BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 1.
Chapter One: A deeply religious non-believer
I won’t recount the contents of each chapter, as I am assuming you will have read them. Instead I will pull out a few points I think of particular interest.
Much of this first chapter is devoted to explaining that while scientists will sometimes talk about God – e.g. Einstein and Hawking both do – they use the word in an unusual way. Einstein, as Dawkins clearly, shows, did not believe in any sort of personal God or creator/designer God, and was perhaps something of a Spinozistic pantheist.
Dawkins next turns his attention to the special reverence and privilege that he believes attaches, quite undeservedly, to religious belief.
There are two issues here:
(i) are religious beliefs and views given special privileges and respect? and
(ii) if so, do they deserve those privileges and that respect?
Dawkins answer to (i) is yes, they are, and it seems hard to deny he is right about that. What Dawkins does not address, certainly in this chapter, is whether a case might be made for answering “yes” to the second question. Dawkins here just assumes the answer to (ii) is “no”. Some religious readers will want to argue the correct answer is “yes”
Actually, I looked at some of the most obvious arguments for a “yes” answer to (ii) in this article I posted a few months ago, if you are interested in pursuing this point. I explain that (i) the onus is on those who think the religious and their beliefs are due special respect to justify this discrimination in their favour (if they cannot, they are guilty of simple prejudice), and (ii) I can find no good justification for privileging religious beliefs in this way. Certainly, the most obvious justifications fail spectacularly.
I, like Dawkins, am particularly struck by the way religious experts are called on whenever an ethical issue is debated. As Dawkins observes:
“whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio and television. I am not suggesting we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer, or a doctor?”
Well, there are reasons the religious will give to justify giving religious perspectives a platform, alongside such other experts, and some might yet be good reasons. Here are some:
(i) religion has, historically, tended to be one of the main forums in which such ethical questions have been raised and addressed.
(ii) religious leaders have often thought harder and longer about ethical issues than most of us
(iii) religious leaders may have built up some expertise dealing face to face with people struggling problems and trying to offer help and advice.
(iv) religious leaders represent large groups defined in large part by their ethical outlook.
But do these facts justify beating a path to the door of the religious leaders whenever ethical issues are discussed? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
One last thing. I would add this point about expertise on ethical matters. Even if religious leaders do have rather more expertise and insight than most of us when it comes to ethical issues, that doesn’t entail we should defer to them. As I explained a while back, while it might make sense to defer to a chemist on chemical matters, or a plumber on how your pipe work should run, you shouldn’t defer to anyone – not even a religious leader – on moral matters. The responsibility for making a moral judgement cannot be handed over to an “expert” in the way that the responsibility for making a chemical or plumbing judgement can.
This is something many (not all) religious people deny. They think their leaders are “experts” to be deferred to in just this way. They are, I think, dangerously wrong to think that. See the War For Children’s Minds, chpt 5.