The first time I tried to read this book, I gave it up within about three pages, convinced that it was far too narrowly focused and inadequately researched to be a worthwhile criticism of religion. I had also recently seen the author give an interview in which he showed himself to be an unbearable, egocentric jerk, and the book rather quickly solidified that impression. Recently, in conversation with someone who loved the book, I agreed to go back and read the thing, all of it, just out of fairness to this person's enthusiasm for it.
I was not wrong in any of my kneejerk impressions. The book is indeed too narrow and shallow to be considered anything like a true criticism of religion, in any reasonably sophisticated sense of the word. Dawkins makes clear at the beginning that he is not writing about "Einsteinian" religion, by which he means a sort of vague awe in the face of the vast wonder of the universe, but there are more strictly religious notions that he plainly fails to consider as well. And yes, Dawkins is indeed a self-centered jerk, or at least frequently comes across that way. That was certainly very distracting, but I don't suppose it should count one way or another in considering the merit of his efforts.
For my second go at the book, rather than take umbrage at its narrow focus, I simply accepted that focus from the beginning, so as to evaluate it on the appropriate scale. It is an attack on religion, but on the sorts of religion espoused mainly by the least thoughtful and, often, most vocal believers. A blurb on the back of my copy refers to the target of the book as "religious bigotry," and it is against this opponent that the work is most successful. Indeed, there are only two ways I can imagine this book achieving any of the goals Dawkins seems to have in mind for it:
1. Near the beginning of the book, Dawkins says something to the effect that he hopes some people will start the book religious and put it down as atheists. I suppose I can see this happening, but only for those people who are looking not so much for a reason to stop believing, but merely for permission. They have already made their decision, and Dawkins is saying, "It's okay."
2. More positively, I can easily see the book stirring up surprisingly latent sentiment against an increasingly mainstream religious fundamentalism. If anyone wants to know why they should be outraged at the current general acceptance of ludicrously, and often harmfully, extreme religious conviction, especially in America, they need only read Chapter 8.
In fact, I don't see much point in anyone reading more than the last three chapters of the book. These are where Dawkins makes his strongest points, speaks most to what he truly knows most about, and writes in some of his most convincing and elegant prose. The preceding two-thirds of the book suffers from a lack of focus, a too-present sense of self-importance, and a general tone of scorn and derision toward anyone with any religious inclinations (whatever lip service he might occasionally try to pay to some of them). It is only in the final 90 pages that he says anything truly constructive.
For whatever it's worth, I am not a religious person. I simply think that "the religious" deserves a lot more serious attention than it tends to get from anyone who doesn't have personal religious convictions (I am not talking about the blind "respect" for all things religious that Dawkins rightfully derides, which is indeed just intellectual timidity). To grant this attention, one must take the time to investigate religious thought at its best, to read religious works as charitably as possible, and to openly and honestly confront those religious thinkers who have thought the most, and the most intelligently, about what religion can be. If one does not wish to do these things, that is fine, but one ought not then expect to be taken seriously in turn by those one has so thoroughly disregarded.