Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Still trying to decide if this one lives up to all the hype. At some point Dawkins says that his hope and intent for any believer who reads this book is that they will give up their belief. I doubt Dawkins has had much success with that. It’s an entertaining read for anyone who already thinks religion is more of a problem than a solution, but converting believers to non-believers? I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

But Dawkins does a good job of pointing out the absurdity of religion or, maybe more specifically, our society’s reverence for it. Case in point:

On 21 February 2006 the United States Supreme Court ruled that a church in New Mexico should be exempt from the law, which everybody else has to obey, against the taking of hallucinogenic drugs. Faithful members of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they can understand God only by drinking hoasca tea, which contains the illegal hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine. Note that it is sufficient that they believe that the drug enhances their understanding. They do not have to produce evidence. Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that cannabis eases the nausea and discomfort of cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy. Yet the Supreme Court ruled, in 2005, that all patients who use cannabis for medicinal purposes are vulnerable to federal prosecution (even in the minority of states where such specialist use is legalized). Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they ‘believe’ they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet, when a church claims an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such is the power of religion as a talisman.

I especially liked this next extended passage, where Dawkins makes the point that…

All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them. [Pascal] Boyer did research on the Fang people of Cameroon, who believe…

…that witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.

Boyer continues with a personal anecdote:

I was mentioning these and other exotica over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Cambridge theologian, turned to me and said: ‘That is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.’ Which left me dumbfounded. The conversation had moved on before I could find a pertinent response—to do with kettles and pots.

Assuming that the Cambridge theologian was a mainstream Christian, he probably believed some combination of the following:

1. In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.

2. The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.

3. The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.

4. Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and them disappeared bodily into the sky.

5. If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.

6. If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.

7. The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.

8. Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

What would an objective anthropologist, coming fresh to this set of beliefs while on fieldwork in Cambridge, make of them?

There were also a couple of interesting revelations for me. Like this quotation from a 1981 Barry Goldwater speech, that Dawkins calls surprising because of how staunchly the once presidential candidate and hero of American conservatism upheld the secular tradition of the Republic’s foundation:

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.

Wow. I wonder what George W. Bush would think of that? Or Karl Rove?

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, so he presents the case that everything humans think and do are somehow a result of evolution, even what others would call our ‘moral sense’ of right and wrong.

Natural selection favours genes that predispose individuals, in relationships of asymmetric need and opportunity, to give when they can, and to solicit giving when they can’t. It also favours tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships and punish cheats who take, but don’t give when their turn comes. For there will always be cheats, and stable solutions to the game-theoretic conundrums of reciprocal altruism always involve an element of punishment of cheats. Mathematical theory allows two broad classes of stable solution to ‘games’ of this kind. ‘Always be nasty’ is stable in that, if everybody is doing it, a single nice individual cannot do better. But there is another strategy which is also stable. (‘Stable’ means that, once it exceeds a critical frequency in the population, no alternative does better.) This is the strategy, ‘Start out being nice, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Then repay good deeds with good, but avenge bad deeds’

What I like about this, whether it arose through natural selection or not, is that ‘Start out being nice, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Then repay good deeds with good, but avenge bad deeds’ seems like the very essence of morality to me.

And how about this thought:

Before leaving the Bible, I need to call attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethical teaching. Christians seldom realize that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. ‘Love they neighbour’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.’ The point is devastatingly made by the American physician and evolutionary anthropologist John Hartung. He has written a remarkable paper on the evolution and biblical history of in-group morality, laying stress, too, on the flip side—out-group hostility.

The more I read about this subject, the more I’m exposed to the idea that our modern understanding on the Bible is based on modern thought, not on the thought that existed at the time the different books of the Bible were written. Dawkins goes on to describe Hartung’s paper at some length, as well as an experiment conducted by Israeli psychologist George Tamarin, in which Israeli schoolchildren were asked questions about the morality of the actions of certain biblical figures. The vast majority of schoolchildren defended the actions of their Jewish heroes in even the most horrific and genocidal instances. But the most fascinating part was Tamarin’s control group:

A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 percent approved of General Lin’s behaviour, and 75 per cent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

In the latter half of Hartung’s paper, he moves on to the New Testament. To give a brief summary of his thesis, Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality—coupled with out-group hostility—that was taken from granted in the Old Testament. Jesus was a loyal Jew. It was Paul who invented the idea of taking the Jewish God to the Gentiles. Hartung puts it more bluntly than I dare: ‘Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul would be taking his plan to the pigs.’

Our understanding about the roots of Christianity is far from complete, and Dawkins presents a lot of other evidence to demonstrate that:

In the December 2004 issue of Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn, the Editor of that excellent magazine, assembled a collection of articles documenting the contradictions and gaping holes in the well-loved Christmas story. Flynn himself lists the many contradictions between Matthew and Luke, the only two evangelists who treat the birth of Jesus at all. Robert Gillooly shows how all the essential features of the Jesus legend, including the star in the east, the virgin birth, the veneration of the baby by kings, the miracles, the execution, the resurrection and the ascension are borrowed—every last one of them—from other religions already in existence in the Mediterranean and Near East region. Flynn suggests that Matthew’s desire to fulfill messianic prophecies (descent from David, birth in Bethlehem) for the benefit of Jewish readers came into headlong collision with Luke’s desire to adapt Christianity for the Gentiles, and hence to press the familiar hot buttons of pagan Hellenistic religions (virgin birth, worship by kings, etc.). The resulting contradictions are glaring, but consistently overlooked by the faithful.

Dawkins is skilled at calling attention to other contradictions, several that I’ve not heard discussed before. Try this passage the next time a believer dismisses the Old Testament as only symbolic:

I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment—thereby, incidentally, condemning remote future generations of Jews to pogroms and persecution as ‘Christ-killers’: did that hereditary sin pass down in the semen too?

Paul, as the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes makes clear, was steeped in the old Jewish theological principle that without blood there is no atonement. Indeed, in his Epistle to the Hebrews (9:22) he said as much. Progressive ethicists today find it hard to defend any kind of retributive theory of punishment, let alone the scapegoat theory—executing an innocent to pay for the sins of the guilty. In any case (one can’t help wondering), who was God trying to impress? Presumably himself—judge and jury as well as execution victim. To cap it all, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place: an awkward fact—excusably unknown to Paul but presumably known to an omniscient God (and Jesus, if you believe he was God?)—which fundamentally undermines the premise of the whole tortuously nasty theory. Oh, but of course, the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic? So, in order to impress himself, Jesus had himself tortured and executed, in vicarious punishment for a symbolic sin committed by a non-existent individual? As I said, barking mad, as well as viciously unpleasant.

And Dawkins’ charm and command of language is also on display:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all 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.

And his book is also chock full of memorable quotes from other places. Like:

From Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”

From Thomas Jefferson: “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

From Gore Vidal: “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal—God is the Omnipotent Father—hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.”

From Spanish film director Luis Bunuel: “God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.”

From Seneca the Younger: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

And then there’s his most infamous proposition of all—equating a religious upbringing with child abuse:

Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.

Controversial and powerful stuff. But does Dawkins succeed in doing what he set out to do—bring believers to unbelief? I say no. His argument is framed antagonistically, and that’s not going to win over any converts. He would be better served trying to rally everyone against the same enemy, as I thought Sam Harris did a little more effectively in The End of Faith. Although Harris blurred the distinction too frequently, I got the sense that he ultimately understood the fundamental problem. After reading The God Delusion, I’m not convinced that Dawkins even sees the difference between “religion” and “dogma” (religious or otherwise). It is the latter that deserves to be expunged.

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