The Non-Fiction Challenge – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Science

Narrative Style: First person, scientific and philosophical discussion

Rating 4/5

Format: Paperback9781846570377

Published: 2006

Synopsis: Dawkins endeavours to explain where our need for religion comes from evolutionally and why he is so passionately against religion. He explores the morality of the bible in close detail as well as looking at the psychology of religion. 

It’s hard to know whether Richard Dawkins is better known as a biologist or as a religion hating atheist. As such, I was keen to read this work. I am familiar with Dawkins writing having read The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth previously.

At the beginning of the book, Dawkins explained some of the reasons he is so against religion and his tone was almost preacherly as he called for atheists to band together in order to challenge religion’s privileged position in modern society. This tone, accompanied by Dawkins superior attitude towards anyone who believes, is what most people find difficult about Dawkins when he talks about religion. Indeed, I was a bit troubled by it myself. I don’t think it helps that religious people feel Dawkins looks down on them. Dawkins calls himself passionate and that is fine but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with you. It seemed ironic that he should be asking atheists to band together – to form a religion as it were. There is a further reason why I think this will never happen. For me, and I am sure other atheists, part of the reason for not belonging to a religion has to do with not wanting to be a member of an organised group.

Thankfully, this polemic does not carry on throughout the whole book otherwise I think I would have stopped reading. Instead, Dawkins moved on to what he is good at – talking about science. He discusses how he feels that religion has developed in an evolutionary sense and what it might mean about humans psychologically that we seem to need a God figure. He also assesses whether we really do use the Bible as a guide to morality and finally what he feels to be the worse problems with religion. This is really interesting and as  I already consider myself an atheist so I could consider Dawkins evidence quite dispassionately.

Towards the end, Dawkins advocates stopping adults passing their religion on to their children an act he considers a form of child abuse. I have to admit that this made me a little uncomfortable. While I understand that children can suffer because of their parents’ beliefs, I feel that this would be a huge infringement of personal freedom and would probably be unenforceable anyway.

Ultimately Dawkins misunderstands the nature and strength of belief. After all, the whole point of having faith is that you have faith. All the reasoned arguments in the world are not going to change that. This would seem to be borne out by the reviews of this book on Goodreads which seem to be split along religious lines. If you believe, this book makes no difference. Personally, I don’t have an issue with religion in most of the ways I come across it. Most of the people I know who are religious are kind, loving and don’t feel the need to foist their religion on to others. Perhaps it is naive of me to separate this from the problems – war, homophobia, abortion doctor killing extremists – but that is how I feel. I don’tthink Dawkins would approve.

Books Read in 2014 – 63. Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather


Genre: Religious, American History

Narrative style: A series of happenings that involve the same characters but are not connected by an over-arching narrative. Third person.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1927

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: An epic novel spanning the life of Father Jean Marie Latour as he becomes9780679728894_p0_v1_s260x420 Vicar Apostolic to New Mexico. The novel takes us from the beginning of his career through to his becoming Archbishop and eventual death. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: This is one of the oldest unreads on my shelf. I bought it while at university some twenty or so years ago. I had come across Cather’s name in books on feminist writing and so when I saw it second hand I picked it up. However, I then didn’t really fancy the subject matter, hence it languishing on the shelf for quite so long. 

There is no denying that this is beautifully written. Cather can certainly turn a phrase and for me to have kept on reading this, despite my lack of interest in matters of religion is testament to the strength of her prose. The countryside and the characters are all impeccably described and vivid to the reader. Latour and his assistant and friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, were interesting in their missionary zeal even while I could not share their enthusiasm. Both were based on real men and many of the events were based in reality which only makes it more remarkable.

The main reason I didn’t rate this higher was the structure of the novel. I’m not even sure that novel is the right word. There isn’t one storyline here, no overarching plot but a series of scenes, all as important as the other. This led to a lack of tension and I felt there was no reason for reading on. There were no hints of what was to come and little reference to what had been. It was perhaps like a series of short stories which just happened to involve the same group of people.

While I am not really interested in religion, I am interested in the period of history described and if nothing else, this book has reminded me of that and ensured I will read more about it in the future.

Books read in 2014 – 36. A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale

Genre: family, religion

Narrative Style: Third person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5065917-fc222

Format: Paperback


Synopsis: Lenny decides to take his own life after being paralyzed in a rugby accident. He asks the parish priest, Barnaby Johnson to be present. His decision and Barney’s involvement will turn the parish upside down and bring old secrets to light. 

This had me hooked from the first with Lenny’s meticulous plans for suicide and his request for the parish priest to be present. Barnaby has no idea what is going to happen until it is far too late and Lenny has already committed the act. He is left with nothing but prayer.

The story then unfolds from various characters points of view at various points in their life so we learn of Barnaby’s marriage, his difficult relationship with his adopted son and his affair with a local artist from his point of view and theirs. We learn about Lenny’s mother and a local parishioner named Modest who turns out to play a crucial role in events a number of times in the narrative without always realising.

The pace is unhurried and it is easy to work out some of the secrets but that really isn’t the point of this story. The narrative is as much about Barnaby’s difficult relationship with his faith and with God as it is about the actual events. It is about family and the ways we come to find love in the most unexpected ways. There are no big twists and turns because this is a novel about ordinary people dealing with what life throws at them.

The characters were convincing and I felt able to empathise with most of them even those I didn’t actually like. Even Modest, the most horrible character, was pathetic rather than anything else. It was interesting to see both sides of the father son relationship between Barnaby and his son, Phuc and realise exactly how hard it is sometimes to do the right thing.

The book ends well, in that it ties up loose ends and it is generally a happy ending but there is nothing forced or unlikely about it and no doubt if you continued to follow these characters life would continue to throw challenges at them but this was where this particular story ended.



Books Read in 2014 – 35. Plain Truth – Jodi Picoult

Genre: Chick Lit, Morality

Narrative Style: Third Person chapters alternating with first person

Rating 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2000

Synopsis: A dead baby is found in a barn on an Amish farm. At first, none of the women will even admit to being pregnant. And then there is the mystery of how the baby died. Ellie Hathaway is the streetwise attorney who becomes far too involved in her client’s life. 

I picked this up because I wanted something that would be easy to read while I was marking exams, something that would help me switch off at the end of a day of reading accounts that can’t decide what tense to be in. I certainly didn’t want to be struggling through some heavy piece of literary fiction. This had belonged to my mother (for all you wondering why I would even have a Jodi Picout book on my shelves) and when she died at the start of the year, it made its way onto my shelf. I was also curious. A few years ago I was loaned Change of Heart by a Picoult nut and while I thought it was okay, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I wanted to give her another try.

I must admit that the storyline drew me in quite quickly. Once it became apparent that the eldest daughter of the household, Katie, was the baby’s mother and that she denied giving birth, never mind killing the baby, then my interest was piqued. Picoult had also clearly researched her subject matter thoroughly as the picture given of Amish life was full of detail and seemed (to me anyway) realistic. I was ready to say I was wrong and that this was a very good book.

However, as I read on, things started to jar for me. The first thing was the mention of the ghost of Katie’s little sister. Which was fine when it seemed it was a figment of Katie’s imagination but it soon became apparent that not only could other people see this ghost but Picoult herself seemed to believe in its existence. I find this sort of spirituality quite troubling and it didn’t seem to fit with Katie’s character at all. It did mean, however, that there could be an utterly sickeningly corny image at the end of the book which I personally found completely unnecessary.

Picoult described the Amish as a group of people that lived for the community and the good of the group and who frowned on individuality. And there are some obvious advantages to this way of thinking but also disadvantages. In the novel, two characters have been shunned and had to leave because of decisions that they made and this is given as a possible motivation for the murder of the baby – and indeed, in a round about way, it does have to do with the baby’s death. Some of the difficulties this leads to are described in the beginning. However, by the end of the novel, through the decisions that Katie makes, Picoult seems to be privileging this form of living, as Katie decides to return to the fold, rather than follow her own heart. It may be that I find it too hard to fit in with any groups to be able to understand this sort of thinking but it does seem that at the start of the novel, this way of thinking is criticized but by the end, it is seen as some sort of salvation.

This is also shown in the character development of Ellie which I also found a little unsatisfying. At the beginning, she was a hard bitten attorney who liked to win so much that she had just managed to get a sex offender, she knew was guilty, off scot free. She ends up living with Katie as part of her bail conditions and as a result, begins to understand the faults in her own character. While it is apparent that Ellie had faults to understand, it all seems very easy for her and, in my mind, she doesn’t struggle enough psychologically for her change for the better to ring true.

At the end of the day, I have given this 3/5 because I did want to keep reading and I did feel sympathy for Katie but ultimately it didn’t work for me.