Richard Dawkins, is the “Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science” at Oxford University and in a recent book, The God Delusion (Bantam), he argues that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration. Belief in God is a delusion and a “pernicious” one at that. Dawkins isn’t certain that God does not exist but “I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there”. Dawkins is hostile to his opponents and he questions the sincerity of serious thinkers who disagree with him, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Swinburne, a philosopher of religion and science at Oxford, whom he accuses of attempting to “justify the Holocaust”.
Dawkins main argument is an elaboration of the child’s question “But Mommy, who made God?”. If we say God made everything, we want to ask the question who made God? It is unacceptable to make God the ground of all being because, “any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide”. The God hypothesis is “very close to being ruled out by the laws of probability”. However, in this text his moral criticisms will be outlined. Dawkins targets the virtue of religion both in its sources and in its behaviour.
Dawkins is very critical of Biblical stories which seem doubtful sources of guidance. He finds the story of Noah “charming”, but with an appalling moral tone. He writes, “God took a dim view of humans, so he (with the exception of one family) drowned the lot of them including children and also, for good measure, the rest of the (presumably blameless) animals as well”.
He is also critical of some of the moral messages he finds in the Bible. moral duplicity is present in the other example, that of the story of Lot and his daughters. In the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah Lot was chosen to be spared with his family because he was uniquely righteous:
“Two male angels were sent to Sodom to warn Lot to leave the city before the brimstone arrived. Lot hospitably welcomed the angels into his house, whereupon all the men of Sodom gathered around and demanded that Lot should hand the angels over so that they could (what else?) sodomize them: ‘Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them’ (Genesis 19: 5) …Lot’s gallantry in refusing the demand suggests that God might have been onto something when he singled him out as the only good man in Sodom. But Lot’s halo is tarnished by the terms of his refusal: ‘I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof’ (Genesis 19: 7-8).”
The attitudes present in these stories are unacceptable and the moral messages they give very problematic. Dawkins recognises that many theologians don’t accept such interpretations but is sceptical about their attitude to their own religious texts:
“…irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally any more. 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.”
Dawkins objects to literal religious systems because they have no absolute foundation, left to the vagaries of personal opinion. But he is equally concerned with religion that is absolutist as his treatment of religious morality suggests.
Dawkins argues that religious opinions lead people to commit terrible crimes while atheists are not driven to evil by their atheism. He explores the issue of Britain’s suicide bombers of 7/7.
“Why did these cricket-loving young men do it? Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, or their kamikaze counterparts in Japan, or their Tamil Tiger counterparts in Sri Lanka, these human bombs had no expectation that their bereaved families would be lionized, looked after or supported on martyrs’ pensions. On the contrary, their relatives in some cases had to go into hiding. One of the men wantonly widowed his pregnant wife and orphaned his toddler.”
The bombing has been a dreadful disaster for the individuals and their victims, as well as their families and for the whole Muslim community in Britain. The act is extraordinary and the damage appalling. Ordinary personal or political motivation cannot adequately explain such action. It is only religion which can lead to such horror.
“Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people … However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational … they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.”
and religious schools don’t help:
“If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value 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.”
Dawkins attacks religion on many fronts: philosophical, ethical and political and he uses examples which support his case. He represents a secular argument against religion and religious institutions but many are critical of his arguments (see Dawkins vs McGrath).
1) Does Dawkins do religion justice or is he building a paper tiger he can easily knock down?
2) Dawkins sometimes comes over as very intolerant of people who disagree with him – is that a reasonable basis for objecting to his arguments?