Friday, May 14, 2010

TGD: Imagine a World Without Religion

Before moving on to chapter three, I wanted to take a moment to talk about how Dawkins uses hypothetical scenarios to further his argument. In a few places he uses hypotheticals to paint a picture and support his argument. They are powerful illustrations, but they depend a number of questionable assumptions.

The hypothetical scenario I want to talk about appears in the preface. He describes an advertisement for a documentary he presented. The advertisement had the words, "Imagine a world without religion," beneath a picture of the Manhattan skyline; in which the twin towers were still standing.

As an American, I feel the impact of that argument. It feels like a blow to the solar plexus. I'm sure we all wish that those towers were still standing and I'm sure we all wish the 3,000 people who died when they collapsed were still with us.

It's also a damning argument. Everyone knows, on a deep level, that the ideology of the 9/11 hijackers was deeply perverse and destructive; and everyone knows that their ideology was undoubtedly religious.

Still, we need to take a step back and ask, is religion to blame for the attacks of 9/11? Certainly, religion was a factor, but was it the cause?

To give an example, what if the slogan had read, "Imagine a world without airplanes?" This message is far more accurate. The 9/11 attacks would have been impossible without commercial airlines, yet no one blames the Wright brothers or their infernal invention for destroying the world trade center.

Additionally, the first slogan ignores any other affects that religion has had on the Manhattan skyline. Like, for example, bringing European immigrants to the Manhattan island in the first place.

Religion has been a major factor throughout all of history. It is literally impossible to imagine what the world would be like today if religion had never existed. Instead, I'm going to stick to a very simple rule. I'm only going to consider those cases where religion has a direct role in the creation or destruction of individual buildings.

Obviously, all the religious buildings wouldn't exist, including the great cathedrals of Europe as well as most of Vatican city. The Wailing Wall wouldn't exist and neither would the Sacred Mosque or the Dome of the Rock.

So far we've lost all the places of worship, but since there's no religion, no one will miss those. We might miss the artwork that went into those buildings, especially the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Still, so far we haven't lost much.

But it doesn't stop there. Medieval universities, including the universities of Paris, Cambridge and Oxford, all started as Christian schools based out of cathedrals or monasteries. They received their official support from the Vatican. Additionally, all of the Ivy league schools, except Cornell, were founded during the colonial period by various Christian groups.

As an aside, Richard Dawkins graduated from the University of Oxford. One wonders where Dawkins would have received his education from in this hypothetical scenario, but, as I said earlier, we're only going to concern ourselves with the affects of religion on buildings, not people.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point (and allowed myself to make a cheap shot at Dawkins' expense). I've shown that these kinds of hypothetical situations are very contrived. One cannot surgically remove religion from human history and make a realistic estimate of whether humanity would be better or worse without it. Even if someone could produce such an estimate, we have no way of testing it.

I'm not going to deny that many terrible atrocities have been committed in the name of God, but we shouldn't forget about the massive amount of good that has also been done in God's name. Would the world would be better off without religion? That's a question that no human can answer, not even Richard Dawkins.

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