Are you there, God? It's me, Richard

Are You There, God? It's Me, Richard

The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

The Iron Dream
The God Delusion
Houghton Mifflin, 2006
406 pages, $35.95

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror. A naif blessed with the perspective of innocence has a clearer perception. Winston Churchill's son Randolph somehow contrived to remain ignorant of scripture until Evelyn Waugh and a brother officer, in a vain attempt to keep Churchill quiet when they were posted together during the war, bet him he couldn't read the entire Bible in a fortnight: 'Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud "I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible..." or merely slapping his side & chortling "God, isn't God a shit!"' Thomas Jefferson - better read - was of a similar opinion: 'The Christian God is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.' (The God Delusion, page 31.)

Some years ago an old friend - call him John - offered to lend me the money for a new computer; he didn't want me paying the usurious interest putting the purchase on my VISA would have entailed. I knew his financial position was such that two grand would impose no hardship on him, so I gratefully accepted his offer. In due course, he sent me a contract and a cheque, the former specifying a repayment schedule and a variable interest rate of Prime plus two percent. I signed the contract and endorsed the cheque, intending to deposit it the following day.

But when I checked my email, there was note from John, asking me not to deposit the cheque, for reasons - he said - he would explain later., though he never did.

John is a very serious and thoughtful Christian and one of the few religious people I have been close to. Around that time, we had been discussing his faith and comparing it to my lack of same. A couple of weeks earlier he had suggested I check out a usenet discussion group he frequented, one dedicated to his particular brand of Christianity.

And so I spent some time reading posts concerning Church policies and debates over the meaning of biblical passages, among other arcana. This was clearly an intelligent and thoughtful group of people, but they were discussing in depth a subject that interested me only as it might an amateur anthropologist. Moreover, the basic belief - or faith, to be strictly accurate - behind all of the discussions going on was one something I could not, in all honesty, take seriously. I was bored senseless and soon gave up reading the newsgroup.

When John asked for my thoughts, I gave. We had argued politics, philosophy, literature and even, sometimes, religion since grade seven, and our friendship - with a few angry breaks - had somehow endured our disagreements. Unfortunately, my sense of diplomacy failed me and I chose to respond in a way that was, at very best, insensitive. I told him that reading the group was "like listening to two 10 year-olds arguing who would win a fight between Batman and Spiderman.

Though, as I said, John never told me why he'd withdrawn the loan, his terse email arrived the day after I had sent him the rude one. The timing alone was enough to convince me there was probably a connection. After a few months, our friendship recovered, but I had learned a lesson about matters of faith - believers take their beliefs very seriously; some may be willing to have their faith questioned, but even unintentional mockery is something else entirely.

The foregoing is, in part, intended to disclose that I came to Richard Dawkins' most recent book, The God Delusion, fully expecting to enjoy it, and to agree with it. I was raised without religion, I have never believed in God and have been self-consciously an atheist since I was no more than 10 years old.

I most likely would not have read it all were it not for the reviews I had read. These implied the book was too shrill, that Dawkins was too angry and too one-sided. What about the evils committed by atheists, they wondered; don't the crimes committed by the likes of Stalin or Mao prove that religion is no cause of evil? And wasn't Dawkins' militant atheism just as "religious" as the faith of the believers? After all, you can't disprove God, can you?

Those arguments - that since atheists can be monsters, therefore there is nothing inherently wrong with religion; that the impossibility of disproving the existence of God means there is no reason not to believe in "Him" - are sophistic, of course, but I was curious about the actual tone Dawkins took, and whether his book did, in fact, fail as an attempt to convince his readers that perhaps there is nothing supernatural behind existence.

As a good scientist, Dawkins' primary focus is on facts and evidence, on how the world really is, not on how he might wish it to be. As a very good writer and rhetorician, he makes his case logically and carefully. And it needs to be said: he is sometimes very funny, as well. The God Delusion is no dry academic treatise, nor is it a wild rant by a raging atheist unbalanced by an anti-deistic chip on his shoulder. Yet there is no denying that Dawkins takes his subject seriously and that his belief that atheism is, in fact, superior to any religion-based understanding of the world is deeply-felt on his part. Any reader approaching The God Delusion as a believer is going feel uncomfortable at best, and probably insulted or scandalized, as well. Dawkins has taken the gloves off.

The God Delusion is broken up into 10 chapters. The first, "A Deeply Religious Non-Believer", explores the connections and the discontinuities between religious belief and a spiritual sense of wonder about the universe and our place within it. "A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief."

Dawkins also here defines his terms and sets out the broad outlines of his argument, insisting especially on a strict definition of the word, God: "...if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is 'appropriate for us to worship'."

The second chapter explores "the god hypothesis" itself, as well Dawkins' own counter-hypothesis, which deserves to be quoted length.

"[T]here exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion." [The italics are Dawkins'.]

In this chapter, Dawkins explores the differences between monotheism, polytheism, agnosticism and atheism, and frankly acknowledges the impossibility of disproving a negative, which leads to amusing encounters with both Bertrand Russell's cosmic teapot and the more recent Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. More seriously, he explains the scientific method and the importance of evidence in relation to making conclusions about what is, about what might be and about what probably isn't.

The third chapter directly addresses arguments for the existence of god and - to this admittedly prejudiced reader, at least - rebuts them all quite nicely, from the ostensibly imposing thoughts of people such as Saint Thomas Aquinas to the patently ludicrous (not to mention intellectually dishonest) claptrap of "Intelligent Design Theory".

Chapter four, "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God", explores the lack of any empirical evidence for supernatural forces which interfere in the workings of the cosmos. Dawkins explains clearly and convincingly how science has explained many things once reserved as mysteries explicable only by divine revelation, and why those things which remain mysterious do not provide any logical reason to conclude, "Well, God did it." One example is the fact that science cannot (yet) explain the precise mechanism of how life began in the first place. Yet this lack of knowledge is no (logical) reason to (a) assume that we never will or (b) to decide that "God did it". I don't know specifically where my neighbour got her dogs - should I therefore conclude they were a gift from God?

The middle chapters look into the roots of religion and of morality. Of religion, he explores its possible evolutionary survival value, as well as the possibility it developed as a side effect of something else entirely (contrary to popular belief, not every trait that evolved did so because it was necessarily a good thing for an organism's long-term survival. Some traits evolve due to specific conditions, others arise at random - ie, they are mutations which neither help nor hinder survival and so spread through a given population simply because nothing weeds them out - while still others were side-effects. The ability to walk erect almost certainly had survival-value for early hominids; the resulting propensity to suffer lower back problems certainly did not). He further explores the origins and evolution of religion(s) itself, and so comes to chapter 8, "What's Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?"

Colleagues who agree that there is no God, who agree that we do not need religion to be moral, and agree that we can explain the roots of religion and of morality in non-religious terms, nevertheless come back at me in gentle puzzlement. Why are you so hostile? What is actually wrong with religion? Does it really do so much harm that we should actively fight against it? Why not live and let live, as one does with Taurus and Scorpio, crystal energy and ley lines? Isn't it all just harmless nonsense?

I might retort that such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice towards religion is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement. But my interlocutor usually doesn't leave it at that. He may go on to say something like this: 'Doesn't your hostility mark you out as a fundamentalist atheist, just as fundamentalist in your own way as the wingnuts of the Bible Belt in theirs?'

Dawkins answer is essentially that his atheism is based upon evidence and reason, not upon the ravings "revelations" ostensibly given to some holy man hundreds or thousands of years in the past. "Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check the evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books."

He argues - and argues very well - that religious belief itself is not only intellectually stupefying to the individual, but to society as well. And further argues that "moderate" religion lay the groundwork for the fundamentalists who hate those who don't believe in their particular "truth." (Note how often the bloodiest and most brutal civil wars - that going on now in Iraq is a prime example - occur between different sects of the same religion.)

In the penultimate chapter, "Childhood, Abuse and the Escape From Religion", Dawkins makes what is probably his most "offensive" and certainly his most radical contention. That (and leaving aside the insanity of the idea that a 5 year-old can be said to "have" a religious "faith" at all) raising a child in any religion is a form of child abuse. On a personal level, he notes a relatively minor incident of sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a teacher as a child, and compares it with the words of an woman raised as a Roman Catholic. He paraphrases most of her letter to him, including this pertinent section.

At the age of seven, she told me, two unpleasant things had happened to her. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And, around the same time, a little schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant...She wrote:

Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as 'yucky' while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest - but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would to go Hell. It gave me nightmares.

Dawkins is a passionate, engaging, humane and sometimes very funny writer. But I wonder how many of those readers he hopes to reach are likely to be swayed.

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism! Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan. But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn't 'take', or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether. At the very least, I hope that nobody who reads this book will be able to say, 'I didn't know I could.'

If you are an atheist or an agnostic, you will almost certainly enjoy The God Delusion. It will strengthen your conviction (or weaken your lack of any conviction at all), will provoke more thought than you probably expect, and will certainly add an argument or two to your arsenal that you didn't have the last time a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses come calling.

I am not so sure it will do much to accomplish Dawkins' stated aim, however. I fear that even open-minded believers will find their faith so challenged, their cherished beliefs so shaken, that few will be able to finish the book. If they are willing to test their faith in the first place.

But I hope I am wrong about that. Our world needs less faith and more thought; fewer answers and more questions. Richard Dawkins has written an important, powerful book, one that should change many minds in a very good way.

Spread the word!

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