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Earl Doherty

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A review of
Sam Harris'  Letter to a Christian Nation
Richard Dawkins'  The God Delusion
(November 26, 2006)

[Note: Following this article I have provided a further Comment in rebuttal to a truly deplorable review of Dawkins' The God Delusion  in the November issue of Harper's magazine by prize-winning fiction writer Marilynne Robinson. It will provide insight into how religionists argue, how they defame science and distort reason, and why we need writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris more than ever. I will provide another link to it at the end of the present piece.]

     When I was a newly-minted atheist in my late teens, I imagined in somewhat starry-eyed fashion that I would write a book one day in which I would lay out all the drawbacks, irrationalities, and outright harm that religion was capable of causing
and was indeed causingin the life of society and the lives of individuals. That day never came due to other distractions, not the least the study of the record of a certain 2000 year-old fictional religious character. Fortunately, other authors have stepped into that gap, and in our own day two have done the job far better than I myself could have done: Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, of course, is already an icon of science and reason in our time, and Harris is well on his way to becoming an equal champion of rationality and atheism. An earlier Comment (No. 11) reviewed Sam Harris' tour de force, The End of Faith. His recent mini-book, Letter to a Christian Nation, continues in the same insightful and incisive vein. Richard Dawkins' latest offering, The God Delusion, is a powerful indictment of religious irrationality and sheer wrong-headedness, and both authors' books are undoubtedly going to have an impact on the thinking of our time and the slow but steady undermining of the superstitious and primitive basis of much of today's Western society. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that I urge all those who care about the intellectual and psychological state of our 21st century society to read these books and to promote them in any way they can.

Letter to a Christian Nation
Sam Harris
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2006)

That America in particular faces a crisis is clear from Harris' introductory "Note to the Reader." He observes that Gallup polls indicate 53 percent of Americans are "creationists," that "despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago...that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah's ark...that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God." [p.x-xi]

The effects of this sort of primitive belief are beyond quaint, let alone innocuous:

Among developed nations, America stands alone in these convictions. Our country now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant. Anyone who cares about the fate of civilization would do well to recognize that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying, even to one's friends.

The truth, however, is that many of us may not care about the fate of civilization. Forty-four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ.  It should be blindlingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves
—socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.... [p.xi-xii]

I suspect that a "significant component of the U.S. government" does in fact believe that the world is coming to an end in the near future, accompanied by the return of Christ. In a moment of international crisis, of leadership stress, those convictions are bound to have their effect on decision-making. And how do we measure the more insidious effects of such convictions held by half the population of the land, in their voting patterns, in their influence (a better term might be "abuse") upon their children, in their conduct of business and education, in the face they present to the outside world, friend and foe? Considering that we confront one foe that has an outlook on the world as out of touch with reality as this one, it's a recipe for disaster.

Religion of any stripe, but particularly fundamentalism, is shot through with anomalies, with contradictions that cannot be resolved. This includes our attitudes toward our own religion versus other religions. Harris points out what should be obvious: Christian believers have no problem rejecting the authenticity of the Muslim religion, pointing out imperfections of the Koran, recognizing that Muslim believers have been indoctrinated into their faith which is why they hold false beliefs as true. A Christian is "an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims." Yet they cannot recognize that the same can logically hold true for their own faith.

Harris addresses the "wisdom of the Bible," a book considered by Christians as divinely inspired, superior to all other religious writings, and the ultimate moral guide. Such a preposterous balloon is easily pricked, which shows that believers are capable of the blindest of self-deceptions. Harris is not the first to detail the barbarities and primitive injunctions attributed to the God of the Old Testament, but such accounts never fail to horrify the rational mind. We will take a more detailed look at such things later, courtesy of the Dawkins' book. Interestingly, Harris lists the much touted Ten Commandments, pointing out that the first four "have nothing whatsoever to do with morality," and that the rest are pretty well common to all societies, both religious and secular, and even, as studies have shown, to primate animal groups who have never read a word of scripture. He also points out that the Jains have a far superior scriptural guide to moral behaviour than anything in the Abrahamic religions.

One is well aware of the opposition to stem-cell research on the part of religionists for ostensibly moral reasons. I was less aware that they have mounted opposition to vacines and immunization of women for HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that kills 5000 women yearly with cervical cancer. On what grounds? HPV is "a valuable impediment to premarital sex"! Millions die from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa each year because the United States, along with the Vatican, actively opposes any condom use as a violation of the law of God. Studies have shown that American teens preached only abstinence and encouraged to make "virginity pledges" only slightly delay, on average, their sexual activity, and contract sexually transmitted diseases at astronomically higher rates than elsewhere in the developed world. Religion's obsessive fear of sex and its maniacal concern over the fate of a handful of cells artificially brought together in a petrie dish is causing untold suffering and death around the world. The latter opposition is entirely determined by the conviction that these microscopic blastocysts have already been infused with "souls." Since they fail to take into account that almost half of all conceptions in the normal fashion are spontaneously aborted, and since Catholic theologians are still searching for ways to justify the idea that unbaptized souls cannot and do not go to heaven (the traditional Limbo itself is in something of a limbo), apparently God, "the most prolific abortionist," is not too concerned about innocent souls that will never get to lay eyes on Him. As Harris says,

The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religions and "morality"—so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion. [p.32]

The question "Are Atheists Evil?" is easily answered. Atheists, according to theistic claims, should commit more crimes than the rest of the population; yet this is anything but true. The United States, "unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious adherence, is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and infant mortality." The same comparison holds true within the U.S. itself: states "characterized by the highest levels of religious literalism are especially plagued by the above indicators of societal dysfunction." [p.44] The old saw that Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., "spring from the womb of atheism" is also easily dismissed. "The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths....While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational." [p.42-43] Both Harris and Dawkins demonstrate that Hitler was not an atheist, and that the Holocaust was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity's treatment of the Jews as heretics and Christ-killers. As late as 1914, the Vatican perpetuated the "blood libel"
—the claim that Jews murder non-Jews in order to obtain their blood for use in religious rituals—in its own newspapers!

Harris examines the alleged "goodness of God," the question of Old Testament prophecy foretelling alleged New Testament 'events,' and the obvious limitations of the content of the Bible, considering that it was supposedly written by an omniscient God. "The Bible does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century." In regard to simple statements of knowledge, it is frequently far off the mark, even by ancient standards, for example on the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. And echoing my own oft-expressed sentiments...

Why doesn't the Bible say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will be easily summarized in a few pages of text. Why aren't these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? Good, pious people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, and many of them are children. The Bible is a very big book. God had room to instruct us in great detail about how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals [to himself!]. To one who stands outside the Christian faith, it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience. [p.61-62]
I pointed out to "Robert" (see Reader Feedback) that Jesus in his teachings gave us nothing to better our lot and alleviate our suffering. This tells us a number of things. That God (Father or Son) has no concern with our lives and happiness on earth, not even as a reward for believers' goodness. He has written this world off. His own creation, for guilty and innocent alike, is truly meant to be a 'vale of tears.' The classic rejoinder? It's all punishment for sin. The good suffer on account of the bad, and all of us suffer on account of a primal sin by our first created parents, an embarrassingly naive fairy tale we should long ago have abandoned. In comparing how we imperfect humans treat each other in regard to transgression and punishment, the justice systems we have done our best to set up and philosophically justify, we need feel no deficiency before the monstrosity of God's system, in this world and the next. When believers are brought up short by this realization, they retreat even further into their surrender of rationality by declaring that we cannot judge God by our own standards, no matter how bad a light he may seem to be cast in. They fail to recognize the inherent fallacy here. We cannot judge God by any standards familiar to us, yet we can judge that he has a standard which is legitimate and good? But if we cannot know that standard, how can we judge it? If divine good does not comport with our own concept of good, how can it be judged, let alone praised? What believers do is simply declare, with absolutely no evidence, that such divine standards exist, simply because they want and need it to be so in order to rescue God from well-deserved condemnation.

Harris declares that there is indeed, despite apologists on both sides who would not have it so, a clash between science and religion. Such conflict

is unavoidable. The sucess of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science....The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty. It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn't. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies. [p.64-5]

Harris defends evolution against creationism, not the least by demonstrating the incompetence of God as an efficient 'creator.' And if miracles are really possible, especially of healing, why is prayer "only ever believed to work for illnesses and injuries that can be self-limited? No one, for instance, ever seriously expects that prayer will cause an amputee to regrow a missing limb. Why not? Salamanders manage this routinely, presumably without prayer. If God answers prayers
ever—why wouldn't He occasionally heal a deserving amputee? And why wouldn't people of faith expect prayer to work in such cases?" [p.78]

Harris' penultimate section is frightening, for it examines without hesitation "where our discordant religious certainties are leading us on a global scale." The situation in and with Islam virtually defies solution, and Europe is almost certainly on its way to becoming a Muslim dominated continent within a quarter century because of Muslim immigration and birthrates. But "how can we ever hope to reason with the Muslim world if we are not reasonable ourselves?"

It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world through interfaith dialogue. Devout Muslims are as convinced as you are that their religion is perfect and that any deviation leads directly to hell. It is easy, of course, for the representatives of the major religions to occasionally meet and agree that there should be peace on earth, or that compassion is the common thread that unites all the world's faiths. But there is no escaping the fact that a person's religious beliefs uniquely determine what he thinks peace is good for, as well as what he means by a term like "compassion." There are millions—maybe hundreds of millions—of Muslims who would be willing to die before they would allow your version of compassion to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. How can interfaith dialogue, even at the highest level, reconcile worldviews that are fundamentally incompatible and, in principle, immune to revision? The truth is, it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it. [p.86-7]

While acknowledging that religion "is the product of cognitive processes that have deep roots in our evolutionary past," and may once have served an important purpose, Harris reminds us that "[t]his does not suggest, however, that it serves an important purpose now....That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization." The common sense contained in this little book of 96 pages would be difficult to exaggerate. It would also be difficult to exaggerate the urgency of our need to begin heeding it.

The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins
(Houghton Mifflin, New York 2006)

     Richard Dawkins' previous books have been dedicated primarily to explaining and defending evolutionary science to the layman. But the fact that science requires defending and explaining is due not to inherent flaws and conflicts within science (which constantly seeks to refine and improve itself in non-absolutist fashion) but to the increasingly radical opposition mounted against it by something it is truly in conflict with, namely religion. Dawkins, in writing The God Delusion, is facing this situation head-on, recognizing that for science and its advantages to triumph, religion must be disarmed. The publication of this book by "the world's most prominent atheist"
as the liner notes style Dawkins—and by one of the world's major publishers (Houghton Mifflin) is an encouraging sign that grappling with this conflict has emerged into the open, that a clear challenge to the very legitimacy and respectability of religion has been thrown down. Hopefully, there is no turning back.

It is difficult to offer a comprehensive review of The God Delusion because there is so much in it, all of it superbly and lucidly presented. There is a bit of looseness to its structure, but that is because it touches so many bases. While Dawkins himself declares its center of gravity to be early on
—specifically in chapter 4, "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God"—I found that, if anything, the material becomes richer and more powerful as the book goes along, though that is no doubt partly due to cumulative effect.

Like the late and much-lamented Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins is a scientist who aims, in writing about science, to "touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder that religion monopolized in past centuries." But he considers it of primary importance
—if only to stave off confusion and false accusation—that the wonder inherent in knowledge based on reason and evidence (and unpreconceived investigation) is not to be placed in the same category as that dependent on revealed faith and implacable certainty based on no evidence. Thus he laments the often misleading ambiguity created by applying terms associated with religion to scientific and naturalist pursuits and world-views. Albert Einstein has yet to live down and escape from the dishonest appeal to his modes of expression by religious apologists. Neither Dawkins nor anyone else should be forced to clarify "Einsteinian religion," but Einstein created the problem himself by his use of the terms "God" and "religion" in the context of his own outlook—one in which he himself declared, "I do not believe in a personal God," and "I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal." Inasmuch as the words "God" and "religion" for the vast majority of people imply something supernatural, Dawkins admonishes his fellow scientists for making any use of this loaded and misleading language:

The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason. [p.19]

Dawkins gets down to business in chapter 2, "The God Hypothesis," with this statement:

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 vindicative, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a mysogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." [p.31]

I suspect that 20 years ago no major publisher in America would have been willing to issue a book with a statement in it as sweepingly blunt and uncompromising as this. Dawkins enlarges on the picture of the Old Testament Yahweh in a later chapter, but here he turns to laying out the two opposite poles of the God Hypothesis. Religion states that

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us...

against which Dawkins counters, stating a central argument he will use in a later context of proofs against God's existence:

any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. [p.31]

(This position, which Marilynne Robinson did her best to argue against in her Harper's review, will be looked at in detail in my response to that review.)

Dawkins examines both polytheism and monotheism, discrediting the idea that either one is superior to the other as a philosophical concept. He pricks the theological sophistry of the Christian Trinity which undeniably places a foot in both camps. Decrying the "characteristically obscurantist flavour of theology," he quotes 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. [p.34]

Another balloon easily pricked is the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, on Christian principles. Quotes Dawkins supplies from the Founding Fathers could place them in any of the categories of deist, agnostic or even atheist, but virtually all of them had no use for Christianity as an institution or set of doctrines. They were also "passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a President, or lack of them, were entirely his own business." [p.43] Dawkins offers a telling quote from presidential contender Barry Goldwater, who stood at the cusp of the demise of official secularism in national policy and the swing toward "religious factions that are growing throughout our land...(which)...are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent." Despite Goldwater's pledge (in 1981) that "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" [p.39], this former hero of American conservatism lost the battle to a new conservatism more fanatical and fundamentalist than he ever was.

Dawkins advocates atheism over agnosticism, that all undisprovable contentions are not created equal (or should we believe even in the Internet's latest deity, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, since no one can disprove its existence?), and he will have no truck with the late Stephen J. Gould's "separate magisteriums" of science and religion, which to Dawkins "sounds terrific
—right up until you give it a moment's thought."

What are these ultimate questions in whose presence religion is an honoured guest and science must respectfully slink away?...What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?...Why are scientists so cravenly respectful towards the ambitions of theologians, over questions that theologians are certainly no more qualified to answer than scientists themselves? It is a tedious cliché that science concerns itself with how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions....Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. Maybe quantum theory is already knocking on the door of the unfathomable. But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can? [p.57]

And, one might add, which religion? Which moral guide? Which chapter of an inconsistent and contradictory Bible?

The Great Prayer Experiment (measuring its effectiveness for healing, conducted 'scientifically' by researchers funded by the Templeton Foundation), a prominent theologian's "grotesque" justification for suffering in a world run by God, Creationism and its offspring
dressed up in "a cheap tuxedo"Intelligent Design, all are held up to the light of well-deserved ridicule and dismemberment. Dawkins also devotes the bulk of a chapter to discrediting both the classic and lesser known arguments 'proving' the existence of God. As for beliefs based on 'conviction from personal experience,' these are dealt with by examining behaviors of the brain, about which we are learning more and more as science uncovers greater knowledge of human functioning.

The crux of what Dawkins considers the most important chapter in the book ("Why There Almost Certainly Is No God") is the principle of Darwinian natural selection: an answer to all of creationism's claims of 'irreducible complexity' and the improbability of complexity without deliberate design. The two available choices are not design vs. chance; creationists are still stuck in that fallacy. They are design vs. natural selection, and no one is better qualified to resolve that dichotomy than Richard Dawkins. In his discussion of the "worship of gaps" (the seizure by religion on so-called 'gaps' in the record, or our understanding, as something that can only be filled by God), he makes a statement which is perhaps my favorite passage from the entire book, beautifully spotlighting the fundamental difference between science and religion:

Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide. What worries scientists is something else. It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests.  As my friend Matt Ridley has written, 'Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.' Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: it gives them something to do. More generally, as I shall repeat in Chapter 8, one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding....There is, then, an unfortunate hook-up between science's methodological need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to claim victory by default. It is precisely the fact that ID [Intelligent Design] has no evidence of its own, but thrives like a weed in gaps left by scientific knowledge, that sits uneasily with science's need to identify and proclaim the very same gaps as a prelude to researching them. [p.125-7]

It also sits uneasily in that creationists are prone to seize on the gaps admitted at any given time by scientists themselves, and use those admissions against them. This is virtually always in dishonest fashion, taking statements out of context
knowingly, since even when challenged with this 'atomistic' use of scientists' own words, they continue to employ such out-of-context statements. Dawkins himself was a victim of such tactics. "Sad hindsight tells me now how predictable it was that my patient explanation would be excised and my (rhetorical) overture itself gleefully quoted out of context." To employ the title of Ian Plimer's fearless 1994 book, "Telling Lies For God" is something creationists feel no compunctions about. And Dawkins pulls no punches at documenting the fundamental dishonesty of ID theorists like Michael Behe, who was roundly chastised by presiding judge John E. Jones at the recent Dover ID hearing for blatantly declaring that a mountain of presented evolutionary explanations for the human immune system was not "good enough (as) sufficient evidence of evolution." [p.133]

At the end of the preceding chapter, Dawkins has summed up his major
—and from the look of it, irrefutable— argument against the 'explanation' of God as the cause of everything else:

The whole argument turns on the familiar question 'Who made God?' which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. [p.109]

At a Cambridge conference where Dawkins stood almost alone against an array of theologians and other religiously oriented participants,

I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex? Scientific arguments, such as those I was accustomed to deploying in my own field, were inappropriate since theologians had always maintained that God lay outside science. [p.153-4]

In every debate I have ever attended between the theist and atheist position, the former when backed into a corner about the logicality of the idea of God (or sometimes the point is claimed by a questioner afterwards), inevitably appeals to this concept of God being 'outside' or 'above' the known universe and its laws. This is simply a ploy to remove him from the necessity of explanation. As noted above, I will develop this idea when addressing the Harper's review of The God Delusion (Comment 17), but I'll pull in a few further quotes here to support me in that discussion:

The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not. Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific, and it is one of these other ways of knowing that must be deployed to know God....

The most important of these other ways of knowing turned out to be personal, subjective experience of God. Several discussants at Cambridge claimed that God spoke to them, inside their heads, just as vividly and as personally as another human might. I have dealt with illusion and hallucination in Chapter 3 ('The argument from personal experience'), but at the Cambridge conference I added two points. First, that if God really did communicate with humans that fact would emphatically not lie outside science. God comes bursting through into our world where his messages can be intercepted by human brains—and that phenomenon has nothing to do with science? Second, a God who is capable of sending intelligible signals to millions of people simultaneously, and of receiving messages from all of them simultaneously, cannot be, whatever else he might be, simple. Such bandwidth! God may not have a brain made of neurones, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know....

I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. [p.154-5]

The crane and the skyhook represent the two poles of the science vs. religion debate. The former is rooted on the ground of the observable universe. By processes that can be uncovered and understood by objective, scientific investigation, the 'crane' gradually lifts simplicity into complexity through 'self-bootstrapping' means, not by creation or direction from outside. The latter is no explanation at all, in that it has no connection with the ground of knowable reality, no perceptible anchor in anything that can be investigated, demonstrated, or understood. It is simply declared to be, often with characteristics arbitrarily granted to it that are entirely determined by the necessities faced by what it purports to 'explain,' a circular and fallacious process.

The following chapter examines the roots of religion in terms of evolutionary processes. Religion may be as much a product of natural selection as any of nature's physical appendages. But the Darwinian answer is not a simple one, and theories abound. Dawkins suggests that religion is a by-product (inadvertent and not necessarily beneficial) of certain brain dispositions that do or did have evolutionary advantages. One is 'dualism,' the instinct to think that there is "a fundamental distinction between matter and mind."

A dualist believes the mind is some kind of disembodied spirit that inhabits the body and therefore conceivably could leave the body and exist somewhere else....Dualists personify inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity, seeing spirits and demons even in waterfalls and clouds....The idea that there is a me perched somewhere behind my deeply ingrained in me and in every other human being, whatever our intellectual pretensions to monism. Bloom supports his contention with experimental evidence that children are even more likely to be dualists than adults are, especially extremely young children. This suggests that a tendency to dualism is built into the brain and provides a natural predisposition to embrace religious ideas. [p.180]

'Teleology' is another innate disposition, the tendency to assign 'purpose' to everything. Dawkins also calls attention to a further disposition, proposed by Daniel Dennett, the 'intentional stance': "An entity is assumed not merely to be designed for a purpose but to be, or contain, an agent with intentions that guide its actions" [p.182]. All these dispositions, developed through natural selection for their survival value, placed us in a vulnerable position to believe in souls and an afterlife, in gods inhabiting nature and the heavens, and that such 'supernatural' entities have intentions toward us: requirements, destinies, rewards and punishments, interests in how we act. Communication and establishing relationships with them thus became natural and necessary.

Here Dawkins introduces his concept of the 'meme' (he calls them "units of cultural inheritance," at the level of ideas) to explain the survival and promulgation of religions in terms of 'memetic theory.' This entire chapter is a fascinating one. While our understanding of what drives religion is still incomplete, such studies serve to illustrate the principle that a good way to dispel the mystery, the misplaced reverence and fear we attach to the unknown (usually to our own disadvantage), is to reveal its workings. Ghosts haunt dark graveyards and murky old manors, not hilltops under a noon sun. Unfortunately, it is the nature of undirected evolution that an understanding of how we and our world work is not revealed to us until we ourselves discover it, usually through a long and painful process. One of the byproducts of this process is that previously ingrained erroneous ideas work for their own perpetuation, stubbornly resisting the new disc
overies that threaten their extinction. Memes, good or bad, are as equipped with survival instincts as much as living organisms.

The next chapter addresses
the question of morality: Why are we good? Is there a Darwinian explanation for the evolution of conscience, compassion, altruism? While a 'selfish' attitude—in the sense of focusing on one's own survival and well-being—is most likely to ensure continued life and procreation, other actions directed toward others, particularly one's kin, can have the same results in more indirect ways, through reciprocation and acquired reputation and other more subtle side-effects. In answer to the common challenge that without God we would have no reason to be good, Dawkins has many of the same rejoinders as others to such a negative attitude, and I won't detail them here. And he quotes studies showing that crime rates are regularly higher, on average, in the more 'conservative Christian' so-called red states of the U.S. than elsewhere. But if God cannot guarantee a motive to be good, can he be said to provide the standard for deciding what is good? Thus we are led to the "Good Book" and the alleged source of morals in the scriptures.

Any bout between the idealized Bible and the real bible is unfair. There is so much of the ignoble, callous, unjust, primitive, barbarous, immoral, inhuman in the Old Testament (and not a little in the New), that this vastly overrated icon emerges from the ring with a black eye and a bloody nose. Dawkins observes:

To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries. This may explain some of the sheer strangeness of the Bible. But unfortunately it is this same weird volume that religious zealots hold up to us as the inerrant source of our morals and rules for living. Those who wish to base their morality literally on the Bible have either not read it or not understood it.... [p.237]

How can God's vindictive destruction of all human life save for one family, his instructions to annihilate man woman and child (even in the womb) of those already occupying his Promised Land to the Hebrews, the example of Lot offering his daughters to strangers for despoiling, himself incestuously seduced by them, the sacrifice to God of Jephthah's daughter (not to mention the millions of animals over the centuries), and on and on, serve as a source of morality? To theologians who protest that much of the Old Testament, particularly in Genesis, is not taken literally any more, Dawkins responds:

But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist's decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is 'morality flying by the seat of its pants,' so is the other.... [p.238]

All I am establishing is that modern morality, wherever else it comes from, does not come from the Bible. Apologists cannot get away with claiming that religion provides them with some sort of inside track to defining what is good and what is bad—a privileged source unavailable to atheists. They cannot get away with it, not even if they employ that favourite trick of interpreting selected scriptures as 'symbolic' rather than literal. By what criterion do you decide which passages are symbolic, which literal?... [p.246-7]

Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it? The following offences merit the death penalty, according to Leviticus 20: cursing your parents; commiting adultery; making love to your stepmother or your daughter-in-law; homosexuality; marrying a woman and her daughter; bestiality (and, to add injury to insult, the unfortunate beast is to be killed too). You also get executed, of course, for working on the sabbath [Numbers 15 recounts the directive by God to stone the man who was gathering sticks]....What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh—and even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.... [248]

My main purpose here has not been to show that we shouldn't get our morals from scripture (although that is my opinion). My purpose has been to demonstrate that we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don't get our morals from scripture. If we did, we would strictly observe the sabbath and think it just and proper to execute anybody who chose not to. We would stone to death any new bride who couldn't prove she was a virgin, if her husband pronounced himself unsatisfied with her. We would execute disobedient children. [p.249]

And I might add that we would also be forced to condemn, by the word of God right beside that favorite injunction of religionists against homosexuality (Lev. 19:22), people who wear garments woven with more than one type of fabric, and the employer who fails to pay his worker in the evening of each working day.

But is the New Testament any better? In one way, many of Jesus' teachings are a rejection of the strictures of the Old Testament—which ought, for Christians, to discredit using the latter as a moral guide. But there is also much that is vindictive in Jesus' words, and the principle of Jesus' atonement for "original sin" is as reprehensible as anything that came before. That all infants forever born should inherit the sin of a remote ancestor, deserving of damnation, is a "vicious ethical philosophy." That it should require for that redemption the torture and execution of a divine incarnation is repellent and sadistic, especially when it has to be performed by the very creatures it purports to redeem. (Paul and the early Christians who believed in a spiritual Christ at least assigned the execution to the demon spirits in the heavenly realm, who were not saved by it but deprived of their power and ultimately destined for destruction.) Such a body of doctrine, spanning both Testaments of the Bible, is as execrable as anything invented by the human mind.

This leads Dawkins to what he calls "The Moral Zeitgeist" and the evolution of humanity's own sense of morality, one independent of the Bible since it has moved by now into an enlightenment far outreaching that of the Bible and its God, Father or Son. For one thing, what we have since applied to our fellow humans in general was previously, in the Old Testament's Ten Commandments, applicable only to Jews: such as Thou Shalt Not Kill, or Love Thy Neighbor. Dawkins quotes from anthropologist John Hartung's study of the evolution and biblical history of in-group morality:

The Bible is a blueprint of in-group morality, complete with instructions for genocide, enslavement of out-groups, and world domination. But the Bible is not evil by virtue of its objectives or even its glorification of murder, cruelty, and rape. Many ancient works do that—The Iliad, the Icelandic Sagas, the tales of the ancient Syrians and the inscriptions of the ancient Mayans, for example. But no one is selling the Iliad as a foundation for morality. Therein lies the problem. The Bible is sold, and bought, as a guide to how people should live their lives. And it is, by far, the world's all-time best seller. [p.258]

Modern views on slavery, the status of women, on child abuse, racism, human equality and rights, are light-years beyond those expressed in the Bible. Our behavior in war has shifted even since the two World Wars of the 20th century. Such shifts "have no connection with religion. If anything, it happens in spite of religion, not because of it." There will be more to say on this topic in responding to the Harper's review.

What's wrong with religion? Why not live and let live? Isn't it all harmless nonsense? Why be so hostile? To such questions, Dawkins responds:

I might retort that such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice towards religion is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement.... [p.281-2]

To the charge that scientists are as 'fundamentalist' as believers, that "a scientist's belief in evidence is itself a matter of fundamentalist faith," Dawkins responds:

Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrst, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books.... [p.282]

Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by 'truth'. But so is everybody else. I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that.... [p.283]

As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.... [p.284]

And he goes on to detail the case of American geologist Kurt Wise, who one day made the decision to throw out all the evidence he had encountered in his career that proved evolution was true. In Wise's own words:

I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible....It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science. [p.285]

For Dawkins, "that is terribly sad...pathetic and contemptible."

I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard-educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed. Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue. [p.286]

Documenting the punishment (usually death) for blasphemy in Muslim countries is chilling, but then we turn to the views of conservatives and religious leaders in America, such as

...from somebody named Ann Coulter who, American colleagues have persuaded me, is not a spoof, invented by The Onion: 'We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.'.... General William G. Boykin's 'George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States, he was appointed by God'....the famous environmental policy of Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior: 'We don't have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.' The Afghan Taliban and the American Taliban are good examples of what happens when people take their scriptures literally and seriously. [p.288]

Witch hunts against homosexuals are as rife in America as in Saudia Arabia, and only the failure of Christian fundamentalists (as yet) to gain power stops America short of biblically-directed execution. The vitriol and hatred expressed toward the 'evil and immoral' (extending beyond gays) by the Christian power-hungry is frightening, not the least because they have sometimes seemed so close to achieving the political control they seek.

Dawkins' extended discussion on the difficult and contentious issue of abortion is the epitom
e of common sense, again, in an area dominated by Christian fundamentalist views as vitriolic and implacable as their stance on homosexuality. It has led to the murder of abortion providers and the promise that, once in power, all involved in abortions, including the woman, will be executed.

An entire chapter is devoted to the abuse which religion inflicts upon children, physical and mental, though in the interests of fairness Dawkins feels obliged to restore some proportion between the two, arguing that abuse suffered by a child who is brought up in an oppressive, guilt-ridden, fear-mongering religious indoctrination can be more damaging than most cases of sexual abuse. A particular case mentioned is Colorado Pastor Keenan Roberts' "particular brand of nuttiness he calls Hell Houses..."

A Hell House is a place where children are brought, by their parents or their Christian schools, to be scared witless over what might happen to them after they die. Actors play out fearsome tableaux of particular 'sins' like abortion and homosexuality, with a scarlet-clad devil in gloating attendance. These are a prelude to the pièce de resistance, Hell Itself, complete with realistic sulphurous smell of burning brimstone and the agonized screams of the forever damned. [p.319-320]

(Nor is Pastor Roberts an extremist. He is mainstream in today's religious America, "like Ted Haggard" who subsequent to his mention by Dawkins in this book, was proven the ultimate hypocrite when it was revealed that this friend to George Bush and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who fulminated from the pulpit against homosexuals and other modern evils, did himself employ the services of a male prostitute and took mind-altering drugs. Apparently the superior guidance available to this paragon, from scripture or God directly, was insufficient to keep him faithful to the ethical party line.)

Comparisons between physical and mental abuse aside, such inflictions on the minds and bodies of the young may cripple for life their intellects, emotional well-being, self-esteem and general functioning in careers and relationships. Those who manage to escape do so often scarred and ostracized by loved ones. By the end of this chapter, Dawkins has more than answered the question, "Why be hostile?"

The final chapter disposes first of some loose ends: the claim that religion provides consolation and inspiration, and the theological inanity of Purgatory among them. But it is all capped
—fittingly, by one of the great scientific minds on our planet—with a mind-expanding consideration of what our world is really like, and on how limited a scale we move and 'know' within that world. Dawkins likens it to the Muslim woman who looks out upon her surroundings only through a tiny slit in the burka. Our eyes see but a narrow range in the electro-magnetic spectrum. We also

live near the centre of a cavernous museum of magnitudes, viewing the world with sense organs and nervous systems that are equipped to perceive and understand only a small middle range of sizes, moving at a middle range of speeds....Our imaginations are forlornly under-equipped to cope with distances outside the narrow middle range of the ancestrally familiar. We try to visualize an electron as a tiny ball, in orbit around a larger cluster of balls representing protons and neutrons. That isn't what it is like at all. Electrons are not like little balls. They are not like anything we recognize. It isn't clear that 'like' even means anything when we try to fly too close to reality's further horizons. Our imaginations are not yet tooled-up to penetrate the neighbourhood of the quantum. Nothing at that scale behaves in the way matter—as we are evolved to think—ought to behave. Nor can we cope with the behaviour of objects that move at some appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Common sense lets us down, because common sense evolved in a world where nothing moves very fast, and nothing is very small or very large. [p.363-4]

Dawkins brings us into the mysterious world of quantum mechanics (on which more will be said in response to the Harper's review), the possibility of alternate universes, the nature of 'solid' objects, the constructions and illusions the brain has evolved to make sense of the world around us. Science has torn open that narrow burka slit to expose such things, while religion has never conferred one iota of genuine understanding upon us
—indeed, it is determined to sew the slit shut. Against the landscape science has revealed, the traditional figure of the supernatural God, still championed with such blindness and ferocity, stands incongruous and pathetic. A true delusion.


At the beginning of my rebuttal to Marilynne Robinson's book review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, I ask what Harper's magazine was thinking when they printed this reactionary defamation of science and scientists. That question remains unanswered, but at least one can see what reason and science are up against.

Comment 17: A Response to Marilynne Robinson's Review of The God Delusion

And see Forum 11 ("Getting Tough on Religion") for an Internet news report about the recent symposium on science and religion attended by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Earl Doherty

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