By Douglas Anele
Sometime last year, President Goodluck Jonathan launched the “Bring Back the Book” project, an initiative that seeks to encourage the reading culture in Nigerians. Probably in a future essay, I will dissect the negative consequences of dwindling reading culture even among the so-called educated class.
Suffice it to say, however, that as a teacher who is privileged to have a column in a widely-read newspaper such as Sunday Vanguard, I believe one can promote the habit of reading good books by writing critical reviews of educative and enlightening books that I have read. It is even better if such books contain well-argued opinions that conflict with generally accepted ideas and beliefs, because it is only in the atmosphere of free competition of ideas that the growth of knowledge and democratic culture can be assured.
In line with that objective, we shall discuss in the coming weeks a book I consider a must-read for every Nigerian, irrespective of his or her religious affiliation or philosophy of life.
The book in question is The God Delusion, written by Richard Dawkins, a foremost biological scientist and Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.
First published in 2006, the 2007 edition comprises 464 pages of “Preface”, ten chapters, “Appendix” which contains a partial list of friendly addresses for individuals that require support in escaping from religion, bibliography, “Notes” and “Index”.
In the “Preface”, Dawkins summarises in seven sub-headings the major criticisms of the first edition of the book, criticisms that have been effectively demolished by contributors to his website.
The summaries of the chapters and acknowledgements are also contained in the preface. Chapter 1, entitled “A deeply religious non-believer” discusses the religiosity of nonbelievers such as the distinguished scientists Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Carl Sagan etc., who have profound respect and admiration for the amazing wonders of the universe revealed by science but do not profess belief in the personal God of religion.
Dawkins argued vehemently against the notion of supernatural Gods, and pointed out that for too long people have uncritically accorded too much respect to religion. There is something definitely dangerous in the privileging of religion in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government. For instance, the kid-glove attitude to religion tends to encourage violence and mayhem perpetrated by religious fanatics whenever the tenets of their faith are called into question.
The author cited the case of a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which in September 2005 published twelve cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. The matter was mischievously distorted and blown out of proportion by hypocritical Muslim activists.
The violence which erupted afterwards in different countries, including Nigeria, is a measure of the evil of uncritical reverence for conventional religion (pp. 46-50). The second chapter deals with the idea of God. Bearing the title “The God Hypothesis”, it discusses polytheism, monotheism and secularism.
According to Dawkins, the Old Testament God “is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it…”. He listed about fifteen negative attributes of the Jewish deity, who now doubles as the God of Christianity and, to a lesser degree, of Islam (p.51).
It is generally assumed that the evolution from polytheism to monotheism is an improvement – an assumption that caused Ibn Warraq, author of Why I am Not a Muslim, to wryly remark that monotheism would eventually subtract one more God and become atheism (p. 52).
The bias against polytheism was justly criticised, on the ground monotheistic chauvinism tends to ignore the strong polytheistic flavour in monotheism. As an illustration, consider the profound ambiguities of the Christian dogma of trinity: is it one God in three parts or three Gods in one? Polytheistic religions tend to have male and female deities.
But the existential issue concerning the postulated deities remains the same, polytheism or monotheism notwithstanding, since there really is no difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male. The most prominent monotheistic belief systems in the world today are the Abrahamic religions, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the last two having descended from Judaism.
Philosophers dissatisfied and disenchanted with the anthropomorphic God of monotheism (Voltaire and Thomas Paine, for example) adopted deism by stripping all the personal qualities associated with the deity. However, the deist perspective has never been popular. Contrary to the widespread belief that all the Founding Fathers of the United States of America were Christians and that the country was founded on Christian principles, Dawkins claims that historical facts suggest otherwise.
Many of these men, he says, were deists, and the greatest of them were probably atheists. He cited the treaty with Tripoli under George Washington in 1796 and signed by John Adams a year later to buttress his point. The opening words of that treaty declare that “…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion… ”.
Dawkins reiterated the paradox that America, a nation founded on secular principles, is now the most religious country in Christendom, whereas England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least (p. 61). On p. 73, Dawkins considered a spectrum of probabilities concerning belief in God, from 100% (that is, those that strongly believe in it) through 50% (agnosticism) to zero probability (strong atheism, the polar opposite of strong theism). He argues that a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different universe from one without such a being.
Therefore, contrary to the position of some agnostic scientists like the late Stephen Jay Gould that the question of the existence or non-existence of God is beyond the ken of scientific scrutiny, Dawkins suggested that there is no reason why the issue cannot be addressed like every other scientific question (p. 78).
To be continued.