I really like Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”. Although I agree with his conclusions especially regarding the pernicious effect of religion on society, I don’t agree with Dawkins’ arguments from probability.
He tries to apply the so-called anthropic principle to the universe – basically, considering infinite possible universes with infinite possible physical constants, the probability of life occurring somewhere within this set is not low, therefore all the arguments about it being too improbably not to have been caused by a (not improbable?) higher being are bull. This is a discussion of the probability of having a universe with the physical constants ours has and a sort of Darwinism for physical constants where those which cannot be perceived by conscious life do not survive.
There are several problems with this:
1. Induction and probability (which is based on induction) and the fact that they appear to work are a feature of our particular universe, so you can’t use them as a higher principle applying to “possible” universes (what does “possible” even mean in a meta-universal context?). Once you allow for a universe with different “rules”, you also have to give up the rules of probability which hold in this universe. Therefore this argument is nonsensical.
2. Even if you assume induction and probabilistic behaviour, the combinations of physical constants, geometries and other laws of nature applicable in a hypothetical universe are infinite, and the kind of infinite which is very large compared to the infinite number of combinations of physical constants which would allow a biogenic universe (one capable of engendering life). So the idea of determining a small probability of a universe being biogenic is absurd.
3. He completely ignores the so-called “hard problem of consciousness“. Whatever universe is like, there is subjective experience, which cannot be explained in terms of its objects (see the linked article for more details).
Also he doesn’t really attack God and religion from the angle which I think it most falls down on. The concept of God, when you get its propenents to talk about it, is completely incoherent. When they can make any kind of sense out of it, it turns out that God has none of the characteristics imputed to him by the Bible (e.g. personal – what does that REALLY mean? Infinitely good AND omnipotent – OK – so why all the bad stuff?).
My favourite parts of the book are the exposure of e.g. religious texts such as the bible as vicious and morally abhorrent. It points out places in the bible (no, not all in the old testament), where it directly advocates the gang rape of women, mass murder for “thought crime” of non-belief (God gets very upset if you don’t “believe”), attribution of sin worthy of eternal damnation just for being born (New Testament) and an instrument of execution as the central symbol of faith (if Jesus had died 20 yrs ago, would US school children wear electric chair pendants?) etc…. etc…
Certain members of my family have said “oh but our society has lost its Moral Compass” (since the 1930’s) – and this is somehow connected with the loss of connection with christian faith. Yeah, bring on apartheid, bring on the psychological and physical intimidation of homosexuals for “crimes” between consenting adults, bring on mysogyny and female disenfranchisement, bring on fighting for King and Country. Bring on blasphemy as a crime. Morals in the 1930’s were fantastic.
Finally, although he is right about the societal consequences of religion, I think he takes the doctrines far too seriously. As far as I can see, the doctrines of christianity and the arguments to back them up – e.g. the argument from design (and creationists especially) are so absurd, it’s not worth killing trees to discuss them. It’s so clearly not a rational business and I’m surprised he even bothers.