Saturday, September 13, 2008

The God Delusion - One year on

Its been over a year now since I read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins a book which some would argue has become the book on "new" atheism. (New in the sense that this movement has been as a result of 9/11) My first reading over a year ago was from a vastly different perspective. I was an agnostic with theistic tendencies (A 2.8 on the Dawkin's Scale). I didn't even entertain the notion that atheism was an option. Of course at the time I had a good education in science which some might argue helped skew my perception away from a supernaturalistic view.

Most learned people will not accept that "The God Delusion" is the book on atheism because in reality it doesn't deserve this title. If anything its the book which brings atheism to the people instead of keeping it in the domain of those in ivory towers. Far from being aesthetically pleasing, or comprehensive in debunking common arguments for the existence of God, the book is more about attacking the status quo that religion occupies and offers an alternative which argues that not only can you be good without God, but that you can live a fulfilling life finding as much beauty in both humanity and the universe.

So if this book isn't that good, one may ask why then has it become so influential? The answer is simple. Its rather provocative! It has the same regard for religon as Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason" - that is to say, not insulting, but it does not keep the gentlemens agreement that religion is out of bounds for critisism. Its provocative nature is good publicity and the religious responses to the book have also been provocative as a result the book's popularity has reached critical mass and turned mainstream.

This book will not change peoples minds. The stanuch religious person will be unimpressed and perhaps insulted, but this book is not targeted at them. I believe this book enables the multitude of open minded people an insight into alternatives to religion and may let them investigate "both sides of the issue". An apporach I took after reading this book and which has left my three year journey nearly at a close with the declaration that I am confident God does not exist nor that any human made god throughout history has any validation. This despite having much motivation to believe during my journey.

Here is an extract from "The God Delusion", this passage stood out to me on my first reading.


Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli schoolchildren, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction . . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’ . . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword . . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 per cent gave total approval and 26 per cent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 per cent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.

In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

The justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Even those in category C, who gave total disapproval, did so, in some cases, for backhanded religious reasons. One girl, for example, disapproved of Joshua's conquering Jericho because, in order to do so, he had to enter it:

I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.

Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for the Israelites:

I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.

I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.


Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua's own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin's behaviour, and 75 per cent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. Joshua's action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

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