Although I would consider myself an atheist, I did not actually agree with everything in The God Delusion. In this book, Richard Dawkins sets out to demonstrate that it is both irrational and dangerous to believe in a supernatural god. For the irrationality part, he bases his arguments in science, primarily evolution, offering scientifically founded arguments for why a god is highly unlikely and where human morality comes from. I certainly found it refreshing to read his rational, scientific arguments and there was nothing in this part of the book’s content with which I disagree. I was raised with a scientific mindset and I greatly appreciate such logical, analytical thinking.
In the later part of the book, Dawkins turns to the task of demonstrating that religion is both dangerous and harmful to children. Here is where I found myself less convinced and actually disagreeing with some of what he says. On the subject of children, he claims that indoctrinating children with irrational religious beliefs is a form of abuse on par with (or even worse than) physical or sexual abuse. He offers little evidence for this, however, citing only one woman who claimed she was more traumatized by her religious upbringing than by the sexual fondling of a priest, and several individuals who seek forms of psychotherapy to recover from religious indoctrination. While I certainly agree that it is doing children a disservice to brainwash them into believing irrational things, and I don’t doubt that there are some individuals who later feel traumatized by the experience, I think it is extremely insenstive to survivors of sexual abuse to claim that religious indoctrination is a form of abuse equivalent to physical and sexual abuse. In this section, Dawkins shows only that he lacks a knowledge of the long-term psychological impact of sexual abuse, which can oftentimes be subconscious (for example, does the woman who claims she was more traumatized by religion than by being fondled have completely healthy sexual relationships?). Dawkins is a fantastic biologist, but he is not a psychologist or expert on child development.
In an effort to demonstrate that religion is actually dangerous, Dawkins points to all the wars and other violence (such as murders of abortion providers and suicide bombers) that have been based on religious beliefs. He basically seems to be making the claim that if we didn’t have religion, there would be no basis for all this violence and so it simply wouldn’t happen. I do not think it is that simple. I think there is far more going on psychologically in the minds of fanatic anti-abortionists and suicide bombers than a simple “I believe 100% that I am doing the morally right thing.” I do not think all these people would just magically be completely non-violent if they did not have religious beliefs to justify their acts. That is, I am not convinced that religious beliefs are the root cause of all this violence, rather than simply a convenient justification. Dawkins says himself that humans have inherent tendencies to in-group/out-group behavior – so wouldn’t that be true even without religion? Additionally, I am sure there have been plenty of very positive, life-affirming actions committed in the name of religious as well. Does Dawkins believe that all those behaviors would end without religion too? It seems biased to make an argument based only on the negative impacts of religion.
Related to this last point, part of Dawkins’ argument is that it is not possible to draw a line between non-harmful religious beliefs and extremism, because it is a slippery slope: that “even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” In his view, it is the “blind faith” aspect of any religion that is the real problem. However, I think it is possible that most individuals are able to compartmentalize, and thus hold an irrational belief in one compartment while at them same time being a very rational and non-violent individual. Extremism comes when the irrational compartment takes over the entire individual. I am not convinced that this is in fact a slippery slope, or whether there are other psychological factors that influence whether someone becomes an extremist or not.
My final issue with The God Delusion is Dawkins’ tone through-out the book. He has a very argumentative, even combative, attitude, and I think that ultimately it is not a helpful tone and could even damage the possibilities for dialogue between religious and non-religious people. Sure, I found much of his book convincing, but I was already convinced about evolution and related science. I do not think religious people will be convinced by this book, and instead will most likely be completely turned off. Calling someone irrational and arguing with them about their beliefs is more likely to cause the person to cling even more firmly to those beliefs than to convince him or her otherwise. To truly engage with religious people I think it is necessary to show them respect and to listen to where they are coming from.
The God Delusion left me desiring another perspective on the subject of religion. I recently checked out Speaking of Faith, by Krista Tippett, from the library, and I hope that this will provide the perspective I am looking for.