnosticism is about what you know. They are two different labels describing two different things. Either you believe in god(s) or you don't. There's no position of not knowing whether you believe or not - that's nonsensical. If you're not sure then you don't have the positive belief and are therefore an atheist by default - you have not accepted theism. I know that some people have difficulty grasping this subtle difference but it is there and it is important. Atheism is the position of not accepting theism because it has not met its burden of proof - you are not convinced of the claim. Therefore you lack the belief god exists until it is demonstrated to your satisfaction otherwise. And I would argue that this is the most intellectually honest position to take. BTW, if you've never heard of theism and you have not independently developed your own belief in god(s) then again you're an atheist by default. Ditto if you've never thought about it. And let's not forget that theists are atheists when it comes to all the other god claims apart from their own.

Now there are atheists that go further and state that there are no god(s). They are sometimes called "strong" or "hard" atheists.* That is a positive claim (and therefore faith based) and it is that which you are addressing. Dawkins comes very close to this. If I recall (it's been a while since I read this book) Dawkins puts himself as a 6.9 on his 1 to 7 theism/atheism scale. Now at what point along this rather contrived scale in my view does the dividing line between theism and atheism lie? 3.5? Seems a bit silly to me but that aside, I don't recall him ever saying in this book or elsewhere that there are in fact no god(s). I was wrong in disagreeing with your statement that Dawkins assumes there is no god. He does. I should have said that he doesn't assert there is no god i.e. that theism is false. Of course I could be wrong about that too, but at the end of the day, I don't really care what Dawkins' personal position is, it's the arguments and evidence for theism and whether they stack up or not that is of interest here and which this book is about. I don't hold Dawkins up as any kind of authority, least of all as a "theologian", whatever that means. He is of course an expert in the field of evolutionary biology, but there are no "authorities" in science to have "faith" in.

I would also like to talk a bit about agnosticism while we're at it. Many theists will tell you that they don't just believe god exists but that they know he exists. Whilst belief and knowledge are closely related, as I said above they are two different things. The question is, do they really "know" god exists or is that just an expression of strong belief? The same goes for the "hard" atheist. It's silly really, because theists of different religions will say they know that their particular god(s) exists but they can't all be right. They could all be wrong however. I would argue that no one knows for a fact that god exists or doesn't exist. No one has empirical evidence that a particular god or gods exists or that no gods exist, evidence that we could all independently verify for ourselves and would put the matter beyond all doubt. If someone had such evidence they would have shared it with everyone else. So, in that sense everyone on the planet is an agnostic, whether they protest otherwise or not. BTW personal revelation is worth diddly-squat. It does not equal knowledge, and different people have had different and conflicting revelations about god(s). So the agnosticism label is not a helpful or useful label to have as it doesn't really mean anything of substance. It just gets misused and misapplied which results in a lot of confusion. It does not fall between theism and atheism. That's like saying the number between "1" and "3" is "B". I would also add that agnosticism can also be a positive claim: the assertion that you cannot know if there is a god or not and what its nature is. You can even be pretty assertive about it. There are those who say "I don't know if there are god(s) or not and you don't know either."

""I have read Dawkins book, what I disagree with is his continual use of absence of evidence as evidence of absence".

I agree, however specific claims generate expectations of specific evidence and when those expectations aren't met then that at least casts doubt about the truth of the claim, even if it doesn't actually falsify it. Of course there could also be evidence against a claim and therefore would be falsified. But when it comes to the existence of supernatural things they are pretty much unfalsifiable, but do we really need to falsify them? There are thousands of such claims but that doesn't mean we have to accept all of them because none of them can be falsified.

With regards to experiments on the efficacy of prayer, if Dawkins is saying that these experiments disprove god then he would be wrong. But I don't think he does say that. It's merely more lack of evidence for god. But it is no good to just say the experiment is flawed, you have to explain why. Theists will say well you can't test god. But that is not what was being tested. It was whether prayer works or not - nothing more. And it did that, within the scope of the experiment. And it showed that it was not effective, i.e. no better than chance. And that is a perfectly valid finding scientifically. Does that mean that all prayer is always ineffective? No, not necessarily and no doubt further studies could be done on this. But it hasn't been shown to be effective and so the null hypothesis has it, until demonstrated otherwise. Faith in God is irrelevant to this - all that does is give you a bias against the experiment.

"The evolution experiment is flawed, those with faith in Dawkins would see that."

No one has "faith" in Dawkins. That is entirely unnecessary. All you need is an understanding of how evolution works to see that the experiment is flawed. You seem to be equating science to religion in your review and your reply - they are poles apart so don't confuse the two.

As for my own position on this, I'm a default atheist who regards the existence of god(s) as unlikely - I don't assert that they don't exist. Hope that puts your mind at rest. Your concern that I might be flirting with fundamentalism was rather ironic to me, as I used to be a fundamentalist (for the other side so to speak) but I'm not sure it's possible to be a fundamentalist atheist. Atheism is just lack of belief - it's difficult to make a religion out of that. "Hard" atheism perhaps. But it's open to debate.

*not to be confused with "anti-theist" which is someone who is against theistic religious beliefs.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jan 2014 09:58:22 GMT
I would like to thank PRTM, this was very well put and entirely convincing. I agree with the points and only wish I could have put my case as eloquently. To be clear I never accused the reviewer of being a fundamentalist, I only speculated that he/she might be, I am now completely reassured. In return may I reassure the reviewer that I am not attempting to equate theology and science. They are in many ways diametrically opposed.

I do not want to raise any further semantic confusion, but I do want to make my position clear using the definitions provided by PRTM. My suggestion in the original review and previous discussion is that Richard Dawkins is a hard a-theist. I am very reluctant to refer to PRTM as a `soft a-theist'. I am uncomfortable with the terms still, purely because it could be misconstrued that a `soft a-theist' is somehow less hard headed in evaluating the data where it is available: the truth of course is that PRTM (soft atheist, agnostic or whatever) is clearly evaluating data in a very `hard' scientific fashion while Richard Dawkins (atheist, hard atheist or whatever) is in my opinion using the data in a partisan way: the antithesis of empirical science and I would argue quintessentially a theological approach.

There seems to be some confusion on the definition of theological. The Wikipedia definition is
"The systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious truths"
For my own benefit I would like to give an example of what I mean by a theological argument and contrast it with a scientific argument. The nature of the argument is immaterial to this discussion (as far as I am concerned), it is just an example.

I can assume that we all can see God, theist or a-theist, but that we only see this deity `as through a glass darkly'. I cannot prove this or disprove this, nor do I have the slightest interest in attempting to. This is theology not science. What is up for debate is not the existence of God but the nature of God. I can put the case that God defines good and evil. I can say that 'good' does not require any element of social let alone individual self-interest.

My case could be that altruism transcends protection of people related to us and is often illogical, but to most observers this illogical altruism is clearly `good'. Similarly protecting your own genetic code at the expense of others may have a very great selective advantage, but is seen as bad - because we `know' it is bad - even by those who may benefit. Hitler was bad, he would still be bad if he had won the war and his silly idea of an Aryan super race had prevailed.

A counter argument can be made that in each case of altruism there is an actual or perceived self-interest, even if this is just the self-interest of protecting your own genetic code. The argument is very interesting and genuinely important, it could rage for ever... it is at no point a scientific argument (despite use of scientific terms and data) it is a theological argument. The debaters each `know' they are right without the need for evidence

Just a word of background and explanation to finish with: Richard Dawkins was invited to Liverpool to speak; I went as a genuine admirer. I found his arguments compelling as they are in his books. He was clearly speaking to the converted and there were no cameras or tape recordings I am aware of. In the questioning afterwards both audience and Dawkins were confident and happy in their mutual understanding. The proof of Gods non-existence was not even really questioned; just the naivety of those that did not accept what was so clearly self-evident. I felt very much like being in Church watching a charismatic preacher.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jan 2014 13:24:44 GMT
Last edited by the author on 3 Jan 2014 13:26:00 GMT
PRTM says:
Thanks for your reply. I have a few thoughts on theology, which you mention. Doesn't theology assume that there is a god? I would say that this is necessary in order to study the nature of god and of religious truths. I don't know how you can study those things if you don't believe said god exists. This is why I have a problem with the idea that Dawkins is a theologian. I don't see how he could possibly qualify. He doesn't believe in any gods nor does he believe religion has any inherent truths to it. I suppose you could call him an "anti-theologian". But a more accurate description would be that he is an "anti-theist" - which he undoubtedly is. He has said many times that he thinks religion is overall harmful and that we would be better off without it.

I think this is where some people get their impression that he's an angry, strident fundamentalist. Is he angry? Well I think it isn't unreasonable to be angry about the harm that religion can do to people. Strident? I would say passionate. It is very easy to get labelled as "strident" or "aggressive" when you are critical of religion, because it is considered to be politically incorrect and not the polite thing to do. It also needs to be understood where Dawkins is coming from, that of an educator particularly of science. That's where I think he gets his passion from. Is he a fundamentalist? Well fundamentalist implies that one is being fundamental to something. Given that atheism isn't a religion I don't see how one can be a fundamentalist atheist.

But the idea that he is a theologian and that he makes theological arguments i just find baffling. The debate about altruism with regards to evolutionary psychology is a scientific debate - not a theological one. I've studied both evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology and they are both scientific disciplines.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jan 2014 14:09:08 GMT
Last edited by the author on 22 Jan 2014 19:21:13 GMT
Can an atheist be a theologian... that is a tricky one that lots of people have argued about in the past. The term was originally coined by Plato (or someone of his era) to refer to the teaching of mythology. My argument would perhaps be that Plato probably thought of himself as a theologian but not a believer in the myths he was describing (necessarily).

Without question there have been many people who were happy to accept the existence of God for the sake of argument and then put the case against. All early humanists certainly thought of themselves as theologians or at least as people putting theological arguments. The most common form of classical theology was the discourse between two or more imaginary protagonists. Although most were written by people who believed in God, the arguments they put in the mouths of their atheist protagonists were certainly considered theological. So I think in terms of traditional usage I'm on pretty safe ground in describing an atheist speaking against God as a theologian. Basically, they are describing the nature of God as non-existence.

In any case my point about Richard Dawkins is that his arguments are more correctly described as theological than scientific and I stand by that. I have also studied evolutionary biology (actually I have a doctorate in molecular biology and teach evolutionary biology in a University)... and - I have only just thought of this right now - I have never referenced Richard Dawkins in a lecture or a paper. I hope this is not bias, it certainly was not conscious, I hope it is just that I cannot think of anything he has ever published that serves as a primary source. I promise you that I have never felt the need to reference any creationists either.

I think there is a good reason for considering anti-theism as politically incorrect. Those writers who have criticized atheism for the ills caused by Stalinism or the cultural revolution are clearly over simplifying, but so are those who criticize religion for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. People do bad things, they shouldn't but they do. They are more likely to do that, it seems to me, if they are dogmatic and overly convinced of their own ideas (theist or anti-theist).

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jan 2014 16:51:28 GMT
PRTM says:
Ah, now I understand where you are coming from regarding calling Dawkins a theologian. Thanks for explaining that. Given your description of theology then yes you could call Dawkins a theologian, at least of some description. I'm not sure Dawkins would agree with you, and I can just imagine the expression on his face if you suggested that to him :) In fairness, I will delete my initial comment as it is no longer an appropriate criticism in light of this.

I'm not sure that theology as taught today would be the same as the teaching of mythology. Are you saying that you don't have to be a theist in order to study theology today? If that is so, isn't it more like religious studies than theology?

"Basically, they are describing the nature of God as non-existence."

"God as non-existence" sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me, but ok.

"Those writers who have criticized atheism for the ills caused by Stalinism or the cultural revolution are clearly over simplifying, but so are those who criticize religion for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. People do bad things, they shouldn't but they do. They are more likely to do that, it seems to me, if they are dogmatic and overly convinced of their own ideas (theist or anti-theist)."

I agree that it all comes down to the dogmatic ideas that people have. The difference is that atheism itself cannot give you such ideas, but doctrinal religious beliefs can.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jan 2014 17:17:04 GMT
Last edited by the author on 22 Jan 2014 19:19:10 GMT
I'm not sure that they would allow you into a seminary to study theology if you came clean from the start that you didn't believe in God... but I'm sure there are a few people who come out with that view.

I'm also pretty sure God as non-existence is a contradiction in terms - Descartes and Kant used this as the basis of a series of arguments, Kant saying that the essence of being is existence and therefore to imagine a supreme being is to 'conclude' God exists. Descartes saying existence adds nothing to the essence of a being and thus a "supremely perfect" being can be conceived not to exist. It is one of those very complex ontological arguments that spins my head round and leaves the content as nothing but mush.

I have enjoyed discussing this with you and I feel happy that we seem to have come together in an agreement. As with most discussions the crux is finding a common form of communication. I agree with you that dogmatic people tend not to have the patience to do that - which probably has caused much of the bloodshed and misery this poor old world has gone through.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Feb 2014 19:34:12 GMT
Celia says:
I really enjoyed your discussion with PRTM - thank you! I have spent most of my life as a rampant rationalist and skeptic, but now think there may be other ways of knowing. PRTM quite wrong to think that personal experience is not a way of knowing - it's just a not a very productive way of convincing anyone else! RD is a good popular scientist because he is a bad scientist. His evolutionary narrative is very strong and compelling because he left his proper doubt behind a long time ago. I'm sure you have come across Rupert Sheldrake's writings - his theories are weak and unformed but his desire and ability to pick at the ragged edges of current theory are wholly admirable. I suspect the whole area of evolutionary biology may look quite different a few years hence even if the current masters of the field appear to think they have it wrapped up. Thanks again - you are far more informed and articulate than me.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Feb 2014 20:46:45 GMT
Dear Celia,

Thank you so much for your kind words. I've just had the day from hell and the E-mail directing me to your comment was the one bright spot.

I cannot say I am a big fan of Rupert Sheldrake, but he is quite entertaining - and at least as scientific as Richard Dawkins. Actually, I do really enjoy reading Richard Dawkins' books, it just irritates me a little that he seems to have attracted a fan base which treats every word that drips from his pen as some form of gospel. Despite my disagreements with PRTM I am quite sure he (or she) does not really fit into that sort of stereotype, it was quite a pleasant discussion really.

PS. I wish I was articulate - ask the head of my department. He has just told me that my problem is poor communication and I am probably dyslexic.
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