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Socialism Today 110 - June 2007

Dissecting ‘the God hypothesis’

The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins

Black Swan, 2007, £8-99

Reviewed by

Niall Mulholland

RELIGION APPEARS to be on the march everywhere. Islamic fundamentalism grows across the Middle East and other parts of the neo-colonial world. Christian fundamentalism is on the rise in ‘Middle America’, and evangelicalism sweeps Latin America and Africa. In the US, Europe, and elsewhere, ‘intelligent design’ attacks Darwinism and undermines the teaching of science. In many countries, religious dogma, like sharia law or the Vatican’s teachings, attack women’s and gay rights, and other human rights. Inter-religious strife and sectarianism tears Iraq apart, threatens civil war in Lebanon, and continues to divide Northern Ireland.

Given this, it may seem surprising that Richard Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion – an impassioned rebuttal of religion – is a bestseller in Britain (with 180,000 hardback sales), the US, and many other parts of the world. But Dawkins makes a timely counterblast that chimes with many people.

Religion is a complex, contradictory phenomenon. In Britain, the Church of England enjoys privileged status and power, and the Blair government promotes faith schools. In the 2001 British census, seven out of ten people ticked the ‘Christian’ box to indicate their beliefs. But this is not the whole picture. An Ipsos MORI poll, held last year, showed church attendance is now below 7% and fewer than one in three marriages takes place in church. Of those surveyed, 62% said "scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe". Another 41% believe this is "our only life". On top of this, a further 42% felt the Blair government pays too much attention to "religious groups and leaders" (while only 17% felt the government gives too much attention to trade unions and 3% said the same in relation to "ordinary people"). The poll results led the British Humanist Association to conclude, "around 36% of people in Britain (17 million adults) are humanist in their basic outlook".

No doubt, The God Delusion appeals to many of these people. The author of well-known, controversial works on science and philosophy, like The Selfish Gene, Dawkins consistently criticised belief in god and the negative effects organised religion has on society. He now turns full attention to the subject, with a compelling, witty and polemic work that tackles belief in ‘The God Hypothesis’.

Dawkins discards arguments for the existence of god, such as Thomas Aquinas’s ‘five proofs’ and the ‘personal experience’ argument for god. He goes on to demonstrate the scientifically demonstrable process of natural selection to describe the evolution of life. He takes to task theologians who "worship gaps" in Darwin’s theory of evolution: "Evolved organs also demonstrate revealing flaws – exactly as you’d expect if they have an evolutionary history".

So, if not god, who or what created the world and life? Dawkins discusses the origins of the universe and life, how development proceeds from the simple to the more complex. He adds interesting (and debatable) theories about the roots of religion. Religion may have had a "Darwinian imperative", which meant that early human societies found "direct advantages of religion".

Dawkins calls the Bible "a chaotically cobbled together anthology of disjointed documents". He condemns the cruel god of the Old Testament and the more ‘liberal’, but equally ‘irrational’, idea of the almighty of the New Testament. In reply to ‘sophisticated’ believers who say they do not take the Bible literally, Dawkins says this ‘pick-and-choose’ approach still maintains there is a supreme supernatural being.

In hard-hitting writing, Dawkins claims religion foments bigotry and ‘abuses’ children. He recounts some of the horrendous cases of physical and sexual abuse of children by churches and the damaging psychological effects of religious education on children (self-guilt, shame and confusion over sexuality, etc). He condemns how religion and science are treated in schools under the Blair government: Emmanuel College, Gateshead, is part-funded by a wealthy, Christian fundamentalist businessman, and teaches creationism.

To be moral, Dawkins argues, does not mean people need religious belief, as churches claim. Dawkins cites important studies that show "no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers" in making hypothetical ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ judgments. This echoes the point made by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels over 150 years ago. "Life is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life", they wrote. There is no eternal and immutable moral law or religious truth. Morals and religion are creations of concrete society.

"Whether true or not", Dawkins asserts, "the Bible is held up to us as the source of our morality". Describing the Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land, as "morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland", Dawkins concludes: "The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals".

Dawkins does not propose that everything to do with religion should be jettisoned: "an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education… we can give up our belief in god while not losing touch with a treasured heritage". For Dawkins, rather than looking to a supernatural supreme being, the amazing dialectical nature of matter, including human life, is enough to marvel. "Raise your consciousness!" he appeals.

Not surprisingly, The God Delusion has been fiercely attacked by right-wing commentators and by church spokespeople. Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark, went as far as to claim, "atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube". Some liberal and left commentators also sharply criticised Dawkins for what they argue is his simplistic attack on the ‘easy target’ of fundamentalism and for his unsympathetic assault on believers.

The God Delusion is a powerful counterblast to reactionary religious leaders and the fog of mystical ideas, and Dawkins has the right to robustly put forward rational, scientific arguments. Dawkins does not need to refute all non-fundamentalist, ‘sophisticated’ arguments for religion, as he convincingly makes a case for rejecting the premises of all religious belief.

This does not mean socialists would agree with everything Dawkins writes, however, or would always take the same approach. His arguments sometimes feel abstract. Crucial factors like society, class, history, ‘tradition and culture’, and politics, or the reasons for the religious outlook of many poor and oppressed people, are not properly addressed or not addressed at all.

For example, Dawkins asserts: "It is not an exaggeration to say that the Troubles in Northern Ireland would disappear in a generation if segregated schooling were abolished". Unfortunately, this is precisely an exaggeration. On its own, integrated education would not solve the deep sectarian divisions, which are a legacy of imperialist ‘divide and rule’, injustice and discrimination. To end sectarian conflict requires a fundamental political, economic and social alternative – a socialist society. This means creating a mass socialist party that unites Catholic and Protestant workers against the capitalist system, which causes poverty, low pay, exploitation, and which spawns sectarianism and sectarian-based politics.

The God Delusion only refers in passing to Karl Marx, but Marxism provides an all-sided approach to religion (historical materialism). "Man makes religion, religion does not make man", wrote Marx. Religion was the "sigh of the distressed creature", being both an escape from the misery of the world and a protest against its wretchedness. Religion was an illusion, Marx asserted, and cannot solve humanity’s problems. Religious ideas will lose ground as the social conditions that give rise to them are eliminated. Under a socialist society, Marx predicted, religion will decline primarily due to the advance of "social development, in which education must play a great role".

Socialists must do everything possible to involve all workers in the struggle against capitalism, including those who are religious, which means being very sensitive to those who hold religious ideas, especially in countries where religion has mass influence. We defend freedom of belief and non-belief. No religion should have a privileged state position above another. While standing against religious discrimination and injustice, socialists appeal to workers on the basis of their class interests and in the fight for socialism.

Furthermore, socialists differentiate between the religion of the oppressed and the oppressor. There is a huge difference, for example, between the reasons for the religious outlook of the poor, super-exploited Muslim masses and the religious ‘belief’ of the reactionary ruling elites throughout the Middle East. Or between the religious views of the working-poor in the US and Britain and the ‘faith’ of those ardent friends of big business, George Bush and Tony Blair, who evoke God to justify imperialist wars and occupations.


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