There are things of value in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. For example, I believe that Dawkins has helped to give rise to a climate of opinion in which deference to religion or unquestioning respect no longer holds sway. This has to be a good thing, if critical thinking is to be a key guide, as we develop our opinions and perspectives. All the same, as is clear from my book Judging Religion A Dialogue for Our Time, I take issue with Richard Dawkins on several counts. In this, the first of my blogs, I want to focus on, what I believe, is one of his key misconceptions.
In The God Delusion Dawkins writes:
‘But my point in this section [301 – 308] is that even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate in which extremism naturally flourishes.’ (303)
One reason for mentioning this now is that Dawkins has just published his Outgrowing God A Beginner’s Guide. It is not at all the same book as The God Delusion. It is written especially for the young, in Dawkins’ eminently accessible style, but like The God Delusion, it enthusiastically champions a series of claims; first, that religion does not help us to be good, it is far more likely to do the opposite, second, that the claims of religion are untrue, and third, that science and the rational thinking that is integral to it, offers us a liberating alternative to religion, the supernatural and superstition. In my book, Judging Religion A Dialogue for Our Time, I focus on the first of these claims. I look especially at the moral significance of religion as it is practised today, and I look in particular at the moral character of Christianity and Islam. In what I have found, much indicates, contrary to Dawkins’ view, that ‘moderate religion’ challenges conservative and militant versions of faith.
Here are a few examples to illustrate my point:
In Judging Religion A Dialogue for Our Time, at the end of Chapter 8 entitled Islam Today: The Making and Countering of Militancy, I quote Scott Atran who has done a considerable amount of work researching radicalisation to do with Islam. He writes ‘the only organisations I have found that have actively enticed significant numbers of voluntary defections from the ranks of would-be martyrs and jihadis in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere – are Muslim religious organisations.’ (Judging Religion 225)
A further key example where moderate Islam has stood in bold opposition to its more conservative manifestations is the case of Muslim feminism. Amina Wadud (Inside the Gender Jihad), Asma Barlas, Asma Afsaruddhin, Fatima Mernissi, and Leila Ahmed are just a few examples of such influential scholars and activists. The clue as to his intent is in the title of Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft Wrestling Islam from Extremists. His point, alongside that of the other writers I have mentioned, is to reorient Islam away from any tendencies it has to be discriminatory against women, and where this is more occasionally the case, to reorient it away from militancy. These writers are working to eradicate – not promote – any climates of extremism wherever they may be found.
Let us consider just one respect in which liberal and progressive forms of Christianity have stood against conservative versions of that faith, valiantly, courageously and persistently; this is in the realm of Biblical criticism. Richard Dawkins is quite right to point out that conservative forms of Christianity, most especially Christian fundamentalism, have opposed some scientific discoveries that have been made in the last two hundred years or so. In particular, fundamentalism has opposed the discovery that the world and life on it, is very much older than any literal account of creation as explained in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 would allow, and that humans are a product of evolution, continuous with other species that went before them. Within Protestant traditions – that also contain Christian fundamentalisms – what has most vigorously opposed such agendas is a critical approach to the Bible and this has been taken by Christian scholars. Rudolf Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology, John A T Robinson’s Honest to God, John Hick’s (ed)The Myth of God Incarnate and Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism are just a sample of such texts. Spong’s text is especially accessible. None of this provides a climate in which extremism can naturally develop. It does quite the opposite, offering abundant and scholarly research that lays bare the incoherence of conservativism and fundamentalism within Christianity.
From what I can tell, nothing in Dawkins’ Outgrowing God has either recognised or sought to remedy his misconception that moderate religion helps to foster extremism. In The God Delusion his point seems to be that religion by its very nature [note the non-empirical totalising here] discourages questioning. It quite often does and this is problematic to say the least. But this is also not the case, as we have seen in the examples I have given. To illustrate one such example further the Muslim feminist scholar Fatima Mernissi recommends ‘we move forward fastest and live better when we seek doubt.’ Exactly this kind of practice within progressive types of religion has been a rational impetus for liberal reform including the ordination of women in some churches and increased recognition of LGBT rights as became apparent to me in conversation with a Muslim transsexual at a meeting of New Horizons Within British Islam. From Christian feminism to the Sea of Faith movement, from the higher criticism in Biblical studies to liberation theology; the use of reason to question and overturn tradition, textual literalism and Church hierarchy has, and is continuing, to change the face of faith. Whether or not it can change Richard Dawkins’ perspective about what has taken place, remains open to doubt.