A Critique of Dawkins' "Virus of the Mind" Part I: Things Go Better With God

Richard Dawkins, the heavy-handed author of The God Delusion, has made it his personal mission to decry the evils of religion in order to convince the rest of the world (many of whom find comfort and happinss in a true knowledge of God) that they are misguided fools. Like the worst of snake oil salesmen, Dawkins pedals his wares by pointing to the most flagrant abuses of religious belief, such as the late-Jim Jones, and encourages the offended populace that his tonic is the cure-all for what ails the world. Fortunately, while most people recognize that his cure is probably more injurious than helpful, many people are reading what he has to say as evidenced by the fact that his latest work is at number 7 on the New York Times Best Seller List for Non-Fiction (even though it is really fiction).

Recently, in reading up on this neo-atheist evangelist, I was introduced to his essay, Viruses of the Mind as an innovative work. In "Viruses", Dawkins writes that religious belief, as a meme, is akin to a computer virus thereby reducing the former (which in many people's minds is a high and lofty thing) to the level of the latter (which is acknowledged by virtually everyone to be something undesirable).

Of course, assuming that such a thing as a meme exists, it is simply a matter of Dawkins' own personal animosity towards religious belief that makes religion akin to a computer virus. You see, assuming that memes exist, the idea that this particular meme is harmful in the same way as a computer virus begs the question of whether it is actually harmful. He assumes it is based upon his own dark view of religion. Thus, even if I grant the existence of memes, I would argue that Dawkins is so completely and utterly blinded by his contempt of religion (as demonstrated all too often by the bombastic language he uses to criticize it) that he cannot see that religion is a good and useful thing (the very thing he later uses to explain why science is not a computer virus, too, despite the fact the science memes "might look superficially virus-like".) Of course, it's easy to equate disparate things if you either overlook their differences or misrepresent them so that the differences don't exist. As the result of his negative view of religion, that is precisely what Dawkins does in this essay.

Imagine There's No Heaven

While I am a fan of the Beatles, I am not a fan of John Lennon's post-Beatles effort to reduce the complexities of life to simple slogans like "give peace a chance." Of course, it would be very nice if the whole world would be willing to do just that, but it is very naive to think that they ever would. Why is that? Because the nature of man is such that there will always be people who don't share this vision and would kill people who stand in their way of riches and power. His vision, superfically enticing though it may be, is not in concert with reality. Lennon's view of religion was much the same way.

Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try,
No hell below us, above us only sky.
Imagine all the people, living for today . . . .

To John Lennon, the idea that there is no God and no heaven is seen as something worthwhile; to me, it is a thought too terrible to think. People living only for today is a good thing? Not in my world view. People, being short, nasty and brutish (to quote Hobbes) are not likely to do the right thing if they are only living for today. Religion is actually something that helps remind people that there is a higher power that expects responsible behavior. Yet, Lennon thought the world would somehow be better off without religion because he, like Dawkins, was apparently fixated on the dark side of religion and failed to note that religion -- especially Christianity -- has brought immeasureable amounts of good and happiness to the world.

Things Go Better With God

Religion isn't the evil that Dawkins claims. In an article entitled Good Faith: Things Go Better With God, Karl Zinsmeister points out an entire range of ways in which religious belief promotes the public good. As he states it, Societies are more prosperous and individuals more thriving where faith blooms. Here are some samples of how religious belief has been beneficial to society:

Research on 1,750 urban and rural high school students found that even after controlling for factors like parental control and support, students with no religious affiliation were vastly more likely to be underage drinkers.

The very lowest risk of divorce today, numerous studies show, is among couples who attend religious services together.

Statistics from the charitable clearinghouse Independent Sector show that among people who attend church weekly, 71 percent are volunteers of some sort, to the tune of 3.4 hours per week on average, and that they donate 3.8 percent of their income to others. The comparable figures for people who never attend church: 40 percent volunteer, giving an average of 1.6 hours per week, and 0.8 percent of their income goes to charity.

A major study done for the Girl Scouts of America found that religious youngsters are much likelier than the non-religious to avoid anti-social acts and to engage in altruistic activities. Rich kids who are religious and poor kids who are religious "have far more in common with each other" than religious and non-religious kids in the same socioeconomic group do, according to the study authors.

Dozens of academic studies show that even after adjustments are made for family influence, neighborhood, race, income, and other factors, religious commitment (particularly church attendance) clearly discourages delinquency among youth.

A study of Canadian college students found that those involved with Christian campus groups were significantly healthier, made less use of health care services, and scored significantly higher on measures of psychological balance, ability to handle stress, and avoidance of depression--despite being similar to fellow students in other ways.

Many of the greatest Western scientists--for example Alfred North Whitehead in his 1925 Lowell Lectures at Harvard--acknowledged that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science, and that non-Christian religious views stifled the scientific quest elsewhere. But this reality has been muffled and suppressed in recent generations.

My fellow blogger, Layman, has written two excellent articles that demonstrate convincingly that Christianity has been one of the driving forces behind the elimination of infanticide which was prevelant in the ancient, pagan world (Pagans, Christianity and Infanticide) and gave rise to a culture that was generous in charity towards those in need (Pagans, Christianity and Charity).

These facts, and there are many others, show that Christianity has had a major impact for the good on society. What about a world without Christianity? Would it somehow be a place where people live in harmony? I strongly doubt it. There is no promise or even a strong expectation that many of these good things would have occurred if Christianity and its morals, principals and world view had never existed. Has that thought occurred to Dawkins? Probably not. He simply assumes that his paper doll characterization of religion -- including Christian belief -- is enough to demonstrate that it's an evil that should be stamped out.

In part II, we will look at the symptoms of faith sufferers.


BK said…

I understand the need to sometimes attempt to defend a position, but your defenses are really quite indefensible in their own right. In response to your comments:

1. Okay, I agree that Dawkins isn't trying to convince the rest of the world, just 90% of it. So the fact that I used hyperbole and you want to be exacting, does my admission that I used hyperbole help make his position any better? I mean, if I were to say that someone wanted to take over the entire world militarily, and you were to say in response, "no, he is just trying to take over 90% of the world" would that make my statement really less accurate?

2. He may not use the word "fools" but that's clearly what he's suggesting in many places -- especially in the God Delusion.

3. No, I think he is saying that most of the ills of the world would disappear if there were no religion at all.

4. That's a conclusion that isn't supportable.

5. Neo-atheist is a term used to describe the "new atheists" who are evangelical atheists who claim that belief in religion is not only wrong, it is delusional and that religious views don't deserve any respect at all because they are evil.

6. If you group all religions together it may have caused more deaths than secular philosophies, but there's no reason to group all religions together (as I posted earlier today related to an article about the terrible things in religion).

7. If you think that the Chinese people lived in some idyllic wonderland, you are sadly mistaken.
BK said…
I distorted neither. If you think so, that's your problem.
Jesse Albrecht said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

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