From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


Richard Dawkins has long trumpeted the rationale of science. Now, at
65, he has finally marshalled a lifetime’s arguments against believing
in God.




by Richard Dawkins

FROM CHAPTER 7: The “Good” Book and the changing moral Zeitgeist

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. 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.


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, 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

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.* 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

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.

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.

*It is unclear whether the story, which originated at
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,
www.emediawire.com/releases/2005/9/emw281940.htm. The website
that says the Katrina story is untrue (www.snopes.com/katrina/
satire/robertson.asp) 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.’

FROM CHAPTER EIGHT: What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?

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-Qaida 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. It is rare to
find the behavior of humans so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why
have we been so reluctant to accept this explanation?”

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.

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