Monday, 26 November 2007

The D word

I started to read Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion recently. There are several reasons why I haven't done it sooner, but the main ones are that people I trust have assured me that it doesn't say anything he hasn't said elsewhere, and that he doesn't need my money.

But here I am with a free copy that came my way, and I read the preface. I think the project is going to be a long one. I had to go and lie down in a dark room to recover. Others have already criticised the work in lots of ways, so I probably won't bother here, but the bit that gave me a headache was this:

"Just as feminists wince when they hear 'he' rather than 'he or she', or 'man' rather than 'human', I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'. Speak of a 'child of Catholic parents' if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a 'Catholic child', stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics."

Presumably this latter means that it is impossible to speak of a French or English child. After all, the child has not chosen which nation to be born into, knows nothing of its politics and economics and may grow to prefer speaking Greek. Come to think of it, he or she may never make a conscious decision to be French or English. Perhaps most of us should simply be described as of French or English birth; the only real French or English people are those who have become naturalised citizens.

The problem is that Professor Dawkins must know that belonging to a religion is a cultural as well as intellectual phenomenon. Why does he pretend it's otherwise? Or perhaps he really does purely equate religion with assent to a set of propositions. In which case he is abysmally ignorant.

And I'm not sure which would be worse in an academic. But then, I suppose Dawkins stopped being an academic a long time ago, when he became a science populariser (and a good one at that). Here he seems simply to be venting spleen, which is OK, I suppose, but is seriously disappointing.