Saturday, January 23, 2010

'God, the universe and everything': My take on Dawkins, the God Delusion, and 12-step spirituality


Ever since I started my blog I’ve been champing at the bit to write a partial rebuttal of many of the ideas of Richard Dawkins, biologist, television presenter, writer of (among other books) The God Delusion and passionate crusader for atheism. A recent blog entry at What The Hell is This? (see link on right) has spurred me on, as well as the twin aim of writing something of my experiences in a 12-step program. So here goes.

This is turning out to be by far my longest rant ever, so I’m dividing it up into three blog entries.

Dawkins mounts his challenge

In The God Delusion, Dawkins throws down the gauntlet at the God industry on both sides of the Atlantic. He argues passionately that religion – whether the fundamentalism of the Taliban or moderate versions of traditional religions – threatens our civilisation by causing widespread death and human rights abuses and by attacking the science teachings that have produced so much medical and technological progress. He contends that it’s behind many of the most evil acts and movements in history, and presents atheism as the only rational alternative.

Now, I have much sympathy for aspects of Dawkins’s project and I can understand the sense of urgency, indeed of being embattled, that led to the writing of this self-styled polemic. For example, a little-discussed aspect of The God Delusion is its references to the oppression of atheists and atheism in the USA; in one US town, police who were themselves religious refused to protect from violence peacefully demonstrating atheists, and there are documented cases of atheists being victims of ‘harassment, loss of jobs, shunning by family and even murder’ (p. 45).

Similarly, the rise of creationism and its offshoot, so-called intelligent design, is a social, technological, environmental and economic disaster in the making. As Billy Connolly put it recently on the television show Shrink Rap, Sarah Palin, if voted in as the USA’s vice-president, could have become president and therefore the most powerful person in the world – and she believes that the Earth is 4000 years old. That's scary!

Creationism seems to act a bit like a virus – it’s not just the province of evangelicals but is being spruiked by conservative elements of existing religions like Catholicism. (Although the Catholic position is an increasingly firm support of evolution, it doesn’t appear to be church dogma; Catholics are free to believe in creationism, and there are a number of Catholic groups that advocate it.)

Dawkins doesn’t confine his ire to religious fundamentalism – quite the opposite. He believes that moderate religion paves the way for fundamentalism because it’s based on the central concept of faith; and that this concept is seized on by the fundamentalist mindset and taken to its illogical conclusion in the case of terrorist bombings, or opposition to ‘victimless crimes’ like homosexuality.

Although I have sympathy for this argument, Dawkins seems to suggest that fundamentalists, who go all the way with even the most bizarre scriptural pronouncements, and who in extreme cases are willing to kill for their cause, are intellectually more consistent than religious moderates who would support his pro-science stance. And he's often criticised for this by those very moderates, who are as pro-Darwin as he is.

Religion – creating hell on earth?

In The God Delusion, Dawkins mounts a nuanced argument about the links between human evil and religion. He acknowledges that evil occurs in all societies independently of religion, but provides telling examples of the ways in which religion either worsens existing tensions between separate groups, or fosters the separate identities of otherwise similar groups. It does this through labelling children from an early age (eg ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’) and discouraging marriage between the groups.

The results, whether it's the death of more than 1 million Hindus and Muslims during the partition of India, the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust or the cruel kidnapping of a Jewish child in nineteenth century Italy simply because he’d been baptised as a Catholic by the child’s 14-year-old nanny, are chilling indeed.

One of the reasons for the continuing power of religion, despite such horrors, is the spurious respect with which religious sensibilities are treated. But the tenor of such sensibilities can be nothing short of murderous. It’s evident that particular kinds of religious thinking encourage and justify evil attitudes and acts against outsiders – Catholicism, Islam and Judaism have all spawned terrorists.

In one study quoted in the book, 66 per cent of Jewish children between the ages of 8 and 14 thought that the biblical Joshua and the Israelites had acted righteously when they sacked Jericho and massacred its inhabitants. However, when the children were asked to give their opinion on similar actions carried out by a mythical non-Jewish figure, 75 per cent disapproved.

Elsewhere, Dawkins argues that there’s a remarkable degree of consensus among different racial groups on basic moral precepts, and that this is totally independent of religion. The study described above suggests that, rather than being a moral force, religion can actually destroy this consensus and give tacit permission to morally repugnant actions.

But religious absolutism means that ‘insiders’ – members of a religion, not always voluntarily – are also vulnerable to harsh religious laws that demand severe penalties if breached.

This is particularly so in the case of women. Dawkins shows an admirable recognition of the horrors that patriarchal religion has foisted on women’s bodies, minds and hearts, mainly in the case of fundamentalist versions. These include publicly sanctioned rape (ie forcing marriage on underage girls); forcing them into early childbirth; withholding education from them; severe punishment and death for offences against ‘modesty’; honour killings and mutilations.

I’d also add that a religion (ie Catholicism) that says a young person with a vagina can never aspire to be a priest is committing religious abuse; and the culpability of the Catholic church in helping the spread of AIDS, STDs and unwanted pregnancies by preaching against the use of condoms doesn’t need to be reiterated here.

Religion isn't wholly responsible for the misogyny practised in its name. But patriarchy is self-perpetuating, and religion provides a convenient excuse for barbaric practices that keep women powerless.

For example, society long ago left the churches far behind on the matter of social change. Equality in the workplace is still a long way off in Australia, but at least equal opportunity is on the statute books. Yet it's absolutely fine for the Catholic church to openly discriminate against women, and for the Anglican church to tear itself in two over the issue of female clergy, because these trends supposedly have nothing to do with deep, unacknowledged sexism: they're about sensitive religious beliefs and feelings, which must be respected at all costs.

Like Dawkins, I believe that religious dogma has inherent psychic dangers for both sexes. Religion fosters emotional and intellectual retardation – an authoritative, all-protecting god demands a childlike position and a willingness to obey authority without question (I can still see this operating in my father's sometimes excessive piety).

It can lead to mental suffering and illness associated with excessive guilt, while ‘moral’ positions derived from the Bible can encourage people to judge others harshly. The religious right gives its members permission to project their unwanted qualities and desires onto others, a recipe for hatred of and discrimination against the other – thus, instead of spending their energies assisting the poor, some so-called Christians fight to overturn laws that allow gay people to marry.

Religious abuse of children

What I find most offensive, and I agree with Dawkins wholeheartedly on this, is society’s tolerance of children being forced into a particular religion from birth.

Sexual abuse of both males and females is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s arguable that every child indoctrinated into a religious faith suffers a form of religious abuse, however welcoming and loving the religious community.

For example, supposedly ‘mainstream’, sometimes government-funded Catholic schools in Western countries are telling their pupils that 2,000-odd years ago a virgin gave birth to a baby who was actually the supreme being; that when he grew up, he was cruelly killed to pay for the sins of those very children; and that he miraculously rose from the dead three days later. And the fear that they will burn in hell, alone and far from family and friends, causes very real suffering for minds too young to know the difference between myth and reality.

The extent to which more serious religious abuse of children is tolerated in the USA is nothing short of tragic. This includes some evangelicals leaving extremely ill children untreated and sometimes in great pain for days and weeks while relying on ‘faith healers’, or sending them to camps where they are brainwashed to support far-right religious Republicanism.

Australians shouldn’t feel too complacent: this country has no constitutional separation between church and state, which means that taxpayer dollars are freely spent on funding religious schools; some of these schools teach creationism, and it’s perfectly legal for them to do so.

Meanwhile, in Queensland, bible instruction is now being provided at non-government schools in ways that appear to contravene the Queensland Education Act. As well, the National School Chaplaincy Program provides federal funding for chaplains in government schools – schools that could well be in need of social or welfare workers, not to mention teachers or infrastructure – and funding for this program has been extended by prime minister Kevin Rudd.

The securities of religion

Despite all this, I don’t share Dawkins’s optimistic belief that it’s possible to eradicate religion.

For one thing, some people will always want to be spiritual within a community, to ‘worship’ in a group of fellow ‘believers’. Others will turn to structured religion for security in an increasingly insecure world, or simply because they want an outside authority to direct their lives.

Creating an ‘out’ group, as religion does (even if it’s just the secular world with its many temptations), strengthens bonds within the group. I’ve seen this up close, both in what I’ve heard about the early lives of my Catholic dad’s family of origin, and what I’ve seen of the close relationships of some overseas cousins of mine who follow a fairly fundamentalist version of Catholicism.

In the case of my cousins, their common passion for the dogma and rituals of the church helps to keep the family together. Similarly, in a recent television series that satirically explored his guilt about wanting to marry outside the Jewish community, comedian John Safran demonstrated his love of the Melbourne Jewish community and its often endearing quirkiness, even as he exposed the exclusivity of some of its members; at one point one of his best friends tells Safran that if he married a non-Jew, he’d feel compelled to boycott the wedding!

But there’s something else. Like it or not, religious rituals can provide a way to access a spirituality that is experienced through pathways in the brain. I wonder if, when repeated often enough, rituals can act like signals to the brain that activate these spiritual pathways.

I am guessing here, but that’s why I imagine Muslims find it so important to pray five times a day in designated prayer rooms; the rituals they enact and the words they recite during prayer may amount to a kind of moving meditation. Perhaps, rather than invoking Allah, they are accessing a force inside themselves that is beyond religion. The same applies to any kind of religious worship, although Western religions are generally poor at bringing the body into it. Perhaps this is one reason why evangelicals are popular: believers in these churches are free to dance, sway, and even throw themselves on the ground.

One of my sisters, recently qualified as a primary teacher but never particularly religious, used her background to get a job in a Catholic school. She remarked that the children were calmer, the general atmosphere more peaceful, than in the government schools she’d taught at. This Catholic school wasn’t in a wealthy area and would have included disadvantaged kids. One reason for the calmness might have been the religious prayers and rituals the children spoke and enacted.

For historical reasons I don’t think that in Australia an end to funding for religious schools is electorally possible. Instead, it should be impossible to actually join a religion until you’re 18, just as you can’t vote until then. Religious schools could still exist, but should be permitted to teach their students only the broadly ethical, spiritual aspects of the religion, not the dogma or so-called ‘morality’; nor should they be permitted to put down other religions or spiritualities. Once they turned 18, young adults could be free to join any religion they chose; this would be a perfect time for them to study the dogma and decide for themselves.

So Dawkins is totally justified in his attack on religion, but I'm much less sure about his dismissal of God -- in my next entry I’ll look at why.

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