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May 03, 2005




I cannot tell you how depressed I am by what this guy has to say. For longer than any of us can imagine, the human being has had some kind of extrasensory perception of the larger forces that brought him into being. Let's say that the way we express that awareness, and try to force it upon others, is primitive. Let's grant that.

That would just be calling it a necessary step in our evolution, wouldn't it? Wasn't our every concept and advancement germinated under primitive conditions? And haven't any advancements come as a result of the forces of our human and planetary environment **forcing** us to adapt?

So why dismiss religion altogether? Why presume, or wish, to be able to do so? Why not see it as another something that's unique to us because it is an evolutionary opportunity -- a tool that, like any tool, can be used to destroy as well as to build, and that must advance in order to reach its full potential?

This extends to the political: would an atheist political regime be any better than, or substantially different from, a fundamentalist one?

This guy's views appear to me to be about as fraught with rigid viewpoint and unverifiable dogma as any Cardinal's or Baptist preacher's. Or many rabbis.

Our worst sin, the biggest impediment to our evolution, isn't our religions. It's that aspect of our being -- which spreads across all human disciplines, not just the religious -- that needs everyone else to adhere to the beliefs and systems upon which we each have staked our own identities.


Oh I agree David that "the biggest impediment to our evolution ... it's that aspect of our being -- which spreads across all human disciplines, not just the religious -- that needs everyone else to adhere to the beliefs and systems upon which we each have staked our own identities." As an atheist I have religion thrust at me from every side and I have to be very careful stating my beliefs without being almost called a heretic. But let Dawkins respond here because you are questioning what he says and probably saddened by me in that I feel validated by what he is saying.

About "God Delusion" he says: A delusion is something that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence. Religion is scarcely distinguishable from childhood delusions like the imaginary friend and the bogeyman under the bed. Unfortunately, the God delusion possesses adults, and not just a minority of unfortunates in an asylum. The word "delusion" also carries negative connotations and religion has plenty of those ... [being] ...

A delusion that encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble. Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means, which, in extreme cases, inevitably become violent. Scientists disagree among themselves but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and literary critics.

But you don't do that if you just know your holy book is the God-written truth and the other guys knows that his incompatible scripture is too. People brought up to believe in faith and revelation cannot be persuaded by evidence to change their minds. No wonder religious zealots throughout history have resorted to torture and execution, crusades and jihads, to holy wars and purges and pogroms, to the Inquisition and the burning of witches.

"The dark sides of religion today," according to Dawkins are:

Terrorism in the Middle East, militant Zionism, 9/11, the Northern Ireland "troubles," genocide, which turns out to be "credicide" in Yugoslavia, the subversion of American science education, oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Roman Catholic Church, which thinks you can't be a valid priest without testicles.

David, when you say: "For longer than any of us can imagine, the human being has had some kind of extrasensory perception of the larger forces that brought him into being," couldn't that also be our child-mind unable to face that we just don't know what it all is yet, and there still is much to be learned, discovered, understood?

Besides, I love how Dawkins says: "the world would be a better place if ... morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them rather than religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment."



1) The two religions I know a little something about -- Zen Buddhism and Judaism -- do not at all rail against "morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment." Sexual enjoyment -- under circumstances that do not hurt anyone -- are central to Buddhism. Sexual enjoyment -- under circumstances that celebrate life, albeit in a very utilitarian way -- are central to Judaism. Private sin seems to me a distinctly Christian preoccupation, and to ascribe this neurosis to all religions would be, if it were an observation applied to any individual ethnic group, an expression of blatant racism.

2) We could argue all day about whether there is "evidence" for the presence of the Divine in our lives. The mere fact that we can argue about the existence of evidence means one or the other of us may be mistaken. For one of us to say the other is suffering from "delusion" is delusion itself, suffused with arrogance.

3) The complex but unavoidable truth is that, even while religion has propagated the evils you list, it has also been the midwife and most insistent guardian of morality. The evils you list don't even begin to touch the sins or religion. But it doesn't even try to imagine the ills of lack of religion, to which one might ascribe the Holocaust, Columbine, corporate greed, the sufferings behind the Iron Curtain, drug abuse, gang warfare, and narcoterrorism, just to scratch the surface. The human animal always has had a unique talent for corrupting its most brilliant ideas. Morality in the absence of the Divine is completely relative -- in fact, in the absence of the Divine --even if it's only a childish delusion -- morality as we know it does not even exist.

4) Does Dawkins mean to suggest that no good scientist has religious beliefs? Or that no person of "faith" (an oft-misunderstood word) cannot adhere to and appreciate scientific principles? This is absurd.

In no way do I agree with anyone who begins a sentence with "The world would be a better place if..." and ends it with a blanket statement about wishing away one of the things that makes humanity unique -- even if that thing is sometimes corrupted. To me, wishing away anything uniquely human is not only futile whining, but, in failing to recognize the very similarities between its own views and those it derides, and to appreciate the differences -- and the origins of those differences promise the most interesting discoveries: are they borne of culture, vocabulary, even brain structure? -- is in itself corrupt.


No, David, he does not suggest that no person of faith cannot adhere to and appreciate scientific principles. In the beginning I quoted him as saying: "You won't find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians." When you say "wishing away anything uniquely human" are you refering to how he says: "religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment?" Because that is the context of his prefering the world to be without.

You say: "Morality in the absence of the Divine is completely relative." I say the concept of the divine is completely relative. And I think that morality does and can exist in the absence of the divine. I do agree that "We could argue all day about whether there is 'evidence' for the presence of the Divine in our lives."

The context of "delusion" for Dawkins is in a rational sense: i.e. "A delusion is something that people believe in despite a total lack of evidence." He is not being offensive when he uses that terminology. That is to say, he is not calling *you* delusional. I don't think he is being arrogant - just rational. And if he is sounding arrogant, it is no more than the religious arrogance out there being hurled at people who prefer not to believe in a god and don't usually say how they feel for fear of the terrible wrath it incurs. In fact, Gordy Slack opens his interview by saying: "Richard Dawkins is the world's most famous out-of-the-closet living atheist." People who come out of closets have great courage, I think!

The list that I made was Dawkins' and yes there is a lot of evil outside of religion as well. I agree with you about that. And I can certainly see how you would think he is being racist when it comes to Buddhism and Judaism although Christians don't agree with him either re: private sin and shame about sexual pleasure.


1) No, Tamar. When I am referring to something uniquely human, I am referring to a search for a unifying principle, a code of conduct and a source of origin larger than our rationality. I am talking about religion.
2) If you do agree that we could argue about the presence of the Divine in our lives, then why wish to dispense with it? Or with religion, which seeks it? All we're talking about -- or all I'm talking about -- in using the word "religion" is a systematized search for truths bearing on the origins of, ethics of and reasons for our existence.
3) It's not for you to judge whether he's being offensive or not. I'm offended. To say there's not a scrap of evidence for the Divine is widely disagreed with -- even by you, when you concur that we could argue about whether such evidence exists.
4) Let's lay off the "na-na-na-boo-boo" stuff. Of course his arrogance is no worse than that of the pompously pious, nor of his other co-religionists (that's what they are). That in no way excuses his bigoted and, it seems, uninformed view of the complexity, the diversity and the utility of the systematized searching of religion or the hunger of the spirit.

People who come out of the closet do have courage. Some of them are bigots.


I certainly believe that in many ways this country seems headed back to the Dark Ages and that religious extremism is at the root of much of the world's misery. But "fundamentalist atheists" make me squirm just as much (not you, Tamar, you are the most spiritual atheist I know!).

Arguments like the ones excerpted here only convince me that this guy is painting with way too broad a brush, thus diluting his points at every turn. But maybe that's the only way to get people's attention and I know it's unfair of me to comment on something without knowing the full context.

I think there is a world of difference between the kind of "I am right, you are wrong" extremism that produces the ills he outlines and BELIEF in general. My eyes involuntarily roll into my head when I hear hear people dismiss all beliefs that can't be "proven" by "evidence." Oy, I could never live like that. What evidence? At that point why should even the evidence be "believed?" That need seems like just as dangerous a form of extremism to me! I think it can be the height of human maturity to reach for beliefs and understandings that go beyond what we can "prove."

I've met many self-described religious folks in my life, including the miserably intolerant and dangerous variety, but the ones that I always feel are the most "religious" are the people who have no interest in converting others to their beliefs but for whom their faith adds an incredible richness to their lives and the lives of everyone they come in contact with. I don't mean to sound defensive (but I'm sure I do) because I love reading such provocative stuff that makes me think about where I stand. I understand that declaring yourself as an atheist must not always seem comfortable or safe these days so I can see why reading these views would provide some relief for you.

I think so many of these words have been polluted by misuse--I bet we're all hearing very different things when the word "religion" is used. I guess I'm just saying that I am very cautious of the religious fundamentalism that can often exist in an anti-religious worldview! You know what I think about Bush and the religous right, but I wouldn't necessarily breathe a sigh of relief if an atheist became president (fat chance of that!). Jimmy Carter would probably be considered a religous fundamentalist by many but I suggest that his beliefs are the type that can help, not hinder, a person's sense of responsibility and his or her understanding of the world. (Does it sound like I'm saying that religious people are okay only if I agree with their politics?)

This guy is presenting such a one-sided and small view of religious belief. The religion I follow, for example, while obsessed with many things, is NOT obsessed with "private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment." If anything, Judaism places a lot of importance of both partners being sexually satisfied.

I also happen to believe that we do experience "lives" other than the ones we're living now and while I don't need anyone else to share that point of view, it is such a turn-off to hear people state as an indisputable fact that this is the only life we're ever going to have. How is that belief any less rigid than the ones held by people who think atheists are "wrong" for not believing in God? I'd like to read more about this guy but in truth I'd rather read YOUR book on atheism, Tamar! Maybe you should write one--but only AFTER your next Heinemann book!


David, Dawkins talks mainly about evolution versus the divine. He is coming at it from a purely scientific perspective. Therefore he is not putting his argument forward as "excuses." He has a right to believe that if there is no evidence of the divine it is delusional in the rational sense. He does not say there is no hunger in the human spirit to explore, learn and discover. He says about scientists this:

When you meet a scientist who calls himself or herself religious, you'll often find that ... by "religious" they do not mean anything supernatural. They mean precisely the kind of emotional response to the natural world as [the intellectual enterprise of exploring the story of life on Earth}. Einstein had it very strongly. Unfortunately he used the word "God" to describe it, which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding. But Einstein had that feeling, I have that feeling, you'll find it in the writings of many scientists. It's a kind of quasi-religious feeling. And there are those who wish to call it religious and who therefore are annoyed when a scientist calls himself an atheist. They think, "No, you believe in this transcendental feeling, you can't be an atheist." That's a confusion of language.


Ah Danny, you are giving away my "spiritual atheism" eh?

Dawkins, to be fair, writes a lot about evolution and I did not quote him here on that. He writes that in terms of the "evidence" and "proof" as well.

I, too, have met many self-described religious people in my life whose beliefs have enriched and enhanced their lives wonderfully - I write about them in my book as having major influence in my growing years as I was forming my identity - most of them Christian, actually. But I have also met people who do not ascribe to religion in the way you or David are talking about but in the way Dawkins is, and they were just as enriched, moral, responsible, kind and compassionate. Am thinking of Charlie as I say this.

For Dawkins, religion as a belief in a god, is delusional in the rational sense. He compares it to a "teapot in orbit around Mars." (now don't start yelling at me!) Dawkins goes on to say:

It's said that the only rational stance is agnosticism because you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the supernatural creator. I find that a weak position. It is true that you can't disprove anything but you can put a probability value on it. There's an infinite number of things that you can't disprove: unicorns, werewolves, and teapots in orbit around Mars. But we don't pay any heed to them unless there is some positive reason to think that they do exist.

For a long time it seemed clear to just about everybody that the beauty and elegance of the world seemed to be prima facie evidence for a divine creator. But the philosopher David Hume already realized three centuries ago that this was a bad argument. It leads to an infinite regression. You can't statistically explain improbable things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because you are still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even more statistically improbable and elegant thing. Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or car is explained by a designer but that's because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection.

Dawkins goes on:
There is just no evidence for the existence of God. Evolution by natural selection is a process that works up from simple beginnings and simple beginnings are easy to explain. The engineer or any other living thing is difficult to explain - but it is explicable by evolution by natural selection. So the relevance of evolutionary biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere.


Why does the word "rational" get my goat so? I can't help wincing every time I read it in this discussion including the comment that "belief in a god is delusional in the rational sense." What is this so-called "rational sense"—this world where things are real because we can "prove" that they are? Again, I posit that this in itself is a kind of fantasy.

I was intrigued by this notion of "spiritual atheism" and discovered through a quick search that it is a concept adopted by many Unitarian Universalist churches. The first one that came up in Google states on its website that "there is no reason to believe in a god, higher power, designer or creator of the universe and life. Such belief only confounds and corrupts connection with the natural order of things." And that Jesus "is a poor example of morality and ethics." Oy.

I agree that the move to get evolution out of the textbooks or presented as a theory is an alarming sign of the current power of the religious right in this country.


Yes, I think rational is a tough word that has associations with perfect clarity and cold rigidity. A stereotype of science as if emotion is not part of it. I think of it more in the sense of reason and not made of myths or fantasy.

Interesting what you discovered about "spiritual atheism" and that you found it in the Unitarian Universalist Church of which I once was a member for a few years! The one I belonged to did not talk of Jesus in that manner at all. The sermons were intellectual in nature and explored all the best philosophical and theological ideas of all the world's religions with great respect.

This statement of Dawkins: "And the fact that my life is finite, and that it's the only life I've got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born," doesn't make me feel he is arrogant or unemotional or against transcendental feelings about "the intellectual enterprise of exploring the story of life on Earth."

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