This is the preposterous debating chamber of the Cambridge Union Society, and those blobs in the middle are incomparable troublemaker Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward, who as many nerds of my vintage will remember played the regenerated Romanadvoratrelundar in Doctor Who at the turn of the 1980s.
Dawkins came to read from his new book, The God Delusion, with help from Ward. I finally got around to finishing the book this week. Actually, I listened to the two of them reading the whole thing on my music player, which was a fun way to experience it. Dawkins really gets fired up, and having Ward speak sternly into my ear reawakened some dormant early-teenage thing, especially when she said things like “virile penis” and “sexual pleasure in women” in that Romanadvoratrelundaresque way. Sorry, but it’s true. You Internet weirdos can keep your gold bikinis as far as I’m concerned.
As everyone knows by now, Dawkins’s latest is a polemic against religion. I was looking forward to it, as I’ve always enjoyed his pugnacity and his unflinching views on the subject. Here he is back in 1999, smacking down Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion can peacefully coexist in the non-overlapping magisteria:
In any case, the belief that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is dishonest. It founders on the undeniable fact that religions still make claims about the world that on analysis turn out to be scientific claims. Moreover, religious apologists try to have it both ways. When talking to intellectuals, they carefully keep off science’s turf, safe inside the separate and invulnerable religious magisterium. But when talking to a nonintellectual mass audience, they make wanton use of miracle stories—which are blatant intrusions into scientific territory.
Convergence? Only when it suits. To an honest judge, the alleged marriage between religion and science is a shallow, empty, spin-doctored sham.
This is expounded at greater length in the book, and I find it convincing. It does seem to me that a God that doesn’t encroach at all on the world of science can’t be said to be doing very much, and doesn’t sound like the kind of God many believers—who pray for miracles, who think there’s a meticulous divine plan—believe in. It also seems that the idea of non-overlapping magisteria is really just a way out of thinking too hard about the nature of religion or the implications of science, and is a failure of nerve. So while everyone else was fawning over Pope John Paul II’s 1996 endorsement of evolution, Dawkins pointed out that His Holiness hadn’t really said anything. Which was kind of a downer, but needed to be done.
I also have a lot of time for Dawkins’s argument that we tend to be too solicitous of each other’s religious beliefs, to the extent that we feel unable to argue against them or their real-world consequences. I chuckled over his HL Mencken quotation:
We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the same sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
The issue came up here recently, when a bunch of religious groups tried to get the House of Lords to annul new regulations under the Equality Act that prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In November, a group calling itself Coherent and Cohesive Voice and claiming to represent hundreds of thousands of Christian voters took out an ad complaining that the regulations would:
Force all schools to actively promote homosexual Civil Partnerships (from primary school age) to the same degree that they teach the importance of marriage.
Force a printing shop run by a Christian to print fliers promoting gay sex.
Force a family-run B&B to let out a double room to a transsexual couple even if the family think it is in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow such a situation in their own home.
Make it illegal for a heterosexual policeman, fireman or member of the Armed Forces to refuse to join a Gay Pride event promoting the homosexual way of life.
Clearly great legal minds down at the CCV. Their solution to these horrors was to suggest an amendment to the regulations providing that:
Nothing in these Regulations shall force an individual to act against their conscience or strongly held religious beliefs.
You can see the problem. You couldn’t refuse a double bed to, say, a mixed-race couple in order to preserve your racist beliefs, no matter how strongly you held them. Why should religious beliefs be any different? It’s not conscientious objection; you’re not saying you don’t like the idea of killing people, you just want to stop a couple of blokes from having a good time in your B&B. Shame on you! (Polly Toynbee says the regulations don’t prevent discrimination against the transgendered, so embattled Christians can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to defending their B&Bs against all those transsexual tourist couples.)
Anyway, Dawkins does a good job on these kinds of beliefs. And all you gay-sex promoters out there will be glad to know that the Sexual Orientation Regulations were confirmed, so get on down to your local Christian print shop right away. Make sure it’s in Northern Ireland, though, because that’s the only place these regulations apply. (Similar ones are expected to be introduced for the rest of the United Kingdom by April this year, so we can expect to do it all again then.)
Dawkins also argues that we don’t need religion for morality. He is especially persuasive on the idea that none of our moral sense actually derives from scripture, since the moral lessons of those old books are often unpalatable or contradictory and we pick and choose among them on some basis other than the Word of God itself. This might just mean that our morality is decided by the church or by religious commentators, but there’s no reason why secular moral philosophers couldn’t do just as good a job. Religion might be good for enforcing morality, of course; but everyone who says that a morality secured by threats and bribes is inferior to one based on personal reflection is surely right. I suspect that the alignment between morality and religion is historical but not necessary, and I look forward to more discussion about the forms that secular morality might take.
Overall I thought the book was brave, thoughtful, and important. There were a few things I didn’t like so much, but I’ll leave them for next time.