Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Richard Dawkins and the God Delusion

In the world of celebrities, there is no-one who is more beloved by pseudo-intellectuals and angry men everywhere than Richard Dawkins. For those of you who don't know who he is, Richard Dawkins is vice-president of the British Humanist Society and the former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. He is also the author of the bestselling book The God Delusion, which has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 2006. The book's two central arguments is that religious belief is akin to a mental virus and that religion has been responsible, in one way or the other, for almost all the terrible events in humanity's history. 

Leaving aside the fact that at least half of The God Delusion reads like a rant against a god that Dawkins supposedly doesn't believe in, what riles me about this self-appointed prophet to the unbelieving is that for someone who is so apparently well-educated, quite a lot of what he writes is astonishingly and unforgivably stupid. People have quite rightly pointed out that despite his scientific genius, Professor Dawkins' knowledge of world history is about as sophisticated as GCSE student's and his grasp of theology is even worse. When the bodies of the Russian royal family were discovered in a Siberian forest back in the 1990s, where they had been hidden after their gruesome murder by Communist terrorists in 1918, scientists and observers all over the world quite rightly mocked those members of the Russian Orthodox Church who refused to accept that the skeletons were the remains of the Tsar and his family. Some members of that church believe that the bodies of true saints remain incorrupt - meaning that God proves they are saints by ensuring their bodies don't rot after death. Since Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and their five children had all been declared holy martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981, many devout Russian monarchists point-blank refused to accept that the mud-stained and bullet-pierced bones discovered in the forest could be the remains of the saint-royals. They persisted in this belief, even though facial reconstruction, pathologists and geneticists all proved beyond any form of doubt that the bodies discovered were related to Grand Duke George (Nicholas II's brother, whose body was removed from its grave in Saint Petersburg) and our own Queen's husband, Prince Philip, who was related to the Romanovs on his mother's side. As one scientist sniped, "I'd like to know how many other relatives of Prince Philip the church think could be buried in that forest!"

By refusing to accept the benefits and methods of science, fundamentalist Christians - of whatever denomination - open themselves up to being queried and mocked. And quite rightly, too, I think. If you believe in a god, you should do so because of the facts, not despite them. Ignoring the facts to help your own argument, or prejudices, is never acceptable in an intellectual environment. Yet, throughout The God Delusion, Dawkins repeatedly ignores historical events that anyone with access to Wikipedia, let alone an Oxford degree, should know about. He claims that no atheist regime has ever instituted religious persecution - ignoring the millions executed by the League of the Militant Godless in the Soviet Union, or under Maoist China, Communist Vietnam, Khmer Rouge Cambodia and even, in its relations with the free Lutheran churches, Nazi Germany. He attributes authorship of various books of the Bible to Saint Paul, when the last time anyone actually thought Saint Paul wrote most of the books at the end of the New Testament was in the early eighteenth century, before the work of the great theologian Dom Augustin Calambret suggested otherwise. He quotes Biblical and Koranic verses out of context; he doesn't seem to know anything, really, about the Reformation, the Crusades or the Inquisition; he misuses the term "Immaculate Conception" (again, Wiki it; it's not what you think, Dawkins) and whilst he rants merrily away on Christianity's (frankly horrific) track record when it comes to homosexuality, he doesn't seem to know that it was only in the sixth and twelfth centuries that the church formally began to codify the idea that homosexuality was wrong and worthy of persecution. If you're going to make such sweeping claims, then the very least you can do is the proper research.

Above all, what I can't stand about Dawkins are his historical-social nuggets of pez-dispensed size quotability and his smug, bile-filled intolerance. He enables every idiot with a passing knowledge of the injustices of our history to point the finger at organised religion and claim it's the fault of a god that doesn't exist and the morons who believe in him. What Dawkins doesn't seem to realise, or at least won't admit, is that human history is a vast, complex tapestries of horrors, mistakes and cruelty, but also kindness, hope and resilience. It's no good trying to blame any one institution and say that's the one that did all the damage. The sad fact of the matter is that it's not religion's "fault" that human history has often been so appalling; it's ours. It's humanity's. There's a great line in the play The Lion in Winter, where the character of Eleanor says, "Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's force, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little - that's how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for."

By standing up and declaring that religious faith makes someone intellectually inadequate and even complicit in the many crimes of religion, Dawkins, to me anyway, resembles the worst kind of Christian evangelist. You know the type I mean - the Bible-thumping zealot, devoid of the ability to understand or appreciate any argument but his own, who, by his words, increases the divisions in society, not heals them. Some of the best people I know are atheists, some of the best, and worst, people I know are Christians. Religion has caused racism, sexism, homophobia and misery the world over; it has been responsible for some of the most archaic, barbaric and illogical policies in human history. It has also offered billions hope and comfort in their darkest hours, it has inspired men to great acts of heroism and kindness, it has brought out the best and the worst throughout human history.  There is much, at times, that we should praise about religion and be grateful for. Equally, religion can and should, at times, be criticised, but it deserves a far better treatment by a far better thinker than Richard Dawkins.


  1. Ahh, Dawkins the fundamentalist Humanist. Does that make him any better or worse than the fundamentalist Christians or Muslims, I wonder?

    Any valid points he has are lost in his arrogance rather as all fundamentalist lose theirs in their righteousness.

    Still, didn't we have this conversation a couple of weeks ago?

  2. We did indeed, Sheila, and a very entertaining one, too :)

    I completely agree about the arrogance/righteousness bit, as well!

  3. Interesting observations, Gareth!

    I might argue that while many horrific acts have been committed in the name of religion, religion is more of the given excuse rather than the actual cause. And it is interesting to note Dawkin's hypocrisy here. The arrogance, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness he speaks of in regards to people of faith, shows up in his own works as well. It doesn't bode well for his side of the argument. While he is put off by some of the claims and attitudes of Christians, he puts others off for similar reasons.


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