Another excerpt from "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins
My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. I shall come to him in a moment. But before leaving this preliminary chapter I need to deal with one more matter that would otherwise bedevil the whole book. This time it is a matter of etiquette. It is possible that religious readers will be offended by what I have to say, and will find in these pages insufficient respect for their own particular beliefs (if not the beliefs that others treasure). It would be a shame if such offence prevented them from reading on, so I want to sort it out here, at the outset. A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts - the non-religious included - is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death,5 that I never tire of sharing his words:
Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? - because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’. Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows - but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe . . . no, that’s holy? . . . We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
Here’s a particular example of our society’s overweening respect for religion, one that really matters. By far the easiest grounds for gaining conscientious objector status in wartime are religious. You can be a brilliant moral philosopher with a prizewinning doctoral thesis expounding the evils of war, and still be given a hard time by a draft board evaluating your claim to be a conscientious objector. Yet if you can say that one or both of your parents is a Quaker you sail through like a breeze, no matter how inarticulate and illiterate you may be on the theory of pacifism or, indeed, Quakerism itself. At the opposite end of the spectrum from pacifism, we have a pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are euphemized to ‘Nationalists’ and ‘Loyalists’ respectively. The very word ‘religions’ is bowdlerized to ‘communities’, as in ‘intercommunity warfare’. Iraq, as a consequence of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, degenerated into sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Clearly a religious conflict - yet in the Independent of 20 May 2006 the front-page headline and first leading article both described it as ‘ethnic cleansing’. ‘Ethnic’ in this context is yet another euphemism. What we are seeing in Iraq is religious cleansing. The original usage of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia is also arguably a euphemism for religious cleansing, involving Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians.6 I have previously drawn attention to the privileging of religion in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government.7 Whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be prominently represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio or television. I’m not suggesting that we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor? Here’s another weird example of the privileging of religion. On 21 February 2006 the United States Supreme Court ruled that a church in New Mexico should be exempt from the law, which everybody else has to obey, against the taking of hallucinogenic drugs.8 Faithful members of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they can understand God only by drinking hoasca tea, which contains the illegal hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine. Note that it is sufficient that they believe that the drug enhances their understanding. They do not have to produce evidence. Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that cannabis eases the nausea and discomfort of cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy. Yet the Supreme Court ruled, in 2005, that all patients who use cannabis for medicinal purposes are vulnerable to federal prosecution (even in the minority of states where such specialist use is legalized). Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they ‘believe’ they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet, when a church claims an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such is the power of religion as a talisman. Seventeen years ago, I was one of thirty-six writers and artists commissioned by the magazine New Statesman to write in support of the distinguished author Salman Rushdie,9 then under sentence of death for writing a novel. Incensed by the ‘sympathy’ for Muslim ‘hurt’ and ‘offence’ expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion-formers, I drew the following parallel: