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For the glory of God

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Critics say the brand of literalist religion Richard Dawkins condemns is limited to a small minority of believers -- but in fact it's all too common

Gazing down from the 40th floor of a lower Manhattan skyscraper, Richard Dawkins shakes his head. "What a symbol," he growls.

In the evening drizzle, the city is a jungle of glitz and twinkling lights but Dawkins' attention is fixed on a flood-lit crater directly below us. It is Ground Zero, the footprint of the twin towers, still barren six years after the atrocity that made the world gasp. At the bottom of the vast hole, backhoes scrape into the night.

What does this symbolize, I ask? "Religious bigotry," he answers crisply. Not a twisted version of Islam. Not Islam as a whole. No, for the Oxford professor, biologist, renowned science writer, and author of the notorious bestseller The God Delusion, the void below is what religion itself hath wrought.

"The people who did this terrible thing were sincere, deeply religious, believed they were right, believed they were doing the will of their god, firmly believed they were going straight to heaven for doing what they thought of as a wonderful deed," Dawkins says. "They had just one thing wrong with them. They believed. They had faith. And it was their faith that drove them to it."

In New York to attend a conference on secularism sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, Dawkins has slipped out of what must be an exhausting reception with several hundred enthusiastic atheists. This evening, the heretic is a prophet and everyone wants to see him, to shake his hand and give thanks unto him. A British television crew records his every smile and nod. He could be forgiven for being a little distracted this evening.
But whatever one may think of the man dubbed "Darwin's Rottweiler," there's no denying the speed and precision of Dawkins' mind. Even harried like a royal on holiday, the man talks like a scalpel cuts.

"I wouldn't for a moment suggest the majority of people would do anything remotely so terrible, indeed anything terrible at all, but there is a logical pathway that leads from religious faith to doing the most appalling deeds." Accept that there is a God. Accept that He is involved in the world's affairs. Accept that the Bible or the Koran is His holy word. "Once you've got that in your head, then a reasonable person can progress step by step to the conclusion that the right thing to do, the righteous thing to do, is to destroy thousands of lives."

The God Delusion has already sold 1.5 million copies, a particularly astonishing accomplishment given that the book market is crowded with broadsides on religion. Sam Harris was first out with The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, while Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great had a long run high on the New York Times best-seller list. The coincidence of these publishing successes has led the three men to be dubbed the "new atheists." It has also generated the most sustained discussion of religion and its place in society for decades, including a flurry of counter-attacks against Dawkins and his fellow prophets.

Almost invariably, the first volley is aimed at style. These atheists are nasty, it is said. Their language is crude, even vicious. This is a particularly serious charge for Dawkins, as esteemed Oxford professors are simply not supposed to do that sort of thing.

Dawkins scoffs. "The bits of my book which are described as intemperate, ranting, strident or shrill, they're moderate when compared to the sort of language any of us use, whether we're talking about politics or a terrible play we've seen or a terrible piece of music. It's just that religion has been accustomed to getting a free ride and therefore even moderate criticism sounds strident if it's criticism of religion."

Religion hasn't always been exempt from scrutiny and even the briefest tour of commentary on the subject will turn up gems such as Friedrich Nietzsche complaining that "I find it necessary to wash my hands after I have come into contact with religious people," and Émile Zola declaring the perfection of civilization will be at hand when "the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest!" Voltaire described Christianity as "the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that has ever infected the world." Tennessee Williams saw in the God of Western mythology a "senile delinquent." David Hume called prevailing religious principles "sick men's dreams." Next to this litany of provocations and calumnies, Dawkins' language is only a little more inflammatory than the Queen's.

A more substantive response to the new atheists is somewhat related to the first. "When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens," said Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a recent address, "we may feel as we turn the pages: 'This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it's not actually what I believe in'."

The new atheists' view of religion is far too crude, critics say. They ignore the fine and subtle thoughts of great theologians and dwell instead on literal readings of holy books, divine intervention, miracles, fundamentalism, televangelists, terrorists and other fringe elements. "Only religious nutcases take the Creation story literally," wrote Salley Vickers in The Times of London. Most Christians are well aware that the Bible is "a miscellany of stories, letters, polemic, histories, fables and certainly some great moral teachings, as well as some outmoded and unacceptable social prejudices. Therefore it is perfectly reasonable to 'pick and choose' when reading the Bible, something that Dawkins takes Christians to task for."

The odd thing about this criticism is that it is itself so out of touch with reality. In Gallup surveys asking Americans about the creationist account of human origins -- that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years" -- four in 10 said it was "definitely true," while another one in four said it was "probably true." Only 31 per cent thought it probably or definitely false.

Gallup also asked about the nature of the Bible, offering one of three possible responses: "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word"; it is "the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally"; and, "the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man."

Only 15 per cent of Americans agreed with that last statement. Almost half said the Bible is the inspired word of God, while one-third said every blessed word comes from the Lord's own ballpoint pen. Given that the Bible condones genocide, slavery and a system of justice the Taliban would find a little harsh, one suspects that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other theologians with fine and subtle thoughts are considerably outnumbered by those who prefer their religion to be a touch more old school.

And don't think this is a uniquely American affliction. Gallup found that only 29 per cent of Canadians identified the Bible as a book of stories written by fellow humans. Half said it is divinely inspired, while 17 per cent said every word in the Bible is sacred and must be read literally.

And this, of course, is to say nothing of faith in the Muslim world, which we can reasonably assume tilts heavily to literalism, not least because, in many Muslim countries, asserting that the Koran is an "ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man" can get one killed.

Faith exists on a spectrum. At one end are atheists like Dawkins who say they'll take a look at whatever evidence anyone cares to offer but they will not believe that which is not proven. A little further over are the folks who may see valuable moral instruction in religion but whose sense of reality is similar to what was called "deism" in the 18th century: There exists a creator of things but rather than a bearded old man on a throne who smites unbelievers, he is more like -- to use the classic metaphor -- the watchmaker who set his creation in motion and does not interfere with its operation.

Atheists don't agree with deists, but Dawkins and the other new atheists have almost nothing to say about them. A god who does not intervene in the world does not write books -- not even with the help of ghost writers -- and cannot inspire mischief.

Further along the spectrum, we come to the many variations of an interventionist God. In moderate form, it typically involves a vague belief that God somehow inspired the Bible -- although not the nasty bits about killing homosexuals, enslaving enemies, punishing sons for the sins of their fathers, or anything else that grates on the sensibilities of the moment. Miracles are possible, in this view, but only in the distant past -- thus avoiding blatant contradiction between scientific observation and faith in the present.

And finally, there is the muscular version of the interventionist God, the one who penned the Bible -- or the Koran, if you prefer -- and who delights in fiddling with the world in ways that defy all reason. In a side street next to the hole in the ground that was the Twin Towers, there is a monument to this brand of faith.

crossIt is, says a plaque, "The Cross at Ground Zero" -- steel beams in the shape of a cross discovered amid the wreckage. Workers wept on discovering it. A miracle, they said. A Catholic priest blessed it. It is "a sign of comfort for all," the plaque says.

Of course, if this claim is true, then God is a Christian God, which really can't be such a comfort for billions of non-Christians, including the families of the many Jews, Muslims and atheists killed in the attacks. One might also think it strange that the omniscient and omnipotent God who thrust his hand into the collapsing tower to leave his calling card couldn't be bothered to thrust it back in and save a life or two. And is it really impressive that a section of steel beam in the shape of a cross was found following the collapse of thousands of interconnected steel beams? A Star of David would have been quite impressive, but probability alone can explain crosses.

This sort of faith is little more than crude superstition and I suspect that it makes thoughtful believers like the Archbishop of Canterbury wince. But much as the archbishop and atheists alike may wish it to be fringe, it's not. The sidewalk beside "The Cross of Ground Zero" is constantly filled with people gazing in awe at a hunk of scrap metal. This is what faith is for countless people.

They all stand on Richard Dawkins' "logical pathway." Accept that there is a God, that He intervenes in the world, and that a book speckled with cruelty and hatred is His doing, and it becomes possible to move along the spectrum, step by step, to ever-more extreme and irrational conclusions.

The Dalai Lama recently said that all religions teach compassion and belief only becomes a problem when believers are "not really serious, not sincere." This, it seems to me, is exactly backwards. It is precisely those believers who are most sincere and most serious who travel furthest along religion's logical pathway. One can say many unkind things about the men who flew airplanes into skyscrapers, but give them their due: They were profoundly serious and sincere.

Across from Ground Zero, in the tiny cemetery of St. Paul's chapel, there is a bell given by the people of London on the first anniversary of 9/11. "For the greater glory of God," the inscription begins. When I tell Dawkins this, he shakes his head and points to the ground far below.

"It was precisely for the greater glory of God that that terrible deed was done," he says.


Dan Gardner writes Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
E-mail: dgardner@thecitizen.canwest.com

TAGGED: COMMENTARY, RELIGION


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