The East African (Nairobi)

11 February 2008

Kenya: Good People Doing Evil Things

opinion

Nairobi — I FIND THE GOD DELUSION BY RICHARD Dawkins particularly relevant to Kenya's current political impasse: Why has it been felt necessary to call in religious leaders to broker peace? Have their pleas to the gangs of the discontented and dispossessed to put down their machetes helped? Of course not. Even the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu failed to achieve anything.

Dawkins asks of just such initiatives that involve the clergy: "But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef? Why are scientists so cravenly respectful towards the ambitions of theologians over questions that theologians are certainly no more qualified to answer than scientists themselves?"

Could it be that religion is part of the problem and not the solution? Has a blind faith in God and religious leaders led to a kind of fatalism and willingness which leads people to hand over responsibility for important decisions in their lives to others, in this case men who are clearly not cut out for the job? Dawkins even doubts that theology is a subject at all.

What Dawkins objects to most, he says, is the way religion curtails thought. Curiosity is considered a disease and anything that cannot be explained is shoved aside into a drawer labeled "God's miracles." This is lazy science, he says. When it comes to the age-old argument about creation and God, the ultimate maker of all, there is a problem of infinite regress. If God is the great designer, then who designed God?

He replies to the "creationists" and the intelligent design school by explaining that natural selection is a cumulative process that breaks the problem of improbability into small pieces. Those who wish to believe in "irreducible complexity" consider it a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding. Quoting American geneticist Jerry Coyne, Dawkins says, "If the history of science shows us anything it is that we get nowhere by labelling our ignorance 'God.'

Ah, then, you ask, how are we know the difference between right and wrong? How do we deal with morality? What, if not religion, should guide our behaviour? He quotes a researcher who carried out double-bind experiments with both believers and non-believers on moral questions and found absolutely no difference. Are you a mature human being if your sole reason for being good is to win God's approval or avoid disappointment and punishment? "People say we need religion when what they really mean is that we need police," he says.

If goodness can be equated with religiosity, how is that three out of five of the most dangerous cities in the US are in the pious state of Texas, home to President George Bush, under whose rule more executions were carried out than anywhere else in the country?

There has been a change in what Dawkins calls the "moral zeitgeist" or spirit of the time. As we know, the Gospels were written years after Jesus's death and cobbled together to form an anthology of disjointed documents. Certain versions such as the Hammadi texts or Gnostic Gospels found in the middle of the last century or the recently discovered Gospel of Judas throw a different light on the story of Jesus, as did Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. But bible enthusiasts have a habit of picking and choosing the bits that suit them. They decide when to be literal and when to be symbolical.

For instance, they take the story of Noah literally, and don't question it: "The legend of the animals going two by two into the ark 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 - presumably blameless- animals as well." You begin to see where the heavy punitive measures of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians come from.

ANOTHER QUIRK OF THE REL-igious right is the obsession with other people's private sexual inclinations. This reaches the point of absurdity when a man such as Pat Robertson, one of America's foremost televangelists and a former presidential candidate, blames the advent of the 2006 Hurricane Katrina on a lesbian comedian who happened to be living in New Orleans.

Dawkins uses the biblical story of Lot to show that the idea of goodness being proffered leaves much to be desired. This patriarch offered his daughters' virginity rather than have strangers sodomised in his home.

This is behaviour typical of a jealous and wrathful God who flies into a rage whenever his "chosen people" flirt with a rival god. The Old Testament is chock full of terrible battles such as the one between the Israelites and the Midianites in which all boy children and virgins were to be put to the sword (Numbers 31:18).

Dawkins reminds us that the American constitution was drawn up as a secular document, and that the Founding Fathers might not be well pleased with what they saw today were they to come down from heaven - presumably their current abode. The American scientist Steven Weinberg asserts: "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."

Instead of focusing on the green forests, thunderous seas, or the brilliant night skies full of galaxies we don't even know about, too many Christians concentrate on sin, guilt and repentance - the latter of which could easily be bought until Martin Luther's revolutionary time.

There is a spirit of revenge in the Judaeo/Christian mindset: Judas betrayed Jesus because the latter chose him for the role. For that reason, Jews have been vilified for centuries and their ritual practices ridiculed.

John Hartnung points out that the Ten Commandments are confined to Jews. Thou shalt not kill meant specifically, "Thou shalt not kill Jews." Anyone found murdering in the presence of witnesses must be put to death by the sword. However, "needless to say, one is not put to death if he kills a heathen."

So much for the sanctity of human life. Compassion and understanding of others are in short supply. The three daily prayers of an orthodox Jew are: Blessed art thou for not making me a woman; blessed art thou for not making me a Gentile and blessed art thou for not making me a slave.

Do not imagine that atheists don't have their own code of conduct that Dawkins quotes a few examples that please him: In all things strive to do no harm; live life with a sense of joy and wonder and question everything.

And then adds his own for good measure: Enjoy your sex life - as long as it damages nobody else - and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business; value the future on a time scale longer than your own and do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence and how to disagree with you.

The notion of a "Christian" or "Muslim" child is anathema to him because children aren't old enough to have made up their minds about such complex things. The sorry story of Catholic and Protestant children in Northern Ireland having to be escorted through crowds of adults howling insults just to get to school will have marked them for life. Yet they are all Christians.

Many wars have been fought in the name of religion, but no war that I know of has been fought for atheism. Atheists are not evangelists but for the most part, those who are intensely religious believe that they have the key to divine truth, which makes them superior and inflames them with a compulsion to force it on you. Doesn't the idea that Kenya is a "Christian nation" give the lie to the 30 per cent who are Muslims? Not to mention the smaller groups of Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and Atheists?

IN A BOOK TITLED THE END OF Faith Sam Harris writes, "The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy."

Some people can't help wondering why Dawkins is so hostile to religion. His answer is: "Because people bomb, stone, crucify and fly planes into skyscrapers in the name of religion."

A genuine scientist will admit, on being confronted by contradictory evidence, that he is wrong. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, like politicians, can never do so - another reason why Kenya finds itself in the present crisis.

"As a scientist, I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds? it subverts science and saps the intellect."

It is the very arbitrariness of the Christian right in particular that infuriates him because of its complete lack of logic: It is passionate about embryos and the taking of human life and yet indifferent to the fate of desperate mothers and living, suffering children.

The American anti-abortion outfit that calls itself 'Operation Rescue' sees no contradiction in mothers being attacked for going to abortion clinics or doctors murdered for allowing women the right to choose their own reproductive futures, all to save some embryos from destruction. He quotes the Beethoven argument: imagine if an embryo you destroyed was a genius like Beethoven? But isn't it just as fair to ask, what if it had spared us a Hitler? A Stalin? An Idi Amin? You can't have it both ways!

IN DAWKINS' VIEW, SAUDI Arabia is the cruellest country in the world, yet it is the US's favoured partner in the "war on terror." There, women are not permitted to drive or even to leave home without a male relative (who can be a small child). Why hasn't the great American democratic project been wished on this country? Could it possibly have something to do with oil?

Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher wrote, "Many people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do."

For him, as for Dawkins, faith is definitely not a virtue because it silences questioning. Too many children have had the fear of hell put into them and had to submit to sadistic nuns and lewd priests. "Children should be taught not what to think but how to think," says Dawkins.

What a pity comparative religion isn't taught more widely, together with an appreciation of the literary beauty of many religious texts like the great King James version of the Bible of 1611 or the sonnets of priests like the doubt-riddled Gerard Manley Hopkins or John Donne.

For those who are certain that there is a God-shaped hole in our lives, Dawkins urges them to fill it with something else like science, art, human friendship or the sheer love of life in the real world. Religion plays too heavily on the fear of death and hellfire. Listen to the inimitable Mark Twain: "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the lightest inconvenience from it."

Dawkins is a professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of other controversial books such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker among others.

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