|There's so much to applaud in Richard Dawkins, says Stephen Tomkins. Such as his rage against bad religion. But he's out of his depth in his new book, The God Delusion, when he attacks all forms of faith.
RICHARD DAWKINS IS RIGHT. His deicidal bestseller The God Delusion attacks the absurdities and cruelties, the contradictions and superstitions, the rip offs and fantasies of religion across the world and throughout history. I couldn't agree more. It's enough to make you wish Abraham hadn't been in when God called round.
The problem is, like other fundamentalists, Dawkins won't stop talking when he's finished talking sense. Rather than surveying the countless varieties of religion, weighing up their mixed record, and arguing that on balance we'd be better off without it, he is only willing to see the dark side, and writes off the whole thing, dismissing evidence that makes a monochrome worldview uncomfortable.
He sees the moral failures, but not the moral breakthroughs. He lists the atrocities and ignores the triumphs. He cuts through the supposed proofs of God's existence like a particularly moist sponge cake, but shows no conception at all of why people actually believe other than that they're a bunch of morons who don't know any better.
Not unlike our own Pope Benedict's dealings with Islam, in fact. The Pope's argument in his celebrated lecture last month was that the Christian God is subject to reason, and therefore never allows religious violence; whereas Islam does not have this safeguard. Hence according to the emperor he quoted all the "evil and inhuman" things of Islam, such as Muhammad's command to "spread by the sword the faith he preached". Ah yes, so very unlike Christianity.
This quotation was the logical conclusion of the Pope's argument, and nothing in his lecture suggested he disagreed. Neither did his "apology" for "the reactions in some countries" to what he said, which of course was not an apology at all. He pointed out that the emperor's opinions were not his own, but until he says what his are, these words have to stand as an approximation.
This has all the marks of a fanatical worldview: they're all bad and wrong, we're totally right and good and blind to the centuries of violence on our side and all that's good on theirs.
That a top believer such as the Pope should take such an extreme and indefensible stance is all grist to Dawkins's mill, of course. Except that his own fanaticism is just the same: an impassioned one-sidedness and ideologically-driven selective blindness.
HAVING MADE SUCH A FUSS about one-sidedness (and I'm still warming up) let's be clear about how much Dawkins' writing has going for it. His science writing is not only fascinating, but a revelation, if that doesn't sound distastefully supernatural. He has taught a whole generation even those of us who never learned which end of a test tube is up not only how evolution works, but how that one simple principle explains countless things about our world.
What's more, his anti-God diatribes can be superb articulate, intelligent, passionate and devastating. For a spiritual type, they're like a bracing walk down the prom on a windy day. If you're going to entrust your life to a religion, these are the sorts of test it needs to pass.
And there's so much in it to agree with to applaud, in fact. His rage against the mindset that leads to sacred mass murder. His contempt for the bottomless pit of deliberate stupidity that is creationism. His scorn for high level theology that sees all evil in the world as good in disguise. His antipathy for scriptures that commend genocide, homophobia and misogyny. His ridicule of the idea that a practice or belief deserves respect because it can be labelled "religious", however ludicrous it might otherwise appear.
Bravo, in fact. At least one and a half cheers for Richard Dawkins.
But already we're running into problems. On that last point, for example, Dawkins tells us that "nearly everybody in our society accepts... that religious faith... should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect". Really? I don't, and I've got one. And I should think the audiences of The Life of Brian and Jerry Springer: the Opera would be surprised to hear that they are in such a tiny minority.
This is a forgivable exaggeration, except that such generalisations run through his polemic like nuts through a Snickers Bar / Christian Voice picket line. He quotes an appalling letter from a Christian to Einstein recommending intellectual dishonesty for the sake of faith, saying that it "damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind". No, it damningly exposes the weakness of a religious mind.
He says that religion must be fought because of its attitudes to homosexuality, of which he offers a survey: the Taliban, the 1950s British justice system (not strictly speaking a religious group), Jerry Falwell, Senator Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, Gary Potter and, you guessed, Fred Phelps. "This," we are told, "is the sort of morality that is inspired by religious faith." A slightly skewed sample, perhaps? You might as well list CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and GP Taylor and say that Christians tend to write bestselling fantasy novels. We who are many may be one body, but we sure as hell aren't of one mind.
"Faith is evil," Dawkins tells us, "precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument." Whose faith? Not many I know. There are 12,000 members of the Ship of Fools discussion boards, where Christians are constantly probing the bases of their faith and revelling in, let alone brooking, argument. Is there evidence for Dawkins's statement, or are we just expected to take it on you-know-what?
He tells us that "theology unlike science, or most other branches of human scholarship has not moved on in eighteen centuries" which invites scepticism from anyone who has heard of, for example, Protestantism.
His dealings with the Christian Bible are equally sweeping. He debunks the Christmas story, the single most obviously legendary part of the four Gospels, and tells us that "the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world."
BEYOND ALL THESE UNREASONABLE generalisations about religion, however, the greatest failure of Dawkins's case is his refusal to recognise any good that any religion has done. He talks about the crusades, but not medieval hospitals. He tells the story of Oral Roberts getting $8 million out of his flock to stop God killing him, but not of William Wilberforce (along with a lot of other Christians) devoting his life to fighting the slave trade. He details Catholic opposition to science, but not the work of monasteries and Islamic scholars who rescued Greek philosophical writings from oblivion.
Christian Voice is here, but not Christian Aid. Neither are the 19th-century reformers and philanthropists: Shaftsbury, Fry, Müller, Barnardo. Religious conflict in Northern Ireland, yes. Christian peace-building organisations, no. Etc., etc.
The most outrageous example is Martin Luther King. He does get a brief mention but not as someone driven by faith to fight for justice and equality; not as someone inspired by his religion to achieve change without violence; not as someone who was sustained through fear for his life and for his family by an encounter with Jesus. Instead, King was one of those leaders "whose religion was incidental. Although Martin Luther King was a Christian, he derived his philosophy of non-violent civil obedience directly from Gandhi, who was not." And that's it.
This massive distortion is presumably accidental, and therefore symptomatic of being out of one's depth writing a 400-page treatise on religion. For one rather obvious thing, Gandhi was quite religious himself, so even Dawkins's version of events hardly leaves God out of it. What's more, Ghandi's non-violence was inspired by both Tolstoy (a Christian) and Jesus (also arguably a Christian), and specifically by the Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy's non-violence was also inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. King's non-violence was inspired by study of all three Ghandi, Tolstoy, Jesus. It's very hard to look at this family tree of non-violence in a way that makes the religion incidental.
"It was the Sermon on the Mount," said King himself, "that originally inspired the negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action." But the fact that religion can be amid all the trash an irresistible force for social justice seems to be something that Dawkins's theory simply can't cope with.
I started off by likening him to the Pope. In fact, this ability to ignore or invert any evidence that doesn't fit with one's worldview reminds me more than anything of the way fundamentalists read the Bible, and creationists do science.
Could the world do with a bit less religion? Quite possibly. But what we really need is fewer fanatics.
Stephen Tomkins is a writer and church historian. His latest book is A Short History of Christianity.