I recently started reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and penned down my thoughts when I started in a blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in thinking about such matters.
Overall, the book was much more polite than I expected it to be. Dawkins has a reputation for being hostile towards religion and as someone who does not mince words in discussions. Yes, the whole book is about why it is highly unlikely that there is a God, but Dawkins makes a number of sincere attempts to understand the other side: to postulate reason after reason, and theory after theory, as to why someone would believe, or want to believe, that God exists. I have not seen this from religious people: contemplation as to why someone would want to be an atheist, and it was very refreshing.
Dawkins writes very well, and presents very convincing evidence to advance his arguments. I found myself enjoying and nodding through most of his arguments. Some of the facts he presented were very startling: that as recently as in 2006, a man was killed in Afghanistan for converting to Christianity privately. Dawkins also described the money and influenced wielded by fundamentalists in America: what I had always thought of a fringe loony group controlled millions of dollars of money, and had huge numbers of volunteers.
One of the chapters I most enjoyed in the book was where Dawkins shows us that you don’t need religion to be good, or to define what is good. He shows extremely convincingly that scriptures aren’t the source of morality anymore, that we define what is good or bad irrespective of what is in our holy books. And surprisingly, he shows that the sense of good is amazingly common all over the world among very different people.
There were two arguments where Dawkins and I disagreed before I read the book: for one of these he has convinced me thoroughly, and in the other, he has made me think very deeply, but I am not yet convinced.
The first is the question of being an agnostic or an atheist. The difference between the two is simple: an atheist strongly believes there is no God; an agnostic believes there might or might not be a God (similar to: there might or might not be unicorns). I was leaning more towards an agnostic before reading the book. Dawkins points out clearly in the book that there are other things we cannot disprove 100%, but still quite strongly believe in: such as evolution. The probability division between the existence/non-existence of God may never be 0/100%: but Dawkins points out that is hardly 50/50 either, rather something like almost 0/almost 100%. Dawkins of course supplements this with other arguments in the book — I am merely mentioning one.
The second thing we differed on is the attitude towards moderate religion. Most decent people have no problem condemning extremists, including ones bent on violence and destruction. It is also taken for granted that the moderate practitioners of each religion are gentle and peaceful, and should generally be allowed to go about their business. I was (am?) of this view at the start of the book.
But Dawkins presents compelling reasons as to why even moderate religion could be harmful. He presents stories of 12-year old Christian kids who were taken to Hell houses, where Hell was actually enacted via burning fire, the smell of sulphur, people moaning in pain as they were tortured, so that they could obtain a healthy Christian fear of hell and therefore be good Christians. Even kids not attending these grotesque places talk about the fear of hell drummed into them by their parents and their religious community. The stories of the nightmares and continual fear due to these experiences were moving. And of course, one does not need to more than mention priests and young boys for the reader to get the idea.
Another reason to oppose “moderate” religion is their interference with education and science. Given that creationism and intelligent design in taught in schools even today in the US, I will treat this as moderate rather than extremist religion. And this argument I entirely buy: I detest religion which would force schools to drop evolution and teach ridiculous theories like intelligent design instead.
There is a dilemma in there which makes me uneasy however: in the case of Amish kids and kids of parents who subscribe to creationism, it is clear that they are losing out on education, and a chance to develop the ability to think critically. However, in general, I am usually of the opinion that one must not interfere in other people’s business: if the Amish want to eschew electricity, it is their choice to make. A trickier question is what to do about their children: they certainly did not choose to be Amish, and have no way to rationally make the decision to be/not be religious. Dawkins goes all the way and says that these kids, if they had knowledge of what was going on, would certainly not choose to be in that lifestyle, and hence that lifestyle is wrong for them. I think that is going a bit far, and is dangerously close to deciding for them what is best for them.
One of the things I didn’t like about the book was the (what seemed to me) excessive adulation accorded to Darwin and evolution, and the concept of “consciousness-raising”. There were several points at which the way in which Dawkins used it seemed extremely condescending of those who did not think in terms of evolution and natural selection. This theories about memetic selection and the evolutionary reason for religion seemed at points to be a stretch.
In conclusion, although Dawkins doesn’t directly answer the question I posed in my previous blog post, the answer is quite clear: religion may offer many things like a sense of community, a moral code, a form of therapy, and so on in a nice bundled package — but the package comes with a lot of things you don’t necessarily want, such as an assertion that faith is better than reason, along with limits on education, thought and marriage. It might seem that as it stands today, religion is one of the attractive packages on offer; but I am confident as time goes by, that more and more people will become atheistic. This trend is already seen in many parts of Europe, and I would not be surprised if 200 years from now, religion would have become a thing of the past.