Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Delusion conclusion

Herewith my concluding thoughts on Dawkins, so it seems only right to end with something that we can both agree on.

But first, let’s summarise. The entirety of The God Delusion is given over to showing, in Dawkins's opinion, (a) the supreme unlikeliness of God and (b) the harm that religion does. Even moderate, non-fanatical religion. A sweet, kindly imam who wouldn’t hurt a fly can still teach the kiddies to recite the Koran blindly off the top of their heads and they end up flying planes into skyscrapers. He says. If art arises from religion, it’s accidental; artists have to live and will take commissions from who they can. If morality comes from religion, its accidental; it can come equally from no religion, therefore the religion bit is dispensable.

We get a grim catalogue, and not just of the stuff we can all point at – the excesses of the past. He concentrates on the present. The mental and physical abuses wreaked by religious institutions. The sheer abuses of power. Dawkins uses the phrase ‘American Taliban’ several times for aspects of the Christian Right in the US and it certainly seems appropriate for, say, the guy with the website that charmingly calculates the number of days particular people have been burning in hell. Oral Roberts. The quoted general who chillingly declares that George W. Bush wasn’t elected, he was appointed by God.

Let’s not feel too smug in the UK; we have Christian Voice.

And so on.

He points at religion’s ability to set man against man. The Dawkins take is that good people do good things, bad people do bad things, but only religion leads good people to do bad things.

At this point I stop agreeing (surprise). I do agree that religion can lead good people to do bad things, but not on its own. I can think of two forces that cause just as much evil whether attached to religion or not.

One is tribalism. Even Dawkins accepts that religion is often just used as an excuse: if a Northern Ireland Protestant beats up a Northern Ireland Catholic, he’s not muttering ‘take that, you transubstantiationist heathen’ under his breath (the actual quote in the book is much funnier but sadly I didn’t note the page number and can’t find it now). The evil and hatred of the Northern Ireland conflict is based on tribalism, and if religion was removed from the equation ... it would be just the same.

Tribalism can work on its own without any religious trappings. The genocide of Rwanda? The BNP? And yet, Dawkins only pays lip service to our species’s ability to form groups that are capable of the most astonishing hatred. It would probably be inconvenient to his argument.

The other force is dogma, with its satellite of blind faith. ‘Thou shalt!’ Or equally, ‘thou shalt not!’ Dawkins provides evidence that some of the crimes of Nazism were hidden beneath a cloak of religion (I felt physically sick, reading speeches by A. Hitler describing himself as Christian), but it was dogma that drove them. And the crimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot had nothing to do with religion in any shape or form.

It’s when you bring these forces together that the evil starts.

Dawkins tells the heartbreaking story of a little Jewish boy called Edgardo Mortara, who had the misfortune to live in Italy in 1858 and to be given an ad hoc baptism by a Catholic maid to the family who thought the sickly child might die. She had been taught the rubbish that unbaptised children go to hell. The Inquisition got to hear of this. Officially, a baptism – any kind of baptism – meant he was legally a Catholic, and so at the age of six Edgardo was forcibly taken away from his devastated parents to be raised by the church. The church made it perfectly plain that it thought it was doing him a favour; and from all accounts, Edgardo grew up to share its view. He became a priest himself.

How. Utterly. Hideous.

Two things combined to make this happen. One was unchallenged dogma: the teaching that unbaptised children go to hell; the maid’s unthinking acceptance of what she had been taught; the church’s insistence that it’s better to be raised a Catholic without parents than a Jew with them. And the other was the fact that the church had the political and temporal power to make this happen, and get away with it.

Said it before, will say it again; religion should have no political power. None. Ever. And what privileges it has should be stripped away. Dawkins says, and I agree, that the problems of Northern Ireland would have vanished in a generation if the children of both sides had been allowed to be educated together. I’ll got a step further and say made to be educated together, like black and white children in the US in the sixties. And when they’re at school, let them be taught. Nothing should be withheld from them because it offends the religion of their parents. A fact is a fact is a fact. Every fact in the world is true. Let’s teach children truth. Novel concept, eh?

Yes, religion can create a framework which lets someone like Torquemada, who might never have been more than an obnoxious little prick of a cleric, come to dominate a nation. It’s a force multiplier and it works both ways. It also elevates people like Oscar Romero or Desmond Tutu and gives them a base to fight back from. On its own, religion isn’t a problem.

So there you have it – the unholy trinity. Religion + dogma + tribalism. Put the three of them together and truly terrible things have happened in history. Even just two of them together – any two – can still lead to evil. On their own, in descending order, I would say tribalism is the least acceptable of all and most likely to cause harm on its own; dogma is regrettable and annoying but not necessarily evil; and religion is the least likely of all to do harm.

So, the point where Dawkins and I agree? This time I can give the page number because I was so struck by reading it that I got out of bed and wrote it down. Page 308:
‘If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers.’
Amen, brother!

Of course, in Dawkins’s head, children who are taught to think will give up all that religious nonsense. He doesn’t know some of the kids I do.

He would make such a wonderful preacher.


  1. fantastic summary! i see what you mean that he understands so much, yet misses a few key points.
    although i do disagree with you that religion doesn't aid morality and that religion should have no political power (i'd bet the reign of king david was better for the people than most prime ministers we've ever had).

    it's been very useful to hear all this from you. well done for taking on the task of reading it, and well done for coming to a sensible conclusion!

  2. He says religion doesn't aid morality. I just quote him. But as for political power, King David was then, this is now. If we can guarantee our politicians will be as knowledgable and in touch with the Lord as David was, I'll withdraw my objection. Failing that, I'll settle for parliamentary democracy.

  3. I think you're bang on about tribalism. At university I studied a fascinating social psychology experiment where they split a group of people into two groups entirely arbitrarily, but told them it wasn't random (ie that they had something in common with their group that the other group didn't share). They immediately started ascribing positive characteristics to people in their own group and negative ones to the other group -- in othe words, they got tribal immediately. So people will hate each other even if they only *think* that they're different.

    Then they did the experiment again with a different group and this time told them that they were being assigned to groups entirely randomly. And exactly the same thing happened. Scary.

  4. you listed the morality thing in the section of things you agreed with, so i got confused.
    i know what you mean about politics and religion - i doubt it'll ever work again because it's so hard to lead a country and still be in touch with God, but david shows in theory it works (and what in theory works is often how it should work, we're just too useless a race to make it work).

    interesting experiment. i love psychology, so i'll bear that one in mind for future reference - thanks!

  5. In all honesty the majority of politicians become that because they like the idea of power. Anyone who likes power is not a good representative of God as the 'enemy' has an easy way of distracting them.

    Very nicely done set of articles. I wonder if Dawkins would join a house group...

  6. You're a tonic, Mr Jeapes. You've rationalised and questioned your beliefs (and continue to do so, not least with the Dawkins book), and you're still a Christian. (Whereas I've rationalised and questioned my beliefs, continue to do so, and remain an atheist.) It's refreshing, nay, delightful to know that people can test themselves like this and *not* all end up with the same answers.

    I suspect that if I ever met Mr Dawkins in person, I'd end up wanting to chin him.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.