Brown on Dawkins

Andrew Brown doesn’t admire Dawkins’s new book, despite agreeing on the basics.

In his broad thesis, Dawkins is right. Religions are potentially dangerous, and in their popular forms profoundly irrational. The agnostics must be right and the atheists very well may be. There is no purpose to the universe. Nothing inconsistent with the laws of physics has been reliably reported. To demand a designer to explain the complexity of the world begs the question, “Who designed the designer?” It has been clear since Darwin that we have no need to hypothesise a designer to explain the complexity of living things. The results of intercessory prayer are indistinguishable from those of chance.

Despite all the trillions of words in theological journals, ‘who designed the designer?’ is still a question without an answer. But Brown says Dawkins should get to grips with ‘the important truth added in the 20th century: that religious belief persists in the face of these facts and arguments.’

Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it’s nothing to do with their atheism.

That does sound too simple (but I haven’t read the book, so don’t know if it’s a fair account of what Dawkins says – and people aren’t always fair to him). But a slightly different answer might be that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes that they wouldn’t otherwise commit, and that is why the fact that they are religious opinions is shocking. If religious opinions generate murders and wars that would not otherwise occur, then religious opinions are a source of bad things, and that’s bad (whether or not it’s shocking, which is a little beside the point). It may well be that a lot of those crimes would occur anyway, that if there were no religion, some other pretext would be found; it may well be that what is basic is rivalry and anger and hatred and heterophobia, and religion is often just the top-dressing. But it may not; or it may sometimes and not others. For one thing, religion can transform and translate an otherwise obviously contemptible motivation into a glorious and pious one, and thus free people to act on it when they otherwise wouldn’t. I can’t kill those people just because I hate them, or just because I want their land, but if they’re heretics or infidels or followers of the anti-Christ, then I’m doing a good and brave thing. Atheism doesn’t exactly work that way – but it may work other ways, so I think Brown is right to say (paraphrasing) that it’s too simple to say religious believers kill people and atheists don’t. But I don’t think it’s too simple to say that religious enthusiasm or a pious sense of duty can motivate crimes that would otherwise go unmotivated.

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