Religion is a bad thing.
Finally, I turn to a core belief that saturates Dawkins' writings - that religion is a bad thing. It is clear that this is both an intellectual and moral judgement. In part, Dawkins regards religion as evil because it is based on faith, which evades any human obligation to think. We've already seen that this is a highly questionable viewpoint, which cannot be sustained in the face of the evidence.
The moral point is, of course, much more serious. Everyone would agree that some religious people do some very disturbing things. But the introduction of that little word `some' to Dawkins' argument immediately dilutes its impact. For it forces a series of critical questions. How many? Under what circumstances? How often? It also forces a comparative question: how many people with antireligious views also do some very disturbing things? And once we start to ask that question, we move away from cheap and easy sniping at our intellectual opponents, and have to confront some dark and troubling aspects of human nature. Let's explore this one.
I used to be antireligious. In my teens, I was quite convinced that religion was the enemy of humanity, for reasons very similar to those that Dawkins sets out in his popular writings. But not now. And one of the reasons is my dreadful discovery of the dark side of atheism. Let me explain. In my innocence, I assumed that atheism would spread through the sheer genius of its ideas, the compelling nature of its arguments, its liberation from the oppression of religion, and the dazzling brilliance of the world it commended. Who needed to be coerced into such beliefs, when they were so obviously right?
Now, things seem very different. Atheism is not `proved' in any sense by any science, evolutionary biology included. Dawkins thinks it is, but offers arguments which are far from compelling. And yes, atheism liberated from religious oppression, especially in France in the 1780s. But when atheism ceased to be a private matter, and became a state ideology, things suddenly became rather different. The liberator turned oppressor. Unsurprisingly, these developments tend to be airbrushed out of Dawkins' rather selective reading of history. But they need to be taken with immense seriousness if the full story is to be told.
The final opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s led to revelations that ended any notion that atheism was quite as gracious, gentle and generous a worldview as some of its more idealistic supporters believed. The Black Book of Communism, based on those archives, created a sensation when first published in France in 1997, not least because it implied that French communism - still a potent force in national life - was irreducibly tainted with the crimes and excesses of Lenin and Stalin. Where, many of its irate readers asked, were the `Nuremberg Trials of Communism'? Communism was a `tragedy of planetary dimensions' with a grand total of victims variously estimated by contributors to the volume at between 85 million and 100 million - far in excess of those committed under Nazism.
Now one must be cautious about such statistics, and equally cautious about rushing to quick and easy conclusions on their basis. Yet the basic point cannot really be overlooked. One of the greatest ironies of the twentieth century is that many of the most deplorable acts of murder, intolerance and repression of the twentieth century were carried out by those who thought that religion was murderous, intolerant and repressive - and thus sought to remove it from the face of the planet as a humanitarian act.
Even his most uncritical readers should be left wondering why Dawkins has curiously failed to mention, let alone engage with, the blood-spattered trail of atheism in the twentieth century - one of the reasons, incidentally, that I eventually concluded that I could no longer be an atheist. Or one of the greatest charlatans of the twentieth century: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder of American Atheists Inc. Its omission is deeply revealing.
Now I could draw the conclusion, based on a few choice stories and a highly selective reading of history, that atheists are all totally corrupt, violent and depraved. Yet I cannot and will not, simply because the facts do not permit it. The truth, evident to anyone working in the field, is that some atheists are indeed very strange people - but that most are totally ordinary people, just wanting to get on with their lives, and not wanting to oppress, coerce or murder anyone. Both religion and anti-religion are capable of inspiring great acts of goodness on the part of some, and acts of violence on the part of others.
The real issue - as Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out over a century ago - is that there seems to be something about human nature which makes our belief systems capable of inspiring both great acts of goodness and great acts of depravity. Dawkins, of course, insists on portraying the pathological as the normal. He has to. Otherwise, the argument doesn't work.
Pretending that religion is the only problem in the world, or the base of all its pain and suffering, is simply no longer a real option for thinking people. It's just rhetoric, masking a difficult problem we all need to address - namely, how human beings can coexist and limit their passions. There is a very serious problem here, which needs to be discussed openly and frankly by atheists and Christians alike - namely, how some of those who are inspired and uplifted by a great vision of reality end up doing such dreadful things. This is a truth about human nature itself. It can easily be accommodated with a specifically Christian understanding of human nature, which affirms that we bear the `image of God' while being fallen on account of sin. To put it very simplistically, the lingering remnant of divine likeness impels us to goodness; the powerful presence of sin drags us down into a moral quagmire, from which we can never entirely escape.
But there is another issue here which we need to note. Dawkins is quite clear that science cannot determine what is right and what is wrong. What about evidence that religion is bad for you? And what criteria might one use to determine what was `bad'? Dawkins himself is quite clear: `science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.'
Dawkins' discussion of what religion does do people is littered with flagrantly biased anecdotes and hopelessly unsubstantiated generalizations. Rhetoric displaces careful observation and analysis. Yet there is a large and growing body of evidence-based literature dealing with the impact of religion - whether considered generically, or as a specific form of faith - upon individuals and communities. Although it was once fashionable to suggest that religion was some kind of pathology,  this view is now retreating in face of mounting empirical evidence that suggests (but not conclusively) that many forms of religion might actually be good for you. Sure, some forms of religion can be pathological and destructive. Others, however, seem to be rather good for you. Of course, this evidence does not allow us to infer that God exists. But it does undermine a central pillar of Dawkins' atheistic crusade - the core belief that religion is bad for you.
A 2001 survey of 100 evidence-based studies to systematically examine the relationship between religion and human wellbeing disclosed the following:
1. 79 reported at least one positive correlation between religious involvement and wellbeing;
2. 13 found no meaningful association between religion and wellbeing;
3. 7 found mixed or complex associations between religion and wellbeing;
4. 1 found a negative association between religion and wellbeing.
Dawkins' entire worldview depends upon precisely this negative association between religion and human wellbeing which only 1% of the experimental results unequivocally affirm, and 79% equally unequivocally reject. The results make at least one thing abundantly clear: we need to approach this subject in the light of the scientific evidence, not personal prejudice. I would not dream of suggesting that this evidence proves that faith is good for you. But I need to make it clear that it is seriously embarrassing for Dawkins, whose world seems to be shaped by the core assumption that faith is bad for you - a view which is unsustainable in the light of the evidence.
For Dawkins, the issue is simple: the question is `whether you value health or truth.' As religion is false - one of the unassailable core beliefs which recurs throughout his writings - it would be immoral to believe, whatever benefits it might bring. Yet Dawkins' arguments that belief in God is false just don't add up. That's probably why he supplements them with the additional argument that religion is bad for you. The growing body of evidence that religion actually promotes human wellbeing is highly awkward for him here. Not only does it subvert a critical functional argument for atheism; it begins to raise some very troubling questions about its truth as well.