2016-07-27
Here comes Richard Dawkins beating around the bush again. The God Delusion--wonder what the message of the book might be. Why can't this guy just come out and say what he thinks?

I jest, of course. Saying what he thinks has never been a problem for Richard Dawkins. A professor at Oxford University, Dawkins is the Thomas Huxley of our era, the most accomplished and distinguished exponent of science over religion, and especially of natural selection over other proposed explanations for human existence. In books such as The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins eloquently presents the materialist interpretation of biology--that there is nothing more to nature than what meets the eye. Dawkins has also engaged in numerous high-profile public arguments that science can disprove religion, often lecturing or speaking to the media on this theme.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins takes off the gloves, plus the scarf and the earmuffs. Faith isn't merely wrong, he argues; religion is dangerous lunacy. The religious do not deserve respect, any more than respect should be extended to crazy people raving in the streets about the Trilateral Commission. If there were no religion, The God Delusion maintains, there would have been no 9/11, no Troubles in Northern Ireland, no Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no partition of India and Pakistan, "no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money." That belief in God is a delusion is not a private matter, Dawkins writes; the religious are well-organized and influence the world's governments, and essentially all of their influence is harmful. Dawkins proposes that atheists and agnostics stop politely respecting faith and organize to discredit religion, with the goal of halting its involvement in education and public policy. Coming after Sam Harris' The End of Faith, which also argues that it is time for secular society actively to oppose religion, The God Delusion is an important book that merits close reading.

Blaming Faith for All the World's Woes There's no doubt that all faiths contain their share of claptrap. There's no doubt religion has done the world considerable wrong in the past and will cause more wrongs in the future. There's no doubt many believers are hypocrites or can barely describe the most basic tenets of the theology they claim to cherish. There's no doubt the religious often act as though they don't believe what they profess. In one of the best passages of The God Delusion, Dawkins asks why Christians mourn the righteous dead, when their faith holds that a perfect afterlife awaits, and Jesus taught not to fear death. "Could it be that [Christians] don't really believe all that stuff they pretend to believe?" he asks. (I've written pretty much the same thing myself.) And there's no doubt that televangelists are a shameless, seedy group. If Jesus was moved to rage when he saw moneychangers in the temple, how would he feel about late-night religious charlatans with their 800 numbers flashing on the screen?

But The God Delusion overstates the case against religion by blaming faith for practically everything wrong with the world.

Suppose we woke up tomorrow morning and found that every denomination had disappeared. The Israelis and Palestinians would still be at each other's throats: their conflict is about land, liberty, and modernity, not faith. (Israel is among the world's most secular nations; the fact that most Israelis are not particularly religious has hardly reduced tensions.) If neither Hinduism nor Islam had existed in 1948, the partition of the Subcontinent might still have occurred and been as awful. Very strong ethnic hostilities, combined with resource scarcity, were at work. September 11? The key fact is not that the United States was attacked that day by Muslims. The key fact was that the country was attacked by Arabs, and there would be radical Arab hostility to American suzerainty in the Persian Gulf even if religion vanished.

Though Dawkins rightly catalogs religion's many deficiencies, he fudges or simply skips over virtues. Set aside whether or not God exists: it is factual that religion is at the core of much of the world's philanthropy. Faith has underscored many social equity movements, from abolitionism in the United States to Gladstone's social equality movement in Dawkins' United Kingdom to the present day, in which religious organizations such as World Vision ask that the wealth of the West be shared with the poor of developing nations. Obviously a person need not be religious to be philanthropic, but the knowledge that religion inspires generosity should not be sneezed at.

Dawkins gives short shrift as well to the value of religion in individual lives. Belief in God or higher purpose has brought millions of people to personal redemption--helping them turn away from sin, crime, mistreatment of themselves or others. Faith is a consolation during times of trial, and a comfort as death approaches. If God does exist, then the redeeming and consoling impacts of faith are integral to the human experience. If God does not exist, why should Dawkins object to others using whatever coping mechanism works for them?  Supposing religion disappeared as The God Delusion hopes, a major source of friction among men and women would end, but so would a major source of warmth and comfort. A world without faith might be one of prosperity and civility, but also of rising depression, enervation, and loneliness--pretty much what we observe in the northern nations of the European Union, the least religious region of our Earth.

That Dawkins seeks to enforce his own sort of anti-faith orthodoxy is reflected in The God Delusion's odd fixation on the Templeton Prize, the roughly $1.5 million award given annually for advancing the faith-and-reason worldview. The book takes half a dozen shots at this prize, Dawkins implying the winners have tailored their opinions in hopes of winning some of billionaire financier John Templeton's money. But Dawkins himself holds an Oxford chair whose salary is endowed by the software billionaire Charles Simonyi, and that endowment supports the arguing of science over religion. Surely Dawkins would say he came to his views without regard to the financial benefits--why does he deny this assumption to the Templeton crowd? If it's okay for Dawkins to accept funding for his beliefs, it is not clear why it is wrong for others to accept funding to disagree with him.

What Dawkins Gets Right

Let me offer a point on which The God Delusion hits the bull's-eye, then close with two on which the book seems to land well wide of the mark. I agree with the chapter about the way religion is taught to the young. Adults who are themselves full of doubt regarding the claims of faith routinely teach biblical stories and ideas to children as facts. The God Delusion is right to denounce this. Children are "natural teleologians," Dawkins says, wanting everything to have a purpose--wanting to believe that clouds exist so flowers will get rain. Teaching them religion as if its claims about the past were undisputed exploits the child's unformed power of critical thinking, and lessens the value of any future spiritual beliefs. It's ridiculous to teach children the story of the Loaves and Fishes, or any such item, as history, though it might be. Children should be taught, "This is what scripture says about our past, and whether this true is one of the big questions of life. You must decide for yourself whether you will believe these claims."   In order to present a worst-case view of religion, Dawkins greatly inflates the role of Christian fundamentalism in American life. Polls consistently show that two-thirds or more of Americans support women's choice, oppose discrimination against homosexuals, believe in strict separation of church and state, and score highly on similar measures of tolerance. Dawkins thinks the fundamentalists in the United States have run amok--"Pat Robertson is entirely typical of those who today hold power and influence in the United States." That's an exaggerated view of the significance of Robertson and others of the same ilk. They aren’t running the country, though the British media may like to make it seem that way. Political Christian fundamentalism is just one factor in a big, complicated country where the main current of recent decades has been toward ever-more tolerance and diversity.

Dawkins states a case against God--but only against the fundamentalist conception of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and in direct control of earthly events. This is only one of many possible understandings of the divine. Many Christians and those of other faiths do not view their Maker as a flawless Absolute, nor does scripture necessarily claim this. In a sense, Dawkins argues against a straw God: the rigid, wrathful ruler of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. Millions do believe in such a God, but by addressing only the kind of supernatural envisioned by fundamentalism, The God Delusion ignores the huge numbers of thoughtful believers who approach faith on more sophisticated terms. For instance, the latest study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that only one-third of American Christians, Muslims, and Jews regard their scriptures as the inerrant word of God to be taken literally; Dawkins writes as if it's 99 percent.  

Millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims do not believe God is an angry Absolute, do not believe tsunamis and wars are "God's will," do not wish ill to other faiths, do not have any problem with natural selection theory--but still look up in wonder at the night sky and dream there may be so much more to existence than just scurrying about the streets of our little world. The God Delusion ignores believers who think this way, because they cannot be used as straw men.