Richard Dawkins puts forth one main argument in The God Delusion: God does not exist, and that is okay. “God” is not the Christian the God, or Jewish Jehovah, or Muslim Allah; it is any and all gods. It is okay because we as humans can be good to one another on our own and not only because we are being watched by an omnipotent being. It is okay because belief in God creates much more bad in the world than it does good: more hatred, more violence and more suffering. These are the basic premises of the book.
I won’t be going too much into the arguments he makes here. I don’t know if that’s what this blog is about. I can’t summarize what Dawkins clearly explains in-depth. I don’t have the scientific background he does, nor do I have an entire book in which to explain. To summarize the arguments would cheapen them. If you’re curious, I would encourage you to read the book. What Dawkins did in his writing is lay out step-by-step scientific evidence against God, multiple examples of the negative effects of religion on humanity and finally a biological explanation for why humans have “the God-shaped hole.” All the ideas, doubts and questions that had risen up over the last few years were touched on in the book. Could evolution really explain all life on earth? A clear description of evolution and its power to create unique life is provided. But I don’t want to go to hell. The unlikelihood of hell existing and that same unlikelihood being the reason it is described so awfully and to those young enough to be scarred by it for life is provided. But I feel the need to worship something. A case study on the willingness of some people in the world to worship cargo planes as god is provided. Is religion really all that bad? The story of Edgardo Mortara showing the power and cruelty of religion is provided.
Personally, my main questioning of God came from the idea that there are four major religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) and they all believe they are correct. How could that be? And if one religion was right, that condemned the rest. I didn’t see how a God that loved the world could allow that to happen. My other biggest issue was how divisive religion is. There was a time when I would argue people were the issue, not the doctrine. But the problem there is that decades-old doctrine can support prejudices and actions that today we consider wrong. Slavery, polygamy and homophobia come to mind but there are many others. It can also make people do or say things they otherwise would not (like take a small child named Edgardo from his family because a young Catholic nurse splashed water on his head).
Two of the most impactful sections of the book discussed the effect religion has on children, and the cost of radical belief (as well as the fine line between radical belief and “normal” belief). The point is made that there are no religious children, just as there are no Democrat or Republican children. Children have not developed their own opinions. And while there are instances where religion is used as an attempt to teach wrong and right, good and evil, it often props religion above what we may consider good otherwise. An example Dawkins cited was a group of Israeli children who were asked if Joshua acted rightly by destroying Jericho and killing every man, woman and child in the city but keeping the gold and silver for God’s temple. In total 66% gave total approval offering reasons ranging from “God promised the land to him” to “when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.” A separate group, a control group, were given the same passages but replaced Joshua with General Lin and Jerusalem with a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago. When the names were changed and allegiance to Judaism removed, 8% of the children gave total approval.
The second, and more impactful section to me, was a reference to an interview with captured suicide bombers. When asked why they wanted to blow themselves up, why they wanted to end their lives and become martyrs, they answered “I wanted to enter Paradise.” They believed that by going through with their actions they would go to Paradise. It is repeated twice in the book for emphasis, and I will repeat it here. They truly believed they would go to Paradise. Much like I’m sure the terrorists who flew planes into the twin towers believed they would enter paradise. Much like I’m sure Paul Jennings Hill believed he would go to Heaven when he was executed for the murder of an abortion doctor and his bodyguard. Why else would a person do something like that? Why else would someone inflict pain or death on their fellow humans if they didn’t truly believe they would be rewarded in some other life? But how many of us believe the jihadist, or the murderer who claims God told him to kill?
Which leads to the final point, that “normal” belief can slip oh so easily into radicalism. Radical acts such as jihad or the Crusades are examples. They are extreme of course. But how many vehement deniers of gay rights would be as passionate if they didn’t have the Bible to fall back on as their reason why? Would The Troubles still be costing innocent lives if there were no Protestants or Catholics, or what’s more if children in Northern Ireland weren’t segregated into religious schools, taught from an early age the difference between us and them? Would parents kill their children by denying medical care, instead praying for them? Would a person ever tell another person they were going to hell, that they would burn for eternity in damnation simply for not believing in their god?
I am not naive enough to believe that without religion there would be no war or violence. Of course there would be. But we make excuses for God’s horrible actions, and use God as an excuse for some of our own. The God Delusion made me think about a world in which there was no God to pin our sin on, and instead forced us to look in the mirror at ourselves.
As I finished the book I felt the need to really examine what I did or did not believe. The lessons I got from church seemed at odds with logic, but it was what I grew up believing. I felt myself distancing myself from faith, agreeing with much more of the arguments against religion than for it, having trouble saying out loud and honestly some of the pillars of Christianity (“Jesus was a man who was dead for three days but then walked around again”)… but more than that I felt a strong need to dig in to what I was taught as a child, this time as a man. If I was going to walk away I needed to know myself what I was walking away from.
Next up, Blue Like Jazz.
Thank you for reading,