Saturday, May 05, 2012
Book Review : The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins 6*
Dawkins hates religion, much of The God Delusion burns with his fury at theism in all its forms. I say in all its forms but to be honest it is mostly the big faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that Dawkins takes on, and Christianity that he seems particularly angry about.
Dawkins is obviously a hugely intelligent man, Oxford University don't choose fools to be professors, and he has an incredible pedigree in the fields of ethology and evolutionary biology. He also has quite a large ego, I don't think I have read another scholarly book in which the author mentions himself quite so often. Dawkins just loves pointing out how clever he has been in previous verbal sparring with theists and how often he himself has demolished theist arguments. It does become a little wearing after a while.
Where Dawkins is particularly strong is the science. I enjoyed discussions on topics like Martin Rees' six constants theory, and the evolution pieces are splendid especially where Dawkins explores in detail how a pre-disposition toward religion could have been a very useful, if slightly misdirected, element of evolution itself.
Where Dawkins makes rather a fool of himself is politics. He asserts twice in TGD that without religion, there would have been no Troubles in Northern Ireland, and then claims that if children were schooled together the tensions in that community would die out in a generation. This is simply rubbish, those people in NI who consider themselves Irish and Catholic would still be opposed to a British and Protestant government if the religious element was missing. Although I have some sympathy for the view that cross-community schooling would help the community as a whole, joint education of white and black/asian children certainly has not wiped out racism in the wider community.
Dawkins really attacks religion, and tried to prop up the values of atheism by claiming that religion systematically influences people to do bad things. One of his arguments for this is that he doesn't think that there are many atheists in prison (an unverified claim as far as I can see), you could look at this claim from another point of view and say that people turn to religion when they get themselves into a bad spot. In a Louis Theroux documentary a prison guard offered a nicely cynical point of view when he said that he saw a lot of religious 'conversions' in prisoners as it certainly didn't harm their chances with the parole board.
There are numerous instances of religious people doing bad things, far too many to count. Bad Popes, the Inquisition, dozens of Kings and Queens who have made war for religious reasons, paedophile priests, the nutters from the Westboro Baptist Church, all claiming that one god or another tells them to do bad things. Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler were all largely atheist though, and that didn't stop any of them from massacring millions.
I have tried to think of a single moment when my church, its priests and followers, its teachings and public pronouncements have influenced or encouraged me to be bad. I cannot think of one. Instead I can clearly remember the things it has tried to influence me to do. To love all people equally without regard for race, nationality or religion. To have compassion and charity for those less fortunate. To know the difference between the older faith of an eye for an eye which we do not follow and the teachings of Christ that we should turn the other cheek. To strive to be the best you can be in this life, but not at the expense of others.
The God Delusion was an interesting read, but did it destroy my belief in God and throw a new kind of light into my life ? Well, it didn't. It raised some interesting questions, trod over a lot of already well trodden anti-religious rhetoric and argued mostly wisely from a scientific point of view. On the downside there are far too many assumptions and presumptions made when scientific fact and research would have safely shored up his arguments, such as in his discussion of the Montreal Police strike when he says "the majority of the population of Montreal presumably believed in God." It is no good presuming things when arguing from a scientific viewpoint, do the research, find the facts and use them, unless you have found them and they don't quite support the point you wish to make.