Monday, March 31, 2008


There has been a great deal of noise over this book. To my mind, it mostly amounts to the proverbial tempest in a teapot.

First, despite the right of religious liberty people in advanced countries supposedly enjoy, we are regularly immersed, willy-nilly, in religious muck. The last couple of decades in America, the nightly news has featured everything from endless demands for prayer in public institutions and the creation myth being taught in schools to attacks on doctors doing legal abortions and silly fights over displaying the ten commandments in public courts. What’s so terrible about the other side getting a little publicity for a change?

Richard Dawkins is a pleasant and clear writer. The first part of his book is genuinely funny, hilarious in places, as he pokes fun at the absurd stories and rules of the Bible. At his best, he reminds me of Mark Twain in Letters from the Earth.

I think he is much less successful in the middle part of the book in trying to establish a logical framework for thinking about religion. Religion simply is not logical, none of it, ever, and just as the scholastic fathers tried over and over to “prove” the existence of God – Dawkins entertainingly goes through some of this – this effort seems futile.

There is an aspect of religion that I believe Dawkins misses. It is the cultural dimension of much of religion. We know many Jews, as in Israel for example, are quite worldly and not believers, yet something binds them to the heritage of their religion. That something is what Dawkins misses.

Religion works very much like prejudice: there are simply attitudes and perspectives that groups of people share together as a cultural inheritance, and the attitudes are generally detrimental to, and disparaging of, others.

I share the belief that religion has been responsible for many of humanity’s miseries. The record of Christianity has likely been the bloodiest of any religion, despite all the blubbering today about Islam. Christianity has been at the root of crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, mass murders, civil wars, torture, destruction of aboriginal people, slavery, and countless other horrors and abuses.

But I do not believe for an instant that religion and its abuses will stop any time soon, and I certainly do not believe that any words I can say will change the views of the religiously-minded. But Dawkins does appear to believe this, which I think is a little naïve for a man of such exceptional talent.

I believe it quite likely that we inherit our tendency for religion, just as we likely do for our politics. If that is true, we will only see the superstition and prejudice of religion disappear as humans evolve.

Most people who do not take their religion too seriously will enjoy at least a good portion of this provocative book, but the seriously religious would best avoid it.