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.