Guardian: 50 books that defined the noughties

Today’s Guardian has a list of the 50 books that “defined” the past decade. It’s a mixed bag, and of course some of the “defining” books are pretty dreadful (e.g., The Da Vinci Code), but there are some good ones too (my favorites include Home, Atonement, and The Year of Magical Thinking).  And one, The God Delusion, is the subject of a mini-essay by Christopher Hitchens.

Apparent criteria:

Your Books of the Decade

What we were reading The world was rocked by terrorism, climate change became an emergency, celebrity culture moved from our TVs to our bookshelves, and a boy wizard held millions spellbound. Love them or hate them, these are the 50 books that defined the decade

What Hitchens says about TGD:

2006:

There are numberless reasons for regarding The God Delusion as a modern classic and one of these reasons, I would propose, is its relative superfluity. Richard Dawkins has already introduced millions of people to the rigour and beauty of the scientific worldview and shown in exquisite detail the ways in which we, like all our fellow creatures, have evolved and were in no meaningful sense “created”.

Before the arid term “scientist” was coined in the last century, men such as Newton and Darwin were reckoned as “natural philosophers”: a term that suits Dawkins very well. Another scholar deserving of the same title of honour was the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and The God Delusion can be read as a response to Gould’s conciliatory and wishful proposition that “science” and “faith” (or religion) occupy “non-overlapping magisteria”.

Dawkins’s energy, industry and wit, in disputing this idle view and in showing the hard, historic incompatibilities between the two, have led to his being caricatured as a dogmatist in his own right, even as a “fundamentalist”. What empty piffle this is. A senior teacher in the vital field of biology finds his discipline under the crudest form of attack, and sees government money being squandered on the teaching of drivel in schools. What sort of tutor would he be if he did not rise to the defence of his own profession? Thus the appearance of a secondary work that ought not to have been needed at all, but is in fact required now more than ever.

The God Delusion is, like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, quite respectful of the human origins of religion and of the ways in which it may have assisted people in spiritual and even material ways. We are pattern-seeking primates, and religion was our first attempt to make sense of nature and the cosmos. This does not give us permission, however, to go on pretending that religion is other than man-made. And the worst excuse ever invented for the exertion of power by one primate over another is the claim that certain primates have God on their side. It is not only justifiable to be impatient and contemptuous when such tyrannies are proposed; it’s more like a duty.

The atheist does not say and cannot prove that there is no deity. He or she says that no persuasive evidence or argument has ever been adduced for the notion. Surely this should place the burden on the faithful, who do after all make very large claims for themselves and their religions. But not a bit of it: we are somehow supposed to regard the profession of “faith” as if it were a good thing in itself. This is too much to ask, and it was high time to say so.

I regret to say that I have just noticed a tiny mistake on page 177. It is not true to say that the Virgin Mary “ascended” into heaven. She was “assumed” into that place, by a ruling of the Roman Catholic church that dates back all the way to the mid-19th century. Dawkins really must be more careful, but he may have been busy, as in the chapter of Climbing Mount Improbable in which he described the 20 or so separate evolutions of the eye. Readers of The God Delusion ought to press on and buy all the other Dawkins volumes too.

Given the joint and salutary effect of all the “new atheist” books, it’s hard to choose just one that defined the decade, although “new atheism” itself is certainly a major movement of the noughties.  I would have lumped TGD with The End of Faith, Breaking the Spell, and God is Not Great in a quartet of apostasy.

Hitchens’s blurb reminded me of two things.  The first is all the criticism of Dawkins, much of it unfair, for being “dogmatic and militant”.  He’s simply forthright.  If Dawkins took after, say, Republicans using the same tone with which he goes after religion, nobody would call him a dogmatic, militant, anti-Republican. (Do you hear anybody criticizing the “militant fundamentalist Democrats” who mock Sarah Palin?) It is only critiques of religion that elicit such epithets.  For reasons that still elude me, it’s perfectly fine to use frank, strong language when criticizing someone’s politics, but not someone’s religion.  I have yet to understand the difference. After all, political opinions are often held with the same tenacity as religious ones.  At any rate, it’s time to stop exempting religion from the same sort of criticism that we level at other beliefs and opinions.

Dawkins also took some flak in The Greatest Show on Earth for bashing creationism. (I remember a particularly grumpy review in The Financial Times.)  That criticism was unfair. I’ve read TGSOE twice now, and the creation-bashing is limited, measured, and entirely appropriate. For god’s sake, how can you avoid bringing up creationism when proffering a book that gives evidence for something scientists and the educated public have accepted for decades? What other reason is there to produce such a book?  As Richard said, “This book is necessary.”  (Whether it — and my own effort — will be effective is another issue.)

The second point is that it’s time for the faitheists and the faithful to stop instructing us that “we can’t prove that there is no God.” (This is usually conveyed, in pompous tones, as “You can’t prove a negative.”)  No atheist that I know — and certainly none of the published “new atheists” — claims that we can absolutely disprove the existence of God. Nor can anyone absolutely disprove the existence of fairies, leprechauns, or an invisible elephant in the trunk of your car.  The next time a religious person says something like this, just respond, “Yes, and you also can’t prove that there isn’t a Zeus.”

h/t: John Brockman

26 Comments

  1. Posted December 5, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    No sophisticated atheist claims that we can absolutely disprove the existence of God.

    • Posted December 5, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Good point. :D

      • MadScientist
        Posted December 5, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        Then again people like me have a philosophical objection to the agnostic stance of R. Dawkins. While it is technically correct to say “I will believe in a god if you show me evidence one exists”, this makes about as much sense as saying “I’ll believe in Bertrand Russel’s celestial teapot if you show me evidence it exists” (the Pinoeer and Voyager spacecraft aren’t teapots – but wouldn’t it be great to find an ancient extraterrestrial artifact in our little solar system). I choose to say with absolute confidence that no god will be shown to exist in my lifetime and I also choose to laugh at anyone who would care to say I would look like a pompous ass if proved wrong – because I will not be proven wrong.

      • bad Jim
        Posted December 5, 2009 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

        Madscientist: Sooner or later some mischievous space traveler will put a teapot into orbit around the sun, or else someone will name an asteroid “Teapot”.

      • MadScientist
        Posted December 6, 2009 at 3:33 am | Permalink

        OK bad Jim: No space research budget for you! I’m not giving you an opportunity to put a teapot out there.

  2. Posted December 5, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, but did any of the authors of those books win the Daniel Award?

    Stephen Meyer has already made year-end lists with Signature in the Cell, an Amazon bestselling science book and one of Times Literary Supplement’s books of the year for 2009, but the latest news go far beyond that: Stephen Meyer has been named World Magazine’s “Daniel of the Year” for 2009

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2009/12/worlds_2009_daniel_of_the_year.html

    I love it. Nagel gave Meyer’s book an undeserved boost, no question, and then the wingnuts turn around and give him a religious award for standing up to all of us pagans. Because it is all about religion, which everyone on both sides knows.

    And the IDiots at the DI crow that this blatant tie of Meyer’s BS goes far beyond some science know-nothing like Nagel’s favorable blurb in TLS. Yes, it does, because it’s praise for it’s religious posturing, quite contrary to Nagel’s mistaken notions.

    What are they, millipedes, that they think they can blast as many of their feet off as they wish? Unless they are, they’ve been gunning at empty space for years now, as they try repeatedly to blow their feet off.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  3. nick bobick
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Link to Guardian article appears to be broken for any inveterate link followers such as myself. Found easily by searching Guardian books decade.

    Was happy to see McEwan appear for “Saturday”, as well as “Atonement”, and sad to see Prothero’s “What the fossils say” didn’t.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 5, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Fixed. Thanks! I’m glad some readers follow the links.

  4. Posted December 5, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Off topic but… William Lane Craig has responded to a criticism you made of him and his evolution denialism.

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer?pagename=q_and_a

  5. Yakaru
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    The next time a religious person says something like this, just respond, “Yes, and you also can’t prove that there isn’t a Zeus.”

    Pat Condell puts it a bit betterer!

    Q: Prove God doesn’t exist.
    A: That’s a tough one. Show me how it’s done by proving Zeus and Apollo don’t exist, and I’ll use your method.

    http://www.patcondell.net/page9/page9.html

  6. newenglandbob
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    For god’s sake, how can you avoid bringing up creationism when proffering a book that gives evidence for something scientists and the educated public have accepted for decades?

    Oops, is that like going out with your fly open?

    No atheist that I know — and certainly none of the published “new atheists” — claims that we can absolutely disprove the existence of God.

    Victor Stenger kind of does and comes pretty close in “God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist”.

    • simbol
      Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      In fact, the so called “personal gods” can be demonstrated contradictory when examined under the spyglass of reason and logic. Since their predicates are so contradictory you can confidently say they have been falsified.

      Then, there is the argument that “personal gods”, being non-material cannot be disproved empirically. Nope. Since the predicates of these gods imply they intervene on a daily basis in our lives, these “interventions” can be examined by science. Mainly, these interventions are defined as “miracles”, but no miracle has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. For these reasons you can safely say that these gods cannot exist ex definitio.

      Finally there is a god a little more difficult to disprove: the Deistic god. This is so because the only predicate postulated by one of its versions is that the only action of this god was the creation of the universe and its natural laws. No more than that. Being that the case, you can not disprove it, but at the same time this hypothesis is so extremely poor and unsubstantiated that you can call it merely an opinion. Besides, this god is not accepted by the majority of believers. But this god is who is usually postulated by theologians in debates against atheists because it cannot be attacked from logic and reason, because as told before, there are not miracles, souls, angels, morals, sacred books, etc., associated with this god.

      All this boils down to the fact that the only non-natural alternative to a natural explanation of the universe is the deistic god. The problem for the deistic god is that being so undefined as it is, it can be whatever you want, even a natural explanation of the origin of the universe.

      Certainly, where the universe comes from is a legitimate question. The only honest answer from an atheist is: I don’t know yet. But the deist man is in the same predicament, only that he postulates a fallacy: the god of the gaps. And by doing this, he open a dangerous flank: Where that god comes from?

      If he answered: this god is uncaused, he has to explain why the universe could not also be uncaused or why his god is uncaused. Once at this point we have entered in the classical and old discussion where all theism shipwreck.

      Since I work building the Tower of Babel, you cannot expect a good English.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely! The same goes for Dawkins in TGD when he notes the improbability of creators or the infinite regress of the whole idea. But people like to avoid that topic.

      You can build on both to make further observations. For example, infinite regress inevitably leads to _loss_ of information, unless there is a corrective mechanism. (AKA evolution.) So creationists obsession with “information” and its “creation” tells us that creation is an impossible solution on its own terms.

  7. Posted December 5, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Re: people’s sensitivity about religious ideas being attacked:

    This is my experience: when I’ve argued politics with my friends, feelings rarely get hurt. But when the arguments were with others who, say, weren’t educated, feelings DID get hurt. One time, I was told “how can you, as a college professor, talk to an old lady that way”.

    The same seems to happen with religious ideas. My theist friends aren’t offended by me; those who have an inferiority complex ARE. In short, I believe that your typical fundie feels a bit helpless when their ideas are shot down by a Dawkins or a Hitchens.

    Your Karen Armstrongs aren’t so offended; they merely “tut tut…they are going by their own limited experience and are bound by their intellects” or something like that.

    • Posted December 5, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      My theist friends aren’t offended by me; those who have an inferiority complex ARE.

      I think that’s exactly right. And you can pick up on inadvertent admissions of inferiority when they attempt to describe what they think atheism entails (the standard thing about the world having no meaning). Since it happens to be false, you take that away, what you are left with is really their own admission of how helpless they would feel without god, i.e. how they haven’t solved the problem for themselves.

      How often do you see religious critics of new atheism that accept that there can be meaning without god? It would be perfectly reasonable to admit that even if there is a god, and we don’t believe in him, that we still have access to the same richness and meaning as everyone else, but that we are just mistakenly attributing that richness to something else.

      But I think people willing to grant that much, aren’t the kind of people who are offended by the conversation. Because they aren’t threatened by what they perceive as a looming lack of meaning.

  8. Barry
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    So, if you had to choose, which science book would you rather get for Christmas – Unscientific America or Signature in the Cell?

    • Sili
      Posted December 6, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      That’s a trick question. Neither of those are sciencebooks.

  9. MadScientist
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I guess I haven’t got far enough in the book yet to see the “creationism bashing”, but lies about what R.Dawkins says or writes abound so my starting premise is that whoever is making a claim hasn’t read the book, and unless they can demonstrate that they’ve read and understood the book they’re nothing more than yet another common liar.

    @Barry: If I had to make that choice I’d get my guns and change the rules of the game. Neither book is worth reading. From all the information I can gather, “Unscientific America” is a fatuous vacuous waste of trees.

  10. Posted December 5, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    The next time a religious person says something like this, just respond, “Yes, and you also can’t prove that there isn’t a Zeus.”

    I prefer to respond ‘Yes but that’s not a good reason to believe there is a God.’

    It’s sometimes helpful to shift the discussion from ‘There is.’ ‘There isn’t.’ ‘Is.’ ‘Isn’t.’ ‘Is is is.’ ‘Isn’t isn’t isn’t.’ to reasons. Even if there is a God, we humans have no good reason to think so – we haven’t been given the evidence.

  11. Arthur
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    One thing I admire about Dawkins, and yourself Mr Coyne, is that despite releasing books onto the market with identical themes (Why Evolution is True, Greatest Show), you are both so gracious about each others’ books.

    In a more cynical competitive world, one would expect a certain rivalry and a reluctance to promote the other book. But no, I’ve seen both of you praise each others’ books.

    Your behavior is exemplary. Thanks Guys!

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    The atheist does not say and cannot prove that there is no deity.

    No atheist that I know — and certainly none of the published “new atheists” — claims that we can absolutely disprove the existence of God.

    No sophisticated atheist claims that we can absolutely disprove the existence of God.

    After the faitheist pushing “non-overlapping magisteria”, I’m starting to feel really tired of seeing religious claims on atheists or what can be empirically shown paraded around.

    If the idea is to base claims that we “cannot prove”, empirically test, this or that on the assumed difficulty to define the characteristics of a particular phenomena, then it follows trivially that we “cannot prove” that we “cannot prove”. To make a universal exclusion theorem (like the no-cloning theorem of QM), you need to have some domain knowledge.

    OTOH you don’t necessarily need to know something about the specific characteristic that you want to test. For example, AFAIU we don’t know in general how to establish global energy in GR. (So there are a lot of various energy conditions that applies in various situations.) Nevertheless one can use domain knowledge of GR, specifically dynamic system theory properties, to establish that your typical FLRW universe is exactly zero energy. You can’t be more global than that. (o.O)

    To make specific claims on the process of science we need a testable theory of science. That is sorely lacking.

    Meanwhile we can observe for certain :-D that “absolutely disprove” is a philosophico-religious term that has no correlate in the real world, neither in physics nor in math. (For interesting observations of the quasi-empirical and fallible nature of math, see respectively Chaitin and Deutsch.) It is at best a straw man, at worst another failed attempt to make belief claims on reality.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      D’oh! My final plaint was dropped:

      Can’t we just leave all theology to the theologians?

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 6, 2009 at 3:31 am | Permalink

      “The atheist does not say and cannot prove that there is no deity.”

      Well, for me that is a rather meaningless thing to say (as you point out as well). I would say “The atheist does not claim there is a god and has no proof that one exists.” Now we can compare that with the theistic position: “Theists claim there is a god and have no proof that one exists.” The first form was laden with double-negatives – a typical ploy to obfuscate; it’s so much easier to understand when phrased simply.

  13. MadScientist
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Hmm… well, at least “The DaVinci Code” seems to have received an appropriate appraisal (by Mark Lawson) despite it’s position in the list of 50. There are some memorable points such as:

    “It’s also likely that many of those who were given the volume as a gift – what a boon for birthdays and Christmas finally to have a book suitable for those who don’t read!”

  14. bad Jim
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Larsson. Theology is too silly to be left to theologists.

    Although nearly no atheists claim they can prove the nonexistence of god, all of the dictionaries on my shelves state that they do, and this is a common contention. One had a definition for agnostic that I couldn’t quite subscribe to, either. Apparently I’m just a pagan.

    We can be confident that Zeus, insofar as he resides atop Mount Olympus, commands the lightning, or appears in the night sky, is at least not what is claimed of him. We’ve been on top of Olympus, we have a good handle on thunderstorms, and we’ve visited Jupiter, so that myth is busted.

    God the omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent is likewise nowhere in evidence. We can at least say that that god doesn’t exist. We can say more: though we can no more prove the nonexistence of Allah than that of the yeti or sasquatch, there is no practical difference between “nothing there” and “that’s ridiculous!”

  15. Jeremy
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    No atheist that I know — and certainly none of the published “new atheists” — claims that we can absolutely disprove the existence of God.

    That’s absolutely true of most instances. However, there is a strong case to be made that you can disprove certain notions of God. For instance, the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and supremely benevolent god has been thought for centuries to be incompatible with the existence of evil (i.e. the Problem of Evil). If these philosophers are correct (and I believe they are), then you can disprove the existence of this particular type of God, since he (/she/it/whatever) is logically impossible. This disproof becomes useful when you consider that this is exactly the sort of god conjured up by the Abrahamic religions.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] the book The God Delusion is brought up: Given the joint and salutary effect of all the “new atheist” books, it’s hard to choose just [...]

  2. [...] Guardian: 50 books that defined the noughties by Jerry Coyne: Dawkins also took some flak in The Greatest Show on Earth for bashing creationism. (I remember a particularly grumpy review in The Financial Times.) That criticism was unfair. I’ve read TGSOE twice now, and the creation-bashing is limited, measured, and entirely appropriate. For god’s sake, how can you avoid bringing up creationism when proffering a book that gives evidence for something scientists and the educated public have accepted for decades? What other reason is there to produce such a book? As Richard said, “This book is necessary.” (Whether it — and my own effort — will be effective is another issue.) [...]

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