In the penultimate instalment in my series re-examining The God Delusion, I consider Dawkins’ moral case against religion, how he believes this interacts with the moral zeitgeist and the role of moderate religion.
I have far weaker memories of the final chapters of the book, and was surprised that these two particularly felt so light. Despite having previously said that I’m more concerned with the moral than the intellectual failings of religion, the latter chapters didn’t feel as exciting when I first read them. Perhaps that’s an indication of how my personal atheism has evolved in the decades since.
Dawkins feels that in the previous two chapters he has thoroughly dismissed the idea that morality has its roots in religion. In this section of the book he challenges the related but importantly different claim that religion promotes morality. His focus will be on the two major negative manifestations of religion that the new atheist movement was a reaction to, extremist Christianity and Islamism. That these would be his foci makes perfect sense given the context he’s writing in but invites the obvious criticism of picking on easy targets. Though perhaps it only seems this way because we have had two decades plus of such books undermining the taboo against any criticism of religion.
Chapter 7. The ‘Good’ Book and the changing moral Zeitgeist
The chapter starts with some pop biblical criticism, featuring a whistle stop tour through the genocidal evil and god mandated rape of the Noha and Sodam stories, and the observation – shared by I would venture most informed religious believers – that the bible is not “inerrant source of our morals and rules for living”. Dawkins acknowledges that “irritated theologians” will point out that most Christians don’t take genesis literally, anymore. But this only reinforces his point that everyone takes a pick and choose it approach. No one does, or could, follow the Bible literally. Though a “frighteningly large number of people” profess to. Whatever moral standards we use for this picking and choosing, they must be separate to the text itself.
Dawkins shares reflections on his interactions with various evangelical leaders who drawing on biblical inspiration have a tendency to blame natural disasters on their ennemi du jour. While ‘sophisticated theologians’ and would agree Pat Robertson is a buffoon, he “would be harmless comedy, were he less typical of those who today hold power and influence in the United States”.
A significant portion of the chapter goes through some of the weird and, from our modern more humanistic perspective, profoundly immoral stories of the Bible. This is not just about playing to the atheist crowd; it makes the point that this supposedly great book is clearly a product of its time. Religious scholars may grasp the context and history of the Bible far more firmly, but the simple point that it is an ordinary human created book is easy to understand.
To object to critiquing the Bible from our modern moral standards, a fair position for a secular Biblical scholar to take, is to abandon the claim that its moral standards are timeless.
Dawkins moves on to consider some of the worst excesses of those who claim to be scriptural literalists. He discusses American Christian nationalists’ obsession with putting up ten commandment tablets on public sites, and the absurdity of asserting that they are part of, or the basis for, the nation’s laws. The same religious prohibition on worshiping other gods or idolatry motivates some of the worst cultural crimes of the Taliban and other Islamist regimes. That such claims of scriptural literalism are at odds with many religious traditions within all faiths, is barely commented on.
Moving on to consider the New Testament, Dawkins concludes that “the moral superiority of Jesus” proves his point, because the Jesus’s moral innovations as depicted must have come from outside the scripture. Even a great moral innovator, like any innovator, can find themselves left behind by progress. Dawkins is pretty uncritical of the idea that the Jesus character was at least a great moral teacher, a common conceit though based more on contemporary interpretation than the text itself.
Dawkins criticises “the central doctrine of Christianity: that of ‘atonement’ for ‘original sin’”, pointing out that it is in itself deeply immoral and that only the “ubiquitous familiarity” of Christianity just hides how plain silly it is, or would be to an outsider.
Paul’s innovation, which would likely not have been supported by the historical Jewish Jesus, was the universalisation of Christianity. Biblical commandments to “Love thy neighbour” were exclusively ingroup focussed and entirely consistent with biblical commandments to genocide, rape and enslave outgroup members. Paul expanded the Jewish concept of god to the concept of a god for all humanity.
From our modern more humanistic moral standard we expect moral standard to apply more or less equally to all of humanity rather than specific racial sub-sets. It is this standard that religious liberals bring to scripture to either pick and choose, or unconsciously re-interpret positive religious teachings.
Dawkins argues that despite this, scripture itself – his focus remains on the Bible specifically – encourages this sort of ingroup focused morality. He shares a social study by, Israeli psychologist George Tamarin. To summarise: a large number of Israeli school children were given an account of the battle of Jericho where in their god’s name the army of Joshua and the Israelites kill every living being in the city. When questioned on the morality of this heinous crime, 66% of pupils gave total approval. A different group of Israeli school children were “given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’.” In this case 75% of pupils registered total disapproval. The impact of ingroup religious bias is clear.
Dawkins acknowledges that “wars, and feuds between religious groups or sects, are seldom actually about theological disagreements” citing examples of sectarian conflict “From Kosovo to Palestine, from Iraq to Sudan, from Ulster to the Indian subcontinent”. But he argues that religion provides the ingroup/outgroup labels and mechanism which maintain that segregation, including “labelling of children”, “Segregated schools” and “Taboos against ‘marrying out’”. This analysis compelling, but open to the criticism that it ignores or downplays other non-religious factors.
Dawkins moves on from the obvious fact that no-ones morality, “no matter what we may fondly imagine” is actually grounded in scripture, to consider how the ‘moral zeitgeist’ evolves. One potential criticism here is that Dawkins ignores or downplays the role that evolving religious traditions can play in the formation of this zeitgeist.
Dawkins believes that: “With notable exceptions such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles.” I have three criticisms of this very humanist worldview. Firstly, it is only true in an extremely broad sense. To find near universal moral standards you need to be very basic. Secondly, as we have already seen, many problems arise from ingroup limiting of these morals, common but not exclusive to religion. Thirdly, the examples picked assume that only religious worldviews reject this consensus.
Dawkins considers various atheist attempts to rewrite and improve on the Ten Commandments. The specifics don’t matter, but the point is again that we with the benefit of two thousand years of moral evolution can easily improve – and whatever our religious beliefs generally do improve – on the morality of scripture.
The chapter is rounded out with a section looking at the question which apparently “comes up after just about every public lecture that I ever give on the subject of religion”: “What about Hitler and Stalin? Weren’t they atheists?” This feels a little dated, perhaps as it’s such a bad argument that it so rarely gets bought up to attack atheists anymore. In the case of Hitler, whether or not he was an atheist is open to debate and the Nazi regime was explicitly a Christian supremacist one. Stalin was an atheist, but this wasn’t the motivation for his regime.
Chapter 8. What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?
The chapter starts with Dawkins saying: “I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation. I don’t think the adversarial format is well designed to get at the truth”. Dawkins does not come across as confrontational or aggressive in the book. His “reputation for pugnacity towards religion” owes to his Twitter personality, toxic parts of his fandom, and the general taboo against criticising religion. I agree with the strictly limited utility of adversarial formal debate. The obsession with this format in parts of the atheist community reflects, I feel a desire to stick with the easy but limited question of gods’ existence.
Dawkins rejects the taboo against criticising religion, arguing that it should be treated like any other harmful or wrong belief. He makes this case in the chapter by focusing on the harms of religion he’s most passionate about.
This is understandable, but means the analysis is limited in scope and the obvious retort from religious moderates is that what is criticises is not their religion. This whole section would have been a lot stronger if Dawkins had drawn on the extensive academic literature and research into religious and nonreligious views on moral, scientific and political issues.
His main concern is the potential of religious fundamentalism to subvert science. Dawkins responds to the critique that he is fundamentalist about science by arguing that he is passionate about scientific literacy, and that the potential of science to change its mind in the face of evidence – though not necessarily of scientists to do the same – makes it intrinsically different to religious fundamentalism. He waves away a simplistic view of cultural relativist positions. His view is that fundamentalist religion is directly attacking science and that moderate religion provides cover for this by “teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue”.
He argues that: “Such absolutism nearly always results from strong religious faith, and it constitutes a major reason for suggesting that religion can be a force for evil in the world.” This is where a more systematic study of religion’s impacts on scientific and moral opinion would be most welcome. As it is, the chapter justifies the opposition to extreme or absolutist religion that should be shared with religious moderates, but only makes an extremely limited argument for opposition to vast swathes of more moderate religious beliefs.
Dawkins moves on to his second biggest concern regarding fundamentalist religion: the violent enforcement of blasphemy taboos. It is here where his focus moves largely from American Christian extremism to Islamism. He goes through a litany of some of the most famous blasphemy cases of the period, where Islamic regimes or organisations have murdered people for the ‘crimes’ of blasphemy or apostasy. As he points out, at the time of writing blasphemy was still technically a crime in Britain. The last successful prosecutions were in the twenties, but the existence of the law meant that there were still attempts to bring prosecutions and use it to silence criticism of religious.
The third great evil Dawkins considers is fundamentalist religion and homophobia. The same problem applies, by focusing on the extreme he limits his case and allows more liberal religious people to rightly respond that this isn’t their religion. There is so much more robust evidence on the corelation between religiosity and homophobia which could be utilised.
He rightly points out that the UK’s history of criminalising homosexuality is recent enough to ensure we have “no right to be smug”. Surprisingly, he doesn’t make the point about more contemporaneous religiously motivated homophobia in the UK. He restricts his commentary again to Islamist regimes and extreme American Christianity. He also fails to make the point that the decriminalisation of homosexuality was directly linked to a cultural liberation movement which undermined traditional religious controls in society.
He quotes many American Christian leaders and their extreme homophobia and the penalties they would like to impose if limits on their power were removed. Critics will again say that he is picking on extreme examples, but that discounts how much power and influence these people have.
The final great evil Dawkins considers is religious opposition to – the obsession within some parts of Christian nationalism – abortion and birth control. Far more people die from the Catholic Church’s efforts to discourage condoms, but this aspect of the religious attack on reproductive choices is not covered.
Dawkins points out the hypocrisy in the tendency of American Christian extremists to support the death penalty and violence against abortion providers while labelling themselves ‘pro-life’. His argument for abortion rights is a simplistic utilitarian one focusing on the relative ability of a foetus or pregnant person to suffer, rather than a bodily autonomy focused one.
These are four of the greatest societal evils caused by or aggravated by religion, that the modern atheist movement have been most active in opposing, along with many religious allies of a more humanist or secularist persuasion. In the final section of the chapter, Dawkins turns to the question of whether or how moderate faith supports such fanaticism.
This is a massive topic of debate within the atheist movement and there are many differing and nuanced views with strong arguments. But this is given short attention.
Dawkins main arguments are firstly that the comfortable liberal fiction that religious extremists are mad or that they are only using their religion as an excuse or don’t really believe is robustly countered by the evidence. However, the tendency of some atheists to downplay non-religious factors motivating religious extremism is equally problematic. Similarly, the suggestion that more liberal religious believers are less sincere also privileges one understanding of religion.
His second argument is that promoting faith as a virtue and belief without evidence – even less harmful beliefs – encourages the faith-based thinking of fundamentalism. His third argument, made in more detail earlier is the tendency of even liberal moderate religion to encourage potentially negative ingroup/outgroup dynamics. A fourth argument is implied: that religious moderated maintain taboos against criticising religion that protects more extreme versions.
In part one of this series, I introduced the series, my interest in revisiting the book, and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In part two I considered the book’s responses to arguments for the existence of a god. In part three I critiqued Dawkins’ exploration of the naturalistic roots of religion and morality.
I hope you will join me for the final instalment where I will be responding to the book’s positive case for atheism and giving my final reflections on this series.
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