The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
I seem to be reading a lot of books about the negative effect of religion these days. I’ve started out with no intention to read any of them, but first tackled Sam Harris’ The End of Faith because the book group discussion was just too interesting not to participate. I found Harris’s book an eye opener. The number one idea I took away from it was that it doesn’t make sense to exempt religious ideas from any sort of logical argument. Our culture tacitly agrees that anyone can believe anything they want and the result is often that once someone interjects a religious sentiment into the argument or discussion, the debaters silently slink off, whether they agree or not, on the theory that the person is “entitled to his belief”. Believe it or not it had not occurred to me that that practice was not exactly correct. It was tolerant and humane. Harris convinced me it was also dangerous. I think he also convinced me that religion was dangerous when it was “moderate”. Then I read Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy which was notable primarily for the statistics on the numbers of Americans who believe literally in the Bible and the growth of fundamentalist believers and churches—at the expense of the mainline protestant denominations like the one I was raised in. In the interim I read several articles and speeches such as the one by Bill Moyers on why Christians in thrall to The Rapture don’t care about conservation because they expect the world to end soon anyway. (I see he’s even published a short book on the subject called Welcome to Doomsday). The God Delusion is my third read on this topic in less than a year, despite the fact that I would not say that religion is one of my priority topics.
I must say to start off with that while my response to Dawkins’ book was a series of "but"s, in all honesty I must stay that he had anticipated my responses and gave answers that satisfied me. Which is not the same thing as saying I loved the book. I do not belong to any church, I don’t believe in a personal God, but I was influenced by religion as I was growing up and thought of The Sermon on the Mount, for example, as a moral model worth following. I am interested now, if not in religion, certainly in spirituality.
He too says, with Harris, that it’s illogical and dangerous to refuse to argue with religious ideas. In an interview he answered the question about why he sounded so angry with the following: “People have gotten so used to the idea that religion must be immune to criticism that even a very mild and gentle criticism of religion comes across as angry and intolerant.” And he replied to the accusation of arrogance and condescension similarly: “Once again, the accusation of arrogance comes about because religion has acquired this weird protection that you're not allowed to criticize.”
One of Dawkins’ more interesting ideas is that children should not be labeled with their religion because they’re too young to know their own minds. He cringes if a child is called “a Muslim child” or “a Christian child”. He called it “child abuse” to terrify a young child with threats of hellfire and damnation. (I was simultaneously rereading Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where I personally cringed at the sermons young Stephen heard in school.)Still, I can’t imagine anyone reading this book without getting angry at something he says. He is angry and he is arrogant. He’s also militant for atheism, something which strikes me as potentially as scary as religion. For me he was most convincing when he argued that morality could indeed exist in the absence of religion—though he went rather overboard in convincing readers that if the Bible were interpreted literally some very unacceptable moral positions emerged. Most of his examples were from the Old Testament (there were far more than were necessary to make his point—he seemed to enjoy the particularly gruesome ones) but he targeted the New Testament too, saying that the moral rules were intended for the in-group only, that no one was ever expected to love anyone outside. Needless to say, he didn’t deal with Jesus’ compassion for tax collectors, sinners, enemies and prostitutes. Still he was quite convincing when he talked about what's generally seen today as moral versus even what was seen as moral a generation of two ago. Not so long ago anti-semitism, racism, and the inferiority of women were relatively acceptable moral positions.