October 16, 2021

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A Beginner's Guide
by Richard Dawkins.
Random House, 2019
(294 pages, 8 pages of plates)

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Quote = "The book aims to create a first book on atheism for young people --- as well as adults. Atheist standard-bearer Richard Dawkins makes a two-part presentation. The first part, Goodbye God, reviews all the physical and historical falsehoods and outdated attitudes in the Bible and also the shortcomings of the biblical God as a guide to ethics, especially in the Ten Commandments... Readers familiar with philosophical proofs of God will find this discussion inadequate since Dawkins is not a philosopher... However, he presents the pragmatic case against God cogently, if a mite snootily!"

"The second part, Evolution and Beyond, is better, because Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and ethologist, thoroughly capable of explaining Darwinian evolution and illuminating how creatures on the large scale and crystals, for instance, on the tiny scale are actually made by random but precise operations, rather than by any kind of designer, such as God." (Paraphrased by webmaster from Book List Review)

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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages

    1) SO MANY GODS! (3-14)

    2) BUT IS IT TRUE? (15-46)


    4) THE GOOD BOOK? (71-92)


    6) HOW DO WE DECIDE WHAT IS GOOD? (123-142)



    10) BOTTOM UP OR TOP DOWN? (207-224)



INDEX (281-294)

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AUTHOR NOTES = Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and taught zoology at the University of California and Oxford University, holding the position of the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. He writes about such topics as DNA and genetic engineering, virtual reality, astronomy, and evolution. His books include The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, The God Delusion, and An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. Bowker Author Biography.

SUMMARY = Should we believe in God? In this brisk introduction to modern atheism, one of the world's greatest science writers tells us why we should not. The book explains how the natural world arose without a designer and challenges the basic assumptions of world religions to argue that faith is not a necessary component of good behavior.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = Richard Dawkins was fifteen when he stopped believing in God. Deeply impressed by the beauty and complexity of living things, he'd felt certain they must have had a designer. Learning about evolution changed his mind. Now one of the world's best and bestselling science communicators, Dawkins has given readers, young and old, the same opportunity to rethink the big questions.

In twelve fiercely funny, mind-expanding chapters, Dawkins explains how the natural world arose without a designer the improbability and beauty of the "bottom-up programming" that engineers an embryo or a flock of starlings and challenges head-on some of the most basic assumptions made by the world's religions: Do you believe in God? Which one? Is the Bible a "Good Book"? Is adhering to a religion necessary, or even likely, to make people good to one another? Dissecting everything from Abraham's abuse of Isaac to the construction of a snowflake, Outgrowing God is a concise, provocative guide to thinking for yourself.

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LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = Dawkins (The Selfish Gene; The God Delusion) is forthright in his views on the implications of the evolutionary biological perspective for our understanding of humanity and its place in the universe, this latest work adding to his arguments against belief in a supreme deity. The majestic complexity of life, from the seemingly designed structure of DNA to the elaborate physiology of organic life and intricate patterning in inorganic matter, can all be accounted for by the theory of evolution, broadly conceived, contends the author. His discussions are conveyed in a relaxed, conversational tone that makes the book a pleasure to read. Is the analysis convincing? If Dawkins narrowed the target of his statements to organized religions he would stand a better chance of success. As is, Darwinian evolutionary critiques fail to undermine the reasonableness of belief in God. These theories can account for the complexity encountered in life, but not why there is a universe of experience as such. For that you need an explanation that goes beyond science. Whether the answer is God is another matter. VERDICT The work is guaranteed to start conversations between theists and atheists and is recommended for it. Denis Frias, Mississauga Lib. Syst., Ontario

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW = Dawkins (The God Delusion) purports to guide his readers through letting go of belief in God in this underwhelming repackaging of ideas from his previous works. For the first half of the book, Dawkins argues that the Bible is a faulty foundation for belief that lacks any basis in historical reality and advances a cruel, inconsistent set of values. He then proceeds with a thorough explanation of evolution and critique of intelligent design. As this progression makes clear, the book primarily concerns itself with Bible-based Protestantism. Dawkins avoids seriously considering non-Western religions, Judaism, Islam, and Roman Catholicism; they appear when they bolster his claims, and are curiously absent when they might undermine them (for instance, he frames religious opposition to abortion as a conflict between "absolutists and consequentialists" without mentioning religions that don't fit his paradigm, such as Judaism). Dawkins's glib analysis is paralleled by his slipshod engagement with the ideas and methods of the humanities. Historical evidence from the times of the Bible's creation, for instance, is deemed wholly unreliable unless it undermines biblical narratives. By starting with the assumption that religious belief is too ridiculous for serious and sustained engagement, Dawkins is preaching to the converted. Readers interested in the rationale for atheism will be disappointed in this underdeveloped argument that never takes spiritual belief seriously.

BOOK LIST REVIEW = Aiming to create a first book on atheism, with young people particularly in mind, atheist standard-bearer Dawkins makes a two-part presentation. The first part, Goodbye God, reviews all the physical and historical falsehoods and outdated attitudes in the Bible and also the shortcomings of the biblical God as a guide to ethics, especially in the Ten Commandments. Because Dawkins is not a philosopher, those familiar with philosophical proofs of God will find this discussion inadequate; still, he presents the pragmatic case against God cogently, if a mite snootily (supplement Dawkins with fellow but less-dismissive atheist Tim Crane's The Meaning of Belief, 2017). The second part, Evolution and beyond, is better, because Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and ethologist, thoroughly capable of explaining Darwinian evolution and illuminating how creatures on the large scale and crystals, for instance, on the tiny scale are actually made by random but precise operations, rather than by any kind of designer, such as God. Dawkins fulfills his intentions very well for readers new to the subject, from high school to retirement. Ray Olson

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[1] My son came home from his first day in the sixth grade with arms outstretched plaintively demanding to know: 'Have you ever heard of Jesus?' We burst out laughing. Maybe not our finest parenting moment, given that he was genuinely distraught. He felt that he had woken up one day to a world in which his peers were expressing beliefs he found frighteningly unreasonable. He began devouring books like The God Delusion, books that helped him formulate his own arguments and helped him stand his ground. Dawkins's new book is special in the terrain of atheists' pleas for humanism and rationalism precisely since it speaks to those most vulnerable to the coercive tactics of religion. As Dawkins himself says in the dedication, this book is for 'all young people when they're old enough to decide for themselves.' It is also, I must add, for their parents. Janna Levin, author of Black Hole Blues

[2] When someone is considering atheism I tell them to read the Bible first and then Dawkins. The book, Outgrowing God, is second only to the Bible! Penn Jillette, author of God, No!

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Do You Believe in God? Which God?

Thousands of gods have been worshiped throughout the world, throughout history. Polytheists believe in lots of gods all at the same time (theos is Greek for 'god' and poly is Greek for 'many'). Wotan (or Odin) was the chief god of the Vikings. Other Viking gods were Baldr (god of beauty), Thor (the thunder god with his mighty hammer) and his daughter Throd. There were goddesses like Snotra (goddess of wisdom), Frigg (goddess of motherhood) and Ran (goddess of the sea)

The ancient Greeks and Romans were also polytheistic. Their gods, like the Viking ones, were very humanlike, with powerful human lusts and emotions. The twelve Greek gods and goddesses are often paired with Roman equivalents who were thought to do the same jobs, such as Zeus (Roman Jupiter), king of the gods, with his thunderbolts; Hera, his wife (Juno); Poseidon (Neptune), god of the sea; Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love; Hermes (Mercury), messenger of the gods, who flew on winged sandals; Dionysos (Bacchus), god of wine. Of the major religions that survive today, Hinduism is also polytheistic, with thousands of gods.

Countless Greeks and Romans thought their gods were real prayed to them, sacrificed animals to them, thanked them for good fortune and blamed them when things went wrong. How do we know those ancient people weren't right? Why does nobody believe in Zeus any more? We can't know for sure, but most of us are confident enough to say we are 'atheists' with respect to those old gods (a 'theist' is somebody who believes in god(s) and an 'atheist' a-theist, the 'a' meaning 'not' is someone who doesn't). Romans at one time said the early Christians were atheists because they didn't believe in Jupiter or Neptune or any of that crowd. Nowadays we use the word for people who don't believe in any gods at all.

Like you I expect, I don't believe in Jupiter or Poseidon or Thor or Venus or Cupid or Snotra or Mars or Odin or Apollo. I don't believe in ancient Egyptian gods like Osiris, Thoth, Nut, Anubis or Horus his brother who, like Jesus and many other gods from around the world, was said to have been born to a virgin. I don't believe in Hadad or Enlil or Anu or Dagon or Marduk or any of the ancient Babylonian gods.

I don't believe in Anyanwu, Mawu, Ngai or any of the sun gods of Africa. Nor do I believe in Bila, Gnowee, Wala, Wuriupranili or Karraur or any of the sun goddesses of Australian aboriginal tribes. I don't believe in any of the many Celtic gods and goddesses, such as Edain the Irish sun goddess or Elatha the moon god. I don't believe in Mazu the Chinese water goddess or Dakuwaqa the Fijian shark god, or Illuyanka the Hittite dragon of the ocean. I don't believe in any of the hundreds and hundreds of sky gods, river gods, sea gods, sun gods, star gods, moon gods, weather gods, fire gods, forest gods so many gods to not believe in.

And I don't believe in Yahweh, the god of the Jews. But it's quite likely you do, if you were brought up a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim. The Jewish god was adopted by the Christians and (under the Arabic name, Allah) the Muslims. Christianity and Islam are offshoots of the ancient Jewish religion. The first part of the Christian Bible is purely Jewish, and the Muslim holy book, the Quran, is partly derived from Jewish scriptures. Those three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are often grouped together as the 'Abrahamic' religions, because all three trace back to the mythical patriarch Abraham, who is also revered as the founder of the Jewish people. We'll meet Abraham again in a later chapter.

All those three religions are called monotheistic because their members claim to believe in only one god. I say 'claim to' for various reasons. Yahweh, today's dominant god (whom I'll therefore spell with a capital G, God) started out in a small way as the tribal god of the ancient Israelites who, they believed, looked after them as his 'chosen people'. (It's a historical accident the adoption of Christianity as the Roman Empire's official religion by the Emperor Constantine in 312 AD that led to Yahweh's being worshiped around the world today.) Neighboring tribes had their own gods who, they believed, gave them special protection. And although the Israelites worshiped their own tribal god Yahweh, they didn't necessarily disbelieve in the gods of rival tribes, such as Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites; they just thought Yahweh was more powerful and also extremely jealous (as we shall see later on): woe betide you if he caught you flirting with any of the other gods.

The monotheism of modern Christians and Muslims is also rather dubious. For example, they believe in an evil 'devil' called Satan (Christianity) or Shaytan (Islam). He goes under a variety of other names too, such as Beelzebub, Old Nick, the Evil One, the Adversary, Belial, Lucifer. They wouldn't call him a god, but they regard him as having god-like powers and he is seen, with his forces of evil, as waging a titanic war against the good forces of God. Religions often inherit ideas from older religions. The notion of a cosmic war of good versus evil probably comes from Zoroastrianism, an early religion founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster, which influenced the Abrahamic religions.

Zoroastrianism was a two-gods religion, the good god (Ahura Mazda) battling it out with the evil god (Angra Mainyu). There are still a few Zoroastrians about, especially in India. That's yet another religion I don't believe in and probably you don't either.

One of the weirder accusations levelled at atheists, especially in America and Islamic countries, is that they worship Satan. Of course, atheists do not believe in evil gods any more than they believe in good ones. They do not believe in anything supernatural. Only religious people believe in Satan.

Christianity verges on polytheism in other ways, too. 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' are described as 'three in one and one in three'. Exactly what this means has been disputed, often violently, down the centuries. It sounds like a formula for squeezing polytheism into monotheism. You could be forgiven for calling it tri-theism. The early split in Christian history between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) Catholic Church was largely caused by a dispute over the following question: Does the Holy Ghost 'proceed from' (whatever that might mean) the Father and the Son, or just from the Father? That really is the kind of thing theologians spend their time thinking about.

And then there's Jesus's mother, Mary. For Roman Catholics, Mary is a goddess in all but name. They deny that she is a goddess, but they still pray to her. They believe she was 'immaculately conceived'. What does that mean? Well, Catholics believe we are all 'born in sin'. Even tiny babies who, you might think, are a bit young to sin. Anyway, Catholics think Mary (like Jesus) was an exception. All the rest of us inherit the sin of Adam, the first man. In fact, Adam never actually existed, so he couldn't sin. But Catholic theologians aren't put off by little details like that. Catholics also believe that Mary, instead of dying like the rest of us, was sucked bodily 'up' into heaven. They portray her as the 'Queen of Heaven' (sometimes even 'Queen of the Universe'!) with a little crown balanced on top of her head. All those things would seem to make her at least as much of a goddess as any of the thousands and thousands of Hindu deities (which Hindus themselves say are just different versions of one single god). If the Greeks, Romans and Vikings were polytheistic, then Roman Catholics are too.

Roman Catholics also pray to individual saints: dead people who are regarded as especially holy, and have been 'canonized' by a Pope. Pope John Paul II canonized 483 new saints, and Francis, the current pope, canonized no fewer than 813 on one day alone. Many of the saints are thought to have special skills, which make them worth praying to for particular purposes or particular groups of people. Saint Andrew is the patron saint of fishmongers, Saint Bernward the patron saint of architects, Saint Drogo the patron saint of coffee-house owners, Saint Gummarus the patron saint of lumberjacks, Saint Lidwina the patron saint of ice-skaters. If you need to pray for patience, a Catholic might advise you to pray to Saint Rita Cascia. If your faith is shaky, try Saint John of the Cross. If in distress or mental anguish, Saint Dymphna might be your best bet. Cancer sufferers tend to try Saint Peregrine. If you've lost your keys, Saint Anthony is your man. Then there are the angels, who come in various ranks, from seraphs at the top, down through archangels to your personal guardian angel. Again, Roman Catholics will deny that angels are gods or demigods, and they will protest that they don't really pray to saints but just ask them to put in a good word with God. Muslims, too, believe in angels. Also in demons, which they call djinns.

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