Tag Archives: John Polkinghorne

Book: The God Delusion

The God Delusion
Thanks to thewrittenwordreviews for scanning the cover.

Pedantic, borderline sadism. Hatred and mockery of faith.
406 pages, 

Richard Dawkins is the world’s most outspoken atheist. He crusades against organised religion and anyone who holds faith in phenomena that haven’t yet been proven by a double-blind scientific trial. In his books and feisty speeches, Richard Dawkins persuades the religious public to renounce their beliefs and adopt a stubborn, intolerant, militant mixture of atheism and science—let’s call it Dawkinism—instead.

His first argument is that God doesn’t exist. On page 35, he describes Catholicism as “shamelessly invented… tasteless, kitsch… airy nonchalance”. The rest of the book is peppered with anti-religious mockery, and trivia, which he sometimes turns into evidence (e.g. Joseph’s family tree). One of his arguments backfires on page 173, and he makes arguments on pages 83 and 119 that blatantly contradict each other. His crusade is far from flawless.

His second argument is that a world without religion would be a better one, claiming that religion was the sole cause of atrocities such as “9/11, 7/7, the Crusades, witch hunts, the Gunpowder Plot… …Northern Ireland’s troubles and those swindling television evangelists”. This more worrying argument is flawed for two reasons.

First, he overlooks the swathes of good that religion has done for society in terms of creating cultural traditions and amalgamating civilisations. Instead, he only talks about when religion goes wrong. Second, he assumes that science is inherently ‘good’ (or is at least ‘better’ than religion), when this is probably not true. Science brought us the atomic bomb, climate change, and even some genocides were ‘justified’ by science. The 9/11 attacks were no more of a reason to give up on religion than the atomic bomb was a reason to give up on science. As Deng Xiaoping said:

“If you close the window, you get no fresh air, and also no flies. But if you open the window fresh air comes in and also some flies”. — Deng Xiaoping

Neither science nor religion are perfect, but both have their place in society. They explain different phenomena and we need both.

The God Delusion would be a noble goal if Dawkinism actually offered any reasonable alternatives to the moral, spiritual, and metaphysical and questions answered by religion. But it does not. The scientific method, by definition, is useless at answering spiritual questions because, by definition, nothing purely spiritual can ever be directly observed! By never being able to answer spiritual questions, Dawkinism aims to demolish more than it builds, and is thus doomed to fail as a philosophy. (See my review of On Revolution).

I think that science and religion answer different questions entirely, and are more complementary than contradictory. Here’s a snippet from my conversation with Anthony Hewish back in 2009, when he showed me his Nobel Prize for Physics:

Me: What do you think about the existence of God?

Hewish: I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that God exists. I’ve been a Christian all my life. Arguments from authors such as Richard Dawkins I find shallow and trivial. Tension arises from religion’s historical background that leads us to all sorts of assumptions and theories. I agree with John Polkinghorne that you need both science and religion if you’re going to make sense of life as a whole.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama agrees with both Anthony Hewish and John Polkinghorne on this matter.

But even if Dawkins were right, and there is no God, what benefit would that bring to the world? Disproving the beliefs of billions of people would do no good at all. If Dawkins had good intentions, then he would not want to be right, and would promptly give up his fight.

Above all, The God Delusion reminded me that no matter the magnitude of historical atrocities justified in the name of religion, atheistic extremism can be just as militant, stubborn and ugly as religious extremism. Just look at Dawkins. If atheists reject this book in disgust, and become more tolerant of religion as a result, then I’ll consider The God Delusion to be a success. There is no other way that this book could make any meaningful contribution to humanity.

Fortunately, Buddhism and Confucianism are spared from Dawkins’ wrath, for, according to Dawkins, they are “not religions at all but ethical systems or philosophies of life” (page 37-38). That phrase earned this book an extra star. You’re better off reading articles about Dawkins than the books that Dawkins wrote himself. Just try to avoid the firing line of his sadistic, atheistic crusade. ★

Book: Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction

I’m feeling a lull after reading Haruki Murakami’s epic 1Q84. I even considered giving in to star-inflation and giving it a six- or seven-star rating. 1Q84 changed my taste in books.

I’ve also run out of books. 1Q84 raised the bar for me so drastically that yesterday, for the first time ever, I returned home from the library empty-handed. That Chinese children’s book aside, nothing on the shelves appealed to me. Only 8 books in the library’s database had the caliber to match Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (most of which are novels by J.K. Rowling, Haruki Murakami and Mo Yan), and none of them were available. I’m roughly third in the queue for each of them, so about a two-month wait is expected.

So I hunted for books on my iPod. Like most digitally-pirated books, I found they were all quite boring, too (it’s interesting how the pirate internet contains only the most popular music but only the least popular books). This book on Quantum Theory was the best of a terrible selection.

So here goes…

Quantum Theory
Another PDF on iBooks

If I were ever forced to learn quantum theory, I’d start by reading this book.
128 pages, ★★★

Neither entertaining nor comprehensive, this book is exactly what its title promises: a very short introduction.

Written by the highly-respected John Polkinghorne, this book introduces a world where the laws of nature are so far-removed from that of our everyday experience that they are practically incomprehensible to most laypeople. Feynman said, “we can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Theory”. Someone else famous said, “If a person claims to understand quantum theory, then they are lying”.

I didn’t enjoy reading this book, and I’d only recommend it for those who, for whatever unthinkable reason, are required to know the basics of quantum theory (perhaps for a one-off job or for a test). Only in this rare and unfortunate circumstance would I recommend this book to anyone sane. I give it stars because it’s a well-written (if dry), and if you push yourself, you can learn something. I hold back two stars because this book want as fun as it could’ve been. A Very Short Introduction to Relativity might be more interesting. ★★★

1Q84 refined my taste in books. You’ll see more famous fiction reviewed on this blog in the future. I promise.