Friday, April 27, 2007


A Disappointing Book

I just finished reading Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and I was quite disappointed because the author sets up several "straw men" that he easily knocks down and avoids deeper issues. Dawkins does not seem to distinguish between religion and the exploitation of religion, especially political disputes that are packaged as religious disputes. In fact, he claims the opposite, that ethnic strife is usually religious strife. He also lumps all religious attitudes together, people who believe in the literal truth of the Bible (or other religious texts) and those who think that such books have been written by people and should be read in their historical context and take from them only what is valid today.

The best part of the book is Chapter 5, "The Roots of Religion" where he addresses the question of why religion is so widespread amongst humans. But that is only one tenth of the book and the rest seems to ignore that part.

If we accept that a human society that is religious may have advantages over other societies we can see why political leaders may want to foster or manipulate religion. For similar reasons leaders may want a different religion than that of another state. Many theological disputes may seem absurd, but they are simply excuses. The original theological difference between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches was whether the Holy Ghost emanates from the Father and the Son or only from the Father. Of course the real reason was political antagonism between the Western and Eastern successor states of the Roman Empire. In modern times we have the supposedly religious dispute about the teaching of evolution. As Thomas Frank has pointed out (in "What's the Matter with Kansas") the subject has been used as a divisive issue to cause people to vote against their own financial interests. While it may not be easy to find the exact boundaries between genuine religious motivation and political manipulation, the issue exists and Dawkins ignores it completely.

Dawkins explains the persistence of religious beliefs as a result of religious instruction and, in effect, "brainwashing" of children. However, there are beliefs that are not supported by any organized religion and are still widespread. A good example is the superstition about "evil eye." It exists amongst Christians, Muslims, and Jews (in Europe and the Middle East) and it is not part of any of these religions. It also exists amongst Hindus in India. What maintains people's belief in the "evil eye"? Because this superstition has not been sponsored by any major religion or political ruler, the reason for its survival should provide hints about the human need for religion.

Dawkins quotes selectively from the Bible to show that it does not teach morality. In doing so he ignores parts where religion has pioneered concepts of social justice. My favorite is from Leviticus 19.9-10: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger ..."

I share Dawkins' view that there is no personal God, a concept first stated by Spinoza. Einstein is one famous supporter of this view and Dawkins quotes from him. But then he goes on to argue that there is no God at all. I cannot see why this issue is important. For my part I find comfort and peace of mind when I pray, even if no one may be listening to me. And I find it even more helpful when I pray with others.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The Futility of Fighting Evil with Evil

Last night I attended a showing of "Paper Clips," a movie dealing with the creation of a monument for the victims of the Holocaust. There was a panel discussion afterwards and the panelists expressed sentiments such as "where were the churches when all this was happening?" and "for evil to triumph, it only necessary that good people do nothing." While people may still remember the Holocaust, they have forgotten why it happened.

The horrible truth is that churches and "good people" helped Hitler get to power. In the aftermath of WW-I and the establishment of the Soviet Union, the big fear in Europe was the spread of Communism. There had been already brief communist regimes in both Bavaria and Hungary. Hitler was seen by many people both within and outside Germany as the best defense against the Bolsheviks. I have written a summary of the related history in an earlier blog titled Appeasement (posted on August 30, 2006) where I have listed several sources. Hitler could have been stopped easily before 1936 but the Western powers thought of him as a lesser evil compared to Stalin. By 1939, when Hitler entered into an alliance with Stalin, he was far too powerful for anyone to do anything about him. The bloodbath of WW-II followed that included the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the war many countries ended up with communist regimes, exactly the opposite outcome of what Hitler's early supporters had expected.

Unfortunately, the lesson was lost and fifty years later the United States supported Islamic extremist to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The West also supported fundamentalists elsewhere to fight Arab socialists. The result was the creation of al Qaida, the emergence of bin-Ladden as a leader, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The West slept while millions of ordinary Muslims suffered under religious extremists and many were killed. The attacks of 9/11 were a wake up call for the West but by then a lot of damage had been done. One of the worst consequences was that much of the western media lumped all Muslims together as potential "terrorists", including many who had fled to the West to escape the fundamentalist regimes in their countries.

Will we ever learn?

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