Richard Dawkins - The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins - The God Delusion

(Parte 6 de 6)

40 THE GOD D E I. U S I O N version of history. Contrary to their view, the fact that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation was early stated in the terms of a treaty with Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The opening words of this quotation would cause uproar in today's Washington ascendancy. Yet Ed Buckner has convincingly demonstrated that they caused no dissent at the time,20 among either politicians or public.

The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religiose country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least. I am continually asked why this is, and I do not know. I suppose it is possible that England has wearied of religion after an appalling history of interfaith violence, with Protestants and Catholics alternately gaining the upper hand and systematically murdering the other lot. Another suggestion stems from the observation that America is a nation of immigrants. A colleague points out to me that immigrants, uprooted from the stability and comfort of an extended family in Europe, could well have embraced a church as a kind of kinsubstitute on alien soil. It is an interesting idea, worth researching further. There is no doubt that many Americans see their own local church as an important unit of identity, which does indeed have some of the attributes of an extended family.

Yet another hypothesis is that the religiosity of America stems paradoxically from the secularism of its constitution. Precisely because America is legally secular, religion has become free

THE GOD HYPOTHESIS 41 enterprise. Rival churches compete for congregations - not least for the fat tithes that they bring - and the competition is waged with all the aggressive hard-sell techniques of the marketplace. What works for soap flakes works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today's less educated classes. In England, by contrast, religion under the aegis of the established church has become little more than a pleasant social pastime, scarcely recognizable as religious at all. This English tradition is nicely expressed by Giles Fraser, an Anglican vicar who doubles as a philosophy tutor at Oxford, writing in the Guardian. Fraser's article is subtitled 'The establishment of the Church of England took God out of religion, but there are risks in a more vigorous approach to faith':

There was a time when the country vicar was a staple of the English dramatis personae. This tea-drinking, gentle eccentric, with his polished shoes and kindly manners, represented a type of religion that didn't make nonreligious people uncomfortable. He wouldn't break into an existential sweat or press you against a wall to ask if you were saved, still less launch crusades from the pulpit or plant roadside bombs in the name of some higher power.21

(Shades of Betjeman's 'Our Padre', which I quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1.) Fraser goes on to say that 'the nice country vicar in effect inoculated vast swaths of the English against Christianity'. He ends his article by lamenting a more recent trend in the Church of England to take religion seriously again, and his last sentence is a warning: 'the worry is that we may release the genie of English religious fanaticism from the establishment box in which it has been dormant for centuries'.

The genie of religious fanaticism is rampant in present-day

America, and the Founding Fathers would have been horrified. Whether or not it is right to embrace the paradox and blame the secular constitution that they devised, the founders most certainly were secularists who believed in keeping religion out of politics, and that is enough to place them firmly on the side of those who

42 THE COD DELUSI O N object, for example, to ostentatious displays of the Ten Commandments in government-owned public places. But it is tantalizing to speculate that at least some of the Founders might have gone beyond deism. Might they have been agnostics or even out-and-out atheists? The following statement of Jefferson is indistinguishable from what we would now call agnosticism:

no soul. I cannot reason otherwisewithout plunging

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.

Christopher Hitchens, in his biography Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, thinks it likely that Jefferson was an atheist, even in his own time when it was much harder:

As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment if only because of the prudence he was compelled to observe during his political life. But as he had written to his nephew, Peter Carr, as early as 1787, one must not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. 'If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in this exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.'

I find the following advice of Jefferson, again in his letter to Peter Carr, moving:

Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a


God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.

Remarks of Jefferson's such as 'Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man' are compatible with deism but also with atheism. So is James Madison's robust anticlericalism: 'During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.' The same could be said of Benjamin Franklin's 'Lighthouses are more useful than churches' and of John Adams's

'This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.' Adams delivered himself of some splendid tirades against Christianity in particular: 'As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?' And, in another letter, this time to Jefferson, T almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved - the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!'

Whether Jefferson and his colleagues were theists, deists, agnostics or atheists, they were also passionate secularists who believed that the religious opinions of a President, or lack of them, were entirely his own business. All the Founding Fathers, whatever their private religious beliefs, would have been aghast to read the journalist Robert Sherman's report of George Bush Senior's answer when Sherman asked him whether he recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists: 'No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.'2 Assuming Sherman's account to be accurate (unfortunately he didn't use a tape-recorder, and no other newspaper ran the story at the time), try the experiment of replacing 'atheists' with 'Jews' or 'Muslims' or 'Blacks'. That gives the measure of the prejudice and discrimination that American atheists have to endure today. Natalie


Angier's 'Confessions of a lonely atheist' is a sad and moving description, in the New York Times, of her feelings of isolation as an atheist in today's America.23 But the isolation of American atheists is an illusion, assiduously cultivated by prejudice. Atheists in America are more numerous than most people realize. As I said in the Preface, American atheists far outnumber religious Jews, yet the Jewish lobby is notoriously one of the most formidably influential in Washington. What might American atheists achieve if they organized themselves properly?*

David Mills, in his admirable book Atheist Universe, tells a story which you would dismiss as an unrealistic caricature of police bigotry if it were fiction. A Christian faith-healer ran a 'Miracle Crusade' which came to Mills's home town once a year. Among other things, the faith-healer encouraged diabetics to throw away their insulin, and cancer patients to give up their chemotherapy and pray for a miracle instead. Reasonably enough, Mills decided to organize a peaceful demonstration to warn people. But he made the mistake of going to the police to tell them of his intention and ask for police protection against possible attacks from supporters of the faith-healer. The first police officer to whom he spoke asked, 'Is you gonna protest fir him or 'gin him?' (meaning for or against the faith-healer). When Mills replied, 'Against him,' the policeman said that he himself planned to attend the rally and intended to spit personally in Mills's face as he marched past Mills's demonstration.

Mills decided to try his luck with a second police officer. This one said that if any of the faith-healer's supporters violently confronted Mills, the officer would arrest Mills because he was 'trying to interfere with God's work'. Mills went home and tried telephoning the police station, in the hope of finding more sympathy at a senior level. He was finally connected to a sergeant who said, 'To hell with you, Buddy. No policeman wants to protect a goddamned atheist. I hope somebody bloodies you up good.' Apparently adverbs were in short supply in this police station, along with the milk of human kindness and a sense of duty. Mills relates that he spoke to about seven or eight policemen that day. None of them was helpful, and most of them directly threatened Mills with violence.

* Tom Flynn, Editor of Free Inquiry, makes the point forcefully ('Secularism's breakthrough moment', Free Inquiry 26: 3, 2006, 16-17): 'If atheists are lonely and downtrodden, we have only ourselves to blame. Numerically, we are strong. Let's start punching our weight.'


Anecdotes of such prejudice against atheists abound, but

Margaret Downey, of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, maintains systematic records of such cases.24 Her database of incidents, categorized under community, schools, workplace, media, family and government, includes examples of harassment, loss of jobs, shunning by family and even murder.25 Downey's documented evidence of the hatred and misunderstanding of atheists makes it easy to believe that it is, indeed, virtually impossible for an honest atheist to win a public election in America. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate. Assuming that the majority of these 535 individuals are an educated sample of the population, it is statistically all but inevitable that a substantial number of them must be atheists. They must have lied, or concealed their true feelings, in order to get elected. Who can blame them, given the electorate they had to convince? It is universally accepted that an admission of atheism would be instant political suicide for any presidential candidate.

These facts about today's political climate in the United States, and what they imply, would have horrified Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Adams and all their friends. Whether they were atheists, agnostics, deists or Christians, they would have recoiled in horror from the theocrats of early 21st-century Washington. They would have been drawn instead to the secularist founding fathers of postcolonial India, especially the religious Gandhi ('I am a Hindu, I am a Moslem, I am a Jew, I am a Christian, I am a Buddhist!'), and the atheist Nehru:

The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.

Nehru's definition of the secular India of Gandhi's dream (would that it had been realized, instead of the partitioning of their country

(Parte 6 de 6)