An Unabashed Atheist: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the con­nection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Com­munism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.

Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply reli­gious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequi­ous, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.

One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “ap­propriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.

Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investi­gation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on hu­man observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical au­thors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.

Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them want­ing. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the uni­verse vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.

Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revela­tion. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.

Dawkins does not stand in awe of reli­gious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the mes­sage of this literature.

Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not use­ful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.

For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriat­ing. But for those who want to confront the alter­native to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.

A Margin of Hope by Irving Howe A Review

Being Jewish Today, Spring 1984

Irving Howe is no ordinary Jewish intellectual. He is a famous one. Not only because of what he has written, but especially because of his poli­tical consistency. He is one of the few former reigning Jewish social­ists who has not fled to the Right, who has not turned into a neo­conservative. Howe remains a believing socialist — even though a chastened one.

As the creator and editor of a moderately leftist journal called Dissent, he is one of the major liberal voices for social democracy in America. Together with Michael Harrington and his Democratic Social­ists, he preaches a non-dogmatic, non-revolutionary egalitarianism. He resists the elitism that many of his former colleagues now find so attractive.

As the author of the enormously popular World of Our Fathers, he has assumed a special place in the Jewish community. The socialist visionary has become the major presenter of Yiddish nostalgia to the English-speaking world. Ameri­can Jewish roots have become his specialty. For a one-time universalist who found no important value in Jewish identity, his second career has a touch of irony.

Howe’s book A Margin of Hope is an autobiography. Like Making It by Norman Podhoretz (who defected to the Right), it is a confession of an American Jewish intellectual. But, unlike Podhoretz’s statement, it is refreshingly free of ideological repentance.

Howe had all the qualifications to become an American Jewish intellec­tual. New York City. Immigrant parents. East Bronx. Depression hard­ship. City College. Partisan Review. All the informal credentials for radical commitment. In addition, he had a perceptive mind and a talent for writing.

Dozens of other Jewish intellec­tuals form the setting for his radical activity. Max Shachtman, Morris Cohen, Isaac Rosenfeld, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg and Saul Bellow were among his conversational circle. How ironic that so much universalism was confined to a few Jews!

The autobiography is a marvelous introduction to the political and intellectual controversies of the last five decades. Howe was in the middle of most of them, agonizing over which decision to make, which side to choose.

There was Roosevelt and the New Deal. Should a Norman Thomas socialist support this wishy-washy compromise of the Democrats just because the Democrats had a chance to win? There was Stalin and the purges. Should a defender of the Left give comfort to the Right by condemning the rulers of the Marxist motherland? There was Trotsky and the revolution. Was bold radical thought still preferable to the peace­ful pleas of the social democrats? There was the war in Europe. Could an opponent of capitalism support a capitalistic war, even when the enemy was a fascist anti-Semite? There was the anti-Communism of the early fifties. Could a confirmed anti-Stalinist of the Left join forces with the rabid anti-Communists of the Right? There was the emergence of the Vietnam struggle and the New Left. Were the radicals of the sixties an undisciplined rabble of anarchists who would subvert the ideals of the Left? There was the rise of neo-conservatism. Had socialism turned out to be a dead-end path of betrayal and failure?

To read Howe’s story is to relive the drama of the arguments which dominated Jewish intellectual con­versations. The Bolshevik Revolu­tion and its aftermath was a focal point of discussion. So much hope had been invested in the success of that upheaval that the subsequent failure was almost too much to bear. The crumbling utopia forced the socialist faithful to undergo painful changes. For the emotionally in­tense, it was easy to go from loving Russia to hating it. For many others, it took a long time to wake up to the truth. There was an understandable reluctance to be on the same side as the anti-Soviet fascists. Anti- Stalinists on the Left were torn between their socialist purity and the allies that awaited them.

Howe was consistently anti- Stalinist. But he does admit to a certain utopian naivete. There was too much faith in slogans and in the moral difference between workers and rulers. In the end, the Marxist sureness disappears. Socialism be­comes an egalitarian wish with no guarantees of success. A pious dream replaces the forces of history.

As his socialist ardor was tamed, and as the fury of Hitler made his Jewish identity more important, Howe returned to the culture of his childhood. Unable by conviction to carry out religious observances, he found his Jewish niche in the Yid­dish speech of his ancestors. He began to translate modern Yiddish stories and to discover the richness of that literature. In time he became a self-proclaimed secular Jew. Jewishness was no longer a reaction­ary parochialism.

Howe’s story has a certain sad­ness. His socialist dream loses its innocence in America. And his Jewish identity is attached to a dying linguistic culture. Nostalgia replaces optimism.

The secular Jewish radical ironi­cally looks to the past rather than to the future. The “world of our fathers” becomes safer to talk about than the “world of our children.”

The autobiography is a good intro­duction to what went wrong with the secular faith of the first secular Jews.

The Fatwa Against Rushdie

The Jewish Humanist, March 1989

A brilliant and creative writer, by the name of Salman Rushdie, has been condemned to death for writing a book that his accusers have not even read.

Ayatollah Khomeini has re-entered the political spotlight by ordering the execution of a secular intellectual of Muslim origin. Rushdie, an award-winning novelist of international fame, has been declared guilty of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death in fundamentalist circles. His book, Satanic Verses, innocently plays with Muslim myths, including the stories of Mohammed and his wives, in order to demonstrate the ambiguity of good and evil. To the secular reader the presentation is subtle, creative and brilliant. To the pious Muslim reader it is nothing short of an assault on God.

In the post-Enlightenment secularized world of the West such a book has a right to exist, even though it causes pain and discomfort to pious believers. Free speech is a fundamental liberty which even traditional religious people have come to accept. After all, it simply evens the score. For countless centuries religious leaders have had complete freedom to speak and write scurrilously about atheism and secularism, defaming its teachers and philosophers in the most outrageous way. “Blasphemy” can go both ways.

But in the Muslim world, which never experienced a true Enlightenment and where religion has never had the opportunity to adapt to a secular democratic world, free speech is difficult to comprehend. Insulting God, by denying the infallibility of his prophets and scripture, endangers not only the individuals who are guilty of blasphemy but also the society that tolerates it without adequate punishment. If the guilty are not removed all will suffer the wrath of Allah.

The crafty Khomeini is using the opportunity of this scandal to re-assert his pre-eminence in the Muslim world, especially after the debacle with Iraq. However it is a diversionary tactic, which runs counter to the recent attempts of some of his lieutenants to cozy up to the Western powers in the hope that Western financial help will now be available to rebuild the economy of Iran. Khomeini cannot have it both ways. He cannot threaten the West and seduce them into assisting him at the same time. Right now, being the angry voice of a militant Islam is more appealing.

Interestingly, his new terrorism is working. Booksellers, like Waldenbooks and Dalton, are refusing to sell Rushdie’s book. Governments, like Canada, are forbidding its import. Religious leaders with a few exceptions are choosing silence. The author has offered an abject apology (which has humiliatingly been rejected). Even the American president, who is hardly a favorite in Teheran where he enjoys the status of a condemned Satan, has chosen to speak softly. Only the European community has responded with some courage, although it still continues to import Persian oil.

At stake in this encounter is the future of free speech as well as the future of art and science. If intellectual and literary figures, whose creativity deviates from the norm of religious prosperity, can be placed on death lists by fundamentalist governments and the Western public – then free speech will be an ultimate victim of international terrorism.

The attitude that assumes that Khomeini is a passing crazy and does not deserve our courageous defiance is dangerous. When Khomeini dies, others equally crazy and fanatic, will follow. But once the posture of surrender is begun, once the defiance is mild rather than bold, the battle will be lost. It will just be easier to comply then resist. Dignity will seem less important than physical security.

It is, therefore, very important that we, as secularists and humanists, who will suffer most from fundamentalist intimidation, should not yield to these threats. It is important that we encourage publishers and booksellers not to yield and that we denounce and embarrass those who do. It is also important that we encourage the American government to speak out boldly against this intimidation and to institute sanctions. America’s caution will neither protect American hostages nor encourage pro-Western elements in the Iranian government.

Whether you approve or disapprove of Salman Rushdie is not the issue. Free speech is. And now is the time to defend it.