I have heard a variety of reports on this book, ranging from brilliant to demonic. As one who realizes the social and political importance of the secular movement in the years to come, I had to pick up The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, to examine the book myself.
This may be one of the most influential books to contemporary society. Contrary to my expectation, Dawkins’ overarching thesis is not a single argument or even a set of arguments against the existence of God (or gods). Though he does make many strongly supported biological arguments and includes many other types of arguments that have been echoed over the centuries, the main point, I could tell, was not to provide other atheists with arguments against the existence of God. A plethora of such arguments can be found on the Internet, at your local library, in your classroom, or even in the thoughts of your brain.
The Special Treatment of Religion
The real point, which makes this book stand out from others on atheism and religion, is the argument that, whether religion is right or wrong, we as a society need to change our special treatment of religion.
There is an undeserved respect of religion in our culture. In daily life it is considered perfectly okay to argue about our favorite sports teams, our differences of taste in food and music, and even our political beliefs. But the moment religion is brought up, it suddenly becomes “rude” or “offensive” to disagree with a believer or to even slightly question his or her beliefs. This, of course, is prime hypocrisy as many religions downright treat agnostics and atheists as subhuman or fools: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” (Psalm 14:1). Imagine the public outcry that would occur if, in some atheist meeting, the members called all religious believers “fools.” Yet when religious people call all atheists “fools,” it’s perfectly okay, because you got to respect their religious beliefs. I suppose when religious people call blacks or women inferior, you’re supposed to respect that too? Does the religiosity of a belief make it immune to criticism?
Dawkins argues that the discussion of religion, like any other topic, should not be taboo, and that when a religious person makes an absurd proclamation (all 3 examples in the last half-year), you have every right in the world to criticize it, and moreover you should be able to criticize it without ever having to worry about “offending” them or their religion or anyone else’s religion.
Christianity and Islam
While Dawkins primarily targets Christianity, since it is the dominant religion in Western culture, he also mentions the even more undeserved respect for Islam that arises simply because it is is a minority in places like the US and the UK. In response to a Danish newspaper in 2006 which satirized the Islamic prophet Muhammad, demonstrators burned Danish flags, trashed embassies and consulates, boycotted Danish products, physically threatened Westerners, burned Christian churches (with no Danish or European connections at all), and killed 9 at the Italian consulate in Benghazi. This series of events would be tragically repeated in 2012. From Dawkins, on the 2006 incident:
A bounty of $1 million was placed on the head of ‘the Danish cartoonist’ by a Pakistani imam – who was apparently unaware that there were twelve different Danish cartoonists, and almost certainly unaware that the three most offensive pictures had never appeared in Denmark at all (and, by the way, where was that million going to come from?). In Nigeria, Muslim protesters against the Danish cartoons burned down several Christian churches, and used machetes to attack and kill (black Nigerian) Christians in the streets. One Christian was put inside a rubber tyre, doused with petrol and set alight. Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners saying ‘Slay those who insult Islam’, ‘Butcher those who mock Islam’, ‘Europe you will pay: Demolition is on its way’ and, apparently without irony, ‘Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion’. Fortunately, our political leaders were on hand to remind us that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy. (p. 47-48)
Dawkins doesn’t explicitly say it, but I think the message is pretty clear. He sympathized with the Christians in the larger religious conflict. Similar sentiments are echoed by Sam Harris, who has stated, quite explicitly, that of these two Abrahamic religions, Christianity is the lesser of the two evils.
Again, the political refrain from criticizing the response of Islamic extremists demonstrates undeserving respect of religion in our society. Politicians, always fearful of losing their constituency, feel to afraid denounce such violence. As a result, we let it go on. Until we as a society allow ourselves to discuss religion openly, we will always be at the hands of its extremists who thrive on the inability of our leaders to take meaningful action.
Faith is Not a Virtue
Another undeserved respect we give to religion is accepting its dogma that faith is a virtue. Faith, by definition, is believing in something with insufficient evidence, and oftentimes in practice, it means believing in something without a shred of evidence. Dawkins argues that faith is in fact the opposite of virtuous:
…what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them—given certain other ingredients that are not too hard to come by—to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades. Immunized against fear by the promise of a martyr’s paradise, the authentic faith-head deserves a high place in the history of armaments, alongside the longbow, the warhorse, the tank and the cluster bomb. 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. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools: that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise. And they were taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentile, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong. (p. 347-348)
This is an important point to make. What can be more dangerous than people who have the capacity to do great harm, who have been taught that doing so is justified, but without the capacity to question their thoughts? What is more dangerous than one who destroys the lives of others while believing without question that they are doing the right thing? Intriguingly, Dawkins also brings up the fact that many extremists were not raised by extremists, but by well-meaning parents or perhaps even a well-meaning community, but whose individual determination went too far. This is an important point for “liberal” and “moderate” religious people to consider. It is the majority of otherwise non-fundamentalists that enable the extremists.
In addition to the social commentary, which to me is the most important point of this book, Dawkins uses his expertise as an evolutionary biologist to explain the origin and early persistence of religion in some of the middle chapters. The main thesis here is that evolution early on favored brains who would unquestioningly accept what their parents or their elders spoke. For instance, the child who obeyed “Don’t punch a sleeping bear” probably had a higher chance of survival than the one who didn’t obey. Hence, the unquestioning acceptance of dogmatic belief and passing on that dogmatic belief could actually be hardwired in our brains.
But, as Dawkins points out, it is not that simple. If an elder said “Don’t punch a sleeping bear, and every month we must sacrifice a goat,” a child is not able to process that one statement is sensible and the other is absurd, and hence accepts both of them. Since it works (or at least seems to work), the child later passes on the knowledge to his or her own children, and the cycle repeats. The useless monthly sacrificing of a goat is a freeloader that is passed on into the next society without helping it at all. This is not unlike how many useless DNA mutations arise in genetic drift.
Some religious ideas survive because they are compatible with other memes that are already numerous in the meme pool—as part of a memeplex. (p. 231)
After all, Richard Dawkins is the originator of the term “meme.”
Indeed, religion has been unjustly immune to criticism for far too long. Even by claiming that we should be allowed to openly discuss religion, Dawkins has been denounced as offensive to religious belief, when the unquestioning belief itself is what should offend a modern society. Many say that it is the extremists who are harmful and that most moderates don’t do any harm—and while this is true in that they don’t cause any damage directly, the religious moderates and even liberals comprise the enormous base of support who enable the extremists. When 46% of the United States, the most technologically and scientifically advanced country in the world, believes in creationism and 73% of our population is Christian, it is difficult to criticize the democratically elected Rep. Paul Broun’s statement that “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” (This guy is a part of the congressional science advisory board.) Instead, many religious “moderates” and “liberals” don’t denounce Broun’s ideology at all, and merely state that he is too literally interpreting the Bible or something, as if they know how to interpret the Bible better than he does. They play this interpretation game instead of dealing with the actual problem, the religion itself, because in the end they are on the same side as Rep. Broun. Until we address this root cause, we cannot move forward as a society.
The God Delusion, published in 2006, is likely to be the most important book of its decade. This timing is especially crucial because the 2000’s is the same decade in which the Internet engulfed everything and people became closer together through social networks. With the increasing interconnections and intercultural frictions that have arisen, it more important than ever that we stand by reason and not by superstition, that we stand by tolerance and not by dogma, and that we stand by progress towards the future and not by ancient myths of the past.