Friday, 5 April 2013

Richard Dawkins's 'The God Delusion': Religiosity is too widespread to be pinned on believers.

In ‘The God Delusion’ Richard Dawkins makes a good scientific case for rejecting the existence of God. He argues that He would have to be infinitely more complex than the universe He is supposed to have created, so where (the Hell) did He come from in the first place? He also sets out (Dawkins that is, not God) – if at an unheavenly length – the many foul acts that besmirch the Bible and other holy books, and that have since been perpetrated by religious fundamentalists down the centuries. He also makes a great case for science and scientists, who by and large are able to change their views when evidence contradicts them.

Some reservations, though:
Dawkins is convincing about the matter of the genesis and development of life but not about the genesis of matter, which this scientifically dense but otherwise literate reader can’t recall him addressing (in this book at least), or about the development of the human race, which in my view has pretty effectively rewritten most of the books about evolution that even Dawkins has read, to the extent that some of his attempts to reconcile human peculiarities with natural selection appear a bit ... guessy and unscientific.

In chapter 7, ‘The ‘Good’ Book and the changing moral Zeitgeist’, Dawkins addresses the common counter-argument that the greatest crimes have been committed not by religious bigots but by atheist regimes (he mentions Hitler and Stalin and not Mao or Pol Pot, but what’s a few million?). He makes a weak attempt to paint Hitler as a religious man and the worship of Stalin as analagous to faith in Christ, ignoring the fact that Nazi racism was based as much on bad (but paradigmatic) science as on blaming Jews for the murder of Christ, and not only that Stalin’s dogma was explicitly atheist but that some of the most persecuted and obdurate of those he incarcerated and murdered were believers who both retained their faith and were living (and dying) human examples to many others who had none. Highlighting Hitler’s Catholic upbringing and selected quotations from speeches from the early 1920s is no good if you ignore both the fact that Hitler was a supreme political liar and his own statement (in ‘Mein Kampf’ - so far more likely to be true) that he actually had no problem with Jews until he actually met one, which says a lot more about something else in the man and about a cultural racism which had long moved beyond the religious.

Nor, given Hitler, Stalin and the rest, is it possible to believe Dawkins’ assertion that there is a consistent, if sometimes erratic, historical direction in the 'Zeitgeist' - a term he uses horribly freely - towards greater liberalism. Perhaps some readings in discourse theory might have come in useful here: have these Zeitgeists not been ... exorcised? In fact the 20th century is unique both for the number of innocents who were murdered and for the bogus justifications that were made for the carnage, few of which had anything but the most vestigial remnants of religious underpinning. Surprisingly, there is little mention of the real professional murderers but only the blip in this liberal teleology represented by American religious conservatives and the Taliban, who appear to share the same bed even if they rarely break sweat together. That's not good history.

When, Dawkins asks, has anyone ever murdered people in the name of atheism? That's not the point.

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