(2006) Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press, £20.00, hdbk, 406pp, ISBN 0-593-05548-9
In the early part of 2006 Richard Dawkins had a two-part series on Channel 4 called "The Root of All Evil" (a title, he is at pains to point out, was not his choice). During the course of it he tried to demonstrate both that religion (rather than faith, though it too was criticised) was responsible for much suffering among humankind, and that one could be a moral and ethical being from a secular (and scientific) standpoint.
Despite my own sympathies in this regard it is doubtful that he could claim to have been successful in either case, that is, with the viewing public. The reason for this, I suspect, lies with Dawkins himself. It is all too often the case that he comes across as arrogant and, consequently, despite his best intentions, that his "faith" in science and what people (incorrectly) perceive as scientific 'certainty' smacks more than a little of the dogmatic beliefs of the religiously minded. Which is a shame. Late in 2006 this book came out and in it Dawkins attempts to expand upon his themes, giving them a somewhat better airing than is possible in a TV show (no matter how well edited it might be). The question, therefore, is 'does he succeed and, if so, how well'?
Before proceeding, however, it is only fair to declare my own position; at least then you can decide if you think I am being biased in this review. So: I am an atheist. Such gods as are currently worshipped by humankind (always bearing in mind that the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is, to all intents and purposes, the same being) are, I think, demonstrably created by humans, and even if it/they is/are not then the religions which surround them certainly are. I do not know if the Universe has a creator or not and neither does anyone else, but I certainly do not think that the Universe "requires" a creator. I seriously doubt if (a) there is such a being and (b) if there was that we (human, mortal, timebound people) would truly be able to conceive of what it 'really' is and, much less, that any meaningful communication could pass between us and it. However, I also think that if you are interested in pondering whether or not there is a creator and, furthermore, wonder what that being is, then you could do a lot worse than to adopt a sceptical scientific viewpoint. That is to say, you should study the universe (and everything in it, including ourselves) and discover what you can, but never to accept as fact that which is supposition. Let me be clear, if the answer to any given question is 'I don't know (yet)', then that is the answer until you know better. What you do not under any circumstances do is to say, 'I don't know, therefore the answer has to be 'God''. An answer you grab out of thin air is no answer at all. It is, at best, fiction and, at worst, just plain stupid. Do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with speculation, just so long as you treat is as such, but when you treat speculation as fact it is at the very least self-deceptive and at worst actively destructive (since you and those you convince will proceed on a falsehood which, suitably embellished, can justify all kinds of nastiness). I hope that's clear. Assuming you're still reading, let's get to the book...
It starts simply enough, effectively with the statement that while Dawkins is not setting out to cause offense, neither is he going to adopt 'kid gloves' to avoid giving offense. Amusingly, at least if you are given to blackness in your humour, the first chapter asks the question of why religion is afforded 'respect'; the answer, I feel, is plain in the example he gives which considers what happened when a certain publication in Denmark printed cartoons of the 'prophet' Mohammed: specifically, if you do not give respect to certain groups of people you might well, however unintentionally, motivate them to violence. Of course it could, and should, be argued that one does not give respect out of fear and, more than that, that such respect is hardly respect at all, now is it? The next few chapters go on to demonstrate, pretty much using the Old Testament itself (the first five 'books' of which are common to the major monotheistic religions) that "God" is a complete bastard. He is nasty, violent, irrational, jealous and vicious and, furthermore, hates women, homosexuals, onanists and, well, just about anybody who is not one of his male worshippers. An interesting question not dealt with by Dawkins, and still less so by the religious, is what on Earth a god would want with 'worship' anyway? What does a supreme being do with prayer, worship and the like? Do you really think that a creature capable of creating an entire universe really gives a toss about you singing his praises, or kneeling on a mat five times a day, or wearing a silly hat? What nonsense. Here I would argue that Dawkins is taking aim at, and pretty much hitting, a sitting duck. I really do think that anyone who has seriously and critically read most 'holy books' could not help but conclude that, if there is a God, then He is a sonofabitch who we should unite in destroying.
Dawkins goes on to demolish most 'proofs' of god, using the simple expedient of logic which, of course, is an utter waste of time. If most religions actually had any truck with logic in the first place, then they would have already imploded under the weight of their own silliness. Faith has nothing to do with logic, so the faithful are unlikely to be persuaded by logical arguments, now are they? Then he moves on to consider the roots of religion (also dealt with ad nauseum in the American philosopher's, Daniel Dennett's, book Breaking the Spell, 2006, Allen Lane, £25.00, hdbk, 448pp, ISBN 0-713-99789-3). One cannot help but wonder why: the progression of belief from animsm and ancestor worship, through polytheism to monotheism is fairly well understood; not a mystery at all. Neither is the motivating factor: ignorance (in the sense of 'without knowledge', not merely 'stupid'). There is nothing wrong with ignorance per se but, as mentioned above, the problem arises when one decides to replace ignorance with a certainty plucked from the imagination, i.e.. "I don't know, therefore God".
The remainder of the book concerns itself with two ideas: whether it is possible to contruct an argument for 'goodness' (moral and ethical behaviour) from a secular standpoint, and why it is important to 'combat' religion. In the first instance the argument revolves around the concept of 'selfish altruism', which is to say adopting a co-operative strategy for getting through life, rather than a competitive one. I have some sympathy here, but Dawkins fails to demonstrate that co-operation is necessarily more successful than competition and so fails to really make his point. In a world where one often sees 'evil' succeed (here I'm thinking primarily of certain dictators and criminals), often underpinned by religion/religious thought, then what point would there be in being 'good'. Being a philosophical question (as opposed to a scientific one), Dawkins is probably not on his safest ground but, in fairness, I would have to say that Dennett does little better. In the second instance, why it is necessary to combat religion, the argument is simpler and, arguably, stronger: why would anyone want to stumble around in ignorance? How and why would a person confront the problems of the world and existence if it does not matter? If you are just going to spend 'three score years and ten' on this plane of being, and 'eternity' on some other plane, then 'life, the universe and everything' hardly matters, now does it? So why worry about your ignorance, God will sort it all out, right? If, on the other hand, you accept that your current existence is all you can reliably count on, then you might be motivated to do more in the way of confronting the bad and poor aspects of that life. This leads to Dawkins' final point: can the 'god-shaped hole' in humanity's psyche be filled by something(s) else. 'Probably' is the answer, though it is likely to be a plurality of things: science, art, friendship, 'love', etc.
I do not, personally, have too many problems with this book, though I doubt it will make much difference on its own. The blindly religious will probably not read it in the first place and, if they do, are likely to dismiss it. The (equally blindly?) secular will just find themselves in the position of the choir being preached to. Where it might help, and this is clearly Dawkins' intention, is with those brought up in and indoctrinated with religion who are unhappy with their lot. Indeed, the most 'practical' part of this book is the first part of its appendix, a list of organisations 'for individuals needing support in escaping from religion'. One idea I would like to poo-poo, again shared with Dennett, is that various types of non-religious people should band together and re-brand themselves as 'Brights' (in exactly the same way that homosexuals re-branded themselves as 'gay'). This is, in fact, just the kind of thing that is likely to get others to ignore the 'message'; a group wet enough to bother calling itself Bright is obviously a bunch of self-important crackpots who can easily and safely be ignored. The proof, I submit, is given in example by 'gay' which now, far from meaning homosexual, has come to mean 'wet, useless, weak, style-over-substance' etc. The very fact that words can be co-opted by groups proves that other groups can themselves co-opt the very same words to different effect. Dawkins and Dennett might want Bright to mean 'secular, atheist, humanist' etc, but I see it coming to mean 'self-satisfied, arrogant so-and-so', which surely defeats the object?
I am an atheist and I have no problem with "offending" the religious. When various religious groups come to my door or accost me in town I am pleased to tell them that they are suffering from a delusion and, furthermore, that anyone who believes anything without a shred of proof is an idiot. That goes for God, little green men (or 'greys' these days), ghosts, the Loch Ness Monster, Uri Geller's 'powers' or any supernatural 'forces'. Personally I would rather that books like Dawkins' and Dennett's were somewhat more confrontational, rather than playing some game of reason against those for whom we know a priori have no truck with reason. Religion is 'bad' because it perpetuates ignorance and promotes intolerance, and should be eradicated for the same reason. Please once again note, I am not saying one should not speculate about the existence (or not) of a god/creator; what I am saying is that religion is a crock and if you adhere to one you are an idiot. Dawkins should have said so. Having said all that, at some length, I would recommend this book which, while it does not stand alone in the struggle against irrationality, is some kind of a milestone of secular publishing. And, since it was widely discounted in WH Smiths and Waterstones and Borders, you need not be put off by the price.
You may also care to see The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson.
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