The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins is well known for his works on evolutionary biology and more recently for his outspoken views on religion. In this book he examines the nature of religion, the arguments for the existence of god and the necessity for an intelligent designer to create life. His conclusions are, to put it mildly, devastating.
By a process of remorseless logical argument he demolishes the traditional arguments in favour of god, knocking them down one at a time often with scathing wit. Dissections of the proofs of Thomas Aquinas, the ontological arguments of St Anselm and Pascal's Wager may tread familiar ground, but as Dawkins demonstrates they don't hold up under close scrutiny. Without exception, they all resort to a leap of faith to make their point, rather than any evidence that can examined and tested.
In a similar vein he demonstrates that the anthropic principle of the Earth being capable of supporting life is a result of the countless numbers of planets in the universe that fall within the so called 'Goldilocks zone' of being not too hot and not too cold, rather than being purpose built for us. Whatever circumstance caused the first stirrings of life is another matter of chance, but from that moment Darwinian evolution will inevitably shape and fit organisms to their environment, leading to complexity and diversity. In short, there is almost certainly no god.
A large part of the book is an examination of the god shared by the three major world religions - Islam, Judaism and Christianity and his public persona displayed in the bible. This god is a cruel tyrant, seemingly obsessed with personal sexual morality and the obliteration of non-believers. Anyone who claims that the bible is a source of moral teaching clearly hasn't read it very closely. He also shows how religion has had devastating consequences for society and also for individuals, particularly children scarred by threats of hell fire. One point that he makes with some force is that there is no such thing as a 'christian child' or a 'muslim child' or whatever - a child is too young to understand and make any rational choice about religion, so at best you should only call them a child of christian parents.
The need for this book is particularly urgent at this moment in history, when forces of religion are gathering in strength. In America, 50 million people seriously believe that the Earth is less than 6000 years old and that dinosaurs co-existed with humans before the biblical flood. A creationist theme park is due to open next year, complete with animatronic dinosaurs and displays of biblical tableaux that claim that the accounts in the bible are literally true. If anyone doubts the threat to impressionable minds, a history teacher in New Jersey was caught telling children that if they didn't accept Jesus then they belonged in hell.
This book has been particularly valuable for me, crystallising a lot of thoughts and arguments that I have been puzzling over for a long time. In my late teenage years I had a religious experience at an evangelical rally and got involved with the, now notorious, Nine O Clock Service at St Thomas' Church, Crookes. I have written about that experience on an old website seven or eight years ago, (and coincidentally recently been contacted by people who googled for that article). How did I end up in that church, and once there how did I let myself get enmeshed in it? If the existence of god is so easy to disprove then why did I, and so many other people, fall for it so credulously?
The late Douglas Adams once gave an impromptu speech at the Digital Biota conference (and you can read it here). He talks about an early human in a cave who has mastered the art of tool making. This human starts to wonder who made the world that fits him so perfectly with woods full of delicious berries and streams with refreshing water to drink. In wondering, the idea of a god is created and fills a conceptual gap in the brain of this creature. In short we have a god shaped gap in our brains. Adams argues that there is a need for an artificial god to fill that gap and that rituals and traditions can serve a useful purpose without needing belief in a supernatural entity to give them meaning. When I was a particularly vulnerable point in my life, religion filled a need that I felt for purpose and meaning. When you are part of a group that shares a particular religious meme, it is very hard to imagine life outside of that group.
Some people will argue that if you do not have a god then the universe becomes a swirling void, cold and unfriendly. On the contrary, life is precious and magical for its own sake, not for the whim of a god, who almost certainly does not exist.