One of the first things I did when I wanted to educate myself on atheism was read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Predictable, I know. I was a sophomore at the super-Christian, super-conservative Grove City College and all that I knew was that my professors hated Dawkins, so he must be doing something right. When I bought my own copy of The God Delusion, (the first book in my collection), I kept it hidden inside the cover of another, unsuspicious, book. I was still a closeted atheist at college, but more so to my Lutheran family at home.
I couldn’t help but think back to this time of my life as I read Dawkins’ newest book Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. It’s not meant to be The God Delusion for younger people, but something more along the lines of Atheism for Teens (or other beginners). Its intended audience is what makes this book unique, but I think that that’s also what will make its intended goal notoriously difficult. The first challenge for a book meant for teenagers who are beginning to doubt their parents’ religion is that these sneaky teens have to gain access to it.
When I was in the closet, I refused to even search for atheism-related books on Amazon, because I shared an account with my family and they would see my search history. So if the readers of this book are like I was, they would have a hard time even getting their hands on it. And once they do, will they have an inconspicuous place to hide it, or another book’s cover to put around it? Even more importantly, is what they will learn from this book worth the trouble of sneaking around and hiding it from everyone?
Outgrowing God is split up into two parts: “Goodbye God” and “Evolution and beyond”. “Goodbye God” contains the following chapters:
1. So many gods!
2. But is it true?
3. Myths and how they start
4. The Good Book?
5. Do we need God in order to be good?
6. How do we decide what is good?
I thoroughly enjoyed Part One. Admittedly, it was a pretty watered down version of some of the questions you may ask someone who is doubting their faith, but that’s what it’s meant to be. It’s a first step for those who have never before taken one. We look at why one might believe in the god they do when there are so many options, we see some biblical contradictions, and we touch on morality and why the bible may not be the most reliable source for it. It’s also pretty funny at times, which I really appreciated, if not found surprising, coming from a man in his seventies writing a book for teenagers. I may be a few years out of that age range, but I thought the tone was spot on—witty but not condescending.
If you know me, then you know that Part Two was about one of my favorite subjects ever—evolution. This was especially refreshing to read following one of my now-favorite books of all time, Donald Johanson’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Compared to Part One of Outgrowing God, Part Two was much less pejorative and much more focused, understandably, as biology (not theology) is Dawkins’ field. Part Two included the chapters:
7. Surely there must be a designer?
8. Steps toward improbability
9. Crystals and jigsaw puzzles
10. Bottom up or top down?
11. Did we evolve to be religious? Did we evolve to be nice?
12. Taking courage from science
Dawkins’ point in Part Two is essentially showing these skeptical teens that even though our world may appear to be designed, everything has a natural explanation, whether we know it yet or not. With his illustrations and many recommendations of scientific YouTube videos, he shows us some of the wonders of nature that make him the passionate biologist that he is. You can tell from his writing that he loves what he does, which makes it that much more special.
At times, though, this excitement makes me feel like a high schooler in biology class whose teacher is trying to ignite his same passion for science in all his students. It’s admirable, but the students aren’t guaranteed to share that passion for how crystals or gastrulas form. These explanations are at a pretty detailed level, but Dawkins still tries to make it not too complicated by using analogies and metaphors, so I sometimes felt like I wasn’t learning the actual processes he was metaphorically explaining. That said, I was that student in science class all through school. No matter how amazing science is, I will never be moved by the intricacies of the Krebs cycle.
I know that Dawkins is an impressive science writer. Throughout reading Outgrowing God, I felt that he could have made references to The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, or The Blind Watchmaker. Out of these, I’ve only read the beginning of The Selfish Gene (it was too hard for me; I said I’m bad at detailed science), but these books’ topics seem to elaborate more on things that were only touched on in Outgrowing God. Dawkins did refer once to The Magic of Reality, which makes sense as I believe it’s written to the same age range as Outgrowing God.
Moreover, I wish Dawkins could have stayed more on the topic of losing belief in God, as that’s in the title of the book. Where Part One was why we can believe that religions are myths, Part Two could have been defending against various religious arguments using science.
Instead, it defended against one “argument”—(that the universe appears to be designed) with lots of high-school level science lessons. I would have liked to see something more specific; for example, Dawkins could have shown how Genesis portrays Adam and Eve and a six-day creation (and supposedly a young earth), which directly contradicts evolution and our scientific understanding of the age of the earth. The way that it was written, I often forget which part of religion we were supposed to be “debunking” in the first place.
Overall, I thought Outgrowing God was a nice and concise introduction to atheism and science for those who may have never been exposed to them before. As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of books out right now trying to market atheism to a younger audience, so I think this is a good first try. I don’t find it particularly comparable to The God Delusion, which is way more in-depth and written to an older and more educated audience (which I wasn’t when I read it, which may be why it took me so long). The God Delusion is a lot longer and covers so many more topics.
If I had to choose, I would say I prefer The God Delusion over Outgrowing God, and you can read my review of The God Delusion here. My favorite part of Outgrowing God—possibly because it was the part I’m least familiar with—was when Dawkins shared what he learned of the reliability of the gospels and the existence of Jesus from Bart Ehrman. Naturally I chose a Bart Ehrman book, Did Jesus Exist? to read next.