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Thursday, November 19, 2009


The God Delusion

I recently finished reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, in which Dawkins presents his arguments not only against the existence of God but affirmatively for an affirmation in atheism, tackling such subjects as "is religion the source of morality?" and "is religion actually a bad thing?" Being both a scientist and a Marxist, I didn't need Dawkins to convince me of the non-existence of supernatural forces, and since convincing religious people that there is no God is neither high nor frankly anywhere on my agenda, the discussion along those lines were interesting but little more.

Dawkins also, in my opinion (isn't everything here my opinion?), places too much emphasis on religion in its role in places like Iraq, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and so on. He repeatedly returns to the subject of suicide bombers, but in a completely decontextualized way. You could easily conclude that all suicide bombers are Muslims and that their sole motivation is getting to heaven. Which would hardly explain why Muslims all over the world aren't committing such actions, or why Palestinians weren't acting as suicide bombers before 1948, or why Al Qaeda isn't carrying out actions against Switzerland, or Venezuela, or China, but only the world's imperialist powers who are occupying their countries (indeed, I'm pretty sure the word "occupation" does not occur anywhere in the book). The idea that suicide bombs are a weapon of the hopeless and powerless, and that Palestinians would happily fight against Israeli occupation with tanks and jet fighters if only the world would sell such things to them, seems not to have occurred to Dawkins.

There was one major subject in the book which I found absolutely fascinating. Like, I'm guessing, most people, I read "Bible stories" as a child but never actually read the Bible. Having now read Dawkins (and taking his citations "on faith"; I don't plan to look them up), I think I know why I wasn't encouraged to do so. In his discussion on "is religion necessary for morality," Dawkins takes up at length the "morality" one can find in the Bible.

Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example. Everyone knows that, as Lot and his wife were leaving those doomed cities, Lot's wife looked back and was turned to salt (by itself a curiously harsh punishment for merely stealing a glance at the ongoing destruction, even if it was in contradiction of God's order). But what preceded that event? Two angels came to Lot, and the people of Sodom demanded that Lot hand them over to them. Lot's "moral" defense of the angels? He hands over his two virgin daughters to the mob for their pleasure to save the angels. Elsewhere in the Bible, a Jewish priest offers his own concubine and the daughter of his host to an angry mob to be gang-raped, in order to save his host.

Then there's Jericho. Everyone knows "Joshua blew his trumpet" and "the walls came tumbling down." But did you know that genocide followed? "They utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword." Joshua, I remind you, is seen as hero to the Jewish people, not a mass murderer.

There are many, many more examples of the "morality" one finds in the Bible. But Dawkins expands on the Jericho story, which bears directly on our world today, because Joshua's destruction of Jericho was part of the conquest of the "Promised Land." When a thousand Israeli schoolchildren were asked if Joshua acted rightly, 66 percent gave total approval and 26 percent total disapproval, with the approvers often citing as their reason the "fact" that "God promised them this land." And some of the disapprovers only disapproved because Joshua destroyed not just the people, but the animals as well! But here's the denouement of the story. When another group of Israel children were given the same story to read, but with the names and locations changed to ancient China, only 7 percent approved and 75 percent disapproved. And lest you think this is just schoolchildren, Dawkins notes that Maimonides, widely considered the greatest Jewish scholar of all time (he lived in the 12th century), agreed with the children (in the Jericho case): "If one does not put to death any of them that falls into one's power, one transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said, Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth."

Lest you think I'm contradicting myself about the importance of religion, my opinion is that this is not about religion at all, but tribalism. In either case, however, it certainly sheds a bit of light on the attitudes of people like the Israeli settlers today. God not only promised them this land, but told them it was their duty to kill anyone who got in the way. Lovely stuff.

Dawkins doesn't spare the New Testament, lest you think that what most of us would consider immorality (to put it mildly) is only found in the Old Testament. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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