Almost inevitably, Professor Richard Dawkins' bestselling The God Delusion has caused a large measure of discomfort since it was published late last year. But what's interesting is that much of this discomfort has been felt by people who consider themselves atheists - or at least non-believers, for many people think of "atheist" as a daunting word, suggestive of someone who wears his denial like a badge and saunters about beating others over the head with it (at any rate, does one really need a specific word to denote a lack of belief in something?). Their argument is that Dawkins, so insistent on ranting against religion, is in danger of developing into an "atheist fundamentalist", just as shrill, intolerant and closed to other people's perspectives and needs as his religious counterparts are.
To many genuine liberals, the Dawkins approach is a problematic one. Why not leave believers – the harmless, moderate ones – alone, even if they are deluded? After all, faith in a higher power, with its attendant sense that our lives have a definite purpose and should therefore follow certain moral codes, has provided an important crutch for human beings over several centuries. Besides, isn't nihilism the logical alternative to belief?
As Dawkins persuasively argues here, no, it isn't. Delving into evolution and the genetic codes that define our behaviour, he points out that our moral sense has little to do with religiosity. We don't need the spectre of a supernatural creator in order to be good, or to lead fulfilling lives. In a throwaway but moving passage, he quotes Human Genome Project founder James Watson: "I don't think we're here for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, 'Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose.' But I'm anticipating having a good lunch and conversation."
Much of the criticism of The God Delusion owes to the demands of political correctness in today's world, the kowtowing to an unsaid rule that religious sentiments automatically demand respect over most other things. This idea is one of the first things Dawkins tackles in his book. "I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it," he writes, "but I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion, even when it directly conflicts with basic human rights, in our otherwise secular societies."
Making it obvious that he won't pull punches, he goes on: "I am attacking all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented." This is calculated to discomfit readers, but Dawkins spells out the reasons for his vehemence. He is alarmed by the widespread lack of knowledge, even the insidious suppression of information (about Darwinism and the concept of natural selection, for instance) that allows a vast chunk of the world's population to believe in the literal truth of the Bible or the Koran (the Old Testament and its fire-and-brimstone supporters come in for especially severe but well-deserved mockery). It's farcical, he points out, that a majority of the world's population still lead their lives by tenets set down in ancient literature that was written (and repeatedly modified over the centuries) to fill gaps in people's lives that could not at the time be filled by science. Most of all, he deplores the way religion is used to manipulate young minds ("I want everyone to flinch when they hear a phrase like 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'," he writes).
Dawkins also makes the point that when beliefs are founded on something that has no scientific basis in the first place, it makes little sense to complain that an extremist's interpretation of a holy book is a "corruption" of the real thing. "How can there be a perversion of faith if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert?" His view is that for all our attempts to distinguish moderate belief from fanaticism, the line separating the two is much thinner than we realise. "For good people to do evil, it takes religion."
Anyone who's seen how ordinary people can behave during riots, or even heard a sweet old grandmother rallying furiously against members of another faith while watching the news on TV, will find it hard to disagree with this observation. Whether or not you agree with Dawkins' approach or his stridency, The God Delusion is more than a one-dimensional polemic. It's a passionately argued, fiercely rational work built on genuine concern for a world bent on erecting narrow walls for itself.
[Did this for the Sunday Business Standard]