The Richard Dawkins Delusion
Not that I have any objection to atheism becoming a mass-market item (complete with product tie-ins and merchandise web-links). Hey, if all atheists had looked like Ariane Sherine, (pictured) no doubt God would’ve died long ago. Still, when I heard Richard Dawkins was behind the banners “There’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life” seen lately on London buses, it confirmed what I always suspected: being good at science doesn’t necessarily make you good at philosophy.
First, the facts: most of the planet’s people still believe in some form of deity or supernatural, justice-rendering power. Most of the planet’s people also live in conditions of poverty and oppression. Draw a Venn diagram of the two groups – poor, and believers – and you’d likely be left with close to one circle.
This probably isn’t accidental. Marx wasn’t the first philosopher to notice it, but his description of religion as an opiate for the masses was both critical and fatalistic. A belief in a just god maintained order in an unjust world, by enabling life’s less-privileged few to look to an ultimate rendering.
Curiously, given the contempt in which Darwinists have long held religion, this may have been an evolutionary development. Recent research has shown that people are less likely to cheat on exams if they believe someone is watching over their shoulder. A watchful god was socially useful.
The scientific advances of the nineteenth century, at which heart Darwin himself lay, removed the metaphysical necessity for a god: existence could be accounted for without a divine source. But the social function of a divinity did not disappear so readily, which is why Nietzsche found its death so troubling. Without a god watching over them, who or what would maintain order over society?
In developed societies, the state rose to the task. However, the state has sunk shallow roots in most of the world. In vast stretches of the planet, the state is a partial construct at best, a fiction at worst. Its claim to assure justice is laughable. Indeed, as the state has fragmented in many poor societies, religion has proved a resurgent means for citizens to find a sense of purpose and justice.
Ah, but just imagine the poor, ignorant chap from the Indian subcontinent, labouring in Dubai’s heat all his life to build indoor ski-slopes for the super-rich, separated from his family for years at a stretch, denied basic rights, crowded into zinc shacks with his peers, all to send a dowry for his sister.
He may have once consoled himself with the thought that a better life awaits him in the future. But now, hurray! a bus-cavalry will ride to the rescue and proclaim “Relax Ahmed! There’s no god to save you from this!” Or as campaign organiser Ariane Sherine put it to the Guardian, the message will “brighten people’s days and make them smile on their way to work.” Ahem. I’m beginning to understand why the crucible of so much religious terrorism is found in the world’s Dubais (or Londons, or Madrids) where these two cultures – poor immigrant believers, rich agnostics – clash, leaving the former convinced that their gentle god ain’t worth a bucket of warm spit after all, and that more, er, direct tactics are required.
Philosophers long grappled with this challenge. Sartre spoke of the burden of freedom, the responsibility that accrued to humans of making a now meaningless existence meaningful (not to mention just). Meanwhile, Nietzsche wrestled – however disturbingly – with finding one’s way after the death of god. Will a box of Haagen-Dazs and this week’s X Factor really now do the trick?
The truth is, most folks in the rich world should probably take greater comfort in the slogan “Most people still believe in god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Those of us who really think the world will be better off when that first line changes, would do well to stop relaxing and resume the philosopher’s work.