The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.

Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:04 pm

Part 1 of 3


To an evolutionary psychologist, the universal extravagance of religious rituals, with their costs in time, resources, pain and privation, should suggest as vividly as a mandrill's bottom that religion may be adaptive.


Everybody has their own pet theory of where religion comes from and why all human cultures have it. It gives consolation and comfort. It fosters togetherness in groups. It satisfies our yearning to understand why we exist. I shall come to explanations of this kind in a moment, but I want to begin with a prior question, one that takes precedence for reasons we shall see: a Darwinian question about natural selection.

Knowing that we are products of Darwinian evolution, we should ask what pressure or pressures exerted by natural selection originally favoured the impulse to religion. The question gains urgency from standard Darwinian considerations of economy. Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance. Unrelentingly and unceasingly, as Darwin explained, 'natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being'. If a wild animal habitually performs some useless activity, natural selection will favour rival individuals who devote the time and energy, instead, to surviving and reproducing. Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d' esprit. Ruthless utilitarianism trumps, even if it doesn't always seem that way.

On the face of it, the tail of a peacock is a jeu d'esprit par excellence. It surely does no favours to the survival of its possessor. But it does benefit the genes that distinguish him from his less spectacular rivals. The tail is an advertisement, which buys its place in the economy of nature by attracting females. The same is true of the labour and time that a male bower bird devotes to his bower: a sort of external tail built of grass, twigs, colourful berries, flowers and, when available, beads, baubles and bottle caps. Or, to choose an example that doesn't involve advertising, there is 'anting': the odd habit of birds, such as jays, of 'bathing' in an ants' nest or otherwise applying ants to the feathers. Nobody is sure what the benefit of anting is -- perhaps some kind of hygiene, cleaning out parasites from the feathers; there are various other hypotheses, none of them strongly supported by evidence. But uncertainty as to details doesn't -- nor should it -- stop Darwinians from presuming, with great confidence, that anting must be 'for' something. In this case common sense might agree, but Darwinian logic has a particular reason for thinking that, if the birds didn't do it, their statistical prospects of genetic success would be damaged, even if we don't yet know the precise route of the damage. The conclusion follows from the twin premises that natural selection punishes wastage of time and energy, and that birds are consistently observed to devote time and energy to anting. If there is a one-sentence manifesto of this 'adaptationist' principle, it was expressed -- admittedly in somewhat extreme and exaggerated terms -- by the distinguished Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin: 'That is the one point which I think all evolutionists are agreed upon, that it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an organism is doing in its own environment.' [75] If anting wasn't positively useful for survival and reproduction, natural selection would long ago have favoured individuals who refrained from it. A Darwinian might be tempted to say the same of religion; hence the need for this discussion.

To an evolutionist, religious rituals 'stand out like peacocks in a sunlit glade' (Dan Dennett's phrase). Religious behaviour is a writ-large human equivalent of anting or bower-building. It is time-consuming, energy-consuming, often as extravagantly ornate as the plumage of a bird of paradise. Religion can endanger the life of the pious individual, as well as the lives of others. Thousands of people have been tortured for their loyalty to a religion, persecuted by zealots for what is in many cases a scarcely distinguishable alternative faith. Religion devours resources, sometimes on a massive scale. A medieval cathedral could consume a hundred man-centuries in its construction, yet was never used as a dwelling, or for any recognizably useful purpose. Was it some kind of architectural peacock's tail? If so, at whom was the advertisement aimed? Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Devout people have died for their gods and killed for them; whipped blood from their backs, sworn themselves to a lifetime of celibacy or to lonely silence, all in the service of religion. What is it all for? What is the benefit of religion?

By 'benefit', the Darwinian normally means some enhancement to the survival of the individual's genes. What is missing from this is the important point that Darwinian benefit is not restricted to the genes of the individual organism. There are three possible alternative targets of benefit. One arises from the theory of group selection, and I'll come to that. The second follows from the theory that I advocated in The Extended Phenotype: the individual you are watching may be working under the manipulative influence of genes in another individual, perhaps a parasite. Dan Dennett reminds us that the common cold is universal to all human peoples in much the same way as religion is, yet we would not want to suggest that colds benefit us. Plenty of examples are known of animals manipulated into behaving in such a way as to benefit the transmission of a parasite to its next host. I encapsulated the point in my 'central theorem of the extended phenotype': 'An animal's behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes "for" that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.'

Third, the 'central theorem' may substitute for 'genes' the more general term 'replicators'. The fact that religion is ubiquitous probably means that it has worked to the benefit of something, but it may not be us or our genes. It may be to the benefit of only the religious ideas themselves, to the extent that they behave in a somewhat gene-like way, as replicators. I shall deal with this below, under the heading 'Tread softly, because you tread on my memes'. Meanwhile, I press on with more traditional interpretations of Darwinism, in which 'benefit' is assumed to mean benefit to individual survival and reproduction.

Hunter-gatherer peoples such as Australian aboriginal tribes presumably live in something like the way our distant ancestors did. The New Zealand/Australian philosopher of science Kim Sterelny points up a dramatic contrast in their lives. On the one hand aboriginals are superb survivors under conditions that test their practical skills to the uttermost. But, Sterelny goes on, intelligent as our species might be, we are perversely intelligent. The very same peoples who are so savvy about the natural world and how to survive in it simultaneously clutter their minds with beliefs that are palpably false and for which the word 'useless' is a generous understatement. Sterelny himself is familiar with aboriginal peoples of Papua New Guinea. They survive under arduous conditions where food is hard to come by, by dint of 'a legendarily accurate understanding of their biological environment. But they combine this understanding with deep and destructive obsessions about female menstrual pollution and about witchcraft. Many of the local cultures are tormented by fears of witchcraft and magic, and by the violence that accompanies those fears.' Sterelny challenges us to explain 'how we can be simultaneously so smart and so dumb.' [76]

Though the details differ across the world, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion. Some educated individuals may have abandoned religion, but all were brought up in a religious culture from which they usually had to make a conscious decision to depart. The old Northern Ireland joke, 'Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?', is spiked with bitter truth. Religious behaviour can be called a human universal in the same way as heterosexual behaviour can. Both generalizations allow individual exceptions, but all those exceptions understand only too well the rule from which they have departed. Universal features of a species demand a Darwinian explanation.

Obviously, there is no difficulty in explaining the Darwinian advantage of sexual behaviour. It is about making babies, even on those occasions where contraception or homosexuality seems to belie it. But what about religious behaviour? Why do humans fast, kneel, genuflect, self-flagellate, nod maniacally towards a wall, crusade, or otherwise indulge in costly practices that can consume life and, in extreme cases, terminate it?


There is a little evidence that religious belief protects people from stress-related diseases. The evidence is not strong, but it would not be surprising if it were true, for the same kind of reason as faith-healing might turn out to work in a few cases. I wish it were not necessary to add that such beneficial effects in no way boost the truth value of religion's claims. In George Bernard Shaw's words, 'The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.'

Part of what a doctor can give a patient is consolation and reassurance. This is not to be dismissed out of hand. My doctor doesn't literally practise faith-healing by laying on of hands. But many's the time I've been instantly 'cured' of some minor ailment by a reassuring voice from an intelligent face surmounting a stethoscope. The placebo effect is well documented and not even very mysterious. Dummy pills, with no pharmacological activity at all, demonstrably improve health. That is why double-blind drug trials must use placebos as controls. It's why homoeopathic remedies appear to work, even though they are so dilute that they have the same amount of active ingredient as the' placebo control -- zero molecules. Incidentally, an unfortunate by-product of the encroachment by lawyers on doctors' territory is that doctors are now afraid to prescribe placebos in normal practice. Or bureaucracy may oblige them to identify the placebo in written notes to which the patient has access, which of course defeats the object. Homoeopaths may be achieving relative success because they, unlike orthodox practitioners, are still allowed to administer placebos -- under another name. They also have more time to devote to talking and simply being kind to the patient. In the early part of its long history, moreover, homoeopathy's reputation was inadvertently enhanced by the fact that its remedies did nothing at all -- by contrast with orthodox medical practices, such as bloodletting, which did active harm.

Is religion a placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress? Possibly, although the theory must run a gauntlet of sceptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion causes rather than relieves stress. It is hard to believe, for example, that health is improved by the semi-permanent state of morbid guilt suffered by a Roman Catholic possessed of normal human frailty and less than normal intelligence. Perhaps it is unfair to single out the Catholics. The American comedian Cathy Ladman observes that 'All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.' In any case, I find the placebo theory unworthy of the massively pervasive worldwide phenomenon of religion. I don't think the reason we have religion is that it reduced the stress levels of our ancestors. That's not a big enough theory for the job, although it may have played a subsidiary role. Religion is a large phenomenon and it needs a large theory to explain it.

Other theories miss the point of Darwinian explanations altogether. I'm talking about suggestions like 'religion satisfies our curiosity about the universe and our place in it', or 'religion is consoling'. There may be some psychological truth here, as we shall see in Chapter 10, but neither is in itself a Darwinian explanation. As Steven Pinker pointedly said of the consolation theory, in How the Mind Works: 'it only raises the question of why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false. A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm; a person face-to-face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit.' At the very least, the consolation theory needs to be translated into Darwinian terms, and that is harder than you might think. Psychological explanations to the effect that people find some belief agreeable or disagreeable are proximate, not ultimate, explanations.

Darwinians make much of this distinction between proximate and ultimate. The proximate explanation for the explosion in the cylinder of an internal combustion engine invokes the sparking plug. The ultimate explanation concerns the purpose for which the explosion was designed: to impel a piston from the cylinder, thereby turning a crankshaft. The proximate cause of religion might be hyperactivity in a particular node of the brain. I shall not pursue the neurologisal idea of a 'god centre' in the brain because I am not concerned here with proximate questions. That is not to belittle them. I recommend Michael Shermer's How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science for a succinct discussion, which includes the suggestion by Michael Persinger and others that visionary religious experiences are related to temporal lobe epilepsy.

But my preoccupation in this chapter is with Darwinian ultimate explanations. If neuroscientists find a 'god centre' in the brain, Darwinian scientists like me will still want to understand the natural selection pressure that favoured it. Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god centre survive to have more grandchildren than rivals who didn't? The Darwinian ultimate question is not a better question, not a more profound question, not a more scientific question than the neurological proximate question. But it is the one I am talking about here.

Nor are Darwinians satisfied by political explanations, such as 'Religion is a tool used by the ruling class to subjugate the underclass.' It is surely true that black slaves in America were consoled by promises of another life, which blunted their dissatisfaction with this one and thereby benefited their owners. The question of whether religions are deliberately designed by cynical priests or rulers is an interesting one, to which historians should attend. But it is not, in itself, a Darwinian question. The Darwinian still wants to know why people are vulnerable to the charms of religion and therefore open to exploitation by priests, politicians and kings.

A cynical manipulator might use sexual lust as a tool of political power, but we still need the Darwinian explanation of why it works. In the case of sexual lust, the answer is easy: our brains are set up to enjoy sex because sex, in the natural state, makes babies. Or a political manipulator might use torture to achieve his ends. Once again, the Darwinian must supply the explanation for why torture is effective; why we will do almost anything to avoid intense pain. Again it seems obvious to the point of banality, but the Darwinian still needs to spell it out: natural selection has set up the perception of pain as a token of life-threatening bodily damage, and programmed us to avoid it. Those rare individuals who cannot feel pain, or don't care about it, usually die young of injuries which the rest of us would have taken steps to avoid. Whether it is cynically exploited, or whether it just manifests itself spontaneously, what ultimately explains the lust for gods?


Some alleged ultimate explanations turn out to be -- or avowedly are -- 'group-selection' theories. Group selection is the controversial idea that Darwinian selection chooses among species or other groups of individuals. The Cambridge archaeologist Colin Renfrew suggests that Christianity survived by a form of group selection because it fostered the idea of ingroup loyalty and in-group brotherly love, and this helped religious groups to survive at the expense of less religious groups. The American group-selection apostle D. S. Wilson independently developed a similar suggestion at more length, in Darwin's Cathedral.

Here's an invented example, to show what a group-selection theory of religion might look like. A tribe with a stirringly belligerent 'god of battles' wins wars against rival tribes whose gods urge peace and harmony, or tribes with no gods at all. Warriors who unshakeably believe that a martyr's death will send them straight to paradise fight bravely, and willingly give up their lives. So tribes with this kind of religion are more likely to survive in inter-tribal warfare, steal the conquered tribe's livestock and seize their women as concubines. Such successful tribes prolifically spawn daughter tribes that go off and propagate more daughter tribes, all worshipping the same tribal god. The idea of a group spawning daughter groups, like a beehive throwing off swarms, is not implausible, by the way. The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon mapped just such fissioning of villages in his celebrated study of the 'Fierce People', the Yanomamo of the South American jungle. [77]

Chagnon is not a supporter of group selection, and nor am I. There are formidable objections to it. A partisan in the controversy, I must beware of riding off on my pet steed Tangent, far from the main track of this book. Some biologists betray a confusion between true group selection, as in my hypothetical example of the god of battles, and something else which they call group selection but which turns out on closer inspection to be either kin selection or reciprocal altruism (see Chapter 6).

Those of us who belittle group selection admit that in principle it can happen. The question is whether it amounts to a significant force in evolution. When it is pitted against selection at lower levels -- as when group selection is advanced as an explanation for individual self-sacrifice -- lower-level selection is likely to be stronger. In our hypothetical tribe, imagine a single self-interested warrior in an army dominated by aspiring martyrs eager to die for the tribe and earn a heavenly reward. He will be only slightly less likely to end up on the winning side as a result of hanging back in the battle to save his own skin. The martyrdom of his comrades will benefit him more than it benefits each one of them on average, because they will be dead. He is more likely to reproduce than they are, and his genes for refusing to be martyred are more likely to be reproduced into the next generation. Hence tendencies towards martyrdom will decline in future generations.

This is a simplified toy example, but it illustrates a perennial problem with group selection. Group-selection theories of individual self-sacrifice are always vulnerable to subversion from within. Individual deaths and reproductions occur on a faster timescale and with greater frequency than group extinctions and fissionings. Mathematical models can be crafted to come up with special conditions under which group selection might be evolutionarily powerful. These special conditions are usually unrealistic in nature, but it can be argued that religions in human tribal groupings foster just such otherwise unrealistic special conditions. This is an interesting line of theory, but I shall not pursue it here except to concede that Darwin himself, though he was normally a staunch advocate of selection at the level of the individual organism, came as close as he ever came to group selection ism in his discussion of human tribes:

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if the one tribe included (other circumstances being equal) a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other ... Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe possessing the above qualities in a high degree would spread and be victorious over other tribes; but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in turn overcome by some other and still more highly-endowed tribe. [78]

To satisfy any biological specialists who might be reading this, I should add that Darwin's idea was not strictly group selection, in the true sense of successful groups spawning daughter groups whose frequency might be counted in a metapopulation of groups. Rather, Darwin visualized tribes with altruistically cooperative members spreading and becoming more numerous in terms of numbers of individuals. Darwin's model is more like the spread of the grey squirrel in Britain at the expense of the red: ecological replacement, not true group selection.


In any case, I want now to set aside group selection and turn to my own view of the Darwinian survival value of religion. I am one of an increasing number of biologists who see religion as a by-product of something else. More generally, I believe that we who speculate about Darwinian survival value need to 'think by-product'. When we ask about the survival value of anything, we may be asking the wrong question. We need to rewrite the question in a more helpful way. Perhaps the feature we are interested in (religion in this case) doesn't have a direct survival value of its own, but is a by-product of something else that does. I find it helpful to introduce the by-product idea with an analogy from my own field of animal behaviour.

Moths fly into the candle flame, and it doesn't look like an accident. They go out of their way to make a burnt offering of themselves. We could label it 'self-immolation behaviour' and, under that provocative name, wonder how on earth natural selection could favour it. My point is that we must rewrite the question before we can even attempt an intelligent answer. It isn't suicide. Apparent suicide emerges as an inadvertent side-effect or by-product of something else. A by-product of ... what? Well, here's one possibility, which will serve to make the point.

Artificial light is a recent arrival on the night scene. Until recently, the only night lights on view were the moon and the stars. They are at optical infinity, so rays coming from them are parallel. This fits them for use as compasses. Insects are known to use celestial objects such as the sun and the moon to steer accurately in a straight line, and they can use the same compass, with reversed sign, for returning home after a foray. The insect nervous system is adept at setting up a temporary rule of thumb of this kind: 'Steer a course such that the light rays hit your eye at an angle of 30 degrees.' Since insects have compound eyes (with straight tubes or light guides radiating out from the centre of the eye like the spines of a hedgehog), this might amount in practice to something as simple as keeping the light in one particular tube or ommatidium.

But the light compass relies critically on the celestial object being at optical infinity. If it isn't, the rays are not parallel but diverge like the spokes of a wheel. A nervous system applying a 30-degree (or any acute angle) rule of thumb to a nearby candle, as though it were the moon at optical infinity, will steer the moth, via a spiral trajectory, into the flame. Draw it out for yourself, using some particular acute angle such as 30 degrees, and you'll produce an elegant logarithmic spiral into the candle.

Though fatal in this particular circumstance, the moth's rule of thumb is still, on average, a good one because, for a moth, sightings of candles are rare compared with sightings of the moon. We don't notice the hundreds of moths that are silently and effectively steering by the moon or a bright star, or even the glow from a distant city. We see only moths wheeling into our candle, and we ask the wrong question: Why are all these moths committing suicide? Instead, we should ask why they have nervous systems that steer by maintaining a fixed angle to light rays, a tactic that we notice only where it goes wrong. When the question is rephrased, the mystery evaporates. It never was right to call it suicide. It is a misfiring by-product of a normally useful compass.

Now, apply the by-product lesson to religious behaviour in humans. We observe large numbers of people -- in many areas it amounts to 100 per cent -- who hold beliefs that flatly contradict demonstrable scientific facts as well as rival religions followed by others. People not only hold these beliefs with passionate certitude, but devote time and resources to costly activities that flow from holding them. They die for them, or kill for them. We marvel at this, just as we marvelled at the 'self-immolation behaviour' of the moths. Baffled, we ask why. But my point is that we may be asking the wrong question. The religious behaviour may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful. On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself as religious behaviour. We shall understand religious behaviour only after we have renamed it.

If, then, religion is a by-product of something else, what is that something else? What is the counterpart to the moth habit of navigating by celestial light compasses? What is the primitively advantageous trait that sometimes misfires to generate religion? I shall offer one suggestion by way of illustration, but I must stress that it is only an example of the kind of thing I mean, and I shall come on to parallel suggestions made by others. I am much more wedded to the general principle that the question should be properly put, and if necessary rewritten, than I am to any particular answer.

My specific hypothesis is about children. More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths, it can go wrong.

I have never forgotten a horrifying sermon, preached in my school chapel when I was little. Horrifying in retrospect, that is: at the time, my child brain accepted it in the spirit intended by the preacher. He told us a story of a squad of soldiers, drilling beside a railway line. At a critical moment the drill sergeant's attention was distracted, and he failed to give the order to halt. The soldiers were so well schooled to obey orders without question that they carried on marching, right into the path of an oncoming train. Now, of course, I don't believe the story and I hope the preacher didn't either. But I believed it when I was nine, because I heard it from an adult in authority over me. And whether he believed it or not, the preacher wished us children to admire and model ourselves on the soldiers' slavish and unquestioning obedience to an order, however preposterous, from an authority figure. Speaking for myself, I think we did admire it. As an adult I find it almost impossible to credit that my childhood self wondered whether I would have had the courage to do my duty by marching under the train. But that, for what it is worth, is how I remember my feelings. The sermon obviously made a deep impression on me, for I have remembered it and passed it on to you.

To be fair, I don't think the preacher thought he was serving up a religious message. It was probably more military than religious, in the spirit of Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade', which he may well have quoted:

'Forward the Light Brigade!' Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldiers knew Some one had blundered: Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

(One of the earliest and scratchiest recordings of the human· voice ever made is of Lord Tennyson himself reading this poem, and the impression of hollow declaiming down a long, dark tunnel from the depths of the past seems eerily appropriate.) From the high command's point of view it would be madness to allow each individual soldier discretion over whether or not to obey orders. Nations whose infantrymen act on their own initiative rather than following orders will tend to lose wars. From the nation's point of view, this remains a good rule of thumb even if it sometimes leads to individual disasters. Soldiers are drilled to become as much like automata, or computers, as possible.

Computers do what they are told. They slavishly obey any instructions given in their own programming language. This is how they do useful things like word processing and spreadsheet calculations. But, as an inevitable by-product, they are equally robotic in obeying bad instructions. They have no way of telling whether an instruction will have a good effect or a bad. They simply obey, as soldiers are supposed to. It is their unquestioning obedience that makes computers useful, and exactly the same thing makes them inescapably vulnerable to infection by software viruses and worms. A maliciously designed program that says, 'Copy me and send me to every address that you find on this hard disk' will simply be obeyed, and then obeyed again by the other computers down the line to which it is sent, in exponential expansion. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to design a computer which is usefully obedient and at the same time immune to infection.

If I have done my softening-up work well, you will already have completed my argument about child brains and religion. Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses. For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that 'Don't paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo' is good advice but 'You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail' is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and· demands obedience. The same goes for propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children -- nonsense as well as sense -- using the same infectious gravitas of manner.

On this model we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs, none of which have any factual basis, will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops. We should also expect that superstitions and other non-factual beliefs will locally evolve -- change over generations -- either by random drift or by some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry. Languages drift apart from a common progenitor given sufficient time in geographical separation (I shall return to this point in a moment). The same seems to be true of baseless and arbitrary beliefs and injunctions, handed down the generations -- beliefs that were perhaps given a fair wind by the useful programmability of the child brain.

Religious leaders are well aware of the vulnerability of the child brain, and the importance of getting the indoctrination in early. The Jesuit boast, 'Give me the child for his first seven years, and I'll give you the man,' is no less accurate (or sinister) for being hackneyed. In more recent times, James Dobson, founder of today's infamous 'Focus on the Family' movement, [i] is equally acquainted with the principle: 'Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience -- what they see, hear, think, and believe -- will determine the future course for the nation.' [79]

But remember, my specific suggestion about the useful gullibility of the child mind is only an example of the kind of thing that might be the analogue of moths navigating by the moon or the stars. The ethologist Robert Hinde, in Why Gods Persist, and the anthropologists Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, and Scott Atran, in In Gods We Trust, have independently promoted the general idea of religion as a by-product of normal psychological dispositions -- many by-products, I should say, for the anthropologists especially are concerned to emphasize the diversity of the world's religions as well as what they have in common. The findings of anthropologists seem weird to us only because they are unfamiliar. All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them. Boyer did research on the Fang people of Cameroon, who believe ...

... that witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people's crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.

Boyer continues with a personal anecdote:

I was mentioning these and other exotica over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Cambridge theologian, turned to me and said: 'That is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.' Which left me dumbfounded. The conversation had moved on before I could find a pertinent response -- to do with kettles and pots.

Assuming that the Cambridge theologian was a mainstream Christian, he probably believed some combination of the following:

• In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
• The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.
• The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
• Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.
• If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
• If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
• The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but was 'assumed' bodily into heaven.
• Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

What would an objective anthropologist, coming fresh to this set of beliefs while on fieldwork in Cambridge, make of them?
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:04 pm

Part 2 of 3


The idea of psychological by-products grows naturally out of the important and developing field of evolutionary psychology. [80] Evolutionary psychologists suggest that, just as the eye is an evolved organ for seeing, and the wing an evolved organ for flying, so the brain is a collection of organs (or 'modules') for dealing with a set of specialist data-processing needs. There is a module for dealing with kinship, a module for dealing with reciprocal exchanges, a module for dealing with empathy, and so on. Religion can be seen as a by-product of the misfiring of several of these modules, for example the modules for forming theories of other minds, for forming coalitions, and for discriminating in favour of in-group members and against strangers. Any of these could serve as the human equivalent of the moths' celestial navigation, vulnerable to misfiring in the same kind of way as I suggested for childhood gullibility. The psychologist Paul Bloom, another advocate of the 'religion is a by-product' view, points out that children have a natural tendency towards a dualistic theory of mind. Religion, for him, is a by-product of such instinctive dualism. We humans, he suggests, and especially children, are natural born dualists.

A dualist acknowledges a fundamental distinction between matter and mind. A monist, by contrast, believes that mind is a manifestation of matter -- material in a brain or perhaps a computer -- and cannot exist apart from matter. A dualist believes the mind is some kind of disembodied spirit that inhabits the body and therefore conceivably could leave the body and exist somewhere else. Dualists readily interpret mental illness as 'possession by devils', those devils being spirits whose residence in the body is temporary, such that they might be 'cast out'. Dualists personify inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity, seeing spirits and demons even in waterfalls and clouds.

F. Anstey's 1882 novel Vice Versa makes sense to a dualist, but strictly should be incomprehensible to a dyed-in-the-wool monist like me. Mr. Bultitude and his son mysteriously find that they have swapped bodies. The father, much to the son's glee, is obliged to go to school in the son's body; while the son, in the father's body, almost ruins the father's business through his immature decisions. A similar plotline was used by P. G. Wodehouse in Laughing Gas, where the Earl of Havershot and a child movie star go under the anaesthetic at the same moment in neighbouring dentist's chairs, and wake up in each other's bodies. Once again, the plot makes sense only to a dualist. There has to be something corresponding to Lord Havershot which is no part of his body, otherwise how could he wake up in the body of a child actor?

Like most scientists, I am not a dualist, but I am nevertheless easily capable of enjoying Vice Versa and Laughing Gas. Paul Bloom would say this is because, even though I have learned to be an intellectual monist, I am a human animal and therefore evolved as an instinctive dualist. The idea that there is a me perched somewhere behind my eyes and capable, at least in fiction, of migrating into somebody else's head, is deeply ingrained in me and in every other human being, whatever our intellectual pretensions to monism. Bloom supports his contention with experimental evidence that children are even more likely to be dualists than adults are, especially extremely young children. This suggests that a tendency to dualism is built into the brain and, according to Bloom, provides a natural predisposition to embrace religious ideas.

Bloom also suggests that we are innately predisposed to be creationists. Natural selection 'makes no intuitive sense'. Children are especially likely to assign purpose to everything, as the psychologist Deborah Keleman tells us in her article 'Are children "intuitive theists"?' [81] Clouds are 'for raining'. Pointy rocks are 'so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy'. The assignment of purpose to everything is called teleology. Children are native teleologists, and many never grow out of it.

Native dualism and native teleology predispose us, given the right conditions, to religion, just as my moths' light-compass reaction predisposed them to inadvertent 'suicide'. Our innate dualism prepares us to believe in a 'soul' which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body. Such a disembodied spirit can easily be imagined to move on somewhere else after the death of the body. We can also easily imagine the existence of a deity as pure spirit, not an emergent property of complex matter but existing independently of matter. Even more obviously, childish teleology sets us up for religion. If everything has a purpose, whose purpose is it? God's, of course.

But what is the counterpart of the usefulness of the moths' light compass? Why might natural selection have favoured dualism and teleology in the brains of our ancestors and their children? So far, my account of the 'innate dualists' theory has simply posited that humans are natural born dualists and teleologists. But what would the Darwinian advantage be? Predicting the behaviour of entities in our world is important for our survival, and we would expect natural selection to have shaped our brains to do it efficiently and fast. Might dualism and teleology serve us in this capacity? We may understand this hypothesis better in the light of what Daniel Dennett has called the intentional stance.

Dennett has offered a helpful three-way classification of the 'stances' that we' adopt in trying to understand and hence predict the behaviour of entities such as animals, machines or each other. [82] They are the physical stance, the design stance and the intentional stance. The physical stance always works in principle, because everything ultimately obeys the laws of physics. But working things out using the physical stance can be very slow. By the time we have sat down to calculate all the interactions of a complicated object's moving parts, our prediction of its behaviour will probably be too late. For an object that really is designed, like a washing machine or a crossbow, the design stance is an economical short cut. We can guess how the object will behave by going over the head of physics and appealing directly to design. As Dennett says,

Almost anyone can predict when an alarm clock will sound on the basis of the most casual inspection of its exterior. One does not know or care to know whether it is spring wound, battery driven, sunlight powered, made of brass wheels and jewel bearings or silicon chips -- one just assumes that it is designed so that the alarm will sound when it is set to sound.

Living things are not designed, but Darwinian natural selection licenses a version of the design stance for them. We get a short cut to understanding the heart if we assume that it is 'designed' to pump blood. Karl von Frisch was led to investigate colour vision in bees (in the face of orthodox opinion that they were colour-blind) because he assumed that the bright colours of flowers were 'designed' to attract them. The quotation marks are designed to scare off mendacious creationists who might otherwise claim the great Austrian zoologist as one of their own. Needless to say, he was perfectly capable of translating the design stance into proper Darwinian terms.

The intentional stance is another short cut, and it goes one better than the design stance. An entity is assumed not merely to be designed for a purpose but to be, or contain, an agent with intentions that guide its actions. When you see a tiger, you had better not delay your prediction of its probable behaviour. Never mind the physics of its molecules, and never mind the design of its limbs, claws and teeth. That cat intends to eat you, and it will deploy its limbs, claws and teeth in flexible and resourceful ways to carry out its intention. The quickest way to second-guess its behaviour is to forget physics and physiology and cut to the intentional chase. Note that, just as the design stance works even for things that were not actually designed as well as things that were, so the intentional stance works for things that don't have deliberate conscious intentions as well as things that do.

It seems to me entirely plausible that the intentional stance has survival value as a brain mechanism that speeds up decision-making in dangerous circumstances, and in crucial social situations. It is less immediately clear that dualism is a necessary concomitant of the intentional stance. I shan't pursue the matter here, but I think a case could be developed that some kind of theory of other minds, which could fairly be described as dualistic, is likely to underlie the intentional stance -- especially in complicated social situations, and even more especially where higher-order intentionality comes into play.

Dennett speaks of third-order intentionality (the man believed that the woman knew he wanted her), fourth-order (the woman realized that the man believed that the woman knew he wanted her) and even fifth-order intentionality (the shaman guessed that the woman realized that the man believed that the woman knew he wanted her). Very high orders of intentionality are probably confined to fiction, as satirized in Michael Frayn's hilarious novel The Tin Men: 'Watching Nunopoulos, Rick knew that he was almost certain that Anna felt a passionate contempt for Fiddlingchild's failure to understand her feelings about Fiddlingchild, and she knew too that Nina knew she knew about Nunopoulos's knowledge ...' But the fact that we can laugh at such contortions of other-mind inference in fiction is probably telling us something important about the way our minds have been naturally selected to work in the real world.

In its lower orders at least, the intentional stance, like the design stance, saves time that might be vital to survival. Consequently, natural selection shaped brains to deploy the intentional stance as a short cut. We are biologically programmed to impute intentions to entities whose behaviour matters to us. Once again, Paul Bloom quotes experimental evidence that children are especially likely to adopt the intentional stance. When small babies see an object apparently following another object (for example; on a computer screen), they assume that they are witnessing an active chase by an intentional agent, and they demonstrate the fact by registering surprise when the putative agent fails to pursue the chase.

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates. But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children, and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks. All of us are prone to do the same thing with machines, especially when they let us down. Many will remember with affection the day Basil Fawlty's car broke down during his vital mission to save Gourmet Night from disaster. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, then got out of the car, seized a tree branch and thrashed it to within an inch of its life. Most of us have been there, at least momentarily, with a computer if not with a car. Justin Barrett coined the acronym HADD, for hyperactive agent detection device. We hyperactively detect agents where there are none, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact, nature is only indifferent. I catch myself momentarily harbouring savage resentment against some blameless inanimate such as my bicycle chain. There was a poignant recent report of a man who tripped over his untied shoelace in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, fell down the stairs, and smashed three priceless Qing Dynasty vases: 'He landed in the middle of the vases and they splintered into a million pieces. He was still sitting there stunned when staff appeared. Everyone stood around in silence, as if in shock. The man kept pointing to his shoelace, saying, "There it is; that's the culprit."' [83]

Other by-product explanations of religion have been proposed by Hinde, Shermer, Boyer, Atran, Bloom, Dennett, Keleman and others. One especially intriguing possibility mentioned by Dennett is that the irrationality of religion is a by-product of a particular built-in irrationality mechanism in the brain: our tendency, which presumably has genetic advantages, to fall in love.

The anthropologist Helen Fisher, in Why We Love, has beautifully expressed the insanity of romantic love, and how over-the-top it is compared with what might seem strictly necessary. Look at it this way. From the point of view of a man, say, it is unlikely that anyone woman of his acquaintance is a hundred times more lovable than her nearest competitor, yet ' that is how he is likely to describe her when 'in love'. Rather than the fanatically monogamous devotion to which we are susceptible, some sort of 'polyamory' is on the face of it more rational. (Polyamory is the belief that one can simultaneously love several members of the opposite sex, just as one can love more than one wine, composer, book or sport.) We happily accept that we can love more than one child, parent, sibling, teacher, friend or pet. When you think of it like that, isn't the total exclusiveness that we expect of spousal love positively weird? Yet it is what we expect, and it is what we set out to achieve. There must be a reason.

Helen Fisher and others have shown that being in love is accompanied by unique brain states, including the presence of neurally active chemicals (in effect, natural drugs) that are highly specific and characteristic of the state. Evolutionary psychologists agree with her that the irrational coup de foudre could be a mechanism "to ensure loyalty to one co-parent, lasting for long enough to rear a child together. From a Darwinian point of view it is, no doubt, important to choose a good partner, for all sorts of reasons. But, once having made a choice -- even a poor one -- and conceived a child, it is more important to stick with that one choice through thick and thin, at least until the child is weaned.

Could irrational religion be a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love? Certainly, religious faith has something of the same character as falling in love (and both have many of the attributes of being high on an addictive drug [ii]). The neuro-psychiatrist John Smythies cautions that there are significant differences between the brain areas activated by the two kinds of mania. Nevertheless, he notes some similarities too:

One facet of the many faces of religion is intense love focused on one supernatural person, i.e. God, plus reverence for icons of that person. Human life is driven largely by our selfish genes and by the processes of reinforcement. Much positive reinforcement derives from religion: warm and comforting feelings of being loved and protected in a dangerous world, loss of fear of death, help from the hills in response to prayer in difficult times, etc. Likewise, romantic love for another real person (usually of the other sex) exhibits the same intense concentration on the other and related positive reinforcements. These feelings can be triggered by icons of the other, such as letters, photographs, and even, as in Victorian times, locks of hair. The state of being in love has many physiological accompaniments, such as sighing like a furnace. [84]

I made the comparison between falling in love and religion in 1993, when I noted that the symptoms of an individual infected by religion 'may be startlingly reminiscent of those more ordinarily associated with sexual love. This is an extremely potent force in the brain, and it is not surprising that some viruses have evolved to exploit it' ('viruses' here is a metaphor for religions: my article was called 'Viruses of the mind'). St Teresa of Avila's famously orgasmic vision is too notorious to need quoting again. More seriously, and on a less crudely sensual plane, the philosopher Anthony Kenny provides moving testimony to the pure delight that awaits those who manage to believe in the mystery of the transubstantiation. After describing his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest, empowered by laying on of hands to celebrate mass, he goes on that he vividly recalls

the exaltation of the first months during which I had the power to say Mass. Normally a slow and sluggish riser, I would leap early out of bed, fully awake and full of excitement at the thought of the momentous act I was privileged to perform ...

It was touching the body of Christ, the closeness of the priest to Jesus, which most enthralled me. I would gaze on the Host after the words of consecration, soft-eyed like a lover looking into the eyes of his beloved ... Those early days as a priest remain in my memory as days of fulfilment and tremulous happiness; something precious, and yet too fragile to last, like a romantic love-affair brought up short by the reality of an ill-assorted marriage.

The equivalent of the moth's light-compass reaction is the apparently irrational but useful habit of falling in love with one, and only one, member of the opposite sex. The misfiring by-product -- equivalent to flying into the candle flame -- is falling in love with Yahweh (or with the Virgin Mary, or with a wafer, or with Allah) and performing irrational acts motivated by such love.

The biologist Lewis Wolpert, in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, makes a suggestion that can be seen as a generalization of the idea of constructive irrationality. His point is that irrationally strong conviction is a guard against fickleness of mind: 'if beliefs that saved lives were not held strongly, it would have been disadvantageous in early human evolution. It would be a severe disadvantage, for example, when hunting or making tools, to keep changing one's mind.' The implication of Wolpert's argument is that, at least under some circumstances, it is better to persist in an irrational belief than to vacillate, even if new evidence or ratiocination favours a change. It is easy to see the 'falling in love' argument as a special case, and it is correspondingly easy to see Wolpert's 'irrational persistence' as yet another useful psychological predisposition that could explain important aspects of irrational religious behaviour: yet another by-product.

In his book Social Evolution, Robert Trivers enlarged on his 1976 evolutionary theory of self-deception. Self-deception is

hiding the truth from the conscious mind the better to hide it from others. In our own species we recognize that shifty eyes, sweaty palms and croaky voices may indicate the stress that accompanies conscious knowledge of attempted deception. By becoming unconscious of its deception, the deceiver hides these signs from the observer. He or she can lie without the nervousness that accompanies deception.

The anthropologist Lionel Tiger says something similar in Optimism: The Biology of Hope. The connection to the sort of constructive irrationality we have just been discussing is seen in Trivers's paragraph about 'perceptual defense':

There is a tendency for humans consciously to see what they wish to see. They literally have difficulty seeing things with negative connotations while seeing with increasing ease items that are positive. For example, words that evoke anxiety, either because of an individual's personal history or because of experimental manipulation, require greater illumination before first being perceived.

The relevance of this to the wishful thinking of religion should need no spelling out.

The general theory of religion as an accidental by-product -- a misfiring of something useful -- is the one I wish to advocate. The details are various, complicated and disputable. For the sake of illustration, I shall continue to use my 'gullible child' theory as representative of 'by-product' theories in general. This theory -- that the child brain is, for good reasons, vulnerable to infection by mental 'viruses' -- will strike some readers as incomplete. Vulnerable the mind may be, but why should it be infected by this virus rather than that? Are some viruses especially proficient at infecting vulnerable minds? Why does 'infection' manifest itself as religion rather than as ... well, what? Part of what I want to say is that it doesn't matter what particular style of nonsense infects the child brain. Once infected, the child will grow up and infect the next generation with the same nonsense, whatever it happens to be.

An anthropological survey such as Frazer's Golden Bough impresses us with the diversity of irrational human beliefs. Once entrenched in a culture they persist, evolve and diverge, in a manner reminiscent of biological evolution. Yet Frazer discerns certain general principles, for example 'homoeopathic magic', whereby spells and incantations borrow some symbolic aspect of the real-world object they are intended to influence. An instance with tragic consequences is the belief that powdered rhinoceros horn has aphrodisiac properties. Fatuous as it is, the legend stems from the horn's supposed resemblance to a virile penis. The fact that 'homoeopathic magic' is so widespread suggests that the nonsense that infects vulnerable brains is not entirely random, arbitrary nonsense.

It is tempting to pursue the biological analogy to the point of wondering whether something corresponding to natural selection is at work. Are some ideas more spreadable than others, because of intrinsic appeal or merit, or compatibility with existing psychological dispositions, and could this account for the nature and properties of actual religions as we see them, in something like the way we use natural selection to account for living organisms? It is important to understand that 'merit' here means only ability to survive and spread. It doesn't mean deserving of a positive value judgement -- something of which we might be humanly proud.

Even on an evolutionary model, there doesn't have to be any natural selection. Biologists acknowledge that a gene may spread through a population not because it is a good gene but simply because it is a lucky one. We call this genetic drift. How important it is vis-a-vis natural selection has been controversial. But it is now widely accepted in the form of the so-called neutral theory of molecular genetics. If a gene mutates to a different version of itself which has an identical effect, the difference is neutral, and selection cannot favour one or the other. Nevertheless, by what statisticians call sampling error over generations, the new mutant form can eventually replace the original form in the gene pool. This is a true evolutionary change at the molecular level (even if no change is observed in the world of whole organisms). It is a neutral evolutionary change that owes nothing to selective advantage.

The cultural equivalent of genetic drift is a persuasive option, one that we cannot neglect when thinking about the evolution of religion. Language evolves in a quasi-biological way and the direction its evolution takes looks undirected, pretty much like random drift. It is handed down by a cultural analogue of genetics, changing slowly over the centuries, until eventually various strands have diverged to the point of mutual unintelligibility. It is possible that some of the evolution of language is guided by a kind of natural selection, but that argument doesn't seem very persuasive. I'll explain below that some such idea has been proposed for major trends in language, such as the Great Vowel Shift which took place in English from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. But such a functional hypothesis is not necessary to explain most of what we observe. It seems probable that language normally evolves by the cultural equivalent of random genetic drift. In different parts of Europe, Latin drifted to become Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Romansche and the various dialects of these languages. It is, to say the least, not obvious that these evolutionary shifts reflect local advantages or 'selection pressures'.

I surmise that religions, like languages, evolve with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering -- and sometimes dangerous -- richness of diversity that we observe. At the same time, it is possible ·that a form of natural selection, coupled with the fundamental uniformity of human psychology, sees to it that the diverse religions share significant features in common. Many religions, for example, teach the objectively implausible but subjectively appealing doctrine that our personalities survive our bodily death. The idea of immortality itself survives and spreads because it caters to wishful thinking. And wishful thinking counts, because human psychology has a near-universal tendency to let belief be coloured by desire ('Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought', as Henry IV Part II said to his son [iii]).

There seems to be no doubt that many of the attributes of religion are well fitted to helping the religion's own survival, and the survival of the attributes concerned, in the stew of human culture. The question now arises of whether the good fit is achieved by 'intelligent design' or by natural selection. The answer is probably both. On the side of design, religious leaders are fully capable of verbalizing the tricks that aid the survival of religion. Martin Luther was well aware that reason was religion's arch-enemy, and he frequently warned of its dangers: 'Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.' [85] Again: 'Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.' And again: 'Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.' Luther would have had no difficulty in intelligently designing unintelligent aspects of a religion to help it survive. But that doesn't necessarily mean that he, or anyone else, did design it. It could also have evolved by a (non-genetic) form of natural selection, with Luther not its designer but a shrewd observer of its efficacy.

Even though conventional Darwinian selection of genes might have favoured psychological predispositions that produce religion as a by-product, it is unlikely to have shaped the details. I have already hinted that, if we are going to apply some form of selection theory to those details, we should look not to genes but to their cultural equivalents. Are religions such stuff as memes are made on?


Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.

This chapter began with the observation that, because Darwinian natural selection abhors waste, any ubiquitous feature of a species -- such as religion -- must have conferred some advantage or it wouldn't have survived. But I hinted that the advantage doesn't have to redound to the survival or reproductive success of the individual. As we saw, advantage to the genes of the cold virus sufficiently explains the ubiquity of that miserable complaint among our species. [iv] And it doesn't even have to be genes that benefit. Any replicator will do. Genes are only the most obvious examples of replicators. Other candidates are computer viruses, and memes -- units of cultural inheritance and the topic of this section. If we are to understand memes, we have first to look a little more carefully at exactly how natural selection works.

In its most general form, natural selection must choose between alternative replicators. A replicator is a piece of coded information that makes exact copies of itself, along with occasional inexact copies or 'mutations'. The point about this is the Darwinian one. Those varieties of replicator that happen to be good at getting copied become more numerous at the expense of alternative replicators that are bad at getting copied. That, at its most rudimentary, is natural selection. The archetypal replicator is a gene, a stretch of DNA that is duplicated, nearly always with extreme accuracy, through an indefinite number of generations. The central question for meme theory is whether there are units of cultural imitation which behave as true replicators, like genes. I am not saying that memes necessarily are close analogues of genes, only that the more like genes they are, the better will meme theory work; and the purpose of this section is to ask whether meme theory might work for the special case of religion.

In the world of genes, the occasional flaws in replication (mutations) see to it that the gene pool contains alternative variants of any given gene -- 'alleles' -- which may therefore be seen as competing with each other. Competing for what? For the particular chromosomal slot or 'locus' that belongs to that set of alleles. And how do they compete? Not by direct molecule-to-molecule combat but by proxy. The proxies are their 'phenotypic traits' -- things like leg length or fur colour: manifestations of genes fleshed out as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry or behaviour. A gene's fate is normally bound up with the bodies in which it successively sits. To the extent that it influences those bodies, it affects its own chances of surviving in the gene pool. As the generations go by, genes increase or decrease in frequency in the gene pool by virtue of their phenotypic proxies.

Might the same be true of memes? One respect in which they are not like genes is that there is nothing obviously corresponding to chromosomes or loci or alleles or sexual recombination. The meme pool is less structured and less organized than the gene pool. Nevertheless, it is not obviously silly to speak of a meme pool, in which particular memes might have a 'frequency' which can change as a consequence of competitive interactions with alternative memes.

Some people have objected to memetic explanations, on various grounds that usually stem from the fact that memes are not entirely like genes. The exact physical nature of a gene is now known (it is a sequence of DNA) whereas that of memes is not, and different memeticists confuse one another by switching from one physical medium to another. Do memes exist only in brains? Or is every paper copy and electronic copy of, say, a particular limerick also entitled to be called a meme? Then again, genes replicate with very high fidelity, whereas, if memes replicate at all, don't they do so with low accuracy?

These alleged problems of memes are exaggerated. The most important objection is the allegation that memes are copied with insufficiently high fidelity to function as Darwinian .replicators. The suspicion is that if the 'mutation rate' in every generation is high, the meme will mutate itself out of existence before Darwinian selection can have an impact on its frequency in the meme pool. But the problem is illusory. Think of a master carpenter, or a prehistoric flint-knapper, demonstrating a particular skill to a young apprentice. If the apprentice faithfully reproduced every hand movement of the master, you would indeed expect to see the meme mutate out of all recognition in a few 'generations' of master/apprentice transmission. But of course the apprentice does not faithfully reproduce every hand movement. It would be ridiculous to do so. Instead, he notes the goal that the master is trying to achieve, and imitates that. Drive in the nail until the head is flush, using as many hammer blows as it takes, which may not be the same number as the master used. It is such rules that can pass unmutated down an indefinite number of imitation 'generations'; no matter that the details of their execution may vary from individual to individual, and from case to case. Stitches in knitting, knots in ropes or fishing nets, origami folding patterns, useful tricks in carpentry or pottery: all can be reduced to discrete elements that really do have the opportunity to pass down an indefinite number of imitation generations without alteration. The details may wander idiosyncratically, but the essence passes down un mutated, and that is all that is needed for the analogy of memes with genes to work.

In my foreword to Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine I developed the example of an origami procedure for making a model Chinese junk. It is quite a complicated recipe, involving thirty-two folding (or similar) operations. The end result (the Chinese junk itself) is a pleasing object, as are at least three intermediate stages in the 'embryology', namely the 'catamaran', the 'box with two lids' and the 'picture frame'. The whole performance does indeed remind me of· the foldings and invaginations that the membranes of an embryo undergo as it morphs itself from blastula to gastrula to neurula. I learned to make the Chinese junk as a boy from my father who, at about the same age, had acquired the skill at his boarding school. A craze for making Chinese junks, initiated by the school matron, had spread through ..the school in his time like a measles epidemic, then died away, also like a measles epidemic. Twenty-six years later, when that matron was long gone, I went to the same school. I reintroduced the craze and it again spread, like another measles epidemic, and then again died away. The fact that such a teachable skill can spread like an epidemic tells us something important about the high fidelity of memetic transmission. We may be sure that the junks made by my father's generation of schoolboys in the 1920s were in no general respect different from those made by my generation in the 1950s.

We could investigate the phenomenon more systematically by the following experiment: a variant of the childhood game of Chinese Whispers (American children call it Telephone). Take two hundred people who have never made a Chinese junk before, and line them up in twenty teams of ten people each. Gather the heads of the twenty teams around a table and teach them, by demonstration, how to make a Chinese junk. Now send each one off to find the second person in his own team, and teach that person alone, again by demonstration, to make a Chinese junk. Each second 'generation' person then teaches the third person in her own team, and so on until the tenth member of every team has been reached. Keep all the junks made along the way, and label them by their team and 'generation' number for subsequent inspection.

I haven't done the experiment yet (I'd like to), but I have a strong prediction of what the result will be. My prediction is that not all of the twenty teams will succeed in passing the skill intact down the line to their tenth members, but that a significant number of them will. In some of the teams there will be mistakes: perhaps a weak link in the chain will forget some vital step in the procedure, and everyone downstream of the mistake will then obviously fail. Perhaps team 4 gets as far as the 'catamaran' but falters thereafter. Perhaps the eighth member of team 13 produces a 'mutant' somewhere between the 'box with two lids' and the 'picture frame' and the ninth and tenth members of his team then copy the mutated version.

Now, of those teams in which the skill is transferred successfully to the tenth generation, I make a further prediction. If you rank the junks in order of 'generation' you will not see a systematic deterioration of quality with generation number. If, on the other hand, you were to run an experiment identical in all respects except that the skill transferred was not origami but copying a drawing of a junk, there would definitely be a systematic deterioration in the accuracy with which the generation 1 pattern 'survived' to generation 10.

In the drawing version of the experiment, all the generation 10 drawings would bear some slight resemblance to the generation 1 drawing. And within each team, the resemblance would more or less steadily deteriorate as you proceed down the generations. In the origami version of the experiment, by contrast, the mistakes would be all-or-none: they'd be 'digital' mutations. Either a team would make no mistakes and the generation 10 junk would be no worse, and no better, on average than that produced by generation 5 or generation 1; or there would be a 'mutation' in some particular generation and all downstream efforts would be complete failures, often faithfully reproducing the mutation.

What is the crucial difference between the two skills? It is that the origami skill consists of a series of discrete actions, none of which is difficult to perform in itself. Mostly the operations are things like 'Fold both sides into the middle.' A particular team member may execute the step ineptly, but it will be dear to the next team member down the line what he is trying to do. The origami steps are 'self-normalizing: It is this that makes them 'digital'. It is like my master carpenter, whose intention to flatten the nail head in the wood is obvious to his apprentice, regardless of the details of the hammer blows. Either you get a given step of the origami recipe right or you don't. The drawing skill, by contrast, is an analogue skill. Everybody can have a go, but some people copy a drawing more accurately than others, and nobody copies it perfectly. The accuracy of the copy depends, too, on the amount of time and care devoted to it, and these are continuously variable quantities. Some team members, moreover, will embellish and 'improve', rather than strictly copy, the preceding model.

Words -- at least when they are understood -- are self-normalizing in the same kind of way as origami operations. In the original game of Chinese Whispers (Telephone) the first child is told a story, or a sentence, and is asked to pass it on to the next child, and so on. If the sentence is less than about seven words, in the native language of all the children, there is a good chance that it will survive, unmutated, down ten generations. If it is in an unknown foreign language, so that the children are forced to imitate phonetically rather than word by word, the message does not survive. The pattern of decay down the generations is then the same as for a drawing, and it will become garbled. When the message makes sense in the children's own language, and doesn't contain any unfamiliar words like 'phenotype' or 'allele', it survives. Instead of mimicking the sounds phonetically, each child recognizes each word as a member of a finite vocabulary and selects the same word, although very probably pronounced in a different accent, when passing it on to the next child. Written language is also self-normalizing because the squiggles on paper, no matter how much they may differ in detail, are all drawn from a finite alphabet of (say) twenty-six letters.

The fact that memes can sometimes display very high fidelity, due to self-normalizing processes of this kind, is enough to answer some of the commonest objections that are raised to the meme/gene analogy. In any case, the main purpose of meme theory, at this early stage of its development, is not to supply a comprehensive theory of culture, on a par with Watson-Crick genetics. My original purpose in advocating memes, indeed, was to counter the impression that the gene was the only Darwinian game in town -- an impression that The Selfish Gene was otherwise at risk of conveying. Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd emphasize the point in the title of their valuable and thoughtful book Not by Genes Alone, although they give reasons for not adopting the word 'meme' itself, preferring 'cultural variants'. Stephen Shennan's Genes, Memes and Human History was partly inspired by an earlier excellent book by Boyd and Richerson, Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Other book-length treatments of memes include Robert Aunger's The Electric Meme, Kate Distin's The Selfish Meme, and Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie.

But it is Susan Blackmore, in The Meme Machine, who has pushed memetic theory further than anyone. She repeatedly visualizes a world full of brains (or other receptacles or conduits, such as computers or radio frequency bands) and memes jostling to occupy them. As with genes in a gene pool, the memes that prevail will be the ones that are good at getting themselves copied. This may be because they have direct appeal, as, presumably, the immortality meme has for some people. Or it may be because they flourish in the presence of other memes that have already become numerous in the meme pool. This gives rise to meme complexes or 'memeplexes'. As usual with memes, we gain understanding by going back to the genetic origin of the analogy.

For didactic purposes, I treated genes as though they were isolated units, acting independently. But of course they are not independent of one another, and this fact shows itself in two ways. First, genes are linearly strung along chromosomes, and so tend to travel through generations in the company of particular other genes that occupy neighbouring chromosomal loci. We doctors call that kind of linkage linkage, and I shall say no more about it because memes don't have chromosomes, alleles or sexual recombination. The other respect in which genes are not independent is very different from genetic linkage, and here there is a good memetic analogy. It concerns embryology which -- the fact is often misunderstood -- is completely distinct from genetics. Bodies are not jigsawed together as mosaics of phenotypic pieces, each one contributed by a different gene. There is no one-to-one mapping between genes and units of anatomy or behaviour. Genes 'collaborate' with hundreds of other genes in programming the developmental processes that culminate in a body, in the same kind of way as the words of a recipe collaborate in a cookery process that culminates in a dish. It is not the case that each word of the recipe corresponds to a different morsel of the dish.

Genes, then, cooperate in cartels to build bodies, and that is one of the important principles of embryology. It is tempting to say that natural selection favours cartels of genes in a kind of group selection between alternative cartels. That is confusion. What really happens is that the other genes of the gene pool constitute a major part of the environment in which each gene is selected versus its alleles. Because each is selected to be successful in the presence of the others -- which are also being selected in a similar way -- cartels of cooperating genes emerge. We have here something more like a free market than a planned economy. There is a butcher and a baker, but perhaps a gap in the market for a candlestick maker. The invisible hand of natural selection fills the gap. That is different from having a central planner who favours the troika of butcher + baker + candlestick maker. The idea of cooperating cartels assembled by the invisible hand will turn out to be central to our understanding of religious memes and how they work.

Different kinds of gene cartel emerge in different gene pools. Carnivore gene pools have genes that program prey-detecting sense organs, prey-catching claws, carnassial teeth, meat-digesting enzymes and many other genes, all fine-tuned to cooperate with each other. At the same time, in herbivore gene pools, different sets of mutually compatible genes are favoured for their cooperation with each other. We are familiar with the idea that a gene is favoured for the compatibility of its phenotype with the external environment of the species: desert, woodland or whatever it is. The point I am now making is that it is also favoured for its compatibility with the other genes of its particular gene pool. A carnivore gene would not survive in a herbivore gene pool, and vice versa. In the long gene's-eye-view, the gene pool of the species -- the set of genes that are shuffled and reshuffled by sexual reproduction -- constitutes the genetic environment in which each gene is selected for its capacity to cooperate. Although meme pools are less regimented and structured than gene pools, we can still speak of a meme pool as an important part of the 'environment' of each meme in the memeplex.

A memeplex is a set of memes which, while not necessarily being good survivors on their own, are good survivors in the presence of other members of the memeplex. In the previous section I doubted that the details of language evolution are favoured by any kind of natural selection. I guessed that language evolution is instead governed by random drift. It is just conceivable that certain vowels or consonants carry better than others through mountainous terrain, and therefore might become characteristic of, say, Swiss, Tibetan and Andean dialects, while other sounds are suitable for whispering in dense forests and are therefore characteristic of Pygmy and Amazonian languages. But the one example I cited of language being naturally selected -- the theory that the Great Vowel Shift might have a functional explanation -- is not of this type. Rather, it has to do with memes fitting in with mutually compatible memeplexes. One vowel shifted first, for reasons unknown -- perhaps fashionable imitation of an admired or powerful individual, as is alleged to be the origin of the Spanish lisp. Never mind how the Great Vowel Shift started: according to this theory, once the first vowel had changed, other vowels had to shift in its train, to reduce ambiguity, and so on in cascade. In this second stage of the process, memes were selected against the background of already existing meme pools, building up a new memeplex of mutually compatible memes.

We are finally equipped to turn to the memetic theory of religion. Some religious ideas, like some genes, might survive because of absolute merit. These memes would survive in any meme pool, regardless of the other memes that surround them. (I must repeat the vitally important point that 'merit' in this sense means only 'ability to survive in the pool'. It carries no value judgement apart from that.) Some religious ideas suryive because they are compatible with other memes that are already numerous in the meme pool -- as part of a memeplex. The following is a partial list of religious memes that might plausibly have survival value in the meme pool, either because of absolute 'merit' or because of compatibility with an existing memeplex:

• You will survive your own death.
• If you die a martyr, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy-two virgins (spare a thought for the unfortunate virgins).
• Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism from their families).
• Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief. (In my discussion of Pascal's Wager I mentioned the odd assumption that the one thing God really wants of us is belief. At the time I treated it as an oddity. Now we have an explanation for it.)
• Faith (belief without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially highly rewarded.
• Everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with a higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect than that accorded to other kinds of belief (we met this in Chapter 1).
• There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don't even try to understand one of these, for the attempt might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfilment in calling it amystery. Remember Martin Luther's virulent condemnations of reason, quoted on page 221, and think how protective of me me survival they would be.
• Beautiful music, art and scriptures are themselves self-replicating tokens of religious ideas. [v]

Some of the above list probably have absolute survival value and would flourish in any memeplex. But, as with genes, some memes survive only against the right background of other memes, leading to the build-up of alternative memeplexes. Two different religions might be seen as two alternative memeplexes. Perhaps Islam is analogous to a carnivorous gene complex, Buddhism to a herbivorous one. The ideas of one religion are not 'better' than those of the other in any absolute sense, any more than carnivorous genes are· 'better' than herbivorous ones. Religious memes of this kind don't necessarily have any absolute aptitude for survival; nevertheless, they are good in the sense that they flourish in the presence of other memes of their own religion, but not in the presence of memes of the other religion. On this model, Roman Catholicism and Islam, say, were not necessarily designed by individual people, but evolved separately as alternative collections of memes that flourish in the presence of other members of the same memeplex.

Organized religions are organized by people: by priests and bishops, rabbis, imams and ayatollahs. But, to reiterate the point I made with respect to Martin Luther, that doesn't mean they were conceived and designed by people. Even where religions have been exploited and manipulated to the benefit of powerful individuals, the strong possibility remains that the detailed form of each religion has been largely shaped by unconscious evolution. Not by genetic natural selection, which is too slow to account for the rapid evolution and divergence of religions. The role of genetic natural selection in the story is to provide the brain, with its predilections and biases -- the hardware platform and low-level system software which form the background to memetic selection. Given this background, memetic natural selection of some kind seems to me to offer a plausible account of the detailed evolution of particular religions. In the early stages of a religion's evolution, before it becomes organized, simple memes survive by virtue of their universal appeal to human psychology. This is where the meme theory of religion and the psychological by-product theory of religion overlap. The later stages, where a religion becomes organized, elaborate and arbitrarily different from other religions, are quite well handled by the theory of memeplexes -- cartels of mutually compatible memes. This doesn't rule out the additional role of deliberate manipulation by priests and others. Religions probably are, at least in part, intelligently designed, as are schools and fashions in art.

One religion that was intelligently designed, almost in its entirety, is Scientology, but I suspect that it is exceptional. Another candidate for a purely designed religion is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, its enterprisingly mendacious inventor, went to the lengths of composing a complete new holy book, the Book of Mormon, inventing from scratch a whole new bogus American history, written in bogus seventeenth-century English. Mormonism, however, has evolved since it was fabricated in the nineteenth century and has now become one of the respectable mainstream religions of America -- indeed, it claims to be the fastest-growing one, and there is talk of fielding a presidential candidate.

Most religions evolve. Whatever theory of religious evolution we adopt, it has to be capable of explaining the astonishing speed with which the process of religious evolution, given the right conditions, can take off. A case study follows.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:05 pm

Part 3 of 3


In The Life of Brian, one of the many things the Monty Python team got right was the extreme rapidity with which a new religious cult can get started. It can spring up almost overnight and then become incorporated into a culture, where it plays a disquietingly dominant role. The 'cargo cults' of Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea provide the most famous real life example. The entire history of some of these cults, from initiation to expiry, is wrapped up within living memory. Unlike the cult of Jesus, the origins of which are not reliably attested, we can see the whole course of events laid out before our eyes (and even here, as we shall see, some details are now lost). It is fascinating to guess that the cult of Christianity almost certainly began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high speed.

My main authority for the cargo cults is David Attenborough's Quest in Paradise, which he very kindly presented to me. The pattern is the same for all of them, from the earliest cults in the nineteenth century to the more famous ones that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. It seems that in every case the islanders were bowled over by the wondrous possessions of the white immigrants to their islands, including administrators, soldiers and missionaries. They were perhaps the victims of (Arthur C.) Clarke's Third Law, which I quoted in Chapter 2: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'

The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as 'cargo' in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the 'cargo' must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:

They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down -- and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.

It is striking that similar cargo cults sprang up independently on islands that were widely separated both geographically and culturally. David Attenborough tells us that

Anthropologists have noted two separate outbreaks in New Caledonia, four in the Solomons, four in Fiji, seven in the New Hebrides, and over fifty in New Guinea, most of them being quite independent and unconnected with one another. The majority of these religions claim that one particular messiah will bring the cargo when the day of the apocalypse arrives.

The independent flowering of so many independent but similar cults suggests some unifying features of human psychology in general.

One famous cult on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides (known as Vanuatu since 1980) is still extant. It is centred on a messianic figure called John Frum. References to John Frum in official government records go back only as far as 1940 but, even for so recent a myth, it is not known for certain whether he ever existed as a real man. One legend described him as a little man with a high-pitched voice and bleached hair, wearing a coat with shining buttons. He made strange prophecies, and he went out of his way to turn the people against the missionaries. Eventually he returned to the ancestors, after promising a triumphal second coming, bearing bountiful cargo. His apocalyptic vision included a 'great cataclysm; the mountains would fall flat and the valleys would be filled; [vi] old people would regain their youth and sickness would vanish; the white people would be expelled from the island never to return; and cargo would arrive in great quantity so that everybody would have as much as he wanted'.

Most worryingly for the government, John Frum also prophesied that, on his second coming, he would bring a new coinage, stamped with the image of a coconut. The people must therefore get rid of all their money of the white man's currency. In 1941 this led to a wild spending spree; the people stopped working and the island's economy was seriously damaged. The colonial administrators arrested the ringleaders but nothing that they could do would kill the cult, and the mission churches and schools became deserted.

A little later, a new doctrine grew up that John Frum was King of America. Providentially, American troops arrived in the New Hebrides around this time and, wonder of wonders, they included black men who were not poor like the islanders but

as richly endowed with cargo as the white soldiers. Wild excitement overwhelmed Tanna. The day of the apocalypse was imminent. It seemed that everyone was preparing for the arrival of John Frum. One of the leaders said that John Frum would be coming from America by aeroplane and hundreds of men began to clear the bush in the centre of the island so that the plane might have an airstrip on which to land.

The airstrip had a bamboo control tower with 'air traffic controllers' wearing dummy headphones made of wood. There were dummy planes on the 'runway' to act as decoys, designed to lure down John Frum's plane.

In the 1950s, the young David Attenborough sailed to Tanna with a cameraman, Geoffrey Mulligan, to investigate the cult of John Frum. They found plenty of evidence of the religion and were eventually introduced to its high priest, a man called Nambas. Nambas referred to his messiah familiarly as John, and claimed to speak regularly to him, by 'radio'. This ('radio belong John') consisted of an old woman with an electric wire around her waist who would fall into a trance and talk gibberish, which Nambas interpreted as the words of John Frum. Nambas claimed to have known in advance that Attenborough was coming to see him, because John Frum had told him on the 'radio'. Attenborough asked to see the 'radio' but was (understandably) refused. He changed the subject and asked whether Nambas had seen John Frum:

Nambas nodded vigorously. 'Me see him plenty time.'

'What does he look like?'

Nambas jabbed his finger at me. "E look like you. 'E got white face. 'E tall man. 'E live 'long South America.'

This detail contradicts the legend referred to above that John Frum was a short man. Such is the way with evolving legends.

It is believed that the day of John Frum's return will be 15 February, but the year is unknown. Every year on 15 February his followers assemble for a religious ceremony to welcome him. So far he has not returned, but they are not downhearted. David Attenborough said to one cult devotee, called Sam:

'But, Sam, it is nineteen years since John say that the cargo will come. He promise and he promise, but still the cargo does not come. Isn't nineteen years a long time to wait?'

Sam lifted his eyes from the ground and looked at me. 'If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an' 'e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.'

Robert Buckman's book Can We Be Good Without God? quotes the same admirable retort by a John Frum disciple, this time to a Canadian journalist some forty years after David Attenborough's encounter.

The Queen and Prince Philip visited the area in 1974, and the Prince subsequently became deified in a rerun of a John-Frum-type cult (once again, note how rapidly the details in religious evolution can change). The Prince is a handsome man who would have cut an imposing figure in his white naval uniform and plumed helmet, and it is perhaps not surprising that he, rather than the Queen, was elevated in this way, quite apart from the fact that the culture of the islanders made it difficult for them to accept a female deity.

I don't want to make too much of the cargo cults of the South Pacific. But they do provide a fascinating contemporary model for the way religions spring up from almost nothing. In particular, they suggest four lessons about the origin of religions generally, and I'll set them out briefly here. First is the amazing speed with which a cult can spring up. Second is the speed with which the origination process covers its tracks. John Frum, if he existed at all; did so within living memory. Yet, even for so recent a possibility, it is not certain whether he lived at all. The third lesson springs from the independent emergence of similar cults on different islands. The systematic study of these similarities can tell us something about human psychology and its susceptibility to religion. Fourth, the cargo cults are similar, not just to each other but to older religions. Christianity and other ancient religions that have spread worldwide presumably began as local cults like that of John Frum. Indeed, scholars such as Geza Vermes, Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, have suggested that Jesus was one of many such charismatic figures who emerged in Palestine around his time, surrounded by similar legends. Most of those cults died away. The one that survived, on this view, is the one that we encounter today. And, as the centuries go by, it has been honed by further evolution (memetic selection, if you like that way of putting it; not if you don't) into the sophisticated system -- or rather diverging sets of descendant systems -- that dominate large parts of the world today. The deaths of charismatic , modern figures such as Haile Selassie, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana offer other opportunities to study the rapid rise of cults and their subsequent memetic evolution.

That is all I want to say about the roots of religion itself, apart from a brief reprise in Chapter 10 when I discuss the 'imaginary friend' phenomenon of childhood under the heading of the psychological 'needs' that religion fulfils.

Morality is often thought to have its roots in religion, and in the next chapter I want to question this view. I shall argue that the origin of morality can itself be the subject of a Darwinian question. Just as we asked: What is the Darwinian survival value of religion?, so we can ask the same question of morality. Morality, indeed, probably predated religion. Just as with religion we drew back from the question and rephrased it, so with morality we shall find that it is best seen as a by-product of something else.



i. I was amused when I saw 'Focus on your own damn family' on a car bumper sticker in Colorado, but it now seems to me less funny. Maybe some children need to be protected from indoctrination by their own parents (see Chapter 9).

ii. See my expose of the dangerous narcotic Gerin Oil: R. Dawkins, 'Gerin Oil', Free Inquiry 24: 1, 2003, 9-11.

iii. Not my joke: 1066 and All That.

iv. Especially my nation, according to national stereotyping legend: 'Voici l'anglais avec son sangfroid habituel' (Here is the Englishman with his habitual bloody cold). This comes from Fractured French by F. S. Pearson, along with other gems such as 'coup de grace' (lawnmower).

v. Different schools and genres of art can be analysed as alternative memeplexes, as artists copy ideas and motifs from earlier artists, and new motifs survive only if they mesh with others. Indeed, the whole academic discipline of History of Art, with its sophisticated tracing of iconographies and symbolisms, could be seen as an elaborate study in memeplexity. Details will have been favoured or disfavoured by the presence of existing members of the meme pool, and these will often include religious memes.

vi. Compare Isaiah 40: 4: 'Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.' This similarity doesn't necessarily indicate any fundamental feature of the human psyche, or Jungian 'collective unconscious'. These islands had long been infested with missionaries.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:05 pm


Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men -- above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.

Many religious people find it hard to imagine how, without religion, one can be good, or would even want to be good. I shall discuss such questions in this chapter. But the doubts go further, and drive some religious people to paroxysms of hatred against those who don't share their faith. This is important, because moral considerations lie hidden behind religious attitudes to other topics that have no real link with morality. A great deal of the opposition to the teaching of evolution has no connection with evolution itself, or with anything scientific, but is . spurred on by moral outrage. This ranges from the naive 'If you teach children that they evolved from monkeys, then they will act like monkeys' to the more sophisticated underlying motivation for the whole 'wedge' strategy of 'intelligent design', as it is mercilessly laid bare by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross in Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design.

I receive a large number of letters from readers of my books, [i] most of them enthusiastically friendly, some of them helpfully critical, a few nasty or even vicious. And the nastiest of all, I am sorry to report, are almost invariably motivated by religion. Such unchristian abuse is commonly experienced by those who are perceived as enemies of Christianity. Here, for example, is a letter, posted on the Internet and addressed to Brian Flemming, author and director of The God Who Wasn't There, [86] a sincere and moving film advocating atheism. Titled 'Burn while we laugh' and dated 21 December 2005, the letter to Flemming reads as follows:

You've definitely got some nerve. I'd love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned.

The writer at this point seems to come to a belated recognition that his language is not very Christian, for he goes on, more charitably:

However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for those like you all.

His charity is short-lived, however:

I'll get comfort in knowing that the punishment GOD will bring to you will be 1000 times worse than anything I can inflict. The best part is that you WILL suffer for eternity for these sins that you're completely ignorant about. The Wrath of GOD will show no mercy. For your sake, I hope the truth is revealed to you before the knife connects with your flesh. Merry CHRISTMAS!!!

PS You people really don't have a clue as to what is in store for you ... I thank GOD I'm not you.

I find it genuinely puzzling that a mere difference of theological opinion can generate such venom. Here's a sample (original spelling preserved) from the postbag of the Editor of the magazine Freethought Today, published by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), which campaigns peacefully against the undermining of the constitutional separation of church and state:

Hello, cheese-eating scumbags. Their are way more of us Christians than you losers. Their is NO separation of church and state and you heathens will lose ...

What is it with cheese? American friends have suggested to me a connection with the notoriously liberal state of Wisconsin -- home of the FFRF and centre of the dairy industry -- but surely there must be more to it than that? And how about those French 'cheese-eating surrender-monkeys'? What is the semiotic iconography of cheese? To continue:

Satan worshiping scum ... Please die and go to hell ... I hope you get a painful disease like rectal cancer and die a slow painful death, so you can meet your God, SATAN ... Hey dude this freedom from religion thing sux ... So you fags and dykes take it easy and watch where you go cuz whenever you least expect it god will get you ... If you don't like this country and what it was founded on & for, get the fuck out of it and go straight to hell ... PS Fuck you, you comunist whore ... Get your black asses out of the U.S.A.... You are without excuse. Creation is more than enough evidence of the LORD JESUS CHRIST'S omnipotent power.

Why not Allah's omnipotent power? Or Lord Brahma's? Or even Yahweh's?

We will not go quietly away. If in the future that requires violence just remember you brought it on. My rifle is loaded.

Why, I can't help wondering, is God thought to need such ferocious defence? One might have supposed him amply capable of looking after himself. Bear in mind, through all this, that the Editor being abused and threatened so viciously is a gentle and charming young woman.

Perhaps because I don't live in America, most of my hate mail is not quite in the same league, but nor does it display to advantage the charity for which the founder of Christianity was notable. The following, dated May 2005, from a British medical doctor, while it is certainly hateful, strikes me as more tormented than nasty, and reveals how the whole issue of morality is a deep wellspring of hostility towards atheism. After some preliminary paragraphs excoriating evolution (and sarcastically asking whether a 'Negro' is 'still in the process of evolving'), insulting Darwin personally, misquoting Huxley as an anti-evolutionist, and encouraging me to read a book (I have read it) which argues that the world is only eight thousand years old (can he really be a doctor?) he concludes:

Your own books, your prestige in Oxford, everything you love in life, and have ever achieved, are an exercise in total futility ... Camus' question-challenge becomes inescapable: Why don't we all commit suicide? Indeed, your world view has that sort of effect on students and many others ... that we all evolved by blind chance, from nothing, and return to nothing. Even if religion were not true, it is better, much, much better, to believe a noble myth, like Plato's, if it leads to peace of mind while we live. But your world view leads to anxiety, drug addiction, violence, nihilism, hedonism, Frankenstein science, and hell on earth, and World War III ... I wonder how happy you are in your personal relationships? Divorced? Widowed? Gay? Those like you are never happy, or they would not try so hard to prove there is no happiness nor meaning in anything.

The sentiment of this letter, if not its tone, is typical of many. - Darwinism, this person believes, is inherently nihilistic, teaching that we evolved by blind chance (for the umpteenth time, natural selection is the very opposite of a chance process) and are annihilated when we die. As a direct consequence of such alleged negativity, all manner of evils follow. Presumably he didn't really mean to suggest that widowhood could follow directly from my Darwinism, but his letter, by this point, had reached that level of frenzied malevolence which I repeatedly recognize among my Christian correspondents. I have devoted a whole book (Unweaving the Rainbow) to ultimate meaning, to the poetry of science, and to rebutting, specifically and at length, the charge of nihilistic negativity, so I shall restrain myself here. This chapter is about evil, and its opposite, good; about morality: where it comes from, why we should embrace it, and whether we need religion to do so.


Several books, including Robert Hinde's Why Good is Good, Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil, Robert Buckman's Can We Be Good Without God?, and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, have argued that our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past. This section is my own version of the argument.

On the face of it, the Darwinian idea that evolution is driven by natural selection seems ill-suited to explain such goodness as we possess, or our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity. Natural selection can easily explain hunger, fear and sexual lust, all of which straightforwardly contribute to our survival or the preservation of our genes. But what about the wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping, an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering in pain? What gives us the powerful urge to send an anonymous gift of money or clothes to tsunami victims on the other side of the world whom we shall never meet, and who are highly unlikely to return the favour? Where does the Good Samaritan in us come from? Isn't goodness incompatible with the theory of the 'selfish gene'? No. This is a common misunderstanding of the theory -- a distressing (and, with hindsight, foreseeable) misunderstanding. [ii] It is necessary to put the stress on the right word. The selfish gene is the correct emphasis, for it makes the contrast with the selfish organism, say, or the selfish species. Let me explain.

The logic of Darwinism concludes that the unit in the hierarchy of life which survives and passes through the filter of natural selection will tend to be selfish. The units that survive in the world will be the ones that succeeded in surviving at the expense of their rivals at their own level in the hierarchy. That, precisely, is what selfish means in this context. The question is, what is the level of the action? The whole idea of the selfish gene, with the stress properly applied to the last word, is that the unit of natural selection (i.e. the unit of self-interest) is not the selfish organism, nor the selfish group or selfish species or selfish ecosystem, but the selfish gene. It is the gene that, in the form of information, either survives for many generations or does not. Unlike the gene (and arguably the meme), the organism, the group and the species are not the right kind of entity to serve as a unit in this sense, because they do not make exact copies of themselves, and do not compete in a pool of such self-replicating entities. That is precisely what genes do, and that is the -- essentially logical -- justification for singling the gene out as the unit of 'selfishness' in the special Darwinian sense of selfish.

The most obvious way in which genes ensure their own 'selfish' survival relative to other genes is by programming individual organisms to be selfish. There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of the individual organism will favour the survival of the genes that ride inside it. But different circumstances favour different tactics. There are circumstances -- not particularly rare -- in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically. Those circumstances are now fairly well understood and they fall into two main categories. A gene that programs individual organisms to favour their genetic kin is statistically likely to benefit copies of itself. Such a gene's frequency can increase in the gene pool to the point where kin altruism becomes the norm. Being good to one's own children is the obvious example, but it is not the only one. Bees, wasps, ants, termites and, to a lesser extent, certain vertebrates such as naked mole rats, meerkats and acorn woodpeckers, have evolved societies in which elder siblings care for younger siblings (with whom they are likely to share the genes for doing the caring). In general, as my late colleague W. D. Hamilton showed, animals tend to care for, defend, share resources with, warn of danger, or otherwise show altruism towards close kin because of the statistical likelihood that kin will share copies of the same genes.

The other main type of altruism for which we have a well-worked- out Darwinian rationale is reciprocal altruism ('You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'). This theory, first introduced to evolutionary biology by Robert Trivers and often expressed in the mathematical language of game theory, does not depend upon shared genes. Indeed, it works just as well, probably even better, between members of widely different species, when it is often called symbiosis. The principle is the basis of all trade and barter in humans too. The hunter needs a spear and the smith wants meat. The asymmetry brokers a deal. The bee needs nectar and the flower needs pollinating. Flowers can't fly so they pay bees, in the currency of nectar, for the hire of their wings. Birds called honeyguides can find bees' nests but can't break into them. Honey badgers (ratels) can break into bees' nests, but lack wings with which to search for them. Honeyguides lead ratels (and sometimes men) to honey by a special enticing flight, used for no other purpose. Both sides benefit from the transaction. A crock of gold may lie under a large stone, too heavy for its discoverer to move. He enlists the help of others even though he then has to share the gold, because without their help he would get none. The living kingdoms are rich in such mutualistic relationships: buffaloes and oxpeckers, red tubular flowers and hummingbirds, groupers and cleaner wrasses, cows and their gut micro-organisms. Reciprocal altruism works because of asymmetries in needs and in capacities to meet them. That is why it works especially well between different species: the asymmetries are greater.

In humans, IOUs and money are devices that permit delays in the transactions. The parties to the trade don't hand over the goods simultaneously but can hold a debt over to the future, or even trade the debt on to others. As far as I know, no nonhuman animals in the wild have any direct equivalent of money. But memory of individual identity plays the same role more informally. Vampire bats learn which other individuals of their social group can be relied upon to pay their debts (in regurgitated blood) and which individuals cheat. Natural selection favours genes that predispose individuals, in relationships of asymmetric need and opportunity, to give when they can, and to solicit giving when they can't. It also favours tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships and punish cheats who take, but don't give when their turn comes.

For there will always be cheats, and stable solutions to the game-theoretic conundrums of reciprocal altruism always involve an element of punishment of cheats. Mathematical theory allows two broad classes of stable solution to 'games' of this kind. 'Always be nasty' is stable in that, if everybody else is doing it, a single nice individual cannot do better. But there is another strategy which is also stable. ('Stable' means that, once it exceeds a critical frequency in the population, no alternative does better.) This is the Strategy, 'Start out being nice, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Then repay good deeds with good, but avenge bad deeds.' In game theory language, this strategy (or family of related strategies) goes under various names, including Tit-for-Tat, Retaliator and Reciprocator. It is evolutionarily stable under some conditions in the sense that, given a population dominated by reciprocators, no single nasty individual, and no single unconditionally nice individual, will do better. There are other, more complicated variants of Tit-for- Tat which can in some circumstances do better.

I have mentioned kinship and reciprocation as the twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world, but there are secondary structures which rest atop those main pillars. Especially in human society, with language and gossip, reputation is important. One individual may have a reputation for kindness and generosity. Another individual may have a reputation for unreliability, for cheating and reneging on deals. Another may have a reputation for generosity when trust has been built up, but for ruthless punishment of cheating. The unadorned theory of reciprocal altruism expects animals of any species to base their behaviour upon unconscious responsiveness to such traits in their fellows. In human societies we add the power of language to spread reputations, usually in the form of gossip. You don't need to have suffered personally from X's failure to buy his round at the pub. You hear 'on the grapevine' that X is a tightwad, or -- to add an ironic complication to the example -- that Y is a terrible gossip. Reputation is important, and biologists can acknowledge a Darwinian survival value in not just being a good reciprocator but fostering a reputation as a good reciprocator too. Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue, as well as being a lucid account of the whole field of Darwinian morality, is especially good on reputation. [iii]

The Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen and, in a rather different way, the Israeli zoologist Arnotz Zahavi have added a further fascinating idea. Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority. Anthropologists know it as the Potlatch Effect, named after the custom whereby rival chieftains of Pacific north-west tribes vie with each other in duels of ruinously generous feasts. In extreme cases, bouts of retaliatory entertaining continue until one side is reduced to penury, leaving the winner not much better off. Veblen's concept of 'conspicuous consumption' strikes a chord with many observers of the modern scene. Zahavi's contribution, unregarded by biologists for many years until vindicated by brilliant mathematical models from the evolutionary theorist Alan Grafen, has been to provide an evolutionary version of the potlatch idea. Zahavi studies Arabian babblers, little brown birds who live in social groups and breed cooperatively. Like many small birds, babblers give warning cries, and they also donate food to each other. A standard Darwinian investigation of such altruistic acts would look, first, for reciprocation and kinship relationships among the birds. When a babbler feeds a companion, is it in the expectation of being fed at a later date? Or is the recipient of the favour a close genetic relative? Zahavi's interpretation is radically unexpected. Dominant babblers assert their dominance by feeding subordinates. To use the sort of anthropomorphic language Zahavi delights in, the dominant bird is saying the equivalent of, 'Look how superior I am to you, I can afford to give you food.' Or 'Look how superior I am, I can afford to make myself vulnerable to hawks by sitting on a high branch, acting as a sentinel to warn the rest of the flock feeding on the ground.' The observations of Zahavi and his colleagues suggest that babblers actively compete for the dangerous role of sentinel. And when a subordinate babbler attempts to offer food to a dominant individual, the apparent generosity is violently rebuffed. The essence of Zahavi's idea is that advertisements of superiority are authenticated by their cost. Only a genuinely superior individual can afford to advertise the fact by means of a costly gift. Individuals buy success, for example in attracting mates, through costly demonstrations of superiority, including ostentatious generosity and public-spirited risk-taking.

We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or 'moral' towards each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in 'anticipation' of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.

Through most of our prehistory, humans lived under conditions that would have strongly favoured the evolution of all four kinds of altruism. We lived in villages, or earlier in discrete roving bands like baboons, partially isolated from neighbouring bands or villages. Most of your fellow band members would have been kin, more closely related to you than members of other bands -- plenty of opportunities for kin altruism to evolve. And, whether kin or not, you would tend to meet the same individuals again and again throughout your life -- ideal conditions for the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Those are also the ideal conditions for building a reputation for altruism, and the very same ideal conditions for advertising conspicuous generosity. By any or all of the four routes, genetic tendencies towards altruism would have been favoured in early humans. It is easy to see why our prehistoric ancestors would have been good to their own in-group but bad -- to the point of xenophobia -- towards other groups. But why -- now that most of us live in big cities where we are no longer surrounded by kin, and where every day we meet individuals whom we are never going to meet again -- why are we still so good to each other, even sometimes to others who might be thought to belong to an out-group?

It is important not to mis-state the reach of natural selection. Selection does not favour the evolution of a cognitive awareness of what is good for your genes. That awareness had to wait for the twentieth century to reach a cognitive level, and even now full understanding is confined to a minority of scientific specialists. What natural selection favours is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them. Rules of thumb, by their nature, sometimes misfire. In a bird's brain, the rule 'Look after small squawking things in your nest, and drop food into their red gapes' typically has the effect of preserving the genes that built the rule, because the squawking, gaping objects in an adult bird's nest are normally its own offspring. The rule misfires if another baby bird somehow gets into the nest, a circumstance that is positively engineered by cuckoos. Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler's parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo? An even closer analogy is the human urge to adopt a child. I must rush to add that 'misfiring' is intended only in a strictly Darwinian sense. It carries no suggestion of the pejorative.

The 'mistake' or 'by-product' idea, which I am espousing, works like this. Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on. An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges is procreation. They know that the woman cannot conceive because she is on the pill. Yet they find that their sexual desire is in no way diminished by the knowledge. Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual's psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale.

I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness -- to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.

Do not, for one moment, think of such Darwinizing as demeaning or reductive of the noble emotions of compassion and generosity. Nor of sexual desire. Sexual desire, when channelled through the conduits of linguistic culture, emerges as great poetry and drama: John Donne's love poems, say, or Romeo and Juliet. And of course the same thing happens with the misfired redirection of kin- and reciprocation-based compassion. Mercy to a debtor is, when seen out of context, as un-Darwinian as adopting someone else's child:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.

Sexual lust is the driving force behind a large proportion of human ambition and struggle, and much of it constitutes a misfiring. There is no reason why the same should not be true of the lust to be generous and compassionate, if this is the misfired consequence of ancestral village life. The best way for natural selection to build in both kinds of lust in ancestral times was to install rules of thumb in the brain. Those rules still influence us today, even where circumstances make them inappropriate to their original functions.

Such rules of thumb influence us still, not in a Calvinistically deterministic way but filtered through the civilizing influences of literature and custom, law and tradition -- and, of course, religion. Just as the primitive brain rule of sexual lust passes through the filter of civilization to emerge in the love scenes of Romeo and Juliet, so primitive brain rules of us-versus-them vendetta emerge in the form of the running battles between Capulets and Montagues; while primitive brain rules of altruism and empathy end up in the misfiring that cheers us in the chastened reconciliation of Shakespeare's final scene.


If our moral sense, like our sexual desire, is indeed rooted deep in our Darwinian past, predating religion, we should expect that research on the human mind would reveal some moral universals, crossing geographical and cultural barriers, and also, crucially, religious barriers. The Harvard biologist Marc Hauser, in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, has enlarged upon a fruitful line of thought experiments originally suggested by moral philosophers. Hauser's study will serve the additional purpose of introducing the way moral philosophers think. A hypothetical moral dilemma is posed, and the difficulty we experience in answering it tells us something about our sense of right and wrong. Where Hauser goes beyond the philosophers is that he actually does statistical surveys and psychological experiments, using questionnaires on the Internet, for example, to investigate the moral sense of real people. From the present point of view, the interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons. This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights or, as Hauser himself prefers to say, like our capacity for language (the details vary from culture to culture, but the underlying deep structure of grammar is universal). As we shall see, the way people respond to these moral tests, and their inability to articulate their reasons, seems largely independent of their religious beliefs or lack of them. The message of Hauser's book, to anticipate it in his own words, is this: 'Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems. As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness.'

Typical of Hauser's moral dilemmas are variations on the theme of a runaway truck or 'trolley' on a railway line which threatens to kill a number of people. The simplest story imagines a person, Denise, standing by a set of points and in a position to divert the trolley onto a siding, thereby saving the lives of five people trapped on the main line ahead. Unfortunately there is a man trapped on the siding. But since he is only one, outnumbered by the five people trapped on the main track, most people agree that it is morally permissible, if not obligatory, for Denise to throw the switch and save the five by killing the one. We ignore hypothetical possibilities such as that the one man on the siding might be Beethoven, or a close friend.

Elaborations of the thought experiment present a series of increasingly teasing moral conundrums. What if the trolley can be stopped by dropping a large weight in its path from a bridge overhead? That's easy: obviously we must drop the weight. But what if the only large weight available is a very fat man sitting on the bridge, admiring the sunset? Almost everybody agrees that it is immoral to push the fat man off the bridge, even though, from one point of view, the dilemma might seem parallel to Denise's, where throwing the switch kills one to save five. Most of us have a strong intuition that there is a crucial difference between the two cases, though we may not be able to articulate what it is.

Pushing the fat man off the bridge is reminiscent of another dilemma considered by Hauser. Five patients in a hospital are dying, each with a different organ failing. Each would be saved if a donor could be found for their particular faulty organ, but none is available. Then the surgeon notices that there is a healthy man in the waiting-room, all five of whose organs are in good working order and suitable for transplanting. In this case, almost nobody can be found who is prepared to say that the moral act is to kill the one to save the five.

As with the fat man on the bridge, the intuition that most of us share is that an innocent bystander should not suddenly be dragged into a bad situation and used for the sake of others without his consent. Immanuel Kant famously articulated the principle that a rational being should never be used as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even the end of benefiting others. This seems to provide the crucial difference between the case of the fat man on the bridge (or the man in the hospital waiting-room) and the man on Denise's siding. The fat man on the bridge is being positively used as the means to stop the runaway trolley. This clearly violates the Kantian principle. The person on the siding is not being used to save the lives of the five people on the line. It is the siding that is being used, and he just has the bad luck to be standing on it. But, when you put the distinction like that, why does it satisfy us? For Kant, it was a moral absolute. For Hauser it is built into us by our evolution.

The hypothetical situations involving the runaway trolley become increasingly ingenious, and the moral dilemmas correspondingly tortuous. Hauser contrasts the dilemmas faced by hypothetical individuals called Ned and Oscar. Ned is standing by the railway track. Unlike Denise, who could divert the trolley onto a siding, Ned's switch diverts it onto a side loop which joins the main track again just before the five people. Simply switching the points doesn't help: the trolley will plough into the five anyway when the diversion rejoins the main track. However, as it happens, there is an extremely fat man on the diversionary track who is heavy enough to stop the trolley. Should Ned change the points and divert the train? Most people's intuition is that he should not. But what is the difference between Ned's dilemma, and Denise's? Presumably people are intuitively applying Kant's principle. Denise diverts the trolley from ploughing into the five people, and the unfortunate casualty on the siding is 'collateral damage', to use the charmingly Rumsfeldian phrase. He is not being used by Denise to save the others. Ned is actually using the fat man to stop the trolley, and most people (perhaps unthinkingly), along with Kant (thinking it out in great detail), see this as a crucial difference.

The difference is brought out again by the dilemma of Oscar. Oscar's situation is identical to Ned's, except that there is a large iron weight on the diversionary loop of track, heavy enough to stop the trolley. Clearly Oscar should have no problem deciding to pull the points and divert the trolley. Except that there happens to be a hiker walking in front of the iron weight. He will certainly be killed if Oscar pulls the switch, just as surely as Ned's fat man. The difference is that Oscar's hiker is not being used to stop the trolley: he is collateral damage, as in Denise's dilemma. Like Hauser, and like most of Hauser's experimental subjects, I feel that Oscar is permitted to throw the switch but Ned is not. But I also find it quite hard to justify my intuition. Hauser's point is that such moral intuitions are often not well thought out but that we feel them strongly anyway, because of our evolutionary heritage.

In an intriguing venture into anthropology, Hauser and his colleagues adapted their moral experiments to the Kuna, a small Central American tribe with little contact with Westerners and no formal religion. The researchers changed the 'trolley on a line' thought experiment to locally suitable equivalents, such as crocodiles swimming towards canoes. With corresponding minor differences, the Kuna show the same moral judgements as the rest of us.

Of particular interest for this book, Hauser also wondered whether religious people differ from atheists in their moral intuitions. Surely, if we get our morality from religion, they should differ. But it seems that they don't. Hauser, working with the moral philosopher Peter Singer, [87] focused on three hypothetical dilemmas and compared the verdicts of atheists with those of religious people. In each case, the subjects were asked to choose whether a hypothetical action is morally 'obligatory', 'permissible' or 'forbidden'. The three dilemmas were:

1. Denise's dilemma. Ninety per cent of people said it was permissible to divert the trolley, killing the one to save the five.

2. You see a child drowning in a pond and there is no other help in sight. You can save the child, but your trousers will be ruined in the process. Ninety-seven per cent agreed that you should save the child (amazingly, 3 per cent apparently would prefer to save their trousers).

3. The organ transplant dilemma described above. Ninety-seven per cent of subjects agreed that it is morally forbidden to seize the healthy person in the waiting-room and kill him for his organs, thereby saving five other people.

The main conclusion of Hauser and Singer's study was that there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgements. This seems compatible with the view, which I and many others hold, that we do not need God in order to be good -- or evil.


Posed like that, the question sounds positively ignoble. When a religious person puts it to me in this way (and many of them do), my immediate temptation is to issue the following challenge: 'Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought.' As Einstein said, 'If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.' Michael Shermer, in The Science of Good and Evil, calls it a debate stopper. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder', you reveal yourself as an immoral person, 'and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you'. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good. I suspect that quite a lot of religious people do think religion is what motivates them to be good, especially if they belong to one of those faiths that systematically exploits personal guilt.

It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness. It is widely believed that Dostoevsky was of that opinion, presumably because of some remarks he put into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov:

[Ivan] solemnly observed that there was absolutely no law of nature to make man love humanity, and that if love did exist and had existed at all in the world up to now, then it was not by virtue of the natural law, but entirely because man believed in his own immortality. He added as an aside that it was precisely that which constituted the natural law, namely, that once man's faith in his own immortality was destroyed, not only would his capacity for love be exhausted, but so would the vital forces that sustained life on this earth. And furthermore, nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy. And finally, as though all this were not enough, he declared that for every individual, such as you and me, for example, who does not believe either in God or in his own immortality, the natural law is bound immediately to become the complete opposite of the religion-based law that preceded it, and that egoism, even extending to the perpetration of crime, would not only be permissible but would be recognized as the essential, the most rational, and even the noblest raison d'etre of the human condition. [88]

Perhaps naively, I have inclined towards a less cynical view of human nature than Ivan Karamazov. Do we really need policing -- whether by God or by each other -- in order to stop us from behaving in a selfish and criminal manner? I dearly want to believe that I do not need such surveillance -- and nor, dear reader, do you. On the other hand, just to weaken our confidence, listen to Steven Pinker's disillusioning experience of a police strike in Montreal, which he describes in The Blank Slate:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969,when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of 'storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters ...

Perhaps I, too, am a Pollyanna to believe that people would remain good when unobserved and un policed by God. On the other hand, the majority of the population of Montreal presumably believed in God. Why didn't the fear of God restrain them when earthly policemen were temporarily removed from the scene? Wasn't the Montreal strike a pretty good natural experiment to test the hypothesis that belief in God makes us good? Or did the cynic H. L. Mencken get it right when he tartly observed: 'People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police.'

Obviously, not everybody in Montreal behaved badly as soon as the police were off the scene. It would be interesting to know whether there was any statistical tendency, however slight, for religious believers to loot and destroy less than unbelievers. My uninformed prediction would have been opposite. It is often cynically said that there are no atheists in foxholes. I'm inclined to suspect (with some evidence, although it may be simplistic to draw conclusions from it) that there are very few atheists in prisons. I am not necessarily claiming that atheism increases morality, although humanism -- the ethical system that often goes with atheism -- probably does. Another good possibility is that atheism is correlated with some third factor, such as higher education, intelligence or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses. Such research evidence as there is certainly doesn't support the common view that religiosity is positively correlated with morality. Correlational evidence is never conclusive, but the following data, described by Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation, are nevertheless striking.

While political party affiliation in the United States is not a perfect indicator of religiosity, it is no secret that the 'red [Republican] states' are primarily red due to the overwhelming political influence of conservative Christians. If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and societal health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don't. Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in 'blue' [Democrat] states, and 38 percent are in 'red' [Republican] states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, and 24 percent are in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S. are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red. [iv]

Systematic research if anything tends to support such correlational data. Gregory S. Paul, in the Journal of Religion and Society (2005), systematically compared seventeen economically developed nations, and reached the devastating conclusion that 'higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies'. Dan Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, sardonically comments on such studies generally:

Needless to say, these results strike so hard at the standard claims of greater moral virtue among the religious that there has been a considerable surge of further research initiated by religious organizations attempting to refute them ... one thing we can be sure of is that if there is a significant positive relationship between moral behaviour and religious affiliation, practice, or belief, it will soon be discovered, since so many religious organizations are eager to confirm their traditional beliefs about this scientifically. (They are quite impressed with the truth-finding power of science when it supports what they already believe.) Every month that passes without such a demonstration underlines the suspicion that it just isn't so.

Most thoughtful people would agree that morality in the absence of policing is somehow more truly moral than the kind of false morality that vanishes as soon as the police go on strike or the spy camera is switched off, whether the spy camera is a real one monitored in the police station or an imaginary one in heaven. But it is perhaps unfair to interpret the question 'If there is no God, why bother to be good?' in such a cynical way. [v] A religious thinker could. offer a more genuinely moral interpretation, along the lines of the following, statement from an imaginary apologist. 'If you don't believe in God, you don't believe there are any absolute standards of morality. With the best will in the world you may intend to be a good person, but how do you decide what is good and what is bad? Only religion can ultimately provide your standards of good and evil. Without religion you have to make it up as you go along. That would be morality without a rule book: morality flying by the seat of its pants. If morality is merely a matter of choice, Hitler could claim to be moral by his own eugenically inspired standards, and all the atheist can do is make a personal choice to live by different lights. The Christian, the Jew or the Muslim, by contrast, can claim that evil has an absolute meaning, true for all time and in all places, according to which Hitler was absolutely evil.'

Even if it were true that we need God to be moral, it would of course not make God's existence more likely, merely more desirable (many people cannot tell the difference). But that is not the issue here. My imaginary religious apologist has no need to admit that sucking up to God is the religious motive for doing good. Rather, his claim is that, wherever the motive to be good comes from, without God there would be no standard for deciding what is good. We could each make up our own definition of good, and behave accordingly. Moral principles that are based only upon religion (as opposed to, say, the 'golden rule', which is often associated with religions but can be derived from elsewhere) may be called absolutist. Good is good and bad is bad, and we don't mess around deciding particular cases by whether, for example, somebody suffers. My religious apologist would claim that only religion can provide a basis for deciding what is good.

Some philosophers, notably Kant, have tried to derive absolute morals from non-religious sources. Though a religious man himself, as was almost inevitable in his time, [vi] Kant tried to base a morality on duty for duty's sake, rather than for God's. His famous categorical imperative enjoins us to 'act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law'. This works tidily for the example of telling lies. Imagine a world in which people told lies as a matter of principle, where lying was regarded as a good and moral thing to do. In such a world, lying itself would cease to have any meaning. Lying needs a presumption of truth for its very definition. If a moral principle is something we should wish everybody to follow, lying cannot be a moral principle because the principle itself would break down in meaninglessness. Lying, as a rule for life, is inherently unstable. More generally, selfishness, or free-riding parasitism on the goodwill of others, may work for me as a lone selfish individual and give me personal satisfaction. But I cannot wish that everybody would adopt selfish parasitism as a moral principle, if only because then I would have nobody to parasitize.

The Kantian imperative seems to work for truth-telling and some other cases. It is not so easy to see how to broaden it to morality generally. Kant notwithstanding, it is tempting to agree with my hypothetical apologist that absolutist morals are usually driven by religion. Is it always wrong to put a terminally ill patient out of her misery at her own request? Is it always wrong to make love to a member of your own sex? Is it always wrong to kill an embryo? There are those who believe so, and their grounds are absolute. They brook no argument or debate. Anybody who disagrees deserves to be shot: metaphorically of course, not literally -- except in the case of some doctors in American abortion clinics (see next chapter). Fortunately, however, morals do not have to be absolute.

Moral philosophers are the professionals when it comes to thinking about right and .wrong. As Robert Hinde succinctly put it, they agree that 'moral precepts, while not necessarily constructed by reason, should be defensible by reason'. [89] They classify themselves in many ways, but in modern terminology the major divide is between 'deontologists' (such as Kant) and 'consequentialists' (including 'utilitarians' such as Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832). Deontology is a fancy name for the belief that morality consists in the obeying of rules. It is literally the science of duty, from the Greek for 'that which is binding'. Deontology is not quite the same thing as moral absolutism, but for most purposes in a book about religion there is no need to dwell on the distinction. Absolutists believe there are absolutes of right and wrong, imperatives whose rightness makes no reference to their consequences. Consequentialists more pragmatically hold that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences. One version of consequentialism is utilitarianism, the philosophy associated with Bentham, his friend James Mill (1773-1836) and Mill's son John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Utilitarianism is often summed up in Bentham's unfortunately imprecise catchphrase: 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation'.

Not all absolutism is derived from religion. Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones. The only competitor I can think of is patriotism, especially in times of war. As the distinguished Spanish film director Luis Bunuel said, 'God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.' Recruiting officers rely heavily on their victims' sense of patriotic duty. In the First World War, women handed out white feathers to young men not in uniform.

Oh, we don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go,
For your King and your country both need you so.

People despised conscientious objectors, even those of the enemy country, because patriotism was held to be an absolute virtue. It is hard to get much more absolute than the 'My country right or wrong' of the professional soldier, for the slogan commits you to kill whomever the politicians of some future date might choose to call enemies. Consequentialist reasoning may influence the political decision to go to war but, once war is declared, absolutist patriotism takes over with a force and a power not otherwise seen outside religion. A soldier who allows his own thoughts of consequentialist morality to persuade him not to go over the top would likely find himself court-martialled and even executed.

The springboard for this discussion of moral philosophy was a hypothetical religious claim that, without a God, morals are relative and arbitrary. Kant and other sophisticated moral philosophers apart, and with due recognition given to patriotic fervour, the preferred source of absolute morality is usually a holy book of some kind, interpreted as having an authority far beyond its history's capacity to justify. Indeed, adherents of scriptural authority show distressingly little curiosity about the (normally highly dubious) historical origins of their holy books. The next chapter will demonstrate that, in any case, people who claim to derive their morals from scripture do not really do so in practice. And a very good thing too, as they themselves, on reflection, should agree.



i. More than I can hope adequately to reply to, for which I apologize.

ii. I was mortified to read in the Guardian ('Animal Instincts', 27 May 2006) that The Selfish Gene is the favourite book of Jeff Skilling, CEO of the infamous Enron Corporation, and that he derived inspiration of a Social Darwinist character from it. The Guardian journalist Richard Conniff gives a good explanation of the misunderstanding: ... 00,00.html. I have tried to forestall similar misunderstandings in my new preface to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, just brought out by Oxford University Press.

iii. Reputation is not confined to humans. It has recently been shown to apply to one of the classic cases of reciprocal altruism in animals, the symbiotic relationship between small cleaner fish and their large fish clients. In an ingenious experiment, individual cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, that had been observed by a would-be client to be diligent cleaners were more likely to be chosen by the client than rival Labroides that had been observed neglecting to clean. See R. Bshary and A. S. Grutter, 'Image scoring and cooperation in a cleaner fish mutualism', Nature 441, 22 June 2006, 975-8.

iv. Note that these colour conventions in America are exactly the opposite of those in Britain, where blue is the colour of the Conservative Party, and red, as in the rest of the world, is the colour traditionally associated with the political left.

v. H. L. Mencken, again with characteristic cynicism, defined conscience as the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking.

vi. This is the standard interpretation of Kant's views. However, the noted philosopher A. C. Grayling has plausibly argued (New Humanist, July-Aug. 2006) that, although Kant publicly went along with the religious conventions of his time, he was really an atheist.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:18 pm

Part 1 of 2


Politics has slain its thousands, but religion has slain its tens of thousands.

There are two ways in which scripture might be a source of morals or rules for living. One is by direct instruction, for example through the Ten Commandments, which are the subject of such bitter contention in the culture wars of America's boondocks. The other is by example: God, or some other biblical character, might serve as -- to use the contemporary jargon -- a role model. Both scriptural routes, if followed through religiously (the adverb is used in its metaphoric sense but with an eye to its origin), encourage a system of morals which any civilized modern person, whether religious or not, would find -- I can put it no more gently -- obnoxious.

To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries. [90] This may explain some of the sheer strangeness of the Bible. But unfortunately it is this same weird volume that religious zealots hold up to us as the inerrant source of our morals and rules for living. Those who wish to base their morality literally on the Bible have either not read it or not understood it, as Bishop John Shelby Spong, in The Sins of Scripture, rightly observed. Bishop Spong, by the way, is a nice example of a liberal bishop whose beliefs are so advanced as to be almost unrecognizable to the majority of those who call themselves Christians. A British counterpart is Richard Holloway, recently retired as Bishop of Edinburgh. Bishop Holloway even describes himself as a 'recovering Christian'. I had a public discussion with him in Edinburgh, which was one of the most stimulating and interesting encounters I have had. [91]


Begin in Genesis with the well-loved story of Noah, derived from the Babylonian myth of Uta-Napisthim and known from the older mythologies of several cultures. The legend of the animals going into the ark two by two is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is appalling. God took a dim view of humans, so he (with the exception of one family) drowned the lot of them including children and also, for good measure, the rest of the (presumably blameless) animals as well.

Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don't take the book of Genesis literally any more. But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist's decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is 'morality flying by the seat of its pants', so is the other.

In any case, despite the good intentions of the sophisticated theologian, a frighteningly large number of people still do take their scriptures, including the story of Noah, literally. According to Gallup, they include approximately 50 per cent of the US electorate. Also, no doubt, many of those Asian holy men who blamed the 2004 tsunami not on a plate tectonic shift but on human sins, [92] ranging from drinking and dancing in bars to breaking some footling sabbath rule. Steeped in the story of Noah, and ignorant of all except biblical learning, who can blame them? Their whole education has led them to view natural disasters as bound up with human affairs, paybacks for human misdemeanours rather than anything so impersonal as plate tectonics. By the way, what presumptuous egocentricity to believe that earth-shaking events, on the scale at which a god (or a tectonic plate) might operate, must always have a human connection. Why should a divine being, with creation and eternity on his mind, care a fig for petty human malefactions? We humans give ourselves such airs, even aggrandizing our poky little 'sins' to the level of cosmic significance!

When I interviewed for television the Reverend Michael Bray, a prominent American anti-abortion activist, I asked him why evangelical Christians were so obsessed with private sexual inclinations such as homosexuality, which didn't interfere with anybody else's life. His reply invoked something like self-defence. Innocent citizens are at risk of becoming collateral damage when God chooses to strike a town with a natural disaster because it houses sinners. In 2005, the fine city of New Orleans was catastrophically flooded in the aftermath of a hurricane, Katrina. The Reverend Pat Robertson, one of America's best-known televangelists and a former presidential candidate, was reported as blaming the hurricane on a lesbian comedian who happened to live in New Orleans. [i] You'd think an omnipotent God would adopt a slightly more targeted approach to zapping sinners: a judicious heart attack, perhaps, rather than the wholesale destruction of an entire city just because it happened to be the domicile of one lesbian comedian.

In November 2005, the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania voted off their local school board the entire slate of fundamentalists who had brought the town notoriety, not to say ridicule, by attempting to enforce the teaching of 'intelligent design'. When Pat Robertson heard that the fundamentalists had been democratically defeated at the ballot, he offered a stern warning to Dover:

I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city, and don't wonder why he hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin, and I'm not saying they will. But if they do, just remember you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, then don't ask for his help, because he might not be there. [93]

Pat Robertson would be harmless comedy, were he less typical of those who today hold power and influence in the United States.

In the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Noah equivalent, chosen to be spared with his family because he was uniquely righteous, was Abraham's nephew Lot. Two male angels were sent to Sodom to warn Lot to leave the city before the brimstone arrived. Lot hospitably welcomed the angels into his house, whereupon all the men of Sodom gathered around and demanded that Lot should hand the angels over so that they could (what else?) sodomize them: 'Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them' (Genesis 19: 5). Yes, 'know' has the Authorized Version's usual euphemistic meaning, which is very funny in the context. Lot's gallantry in refusing the demand suggests that God might have been onto something when he singled him out as the only good man in Sodom. But Lot's halo is tarnished by the terms of his refusal: 'I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof' (Genesis 19: 7-8).

Whatever else this strange story might mean, it surely tells us something about the respect accorded to women in this intensely religious culture. As it happened, Lot's bargaining away of his daughters' virginity proved unnecessary, for the angels succeeded in repelling the marauders by miraculously striking them blind. They then warned Lot to decamp immediately with his family and his animals, because the city was about to be destroyed. The whole household escaped, with the exception of Lot's unfortunate wife, whom the Lord turned into a pillar of salt because she committed the offence -- comparatively mild, one might have thought -- of looking over her shoulder at the fireworks display.

Lot's two daughters make a brief reappearance in the story. After their mother was turned into a pillar of salt, they lived with their father in a cave up a mountain. Starved of male company, they decided to make their father drunk and copulate with him. Lot was beyond noticing when his elder daughter arrived in his bed or when she left, but he was not too drunk to impregnate her. The next night the two daughters agreed it was the younger one's turn. Again Lot was too drunk to notice, and he impregnated her too (Genesis 19: 31-6). If this dysfunctional family was the best Sodom had to offer by way of morals, some might begin to feel a certain sympathy with God and his judicial brimstone.

The story of Lot and the Sodomites is eerily echoed in chapter 19 of the book of Judges, where an unnamed Levite (priest) was travelling with his concubine in Gibeah. They spent the night in the house of a hospitable old man. While they were eating their supper, the men of the city came and beat on the door, demanding that the old man should hand over his male guest 'so that we may know him'. In almost exactly the same words as Lot, the old man said: 'Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into mine house do not this folly. Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you; but unto this man do not so vile a thing' (Judges 19: 23-4). Again, the misogynistic ethos comes through, loud and clear. I find the phrase 'humble ye them' particularly chilling. Enjoy yourselves by humiliating and. raping my daughter and this priest's concubine, but show a proper respect for my guest who is, after all, male. In spite of the similarity. between the two stories, the denouement was less happy for the Levite's concubine than for Lot's daughters.

The Levite handed her over to the mob, who gang-raped her all night: 'They knew her and abused her all the night until the morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go. Then came the woman in the dawning of the day, and fell down at the door of the man's house where her lord was, till it was light' (Judges 19: 25-6). In the morning, the Levite found his concubine lying prostrate on the doorstep and said -- with what we today might see as callous abruptness -- 'Up, and let us be going.' But she didn't move. She was dead. So he 'took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel'. Yes, you read correctly. Look it up in Judges 19: 29. Let's charitably put it down again to the ubiquitous weirdness of the Bible. Actually, it is not quite as loopy as it sounds. There was a motive -- to provoke revenge -- and it succeeded, for the incident provoked a war of vengeance against the tribe of Benjamin in which, so Judges chapter 20 lovingly records, more than 60,000 men were killed. The story of the Levite's concubine is so similar to that of Lot, one can't help wondering whether a fragment of manuscript became accidentally misplaced in some long-forgotten scriptorium: an illustration of the erratic provenance of sacred texts.

Lot's uncle Abraham was the founding father of all three 'great' monotheistic religions. His patriarchal status renders him only somewhat less likely than God to be taken as a role model. But what modern moralist would wish to follow him? Relatively early in his long life, Abraham went to Egypt to tough out a famine with his wife Sarah. He realized that such a beautiful woman would be desirable to the Egyptians and that therefore his own life, as her husband, might be endangered. So he decided to pass her off as his sister. In this capacity she was taken into Pharaoh's harem, and Abraham consequently became rich in Pharaoh's favour. God disapproved of this cosy arrangement, and sent plagues on Pharaoh and his house (why not on Abraham?). An understandably aggrieved Pharaoh demanded to know why Abraham had not told him Sarah was his wife. He then handed her back to Abraham and kicked them both out of Egypt (Genesis 12: 18-19). Weirdly, it seems that the couple later tried to pull the same stunt again, this time with Abimelech the King of Gerar. He too was induced by Abraham to marry Sarah, again having been led to believe she was Abraham's sister, not his wife (Genesis 20: 2-5). He too expressed his indignation, in almost identical terms to Pharaoh's, and one can't help sympathizing with both of them. Is the similarity another indicator of textual unreliability?

Such unpleasant episodes in Abraham's story are mere peccadilloes compared with the infamous tale of the sacrificing of his son Isaac (Muslim scripture tells the same story about Abraham's other son, Ishmael). God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking after all, 'tempting' Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: 'I was only obeying orders.' Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.

Once again, modern theologians will protest that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac should not be taken as literal fact. And, once again, the appropriate response is twofold. First, many many people, even to this day, do take the whole of their scripture to be literal fact, and they have a great deal of political power over the rest of us, especially in the United States and in the Islamic world. Second, if not as literal fact, how should we take the story? As an allegory? Then an allegory for what? Surely nothing praiseworthy. As a moral lesson? But what kind of morals could one derive from this appalling story? Remember, all I am trying to establish for the moment is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty. But then we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not.

Apologists even seek to salvage some decency for the God character in this deplorable tale. Wasn't it good of God to spare Isaac's life at the last minute? In the unlikely event that any of my readers are persuaded by this obscene piece of special pleading, I refer them to another story of human sacrifice, which ended more unhappily. In Judges, chapter 11, the military leader Jephthah made a bargain with God that, if God would guarantee Jephthah's victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would, without fail, sacrifice as a burnt offering 'whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return'. Jephthah did indeed defeat the Ammonites ('with a very great slaughter', as is par for the course in the book of Judges) and he returned home victorious. Not surprisingly, his daughter, his only child, came out of the house to greet him (with timbrels and dances) and -- alas -- she was the first living thing to do so. Understandably Jephthah rent his clothes, but there was nothing he could do about it. God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering, and in the circumstances the daughter very decently agreed to be sacrificed. She asked only that she should be allowed to go into the mountains for two months to bewail her virginity. At the end of this time she meekly returned, and Jephthah cooked her. God did not see fit to intervene on this occasion.

God's monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god resembles nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind, and again it should strike a modern moralist as far from good role-model material. The temptation to sexual infidelity is readily understandable even to those who do not succumb, and it is a staple of fiction and drama, from Shakespeare to bedroom farce. But the apparently irresistible temptation to whore with foreign gods is something we moderns find harder to empathize with. To my naive eyes, 'Thou shalt have no other gods but me' would seem an easy enough commandment to keep: a doddle, one might think, compared with 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife'. Or her ass. (Or her ox.) Yet throughout the Old Testament, with the same predictable regularity as in bedroom farce, God had only to turn his back for a moment and the Children of Israel would be off and at it with Baal, or some trollop of a graven image. [ii] Or, on one calamitous occasion, a golden calf ...

Moses, even more than Abraham, is a likely role model for followers of all three monotheistic religions. Abraham may be the original patriarch, but if anybody should be called the doctrinal founder of Judaism and its derivative religions, it is Moses. On the occasion of the golden calf episode, Moses was safely out of the way up Mount Sinai, communing with God and getting tablets of stone graven by him. The people down below (who were on pain of death to refrain from so much as touching the mountain) didn't waste any time:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. (Exodus 32: 1)

Aaron got everybody to pool their gold, melted it down and made a golden calf, for which newly invented deity he then built an altar so they could all start sacrificing to it.

Well, they should have known better than to fool around behind God's back like that. He might be up a mountain but he was, after all, omniscient and he lost no time in dispatching Moses as his enforcer. Moses raced hotfoot down the mountain, carrying the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments. When he arrived and saw the golden calf he was so furious that he dropped the tablets and broke them (God later gave him a replacement set, so that was all right). Moses seized the golden calf, burned it, ground it to powder, mixed it with water and made the people swallow it. Then he told everybody in the priestly tribe of Levi to pick up a sword and kill as many people as possible. This amounted to about three thousand which, one might have hoped, would have been enough to assuage God's jealous sulk. But no, God wasn't finished yet. In the last verse of this terrible, chapter his parting shot was to send a plague upon what was left of the people 'because they made the calf, which Aaron made'.

The book of Numbers tells how God incited Moses to attack the Midianites. His army made short work of slaying all the men, and they burned all the Midianite cities, but they spared the women and children. This merciful restraint by his soldiers infuriated Moses, and he gave orders that all the boy children should be killed, and all the women who were not virgins. 'But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves' (Numbers 31: 18). No, Moses was not a great role model for modern moralists.

In so far as modern religious writers attach any kind of symbolic or allegorical meaning to the massacre of the Midianites, the symbolism is aimed in precisely the wrong direction. The unfortunate Midianites, so far as one can tell from the biblical account, were the victims of genocide in their own country. Yet their name lives on in Christian lore only in that favourite hymn (which I can still sing from memory after fifty years, to two different tunes, both in grim minor keys):

Christian, dost thou see them on the holy ground? How the troops of Midian prowl and prowl around? Christian, up and smite them, counting gain but loss; smite them by the merit of the holy cross.

Alas, poor slandered, slaughtered Midianites, to be remembered only as poetic symbols of universal evil in a Victorian hymn.

The rival god Baal seems to have been a perennially seductive tempter to wayward worship. In Numbers, chapter 25, many of the Israelites were lured by Moabite women to sacrifice to Baal. God reacted with characteristic fury. He ordered Moses to 'Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel.' One cannot help, yet again, marvelling at the extraordinarily draconian view taken of the sin of flirting with rival gods. To our modern sense of values and justice it seems a trifling sin compared to, say, offering your daughter for a gang rape. It is yet another example of the' disconnect between scriptural and modern (one is tempted to say civilized) morals. Of course, it is easily enough understood in terms of the theory of memes, and the qualities that a deity needs in order to survive in the meme pool.

The tragi-farce of God's maniacal jealousy against alternative gods recurs continually throughout the Old Testament. It motivates the first of the Ten Commandments (the ones on the tablets that Moses broke: Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), and it is even more prominent in the (otherwise rather different) substitute commandments that God provided to replace the broken tablets (Exodus 34). Having promised to drive out of their homelands the unfortunate Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, God gets down to what really matters: rival gods!

... ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves. For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods (Exodus 34: 13-17)

I know, yes, of course, of course, times have changed, and no religious leader today (apart from the likes of the Taliban or the American Christian equivalent) thinks like Moses. But that is my whole point. All I am establishing is that modern morality, wherever else it comes from, does not come from the Bible. Apologists cannot get away with claiming that religion provides them with some sort of inside track to defining what is good and what is bad -- a privileged source unavailable to atheists. They cannot get away with it, not even if they employ that favourite trick of interpreting selected scriptures as 'symbolic' rather than literal. By what criterion do you decide which passages are symbolic, which literal?

The ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses is brought to bloody fruition in the book of Joshua, a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so. As the charming old song exultantly has it, 'Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumbling down ... There's none like good old Joshuay, at the battle of Jericho.' Good old Joshua didn't rest until 'they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword' (Joshua 6: 21).

Yet again, theologians will protest, it didn't happen. Well, no -- the story has it that the walls came tumbling down at the mere sound of men shouting and blowing horns, so indeed it didn't happen -- but that is not the point. The point is that, whether true or not, the Bible is held up to us as the source of our morality. And the Bible story of Joshua's destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler's invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. The Bible may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals. As it happens, the story of Joshua in Jericho is the subject of an interesting experiment in child morality, to be discussed later in this chapter.

Do not think, by the way, that the God character in the story nursed any doubts or scruples about the massacres and genocides that accompanied the seizing of the Promised Land. On the contrary, his orders, for example in Deuteronomy 20, were ruthlessly explicit. He made a clear distinction between the people who lived in the land that was needed, and those who lived a long way away. The latter should be invited to surrender peacefully. If they refused, all the men were to be killed and the women carried off for breeding. In contrast to this relatively humane treatment, see what was in store for those tribes unfortunate enough to be already in residence in the promised Lebensraum: 'But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.'

Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it? The following offences merit the death penalty, according to Leviticus 20: cursing your parents; committing adultery; making love to your stepmother or your daughter-in-law; homosexuality; marrying a woman and her daughter; bestiality (and, to add injury to insult, the unfortunate beast is to be killed too). You also get executed, of course, for working on the sabbath: the point is made again and again throughout the Old Testament. In Numbers 15,the children of Israel found a man in the wilderness gathering sticks on the forbidden day. They arrested him and then asked God what to do with him. As it turned out, God was in no mood for half-measures that day. 'And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall surely be put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died.' Did this harmless gatherer of firewood have a wife and children to grieve for him? Did he whimper with fear as the first stones flew, and scream with pain as the fusillade crashed into his head? What shocks me today about such stories is not that they really happened. They probably didn't. What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh -- and, even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.

The political power of America's Ten Commandment tablet-toters is especially regrettable in that great republic whose constitution, after all, was drawn up by men of the Enlightenment in explicitly secular terms. If we took the Ten Commandments seriously, we would rank the worship of the wrong gods, and the making of graven images, as first and second among sins. Rather than condemn the unspeakable vandalism of the Taliban, who dynamited the ISO-foot-high Bamiyan Buddhas in the mountains of Afghanistan, we would praise them for their righteous piety. What we think of as their vandalism was certainly motivated by sincere religious zeal. This is vividly attested by a truly bizarre story, which was the lead in the (London) Independent of 6 August 2005. Under the front-page headline, 'The destruction of Mecca', the Independent reported:

Historic Mecca, the cradle of Islam, is being buried in an unprecedented onslaught by religious zealots. Almost all of the rich and multi-layered history of the holy city is gone ... Now the actual birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad is facing the bulldozers, with the connivance of Saudi religious authorities whose hardline interpretation of Islam is compelling them to wipe out their own heritage ... The motive behind the destruction is the Wahhabists' fanatical fear that places of historical and religious interest could give rise to idolatry or polytheism, the worship of multiple and potentially equal gods. The practice of idolatry in Saudi Arabia remains, in principle, punishable by beheading. [iii]

I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca -- or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan. As the Nobel 'Prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg said, 'Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.' Blaise Pascal (he of the wager) said something similar: 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.'

My main purpose here has not been to show that we shouldn't get our morals from scripture (although that is my opinion). My purpose has been to demonstrate that we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don't get our morals from scripture. If we did, we would strictly observe the sabbath and think it just and proper to execute anybody who chose not to. We would stone to death any new bride who couldn't prove she was a virgin, if her husband pronounced himself unsatisfied with her. We would execute disobedient children. We would ... but wait. Perhaps I have been unfair. Nice Christians will have been protesting throughout this section: everyone knows the Old Testament is pretty unpleasant. The New Testament of Jesus undoes the damage and makes it all right. Doesn't it?


Well, there's no denying that, from a moral point of view, Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament. Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn't) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His 'turn the other cheek' anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther Kingby two thousand years. It was not for nothing that I wrote an article called 'Atheists for Jesus' (and was later delighted to be presented with a T-shirt bearing the legend). [94]

But the moral superiority of Jesus precisely bears out my point. Jesus was not content to derive his ethics from the scriptures of his upbringing. He explicitly departed from them, for example when he deflated the dire warnings about breaking the sabbath. 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath' has been generalized into a wise proverb. Since a principal thesis of this chapter is that we do not, and should not, derive our morals from scripture, Jesus has to be honoured as a model for that very thesis.

Jesus' family values, it has to be admitted, were not such as one might wish to focus on. He was short, to the point of brusqueness, with his own mother, and he encouraged his disciples to abandon their families to follow him. 'If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple! The American comedian Julia Sweeney expressed her bewilderment in her one-woman stage show, Letting Go of God: [95] 'Isn't that what cults do? Get you to reject your family in order to inculcate you?'96

Notwithstanding his somewhat dodgy family values, Jesus' ethical teachings were -- at least by comparison with the ethical disaster area that is the Old Testament -- admirable; but there are other teachings in the New Testament that no good person should support. I refer especially to the central doctrine of Christianity: that of 'atonement' for 'original sin'. This teaching, which lies at the heart of New Testament theology, is almost as morally obnoxious as the story of Abraham setting out to barbecue Isaac, which it resembles -- and that is no accident, as Geza Vermes makes clear in The Changing Faces of Jesus. Original sin itself comes straight from the Old Testament myth of Adam and Eve. Their sin -- eating the fruit of a forbidden tree -- seems mild enough to merit a mere reprimand. But the symbolic nature of the fruit (knowledge of good and evil, which in practice turned out to be knowledge that they were naked) was enough to turn their scrumping escapade into the mother and father of all sins. [iv] They and all their descendants were banished forever from the Garden of Eden, deprived of the gift of eternal life, and condemned to generations of painful labour, in the field and in childbirth respectively.

So far, so vindictive: par for the Old Testament course. New Testament theology adds a new injustice, topped off by a new sadomasochism whose viciousness even the Old Testament barely exceeds. It is, when you think about it, remarkable that a religion should adopt an instrument of torture and execution as its sacred symbol, often worn around the neck. Lenny Bruce rightly quipped that 'If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.' But the theology and punishment-theory behind it is even worse. The sin of Adam and Eve is thought to have passed down the male line -- transmitted in the semen according to Augustine. What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor? Augustine, by the way, who rightly regarded himself as something of a personal authority on sin, was responsible for coining the phrase 'original sin'. Before him it was known as 'ancestral sin'. Augustine's pronouncements and debates epitomize, for me, the unhealthy preoccupation of early Christian theologians with sin. They could have devoted their pages and their sermons to extolling the sky splashed with stars, or mountains and green forests, seas and dawn choruses. These are occasionally mentioned, but the Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin. What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life. Sam Harris is magnificently scathing in his Letter to a Christian Nation: 'Your principal concern appears to be that the Creator of the universe will take offense at something people do while naked. This prudery of yours contributes daily to the surplus of human misery.'

But now, the sado-masochism. God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam. Ever since Paul expounded this repellent doctrine, Jesus has been worshipped as the redeemer of all our sins. Not just the past sin of Adam: future sins as well, whether future people decided to commit them or not!

As another aside, it has occurred to various people, including Robert Graves in his epic novel King Jesus, that poor Judas Iscariot has received a bad deal from history, given that his 'betrayal' was a necessary part of the cosmic plan. The same could be said of Jesus' alleged murderers. If Jesus wanted to be betrayed and then murdered, in order that he could redeem us all, isn't it rather unfair of those who consider themselves redeemed to take it out on Judas and on Jews down the ages? I have already mentioned the long list of non-canonical gospels. A manuscript purporting to be the lost Gospel of Judas has recently been translated and has received publicity in consequence. [97] The circumstances of its discovery are disputed, but it seems to have turned up in Egypt some time in the 1970s or 60s. It is in Coptic script on sixty-two pages of papyrus, carbon-dated to around AD 300 but probably based on an earlier Greek manuscript. Whoever the author was, the gospel is seen from the point of view of Judas Iscariot and makes the case that Judas betrayed Jesus only because Jesus asked him to play that role. It was all part of the plan to get Jesus crucified so that he could redeem humankind. Obnoxious as that doctrine is, it seems to compound the unpleasantness that Judas has been vilified ever since. [v]

I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment -- thereby, incidentally, condemning remote future generations of Jews to pogroms and persecution as 'Christ-killers': did that hereditary sin pass down in the semen too?

Paul, as the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes makes dear, was steeped in the old Jewish theological principle that without blood there is no atoner\ient.98 The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (9: 22) said as much. Progressive ethicists today find it hard to defend any kind of retributive theory of punishment, let alone the scapegoat theory -- executing an innocent to pay for the sins of the guilty. In any case (one can't help wondering), who was God trying to impress? Presumably himself -- judge and jury as well as execution victim. To cap it all, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place: an awkward fad -- excusably unknown to Paul but presumably known to an omniscient God (and Jesus, if you believe he was God?) -- which fundamentally undermines the premise of the whole tortuously nasty theory. Oh, but of course, the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn't it? Symbolic? So, in order to impress himself, Jesus had himself tortured and executed, in vicarious punishment for a symbolic sin committed by a non-existent individual? As I said, barking mad, as well as viciously unpleasant.

Before leaving the Bible, I need to call attention to one particularly unpalatable aspect of its ethical teaching. Christians seldom realize that much of the moral consideration for others which is apparently promoted by both the Old and New Testaments was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined in-group. 'Love thy neighbour' didn't mean what we now think it means. It meant only 'Love another Jew.' The point is devastatingly made by the American physician and evolutionary anthropologist John Hartung. He has written a remarkable paper on the evolution and biblical history of in-group morality, laying stress, too, on the flip side -- out-group hostility.


John Hartung's black humour is evident from the outset, [99] where he tells of a Southern Baptist initiative to count the number of Alabamans in hell. As reported in the New York Times and Newsday the final total, 1.86 million, was estimated using a secret weighting formula whereby Methodists are more likely to be saved than Roman Catholics, while 'virtually everyone not belonging to a church congregation was counted among the lost'. The preternatural smugness of such people is reflected today in the various 'rapture' websites, where the author always takes it completely for granted that he will be among those who 'disappear' into heaven when the 'end times' come. Here is a typical example, from the author of 'Rapture Ready', one of the more odiously sanctimonious specimens of the genre: 'If the rapture should take place, resulting in my absence, it will become necessary for tribulation saints to mirror or financially support this site.' [vi]

Hartung's interpretation of the Bible suggests that it offers no grounds for such smug complacency among Christians. Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews, in which respect he was following the Old Testament tradition, which was all he knew. Hartung clearly shows that 'Thou shalt not kill' was never intended to mean what we now think it means. It meant, very specifically, thou shalt not kill Jews. And all those commandments that make reference to 'thy neighbour' are equally exclusive. 'Neighbour' means fellow Jew. Moses Maimonides, the highly respected twelfth-century rabbi and physician, expounds the full meaning of 'Thou shalt not kill' as follows: 'If one slays a single Israelite, he transgresses a negative commandment, for Scripture says, Thou shalt not murder. If one murders wilfully in the presence of witnesses, he is put to death by the sword. Needless to say, one is not put to death if he kills a heathen.' Needless to say!

Hartung quotes the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court, headed by the high priest) in similar vein, as exonerating a man who hypothetically killed an Israelite by mistake, while intending to kill an animal or a heathen. This teasing little moral conundrum raises a nice point. What if he were to throw a stone into a group of nine heathens and one Israelite and have the misfortune to kill the Israelite? Hm, difficult! But the answer is ready. 'Then his non-liability can be inferred from the fact that the majority were heathens.'

Hartung uses many of the same biblical quotations as I have used in this chapter, about the conquest of the Promised Land by Moses, Joshua and the Judges. I was careful to concede that religious people don't think in a biblical way any more. For me, this demonstrated that our morals, whether we are religious or not, come from another source; and that other source, whatever it is, is available to all of us, regardless of religion or lack of it. But Hartung tells of a horrifying study by the Israeli psychologist George Tamarin. 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.

Once again the sage Maimonides, often cited for his scholarly wisdom, is in no doubt where he stands on this issue: 'It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them. If one does not put to death any of them that falls into one's power, one transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said: Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.'

Unlike Maimonides, the children in Tamarin's experiment were young enough to be innocent. Presumably the savage views they expressed were those of their parents, or the cultural group in which they were brought up. It is, I suppose, not unlikely that Palestinian children, brought up in the same war-torn country, would offer equivalent opinions in the opposite direction. These considerations fill me with despair. They seem to show the immense power of religion, and especially the religious upbringing of children, to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas. I cannot help remarking that two out of Tamarin's three representative quotations from group A mentioned the evils of assimilation, while the third one stressed the importance of killing people in order to stamp out their religion.

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.

In the latter half of Hartung's paper, he moves on to the New Testament. To give a brief summary of his thesis, Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group morality -- coupled with outgroup hostility -- that was taken for granted in the Old Testament. Jesus was a loyal Jew. It was Paul who invented the idea of taking the Jewish God to the Gentiles. Hartung puts it more bluntly than I dare: 'Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul would be taking his plan to the pigs.'

Hartung has some good fun with the book of Revelation, which is certainly one of the weirdest books in the Bible. It is supposed to have been written by St John and, as Ken's Guide to the Bible neatly put it, if his epistles can be seen as John on pot, then Revelation is John on acid. [100] Hartung draws attention to the two verses in Revelation where the number of those 'sealed' (which some sects, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, interpret to mean 'saved') is limited to 144,000. Hartung's point is that they all had to be Jews: 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. Ken Smith goes further, pointing out that the 144,000 elect 'did not defile themselves with women', which presumably means that none of them could be women. Well, that's the sort of thing we've come to expect.

There's a lot more in Hartung's entertaining paper. I shall simply recommend it once more, and summarize it in a quotation:

The Bible is a blueprint of in-group morality, complete with instructions for genocide, enslavement of out-groups, and world domination. But the Bible is not evil by virtue of its objectives or even its glorification of murder, cruelty, and rape. Many ancient works do that -- The Iliad, the Icelandic Sagas, the tales of the ancient Syrians and the inscriptions of the ancient Mayans, for example. But no one is selling the Iliad as a foundation for morality. Therein lies the problem. The Bible is sold, and bought, as a guide to how people should live their lives. And it is, by far, the world's all-time best seller.

Lest it be thought that the exclusiveness of traditional Judaism is unique among religions, look at the following confident verse from a hymn by Isaac Watts (1674-1748):

Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace, and not to chance, as others do, that I was born of Christian Race and not a Heathen or a Jew.

What puzzles me about this verse is not the exclusiveness per se but the logic. Since plenty of others were born into religions other than Christianity, how did God decide which future people should receive such favoured birth? Why favour Isaac Watts and those individuals whom he visualized singing his hymn? In any case, before Isaac Watts was conceived, what was the nature of the entity being favoured? These are deep waters, but perhaps not too deep for a mind tuned to theology. Isaac Watts's hymn is reminiscent of three daily prayers that male Orthodox and Conservative (but not Reform) Jews are taught to recite:

'Blessed are You for not making me a Gentile. Blessed are You for not making me a woman. Blessed are You for not making me a slave.'

Religion is undoubtedly a divisive force, and this is one of the main accusations levelled against it. But it is frequently and rightly said that wars, and feuds between religious groups or sects, are seldom actually about theological disagreements. When an Ulster Protestant paramilitary murders a Catholic, he is not muttering to himself, 'Take that, transubstantiationist, mariolatrous, incense-reeking bastard!' He is much more likely to be avenging the death of another Protestant killed by another Catholic, perhaps in the course of a sustained trans generational vendetta. Religion is a label of in-group/out-group enmity and vendetta, not necessarily worse than other labels such as skin colour, language or preferred football team, but often available when other labels are not.

Yes yes, of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political. There really has been economic and political oppression of one group by another, and it goes back centuries. There really are genuine grievances and injustices, and these seem to have little to do with religion; except that -- and this is important and widely overlooked -- without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge. And the real problem in Northern Ireland is that the labels are inherited down many generations. Catholics, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went to Catholic schools, send their children to Catholic schools. Protestants, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went to Protestant schools, send their children to Protestant schools. The two sets of people have the same skin colour, they speak the same language, they enjoy the same things, but they might as well belong to different species, so deep is the historic divide. And without religion, and religiously segregated education, the divide simply would not be there. The warring tribes would have intermarried and long since dissolved into each other. From Kosovo to Palestine, from Iraq to Sudan, from Ulster to the Indian sub-continent, look carefully at any region of the world where you find intractable enmity and violence between rival groups today. I cannot guarantee that you'll find religions as the dominant labels for in-groups and out-groups. But it's a good bet.

In India at the time of partition, more than a million people were massacred in religious riots between Hindus and Muslims (and fifteen million displaced from their homes). There were no badges other than religious ones with which to label whom to kill. Ultimately, there was nothing to divide them but religion. Salman Rushdie was moved by a more recent bout of religious massacres in India to write an article called 'Religion, as ever, is the poison in India's blood'. [101] Here's his concluding paragraph:

What is there to respect in any of this, or in any of the crimes now being committed almost daily around the world in religion's dreaded name? How well, with what fatal results, religion erects totems, and how willing we are to kill for them! And when we've done it often enough, the deadening of affect that results makes it easier to do it again.

So India's problem turns out to be the world's problem. What happened in India has happened in God's name.

The problem's name is God.

I do not deny that humanity's powerful tendencies towards in-group loyalties and out-group hostilities would exist even in the absence of religion. Fans of rival football teams are an example of the phenomenon writ small. Even football supporters sometimes divide along religious lines, as in the case of Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic. Languages (as in Belgium), races and tribes (especially in Africa) can be important divisive tokens. But religion amplifies and exacerbates the damage in at least three ways:

• Labelling of children. Children are described as 'Catholic children' or 'Protestant children' etc. from an early age, and certainly far too early for them to have made up their own minds on what they think about religion (I return to this abuse of childhood in Chapter 9).
• Segregated schools. Children are educated, again often from a very early age, with members of a religious in-group and separately from children whose families adhere to other religions. It is not an exaggeration to say that the troubles in Northern Ireland would disappear in a generation if segregated schooling were abolished.
• Taboos against 'marrying out'. This perpetuates hereditary feuds and vendettas by preventing the mingling of feuding groups. Intermarriage, if it were permitted, would naturally tend to mollify enmities.

The village of Glenarm in Northern Ireland is the seat of the Earls of Antrim. On one occasion within living memory, the then Earl did the unthinkable: he married a Catholic. Immediately, in houses throughout Glenarm, the blinds were drawn in mourning. A horror of 'marrying out' is also widespread among religious Jews. Several of the Israeli children quoted above mentioned the dire perils of 'assimilation' at the forefront of their defence of Joshua's Battle of Jericho. When people of different religions do marry, it is described with foreboding on both sides as a 'mixed marriage' and there are often prolonged battles over how the children are to be brought up. When I was a child and still carried a guttering torch for the Anglican Church, I remember being dumbfounded to be told of a rule that when a Roman Catholic married an Anglican, the children were always brought up Catholic. I could readily understand why a priest of either denomination would try to insist on this condition. What I couldn't understand (still can't) was the asymmetry. Why didn't the Anglican priests retaliate with the equivalent rule in reverse? Just less ruthless, 1suppose. My old chaplain and Betjeman's 'Our Padre' were simply too nice.

Sociologists have done statistical surveys of religious homogamy (marrying somebody of the same religion) and heterogamy (marrying somebody of a different religion). Norval D. Glenn, of the University of Texas at Austin, gathered a number of such studies up to 1978 and analysed them together. [102] He concluded that there is a significant tendency towards religious homogamy in Christians (Protestants marry Protestants, and Catholics Catholics, and this goes beyond the ordinary 'boy next door effect'), but that it is especially marked among Jews. Out of a total sample of 6,021 married respondents to the questionnaire, 140 called themselves Jews and, of these, 85.7 per cent married Jews. This is hugely greater than the randomly expected percentage of homogamous marriages. And of course it will not come as news to anybody. Observant Jews are strongly discouraged from 'marrying out', and the taboo shows itself in Jewish jokes about mothers warning their boys about blonde shiksas lying in wait to entrap them. Here are typical statements by three American rabbis:

• 'I refuse to officiate at interfaith marriages.'
• 'I officiate when couples state their intention to raise children as Jews.'
• 'I officiate if couples agree to premarital counselling.'

Rabbis who will agree to officiate together with a Christian priest are rare, and much in demand.

Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness -- its deliberate and cultivated pandering to humanity's natural tendency to favour in-groups and shun out-groups -- would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:19 pm

Part 2 of 2


This chapter began by showing that we do not -- even the religious among us -- ground our morality in holy books, no matter what we may fondly imagine. How, then, do we decide what is right and what is wrong? No matter how we answer that question, there is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely. The consensus has no obvious connection with religion. It extends, however, to most religious people, whether or not they think their morals come from scripture. With notable exceptions such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles. The majority of us don't cause needless suffering; we believe in free speech and protect it even if we disagree with what is being said; we pay our taxes; we don't cheat, don't kill, don't commit incest, don't do things to others that we would not wish done to us. Some of these good principles can be found in holy books, but buried alongside much else that no decent person would wish to follow: and the holy books do not supply any rules for distinguishing the good principles from the bad.

One way to express our consensual ethics is as a 'New Ten Commandments'. Various individuals and institutions have attempted this. What is significant is that they tend to produce rather similar results to each other, and what they produce is characteristic of the times in which they happen to live. Here is one set of 'New Ten Commandments' from today, which I happened to find on an atheist website. [103]

• Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
• In all things, strive to cause no harm.
• Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
• Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
• Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
• Always seek to be learning something new.
• Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
• Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
• Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
• Question everything.

This little collection is not the work of a great sage or prophet or professional ethicist. It is just one ordinary web logger's rather endearing attempt to summarize the principles of the good life today, for comparison with the biblical Ten Commandments. It was the first list I found when I typed 'New Ten Commandments' into a search engine, and I deliberately didn't look any further. The whole point is that it is the sort of list that any ordinary, decent person today would come up with. Not everybody would home in on exactly the same list of ten. The philosopher John Rawls might include something like the following: 'Always devise your rules as if you didn't know whether you were going be at the top or the bottom of the pecking order.' An alleged Inuit system for sharing out food is a practical example of the Rawls principle: the individual who cuts up the food gets last pick.

In my own amended Ten Commandments, I would choose some of the above, but I would also try to find room for, among others:

• Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business.
• Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.
• Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.
• Value the future on a timescale longer than your own.

But never mind these small differences of priority. The point is that we have almost all moved on, and in a big way, since biblical times. Slavery, which was taken for granted in the Bible and throughout most of history, was abolished in civilized countries in the nineteenth century. All civilized nations now accept what was widely denied up to the 1920s, that a woman's vote, in an election or on a jury, is the equal of a man's. In to day's enlightened societies (a category that manifestly does not include, for example, Saudi Arabia), women are no longer regarded as property, as they clearly were in biblical times. Any modern legal system would have prosecuted Abraham for child abuse. And if he had actually carried through his plan to sacrifice Isaac, we would have convicted him of first-degree murder. Yet, according to the mores of his time, his conduct was entirely admirable, obeying God's commandment. Religious or not, we have all changed massively in our attitude to what is right and what is wrong. What is the nature of this change, and what drives it?

In any society there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades, and for which it is not pretentious to use the German loan-word Zeitgeist (spirit of the times). I said that female suffrage was now universal in the world's democracies, but this reform is in fact astonishingly recent. Here are some dates at which women were granted the vote:

New Zealand: 1893
Australia: 1902
Finland: 1906
Norway: 1913
United States: 1920
Britain: 1928
France: 1945
Belgium: 1946
Switzerland: 1971
Kuwait: 2006

This spread of dates through the twentieth century is a gauge of the shifting Zeitgeist. Another is our attitude to race. In the early part of the twentieth century, almost everybody in Britain (and many other countries too) would be judged racist by to day's standards. Most white people believed that black people (in which category they would have lumped the very diverse Africans with unrelated groups from India, Australia and Melanesia) were inferior to white people in almost all respects except -- patronizingly -- sense of rhythm. The 1920s equivalent of James Bond was that cheerfully debonair boyhood hero, Bulldog Drummond. In one novel, The Black Gang, Drummond refers to 'Jews, foreigners, and other unwashed folk'. In the climax scene of The Female of the Species, Drummond is cleverly disguised as Pedro, black servant of the arch-villain. For his dramatic disclosure, to the reader as well as to the villain, that 'Pedro' is really Drummond himself, he could have said: 'You think I am Pedro. Little do you realize, I am your arch-enemy Drummond, blacked up.' Instead, he chose these words: 'Every beard is not false, but every nigger smells. That beard ain't false, dearie, and dis nigger don't smell. So I'm thinking, there's something wrong somewhere.' I read it in the 1950s, three decades after it was written, and it was (just) still possible for a boy to thrill to the drama and not notice the racism. Nowadays, it would be inconceivable.

Thomas Henry Huxley, by the standards of his times, was an enlightened and liberal progressive. But his times were not ours, and in 1871 he wrote the following:

No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man. And if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favor, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites. The highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins. [104]

It is a commonplace that good historians don't judge statements from past times by the standards of their own. Abraham Lincoln, like Huxley, was ahead of his time, yet his views on matters of race also sound backwardly racist in ours. Here he is in a debate in 1858 with Stephen A. Douglas:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. [105]

Had Huxley and Lincoln been born and educated in our time, they would have been the first to cringe with the rest of us at their own Victorian sentiments and unctuous tone. I quote them only to illustrate. how the Zeitgeist moves on. If even Huxley, one of the great liberal minds of his age, and even Lincoln, who freed the slaves, could say such things, just think what the average Victorian must have thought. Going back to the eighteenth century it is, of course, well known that Washington, Jefferson and other men of the Enlightenment held slaves. The Zeitgeist moves on, so inexorably that we sometimes take it for granted and forget that the change is a real phenomenon in its own right.

There are numerous other examples. When the sailors first landed in Mauritius and saw the gentle dodos, it never occurred to them to do anything other than club them to death. They didn't even want to eat them (they were described as unpalatable). Presumably, hitting defenceless, tame, flightless birds over the head with a club was just something to do. Nowadays such behaviour would be unthinkable, and the extinction of a modern equivalent of the dodo, even by accident, let alone by deliberate human killing, is regarded as a tragedy.

Just such a tragedy, by the standards of today's cultural climate, was the more recent extinction of Thylacinus, the Tasmanian wolf. These now iconically lamented creatures had a bounty on their heads until as recently as 1909. In Victorian novels of Africa, 'elephant', 'lion' and 'antelope' (note the revealing singular) are 'game' and what you do to game, without a second thought, is shoot it. Not for food. Not for self-defence. For 'sport'. But now the Zeitgeist has changed. Admittedly, rich, sedentary 'sportsmen' may shoot wild African animals from the safety of a Land-Rover and take the stuffed heads back home. But they have to pay through the nose to do so, and are widely despised for it. Wildlife conservation and the conservation of the environment have become accepted values with the same moral status as was once accorded to keeping the sabbath and shunning graven images.

The swinging sixties are legendary for their liberal modernity. But at the beginning of that decade a prosecuting barrister, in the trial for obscenity of Lady Chatterley's Lover, could still ask the jury: 'Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters -- because girls can read as well as boys [can you believe he said that?] -- reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?' This last rhetorical question is a particularly stunning illustration of the speed with which the Zeitgeist changes.

The American invasion of Iraq is widely condemned for its civilian casualties, yet these casualty figures are orders of magnitude lower than comparable numbers for the Second World War. There seems to be a steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld, who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal if he had said the same things during the Second World War. Something has shifted in the intervening decades. It has shifted in all of us, and the shift has no connection with religion. If anything, it happens in spite of religion, not because of it.

The shift is in a recognizably consistent direction, which most of us would judge as improvement. Even Adolf Hitler, widely regarded as pushing the envelope of evil into uncharted territory, would not have stood out in the time of Caligula or of Genghis Khan. Hitler no doubt killed more people than Genghis, but he had twentieth-century technology at his disposal. And did even Hitler gain his greatest pleasure, as Genghis avowedly did, from seeing his victims' 'near and dear bathed in tears'? We judge Hitler's degree of evil by the standards of today, and the moral Zeitgeist has moved on since Caligula's time, just as the technology has. Hitler seems especially evil only by the more benign standards of our time.

Within my lifetime, large numbers of people thoughtlessly bandied derogatory nicknames and national stereotypes: Frog, Wop, Dago, Hun, Yid, Coon, Nip, Wog. I won't claim that such words have disappeared, but they are now widely deplored in polite circles. The word 'negro', even though not intended to be insulting, can be used to date a piece of English prose. Prejudices are indeed revealing giveaways of the date of a piece of writing. In his own time, a respected Cambridge theologian, A. C. Bouquet, was able to begin the chapter on Islam of his Comparative Religion with these words: 'The Semite is not a natural monotheist, as was supposed about the middle of the nineteenth century. He is an animist.' The obsession with race (as opposed to culture) and the revealing use of the singular ('The Semite ... He is an animist') to reduce an entire plurality of people to one 'type' are not heinous by any standards. But they are another tiny indicator of the changing Zeitgeist. 'No Cambridge professor of theology or any other subject would today use those words. Such subtle hints of changing mores tell us that Bouquet was writing no later than the middle of the twentieth century. It was in fact 1941.

Go back another four decades, and the changing standards become unmistakable. In a previous book I quoted H. G. Wells's utopian New Republic, and I shall do so again because it is such a shocking illustration of the point I am making.

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? ... the yellow man? ... the Jew? ... those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go ... And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity -- beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds ... And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness ... is death ... The men of the New Republic ... will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.

That was written in 1902, and Wells was regarded as a progressive in his own time. In 1902 such sentiments, while not widely agreed, would have made for an acceptable dinner-party argument. Modern readers, by contrast, literally gasp with horror when they see the words. We are forced to realize that Hitler, appalling though he was, was not quite as far outside the Zeitgeist of his time as he seems from our vantage-point today. How swiftly the Zeitgeist changes -- and it moves in parallel, on a broad front, throughout the educated world.

Where, then, have these concerted and steady changes in social consciousness come from? The onus is not on me to answer. For my purposes it is sufficient that they certainly have not come from religion. If forced to advance a theory, I would approach it along the following lines. We need to explain why the changing moral Zeitgeist is so widely synchronized across large numbers of people; and we need to explain its relatively consistent direction.

First, how is it synchronized across so many people? It spreads itself from mind to mind through conversations in bars and at dinner parties, through books and book reviews, through newspapers and broadcasting, and nowadays through the Internet. Changes in the moral climate are signalled in editorials, on radio talk shows, in political speeches, in the patter of stand-up comedians and the scripts of soap operas, in the votes of parliaments making laws and the decisions of judges interpreting them. One way to put it would be in terms of changing meme frequencies in the meme pool, but I shall not pursue that.

Some of us lag behind the advancing wave of the changing moral Zeitgeist and some of us are slightly ahead. But most of us in the twenty-first century are bunched together and way ahead of our counterparts in the Middle Ages, or in the time of Abraham, or even as recently as the 1920s. The whole wave keeps moving, and even the vanguard of an earlier century (T. H. Huxley is the obvious example) would find itself way behind the laggers of a later century. Of course, the advance is not a smooth incline but a meandering sawtooth. There are local and temporary setbacks such as the United States is suffering from its government in the early 2000s. But over the longer timescale, the progressive trend is unmistakable and it will continue.

What impels it in its consistent direction? We mustn't neglect the driving role of individual leaders who, ahead of their time, stand up and persuade the rest of us to move on with them. In America, the ideals of racial equality were fostered by political leaders of the calibre of Martin Luther King, and entertainers, sportsmen and other public figures and role models such as Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. The emancipations of slaves and of women owed much to charismatic leaders. Some of these leaders were religious; some were not. Some who were religious did their good deeds because they were religious. In other cases their religion was incidental. Although Martin Luther King was a Christian, he derived his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience directly from Gandhi, who was not.

Then, too, there is improved education and, in particular, the increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex -- both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution. One reason black people and women and, in Nazi Germany, Jews and gypsies have been treated badly is that they were not perceived as fully human. The philosopher Peter Singer, in Animal Liberation, is the most eloquent advocate of the view that we should move to a post-speciesist condition in which humane treatment is meted out to all species that have the brainpower to appreciate it. Perhaps this hints at the direction in which the moral Zeitgeist might move in future centuries. It would be a natural extrapolation of earlier reforms like the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women.

It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further in explaining why the moral Zeitgeist moves in its broadly concerted way. For my purposes it is enough that, as a matter of observed fact, it does move, and it is not driven by religion -- and certainly not by scripture. It is probably not a single force like gravity, but a complex interplay of disparate forces like the one that propels Moore's Law, describing the exponential increase in computer power. Whatever its cause, the manifest phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.


The Zeitgeist may move, and move in a generally progressive direction, but as I have said it is a sawtooth not a smooth improvement, and there have been some appalling reversals. Outstanding reversals, deep and terrible ones, are provided by the dictators of the twentieth century. It is important to separate the evil intentions of men like Hitler and Stalin from the vast power that they wielded in achieving them. I have already observed that Hitler's ideas and intentions were not self-evidently more evil than those of Caligula -- or some of the Ottoman sultans, whose staggering feats of nastiness are described in Noel Barber's Lords of the Golden Horn. Hitler had twentieth-century weapons, and twentieth-century communications technology at his disposal. Nevertheless, Hitler and Stalin were, by any standards, spectacularly evil men.

'Hitler and Stalin were atheists. What have you got to say about that?' The question comes up after just about every public lecture that I ever give on the subject of religion, and in most of my radio interviews as well. It is put in a truculent way, indignantly freighted with two assumptions: not only (1) were Stalin and Hitler atheists, but (2) they did their terrible deeds because they were atheists. Assumption (1) is true for Stalin and dubious for Hitler. But assumption (1) is irrelevant anyway, because assumption (2) is false. It is certainly illogical if it is thought to follow from (1). Even if we accept that Hitler and Stalin shared atheism in common, they both also had moustaches, as does Saddam Hussein. So what? The interesting question is not whether evil (or good) individual human beings were religious or were atheists. We are not in the business of counting evil heads and compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity. The fact that Nazi belt buckles were inscribed with 'Gott mit uns' doesn't prove anything, at least not without a lot more discussion. What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.

There seems no doubt that, as a matter of fact, Stalin was an atheist. He received his education at an Orthodox seminary, and his mother never lost her disappointment that he had not entered the priesthood as she intended -- a fact that, according to Alan Bullock, caused Stalin much amusement. [106] Perhaps because of his training for the priesthood, the mature Stalin was scathing about the Russian Orthodox Church, and about Christianity and religion in general. But there is no evidence that his atheism motivated his brutality. His earlier religious training probably didn't either, unless it was through teaching him to revere absolutist faith, strong authority and a belief that ends justify means.

The legend that Hitler was an atheist has been assiduously cultivated, so much so that a great many people believe it without question, and it is regularly and defiantly trotted out by religious apologists. The truth of the matter is far from clear. Hitler was born into a Catholic family, and went to Catholic schools and churches as a child. Obviously that is not significant in itself: he could easily have given it up, as Stalin gave up his Russian Orthodoxy after leaving the Tiflis Theological Seminary. But Hitler never formally renounced his Catholicism, and there are indications throughout his life that he remained religious. If not Catholic, he seems to have retained a belief in some sort of divine providence. For example he stated in Mein Kampf that, when he heard the news of the declaration of the First World War, 'I sank down on my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favour of having been permitted to live in such a time.' [107] But that was 1914, when he was still only twenty-five. Perhaps he changed after that?

In 1920, when Hitler was thirty-one, his close associate Rudolf Hess, later to be deputy Fuhrer, wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister of Bavaria, 'I know Herr Hitler very well personally and am quite close to him. He has an unusually honourable character, full of profound kindness, is religious, a good Catholic.' [108] Of course, it could be said that, since Hess got the 'honourable character' and the 'profound kindness' so crashingly wrong, maybe he got the 'good Catholic' wrong too! Hitler could scarcely be described as a 'good' anything, which reminds me of the most comically audacious argument I have heard in favour of the proposition that Hitler must have been an atheist. Paraphrasing from many sources, Hitler was a bad man, Christianity teaches goodness, therefore Hitler can't have been a Christian! Goering's remark about Hitler, 'Only a Catholic could unite Germany: might, I suppose, have meant somebody brought up Catholic rather than a believing Catholic.

In a speech of 1933 in Berlin, Hitler said, 'We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.' [109] That might indicate only that, like many others, Hitler 'believed in belief'. But as late as 1941 he told his adjutant, General Gerhard Engel, 'I shall remain a Catholic for ever.'

Even if he didn't remain a sincerely believing Christian, Hitler would have to have been positively unusual not to have been influenced by the long Christian tradition of blaming Jews as Christ-killers. In a speech in Munich in 1923, Hitler said, 'The first thing to do is to rescue [Germany] from the Jew who is ruining our country ... We want to prevent our Germany from suffering, as Another did, the death upon the Cross.' [110] In his Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography, John Toland wrote of Hitler's religious position at the time of the 'final solution':

Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy, he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of god. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of god -- so long as it was done impersonally, without cruelty.

Christian hatred of Jews is not just a Catholic tradition. Martin Luther was a virulent anti-Semite. At the Diet of Worms he said that 'All Jews should be driven from Germany.' And he wrote a whole book, On the Jews and their Lies, which probably influenced Hitler. Luther described the Jews as a 'brood of vipers', and the same phrase was used by Hitler in a remarkable speech of 1922, in which he several times repeated that he was a Christian:

My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice ... And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.' [111]

It is hard to know whether Hitler picked up the phrase 'brood of vipers' from Luther, or whether he got it directly from Matthew 3: 7, as Luther presumably did. As for the theme of Jewish persecution as part of God's will, Hitler returned to it in Mein Kampf: 'Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.' That was 1925. He said it again in a speech in the Reichstag in 1938, and he said similar things throughout his career.

Quotations like those have to be balanced by others from his Table Talk, in which Hitler expressed virulently anti-Christian views, as recorded by his secretary. The following all date from 1941:

The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity's illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity ...

The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.

When all is said, we have no reason to wish that the Italians and Spaniards should free themselves from the drug of Christianity. Let's be the only people who are immunised against the disease.

Hitler's Table Talk contains more quotations like those, often equating Christianity with Bolshevism, sometimes drawing an analogy between Karl Marx and St Paul and never forgetting that both were Jews (though Hitler, oddly, was always adamant that Jesus himself was not a Jew).

The name Galilee (from Gelil haggoyim) means "district of the heathen." It seems that this part of the country, so far removed from the intellectual centre, had never kept itself altogether pure, even in the earliest times when Israel was still strong and united, and it had served as home for the tribes Naphtali and Zebulon. Of the tribe Naphtali we are told that it was from the first "of very mixed origin," and while the non-Israelitic aborigines continued to dwell in the whole of Palestine as before, this was the case "nowhere in so great a degree as in the northern districts." There was, however, another additional circumstance. While the rest of Palestine remained, owing to its geographical position, isolated as it were from the world, there was, even at the time when the Israelites took possession of the land, a road leading from the lake of Gennesareth to Damascus, and from that point Tyre and Sidon were more accessible than Jerusalem. Thus we find that Solomon ceded a considerable part of this district of the heathen (as it was already called, I Kings, ix. II), with twenty cities to the King of Tyre in payment of his deliveries of cedar- and pine-trees, as well as for the one hundred and twenty hundredweights of gold which the latter had contributed towards the building of the temple; so little interest had the King of Judea in this land, half inhabited as it was by heathens. The Tyrian King Hiram must in fact have found it sparsely populated, as he profited by the opportunity to settle various foreign tribes in Galilee. Then came, as everyone knows, the division into two kingdoms, and since that time, that is, since about a thousand years before Christ (!) only now and again, and then but for a short time, had there been any comparatively close political connection between Galilee and Judea, and it is only this, not community of religious faith, that furthers a fusion of races. In Christ's time, too, Galilee was politically quite separate from Judea, so that it stood to the latter in the relation "of a foreign country." [FN: Further ... we have no right to identify the genuine "Israelites" of the North with the real "Jews" of the South.] In the meantime, however, something had happened, which must have destroyed almost completely for all time the Israelitish character of this northern district: seven hundred and twenty years before Christ (that is about one hundred and fifty years before the Babylonian captivity of the Jews) the northern kingdom of Israel was laid waste by the Assyrians, and its population -- it is said to a man, at all events to a large extent -- deported into different and distant parts of the Empire, where it soon fused with the rest of the inhabitants and in consequence completely disappeared. [FN: So completely disappeared that many theologians, who had leisure, puzzled their brains even in the nineteenth century to discover what had become of the Israelites, as they could not believe that five-sixths of the people to whom Jehovah had promised the whole world should have simply vanished off the face of the earth. An ingenious brain actually arrived at the conclusion that the ten tribes believed to be lost were the English of to-day! He was not at a loss for the moral of this discovery either; in this way the British possess by right five-sixths of the whole earth; the remaining sixth the Jews.] At the same time strange races from remote districts were transported to Palestine to settle there. The authorities indeed suppose (without being able to vouch for it) that a considerable portion of the former mixed Israelitish population had remained in the land; at any rate this remnant did not keep apart from the strangers, but became merged in the medley of races. The fate of these districts was consequently quite different from that of Judea. For when the Judeans at a later time were also led into captivity, their land remained so to speak empty, inhabited only by a few peasants who moreover belonged to the country, so that when they returned from the Babylonian captivity, during which they had kept their race pure, they were able without difficulty to maintain that purity. Galilee, on the other hand, and the neighbouring districts had, as already mentioned, been systematically colonised by the Assyrians, and, as it appears from the Biblical account, from very different parts of that gigantic empire, among others from the northerly mountainous Syria. Then in the centuries before the birth of Christ many Phoenicians and Greeks had also migrated thither. This last fact would lead one to assume that purely Aryan blood also was transplanted thither; at any rate it is certain that a promiscuous mixture of the most different races took place, and that the foreigners in all probability settled in largest numbers in the more accessible and at the same time more fertile Galilee. The Old Testament itself tells with artless simplicity how these strangers originally came to be acquainted with the worship of Jehovah (2 Kings, xvii. 24 ff.): in the depopulated land beasts of prey multiplied; this plague was held to be the vengeance of the neglected "God of the Land" (verse 26); but there was no one who knew how the latter should be worshipped; and so the colonists sent to the King of Assyria and begged for an Israelitish priest from the captivity, and he came and "taught them the manner of the God of the land." In this way the inhabitants of Northern Palestine, from Samaria downward, became Jews in faith, even those of them who had not a drop of Israelitish blood in their veins. In later times many genuine Jews may certainly have settled there; but probably only as strangers in the larger cities, for one of the most admirable characteristics of the Jews -- particularly since their return from captivity where the clearly circumscribed term "Jew" first appears as the designation of a religion (see Zechariah, viii. 23) -- was their care to keep the race pure; marriage between Jew and Galilean was unthinkable. However, even these Jewish elements in the midst of the strange population were completely removed from Galilee not very long before the birth of Christ! It was Simon Tharsi, one of the Maccabeans, who, after a successful campaign in Galilee against the Syrians, "gathered together the Jews who lived there and bade them emigrate and settle bag and baggage in Judea." Moreover the prejudice against Galilee remained so strong among the Jews that, when Herod Antipas during Christ's youth had built the city of Tiberias and tried to get Jews to settle there, neither promises nor threats were of any avail. There is, accordingly, as we see, not the slightest foundation for the supposition that Christ's parents were of Jewish descent.

-- The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, by Houston Stewart Chamberlain

It is possible that Hitler had by 1941 experienced some kind of deconversion or disillusionment with Christianity. Or is the resolution of the contradictions simply that he was an opportunistic liar whose words cannot be trusted, in either direction?

Most important, the central doctrine of nazism, that the Jew was evil and had to be exterminated, had its origin in the Gnostic position that there were two worlds, one good and one evil, one dark and one light, one materialistic and one spiritual.... The mystical teachings of Guido von List, Lanz von Liebenfels, and Rudolf von Sebottendorff were modern restatements of Gnosticism.

When the apocalyptic promise of Christ's resurrection was broken, the Gnostics sought to return men to God by another route, more Oriental than Hellenist. They devised a dualistic cosmology to set against the teachings of the early Christian Church, which, they claimed, were only common deceptions, unsuited for the wise. The truth was esoteric. Only the properly initiated could appreciate it. It belonged to a secret tradition which had come down through certain mystery schools. The truth was, God could never become man. There were two separate realms -- one spiritual, the other material. The spiritual realm, created by God, was all good; the material realm, created by the demiurge, all evil. Man needed to be saved, not from Original Sin, but from enslavement to matter. For this, he had to learn the mystical arts. Thus Gnosticism became a source for the occult tradition.

A famous medieval Gnostic sect, the Cathars, came to identify the Old Testament god, Jehovah, with the demiurge, the creator of the material world and therefore the equivalent of Satan. Within Gnosticism, then, existed the idea that the Jewish god was really the devil, responsible for all the evil in the world. He was opposed to the New Testament God. The Cathars tried to eliminate the Old Testament from Church theology and condemned Judaism as a work of Satan's, whose aim was to tempt men away from the spirit. Jehovah, they said, was the god of an earth "waste and void," with darkness "upon the face of the deep." Was he not cruel and capricious? They quoted Scripture to prove it. The New Testament God, on the other hand, was light. He declared that "there is neither male nor female," for everyone was united in Christ. These two gods, obviously, had nothing in common.

The synagogue was regarded as profane by Christians. The Cathars -- themselves considered heretical by the Church -- castigated Catholics for refusing to purge themselves of Jewish sources; Church members often blamed the [Cathar] Christian heresy on Jewish mysticism, which was considered an inspiration for Gnostic sorcery.

But Gnostic cosmology, though officially branded "false," pervaded the thinking of the Church. The Jews were widely thought to be magicians. It was believed that they could cause rain, and when there was a drought, they were encouraged to do so. Despite the displeasure of the Roman Popes, Christians, when they were in straitened circumstances, practiced Jewish customs, even frequenting synagogues.

This sheds light on an otherwise incomprehensible recurring theme within Nazi literature, as, for example, "The Earth-Centered Jew Lacks a Soul," by one of the chief architects of Nazi dogma, Alfred Rosenberg, who held that whereas other people believe in a Hereafter and in immortality, the Jew affirms the world and will not allow it to perish. The Gnostic secret is that the spirit is trapped in matter, and to free it, the world must be rejected. Thus, in his total lack of world-denial, the Jew is snuffing out the inner light, and preventing the millennium:

Where the idea of the immortal dwells, the longing for the journey or the withdrawal from temporality must always emerge again; hence, a denial of the world will always reappear. And this is the meaning of the non-Jewish peoples: they are the custodians of world-negation, of the idea of the Hereafter, even if they maintain it in the poorest way. Hence, one or another of them can quietly go under, but what really matters lives on in their descendants. If, however, the Jewish people were to perish, no nation would be left which would hold world-affirmation in high esteem -- the end of all time would be here.

... the Jew, the only consistent and consequently the only viable yea-sayer to the world, must be found wherever other men bear in themselves ... a compulsion to overcome the world.... On the other hand, if the Jew were continually to stifle us, we would never be able to fulfill our mission, which is the salvation of the world, but would, to be frank, succumb to insanity, for pure world-affirmation, the unrestrained will for a vain existence, leads to no other goal. It would literally lead to a void, to the destruction not only of the illusory earthly world but also of the truly existent, the spiritual. Considered in himself the Jew represents nothing else but this blind will for destruction, the insanity of mankind. It is known that Jewish people are especially prone to mental disease. "Dominated by delusions," said Schopenhauer about the Jew.

... To strip the world of its soul, that and nothing else is what Judaism wants. This, however, would be tantamount to the world's destruction.

This remarkable statement, seemingly the rantings of a lunatic, expresses the Gnostic theme that the spirit of man, essentially divine, is imprisoned in an evil world. The way out of this world is through rejection of it. But the Jew alone stands in the way. Behind all the talk about "the earth-centered Jew" who "lacks a soul"; about the demonic Jew who will despoil the Aryan maiden; about the cabalistic work of the devil in Jewish finance; about the sinister revolutionary Jewish plot to take over the world and cause the decline of civilization, there is the shadow of ancient Gnosticism.

-- Gods & Beasts -- The Nazis & the Occult, by Dusty Sklar

It could be argued that, despite his own words and those of his associates, Hitler was not really religious but just cynically exploiting the religiosity of his audience. He may have agreed with Napoleon, who said, 'Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet: and with Seneca the Younger: 'Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.' Nobody could deny that Hitler was capable of such insincerity. If this was his real motive for pretending to be religious, it serves to remind us that Hitler didn't carry out his atrocities single-handed. The terrible deeds themselves were carried out by soldiers and their officers, most of whom were surely Christian. Indeed, the Christianity of the German people underlies the very hypothesis we are discussing -- a hypothesis to explain the supposed insincerity of Hitler's religious professings! Or, perhaps Hitler felt that he had to display some token sympathy for Christianity, otherwise his regime would not have received the support it did from the Church. This support showed itself in various ways, including Pope Pius XII's persistent refusal to take a stand against the Nazis -- a subject of considerable embarrassment to the modern Church. Either Hitler's professions of Christianity were sincere, or he faked his Christianity in order to win -- successfully -- cooperation from German Christians and the Catholic Church. In either case, the evils of Hitler's regime can hardly be held up as flowing from atheism.

Even when he was railing against Christianity, Hitler never ceased using the language of Providence: a mysterious agency which, he believed, had singled him out for a divine mission to lead Germany. He sometimes called it Providence, at other. times God. After the Anschluss, when Hitler returned in triumph to Vienna in 1938, his exultant speech mentioned God in this providential guise: 'I believe it was God's will to send a boy from here into the Reich, to let him grow up and to raise him to be the leader of the nation so that he could lead back his homeland into the Reich.' [112]

When he narrowly escaped assassination in Munich in November 1939, Hitler credited Providence with intervening to save his life by causing him to alter his schedule: 'Now I am completely content. The fact that I left the Burgerbraukeller earlier than usual is a corroboration of Providence's intention to let me reach my goal.' [113] After this failed assassination the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, ordered that a Te Deum should be said in his cathedral, 'To thank Divine Providence in the name of the archdiocese for the Fuhrer's fortunate escape.' Some of Hitler's followers, with the support of Goebbels, made no bones about building Nazism into a religion in its own right. The following, by the chief of the united trade unions, has the feel of a prayer, and even has the cadences of the Christian Lord's Prayer ('Our Father') or the Creed:

Adolf Hitler! We are united with you alone! We want to renew our vow in this hour: On this earth we believe only in Adolf Hitler. We believe that National Socialism is the sole saving faith for our people. We believe that there is a Lord God in heaven, who created us, who leads us, who directs us and who blesses us visibly. And we believe that this Lord God sent Adolf Hitler to us, so that Germany might become a foundation for all eternity. [114]

Jonathan Glover, in his remarkable and chilling book, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, remarks that

Many also accepted the religious cult of Stalin, expressed by a Lithuanian writer: 'I approached Stalin's portrait, took it off the wall, placed it on the table and, resting my head on my hands, I gazed and meditated. What should I do? The Leader's face, as always so serene, his eyes so clear-sighted, they penetrated into the distance. It seems that his penetrating look pierces my little room and goes out to embrace the entire globe ... With my every fibre, every nerve, every drop of blood I feel that, at this moment, nothing exists in this entire world but this dear and beloved face.'

Such quasi-religious adulation is all the more repellent for coming, in Glover's book, immediately after his account of Stalin's shatteringly horrible cruelties.

Stalin was probably an atheist and Hitler probably wasn't; but even if they were both atheists, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debating point is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism. Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things, in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub- Wagnerian ravings. Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion, and they have been horribly frequent in history. I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism. Why should it? A war might be motivated by economic greed, by political ambition, by ethnic or racial prejudice, by deep grievance or revenge, or by patriotic belief in the destiny of a nation. Even more plausible as a motive for war is an unshakeable faith that one's own religion is the only true one, reinforced by a holy book that explicitly condemns all heretics and followers of rival religions to death, and explicitly promises that the soldiers of God will go straight to a martyrs' heaven. Sam Harris, as so often, hits the bullseye, in The End of Faith:

The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We, are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?

By contrast, why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?



i. It is unclear whether the story. which originated at http://datelinehollywood. com/archives/2005/09/05/robertson-blames-hurricane-on-choice-of-ellen-deneres- to-host-emmys/ is true. Whether true or not. it is widely believed, no doubt because it is entirely typical of utterances by evangelical clergy, including Robertson, on disasters such as Katrina. See, for example, The website that says the Katrina story is untrue ( also quotes Robertson as saying, of an earlier Gay Pride march in Orlando. Florida, 'I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you.'

ii. This richly comic idea was suggested to me by Jonathan Miller who, surprisingly, never included it in a Beyond the Fringe sketch. I also thank him for recommending the scholarly book upon which it is based: Halbertal and Margalit (1992).

iii. 'We all fund this torrent of Saudi bigotry' by Johann Hari is an expose of the insidious influence of Saudi Wahhabisrn in Britain today. Originally published in the Independent on 8 Feb. 2007, it is reproduced on various websites including

iv. I am aware that 'scrumping' will not be familiar to American readers. But I enjoy reading unfamiliar American words and looking them up to broaden my vocabulary. I have deliberately used a few other region-specific words for this reason. Scrumping itself is a mot juste of unusual economy. It doesn't just mean stealing: it specifically means stealing apples and only apples. It is hard for a mot to get more juste than that. Admittedly the Genesis story doesn't specify that the fruit was an apple, but tradition has long held it so.

v. Too late for the hardback edition of this book, Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King has now appeared. Based on Karen King's translation of the Gospel of Judas, it takes a sympathetic view of that alleged arch-traitor (who appears in the third person in the gospel itself).

vi. You may not know the meaning of 'tribulation saints' in this sentence. Don't bother: you have better things to do.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:24 pm

Part 1 of 2


Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man -- living in the sky -- who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time ... But He loves you!

I do not, by nature, thrive on confrontation. I don't think the adversarial format is well designed to get at the truth, and I regularly refuse invitations to take part in formal debates. I was once invited to debate with the then Archbishop of York, in Edinburgh. I felt honoured by this, and accepted. After the debate, the religious physicist Russell Stannard reproduced in his book Doing Away with God? a letter that he wrote to the Observer:

Sir, Under the gleeful headline 'God comes a poor Second before the Majesty of Science', your science correspondent reported (on Easter Sunday of all days) how Richard Dawkins 'inflicted grievous intellectual harm' on the Archbishop of York in a debate on science and religion. We were told of 'smugly smiling atheists' and 'Lions 10; Christians nil'.

Stannard went on to chide the Observer for failing to report a subsequent encounter between him and me, together with the Bishop of Birmingham and the distinguished cosmologist Sir Hermann Bondi, at the Royal Society, which had not been staged as an adversarial debate, and which had been a lot more constructive as a result. I can only agree with his implied condemnation of the adversarial debate format. In particular, for reasons explained in A Devil's Chaplain, I never take part in debates with creationists. [i]

Despite my dislike of gladiatorial contests, I seem somehow to have acquired a reputation for pugnacity towards religion. Colleagues who agree that there is no God, who agree that we do not need religion to be moral, and agree that we can explain the roots of religion and of morality in non-religious terms, nevertheless come back at me in gentle puzzlement. Why are you so hostile? What is actually wrong with religion? Does it really do so much harm that we should actively fight against it? Why not live and let live, as one does with Taurus and Scorpio, crystal energy and ley lines? Isn't it all just harmless nonsense?

I might retort that such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice towards religion is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement. But my interlocutor usually doesn't leave it at that. He may go on to say something like this: 'Doesn't your hostility mark you out as a fundamentalist atheist, just as fundamentalist in your own way as the wingnuts of the Bible Belt in theirs?' I need to dispose of this accusation of fundamentalism, for it is distressingly common.


Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, arid if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books.

Philosophers, especially amateurs with a little philosophical learning, and even more especially those infected with 'cultural relativism', may raise a tiresome red herring at this point: a scientist's belief in evidence is itself a matter of fundamentalist faith. I have dealt with this elsewhere, and will only briefly repeat myself here. All of us believe in evidence in our own lives, whatever we may profess with our amateur philosophical hats on. If I am accused of murder, and prosecuting counsel sternly asks me whether it is true that I was in Chicago on the night of the crime, I cannot get away with a philosophical evasion: 'It depends what you mean by "true".' Nor with an anthropological, relativist plea: 'It is only in your Western scientific sense of "in" that I was in Chicago. The Bongolese have a completely different concept of "in", according to which you are only truly "in" a place if you are an anointed elder entitled to take snuff from the dried scrotum of a goat.' [115]

Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by 'truth'. But so is everybody else. I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that.

It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear passionate when I defend evolution against a fundamentalist creationist, but this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own. It is because the evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my opponent can't see it -- or, more usually, refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book. My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths, are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not? But my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.

It does happen. I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artefact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said -- with passion -- 'My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.' We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal -- unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.

As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect. The saddest example I know is that of the American geologist Kurt Wise, who now directs the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College, Dayton, Tennessee. It is no accident that Bryan College is named after William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor of the science teacher John Scopes in the Dayton 'Monkey Trial' of 1925. Wise could have fulfilled his boyhood ambition to become a professor of geology at a real university, a university whose motto might have been 'Think critically' rather than the oxymoronic one displayed on the Bryan website: 'Think critically and biblically'. Indeed, he obtained a real degree in geology at the University of Chicago, followed by two higher degrees in geology and paleontology at Harvard (no less) where he studied under Stephen Jay Gould (no less). He was a highly qualified and genuinely promising young scientist, well on his way to achieving his dream of teaching science and doing research at a proper university.

Then tragedy struck. It came, not from outside but from within his own mind, a mind fatally subverted and weakened by a fundamentalist religious upbringing that required him to believe that the Earth -- the subject of his Chicago and Harvard geological education -- was less than ten thousand years old. He was too intelligent not to recognize the head-on collision between his religion and his science, and the conflict in his mind made him increasingly uneasy. One day, he could bear the strain no more, and he clinched the matter with a pair of scissors. He took a bible and went right through it, literally cutting out every verse that would have to go if the scientific world-view were true. At the end of this ruthlessly honest and labour-intensive exercise, there was so little left of his bible that,

try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible ... It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

I find that terribly sad; but whereas the Golgi Apparatus story moved me to tears of admiration and exultation, the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic -- pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life's happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. All he had to do was toss out the bible. Or interpret it symbolically, or allegorically, as the theologians do. Instead, he did the fundamentalist thing and tossed out science, evidence and reason, along with all his dreams and hopes.

Perhaps uniquely among fundamentalists, Kurt Wise is honest -- devastatingly, painfully, shockingly honest. Give him the Templeton Prize; he might be the first really sincere recipient. Wise brings to the surface what is secretly going on underneath, in the minds of fundamentalists generally, when they encounter scientific evidence that contradicts .their beliefs. Listen to his peroration:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand. [116]

He seems to be quoting Luther as he nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, but poor Kurt Wise reminds me more of Winston Smith in 1984 -- struggling desperately to believe that two plus two equals five if Big Brother says it does. Winston, however, was being tortured. Wise's doublethink comes not from the imperative of physical torture but from the imperative -- apparently just as undeniable to some people -- of religious faith: arguably a form of mental torture. I am hostile to religion because of what it did to Kurt Wise. And if it did that to a Harvard-educated geologist, just think what it can do to others less gifted and less well armed.

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.


In the previous chapter, when trying to explain the shifting moral Zeitgeist, I invoked a widespread consensus of liberal, enlightened, decent people. I made the rosy-spectacled assumption that 'we' all broadly agree with this consensus, some more than others, and I had in mind most of the people likely to read this book, whether they are religious or not. But of course, not everybody is of the consensus (and not everybody will have any desire to read my book). It has to be admitted that absolutism is far from dead. Indeed, it rules the minds of a great number of people in the world today, most dangerously so in the Muslim world and in the incipient American theocracy (see Kevin Phillips's book of that name). Such absolutism nearly always results from strong religious faith, and it constitutes a major reason for suggesting that religion can be a force for evil in the world.

One of the fiercest penalties in the Old Testament is the one exacted for blasphemy. It is still in force in certain countries. Section 295-C of the Pakistan penal code prescribes the death penalty for this 'crime'. On 18 August 2001, Dr. Younis Shaikh, a medical doctor and lecturer, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. His particular crime was to tell students that the prophet Muhammad was not a Muslim before he invented the religion at the age of forty. Eleven of his students reported him to the authorities for this 'offence'. The blasphemy law in Pakistan is more usually invoked against Christians, such as Augustine Ashiq 'Kingri' Masih, who was sentenced to death in Faisalabad in 2000. Masih, as a Christian, was not allowed to marry his sweetheart because she was a Muslim and -- incredibly -- Pakistani (and Islamic) law does not allow a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man. So he tried to convert to Islam and was then accused of doing so for base motives. It is not clear from the report I have read whether this in itself was the capital crime, or whether it was something he is alleged to have said about the prophet's own morals. Either way, it certainly was not the kind of offence that would warrant a death sentence in any country whose laws are free of religious bigotry.

In 2006 in Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. Did he kill anyone, hurt anybody, steal anything, damage anything? No. All he did was change his mind. Internally and privately, he changed his mind. He entertained certain thoughts which were not to the liking of the ruling party of his country. And this, remember, is not the Afghanistan of the Taliban but the 'liberated' Afghanistan of Hamid Karzai, set up by the American-led coalition. Mr Rahman finally escaped execution, but only on a plea of insanity, and only after intense international pressure. He has now sought asylum in Italy, to avoid being murdered by zealots eager to do their Islamic duty. It is still an article of the constitution of 'liberated' Afghanistan that the penalty for apostasy is death. Apostasy, remember, doesn't mean actual harm to persons or property. It is pure thoughtcrime, to use George Orwell's 1984 terminology, and the official punishment for it under Islamic law is death. On 3 September 1992, to take one example where it was actually carried out, Sadiq Abdul Karim Malallah was publicly beheaded in Saudi Arabia after being lawfully convicted of apostasy and blasphemy. [117]

I once had a televised encounter with Sir Iqbal Sacranie, mentioned in Chapter 1as Britain's leading 'moderate' Muslim. I challenged him on the death penalty as punishment for apostasy. He wriggled and squirmed, but was unable either to deny or decry it. He kept trying to change the subject, saying it was an unimportant detail. This is a man who has been knighted by the British government for promoting good 'interfaith relations'.

But let's have no complacency in Christendom. As recently as 1922 in Britain, John William Gott was sentenced to nine months' hard labour for blasphemy: he compared Jesus to a clown. Almost unbelievably, the crime of blasphemy is still on the statute book in Britain, [118] and in 2005 a Christian group tried to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer, the Opera.

In the United States of recent years the phrase 'American Taliban' was begging to be coined, and a swift Google search nets more than a dozen websites that have done so. The quotations that they anthologize, from American religious leaders and faith-based politicians, chillingly recall the' narrow bigotry, heartless cruelty and sheer nastiness of the Afghan Taliban, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Wahhabi authorities of Saudi Arabia. The web page called 'The American Taliban' is a particularly rich source of obnoxiously barmy quotations, beginning with a prize one from somebody called Ann Coulter who, American colleagues have persuaded me, is not a spoof, invented by The Onion: 'We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.' [119] Other gems include Congressman Bob Dornan's 'Don't use the word "gay" unless it's an acronym for "Got Aids Yet?'" and General William G. Boykin's 'George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States, he was appointed by God'. All the ingredients are there: slavish adherence to a misunderstood old text; hatred of women, modernity, rival religions, science and pleasure; love of punishment, bullying, narrow-minded, bossy interference in every aspect of life. The Afghan Taliban and the American Taliban are good examples of what happens when people take their scriptures literally and seriously. They provide a horrifying modern enactment of what life might have been like under the theocracy of the Old Testament. Kimberly Blaker's The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America is a book-length expose of the menace of the Christian Taliban (not under that name).


In Afghanistan under the Taliban, the official punishment for homosexuality was execution, by the tasteful method of burial alive under a wall pushed over on top of the victim. The 'crime' itself being a private act, performed by consenting adults who were doing nobody else any harm, we again have here the classic hallmark of religious absolutism. My own country has no right to be smug. Private homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain up until -- astonishingly -- 1967. In 1954 the British mathematician Alan Turing, a candidate along with John von Neumann for the title of father of the computer, committed suicide after being convicted of the criminal offence of homosexual behaviour in private. Admittedly Turing was not buried alive under a wall pushed over by a tank. He was offered a choice between two years in prison (you can imagine how the other prisoners would have treated him) and a course of hormone injections which could be said to amount to chemical castration, and would have caused him to grow breasts. His final, private choice was an apple that he had injected with cyanide. [120]

As the pivotal intellect in the breaking of the German Enigma codes, Turing arguably made a greater contribution to defeating the Nazis than Eisenhower or Churchill. Thanks to Turing and his 'Ultra' colleagues at Bletchley Park, Allied generals in the field were consistently, over long periods of the war, privy to detailed German plans before the German generals had time to implement them. After the war, when Turing's role was no longer top secret, he should have been knighted and feted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed, for a 'crime', committed in private, which harmed nobody. Once again, the unmistakable trademark of the faith-based moralizer is to care passionately about what other people do (or even think) in private.

The attitude of the 'American Taliban' towards homosexuality epitomizes their religious absolutism. Listen to the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University: 'AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.' [121] The thing I notice first about such people is their wonderful Christian charity. What kind of an electorate could, term after term, vote in a man of such ill-informed bigotry as Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina? A man who has sneered: 'The New York Times and Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals themselves. Just about every person down there is a homosexual or lesbian.' [122] The answer, I suppose, is the kind of electorate that sees morality in narrowly religious terms and feels threatened by anybody who doesn't share the same absolutist faith.

I have already quoted Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition. He stood as a serious candidate for the Republican party nomination for President in 1988, and garnered more than three million volunteers to work in his campaign, plus a comparable quantity of money: a disquieting level of support, given that the following quotations are entirely typical of him: '[Homosexuals] want to come into churches and disrupt church services and throw blood all around and try to give people AIDS and spit in the face of ministers.' '[Planned Parenthood] is teaching kids to fornicate, teaching people to have adultery, every kind of bestiality, homosexuality, lesbianism -- everything that the Bible condemns.' Robertson's attitude to women,' too, would warm the black hearts of the Afghan Taliban: 'I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married, you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. Christ is the head of the household and the husband is the head of the wife, and that's the way it is, period.'

Gary Potter, President of Catholics for Christian Political Action, had this to say: 'When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil.' 'Evil', as is very clear from the quotation, doesn't mean doing things that have bad consequences for people. It means private thoughts and actions that are not to 'the Christian majority's' private liking.

Pastor Fred Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, is another strong preacher with an obsessive dislike of homosexuals. When Martin Luther King's widow died, Pastor Fred organized a picket of her funeral, proclaiming: 'God Hates Fags & Fag-Enablers! Ergo, God hates Coretta Scott King and is now tormenting her with fire and brimstone where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched, and the smoke of her torment ascendeth up for ever and ever.' [123] It is easy to write Fred Phelps off as a nut, but he has plenty of support from people and their money. According to his own website, Phelps has organized 22,000 anti-homosexual demonstrations since 1991 (that's an average of four per day) in the USA, Canada, Jordan and Iraq, displaying slogans such as 'THANK GOD FOR AIDS'. A particularly charming feature of his website is the automated tally of the number of days a particular, named, deceased homosexual has been burning in hell.

Attitudes to homosexuality reveal much about the sort of morality that is inspired by religious faith. An equally instructive example is abortion and the sanctity of human life.


Human embryos are examples of human life. Therefore, by absolutist religious lights, abortion is simply wrong: fully fledged murder. I am not sure what to make of my admittedly anecdotal observation that many of those who most ardently oppose the taking of embryonic life also seem to be more than usually enthusiastic about taking adult life. To be fair, this does not, as a rule, apply to Roman Catholics, who are among the most vociferous opponents of abortion. The born-again George W. Bush, however, is typical of today's religious ascendancy. He, and they, are stalwart defenders of human life, as long as it is embryonic life (or terminally ill life) -- even to the point of preventing medical research that would certainly save many lives. [124] The obvious ground for opposing the death penalty is respect for human life. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reversed the ban on the death penalty, Texas has been responsible for more than one-third of all executions in all fifty states of the Union. And Bush presided over more executions in Texas than any other governor in the state's history, averaging one death every nine days. Perhaps he was simply doing his duty and carrying out the laws of the state? [125] But then, what are we to make of the famous report by the CNN journalist Tucker Carlson? Carlson, who himself supports the death penalty, was shocked by Bush's 'humorous' imitation of a female prisoner on death row, pleading to the Governor for a stay of execution: '"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "Don't kill me."' [126] Perhaps this woman would have met with more sympathy if she had pointed out that she had once been an embryo. The contemplation of embryos really does seem to have the most extraordinary effect upon many people of faith. Mother Teresa of Calcutta actually said, in her speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, 'The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.' What? How can a woman with such cock-eyed judgement be taken seriously on any topic, let alone be thought seriously worthy of a Nobel Prize? Anybody tempted to be taken in by the sanctimoniously hypocritical Mother Teresa should read Christopher Hitchens's book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

Returning to the American Taliban, listen to Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, an organization for intimidating abortion providers. 'When I, or people like me, are running the country, you'd better flee, because we will find you, we will try you, and we'll execute you. I mean every word of it. I will make it part of my mission to see to it that they are tried and executed.' Terry was here referring to doctors who provide abortions, and his Christian inspiration is clearly shown by other statements:

I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good ... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism.

Our goal must be simple. We must have a Christian nation built on God's law, on the Ten Commandments. No apologies. [127]

This ambition to achieve what can only be called a Christian fascist state is entirely typical of the American Taliban. It is an almost exact mirror image of the Islamic fascist state so ardently sought by many people in other parts of the world. Randall Terry is not -- yet -- in political power. But no observer of the American political scene at the time of writing (2006) can afford to be sanguine.

A consequentialist or utilitarian is likely to approach the abortion question in a very different way, by trying to weigh up suffering. Does the embryo suffer? (Presumably not if it is aborted before it has a nervous system; and even if it is old enough to have a nervous system it surely suffers less than, say, an adult cow in a slaughterhouse.) Does the pregnant woman, or her family, suffer if she does not have an abortion? Very possibly so; and, in any case, given that the embryo lacks a nervous system, shouldn't the mother's well-developed nervous system have the choice?

This is not to deny that a consequentialist might have grounds to oppose abortion. 'Slippery slope' arguments can be framed by consequentialists (though I wouldn't in this case). Maybe embryos don't suffer, but a culture that tolerates the taking of human life risks going too far: where will it all end? In infanticide? The moment of birth provides a natural Rubicon for defining rules, and one could argue that it is hard to find another one earlier in embryonic development. Slippery slope arguments could therefore lead us to give the moment of birth more significance than utilitarianism, narrowly interpreted, would prefer.

Arguments against euthanasia, too, can be framed in slippery slope terms. Let's invent an imaginary quotation from a moral philosopher: 'If you allow doctors to put terminal patients out of their agony, the next thing you know everybody will be bumping off their granny to get her money. We philosophers may have grown out of absolutism, but society needs the discipline of absolute rules such as "Thou shalt not kill," otherwise it doesn't know where to stop. Under some circumstances absolutism might, for all the wrong reasons in a less than ideal world, have better consequences than naive consequentialism! We philosophers might have a hard time prohibiting the eating of people who were already dead and unmourned -- say roadkilled tramps. But, for slippery slope reasons, the absolutist taboo against cannibalism is too valuable to lose.'

Slippery slope arguments might be seen as a way in which consequentialists can reimport a form of indirect absolutism. But the religious foes of abortion don't bother with slippery slopes. For them, the issue is much simpler. An embryo is a 'baby', killing it is murder, and that's that: end of discussion. Much follows from this absolutist stance. For a start, embryonic stem-cell research must cease, despite its huge potential for medical science, because it entails the deaths of embryonic cells. The inconsistency is apparent when you reflect that society already accepts IVF (in vitro fertilization), in which doctors routinely stimulate women to produce surplus eggs, to be fertilized outside the body. As many as a dozen viable zygotes may be produced, of which two or three are then implanted in the uterus. The expectation is that, of these, only one or possibly two will survive. IVF, therefore, kills conceptuses at two stages of the procedure, and society in general has no problem with this. For twenty-five years, IVF has been a standard procedure for bringing joy into the lives of childless couples.

Religious absolutists, however, can have problems with IVE The Guardian of 3 June 2005 carried a bizarre story under the headline 'Christian couples answer call to save embryos left by IVF'. The story is about an organization called Snowflakes which seeks to 'rescue' surplus embryos left over at IVF clinics. 'We really felt like the Lord was calling us to try to give one of these embryos -- these children -- a chance to live,' said a woman in Washington State, whose fourth child resulted from this 'unexpected alliance that conservative Christians have been forming with the world of test-tube babies'. Worried about that alliance, her husband had consulted a church elder, who advised, 'If you want to free the slaves, you sometimes have to make a deal with the slave trader: I wonder what these people would say if they knew that the majority of conceived embryos spontaneously abort anyway. It is probably best seen as a kind of natural 'quality control'.

A certain kind of religious mind cannot see the moral difference between killing a microscopic cluster of cells on the one hand, and killing a full-grown doctor on the other. I have already quoted Randall Terry and 'Operation Rescue'. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his chilling book Terror in the Mind of God, prints a photograph of the Reverend Michael Bray with his friend the Reverend Paul Hill, holding a banner reading: 'Is it wrong to stop the murder of innocent babies?' Both look like nice, rather preppy young men, smiling engagingly, casually well-dressed, the very opposite of staring-eyed loonies. Yet they and their friends of the Army of God (AOG) made it their business to set fire to abortion clinics, and they have made no secret of their desire to kill doctors. On 29 July 1994, Paul Hill took a shotgun and murdered Dr John Britton and his bodyguard James Barrett outside Britton's clinic in Pensacola, Florida. He then gave himself up to the police, saying he had killed the doctor to prevent the future deaths of 'innocent babies'.

Michael Bray defends such actions articulately and with every appearance of high moral purpose, as I discovered when I interviewed him, in a public park in Colorado Springs, for my television documentary on religion. [ii] Before coming on to the abortion question, I got the measure of Bray's Bible-based morality by asking him some preliminary questions. I pointed out that biblical law condemns adulterers to death by stoning. I expected him to disavow this particular example as obviously beyond the pale, but he surprised me. He was happy to agree that, after due process of law, adulterers should be executed. I then pointed out that Paul Hill, with Bray's full support, had not followed due process but had taken the law into his own hands and killed a doctor. Bray defended his fellow clergyman's action in the same terms as he had when Juergensmeyer interviewed him, making a distinction between retributive killing, say of a retired doctor, and killing a practising doctor as a ,means of preventing him from 'regularly killing babies'. I then put it to him that, sincere though Paul Hill's beliefs no doubt were, society would descend into a terrible anarchy if everybody invoked personal conviction in order to take the law into their own hands, rather than abiding by the law of the land. Wasn't the right course to try to get the law changed, democratically? Bray replied: 'Well, this is the problem when we don't have law that's really authentic law; when we have laws that are made up by people on the spot, capriciously, as we have seen in the case of the so-called law of abortion rights, that was imposed upon the people by judges ...' We then got into an argument about the American constitution and where laws come from. Bray's attitude to such matters turned out to be very reminiscent of those militant Muslims living in Britain who openly announce themselves as bound only by Islamic law, not by the democratically enacted laws of their adopted country.

In 2003 Paul Hill was executed for the murder of Dr Britton and his bodyguard, saying he would do it again to save the unborn. Candidly looking forward to dying for his cause, he told a news conference, 'I believe the state, by executing me, will be making me a martyr.' Right-wing anti-abortionists protesting at his execution were joined in unholy alliance by left-wing opponents of the death penalty who urged the Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, to 'stop the martyrdom of Paul Hill'. They plausibly argued that the judicial killing of Hill would actually encourage more murders, the precise opposite of the deterrent effect that the death penalty is supposed to have. Hill himself smiled all the way to the execution chamber, saying, 'I expect a great reward in heaven ... I am looking forward to glory.' [128] And he suggested that others should take up his violent cause. Anticipating revenge attacks for the 'martyrdom' of Paul Hill, the police went on heightened alert as he was executed, and several individuals connected with the case received threatening letters accompanied by bullets.

This whole terrible business stems from a simple difference of perception. There are people who, because of their religious convictions, think abortion is murder and are prepared to kill in defence of embryos, which they choose to call 'babies'. On the other side are equally sincere supporters of abortion, who either have different religious convictions, or no religion, coupled with well-thought-out consequentialist morals. They too see themselves as idealists, providing a medical service for patients in need, who would otherwise go to dangerously incompetent back-street quacks. Both sides see the other side as murderers or advocates of murder. Both sides, by their own lights, are equally sincere.

A spokeswoman for another abortion clinic described Paul Hill as a dangerous psychopath. But people like him don't think of themselves as dangerous psychopaths; they think of themselves as good, moral people, guided by God. Indeed, I don't think Paul Hill was a psychopath. Just very religious. Dangerous, yes, but not a psychopath. Dangerously religious. By the lights of his religious faith, Hill was entirely right and moral to shoot Dr. Britton. What was wrong with Hill was his religious faith itself. Michael Bray, too, when I met him, didn't strike me as a psychopath. I actually quite liked him. I thought he was an honest and sincere man, quietly spoken and thoughtful, but his mind had unfortunately been captured by poisonous religious nonsense.

Strong opponents of abortion are almost all deeply religious. The sincere supporters of abortion, whether personally religious or not, are likely to follow a non-religious, consequentialist moral philosophy, perhaps invoking Jeremy Bentham's question, 'Can they suffer?' Paul Hill and Michael Bray saw no moral difference between killing an embryo and killing a doctor except that the embryo was, to them, a blamelessly innocent 'baby'. The consequentialist sees all the difference in the world. An early embryo has the sentience, as well as the semblance, of a tadpole. A doctor is a grown-up conscious being with hopes, loves, aspirations, fears, a massive store of humane knowledge, the capacity for deep emotion, very probably a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.

Paul Hill caused real, deep, lasting suffering, to beings with nervous systems capable of suffering. His doctor victim did no such thing. Early embryos that have no nervous system most certainly do not suffer. And if late-aborted embryos with nervous systems suffer -- though all suffering is deplorable -- it is not because they are human that they suffer. There is no general reason to suppose that human embryos at any age suffer more than cow or sheep embryos at the same developmental stage. And there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse, especially a ritual slaughterhouse where, for religious reasons, they must be fully conscious when their throats are ceremonially cut.

Suffering is hard to measure, [129] and the details might be disputed. But that doesn't affect my main point, which concerns the difference between secular consequentialist and religiously absolute moral philosophies. [iii] One school of thought cares about whether embryos can suffer. The other cares about whether they are human. Religious moralists can be heard debating questions like, 'When does the developing embryo become a person -- a human being?' Secular moralists are more likely to ask, 'Never mind whether it is human (what does that even mean for a little cluster of cells?); at what age does any developing embryo, of any species, become capable of suffering?'
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:24 pm

Part 2 of 2


The anti-abortionist's next move in the verbal chess game usually goes something like this. The point is not whether a human embryo can or cannot suffer at present. The point lies in its potential. Abortion has deprived it of the opportunity for a full human life in the future. This notion is epitomized by a rhetorical argument whose extreme stupidity is its only defence against a charge of serious dishonesty. I am speaking of the Great Beethoven Fallacy, which exists in several forms. Peter and Jean Medawar, [iv] in The Life Science, attribute the following version to Norman St. John Stevas (now Lord St John), a British Member of Parliament and prominent Roman Catholic layman. He, in turn, got it from Maurice Baring (1874-1945), a noted Roman Catholic convert and close associate of those Catholic stalwarts G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. He cast it in the form of a hypothetical dialogue between two doctors.

'About the terminating of pregnancy, 1 want your opinion. The father was syphilitic, the mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?'

'I would have terminated the pregnancy.'

'Then you would have murdered Beethoven.'

The Internet is riddled with so-called pro-life websites that repeat this ridiculous story, and incidentally change factual premises with wanton abandon. Here's another version. 'If you knew a woman who was pregnant, who had 8 kids already, three of whom were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded (all because she had syphilis), would you recommend that she have an abortion? Then you would have killed Beethoven.' [130] This rendering of the legend demotes the great composer from fifth to ninth in the birth order, raises the number born deaf to three and the number born blind to two, and gives syphilis to the mother instead of the father. Most of the forty-three websites I found when searching for versions of the story attribute it not to Maurice Baring but to a certain Professor L. R. Agnew at UCLA Medical School, who is said to have put the dilemma to his students and to have told them, 'Congratulations, you have just murdered Beethoven.' We might charitably give L. R. Agnew the benefit of doubting his existence -- it is amazing how these urban legends sprout. I cannot discover whether it was Baring who originated the legend, or whether it was invented earlier.

For invented it certainly was. It is completely false. The truth is that Ludwig van Beethoven was neither the ninth child nor the fifth child of his parents. He was the eldest -- strictly the number two, but his elder sibling died in infancy, as was common in those days, and was not, so far as is known, blind or deaf or dumb or mentally retarded. There is no evidence that either of his parents had syphilis, although it is true that his mother eventually died of tuberculosis. There was a lot of it about at the time.

This is, in fact, a fully fledged urban legend, a fabrication, deliberately disseminated by people with a vested interest in spreading it. But the fact that it is a lie is, in any case, completely beside the point. Even if it were not a lie, the argument derived from it is a very bad argument indeed. Peter and Jean Medawar had no need to doubt the truth of the story in order to point out the fallacy of the argument: 'The reasoning behind this odious little argument is breathtakingly fallacious, for unless it is being suggested that there is some causal connection between having a tubercular mother and a syphilitic father and giving birth to a musical genius the world is no more likely to be deprived of a Beethoven by abortion than by chaste abstinence from intercourse.' [131] The Medawars' laconically scornful dismissal is unanswerable (to borrow the plot of one of Roald Dahl's dark short stories, an equally fortuitous decision not to have an abortion in 1888 gave us Adolf Hitler). But you do need a modicum of intelligence -- or perhaps freedom from a certain kind of religious upbringing -- to get the point. Of the forty-three 'pro-life' websites quoting a version of the Beethoven legend which my Google search turned up on the day of writing, not a single one spotted the illogic in the argument. Everyone of them (they were all religious sites, by the way) fell for the fallacy, hook, line and sinker. One of them even acknowledged Medawar (spelled Medavvar) as the source. So eager were these people to believe a fallacy congenial to their faith, they didn't-even notice that the Medawars had quoted the argument solely in order to blow it out of the water.

As the Medawars were entirely right to point out, the logical conclusion to the 'human potential' argument is that we potentially deprive a human soul of the gift of existence every time we fail to seize any opportunity for sexual intercourse. Every refusal of any offer of copulation by a fertile individual is, by this dopey 'pro-life' logic, tantamount to the murder of a potential child. Even resisting rape could be represented as murdering a potential baby (and, by the way, there are plenty of 'pro-life' campaigners who would deny abortion even to women who have been brutally raped). The Beethoven argument is, we can clearly see, very bad logic indeed. Its surreal idiocy is best summed up in that splendid song 'Every sperm is sacred' sung by Michael Palin, with a chorus of hundreds of children, in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life (if you haven't seen it, please do). The Great Beethoven Fallacy is a typical example of the kind of logical mess we get into when our minds are befuddled by religiously inspired absolutism.

Notice now that 'pro-life' doesn't exactly mean pro-life at all. It means pro-human-life. The granting of uniquely special rights to cells of the species Homo sapiens is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution. Admittedly, this will not worry those many anti-abortionists who don't understand that evolution is a fact! But let me briefly spell out the argument for the benefit of anti-abortion activists who may be less ignorant of science.

The evolutionary point is very simple. The humanness of an embryo's cells cannot confer upon it any absolutely discontinuous moral status. It cannot, because of our evolutionary continuity with chimpanzees and, more distantly, with every species on the planet. To see this, imagine that an intermediate species, say Australopithecus afarensis, had chanced to survive and was discovered in a remote part of Africa. Would these creatures 'count as human' or not? To a consequentialist like me, the question doesn't deserve an answer, for nothing turns on it. It is enough that we would be fascinated and honoured to meet a new 'Lucy'. The absolutist, on the other hand, must answer the question, in order to apply the moral principle of granting humans unique and special status because they are human. If it came to the crunch, they would presumably need to set up courts, like those of apartheid South Africa, to decide whether a particular individual should 'pass for human'.

Even if a clear answer might be attempted for Australopithecus, the gradual continuity that is an inescapable feature of biological evolution tells us that there must be some intermediate who would lie sufficiently close to the 'borderline' to blur the moral principle and destroy its absoluteness. A better way to say this is that there are no natural borderlines in evolution. The illusion of a borderline is created by the fact that the evolutionary intermediates happen to be extinct. Of course, it could be argued that humans are more capable of, for example, suffering than other species. This could well be true, and we might legitimately give humans special status by virtue of it. But evolutionary continuity shows that there is no absolute distinction. Absolutist moral discrimination is devastatingly undermined by the fact of evolution. An uneasy awareness of this fact might, indeed, underlie one of the main motives creationists have for opposing evolution: they fear what they believe to be its moral consequences. They are wrong to do so but, in any case, it is surely very odd to think that a truth about the real world can be reversed by considerations of what would be morally desirable.


In illustration of the dark side of absolutism, I mentioned the Christians in America who blow up abortion clinics, and the Taliban of Afghanistan, whose list of cruelties, especially to women, I find too painful to recount. I could have expanded upon Iran under the ayatollahs, or Saudi Arabia under the Saud princes, where women cannot drive, and are in trouble if they even leave their homes without a male relative (who may, as a generous concession, be a small male child). See Jan Goodwin's Price of Honour for a devastating expose of the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and other present-day theocracies. Johann Hari, one of the (London) Independent's liveliest columnists, wrote an article whose title speaks for itself: 'The best way to undermine the jihadists is to trigger a rebellion of Muslim women.' [132]

Or, switching to Christianity, I could have cited those American 'rapture' Christians whose powerful influence on American Middle Eastern policy is governed by their biblical belief that Israel has a God-given right to all the lands of Palestine. [133] Some rapture Christians go further and actually yearn for nuclear war because they interpret it as the (Armageddon' which, according to their bizarre but disturbingly popular interpretation of the book of Revelation, will hasten the Second Coming. I cannot improve on Sam Harris's chilling comment, in his Letter to a Christian Nation:

It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver-lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves -- socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

There are, then, people whose religious faith takes them right outside the enlightened consensus of my 'moral Zeitgeist'. They represent what I have called the dark side of religious absolutism, and they are often called extremists. But my point in this section is that even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.

In July 2005, London was the victim of a concerted suicide bomb attack: three bombs in the subway and one in a bus. Not as bad as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, and certainly not as unexpected (indeed, London had been braced for just such an event ever since Blair volunteered us as unwilling side-kicks in Bush's invasion of Iraq), nevertheless the London explosions horrified Britain. The newspapers were filled with agonized appraisals of what drove four young men to blow themselves up and take a lot of innocent people with them. The murderers were British citizens, cricket-loving, well-mannered, just the sort of young men whose company one might have enjoyed.

Why did these cricket-loving young men do it? Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, or their kamikaze counterparts in Japan, or their Tamil Tiger counterparts in Sri Lanka, these human bombs had no expectation that their bereaved families would be lionized, looked after or supported on martyrs' pensions. On the contrary, their relatives in some cases had to go into hiding. One of the men wantonly widowed his pregnant wife and orphaned his toddler. The action of these four young men has been nothing short of a disaster not just for themselves and their victims, but for their families and for the whole Muslim community in Britain, which now faces a backlash. Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people. Once again, Sam Harris put the point with percipient bluntness, taking the example of the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (who had nothing to do with the London bombings, by the way). Why would anyone want to destroy the World Trade Center and everybody in it? To call bin Laden 'evil' is to evade our responsibility to give a proper answer to such an important question.

The answer to this question is obvious -- if only because it has been patiently articulated ad nauseam by bin Laden himself. The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe. They believe in the literal truth of the Koran. Why did nineteen well-educated middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. lt is rare to find the behavior of humans so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been so reluctant to accept this explanation? [134]

The respected journalist Muriel Gray, writing in the (Glasgow) Herald on 24 July 2005, made a similar point, in this case with reference to the London bombings.

Everyone is being blamed, from the obvious villainous duo of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, to the inaction of Muslim 'communities'. But it has never been clearer that there is only one place to lay the blame and it has ever been thus. The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself, and if it seems ludicrous to have to state such an obvious reality, the fact is that the government and the media are doing a pretty good job of pretending that it isn't so.

Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against 'terror', as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure 'evil'. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith. Sam Harris quotes a failed Palestinian suicide bomber who said that what drove him to kill Israelis was 'the love of martyrdom ... I didn't want revenge for anything. I just wanted to be a martyr.' On 19 November 2001 The New Yorker carried an interview by Nasra Hassan of another failed suicide bomber, a polite young Palestinian aged twenty-seven known as 'S'. It is so poetically eloquent of the lure of paradise, as preached by moderate religious leaders and teachers, that I think it is worth giving at some length:

'What is the attraction of martyrdom?' I asked.

'The power of the spirit pulls us upward, while the power of material things pulls us downward; he said. 'Someone bent on martyrdom becomes immune to the material pull. Our planner asked, "What if the operation fails?" We told him, "In any case, we get to meet the Prophet and his companions, inshallah."

'We were floating, swimming, in the feeling that we were about to enter eternity. We had no doubts. We made an oath on the Koran, in the presence of Allah -- a pledge not to waver. This jihad pledge is called bayt al-ridwan, after the garden in Paradise that is reserved for the prophets and the martyrs. I know that there are other ways to do jihad. But this one is sweet -- the sweetest. All martyrdom operations, if done for Allah's sake, hurt less than a gnat's bite!'

S showed me a video that documented the final planning for the operation. In the grainy footage, I saw him and two other young men engaging in a ritualistic dialogue of questions and answers about the glory of martyrdom ...

The young men and the planner then knelt and placed their right hands on the Koran. The planner said: 'Are you ready? Tomorrow, you will be in Paradise.' [135]

If I had been 'S', I'd have been tempted to say to the planner, 'Well, in that case, why don't you put your neck where your mouth is? Why don't you do the suicide mission and take the fast track to Paradise?' But what is so hard for us to understand is that - to repeat the point because it is so important -- these people actually believe what they say they believe. The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism -- as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. Voltaire got it right long ago: 'Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.' So did Bertrand Russell: 'Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.'

As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers. The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith. This is one reason why I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.

It might be said that there is nothing special about religious faith here. Patriotic love of country or ethnic group can also make the world safe for its own version of extremism, can't it? Yes it can, as with the kamikazes in Japan and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation, which usually seems to trump all others. This is mostly, I suspect, because of the easy and beguiling promise that death is not the end, and that a martyr's heaven is especially glorious. But it is also partly because it discourages questioning, by its very nature.

Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to 'respect' it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and 'community leaders' (who elected them, by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the 'true' faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert?

Ten years ago, Ibn Warraq, in his excellent book Why I Am Not a Muslim, made a similar point from the standpoint of a deeply knowledgeable scholar of Islam. Indeed, a good alternative title for Warraq's book might have been The Myth of Moderate Islam, which is the actual title of a more recent article in the (London) Spectator (30 July 2005) by another scholar, Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. 'By far the majority of Muslims today live their lives without recourse to violence, for the Koran is like a pick-and-mix selection. If you want peace, you can find peaceable verses. If you want war, you can find bellicose verses.'

Sookhdeo goes on to explain how Islamic scholars, in order to cope with the many contradictions that they found in the Qur'an, developed the principle of abrogation, whereby later texts trump earlier ones. Unfortunately, the peaceable passages in the Qur'an are mostly early, dating from Muhammad's time in Mecca. The more belligerent verses tend to date from later, after his flight to Medina. The result is that

the mantra 'Islam is peace' is almost 1,400 years out of date. It was only for about 13 years that Islam was peace and nothing but peace ... For today's radical Muslims -- just as for the mediaeval jurists who developed classical Islam -- it would be truer to say 'Islam is war'. One of the most radical Islamic groups in Britain, al-Ghurabaa, stated in the wake of the two London bombings, 'Any Muslim that denies that terror is a part of Islam is kafir.' A kafir is an unbeliever (i.e. a non-Muslim), a term of gross insult ...

Could it be that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in Britain, nor following an eccentric and extremist interpretation of their faith, but rather that they came from the very core of the Muslim community and were motivated by a mainstream interpretation of Islam?

More generally (and this applies to Christianity no less than to Islam), what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them -- given certain other ingredients that are not hard to come by -- to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades. Immunized against fear by the promise of a martyr's paradise, the authentic faith-head deserves a high place in the history of armaments, alongside the longbow, the warhorse, the tank and the duster bomb. If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools: that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise. And they were taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong. It is to childhood itself, and the violation of childhood by religion, that we turn in the next chapter.



i. I do not have the chutzpah to refuse on the grounds offered by one of my most distinguished scientific colleagues, whenever a creationist tries to stage a formal debate with him (I shall not name him, but his words should be read in an Australian accent): 'That would look great on your CV; not so good on mine.'

ii. The animal liberationists who threaten violence against scientists using animals for medical research would claim an equally high moral purpose.

iii. This doesn't, of course, exhaust the possibilities. A substantial majority of American Christians do not take an absolutist attitude to abortion, and are pro-choice. See e.g. the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, at www.rcrc.orgl.

iv. Sir Peter Medawar won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, 1960.
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

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Part 1 of 2


There is in every village a torch -- the teacher: and an extinguisher -- the clergyman.

I begin with an anecdote of nineteenth-century Italy. I am not implying that anything like this awful story could happen today. But the attitudes of mind that it betrays are lamentably current, even though the practical details are not. This nineteenth-century human tragedy sheds a pitiless light on present-day religious attitudes to children.

In 1858 Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old child of Jewish parents living in Bologna, was legally seized by the papal police acting under orders from the Inquisition. Edgardo was forcibly dragged away from his weeping mother and distraught father to the Catechumens (house for the conversion of Jews and Muslims) in Rome, and thereafter brought up as a Roman Catholic. Aside from occasional brief visits under close priestly supervision, his parents never saw him again. The story is told by David I. Kertzer in his remarkable book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

Edgardo's story was by no means unusual in Italy at the time, and the reason for these priestly abductions was always the same. In every case, the child had been secretly baptized at some earlier date, usually by a Catholic nursemaid, and the Inquisition later came to hear of the baptism. It was a central part of the Roman Catholic belief-system that, once a child had been baptized, however informally and clandestinely, that child was irrevocably transformed into a Christian. In their mental world, to allow a 'Christian child' to stay with his Jewish parents was not an option, and they maintained this bizarre and cruel stance steadfastly, and with the utmost sincerity, in the face of worldwide outrage. That widespread outrage, by the way, was dismissed by the Catholic newspaper Civilta Cattolica as due to the international power of rich Jews -- sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Apart from the publicity it aroused, Edgardo Mortara's history was entirely typical of many others. He had once been looked after by Anna Morisi, an illiterate Catholic girl who was then fourteen. He fell ill and she panicked lest he might die. Brought up in a stupor of belief that a child who died unbaptized would suffer forever in hell, she asked advice from a Catholic neighbour who told her how to do a baptism. She went back into the house, threw some water from a bucket on little Edgardo's head and said, 'I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.' And that was it. From that moment on, Edgardo was legally a Christian. When the priests of the Inquisition learned of the incident years later, they acted promptly and decisively, giving no thought to the sorrowful consequences of their action.

Amazingly for a rite that could have such monumental significance for a whole extended family, the Catholic Church allowed (and still allows) anybody to baptize anybody else. The baptizer doesn't have to be a priest. Neither the child, nor the parents, nor anybody else has to consent to the baptism. Nothing need be signed. Nothing need be officially witnessed. All that is necessary is a splash of water, a few words, a helpless child, and a superstitious and catechistically brainwashed babysitter. Actually, only the last of these is needed because, assuming the child is too young to be a witness, who is even to know? An American colleague who was brought up Catholic writes to me as follows: 'We used to baptize our dolls. I don't remember any of us baptizing our little Protestant friends but no doubt that has happened and happens today. We made little Catholics of our dolls, taking them to church, giving them Holy Communion etc. We were brainwashed to be good Catholic mothers early on.'

If nineteenth-century girls were anything like my modern correspondent, it is surprising that cases like Edgardo Mortara's were not more common than they were. As it was, such stories were distressingly frequent in nineteenth-century Italy, which leaves one asking the obvious question. Why did the Jews of the Papal States employ Catholic servants at all, given the appalling risk that could flow from doing so? Why didn't they take good care to engage Jewish servants? The answer, yet again, has nothing to do with sense and everything to do with religion. The Jews needed servants whose religion didn't forbid them to work on the sabbath. A Jewish maid could indeed be relied upon not to baptize your child into a spiritual orphanage. But she couldn't light the fire or clean the house on a Saturday. This was why, of the Bolognese Jewish families at the time who could afford servants, most hired Catholics.

In this book, I have deliberately refrained from detailing the horrors of the Crusades, the conquistadores or the Spanish Inquisition. Cruel and evil people can be found in every century and of every persuasion. But this story of the Italian Inquisition and its attitude to children is particularly revealing of the religious mind, and the evils that arise specifically because it is religious. First is the remarkable perception by the religious mind that a sprinkle of water and a brief verbal incantation can totally change a child's life, taking precedence over parental consent, the child's own consent, the child's own happiness and psychological well-being ... over everything that ordinary common sense and human feeling would see as important. Cardinal Antonelli spelled it out at the time in a letter to Lionel Rothschild, Britain's first Jewish Member of Parliament, who had written to protest about Edgardo's abduction. The cardinal replied that he was powerless to intervene, and added, 'Here it may be opportune to observe that, if the voice of nature is powerful, even more powerful are the sacred duties of religion: Yes, well, that just about says it all, doesn't it?

Second is the extraordinary fact that the priests, cardinals and Pope seem genuinely not to have understood what a terrible thing they were doing to poor Edgardo Mortara. It passes all sensible understanding, but they sincerely believed they were doing him a good turn by taking him away from his parents and giving him a Christian upbringing. They felt a duty of protection! A Catholic newspaper in the United States defended the Pope's stance on the Mortara case, arguing that it was unthinkable that a Christian government 'could leave a Christian child to be brought up by a Jew' and invoking the principle of religious liberty, 'the liberty of a child to be a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew ... The Holy Father's protection of the child, in the face of all the ferocious fanaticism of infidelity and bigotry, is the grandest moral spectacle which the world has seen for ages: Has there ever been a more flagrant misdirection of words like 'forced', 'compulsorily', 'ferocious', 'fanaticism' and 'bigotry'? Yet all the indications are that Catholic apologists, from the Pope down, sincerely believed that what they were doing was right: absolutely right morally, and right for the welfare of the child. Such is the power of (mainstream, 'moderate') religion to warp judgement and pervert ordinary human decency. The newspaper Il Cattolico was frankly bewildered at the widespread failure to see what a magnanimous favour the Church had done Edgardo Mortara when it rescued him from his Jewish family:

Whoever among us gives a little serious thought to the matter, compares the condition of a Jew -- without a true Church, without a King, and without a country, dispersed and always a foreigner wherever he lives on the face of the earth, and moreover, infamous for the ugly stain with which the killers of Christ are marked ... will immediately understand how great is this temporal advantage that the Pope is obtaining for the Mortara boy.

Third is the presumptuousness whereby religious people know, without evidence, that the faith of their birth is the one true faith, all others being aberrations or downright false. The above quotations give vivid examples of this attitude on the Christian side. It would be grossly unjust to equate the two sides in this case, but this is as good a place as any to note that the Mortaras could at a stroke have had Edgardo back, if only they had accepted the priests' entreaties and agreed to be baptized themselves. Edgardo had been stolen in the first place because of a splash of water and a dozen meaningless words. Such is the fatuousness of the religiously indoctrinated mind, another pair of splashes is all it would have taken to reverse the process. To some of us, the parents' refusal indicates wanton stubbornness. To others, their principled stand elevates them into the long list of martyrs for all religions down the ages.

'Be of good comfort Master Ridley and play the man: we shall this day by God's grace light such a candle in England, as I trust shall never be put out.' No doubt there are causes for which to die is noble. But how could the martyrs Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer let themselves be burned rather than forsake their Protestant Little-endianism in favour of Catholic Big-endianism -- does it really matter all that much from which end you open a boiled egg? Such is the stubborn -- or admirable, if that is your view -- conviction of the religious mind, that the Mortaras could not bring themselves to seize the opportunity offered by the meaningless rite of baptism. Couldn't they cross their fingers, or whisper 'not' under their breath while being baptized? No, they couldn't, because they had been brought up in a (moderate) religion, and therefore took the whole ridiculous charade seriously. As for me, I think only of poor little Edgardo -- unwittingly born into a world dominated by the religious mind, hapless in the crossfire, all but orphaned in an act of well-meaning but, to a young child, shattering cruelty.

Fourth, to pursue the same theme, is the assumption that a six-year-old child can properly be said to have a religion at all, whether it is Jewish or Christian or anything else. To put it another way, the idea that baptizing an unknowing, uncomprehending child can change him from one religion to another at a stroke seems absurd -- but it is surely not more absurd than labelling a tiny child as belonging to any particular religion in the first place. What mattered to Edgardo was not 'his' religion (he was too young to possess thought-out religious opinions) but the love and care of his parents and family, and he was deprived of those by celibate priests whose grotesque cruelty was mitigated only by their crass insensitivity to normal human feelings -- an insensitivity that comes all too easily to a mind hijacked by religious faith.

Even without physical abduction, isn't it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about? Yet the practice persists to this day, almost entirely unquestioned. To question it is my main purpose in this chapter.


Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692. In July 2000 the News of the World, widely acclaimed in the face of stiff competition as Britain's most disgusting newspaper, organized a 'name and shame' campaign, barely stopping short of inciting vigilantes to take direct violent action against pedophiles. The house of a hospital pediatrician was attacked by zealots unacquainted with the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile. [136] The mob hysteria over pedophiles has reached epidemic proportions and driven parents to panic. Today's Just Williams, today's Huck Finns, today's Swallows and Amazons are deprived of the freedom to roam that was one of the delights of childhood in earlier times (when the actual, as opposed to perceived, risk of molestation was probably no less).

In fairness to the News of the World, at the time of its campaign passions had been aroused by a truly horrifying murder, sexually motivated, of an eight-year-old girl kidnapped in Sussex. Nevertheless, it is clearly unjust to visit upon all pedophiles a vengeance appropriate to the tiny minority who are also murderers. All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affection for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless if, fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defence, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience).

The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium. For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can't help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonized over the issue, especially in Ireland and America. I suppose some additional public resentment flows from the hypocrisy of priests whose professional life is largely devoted to arousing guilt about 'sin'. Then there is the abuse of trust by a figure in authority, whom the child has been trained from the cradle to revere. Such additional resentments should make us all the more careful not to rush to judgement. We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown great courage, in the face of spiteful vested interests, in demonstrating how easy it is for people to concoct memories that are entirely false but which seem, to the victim, every bit as real as true memories. [137]

Scientists in the CIA's mind control fraternity lead double lives. Many are highly respected, but if the truth were known they would be deafened by the public outcry and drummed out of their respective academic haunts.

Martin T. Orne, for example, a senior CIA/Navy researcher, is based at the University of Pennsylvania's Experimental Psychiatry Laboratory. He is also an original member of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation's advisory board, a tightly-drawn coterie of psychiatrists, many with backgrounds in CIA mind control experimentation in its myriad forms. The Foundation is dedicated to denying the existence of cult mind control and child abuse. It's primary pursuit is the castigation of survivors and therapists for fabricating accusations of ritual abuse.

Dismissing cult abuse as hysteria or false memory, a common defense strategy, may relieve parents of preschool children. In a small percentage of cult abuse cases it's possible that children may be led to believe they've been victimized.

But the CIA and its cover organizations have a vested interest in blowing smoke at the cult underground because the worlds of CIA mind control and many cults merge inextricably. The drum beat of "false accusations" from the media is taken up by paid operatives like Dr. Orne and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation to conceal the crimes of the Agency....

One of the most prolific and quotable popularizers of false memory is Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington in Seattle, and an advisory board member of the Foundation. Her dual academic interests have fueled suspicions that the organization is more committed to defending perpetrators than ferreting out the facts. Loftus testified in over 150 criminal cases prior to joining the Foundation, always on behalf of defendants. In 1991 she published a professional autobiography, Witness for the Defense, a study of eight criminal trials in which she appeared as an expert witness. In her book, Loftus - billed as "the expert who puts memory on trial" - conceded that her critics deem her research "unproven in real-life situations," and her courtroom dissertations "premature and highly prejudicial."

One book reviewer for the New York Times grumbled: "Her testimony would be less controversial if she could distinguish between the innocent and the guilty and reserve her help for the former."

Elizabeth Loftus has two criteria for taking the stand. The first is when eyewitness identification is the sole or primary evidence against the defendant. Secondly, the accused must act innocent - she regrets testifying on behalf of Ted Bundy because the serial killer once smiled at the prosecutor, which she regards as an expression of guilt - and defense attorneys must believe it.

Loftus stood at the Harvard Medical School podium in May, 1994 to inform a conference on false memory of her research, "in which false memories about childhood events were created in 24 men and women ages 18 to 63." Dr. Loftus reported that the parents of volunteers "cooperated to produce a list of events that had supposedly taken place in the volunteer's early life." Three of the events actually took place. But one, a shopping trip, never happened. Some of the volunteers had memories, implanted by suggestion, of wandering lost on the fictitious shopping expedition.

Karen Olio, the author of scores of articles on sexual abuse, complains that Loftus's memory studies "examine only the possibility of implanting a single memory with which most people could easily identify (being lost in a mall, awakened by a noise in the night). The possibility of 'implanting' terrifying and shameful memories that differ markedly from an individual's experience, such as memories of childhood abuse in individuals who do not have a trauma history," remains to be proven."

Psychiatrist John Briere of the University of Southern California has found that nearly two-thirds of all ritual abuse survivors report episodic or complete amnesia at some point after it occurred. The younger the child, the more violent the abuse, the more likely that memory lapses occurred. these findings have been duplicated at the University of California at San Francisco by psychiatrist Lenore Terr, who concluded that children subjected to repeated abuse were more likely to repress memories of it than victims of a single traumatic event.

Clinical psychologist Catherine Gould has treated scores of ritually abused children at her office in Encino, California. At the September 1993 National Conference on Crimes Against Children in Washington, D.C., Gould objected that the studies of Elizabeth Loftus ignore past research on trauma and its influence on memory.

"My concern about Elizabeth Loftus," Gould said, "is that she has stated in print, and correctly so, that her data tells us nothing about the nature of memory of traumatic events. And yet she has failed to protest the misapplication of her findings by groups who are involved in discrediting the accounts survivors are giving of their traumatic history. I believe that Dr. Loftus, like other psychologists, has an ethical responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that her research findings are interpreted and applied accurately, and are not manipulated to serve the political agenda of groups like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. I question whether she has met this ethical responsibility."

Some psychologists accuse Loftus of faking her research data.

Her study did not live up to its promise. But now that she had "proven" that a false memory could be implanted, friends of the Foundation at the Harvard conference announced they'd identified the neurological and cognitive causes of disorder. Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychologist and conference organizer, claimed that the "confabulator" selects a fragment of a real memory, "but confuses its true context, and draws on other bits of experience to construct a story that makes sense of it." Dr. Morris Moscovitch, a neuro-psychologist at the University of Toronto, claimed that "brain damage" could also evoke false memories. He noted that mental patients with frontal lobe defects frequently confuse imaginary stories with actual memories.

A superficially plausible revelation was provided by Cornell psychologist Stephen Ceci, who reported on five studies of 574 preschool children. After 10 weeks of repeated questioning, 58% of them concocted a false account for at least one fictitious event.

But like the studies of Elizabeth Loftus, Ceci did not attempt to explain the supposed amnesiac effect of severe trauma on children and adults alike (veterans of WW II and Vietnam have been known to "forget" atrocities of war). Besides, the average preschooler is bound to invent at least one fantasy in 10 long weeks of repetitive questioning. Toddlers aren't known for their consummate adherence to objective reality. An invisible playmate and the Cat in the Hat are not "false memories."

- The False Memory Hoax, by Alex Constantine

This is so counterintuitive that juries are easily swayed by sincere but false testimony from witnesses.

Introduction to the Grand Jury Report

This report contains the findings of the Grand Jury: how dozens of priests sexually abused hundreds of children; how Philadelphia Archdiocese officials -- including Cardinal Bevilacqua and Cardinal Krol -- excused and enabled the abuse; and how the law must be changed so that it doesn't happen again. Some may be tempted to describe these events as tragic. Tragedies such as tidal waves, however, are outside human control. What we found were not acts of God, but of men who acted in His name and defiled it.

But the biggest crime of all is this: it worked. The abuser priests, by choosing children as targets and trafficking on their trust, were able to prevent or delay reports of their sexual assaults, to the point where applicable statutes of limitations expired. And Archdiocese officials, by burying those reports they did receive and covering up the conduct, similarly managed to outlast any statutes of limitation, As a result, these priests and officials will necessarily escape criminal prosecution. We surely would have charged them if we could have done so.

But the consequences are even worse than the avoidance of criminal penalties, Sexually abusive priests were either left quietly in place or "recycled" to unsuspecting new parishes -- vastly expanding the number of children who were abused. It didn't have to be this way, Prompt action and a climate of compassion for the child victims could have significantly limited the damage done. But the Archdiocese chose a different path. Those choices went all the way up to the top -to Cardinal Bevilacqua and Cardinal Krol personally.

Despite the dimensions and depth of the sex abuse scandal, this Grand Jury was not conducting an investigation of the Catholic religion or the Catholic Church, Many of us are Catholic. We have the greatest respect for the faith, and for the good works of the Church. But the moral principles on which it is based, as well as the rules of civil law under which we operate, demanded that the truth be told.

Here is a short description of each of the sections that follow this introduction.

Section II -- Overview of the Sexual Abuse by Archdiocese Priests

The Grand Jury was able to document child sexual abuse by at least 63 different priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, We have no doubt that there were many more. The evidence also revealed hundreds of child victims of these sexual offenders. Again, we have no doubt that there were many more. Because much of the abuse goes back several decades, however, and because many victims were unnamed, unavailable or unable to come forward, we could not present a comprehensive history of all sexual abuse that may have occurred in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. What we did learn was enough to convey the nature of the abuse that took place and was tolerated here.

We should begin by making one thing clear. When we say abuse, we don't just mean "inappropriate touching" (as the Archdiocese often chose to refer to it). We mean rape. Boys who were raped orally, boys who were raped anally, girls who were raped vaginally. But even those victims whose physical abuse did not include actual rape -- those who were subjected to fondling, to masturbation, to pornography -- suffered psychological abuse that scarred their lives and sapped the faith in which they had been raised.

These are the kinds of things that Archdiocese priests did to children:

• A girl, 11 years old, was raped by her priest and became pregnant. The Father took her in for an abortion.
• A 5th-grader was molested by her priest inside the confessional booth.
• A teenage girl was groped by her priest while she lay immobilized in traction in a hospital bed. The priest stopped only when the girl was able to ring for a nurse.
• A boy was repeatedly molested in his own school auditorium, where his priest/teacher bent the boy over and rubbed his genitals against the boy until the priest ejaculated.
• A priest, no longer satisfied with mere pederasty, regularly began forcing sex on two boys at once in his bed.
• A boy woke up intoxicated in a priest's bed to find the Father sucking on his penis while three other priests watched and masturbated themselves,
• A priest offered money to boys in exchange for sadomasochism -- directing them to place him in bondage, to "break" him, to make him their "slave," and to defecate so that he could lick excrement from them.
• A 12-year-old, who was raped and sodomized by his priest, tried to commit suicide, and remains institutionalized in a mental hospital as an adult.
• A priest told a 12-year-old boy that his mother knew of and had agreed to the priest's repeated rape of her son.
• A boy who told his father about the abuse his younger brother was suffering was beaten to the point of unconsciousness. "Priests don't do that," said the father as he punished his son for what he thought was a vicious lie against the clergy.

-- Report of the Grand Jury Into Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy in the Philadelphia Archdiocese

In the particular case of Ireland, even without the sexual abuse, the brutality of the Christian Brothers,[138] responsible for the education of a significant proportion of the male population of the country, is legendary. And the same could be said of the often sadistically cruel nuns who ran many of Ireland's girls' schools. The infamous Magdalene Asylums, subject of Peter Mullan's film The Magdalene Sisters, continued in existence until as late as 1996. Forty years on, it is harder to get redress for floggings than for sexual fondlings, and there is no shortage of lawyers actively soliciting custom from victims who might not otherwise have raked over the distant past. There's gold in them thar long-gone fumbles in the vestry -- some of them, indeed, so long gone that the alleged offender is likely to be dead and unable to present his side of the story. The Catholic Church worldwide has paid out more than a billion dollars in compensation. [139] You might almost sympathize with them, until you remember where their money came from in the first place.

Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place. It was an off-the-cuff remark made in the heat of the moment, and I was surprised that it earned a round of enthusiastic applause from that Irish audience (composed, admittedly, of Dublin intellectuals and presumably not representative of the country at large). But I was reminded of the incident later when I received a letter from an American woman in her forties who had been brought up Roman Catholic. At the age of seven, she told me, two unpleasant things had happened to her. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And, around the same time, a little schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant. Or so my correspondent had been led to believe by the then official doctrine of her parents' church. Her view as a mature adult was that, of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other mental, the second was by far the worst. She wrote:

Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as 'yucky' while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest -- but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.

Admittedly, the sexual fondling she suffered in the priest's car was relatively mild compared with, say, the pain and disgust of a sodomized altar boy. And nowadays the Catholic Church is said not to make so much of hell as it once did. But the example shows that it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical. It is said that Alfred Hitchcock, the great cinematic specialist in the art of frightening people, was once driving through Switzerland when he suddenly pointed out of the car window and said, 'That is the most frightening sight I have ever seen.' It was a priest in conversation with a little boy, his hand on the boy's shoulder. Hitchcock leaned out of the car window and shouted, 'Run, little boy! Run for your life!'

"Otell Odono, medal of award and silver plate for having bested by two hours and twenty minutes the record established in the year 1960 in the Night of Silence competition."

-- Temptations of Dr. Antonio, directed by Federico Fellini

'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.' The adage is true as long as you don't really believe the words. But if your whole upbringing, and everything you have ever been told by parents, teachers and priests, has led you to believe, really believe, utterly and completely, that sinners burn in hell (or some other obnoxious article of doctrine such as that a woman is the property of her husband), it is entirely plausible that words could have a more long-lasting and damaging effect than deeds. I am persuaded that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.

In the television documentary Root of All Evil? to which I have already referred, I interviewed a number of religious leaders and was criticized for picking on American extremists rather than respectable mainstreamers like archbishops. [i] It sounds like a fair criticism -- except that, in early 21st-century America, what seems extreme to the outside world is actually mainstream. One of my interviewees who most appalled the British television audience, for example, was Pastor Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs. But, far from being extreme in Bush's America, 'Pastor Ted' is president of the thirty-million-strong National Association of Evangelicals, and he claims to be favoured with a telephone consultation with President Bush every Monday. If I had wanted to interview real extremists by modern American standards, I'd have gone for 'Reconstructionists' whose 'Dominion Theology' openly advocates a Christian theocracy in America. As a concerned American colleague writes to me:

Europeans need to know there is a traveling theofreak show which actually advocates reinstatement of Old Testament law -- killing of homosexuals etc. -- and the right to hold office, or even to vote, for Christians only. Middle class crowds cheer to this rhetoric. If secularists are not vigilant, Dominionists and Reconstructionists will soon be mainstream in a true American theocracy. [ii]

Another of my television interviewees was Pastor Keenan Roberts, from the same state of Colorado as Pastor Ted. Pastor Roberts's particular brand of nuttiness takes the form of what he calls Hell Houses. A Hell House is a place where children are brought, by their parents or their Christian schools, to be scared witless over what might happen to them after they die. Actors play out fearsome tableaux of particular 'sins' like abortion and homosexuality, with a scarlet-clad devil in gloating attendance. These are a prelude to the piece de resistance, Hell Itself, complete with realistic sulphurous smell of burning brimstone and the agonized screams of the forever damned.

After watching a rehearsal, in which the devil was suitably diabolical in the hammed-up style of a villain of Victorian melodrama, I interviewed Pastor Roberts in the presence of his cast. He told me that the optimum age for a child to visit a Hell House is twelve. This shocked me somewhat, and I asked him whether it would worry him if a twelve-year-old child had nightmares after one of his performances. He replied, presumably honestly:

I would rather for them to understand that Hell is a place that they absolutely do not want to go. I would rather reach them with that message at twelve than to not reach them with that message and have them live a life of sin and to never find the Lord Jesus Christ. And if they end up having nightmares, as a result of experiencing this, I think there's a higher good that would ultimately be achieved and accomplished in their life than simply having nightmares.

I suppose that, if you really and truly believed what Pastor Roberts says he believes, you would feel it right to intimidate children too.

We cannot write off Pastor Roberts as an extremist wingnut. Like Ted Haggard, he is mainstream in to day's America. I'd be surprised if even they would buy into the belief of some of their co-religionists that you can hear the screams of the damned if you listen in on volcanoes, [140] and that the giant tube worms found in hot deep-ocean vents are fulfilments of Mark 9: 43-4: 'And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.' Whatever they believe hell is actually like, all these hell-fire enthusiasts seem to share the gloating Schadenfreude and complacency of those who know they are among the saved, well conveyed by that foremost among theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica: 'That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.' Nice man. [iii]

The fear of hell-fire can be very real, even among otherwise rational people. After my television documentary on religion, among the many letters I received was this, from an obviously bright and honest woman:

I went to a Catholic school from the age of five, and was indoctrinated by nuns who wielded straps, sticks and canes. During my teens I read Darwin, and what he said about evolution made such a lot of sense to the logical part of my mind. However, I've gone through life suffering much conflict and a deep down fear of hell fire which gets triggered quite frequently. I've had some psychotherapy which has enabled me to work through some of my earlier problems but can't seem to overcome this deep fear.

So, the reason I'm writing to you is would you send me please the name and address of the therapist you interviewed on this week's programme who deals with this particular fear.

I was moved by her letter, and (suppressing a momentary and ignoble regret that there is no hell for those nuns to go to) replied that she should trust in her reason as a great gift which she -- unlike less fortunate people -- obviously possessed. I suggested that the extreme horribleness of hell, as portrayed by priests and nuns, is inflated to compensate for its implausibility. If hell were plausible, it would only have to be moderately unpleasant in order to deter. Given that it is so unlikely to be true, it has to be advertised as very very scary indeed, to balance its implausibility and retain some deterrence value. I also put her in touch with the therapist she mentioned, Jill Mytton, a delightful and deeply sincere woman whom I had interviewed on camera. Jill had herself been raised in a more than usually odious sect called the Exclusive Brethren: so unpleasant that there is even a website, entirely devoted to caring for those who have escaped from it.

Jill Mytton was brought up to be terrified of hell, escaped from Christianity as an adult, and now counsels and helps others similarly traumatized in childhood: 'If I think back to my childhood, it's one dominated by fear. And it was the fear of disapproval while in the present, but also of eternal damnation. And for a child, images of hell-fire and gnashing of teeth are actually very real. They are not metaphorical at all.' I then asked her to spell out what she had actually been told about hell, as a child, and her eventual reply was as moving as her expressive face during the long hesitation before she answered: 'It's strange, isn't it? After all this time it still has the power to ... affect me ... when you ... when you ask me that question. Hell is a fearful place. It's complete rejection by God. It's complete judgement, there is real fire, there is real torment, real torture, and it goes on for ever so there is no respite from it.'

She went on to tell me of the support group she runs for escapees from a childhood similar to her own, and she dwelt on how difficult it is for many of them to leave: 'The process of leaving is extraordinarily difficult. Ah, you are leaving behind a whole social network, a whole system that you've practically been brought up in, you are leaving behind a belief-system that you have held for years. Very often you leave families and friends ... You don't really exist any more for them.' I was able to chime in with my own experience of letters from people in America saying they have read my books and have given up their religion as a consequence. Disconcertingly many go on to say that they daren't tell their families, or that they have told their families with terrible results. The following is typical. The writer is a young American medical student.

I felt the urge to write you an email because I share your view on religion, a view that is, as I'm sure you're aware, isolating in America. I grew up in a Christian family and even though the idea of religion never sat well with me I only recently got up the nerve to tell someone. That someone was my girlfriend who was ... horrified. I realize that a declaration of atheism could be shocking but now it's as if she views me as a completely different person. She can't trust me, she says, because my morals don't come from God. I don't know if we'll get past this, and I don't particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the same reaction of distaste ... I don't expect a response. I only write to you because I hoped you'd sympathize and share in my frustration. Imagine losing someone you loved, and who loved you, on the basis of religion. Aside from her view that I'm now a Godless heathen we were perfect for each other. It reminds me of your observation that people do insane things in the name of their faith. Thanks for listening.

I replied to this unfortunate young man, pointing out to him that, while his girlfriend had discovered something about him, he too had discovered something about her. Was she really good enough for him? I doubted it.

I have already mentioned the American comic actor Julia Sweeney and her dogged and endearingly humorous struggle to find some redeeming features in religion and to rescue the God of her childhood from her growing adult doubts. Eventually her quest ended happily, and she is now an admirable role model for young atheists everywhere. The denouement is perhaps the most moving scene of her show Letting Go of God. She had tried everything. And then ...

... as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I'm not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, 'There is no god.'

And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. 'There is no god. There is no god. Oh my god, there is no god.' ...

And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft.

And then I thought, 'But I can't. I don't know if I can not believe in God. I need God. I mean, we have a history' ...

'But I don't know how to not believe in God. I don't know how you do it. How do you get up, how do you get through the day?' I felt unbalanced ...

I thought, 'Okay, calm down. Let's just try on the not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off.' And I put them on and I looked around.

I'm embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, 'Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we're just hurtling through space? That's so vulnerable!' 1wanted to run out and catch the Earth as it fell out of space into my hands.

And then 1 remembered, 'Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a long, long time.'

When I saw Letting Go of God in a Los Angeles theatre I was deeply moved by this scene. Especially when Julia went on to tell us of her parents' reaction to a press report of her cure:

My first call from my mother was more of a scream. 'Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!'

My dad called and said, 'You have betrayed your family, your school, your city.' It was like I had sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they weren't going to talk to me any more. My dad said, 'I don't even want you to come to my funeral.' After I hung up, I thought, 'Just try and stop me.'

Part of Julia Sweeney's gift is to make you cry and laugh at the same time:

I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I'd said I didn't believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether.

Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist is the story of his gradual conversion from devout fundamentalist minister and zealous travelling preacher to the strong and confident atheist he is today. Significantly, Barker continued to go through the motions of preaching Christianity for a while after he had become an atheist, because it was the only career he knew and he felt locked into a web of social obligations. He now knows many other American clergymen who are in the same position as he was but have confided only in him, having read his book. They dare not admit their atheism even to their own families, so terrible is the anticipated reaction. Barker's own story had a happier conclusion. To begin with, his parents were deeply and agonizingly shocked. But they listened to his quiet reasoning, and eventually became atheists themselves.

Two professors from one university in America wrote to me independently about their parents. One said that his mother suffers permanent grief because she fears for his immortal soul. The other one said that his father wishes he had never been born, so convinced is he that his son is going to spend eternity in hell. These are highly educated university professors, confident in their scholarship and their maturity, who have presumably left their parents behind in all matters of the intellect, not just religion. Just think what the ordeal must be like for less intellectually robust people, less equipped by education and rhetorical skill than they are, or than Julia Sweeney is, to argue their corner in the face of obdurate family members. As it was for many of Jill Mytton's patients, perhaps.

Earlier in our televised conversation, Jill had described this kind of religious upbringing as a form of mental abuse, and I returned to the point, as follows: 'You use the words religious abuse. If you were to compare the abuse of bringing up a child really to believe in hell ... how do you think that would compare in trauma terms with sexual abuse?' She replied: 'That's a very difficult question ... I think there are a lot of similarities actually, because it is about abuse of trust; it is about denying the child the right to feel free and open and able to relate to the world in the normal way ... it's a form of denigration; it's a form of denial of the true self in both cases.'
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Re: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Postby admin » Sat Sep 19, 2015 7:37 pm

Part 2 of 2


My colleague the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey used the 'sticks and stones' proverb in introducing his Amnesty Lecture in Oxford in 1997. [141] Humphrey began his lecture by arguing that the proverb is not always true, citing the case of Haitian Voodoo believers who die, apparently from some psychosomatic effect of terror, within days of having a malign 'spell' cast upon them. He then asked whether Amnesty International, the beneficiary of the lecture series to which he was contributing, should campaign against hurtful or damaging speeches or publications. His answer was a resounding no to such censorship in general: 'Freedom of speech is too precious a freedom to be meddled with.' But he then went on to shock his liberal self by advocating one important exception: to argue in favour of censorship for the special case of children ...

... moral and religious education, and especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed -- even expected -- to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Children, I'll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people's bad ideas -- no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children's knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible or that the· planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

Of course, such a strong statement needs, and received, much qualification. Isn't it a matter of opinion what is nonsense? Hasn't the applecart of orthodox science been upset often enough to chasten us into caution? Scientists may think it is nonsense to teach astrology and the literal truth of the Bible, but there are others who think the opposite, and aren't they entitled to teach it to their children? Isn't it just as arrogant to insist that children should be taught science?

I thank my own parents for taking the view that children should be taught not so much what to think as how to think. If, having been fairly and properly exposed to all the scientific evidence, they grow up and decide that the Bible is literally true or that the movements of the planets rule their lives, that is their privilege. The important point is that it is their privilege to decide what they shall think, and not their parents' privilege to impose it by force majeure. And this, of course, is especially important when we reflect that children become the parents of the next generation, in a position to pass on whatever indoctrination may have moulded them.

Humphrey suggests that, as long as children are young, vulnerable and in need of protection, truly moral guardianship shows itself in an honest attempt to second-guess what they would choose for themselves if they were old enough to do so. He movingly quotes the example of a young Inca girl whose 500-year-old remains were found frozen in the mountains of Peru in 1995. The anthropologist who discovered her wrote that she had been the victim of a ritual sacrifice. By Humphrey's account, a documentary film about this young 'ice maiden' was shown on American television. Viewers were invited

to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the television programme was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention -- another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.

Humphrey is scandalized, and so am I.

Yet, how dare anyone even suggest this? How dare they invite us -- in our sitting rooms, watching television -- to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men? How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?

Again, the decent liberal reader may feel a twinge of unease. Immoral by our standards, certainly, and stupid, but what about Inca standards? Surely, to the Incas, the sacrifice was a moral act and far from stupid, sanctioned by all that they held sacred? The little girl was, no doubt, a loyal believer in the religion in which she was brought up. Who are we to use a word like 'murder', judging Inca priests by our own standards rather than theirs? Perhaps this girl was rapturously happy with her fate: perhaps she really believed she was going straight to everlasting paradise, warmed by the radiant company of the Sun God. Or perhaps -- as seems far more likely -- she screamed in terror.

Humphrey's point -- and mine -- is that, regardless of whether she was a willing victim or not, there is strong reason to suppose that she would not have been willing if she had been in full possession of the facts. For example, suppose she had known that the sun is really a ball of hydrogen, hotter than a million degrees Kelvin, converting itself into helium by nuclear fusion, and that it originally formed from a disc of gas out of which the rest of the solar system, including Earth, also condensed ... Presumably, then, she would not have worshipped it as a god, and this would have altered her perspective on being sacrificed to propitiate it.

The Inca priests cannot be blamed for their ignorance, and it could perhaps be thought harsh to judge them stupid and puffed up. But they can be blamed for foisting their 0wn beliefs on a child too young to decide whether to worship the sun or not. Humphrey's additional point is that today's documentary film makers, and we their audience, can be blamed for seeing beauty in that little girl's death -- 'something that enriches our collective culture'. The same tendency to glory in the quaintness of ethnic religious habits, and to justify cruelties in their name, crops up again and again. It is the source of squirming internal conflict in the minds of nice liberal people who, on the one hand, cannot bear suffering and cruelty, but on the other hand have been trained by postmodernists and relativists to respect other cultures no less than their own. Female genital mutilation (sometimes called circumcision) is undoubtedly hideously painful, it sabotages sexual pleasure in women (indeed, this is probably its underlying purpose), and one half of the decent liberal mind wants to abolish the practice. The other half, however, 'respects' ethnic cultures and feels that we should not interfere if 'they' want to mutilate 'their' girls. [iv] The point, of course, is that 'their' girls are actually the girls' own girls, and their wishes should not be ignored. Trickier to answer, what if a girl says she wants to be circumcised? But would she, with the hindsight of a fully informed adult, wish that it had never happened? Humphrey makes the point that no adult woman who has somehow missed out on circumcision as a child volunteers for the operation later in life.

After a discussion of the Amish, and their right to bring up 'their own' children in 'their own' way, Humphrey is scathing about our enthusiasm as a society for

maintaining cultural diversity. All right, you may want to say, so it's tough on a child of the Amish, or the Hasidim, or the gypsies to be shaped up by their parents in the ways they are -- but at least the result is that these fascinating cultural traditions continue. Would not our whole civilization be impoverished if they were to go? It's a shame, maybe, when individuals have to be sacrificed to maintain such diversity. But there it is: it's the price we pay as a society. Except, I would feel bound to remind you, we do not pay it, they do.

The issue came to public attention in 1972 when the US Supreme Court ruled on a test case, Wisconsin versus Yoder, which concerned the right of parents to withdraw their children from school on religious grounds. The Amish people live in closed communities in various parts of the United States, mostly speaking an archaic dialect of German called Pennsylvania Dutch and eschewing, to varying extents, electricity, internal combustion engines, zippers and other manifestations of modern life. There is, indeed, something attractively quaint about an island of seventeenth-century life as a spectacle for today's eyes. Isn't it worth preserving, for the sake of the enrichment of human diversity? And the only way to preserve it is to allow the Amish to educate their own children in their own way, and protect them from the corrupting influence of modernity. But, we surely want to ask, shouldn't the children themselves have some say in the matter?

The Supreme Court was asked to rule in 1972, when some Amish parents in Wisconsin withdrew their children from high school. The very idea of education beyond a certain age was contrary to Amish religious values, and scientific education especially so. The State of Wisconsin took the parents to court, claiming that the children were being deprived of their right to an education. After passing up through the courts, the case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, which handed down a split (6:1) decision in favour of the parents. [142] The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, included the following: 'As the record shows, compulsory school attendance to age 16 for Amish children carries with it a very real threat of undermining the Amish community and religious practice as they exist today; they must either abandon belief and be assimilated into society at large, or be forced to migrate to some other and more tolerant region.'

Justice William O. Douglas's minority opinion was that the children themselves should have been consulted. Did they really want to cut short their education? Did they, indeed, really want to stay in the Amish religion? Nicholas Humphrey would have gone further. Even if the children had been asked and had expressed a preference for the Amish religion, can we suppose that they would have done so if they had been educated and informed about the available alternatives? For this to be plausible, shouldn't there be examples of young people from the outside world voting with their feet and volunteering to join the Amish? Justice Douglas went further in a slightly different direction. He saw no particular reason to give the religious views of parents special status in deciding how far they should be allowed to deprive their children of education. If religion is grounds for exemption, might there not be secular beliefs that also qualify?

The majority of the Supreme Court drew a parallel with some of the positive values of monastic orders, whose presence in our society arguably enriches it. But, as Humphrey points out, there is a crucial difference. Monks volunteer for the monastic life of their own free will. Amish children never volunteered to be Amish; they were born into it and they had no choice.

There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of 'diversity' and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part is made to feel very queasy indeed.


The Prime Minister of my country, Tony Blair, invoked 'diversity' when challenged in the House of Commons by Jenny Tonge MP to justify government subsidy of a school in the north-east of England that (almost uniquely in Britain) teaches literal biblical creationism. Mr. Blair replied that it would be unfortunate if concerns about that issue were to interfere with our getting 'as diverse a school system as we properly can'. [143] The school in question, Emmanuel College in Gateshead, is one of the 'city academies' set up in a proud initiative of the Blair government. Rich benefactors are encouraged to put up a relatively small sum of money (£2 million in the case of Emmanuel), which buys a much larger sum of government money (£20 million for the school, plus running costs and salaries in perpetuity), and also buys the benefactor the right to control the ethos of the school, the appointment of a majority of the school governors, the policy for exclusion or inclusion of pupils, and much else.

Emmanuel's 10 per cent benefactor is Sir Peter Vardy, a wealthy car salesman with a creditable desire to give today's children the education he wishes he had had, and a less creditable desire to imprint his personal religious convictions upon them. [v] Vardy has unfortunately become embroiled with a clique of American-inspired fundamentalist teachers, led by Nigel McQuoid, sometime headmaster of Emmanuel and now director of a whole consortium of Vardy schools. The level of McQuoid's scientific understanding can be judged from his belief that the world is less than ten thousand years old, and also from the following quotation: 'But to think that we just evolved from a bang, that we used to be monkeys, that seems unbelievable when you look at the complexity of the human body ... If you tell children there is no purpose to their life -- that they are just a chemical mutation -- that doesn't build self-esteem.' [144]

No scientist has ever suggested that a child is a 'chemical mutation'. The use of the phrase in such a context is illiterate nonsense, on a par with the declarations of 'Bishop' Wayne Malcolm, leader of the Christian Life City church in Hackney, east London, who, according to the Guardian of 18 April 2006, 'disputes the scientific evidence for evolution'. Malcolm's understanding of the evidence he disputes can be gauged from his statement that 'There is clearly an absence in the fossil record for intermediate levels of development. If a frog turned into a monkey, shouldn't you have lots of fronkies?'

Well, science is not Mr. McQuoid's subject either, so we should, in fairness, turn to his head of science, Stephen Layfield, instead. On 21 September 2001, Mr. Layfield gave a lecture at Emmanuel College on 'The Teaching of Science: A Biblical Perspective'. The text of the lecture was posted on a Christian website ( But you won't find it there now. The Christian Institute removed the lecture the very day after I had called attention to it in an article in the Daily Telegraph on 18 March 2002, where I subjected it to a critical dissection. [145] It is hard, however, to delete something permanently from the World Wide Web. Search engines achieve their speed partly by keeping caches of information, and these inevitably persist for a while even after the originals have been deleted. An alert British journalist, Andrew Brown, the Independent's first religious affairs correspondent, promptly located the Layfield lecture, downloaded it from the Google cache and posted it, safe from deletion, on his own website, You will notice that the words chosen by Brown for the URL make entertaining reading in themselves. They lose their power to amuse, however, when we look at the content of the lecture itself.

Incidentally, when a curious reader wrote to Emmanuel College to ask why the lecture had been removed from the website, he received the following disingenuous reply from the school, again recorded by Andrew Brown:

Emmanuel College has been at the centre of a debate regarding the teaching of creation in schools. At a practical level Emmanuel College has had a huge number of press calls. This has involved a considerable amount of time for the Principal and senior Directors of the College. All of these people have other jobs to do. In order to assist we have temporarily removed a lecture by Stephen Layfield from our website.

Of course, the school officials may well have been too busy to explain to journalists their stance on teaching creationism. But why, then, remove from their website the text of a lecture that does precisely that, and to which they could have referred the journalists, thereby saving themselves a great deal of time? No, they removed their head of science's lecture because they recognized that they had something to hide. The following paragraph is from the beginning of his lecture:

Let us state then right from the start that we reject the notion popularised, perhaps inadvertently, by Francis Bacon in the 17th century that there are 'Two Books' (Le. the Book of nature & the Scriptures) which may be mined independently for truth. Rather, we stand firm upon the bare proposition that God has spoken authoritatively and inerrantly in the pages of holy Scripture. However fragile, old-fashioned or naive this assertion may ostensibly appear, especially to an unbelieving, TV-drunk modern culture, we can be sure that it is as robust a foundation as it is possible to lay down and build upon.

You have to keep pinching yourself. You are not dreaming. This is not some preacher in a tent in Alabama but the head of science at a school into which the British government is pouring money, and which is Tony Blair's pride and joy. A devout Christian himself, Mr. Blair in 2004 performed the ceremonial opening of one of the later additions to the Vardy fleet of schools. [146] Diversity may be a virtue, but this is diversity gone mad.

Layfield proceeds to itemize the comparison between science and scripture, concluding, in every case where there seems to be a conflict, that scripture is to be preferred. Noting that earth science is now included in the national curriculum, Layfield says, 'It would seem particularly prudent for all who deliver this aspect of the course to familiarise themselves with the Flood geology papers of Whitcomb & Morris.' Yes, 'Flood geology' means what you think it means. We're talking Noah's Ark here. Noah's Ark! -- when the children could be learning the spine-tingling fact that Africa and South America were once joined, and have drawn apart at the speed with which fingernails grow. Here's more from Layfield (the head of science) on Noah's flood as the recent and rapid explanation for phenomena which, according to real geological evidence, took hundreds of millions of years to grind out:

We must acknowledge within our grand geophysical paradigm the historicity of a world-wide flood as outlined in Gen 6-10. If the Biblical narrative is secure and the listed genealogies (e.g. Gen 5; 1 Chro 1; Matt 1 & Lu 3) are substantially full, we must reckon that this global catastrophe took place in the relatively recent past. Its effects are everywhere abundantly apparent. Principal evidence is found in the fossil-laden sedimentary rocks, the extensive reserves of hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the 'legendary' accounts of just such a great flood common to various population groups world-wide. The feasibility of maintaining an ark full of representative creatures for a year until the waters had sufficiently receded has been well documented by, among others, John Woodmorrappe.

In a way this is even worse than the utterances of know-nothings like Nigel McQuoid or Bishop Wayne Malcolm quoted above, because Layfield is educated in science. Here's another astonishing passage:

As we stated at the beginning, Christians, with very good reason, reckon the Scriptures of the Old & New Testaments a reliable guide concerning just what we are to believe. They are not merely religious documents. They provide us with a true account of Earth history which we ignore at our peril.

The implication that the scriptures provide a literal account of geological history would make any reputable theologian wince. My friend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, and I wrote a joint letter to Tony Blair, and we got it signed by eight bishops and nine senior scientists. [147] The nine scientists included the then President of the Royal Society (previously Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser), both the biological and physical secretaries of the Royal Society, the Astronomer Royal (now President of the Royal Society), the director of the Natural History Museum, and Sir David Attenborough, perhaps the most respected man in England. The bishops included one Roman Catholic' 'and seven Anglican bishops -- senior religious leaders from all around England. We received a perfunctory and inadequate reply from the Prime Minister's office, referring to the school's good examination results and its good report from the official schools inspection agency, OFSTED. It apparently didn't occur to Mr. Blair that, if the OFSTED inspectors give a rave report to a school whose head of science teaches that the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog, there just might be something a teeny weeny bit wrong with the standards of the inspectorate.

Perhaps the most disturbing section of Stephen Layfield's lecture is his concluding 'What can be done?', where he considers the tactics to be employed by those teachers wishing to introduce fundamentalist Christianity into the science classroom. For example, he urges science teachers to

note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement. Wherever possible, we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data. We shall look at a few examples from each of Physics, Chemistry & Biology in due course.

The rest of Layfield's lecture is nothing less than a propaganda manual, a resource for religious teachers of biology, chemistry and physics who wish, while remaining just inside the guidelines of the national curriculum, to subvert evidence-based science education and replace it with biblical scripture.

On 15 April 2006, James Naughtie, one of the BBC's most experienced anchormen, interviewed Sir Peter Vardy on radio. The main subject of the interview was a police investigation of allegations, denied by Vardy, that bribes -- knighthoods and peerages -- had been offered by the Blair government to rich men, in an attempt to get them to subscribe to the city academies scheme. Naughtie also asked Vardy about the creationism issue, and Vardy categorically denied that Emmanuel promotes young-Earth creationism to its pupils. One of Emmanuel's alumni, Peter French, has equally categorically stated, [148] 'We were taught that the earth was 6000 years old.' [vi] Who is telling the truth here? Well, we don't know, but Stephen Layfield's lecture lays out his policy for teaching science pretty candidly. Has Vardy never read Layfield's very explicit manifesto? Does he really not know what his head of science has been up to? Peter Vardy made his money selling used cars. Would you buy one from him? And would you, like Tony Blair, sell him a school for 10 per cent of its price -- throwing in an offer to pay all his running costs into the bargain? Let's be charitable to Blair and assume that he, at least, has not read the Layfield lecture. I suppose it is too much to hope that his attention may now be drawn to it.

Headmaster McQuoid offered a defence of what he clearly saw as his school's open-mindedness, which is remarkable for its patronizing complacency:

the best example I can give of what it is like here is a sixth-form philosophy lecture I was giving. Shaquille was sitting there and he says, 'The Koran is correct and true.' And Clare, over here, says, 'No, the Bible is true.' So we talked about the similarities between what they say and the places where they disagree. And we agreed that they could not both be true. And eventually I said, 'Sorry Shaquille, you are wrong, it is the Bible that is true.' And he said, 'Sorry Mr. McQuoid, you are wrong, it is the Koran.' And they went on to lunch and carried on discussing it there. That's what we want. We want children to know why it is they believe what they believe and to defend it. [149]

What a charming picture! Shaquille and Clare went to lunch together, vigorously arguing their cases and defending their incompatible beliefs. But is it really so charming? Isn't it actually rather a deplorable picture that Mr. McQuoid has painted? Upon what, after all, did Shaquille and Clare base their argument? What cogent evidence was each one able to bring to bear, in their vigorous and constructive debate? Clare and Shaquille each simply asserted that her or his holy book was superior, and that was that. That is apparently all they said, and that, indeed, is all you can say when you have been taught that truth comes from scripture rather than from evidence. Clare and Shaquille and their fellows were not being educated. They were being let down by their school, and their school principal was abusing, not their bodies, but their minds.


And now, here's another charming picture. At Christmas-time one year my daily newspaper, the Independent, was looking for a seasonal image and found a heart-warmingly ecumenical one at a school nativity play. The Three Wise Men were played by, as the caption glowingly said, Shadbreet (a Sikh), Musharaff (a Muslim) and Adele (a Christian), all aged four.

Charming? Heart-warming? No, it is not, it is neither; it is grotesque. How could any decent person think it right to label four-year-old children with the cosmic and theological opinions of their parents? To see this, imagine an identical photograph, with the caption changed as follows: 'Shadbreet (a Keynesian), Musharaff (a Monetarist) and Adele (a Marxist), all aged four.' Wouldn't this be a candidate for irate letters of protest? It certainly should be. Yet, because of the weirdly privileged status of religion, not a squeak was heard, nor is it ever heard on any similar occasion. Just imagine the outcry if the caption had read, 'Shadbreet (an Atheist), Musharaff (an Agnostic) and Adele (a Secular Humanist), all aged four.' Mightn't the parents actually be investigated to see if they were fit to bring up children? In Britain, where we lack a constitutional separation between church and state, atheist parents usually go with the flow and let schools teach their children whatever religion prevails in the culture. '' (an American initiative to rebrand atheists as 'Brights' in the same way as homosexuals successfully rebranded themselves as 'gays') is scrupulous in setting out the rules for children to sign up: 'The decision to be a Bright must be the child's. Any youngster who is told he or she must, or should, be a Bright can NOT be a Bright.' Can you even begin to imagine a church or mosque issuing such a self-denying ordinance? But shouldn't they be compelled to do so? Incidentally, I signed up to the Brights, partly because I was genuinely curious whether such a word could be memetically engineered into the language. I don't know, and would like to, whether the transmutation of 'gay' was deliberately engineered or whether it just happened. [150] The Brights campaign got off to a shaky start when it was furiously denounced by some atheists, petrified of being branded 'arrogant'. The Gay Pride movement, fortunately, suffers from no such false modesty, which may be why it succeeded.

Why the Hell everybody thinks [the Bavarian Illuminati] make such a Secret out of themselves? I mean its not like the Brights are trying to hide themselves or that you can't get a Membership easily. They even have their own Website

-- DeHerg,

The noun bright was coined by Geisert as a positive-sounding umbrella term, and Futrell defined it as "an individual whose worldview is naturalistic (free from supernatural and mystical elements)". Daniel Dennett has since suggested that people that believe in the supernatural could choose to be referred to as supers. As of 2009, the Brights' Net tagline is "Illuminating and Elevating the Naturalistic Worldview".

-- Brights Movement, by Wikipedia

Know, O man, that Light is thine heritage. Know that darkness is only a veil. Sealed in thine heart is brightness eternal, waiting the moment of freedom to conquer, waiting to rend the veil of the night.


In an earlier chapter, I generalized the theme of 'consciousness-raising', starting with the achievement of feminists in making us flinch when we hear a phrase like 'men of goodwill' instead of 'people of goodwill'. Here I want to raise consciousness in another way. I think we should all wince when we hear a small child being labelled as belonging to some particular religion or another. Small children are too young to decide their views on the origins of the cosmos, of life and of morals. The very sound of the phrase 'Christian child' or 'Muslim child' should grate like fingernails on a blackboard.

Here is a report, dated 3 September 2001, from the Irish Aires show on the American radio station KPFT-FM.

Catholic schoolgirls faced protests from Loyalists as they attempted to enter the Holy Cross Girls' Primary School on the Ardoyne Road in north Belfast. Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers and British Army (BA) soldiers had to clear the protestors who were attempting to blockade the school. Crash barriers were erected to allow the children to get through the protest to the school. Loyalists jeered and shouted sectarian abuse as the children, some as young as four years of age, were escorted by the parents into the school. As children and parents entered the front gate of the school Loyalists threw bottles and stones.

Naturally, any decent person will wince at the ordeal of these unfortunate schoolgirls. I am trying to encourage us to wince, too, at the very idea of labelling them 'Catholic schoolgirls' at all. ('Loyalists', as I pointed out in Chapter 1, is the mealy-mouthed Northern Ireland euphemism for Protestants, just as 'Nationalists' is the euphemism for Catholics. People who do not hesitate to brand children 'Catholics' or 'Protestants' stop short of applying those same religious labels -- far more appropriately -- to adult terrorists and mobs.)

Our society, including the non-religious sector, has accepted the preposterous idea that it is normal and right to indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them -- 'Catholic child', 'Protestant child', 'Jewish child', 'Muslim child', etc. -- although no other comparable labels: no conservative children, no liberal children, no Republican children, no Democrat children. Please, please raise your consciousness about this, and raise the roof whenever you hear it happening. A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a 'child of Muslim parents' will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -- or reject -- when she becomes old enough to do so.

A good case can indeed be made for the educational benefits of teaching comparative religion. Certainly my own doubts were first aroused, at the age of about nine, by the lesson (which came not from school but from my parents) that the Christian religion in which I was brought up was only one of many mutually incompatible belief-systems. Religious apologists themselves realize this and it often frightens them. After that nativity play story in the Independent, not a single letter to the Editor complained of the religious labelling of the four-year-olds. The only negative letter came from 'The Campaign for Real Education', whose spokesman, Nick Seaton, said multi-faith religious education was extremely dangerous because 'Children these days are taught that all religions are of equal worth, which means that their own has no special value.' Yes indeed; that is exactly what it means. Well might this spokesman worry. On another occasion, the same individual said, 'To present all faiths as equally valid is wrong. Everybody is entitled to think their faith is superior to others, be they Hindus, Jews, Muslims or Christians -- otherwise what's the point in having faith?' [151]

What indeed? And what transparent nonsense this is! These faiths are mutually incompatible. Otherwise what is the point of thinking your faith superior? Most of them, therefore, cannot be 'superior to others'. Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any are 'valid', let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.


I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was. Or maybe it isn't a decade thing. As long ago as 1954, according to Robert Hinde in his thoughtful book Why Gods Persist, a Gallup poll in the United States of America found the following. Three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants could not name a single Old Testament prophet. More than two-thirds didn't know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. A substantial number thought that Moses was one of Jesus's twelve apostles. That, to repeat, was in the United States, which is dramatically more religious than other parts of the developed world.

The King James Bible of 1611 -- the Authorized Version -- includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right, for example the Song of Songs, and the sublime Ecclesiastes (which I am told is pretty good in the original Hebrew too). But the main reason the English Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture. The same applies to the legends of the Greek and Roman gods, and we learn about them without being asked to believe in them. Here is a quick list of biblical, or Bible-inspired, phrases and sentences that occur commonly in literary or conversational English, from great poetry to hackneyed cliche, from proverb to gossip.

Be fruitful and multiply • East of Eden • Adam's Rib • Am I my brother's keeper? • The mark of Cain • As old as Methuselah • A mess of pottage • Sold his birthright • Jacob's ladder • Coat of many colours • Amid the alien corn • Eyeless in Gaza • The fat of the land • The fatted calf • Stranger in a strange land • Burning bush • A land flowing with milk and honey • Let my people go • Flesh pots • An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth • Be sure your sin will find you out • The apple of his eye • The stars in their courses • Butter in a lordly dish • The hosts of Midian • Shibboleth • Out of the strong came forth sweetness • He smote them hip and thigh • Philistine • A man after his own heart • Like David and Jonathan • Passing the love of women • How are the mighty fallen? • Ewe lamb • Man of Belial • Jezebel • Queen of Sheba • Wisdom of Solomon • The half was not told me • Girded up his loins • Drew a bow at a venture • Job's comforters • The patience of Job • I am escaped with the skin of my teeth • The price of wisdom is above rubies • Leviathan • Go to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise • Spare the rod and spoil the child • A word in season • Vanity of vanities • To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose • The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong • Of making many books there is no end • I am the rose of Sharon • A garden inclosed • The little foxes • Many waters cannot quench love • Beat their swords into plowshares • Grind the faces of the poor • The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid • Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die • Set thine house in order • A voice crying in the wilderness • No peace for the wicked • See eye to eye • Cut off out of the land of the living • Balm in Gilead • Can the leopard change his spots? • The parting of the ways • A Daniel in the lions' den • They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind • Sodom and Gomorrah • Man shall not live by bread alone • Get thee behind me Satan • The salt of the earth • Hide your light under a bushel • Turn the other cheek • Go the extra mile • Moth and rust doth corrupt • Cast your pearls before swine • Wolf in sheep's clothing • Weeping and gnashing of teeth • Gadarene swine • New wine in old bottles • Shake off the dust of your feet • He that is not with me is against me • Judgement of Solomon • Fell upon stony ground • A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country • The crumbs from the table • Sign of the times • Den of thieves • Pharisee • Whited sepulchre • Wars and rumours of wars • Good and faithful servant • Separate the sheep from the goats • I wash my hands of it • The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath • Suffer the little children • The widow's mite • Physician heal thyself • Good Samaritan • Passed by on the other side • Grapes of wrath • Lost sheep • Prodigal son • A great gulf fixed • Whose shoe latchet I am not worthy to unloose • Cast the first stone • Jesus wept • Greater love hath no man than this • Doubting Thomas • Road to Damascus • A law unto himself • Through a glass darkly • Death, where is thy sting? • A thorn in the flesh • Fallen from grace • Filthy lucre • The root of all evil • Fight the good fight • All flesh is as grass • The weaker vessel • I am Alpha and Omega • Armageddon • De profundis • Quo vadis • Rain on the just and on the unjust

Every one of these idioms, phrases or cliches comes directly from the King James Authorized Version of the Bible. Surely ignorance of the Bible is bound to impoverish one's appreciation of English literature? And not just solemn and serious literature. The following rhyme by Lord Justice Bowen is' ingeniously witty:

The rain it raineth on the just,
And also on the unjust fella.
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just's umbrella.

But the enjoyment is muffled if you can't take the allusion to Matthew 5: 45 ('For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust'). And the fine point of Eliza Dolittle's fantasy in My Fair Lady would escape anybody ignorant of John the Baptist's end:

'Thanks a lot, King: says I in a manner well bred,
'But all I want is 'Enry 'Iggins' 'ead.'

P. G. Wodehouse is, for my money, the greatest writer of light comedy in English, and I bet fully half my list of biblical phrases will be found as allusions within his pages. (A Google search will not find all of them, however. It will miss the derivation of the short-story title 'The Aunt and the Sluggard', from Proverbs 6: 6.) The Wodehouse canon is rich in other biblical phrases, not in my list above and not incorporated into the language as idioms or proverbs. Listen to Bertie Wooster's evocation of what it is like to wake up with a bad hangover: 'I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head -- not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.' Bertie himself was immensely proud of his only scholastic achievement, the prize he once earned for scripture knowledge.

What is true of comic writing in English is more obviously true of serious literature. Naseeb Shaheen's tally of more than thirteen hundred biblical references in Shakespeare's works is widely cited and very believable. [152] The Bible Literacy Report published in Fairfax, Virginia (admittedly financed by the infamous Templeton Foundation) provides many examples, and cites overwhelming agreement by teachers of English literature that biblical literacy is essential to full appreciation of their subject. [153] Doubtless the equivalent is true of French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and other great European literatures. And, for speakers of Arabic and Indian languages, knowledge of the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita is presumably just as essential for full appreciation of their literary heritage. Finally, to round off the list, you can't appreciate Wagner (whose music, as has been wittily said, is better than it sounds) without knowing your way around the Norse gods.

Let me not labour the point. I have probably said enough to convince at least my older readers that an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. And of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals; without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.



i. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi of Britain were all invited to be interviewed by me. All declined, doubtless for good reasons. The Bishop of Oxford agreed, and he was as delightful, and as far from being extremist, as they surely would have been.

ii. The following seems to be real, although I at first suspected a satirical hoax by The Onion: It is a computer game called Left Behind: Eternal Forces. P. Z. Myers sums it up on his excellent Pharyngula website. 'Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life ... You are on a mission -- both a religious mission and a military mission -- to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state ...' See ... _1bef.php; for a review, see ... F1071FFD3C 550C718CDDAA0894DE404482.

iii. Compare Ann Coulter's charming Christian charity: 'I defy any of my coreligionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell' (Coulter 2006: 268).

iv. It is a regular practice in Britain today. A senior Schools Inspector told me of London girls in 2006 being sent to an 'uncle' in Bradford to be circumcised. Authorities turn a blind eye, for fear of being thought racist in 'the community'.

v. H. L. Mencken was prophetic when he wrote: 'Deep within the heart of every evangelist lies the wreck of a car salesman.'

vi. To get an idea of the scale of this error, it is equivalent to believing that the distance from New York to San Francisco is 7.8 yards.
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