“DO YOU believe,” the disciple asked the rabbi, “that God created everything for a purpose?”
“I do,” replied the rabbi.
“Well,” asked the disciple, “why did God create atheists?”
The rabbi paused before giving an answer, and when he spoke his voice was soft and intense. “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ We accept what we should not accept. That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.”
Richard Dawkins is one of the great atheists of our time, and his latest book, The God Delusion, is his angriest. Imagine, he says, a world with no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian Partition, no Bosnian massacres, no religious persecution of the Jews, no Northern Ireland troubles, and so on. No religion, therefore no evil in the name of God.
This is good, honest, challenging atheism. I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress.
Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive.
In the perennial battle between our lowest and highest instincts, which is the human condition whether we are atheist or believer, people usually robe their most brutal acts in the mantle of high ideals. In this respect the history of religion, like the history of substitutes for religion, is all too human.
There is, though, another thought-experiment worth performing. Imagine a world with no Book of Psalms, no Isaiah, no Ten Commandments, none of Michelangelo’s religious art or Bach’s devotional music, no Dante, no Milton, no medieval cathedrals, no prayer. Imagine one with no narrative like the Exodus to give hope to the oppressed and enslaved. And that really is the point.
It took an even greater atheist, Nietzsche, to see the truth with fearless clarity. He called Judaism and Christianity “the slave revolt in morals”. It was, he believed, the ethic of the underdog, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless. It generated an entirely new set of virtues: “Pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness.”
Nietzsche was contemptuous of such attitudes. Wherever they prevail, he said, “language exhibits a tendency to bring the words ‘good’ and ‘stupid’ closer to each other”. Only slaves are foolish enough to believe that love and gentleness are ways to live. Masters know a different ethic entirely: “According to master morality it is precisely the ‘good’ who inspire fear and want to inspire it.”
On this Nietzsche agrees with Machiavelli, who said that in politics it is better to be feared than to be loved. And here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Nietzsche’s supreme value was the “will to power”.
Look at Dawkins’s list of crimes committed in the name of God and you will see that they are all cases in which religion has been used to conquer, control or intimidate. They are all expressions of the will to power. This, if anything, is the root of all evil, whether it takes religious or secular forms. That is why the supreme virtue of Judaism and Christianity is humility, the opposite of the will to power.
To seek to impose your will on another, against his or her will, is the first step on the road to dehumanisation. It leads people to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, and wage war in the name of the God of peace. If Richard Dawkins has done no more than warn us of this danger, then may he forgive me for saying that he is a fine example of why God creates atheists and why sometimes theirs is a prophetic voice.
(First published in The Times)