Unwarranted Authority

The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins
Haughton Mifflin, 2006
406 pages, including references and index

One of the great trading points of most religions is their claim to moral authority. You are asked to believe in this god or that god. You are asked to believe all manner of impossible things, such as animals that can talk, reincarnation of dead people, turning beer into wine and the ability to walk on water in the summertime. Once you accept these and possibly more, you are told with authority how to act. You are instructed in how to dress, how to raise your children, how to manage your relationships with other people, sometimes even how to vote. This is from the supposed moral authority of a particular religion.

Moral authority attaches not to just any religion. No religion allows moral authority to derive from another religion. Each religion holds itself out as the sole source of morality. The term “brass balls” comes to mind.

A little girl walks to her second grade class on the city streets. She is fearful and in tears and is accompanied by her mother. Her mother is protecting the child because the child needs protection. Grown men along the way hurl insults on the girl and some even spit on her. She is called a prostitute because of the little schoolgirl dress she is wearing.

This is not a remote village in Afghanistan or even a suburb of Kabul. This is a city in Israel, and the men threatening the little child are Jews, not Muslims. Police protection is soon provided to ensure the child can walk to class unharmed. Nothing is done to the men. They are a special cult of orthodox Jews, and in the interest of fairness they are accorded their own moral authority.

The scene is recent and was featured on television news in late 2011. Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion several years previously in 2006, and he included tales no less chilling to remind us of the power of moral authority unwarranted.

Edgardo Mortara was six years old in 1858 when the religious police seized him from his parents and raised apart from them. His parents were allowed to see him rarely and only under close supervision. Edgardo was subject to indoctrination in the official religion of the locale.

The case is well-known and made newspaper headlines at the time, but it was not untypical. It was the law in Bologna in what is now Italy. Edgardo’s parents were Jewish, but a nanny, a young Catholic girl, had secretly baptized him into the Church once when he was ill, and the nanny feared for his life and the possibility he would burn in Hell if he died. When the religious authorities learned that Edgardo was now, in fact, a Catholic and not a Jew, their course was clear. They had the moral authority and the law to back them up.

There is additional mileage available from this sad story, and Dawkins draws from the well.

The boy’s parents could have resolved the whole issue by having themselves baptized. Then it would be all right for the Catholic Edgardo to be raised by Catholic parents. This, of course, the parents refused to do. Their actions were restricted by the moral authority of their religion.

The parents could have skirted the whole sorry mess by not hiring a Catholic nanny. The moral authority of their religion prevented this, as well. Domestic servants could not reliably be Jewish, because a Jew was not allowed to do much useful work on Saturday.

The God Delusion runs through the gamut of preposterous religious nonsense. During the time the book was being written Dawkins produced a two-part documentary for British television (Channel Four). It was called Root of all Evil, a title that does not sit well with Dawkins. He does not think anything is the root of something. He does like to point out however, the telling promo the station provided for the documentary. It displayed an image of the Manhattan skyline and featured the caption, “Imagine a world without religion.” The photo shows the World Trade Center towers prior to 2001.

Dawkins dwells on a small subset of the myriad insults to humanity that could have been avoided absent the claimed moral authority of religion. The Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, the Holocaust, public floggings of women who display some skin in public and public beheadings of people who change their mind about some professed moral authority-all come to mind. He could have cited many more instances than he does, and he might have noted that many similar evils are not associated with religion in any way. It would appear that our species has inherited some nasty qualities that cannot be laid off on God. My personal opinion is that religion accounts for not all but more than its fair share of our problems.

Moral authority is not the sole topic of this book. Richard Dawkins is a front-line biologist, an emeritus fellow of New College at Oxford and from 1995 to 2008 was University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science. He is also famous for his atheistic views, and his voice is most frequently heard in his staunch opposition to religion in any form.

Dawkins is not charitable to what he calls appeasers to religion. The National Center for Science Education is America’s outstanding supporter of fact-based science education, free of religious interference. However, he considers the organization’s soft treatment of religious sentiment to be counterproductive. Religion is an odious enemy of real science, and Dawkins sees no need for reconciliation.

Root of all Evil is introduced early in the book, and it is best to view the video prior to or at the time of reading the book. The links below allow you to see both parts of the documentary on DailyMotion.com. Watching part one, for me, was entertaining enough, but a particular gem of entertainment was the interview with Ted Haggard. Dawkins came to America to view the real heart of darkness-to “embrace the golden calf, ankle, thigh and upper half.” No Name City turned out to be somewhere in Colorado and to closely resemble Colorado Springs. Haggard ran the New Life Church, an $18-million worship center, and he was Chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals, a bastion of American religious conservatism. He supposedly had a hot line to God and also to President George Bush, and the two (Haggard and Bush) enjoyed a weekly phone conversation.

Please watch the video and suppress your gag reflex as Haggard harangues his congregation about love and salvation. Watch as Dawkins interviews Haggard and debates scientific truth, obviously a useless activity. You only wish Dawkins had brought up Haggard’s religious views on sin and homosexuality, all the while knowing at the time that Haggard was paying masseuse Mike Jones for sexual favors and was buying and using crystal methamphetamine. From such as Ted Haggard do we often derive moral authority.

The evils of religious purveyors notwithstanding, why should we deny to religion any moral authority? Certainly some preachers are honest and forthright with their congregations and are earnest in their lectures. Certainly not all Catholic priests bugger little choir boys. From sincerity should not some authority derive?

The answer is no. By no stretch of the imagination can sincerity alone beget authority.

First of all, sincerity does not logically imply validity. There is always the possibility the sincere preacher is also very, very wrong. The exhortation that we should obey the Ten Commandments of Moses because they came directly from God is not sufficient, for certainly the tale of Moses is a fable. All evidence points to the fact that the Hebrews were never enslaved in Egypt, and never suffered a forced march of forty years in the desert before arriving at the promised land. The evidence is that the Hebrews from the time of their beginnings lived where the modern state of Israel lies now. The only migration that can be validated is the exile of the tribes of Israel to Syria and the later exile of the tribe of Judea to what is now Iraq. All this was well after the time of Moses, rendering his trek through the wilderness imaginary and the stone tablets from God on Mount Sinai a pure fabrication. More than that, the Commandments now proposed for posting in public buildings by various religious factions seem to largely predate the advertised time of Moses. If they are supposed to come from God, then they are forgeries.

We may easily consider the existence of supernatural gods to be pure myth and discount their moral authority accordingly. Consider, however, the possibility that there actually exists a supernatural god, much like the god of Abraham, who we will now call God. By what stroke of imagination do we now confer moral authority on God? Examine the record. Use the Bible as a reference.

Genesis 19:1 describes the arrival of two angels at the home of the man Lot, who has gained the favor of God, and must be rescued from the evil city of Sodom. Genesis 19:4-5 tells us that evil men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house, demanding he hand over the angels (apparently mistaken for men) for submission to sodomy (what else). Subsequent verses tell us that Lot offered up his two virgin daughters to satisfy the wicked men’s sexual desires. This is the good man that God deemed fit to honor with his protection. I (and Dawkins) conclude from this that God is rudely misogynistic. This may have passed for morality 3000 years ago, but the godless heathens of the twenty-first century would not stomach it.

Exodus 21 exhibits a litany of consequences for various acts of violence or neglect. For example, if a man digs a pit and does not protect it so that somebody’s animal falls in and perishes, then the man must compensate the owner and take possession of the dead animal. However:

20. And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

21. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

This seems to be saying it’s not OK to kill a slave, but beating one with a rod is all right provided the slave recovers after a day or two, because the slave is the man’s property to do with as he wishes. In the recent past Southern slave owners must have taken comfort from this allowance, but modern morality would not tolerate it.

In Numbers we are made to understand that gathering firewood on the Sabbath will rightly gain one a horrible death.

Numbers 15:32-36

King James Version (KJV)

32. And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day.

33. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

34. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.

35. And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

36. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses.

No reasonable person in modern society believes this is an appropriate punishment for what should never be considered a crime. There are other examples, of course, and they illustrate that the God of the Old Testament has no moral authority worth our consideration.

That was the Old Testament. What of the New?

Jesus seems a welcome relief, coming after the ogre that was the God of Abraham. We wonder how this can be, since Jesus is supposed to be that God in a young person suit. In any event, Jesus preached not an eye for an eye, but to turn the other cheek when smitten by some unworthy. The stories of the New Testament provide Jesus with enough gloss to bestow upon him the title “Prince of Peace.”

Dawkins is not quick to let Jesus off the hook, assuming his words and deeds are accurately recorded. Dawkins cites Mark 2:27:

And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

He takes this to imply Jesus is advising not to take the scriptures as a literal rule of morality, specifically: It’s not necessary to keep the Sabbath that holy.

Jesus also tells his followers to abandon their own families, and Dawkins likens this to the standard practice we see in modern day cults. Cult leaders need to isolate members from their previous support systems so they will come to depend entirely on the cult.

Maybe Dawkins does not make this point strongly enough, but some present day Christian churches do exactly this. A few years back one such church in Dallas was hosting a lecture on evolution (versus creationism), and I dropped by to see how this was handled. From my viewpoint the arrangement for the children closely mirrored the infamous madrassas for Islamic religious indoctrination. Behind the church was the church school, and for the anti-evolution lecture the children marched directly from the school to the sanctuary and participated in the carefully orchestrated presentation. It was apparent that these children’s world comprised their close-knit family and their church to the exclusion of most outside influences.

NTS adviser Joe Barnhart and I participated in a production of the Joni Lamb Show in 2004. We were there ostensibly to confront creationist Ralph Muncaster, but it quickly became apparent we were grist for the program’s revenue mill. This show and a number like it are produced by the Daystar television network, the principle purpose of which is to provide income for the company. I get the feeling there are many in the organization who do not share the religious views they sell to their audience. Anyhow, the network purchased (then analog) TV channel 2 in a large number of viewing markets and now run exclusively Christian programming. A tape of the Joni Lamb Show reveals what the viewer sees, which is a streaming banner featuring a plea for donations and a toll-free number to call. Apparently there are a large number of people for whom this is their only television programming.

These examples depict standard evangelical Christianity and don’t come close to the extreme cults that were The People’s Temple, the Branch Davidian cult and the Heaven’s Gate cult. However, they do lead up to a discussion of one of Dawkins’ better known topics-that of the cultural meme.

Wikipedia gives the definition of a meme as “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Dawkins likens a cultural meme to a virus. He makes the case that the spread and persistence of cultural memes parallels biological evolution through natural selection only to the extent that memes act like viruses. A meme can start with one person, and if that person is persuasive enough he can infect his cohorts with the virus. The virus becomes fixed in a population if it is well-suited to perpetuate itself. Significant religions, including Evangelical Christianity and mainline Christianity exhibit this property. A feature that helps to perpetuate a meme such as Christianity is that adherents come to learn they must not infect themselves from outside influences. I witnessed an example of this at a local creationist group meeting. One creationist was a real world geologist, and he advised people they should not push pseudo geology on their children. The problem is when you send your children college they will learn real geology and will realize you have been lying to them. The response from one man was telling: “Then don’t send them.”

Following the Dover, Pennsylvania, creationism trial, Edward Humes wrote Monkey Girl, an assessment of the case and, briefly, of the creationism/evolution controversy in the United States. In studying the culture that drove the Dover school board to push for creationism in their science classes, Hume visited a conference for evangelical Christians. He noted:

The “Steeling the Mind” conference is a prime example of this disconnect between science and religion-there are no negotiations, no compromises, no attempts to stand in the other side’s shoes.

One speaker at “Steeling the Mind” put it this way: “Kids go off to college and give up on God. Start worrying less about where your kids are going to go to college, and send them to a Christian school now.” A young man in the audience turned that concern on its head, admitting that he preferred to bank on ignorance: “I’m really afraid to learn too much about evolution, because it might make me doubt my religion. And then where would I be? What would I tell my family? My girlfriend?”

The God Delusion ventures through the many and varied arguments for rejecting religion in any form. Some points could have been hammered home with less restraint, and some may be a little over cooked. In all, however, Dawkins makes a good case, the main points being:

  • By default, nearly all religions tend to be entirely baseless. They are predicated on demonstrably false history, or they involve false claims of fact that are easily refuted. As such, they are totally lacking in moral authority.
  • Even in cases that do not involve false premises, moral authority is still lacking. This is because the moral base is usually translated by one or a few individuals who have either inherited the office or have elected themselves. A person subscribing to such a moral authority may be placing control of his life in the hands of a person of unknown or unsavory character. Said person is not guaranteed to have the client’s best interest in mind.
  • The controlling factor of an impersonal moral authority is punishment. In the real world punishment is meted out by society directly within the miscreant’s life time. In the case of religion, retribution is often promised in the supposed life after death. A person who owns up to this kind of submission is admitting that he has no real moral fiber of his own, and the only reason he does not inflict his selfish purposes on other people is fear of retribution. Who wants to be known as that sort of person?
  • Finally (my own take), subscribing to anybody’s rigid moral authority is lazy at best and stupid in the extreme. If you can’t get up in the morning and figure out what you need to do to live in such a way that you and those you care about will be proud, then you have some serious personal problems, and it is possible that no religious authority will bring relief. A recent news item reminded me of this. Peggy Railey died this past December. She had been in a coma since April 1987 after being strangled with a length of cord, apparently at the hand of her husband, the Reverend Walker Railey. The reverend had up to that point been a prominent preacher at the First United Methodist Church in Dallas, and no amount of moral authority had inoculated him against the idea that it was OK to kill his wife and run off with his new girlfriend.

You will note that much of this commentary is outside the context of the book. Monkey Girl came out a year after The God Delusion, for example, and a number of my examples are taken from personal experience. You really should read the book, and I hope you will get back to me with your own assessment of Dawkins’ presentation. To assist the serious reader I have appended some helpful notes and references.


Parts one and two of the video Root of all Evil are available for viewing here.



The timely story of religious persecution of a young child in Israel is from CNN.


The hilarious song “The Gospel of No Name City” is from the musical Paint Your Wagon and was written by Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn.

In compiling references to the Bible I relied on the Bible Atrocities Web site.


I did a write-up on the Christian madrassa back in 2002.


You can purchase The God Delusion from Amazon. A 2008 paperback edition is available.


You can purchase Monkey Girl from Amazon.


2 thoughts on “Unwarranted Authority

  1. Pingback: The Lord’s Blessing | Skeptical Analysis

  2. Pingback: The Quintessence of Dumbshitia | Skeptical Analysis

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