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Wed, 24 Jun 2009
This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find all posts in this critique, including the present one, here.
One of the main lines of argument in The God Delusion is the argument that religion leads to evil. The book is chock-full of descriptions of the evils of religion. However, these examples, dramatic as they are, prove absolutely nothing about the existence of God. The examples do not show that belief in God leads to evil. They only show that certain beliefs about God lead to evil. You don't need to hold these particular beliefs to believe in God.
It is silly to jump from the premise that religion has caused evil, to the conclusion that belief in God causes evil. A careful observer of religions should be able to figure out that belief in God, by itself and without other beliefs, does not force you to do evil. What causes the evil is not belief in God, but certain beliefs about God. Specifically, the evil comes from two kinds of beliefs about God: beliefs that imply that people should harm others, and beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them.
Here are a few examples of beliefs that imply that people should harm others:
Here are two example of beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them:
Dawkins' book contains references to these beliefs and more. However, you can believe in God without accepting any harmful beliefs of these two kinds. It is these other beliefs that cause problems - not belief in God as such. Belief in God is not the cause of the evils that Dawkins points out. At most, Dawkins has built a case against religion as it exists today, with its many and sometimes strange beliefs. He has not built a case against the simple belief in God as such. That is something different.
Dawkins has failed to build a case that belief in God is evil. Has he built a convincing case that religion is evil?
Dawkins' examples of the evils of religion form a strong case against bad religion - that is, religious beliefs that deny fact (as creationism does) or that deny sensible, humane moral feelings (as jihad does). His examples do not form a case against good religion - that is, personal views of the meaning of existence that do not try to overrule testable fact or decent morality. Dawkins' book is not friendly to distinctions between good and bad religion (see, for example, pp. 301-308), but the difference is real. Some liberal, moderate personal interpretations of religion are examples of good religion. Whether or not these good interpretations are right, they are not causes of evil behavior, provided that they actually respect fact and real morality. A belief system that respects ordinary human decency (including the rejection of murder and cruelty) cannot approve cruel or murderous behavior, because its moral outlook frowns on such behavior. A belief system that respects scientific facts (including evolution) cannot endorse superstition, because its very essence is to deny superstition.
Do genuinely moral and fact-respecting forms of religion exist? Yes! Many religious believers already are following this kind of religion. They may claim that they belong to some traditional sect or other, but if so, they interpret the teachings of their sect in a humane and realistic way. I have known many Christians and Jews of this kind. I am confident that they have counterparts in all the other major religions. I have known Christians who focused almost exclusively on the Golden Rule and on the universal love that Jesus symbolizes. They believed in a good God, ignored the nasty stuff in the Old Testament and in Paul's writings, and did not really believe in hell. A skeptic might accuse such people of being selective about their scriptures (compare the example of nonviolent Muslims on p. 307). However, this complaint, even if true, pales beside the fact that these believers put kindness and reason ahead of authority and dogma. In any case, selective reading of scriptures can make sense if you do not believe your scriptures are literally true.
Dawkins also claims that faith is bad, even in liberal religions, because if people are encouraged to believe things on faith then they are more likely to become extremists (pp. 301-308). This argument ignores the obvious fact that faith does not have to be unquestioning blind faith. There also is such a thing as informed faith. Informed faith respects science, reason, and humane moral sentiments. It does not challenge these, but only takes stands on questions that science, reason, and ethics cannot answer. Examples of such questions might include the ultimate meaning and purpose (if any) of existence. Taking an optimistic stand on this question might be a desirable thing to do from the standpoint of human life, even if we don't know the answer. 
Faith might not even be necessary for belief in God. I've argued elsewhere that there are ways to know about God without faith. The God we find this way might not fit Dawkins' overly narrow idea of God, but still it is a supreme being.
Dawkins shows a tendency to carp on bad forms of religion and to downplay more plausible and rational forms. His book is full of examples of crazy or strange religions: cargo cults, militant sects, and the rest. Suggesting that these represent religion is like suggesting that a newspaper horoscope represents the science of astronomy. Just as there is good science and bad science (or pseudoscience), so also there is good religion and bad religion. Dawkins focuses on bad religion and thinks he is building a case against good religion too. You can't prove much about religious beliefs in general by focusing on the bad examples.
Has Dawkins built a convincing case against religion? No. Has he built a convincing case against ignorant and cruel forms of religion? Yes - but thoughtful believers already know these forms are wrong, without being lectured by an atheist.
 The philosopher William James made essentially this same point about faith, and argued it very well. See "The Will to Believe," in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover Publications, 1956).
posted at: 00:58 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry
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