I suppose how you receive Richard Dawkins might depend on where you start from. A lot of his points about the folly of religious thinking in this book seem perfectly reasonable, if not unarguable, to the point where it almost seems he is straw-manning; after all, it’s well over a century since Darwin and Nietzsche comprehensively took apart the religious viewpoint as an explanation for origins and ethics (I understood this as a boy, and have never changed my mind). From that point of view, it isn’t easy to see what he’s getting quite so worked up about. On the other hand, there are no doubt many who still believe in the stuff he’s attacking, or who have suffered from the psychological torture that is sometimes inflicted in the name of religion, and what he writes may be useful for them.
Where he really misses the point, though, is when it comes to the nature of experience. I am not one of those who has experience of a personal God with whom they have a relationship, but I know those who do. Dismissing this as an inappropriate extension into adulthood of the childhood phenomenon of the “imaginary friend” doesn’t make it experientially any less real, nor less valid or meaningful for those who share it. It may ultimately be explicable in biological terms, but, like the taste of fine wine, or fresh water from a mountain stream, any scientific account is secondary in experiential terms to its real meaning, at best bringing up the rear like an intellectual schoolboy dispensing interesting facts – hardly a match for the power of the experience in itself. And then there’s his attitude to religious phenomena (call them fictional if you like) such as the Holy Trinity, which he regards as an absurd and transparently illogical piece of gobbledygook. Well, yes, it is, on rational terms – and that’s just the point! Concepts like this (and the Zen notion of one hand clapping) are precisely meant to crack the carapace of rationality, and lead us beyond it into a realm of experience which is beyond the terms which rational thought sets. You might as well keep a racehorse tethered – though as it turns out, science has now provided us with some of its own examples of these supra-rational phenomena through quantum mechanics: how can a particle be in two places at once? How can a particle also be a wave? That’s pretty mind-bending (and, incidentally, has to be taken on faith by the majority who don’t understand the maths…)
Finally, there’s his unfortunate tendency to attack not just the partisans of religion, but the neutrals too, deriding agnosticism as a cowardly choice. But since when was the statement “I don’t know” a weak-minded position in the face of the ultimate unknowns, for his interpretation of which he himself admits he has no positive proof (although he engages in some entertaining speculation about multiverses)? This denigration, the vitriol towards all religion, the supreme faith in rationality and the scientific method as a description of everything – especially when shared with what looks like a smug group of mutually congratulatory pals like Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (of whose final illness he peculiarly wrote: “Every day of his declining life he demonstrated the falsehood of that most squalid of Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hitch was in a foxhole, and he dealt with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to muster” – Hitchens wasn’t in a foxhole, he was in the best cancer hospital in the United States) – begins to look like dogma to me. The greatest mystics have said that the ultimate truth is nameless; isn’t it a bit presumptuous to assert that you can name it when you haven’t?