Some brief reactions in response to Richard Dawkins’ the God Delusion

I have just finished re-reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It is well written, highly literate and raises some important issues for the modern religious believer. It has made me think and even where I disagree, I believe that those supporting any faith worth following should be able to learn from the issues the Dawkins raises. Rather than the conventional way of reviewing the entire book I thought I might start with a few quotes from his book which I have lifted from the Good Read Quotes extracted from his book “The God Delusion” and give my initial reactions. What might be helpful is if others join the discussion with their own evaluations.

The God Delusion Quotes
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: This quote is one I have used myself to caution street evangelists and self appointed theological experts who seem to expect me to want pay homage to their own private version of a deity. At the same time I can’t help but feel that one positive version of God common to a number of major branches of religion exists, at least as an ideal, namely “God is Love”. To me accepting that compassion is a mysterious human ideal which, if followed, enriches the community. At the very least such an ideal is less likely to damage the prospects of long term peace and mutual cooperation than Dawkins’ apparent certainty that all religions are wrong in all respects and (perhaps his unintended consequence) that followers of religions are to be derided.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Anyone who has worked through the Old Testament books like Exodus or Leviticus – or who followed through the explanations of misfortune as stated by the prophets and even the authors of the Psalms would concede that Dawkins is right on the button. What he seems to omit to say is that at the same time the scientists of the day were also using limited and now, by current understanding clearly silly models to explain cycles of disaster. When you can’t possibly know about bacteria and viruses why not have as your faith statement that God is inflicting disease as punishment ? I think of the priests of Babylon telling the people to shout and bang pots at the God who seemed intent on swallowing the Sun. The experiment by those Priests acting as scientists worked because the God monster swallowing the Sun did as predicted. If we must scoff at the religion because of those seeking to make sense of a presumed God, would Dawkins want us to scoff at science because the early scientists were also talking twaddle?

“There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: I agree. Mind you I am not entirely sure that Dawkins for all his scientific education has really worked out all his own answers to give his life meaning. Perhaps this is unfair but I remember my own undergraduate education in science when I received most of my knowledge second hand. I never measured the size of the Earth. I took the lecturer’s word for it. I accepted without question that Rutherford did his experiments to show the structure of the atom, that Darwin had assembled the evidence for his theory of evolution, and that molecular structure was revealed in X Ray crystallography and so on.

“More generally, as I shall repeat in Chapter 8, one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: I would wonder if perhaps the majority in every population are satisfied without understanding regardless of whether or not they have religious affiliation. Just because fewer now go to Church I am not sure that as a consequence people better understand how to get on with their fellows. Thinking of my own community there are not many who can tell you how the brain works, why computers keep getting faster, how mobile phones work, and so on and I am struggling to understand why this lack of understanding is not now somehow enhanced. After all Dawkins implies it is religion which was holding them back. If they have given up on religion if Dawkins is right shouldn’t we start to see improved knowledge and better values? Fewer at Church and the US may now choose Donald Trump??

“A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: OK …except for the conclusion. I would have thought that the sociological attraction of religion is that belonging to the local community religion gives one a sense of familiarity and belonging. If a child is attracted to its parents why wouldn’t a child of Muslim parents feel that adopting their ways and beliefs is a natural part of their acceptance?

“Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether they are ‘valid,’ let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Bill’s Comment: Seems reasonable. In fact the UK school syllabus already allows for this.
“Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.”― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Thou shalt not steal …..Nah….. do what you think is right for you. ??????

“Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: I agree … always assuming that the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment . Richard Dawkins clearly moves in different circles to me. None of my acquaintances talk this way and I always thought that Kohlberg had a much more plausible model for morality.
“To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: No argument with that for a good part of the Bible. However I would have thought that a more nuanced view would be that it also represents a set of documents which have historical significance and sufficient by way of positive instruction eg the Sermon on the Mount, Paul on the desirability of the principle of Love and James on what constitutes true religion to provide helpful guiding advice for positive life principles.

“Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: If Richard Dawkins had said “An exclusivist, judgmental faith ……..” I would have no argument.

“I am thrilled to be alive at time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

No problems here. I would even go further and say that it is a shame more people in religion don’t question long held belief in the light of current knowledge and the questions this knowledge might raise.

“The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism – as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ So did Bertrand Russell: ‘Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Come on…Jesus saying “forgive your enemies” makes you commit atrocities? Say what.???? Surely Dawkins means cherry picking religious principles for the benefit and power of religious groups is always wrong and has been used to excuse atrocities since time immemorial.

“Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority. But a good first step would be to build up a critical mass of those willing to ‘come out,’ thereby encouraging others to do so. Even if they can’t be herded, cats in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Those who self-identify as atheists do indeed make a lot of noise. Some of them are also very nice people. I look forward to the day when they self organize to the same extent as those who run food banks, hospice shops, soup kitchens and start to operate Aid organizations to the point where they are noticed.

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3 Responses to Some brief reactions in response to Richard Dawkins’ the God Delusion

  1. Drexus says:

    “God is Love — To me accepting that compassion is a mysterious human ideal which, if followed, enriches the community. At the very least such an ideal is less likely to damage the prospects of long term peace and mutual cooperation than Dawkins’ apparent certainty that all religions are wrong in all respects and (perhaps his unintended consequence) that followers of religions are to be derided.”

    Would you buy a loaf of bread if only 4 slices had green mould on it?

    To paraphrase Dawkins, why should we care what appears right or wrong — when all we care about is what’s true?

    “If we must scoff at the religion because of those seeking to make sense of a presumed God, would Dawkins want us to scoff at science because the early scientists were also talking twaddle?”

    Absolutely, that’s how science works. If you feel the “scientists” of that time were as twaddled as the religious people of the time, that would be an observation from the scope of social intelligence as a whole — not a measure of one’s departure from the scientific method as nonexistent to that time.

    I’d be curious as to what humanity might look like today had the scientific method been introduced at that time. Evidently, the lack of structured reason may have been the critical driver for the nonsensical claims of how celestial mechanics worked in the bible — much less other fantastic tales offered.

    Critical thinking was hampered by so much subjective influence, it’s likely the idea of removing oneself from the equation was simply too foreign for that time.

    “Mind you I am not entirely sure that Dawkins for all his scientific education has really worked out all his own answers to give his life meaning.”

    If you’re unsure, why not ask him?

    “I never measured the size of the Earth. I took the lecturer’s word for it.”

    The thing about science is that all claims are validated as repeatable. Thus, you don’t have to take someone’s word on faith, you can do the calculations to reveal the answer yourself. If you find a different answer, you can correct the scientific community, and they will thank you for it. There is no pride in being right, only pride in furthering truth. This is how science works — open to being proven wrong any time, day or night. Why? Because we do exactly this for our own work, and for the work of others.

    “Just because fewer now go to Church I am not sure that as a consequence people better understand how to get on with their fellows.”

    This is a non-sequitur. The principle connection Dawkins’ made was that religion prevents us from exploring the truth of our reality — for religion claims to have answered these questions by injecting God as responsible for those things we simply didn’t understand. This represents a ceiling of intellectual development, for one to discover a truth through observation would be blasphemy if it conflicted with the bible. No connection was claimed as causal to fewer people attending church or improving social skills.

    “After all Dawkins implies it is religion which was holding them back. If they have given up on religion if Dawkins is right shouldn’t we start to see improved knowledge and better values?”

    Whoa, just a moment here. Simply giving up religion does not equate to instantly gaining intelligence you’ve not had before. Again, Dawkins’ sights the limiting factor religion has on the growth of intellect — as barring greater understanding in the many areas that describe how the universe works. We all have an innate sense of curiosity that starts in children and continues as a prime motivator in learning everything we do. But if we’re told how parts of the universe works (true or not), what future do we have if we would like to be a biologist, palaeontologist, cosmologist, physicist, geologist, or even a scientist of any discipline? To enter these professions would require one to abandon the claims of the bible.

    As for Donald Trump… What’s this have to do with anything here? Just what are you inferring? This is as relevant as saying “…and I’ve now stopped eating ice-cream.” Stay on topic please.

    “I would have thought that the sociological attraction of religion is that belonging to the local community religion gives one a sense of familiarity and belonging. If a child is attracted to its parents why wouldn’t a child of Muslim parents feel that adopting their ways and beliefs is a natural part of their acceptance?”

    The function of community is not the invention of religion. Humans are a species of advanced sociality, just like many others. Community is a natural survival trait, and not based on the described rituals of religion. Yes, children will adopt the social trends of those around them. They rely on their parents for their very survival — that’s how we as a species survive. A child is given no choice but to adopt the social behaviour of the parents, no choice for objective evaluation of religion, they simply mimic their parents actions without question — irrespective of these actions as contingent of personal choice.

    Would a new born child be baptized as an artist, musician or software developer? No, that choice is theirs to make when they’re old enough to own that decision. Likewise, the choice of religion should be made when they’re old enough to own that decision.

    “Thou shalt not steal …..Nah….. do what you think is right for you. ??????”

    Hardly an objective conclusion. You’re confusing right & wrong with true & false.

    “Richard Dawkins clearly moves in different circles to me.”

    It’s not clear to me. Please explain this.

    “None of my acquaintances talk this way and I always thought that Kohlberg had a much more plausible model for morality.”

    This suggests your view of morality is subject to interpretation, or at least qualified by the views of your acquaintances. Do you really feel morality is found through subjective consensus — a collection of views by people you’ve talked to?

    Morality is a survival trait exhibited by species of advanced sociality. Fortunately, evidence shows humans are not the only ones exhibiting morality.

    “No argument with that for a good part of the Bible. However I would have thought that a more nuanced view would be that it also represents a set of documents which have historical significance and sufficient by way of positive instruction…”

    This is a contradiction. If no part of the bible can be verifiable due to it being “revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries”, then what possible “historical significance” remains if nothing can be verified? Where is the historical value while critically void of any accuracy? Further, to also say “No argument with that for a good part of the Bible.” is to suggest one can somehow validate a portion of the bible as accurate.

    This isn’t a case where only a portion of an account was recovered and the damaged/missing parts were extrapolated. No, the whole thing went through “revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries”. There is no possible way any portion could be verified as original, falsified, amended, redacted, dropped, or misinterpreted.

    “…true religion to provide helpful guiding advice for positive life principles.”

    Religion is a social construct. To claim any truth as defined by the consensus of a personal views is erroneous. To then claim a positive social value from the same subjective process is equally erroneous. Scientifically, these claims are completely untenable. Opinions does not equal truth, just large portions of subjectivity.

    “If Richard Dawkins had said “An exclusivist, judgmental faith ……..” I would have no argument.”

    Are you saying faith has value someplace?

    “Come on…Jesus saying “forgive your enemies” makes you commit atrocities?”

    No, just the parts where Jesus asks you not to beat your slaves to the point where they’re maimed — indifferent to the idea of slavery outright.

    “Surely Dawkins means cherry picking religious principles for the benefit and power of religious groups is always wrong and has been used to excuse atrocities since time immemorial.”

    Surely the humble, meek, and clear abstinence from wealth Jesus exemplified is evident today. Simply look at the humble and meek architectural monoliths of religion today. The sheer abandonment of wealth as demonstrated by the billions of the Vatican is the epitome of Jesus’ ideal principles. The immense charity presented by televangelist ministers living in their modest million dollar homes, and the sheer humility they represent as they preside over their followers as they heal you or bless you for sending in donations. Yes, Dawkins has it all wrong, todays religious principles are something to revere.

    “I look forward to the day when they self organize to the same extent as those who run food banks, hospice shops, soup kitchens and start to operate Aid organizations to the point where they are noticed.”

    This is the thing. We as atheists do not need to gather as a group to do these things, we simply do them independently — without needing to be “guided” through some act of defined morality.

    I look forward to the day when theists present criticism without bias — after they’ve read though their points.

  2. peddiebill says:

    Thanks for the detailed response. I think I see where you are coming from in most respects. Because your response is so detailed, to keep the discussion manageable, I am rather hoping you would be prepared to consider my responses point by point rather than all at once because pages of material would be off-putting to any others interested in joining the discussion.
    So in no particular order:
    Your question: Are you saying faith has value someplace?

    My comment:“Come on…Jesus saying “forgive your enemies” makes you commit atrocities?”

    Your reply to my comment.
    “No, just the parts where Jesus asks you not to beat your slaves to the point where they’re maimed — indifferent to the idea of slavery outright.”
    As it happens I have written about slavery in the past noting that some have tried to justify slavery by seeking passages from the Bible eg in the run up to the American Civil war.
    But you ask if faith has value someplace. Well my particular form of faith helped me me to respond to some information about child slave prostitutes in Thailand by getting together with some Church and Rotary friends and sending money to a school that rescues and educates Child prostitutes. I assume that to be consistent you as an atheist also have done something positive about slavery otherwise you would not be condemning this instance of Jesus’ apparent “Laissez faire” attitude towards the social practice of slavery in his day.
    My faith also influenced me to work for a year in New Guinea (New Britain) as a volunteer high school teacher for the United Church and my current Church seems to be reasonably responsible in terms of helping with various welfare activities and in helping those with social needs. As far as I know none of the current congregation are into slavery and indeed I cant think of even a single Church in the whole of New Zealand that would support slavery. I do know that a number of Church congregations are very generous when it comes to coping with disasters and there is nothing in our recent history that has any suggestion of being involved with atrocities.

    At the same time Dawkins does have a valid point in saying that some leaders still do stupid things in the name of religion. George W Bush claiming divine guidance in sending the troops into Iraq was not a good example of Christianity in practice any more than Attila the Hun was an ideal example for Atheists. As it happens Stalin specifically rejected his earlier Christianity and perpetrated some fairly impressive examples of mass genocide in his faith free period. I don’t think anyone could use this as a legitimate argument about supporting atheism.

    I happen to agree that past atrocities have been excused in the name of religion. I also note that religions have helped shape some of the more positive features of society.

    • Drexus says:

      “Well my particular form of faith helped me…”

      This response is entirely subjective — not applicable to anyone else reading this. Please provide an example where anyone could enact faith as resolving something that only faith can.

      “…me to respond to some information about child slave prostitutes in Thailand by getting together with some Church and Rotary friends and sending money to a school that rescues and educates Child prostitutes.”

      This is called morality from advanced sociality. If someone were to mug an old lady on a busy street, strangers would be drawn to help the old lady while others might apprehend the mugger. The social instinct demonstrated here is defined under sociality — we didn’t have to learn it from religion, as it’s part of how our species survives — just like many other species. No secrets here — and no religion was needed to train people to act this way. Religion has no claim on providing something we already have.

      “I assume that to be consistent you as an atheist also have done something positive about slavery otherwise you would not be condemning this instance of Jesus’ apparent “Laissez faire” attitude towards the social practice of slavery in his day.”

      By the mere fact that I mentioned it should denote a clear understanding of my level of sociality. My comment was to allow you to easily answer your own question — which you did.

      Being as religion is a social construct, pointing to activities organized under this mechanism is not evidence morality was created by religion. Simply volunteering to perform moral activities under the coordination of a specific social construct does not give credence to that social construct as the prime source of moral guidance — contingent of faith. The connection is untenable. One could do the very same acts under the coordination of many other social constructs currently providing social assistance. Your example is not unique to religion, much less faith — no distinction for faith found here.

      “As far as I know none of the current congregation are into slavery and indeed I cant think of even a single Church in the whole of New Zealand that would support slavery.”

      Given slavery is against international law, I see no credit could be claimed here. Still, the bible continues to have no objection on slavery if international law did or didn’t outlaw it. Sad as it may seem, if slavery was not outlawed, those of faith could use scripture to support the act of slavery by way of Jesus not condemning it — but rather offering guidance on maintaining your slaves. No credit to the bible here, all the credit goes to our developed sense of advanced sociality in creating these international laws — all without the bible.

      “… nothing in our recent history that has any suggestion of being involved with atrocities”

      To quote Christopher Hitchens: “I think there will be an apology (by the Catholic Church) for what happened in Rwanda, the most catholic country in Africa, where priests and nuns and bishops are on trial for inciting from their pulpits and on the church’s radio stations and newspapers the massacre of their brothers and sisters staying in Africa. I think that it will one day be admitted with shame, that it might have been in error to say that aids is bad as a disease, very bad, but not quite as bad as condoms are bad, or not as immoral in the same way.” To that, I won’t even reference the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse — shielded by the church — while claiming the higher moral ground — true hypocrisy of galactic proportions.

      “As it happens Stalin specifically rejected his earlier Christianity and perpetrated some fairly impressive examples of mass genocide in his faith free period.”

      This example, and many others — have been discredited time and time again. Why? It’s likely theists would like it to be true, and perhaps feel that repeating this claim might — just might — give it validity for just a few minutes until it’s discredited yet one more time.

      It’s such a running joke to pull this card out one more time, that Dawkins had to repeatedly move this argument to various locations in his books — in the hopes people might easily read it on the back cover — and still they ignore it. Michael Sherlock best addressed this with:

      “Given the obstinate nature of religious faith and the wilful ignorance it cultivates in the mind of the believer, I am quite certain that this article (proving again Stalin/Hitler were not atheists) will not be the final nail in this rancid and rotting coffin. Having said this, I do hope it will contribute to the arsenal required by those who value reason, facts and evidence, in their struggle against the fallacies perpetually flaunted by those who do not value the truth above their own egocentric delusions, delusions inspired by an unquenchable thirst for security, no matter how frighteningly false its foundation.”

      To see this argument used here — once again, supports Michael’s estimation that people of faith will remain ignorant of evidence — as causal to their continued religious adherence.

      “I also note that religions have helped shape some of the more positive features of society.”

      Please, I’d be very interested to know the positive social contributions by religion as being unique — not achievable through any other secular social construct.

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