Homer Numan

Homer Numan

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion

I've just finished reading 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins, the surprise Autumn bestseller (over 50 thousand hardback copies sold in the UK in barely a month).
Needless to say, Mr.Dawkins comes up with few earth-shatteringly new arguments against the existence of a deity, but the sheer volume of his material, coupled with a deluge of scientific fact and a highly readable style prove to be a quite devestating combination against a subject that is, after all, an absurdly easy target.
Personally, I've never had a problem with anyone harbouring the notion of a deity within the privacy of their own brain, but unfortunately these ideas have had a tendency to escape into the real world, wreaking havoc, guilt, genocide, bigotry and intolerance.

'When one or two people have a delusion, it is classed as a mental illness -- when millions share a delusion, it's a religion. It doesn't make it any less of a delusion.'

I've just read in the Sunday Times of a wedding party in Baghdad literally blown apart by a car bomb. 23 entirely innocent people were murdered and dozens more injured in an act which defies any logic. Unless of course you factor in religious belief. The people targetted were Shi'ite Muslims -- their killers were almost certainly Sunni Muslims. It was an act depressingly familiar to the Northern Ireland experience -- terrorists claiming to represent the Roman Catholic community slaughtering innocent Protestants (and receiving a substantial electoral mandate) and vice versa.
So much for the idea that the religious somehow have high moral standards derived from God.

Dawkins stated that an argument frequently thrown at him is that non-believers can have 'no moral standards', as these are set down in the Bible or the Koran or whatever other holy book you fancy. Barbaric acts such as those above, which although carried out by a handful of fanatics, are tacitly supported within many devoutly religious communities, give the absolute lie to this statement. For any long-term conflict to exist, there is a necessity for complete demonisation of the 'other side'. Religious belief fosters this inherent notion of tribalism -- the 'safety in numbers', the 'we alone have the truth' idea. Imams and Christian preachers, as well as Sikhs and Hindus preach the absolute correctness of their own doctrine and the absolute errancy of all others. Then we throw up our hands in mock despair when Protestants and Roman Catholics, Sikhs and Hindus and Sunnis and Shi-ites clash in ever more bloody and dangerous conflicts.

Dawkins rightly criticises the western societal notion that religious leaders and their beliefs should be given creedence in the mainstream media and political spheres. Religious representatives are wheeled on to pontificate on such issues as stem cell research and euthanasia, whilst no-one thinks to ask the same questions of say, the local Star Trek fan club.
Somehow one group is more qualified to profess on moral issues than another -- deity believers are somehow better citizens than sceptics. But are they?

Non-believers do not commit any more crimes, large or small, than believers, and the court and prison statistics prove this beyond all doubt. Non-believers are not uniformly cruel, totalitarian, self-centred monsters devoid of a moral compass. We have the Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians for that.

Dawkins rails against the indoctrination of children into particular beliefs, at an age when they are entirely unable to give any subjective analysis of what is being thrown at them. The US docu-film; 'Jesus Camp' is one of the most terrifying films you are ever likely to see, because it's all true. Children as young as six really are being brainwashed into believing that they should be prepared to die for Christ, that evolutionary theory is evil, that all other religions are wrong and should be destroyed, that abortionists should be shot and bizarrely, that global warming is a lie.
Whilst this type of 'camp' is the extreme, the phenomenon of faith schools is no less harmful and divisive, and ostensibly secular countries allow this curious form of child abuse at their peril. Northern Ireland wouldn't be what it is today without faith schools, neither would 7/7 have had it's potential breeding ground of hatred.
The idea that children must automatically follow their parents' faith is a very strange one. Very few parents expect their children to follow their professions or eating habits -- that's something for the child to decide on as they grow up -- why should faith, particularly when there are so many valid (or invalid) choices available, be any different? At best, it's indoctrination, at worst it's child abuse.

Richard Dawkins is of course, a Darwinian scientist, a powerful supporter of evolutionary theory. He sets out a highly complicated subject in a readable and understandable manner, effortlessly blowing apart the fundamentalist Christian notion that evolution means that we all 'came from a rock' or that 'I'm not related to a monkey.' This blithe dismissal of a subject that most religionists know little or nothing about is every bit as insulting as stating that 'brain surgery is just messing about with a piece of meat', or (as a relative of my own seriously suggested) that a 'GPs job is nothing more than patting a patient's hand and giving out tablets.'
I personally don't pretend to know where we came from or where we're going, but I would be inclined to believe that evolution in some form is a more likely explanation than the simplistic burblings of creationism. The very fact that the religious right in America are pushing a spurious idea of 'intelligent design', which basically accepts that evolution has occured, but under 'God's guidance' is proof enough for me.

Dawkins states that the sight of a woman in a burka is 'one of the unhappiest sights on our streets today' and of course I would agree with him. What he doesn't acknowledge however, is that a large proportion of Muslim women, particularly in the west, wear these objects, and various variations of them, entirely of their own free will. Such badges of subjucation and delusion are testament to the awesome power of religious ideas to twist our perceptions of reality, to blur the lines between superstition and common sense. We may (in most cases) have been able to divest ourselves of the notions of astrology and witch burning, but the notion of a male deity who doesn't much like women remains steadfast.

Ultimately of course, it is impossible to talk anyone in or out of faith. Objective argument with a religious person is simply not possible, any more than it is possible to talk a child out of the notion of their 'imaginary friend', and indeed Dawkins includes that notion in his book. Ultimately the child must choose to retain or relinquish their imaginary friend, the difference of course being that an adult with an imaginary friend would be considered at best odd, at worst mentally ill, whereas an adult conversing with an invisible deity (inevitably a man) is considered perfectly normal.

Perhaps most depressingly of all, despite the extraordinary enlightenment on the human condition introduced through scientific progress in the last few centuries, organised religion is making a comeback. A highly dramatic, though statistically insignificant event -- 9/11, appears to have acted as a catalyst for the resurregence of religious tribal enmities. Suddenly Muslims are a dangerous fifth column of potential psychopaths, right-wing Christians are obsessive, moral jihadists in all but name and rational secularists are the scum of the earth.
Watching the downright terrifying recent Channel 4 documentary; 'The Doomsday Code', which revealed much of the USA (the most powerful nation on the planet) to be in full belief of such fanciful notions as angels, the 'end-times' and becoming 'rapture-ready', I was reminded of the line from Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 1984 hit 'Two Tribes' -- 'it's enough to make you wonder sometimes if you're on the right planet.'

Ultimately what Dawkins book proves beyond doubt is that man is a deluded animal. And woman is quite happy to go along with him.

More vicious attacks on religious belief than Dawkin's have (and will) be written, but his strength is in coming across as a decent, rational human being, the sort of person you would be delighted to have a chat with over a cup of coffee. Whether you might be as tempted to chat with an American Pentecostal preacher or a fundamentalist Imam is of course a matter of taste. But unlike the voices of radical and unquestioning belief, I'll let YOU decide.

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