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A God blog

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ceriYou know a book is good when you lug the hardback about with you religiously, even when you start to get shoulder strain. Except with this book, religiously is the wrong adverb.

Yes, I've just finished The God Delusion, and I'm still smitten by Richard Dawkins and his eloquent, enraged geekery.

Not only does he set out to prove that God is a statistical improbability, a pretty ambitious task for any scientist, but he also presses a strong case that religious belief in itself is delusional, repressive, pernicious and potentially no more than an inadvertent by-product of evolutionary psychology.

It's little wonder he incites some strong opinions. One reader commented on Dawkins's online journal that "I renounce my atheism. There is in fact a god. His name is Richard Dawkins", while neo-con firebrand Ann Coulter (who Dawkins initially took to be a satirical character from The Onion) apparently gets a kick out of imagining him burning in hell.

This is not to say that Dawkins is confrontational or deliberately offensive. The tone of his book — and his blog - has persuaded me to the contrary. It's just that he refuses to "don kid gloves" and exempt religion from the rigours of rational, informed debate. It's a pretty refreshing antidote to our hush-hush PC culture.

From the outset, Dawkins robustly argues that the God question is very much within the scientific domain, for "a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without."

He gives a lucid account of how evolution explains such apparent improbabilities as an eye or a wing, then debunks creationistism and its cohort, intelligent design, with the ease of a chain-saw passing through warm butter.

This, I guess, was all to be expected from a renowned Darwinist. What I found more intriguing was the section exploring why religion — so ubiquitous, and yet so useless and wasteful in brute terms of human survival — emerged in the first place. Dawkins explores the theory that faith is a by-product of our tendency to revere and obey authority figures, which can be explained in evolutionary terms: children who follow their parents' orders directly, particularly in relation to walking near cliffs or eating strange berries, are more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

On to the more controversial stuff. Dawkins dredges up bits of the Old Testament that may well be unfamiliar to those, like me, whose knowledge of Christianity revolves around hazy, benign images from the New Testament. There's blood, gore, incitement to genocide, glorification of rape — in fact about everything you might find in an 18-rated video game. It makes me wonder how people can argue that Islam is somehow a barbaric religion and Christianity a civilised one based on their texts.

Dawkins's purpose, though, is not to upset and misrepresent Christians by wrenching unsavoury bits of the holy book out of their historical context, but to make a broader point — we don't get our morals directly from the bible, as we clearly pick and choose which parts are now considered acceptable. So why should Christian morals be allowed to influence political debate? It's a question that has particular resonance with the current fracas over the Catholic Church and gay adoption rights.

As I've said, I admired the book as a whole for its range, grace and intellectual bravery. But that doesn't mean I was entirely without reservations. Dawkins spends a lot of time discussing evil acts committed in the name of religion, but little time disentangling religious motivation from political or economic factors, or acknowledging the acts of charity or goodness directly inspired by religion.

I don't think any of this makes his core arguments less valid, but the book would perhaps have been stronger if he'd made a little more space for the counter-arguments. I also have my doubts about the post-religious utopia he seems to envisage - I suspect Big Macs and Nike trainers will feature more strongly than love of nature and scientific zeal.

But to close on a lighter note. How could you not admire a man with the dignity to respond as follows to an ignominious appearance on South Park, satirical scourge of many a celebrity?

"I'm buggered if I like being portrayed as a cartoon character buggering a bald transvestite. I wouldn't have minded so much if only it had been in the service of some serious point, but if there is a serious point I couldn't discern it. And then there's the matter of the accent they gave me. Now, if only I could be offered a cameo role in The Simpsons, I could show that actor how to do a real British accent."

Posted by Ceri Radford on 25 Jan 2007 at 16:50



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