When I read Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth a few months ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Part of me truly thought it was going to be a mean-spirited rant against religion and faith. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by a thoughtful, well-argued, and incredibly witty look into the workings and results of evolution. When I started The God Delusion, I didn’t expect to agree with it, but I was expecting to find a thoughtful and challenging tract.
As it turned out, not so much.
I don’t mean to suggest that it was all bad. It had its moments, especially when it came to areas of Dawkins’ expertise. These were wonderfully reminiscent of The Greatest Show on Earth. However, taken as a whole, it lacked the intellectual vigor and consistency which I had expected.
Dawkins’ main argument goes as follows. The existence or non-existence of God is, in theory, a scientific question. Therefore, scientific data should be used to make a conclusion. There is no scientific data supporting God. Therefore God very probably doesn’t exist. Nothing revolutionary there. In fact, if you left out the conclusion, a large number of thoughtfully religious people would agree. Dawkins notes this and concludes that these people are idiots. Fair enough. Dawkins is entitled to his point even though it’s not too hard to poke philosophical holes in his arguments. (One of his is as follows: If there is a God, who created Him? A slight variation on the “If God can do anything can he make a pizza sooo big even He couldn’t eat it?” childhood rumination.) Dawkins again notes this, says that he’s right and moves on.
There are then some chapters on evolution and how people came to be through a process billions of years in the making rather than appearing out of thin air 6000 years ago. Then there’s the requisite sections on how religious people sometimes do really bad things. His sections on Hitler and Stalin are thorough and he makes a good point that their respective (possibly) atheism had nothing to do with their atrocities. (I had hoped that he would include a section on Mao’s China in the 1950-1960’s where anti-religious fervor actually was the direct cause of an enormous amount of death and destruction. Mao is unjustly overlooked quite often in favor of the Great White Tyrants.) These sections, on the whole, are well-written and hard to argue with but not particularly thought-provoking.
Up until this point, Dawkins book is mostly irrelevant. God doesn’t exist because science says so and religion causes bad stuff. These are not revolutionary ideas and they’re easily refuted or affirmed depending on your particular beliefs.
Dawkins’ chapter on religion-as-child-abuse, however, takes a puzzling turn. While opening with a fair-minded exhortation for moderation in the sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church and a warning against witch hunts, Dawkins’ goes on by making the dubious claim that sexual abuse might not be so bad when compared with religious education itself. He grants that sexual abuse might be ‘yucky’ (a quotation, not Dawkins’ words, yet still an interesting descriptor for child molestation) and sometimes ‘horrible.’ But his real opprobrium is directed at religious education itself which, in teaching about heaven and hell, inflicts irreparable psychological damage tantamount to child-abuse. One of the nicer touches is a wish for hell so that religious teachers might burn in it.
Now, I’m not certain how to take this assertion that religious education is a more vile form of child abuse than sexual molestation. Firstly, although I was raised in a religious family, I don’t feel particularly abused. Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough. Secondly, since I feel that I am better now for my religious upbringing, I wonder how I should feel about sexual molestation. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it? Maybe I’m just odd.
I jest, but Dawkins’ comparison of religion to child abuse has more serious implications. In most jurisdictions in the developed world, serious claims of child abuse rightfully result in the removal of a child from an abusive household. Following Dawkins’ claim to its logical conclusion, this would require the forcible removal of millions of children from their parents. There could be no other humane or morally consistent conclusion. This, then raises other serious issues. Where do we put all the brainwashed children? Should religious people henceforth not be allowed to have children? How should this be enforced? Pregnancy licensing? What to do about violations? These are some sensitive areas and I can almost understand why Dawkins doesn’t want to address them. Yet, if he is going to make a serious claim that religion is child abuse, there’s no real way to avoid them without backing away from his original assertion.
What makes this whole chapter incredibly ironic is that Dawkins begins with a horrendous story in which a young Jewish child is kidnapped by Catholics so that it could be saved. How horrible it was for the Jewish parents to have their child snatched from their arms arbitrarily by some some self-righteous zealots! I need not point out the almost comical similarities.
This chapter brings out most glaringly the flaws which riddle the rest of the book. Taken by themselves, the inconsistencies and ironies are relatively minor. But they add up, much like gene mutations in evolution. I’m not sure that’s such an apt metaphor because the book itself doesn’t evolve, but the chapters do seem to devolve (another feature of evolution which was so wonderfully explained in The Greatest Show on Earth). In an early chapter, when Dawkins explains in one breath that the Renaissance painters would have been equally as wonderful had they not worked for the Church and, in the next breath, has the “chilling” idea that Shakespeare would have sucked had he worked for the church, it’s easy to chuckle a bit and think that Dawkins might need a better editor. He explicitly states that brilliant people would be brilliant even within the confines of the church. Why the change of heart with Shakespeare? When he argues that religion is a useless by-product of some evolutionary function and that monogamous love is an equally out-dated combination of cranial chemical reactions but one should be discarded and the other kept, it’s easy to raise an eyebrow and shrug. When he starts comparing Sunday school to kiddie rape with the later coming out as less harmful…that’s just plain bizarre.
I’m, of course, biased. I must admit that by being raised in a religious faith, some of my beliefs are diametrically opposed to Dawkins. However, I also have no particular vendetta against his belief structure. He’s welcome to his views and I think that any person of religious faith should read and be challenged by them. There are, however, plenty of books which I’ve shouted at, thrown, and loved/hated particularly because they were so well argued and I was forced to confront my own deepest personal beliefs.
In the end, as much as it tried, this was not one of those books.