Over the past month, I got into the habit of reading Richard Dawkins‘ book The God Delusion on the bus and streetcar most mornings. I try to walk to work as much as I can but it’s been just too cold!
It’s proven to be a very controversial book, and with its shiny cover with the title in big letters, I’ll confess I’ve been a bit afraid someone pious might come up and accost me as my Ossington Street bus roars through some of the more church-lined parts of the trip to the office. And there’s a section called “Stalin and Hitler were atheists, weren’t they?” that reproduces and later dissects some of the arguments of Hitler and Stalin. I’d hate to have a person sitting next to me read some Nazi propaganda over my shoulder and become hurt or offended.
Ironically enough, getting over the fear of hurt or offense is one of the key thrusts of Dawkins’ book. He believes that religion on the whole does more harm than good, and that people shouldn’t shy away from making that case. He also makes provocative arguments against the religious indoctrination of children.
After reading both the book and much of the hype surrounding it, the hype—including the argument that Dawkins is a “fundamentalist atheist”—doesn’t hold up. The God Delusion doesn’t mince words, is bound to offend many, and may in fact be “preaching to the (atheist) choir”—but it offers some fascinating challenges to progressives.
On the one hand, many people involved in movements for social change, and doing greatly valuable and important work, get their philosophical inspiration from a deep spiritual commitment. On the other hand, it is in fact problematic that religion is seen widely as the one area that is untouchable in terms of rational inquiry. Across history and cultures, different religions have been in various positions in terms of social power and in relation to one another. The bottom line is that all of them should be equally up for discussion.