Doctor and activist

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a review and comments 22/12/19


‘The God Delusion’ had been on my ‘to read’ list for years.  Having been through years of boarding school I had heard all the arguments about the existence of God debated ad nauseam I was a bit chastened that I had not written the book myself and I assumed that I knew it all.

The definition of a delusion that I brought from psychiatry was ‘a belief maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument and against the prevailing culture’.  This last part of this definition has the problem that it is not a delusion if a lot of people believe it.  This definition is necessary from a psychiatrist’s point of view, because while you might argue that religions are contradicted by reality and not able to be swayed by rational argument, you would be diagnosing a lot of people as delusional if you took on mainstream religions. 

Unsurprisingly Dawkins leaves out the last part of the definition, arguing logically that something does not become right merely because a lot of people believe it. 

He has written an impressive book. It is somewhat hard going because he goes through every argument for the existence of God in minute detail with quotes from philosophers over a very broad timespan.

He also notes inconsistencies in the Bible, such as the fact that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the Census, which historically it did not happen until much later.  He quotes passages that are very homophobic, misogynist or racist, and notes that when a survey was done of children about the morality of Joshua slaying the whole town of Jericho, the answers from schoolchildren as to whether this was moral or not depended on what the sides were called in the survey question.

He comments that the Bible was a selection of books from a lot of books that could have been put in. The final Bible is thus heterogeneous and inconsistent.  He says that only some parts are commonly quoted, and parts that are embarrassing are simply ‘not to be taken literally’, which is effectively modern censorship of the material.  Few people ever read the Bible from cover to cover.

He deals with Darwin and his theory of evolution very thoroughly as he debunks Creationism, and refers to theories of modern astronomy for the origin and age of the universe and debunks at length the idea that if it cannot be explained, ‘God must have done it’.  He cites a scientific study of praying for sick people that showed that Prayer made no difference.

He is concerned that children are labelled as being of a certain religion from birth and even says that religious education is child abuse as they are discouraged from thinking for themselves in this area and are taught prejudice.  This had not occurred to me in my religious education, but on reflection it is a fair accusation.  Religion was the only area of my life where my parents did not say what they actually though, and neither did the teachers, who seemed lukewarm in their demeanour, but would not speak what they thought. Whether this was for fear of dismissal or because there was an exaggerated respect for religion, I am unsure, but the way in which truth and religion were treated was unique.  So it took me many years to get to atheism as I thought, ‘surely all these Bible stories, all these Churches, all this history, all these schools, all these books, all these hymns, all these teachers- surely it could not be nonsense, I must have missed something’.

So I looked very hard for a very long time, long after most of my friends had come to the obvious conclusion, prayer does not work ‘cos there is no God. 

Dawkins is also concerned that there should be a secular lobby because while religious people will die for their beliefs, atheists will not, preferring to shrug their shoulders and assume that the world will come to its senses eventually.  So anti-scientific thinking is one the rise as religion is subsidised and cosseted.  An extension of this the ‘right to prosthetise’ has also had exaggerated respect, despite the fact that it may be anti-science.

Dawkins urges atheists to be more active, lest science go backwards by default. 

In these days with a Prime Minister praying against the drought and the Religious Nutters Protection Bill currently being drafted, his words have a very relevant ring.

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