Reviewed in the United States on October 9, 2019
Everyone wants to compare this book to The God Delusion, for obvious reasons. But I would rather review it on its own merits, for what it is, recognizing its purpose and intended audience. While the content is similar, there are differences; it covers more of the Bible, has expanded coverage of morality, and is a more concise and focused presentation of atheism and evolution that is more accessible to a younger audience or to the beginning skeptic. In that regard, it deserves its own treatment, which is as follows:
Outgrowing God is a concise yet comprehensive statement of atheism and the perfect resource for the burgeoning skeptic or the individual struggling to escape the intellectual prison that is religion.
Dawkins—a reliably great writer—begins the book by reminding us that thousands of gods have been invented throughout history, and that humanity is getting ever closer to the correct answer—from polytheism (belief in many gods) to monotheism (belief in one god) to atheism (belief in no gods).
Dawkins shows how it’s no more reasonable to have faith in any one particular religion or god over any other, and that the fact that we all grow up believing in the religion in which we were raised should raise some red flags. Today’s religion is tomorrow’s mythology, just as belief in Zeus, once considered to be real, is now known to be fiction.
Dawkins proceeds to dissect the Old and New Testaments to reveal the inconsistencies, contradictions, historical and scientific inaccuracies, plagiarism, and immoral teachings that permeate the text. All signs point to the Bible as a man-made document, pieced together with the fragments of distorted history, borrowed mythology, and the manufactured fulfillment of old prophecies, translated through multiple languages and written by scientifically illiterate authors (it was written centuries before the advent of modern science). While there’s nothing wrong with mythology, as Dawkins admits, there’s no reason to elevate the Bible over the myths of ancient Greece, Egypt, Babylonia, India, or anywhere else.
But it’s not only that the Bible is an unreliable source of history; it’s also oftentimes an extremely unpleasant and immoral text. This is why Penn Jillette wrote, “When someone is considering atheism I tell them to read the Bible first and then Dawkins. Outgrowing God—second only to the Bible!”
Is this fair? Well, consider the following verse, which is representative of the bloodlust found throughout the Bible:
“However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.” (Deuteronomy 20:16)
And how about:
“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:17-18)
The Bible is full of barbaric punishments for petty crimes, genocidal ethnic cleansing, and treating women and girls as property, with dozens of verses similar to the ones above. So yes, Dawkins treatment of the “Good Book” is more than fair.
Dawkins concludes the first part of the book with a few chapters on morality. He shows that, rather than receiving our morality from the Bible, we apply our pre-existing moral codes to the Bible to decide which verses to ignore (like stoning homosexuals to death), which to commend, and how to interpret them. Dawkins shows that there are far better explanations for morality and where it comes from—including biological, psychological, cultural, and social explanations—than the simplistic assertion that good and bad acts are objectively decreed from an invisible supernatural entity. It’s plainly obvious that morality evolves, and has evolved far ahead of the brutality found in scripture.
Still, whether or not God exists is independent of whether or not we require Him/Her/It/They for moral behavior. Is there evidence that God exists, beyond the unreliable mythology that is the Bible? Dawkins answers this question in the second part of the book, which is devoted to science and evolution.
This is familiar territory to anyone who has read Dawkins previous works, yet it is more concisely expressed. He systematically demonstrates the superfluousness of the God hypothesis with clarity and fascinating examples from biology. The complexity of life cannot be explained by random chance, or by the invocation of a designer that must necessarily be more complex than the life it is meant to explain, but rather by the slow accumulation of mutations carried out over immense periods of time subject to the constraints of natural selection.
Chapter 11 is one of the best parts of the book, where Dawkins posits evolutionary explanations for religion itself. Superstition, hyper-active agency detection, and overactive pattern detection is built into the human mind for good evolutionary reasons (it’s better to think the rustling of leaves is a lion and be wrong than to ignore it and be eaten). The unfortunate byproduct of this is a tendency to see agency everywhere, manifested as belief in gods, spirits, angels, demons, mystical forces, etc.
Dawkins wrap up the book with a reminder that the history of science is a relentless assault on common sense. Wherever things have seemed most obvious (the earth is stationary, life requires a designer), science has shown otherwise. It will continue to do so. With evolution as an incontrovertible fact (there is no alternative explanation that makes any sense, unless you really believe that all animals just popped into existence via divine creation), the religious have retreated into the mysteries of physics as “proof” of God's existence. Don’t follow them. As Dawkins wrote, “If you think you’ve found a gap in our understanding, which you hope might be filled by God, my advice is: ‘Look back through history and never bet against science.’”