John on October 21, 2006 at 10:58 am
The reviewer, Jim Holt, appears sympathetic to Dawkins cause though much less so to his book. He notes how Dawkins seems to be flirting with a kind of nihilism:
[T]he objectivity of ethics is undermined by Dawkins’s logic just as surely as religion is. The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, in a 1985 paper written with the philosopher Michael Ruse, put the point starkly: ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate,” and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.” In reducing ideas to “memes” that propagate by various kinds of “misfiring,” Dawkins is, willy-nilly, courting what some have called Darwinian nihilism.
In the next paragraph, the author of the review deals with some of the book’s other shortcomings:
He is also hasty in dismissing the practical benefits of religion. Surveys have shown that religious people live longer (probably because they have healthier lifestyles) and feel happier (perhaps owing to the social support they get from church). Judging from birthrate patterns in the United States and Europe, they also seem to be outbreeding secular types, a definite Darwinian advantage. On the other hand, Dawkins is probably right when he says that believers are no better than atheists when it comes to behaving ethically. One classic study showed that “Jesus people” were just as likely to cheat on tests as atheists and no more likely to do altruistic volunteer work. Oddly, Dawkins does not bother to cite such empirical evidence; instead, he relies, rather unscientifically, on his intuition. “I’m inclined to suspect,” he writes, “that there are very few atheists in prison.” (Even fewer Unitarians, I’d wager.) It is, however, instructive when he observes that the biblical Yahweh is an “appalling role model,” sanctioning gang-rape and genocide. Dawkins also deals at length with the objection, which he is evidently tired of hearing, that the arch evildoers of the last century, Hitler and Stalin, were both atheists. Hitler, he observes, “never formally renounced his Catholism”; and in the case of Stalin, a onetime Orthodox seminarian, “there is no evidence that his atheism motivated his brutality.” The equally murderous Mao goes unmentioned, but perhaps it could be argued that he was a religion unto himself.
No more likely to do altruistic volunteer work? I’d like to see that study. I think one can quickly look around at the number of atheist charities and see that isn’t true. It’s also interesting that Dawkins refuses to deal with the fact that Hitler and Stalin were atheists who were clearly motivated by their beliefs. Hitler, in fact, had beliefs about science and religion not very different than Dawkin’s own. How this has escaped his attention, I can’t imagine. The review concludes:
Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience.
In other words, the great man has failed. Even the largely sympathetic NY Times isn’t buying it.