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The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

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Richard Dawkins

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The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins

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Book Summary

In an impassioned rebuttal to religion, a noted scientist and author of The Blind Watchmaker speaks out on the irrationality of belief in God; criticizes the dire impact of religion on society, from the Crusades to September 11; and argues that religion fuels war, bigotry, child abuse, violence, and other ills. Reprint.

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Excerpt: The God Delusion

I don't try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the
structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to
appreciate it.
—Albert Einstein


The boy lay prone in the grass, his chin resting on his hands. He suddenly
found himself overwhelmed by a heightened awareness of the tangled stems
and roots, a forest in microcosm, a transfigured world of ants and beetles and
even – though he wouldn't have known the details at the time – of soil
bacteria by the billions, silently and invisibly shoring up the economy of the
micro-world. Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and
become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy
contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms and it led
him eventually to the priesthood. He was ordained an Anglican priest and
became a chaplain at my school, a teacher of whom I was fond. It is thanks
to decent liberal clergymen like him that nobody could ever claim that I had
religion forced down my throat.*
In another time and place, that boy could have been me under the
stars, dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard
music of the Milky Way, heady with the night scents of frangipani and
trumpet flowers in an African garden. Why the same emotion should have led
my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to
answer. A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common
among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural
belief. In his boyhood at least, my chaplain was presumably not aware (nor
was I) of the closing lines of The Origin of Species – the famous 'entangled
bank' passage, 'with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting
about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth'. Had he been, he
would certainly have identified with it and, instead of the priesthood, might
have been led to Darwin's view that all was 'produced by laws acting around

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object
which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher
animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several
powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that,
whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity,
from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved.

Carl Sagan, in Pale Blue Dot, wrote:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and
concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than
our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they
say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A
religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as
revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence
and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

All Sagan's books touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder that
religion monopolized in past centuries. My own books have the same
aspiration. Consequently I hear myself often described as a deeply religious
man. An American student wrote to me that she had asked her professor
whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is
incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the
universe. To me, that is religion!' But is 'religion' the right word? I don't think
so. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made
the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is
inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said
that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.'
Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we
like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump
of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely
useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to
denote a supernatural creator that is 'appropriate for us to worship'.
Much unfortunate confusion is caused by failure to distinguish
what can be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. Einstein
sometimes invoked the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic
scientist to do so), inviting misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to
misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own. The dramatic
(or was it mischievous?) ending of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of
Time, 'For then we should know the mind of God', is notoriously
misconstrued. It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that
Hawking is a religious man. The cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, in The
Sacred Depths of Nature, sounds more religious than Hawking or Einstein.
She loves churches, mosques and temples, and numerous passages in her
book fairly beg to be taken out of context and used as ammunition for
supernatural religion. She goes so far as to call herself a 'Religious
Naturalist'. Yet a careful reading of her book shows that she is really as
staunch an atheist as I am.
'Naturalist' is an ambiguous word. For me it conjures my
childhood hero, Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle (who, by the way, had more
than a touch of the 'philosopher' naturalist of HMS Beagle about him). In the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, naturalist meant what it still means for
most of us today: a student of the natural world. Naturalists in this sense,
from Gilbert White on, have often been clergymen. Darwin himself was
destined for the Church as a young man, hoping that the leisurely life of a
country parson would enable him to pursue his passion for beetles. But
philosophers use 'naturalist' in a very different sense, as the opposite of
supernaturalist. Julian Baggini explains in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
the meaning of an atheist's commitment to naturalism: 'What most atheists
do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it
is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in
short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.'
Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex
interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense
of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond
the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking
behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no
miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don't yet
understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world
as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and
embrace it within the natural. As ever when we unweave a rainbow, it will not
become less wonderful.
Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out
not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply. This is certainly
true of Einstein and Hawking. The present Astronomer Royal and President
of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, told me that he goes to church as
an 'unbelieving Anglican . . . out of loyalty to the tribe'. He has no theistic
beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos provokes in the
other scientists I have mentioned. In the course of a recently televised
conversation, I challenged my friend the obstetrician Robert Winston, a
respected pillar of British Jewry, to admit that his Judaism was of exactly this
character and that he didn't really believe in anything supernatural. He came
close to admitting it but shied at the last fence (to be fair, he was supposed
to be interviewing me, not the other way around).3 When I pressed him, he
said he found that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure
his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the
smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims. There
are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews and observe
Jewish rites, perhaps out of loyalty to an ancient tradition or to murdered
relatives, but also because of a confused and confusing willingness to label
as 'religion' the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most
distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein. They may not believe but, to borrow
Dan Dennett's phrase, they 'believe in belief'.4
One of Einstein's most eagerly quoted remarks is 'Science
without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.' But Einstein also

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie
which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God
and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in
me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the
structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Does it seem that Einstein contradicted himself? That his words
can be cherry-picked for quotes to support both sides of an argument? No.
By 'religion' Einstein meant something entirely different from what is
conventionally meant. As I continue to clarify the distinction between
supernatural religion on the one hand and Einsteinian religion on the other,
bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional.
Here are some more quotations from Einstein, to give a flavour of
Einsteinian religion.

I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind
of religion.

I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything
that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a
magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that
must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely
religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.

The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even

In greater numbers since his death, religious apologists
understandably try to claim Einstein as one of their own. Some of his
religious contemporaries saw him very differently. In 1940 Einstein wrote a
famous paper justifying his statement 'I do not believe in a personal God.'
This and similar statements provoked a storm of letters from the religiously
orthodox, many of them alluding to Einstein's Jewish origins. The extracts
that follow are taken from Max Jammer's book Einstein and Religion (which
is also my main source of quotations from Einstein himself on religious
matters). The Roman Catholic Bishop of Kansas City said: 'It is sad to see a
man, who comes from the race of the Old Testament and its teaching, deny
the great tradition of that race.' Other Catholic clergymen chimed in: 'There is
no other God but a personal God . . . Einstein does not know what he is
talking about. He is all wrong. Some men think that because they have
achieved a high degree of learning in some field, they are qualified to express
opinions in all.' The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might
claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. That clergyman
presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed 'fairyologist'
on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings. Both he and the bishop thought
that Einstein, being theologically untrained, had misunderstood the nature of
God. On the contrary, Einstein understood very well exactly what he was
An American Roman Catholic lawyer, working on behalf of an
ecumenical coalition, wrote to Einstein:

We deeply regret that you made your statement . . . in which you ridicule the
idea of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated
to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from
Germany as your statement. Conceding your right to free speech, I still say
that your statement constitutes you as one of the greatest sources of discord
in America.

A New York rabbi said: 'Einstein is unquestionably a great
scientist, but his religious views are diametrically opposed to Judaism.'
'But'? 'But'? Why not 'and'?
The president of a historical society in New Jersey wrote a letter
that so damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind, it is worth
reading twice:

We respect your learning, Dr Einstein; but there is one thing you do not
seem to have learned: that God is a spirit and cannot be found through the
telescope or microscope, no more than human thought or emotion can be
found by analyzing the brain. As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith,
not knowledge. Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with
religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told
anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might,
by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow
being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, 'There is a mean streak
in anyone who will destroy another's faith.' . . . I hope, Dr Einstein, that you
were misquoted and that you will yet say something more pleasing to the
vast number of the American people who delight to do you honor.

What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual
and moral cowardice.
Less abject but more shocking was the letter from the Founder of
the Calvary Tabernacle Association in Oklahoma:

Professor Einstein, I believe that every Christian in America will answer
you, 'We will not give up our belief in our God and his son Jesus Christ, but
we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to
go back where you came from.' I have done everything in my power to be a
blessing to Israel, and then you come along and with one statement from
your blasphemous tongue, do more to hurt the cause of your people than all
the efforts of the Christians who love Israel can do to stamp out anti-
Semitism in our land. Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will
immediately reply to you, 'Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and
go back to Germany where you came from, or stop trying to break down the
faith of a people who gave you a welcome when you were forced to flee your
native land.'

The one thing all his theistic critics got right was that Einstein
was not one of them. He was repeatedly indignant at the suggestion that he
was a theist. So, was he a deist, like Voltaire and Diderot? Or a pantheist,
like Spinoza, whose philosophy he admired: 'I believe in Spinoza's God who
reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who
concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings'?
Let's remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a
supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the
universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the
subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the
deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or
punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about
good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing
them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose
activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the
first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no
specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural
God at all, but use the word God as a nonsupernatural synonym for Nature,
or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists
differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested
in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene
with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is
some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or
poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism.
Deism is watered-down theism.
There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like 'God
is subtle but he is not malicious' or 'He does not play dice' or 'Did God have
a choice in creating the Universe?' are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly
not theistic. 'God does not play dice' should be translated as 'Randomness
does not lie at the heart of all things.' 'Did God have a choice in creating the
Universe?' means 'Could the universe have begun in any other way?' Einstein
was using 'God' in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen
Hawking, and so are most of those physicists who occasionally slip into the
language of religious metaphor. Paul Davies's The Mind of God seems to
hover somewhere between Einsteinian pantheism and an obscure form of
deism – for which he was rewarded with the Templeton Prize (a very large
sum of money given annually by the Templeton Foundation, usually to a
scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion).
Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from
Einstein himself: 'To sense that behind anything that can be experienced
there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and
sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is
religiousness. In this sense I am religious.' In this sense I too am religious,
with the reservation that 'cannot grasp' does not have to mean 'forever
ungraspable'. But I prefer not to call myself religious because it is
misleading. It is destructively misleading because, for the vast majority of
people, 'religion' implies 'supernatural'. Carl Sagan put it well: '. . . if by "God"
one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly
there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying . . . it does not
make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.'
Amusingly, Sagan's last point was foreshadowed by the Reverend
Dr Fulton J. Sheen, a professor at the Catholic University of America, as part
of a fierce attack upon Einstein's 1940 disavowal of a personal God. Sheen
sarcastically asked whether anyone would be prepared to lay down his life for
the Milky Way. He seemed to think he was making a point against Einstein,
rather than for him, for he added: 'There is only one fault with his cosmical
religion: he put an extra letter in the word – the letter "s".' There is nothing
comical about Einstein's beliefs. Nevertheless, I wish that physicists would
refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The
metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the
interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-
answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary
language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of
intellectual high treason.

* Our sport during lessons was to sidetrack him away from scripture and
towards stirring tales of Fighter Command and the Few. He had done war
service in the RAF and it was with familiarity, and something of the affection
that I still retain for the Church of England (at least by comparison with the
competition), that I later read John Betjeman's poem: Our padre is an old sky
pilot, Severely now they've clipped his wings, But still the flagstaff in the
Rect'ry garden Points to Higher Things . . .


My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the
other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to
get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity
to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods,
of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the
God of the Old Testament. I shall come to him in a moment. But before
leaving this preliminary chapter I need to deal with one more matter that
would otherwise bedevil the whole book. This time it is a matter of etiquette.
It is possible that religious readers will be offended by what I have to say, and
will find in these pages insufficient respect for their own particular beliefs (if
not the beliefs that others treasure). It would be a shame if such offence
prevented them from reading on, so I want to sort it out here, at the outset.
A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society
accepts – the non-religious included – is that religious faith is especially
vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of
respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should
pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech
made in Cambridge shortly before his death,5 that I never tire of sharing his

Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy
or whatever. What it means is, 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not
allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? – because
you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're
free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument
but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or
down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if
somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'I
respect that'.
Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the
Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this
model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have
an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the
Universe . . . no, that's holy? . . . We are used to not challenging religious
ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he
does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed
to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why
those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we
have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be.

Here's a particular example of our society's overweening respect
for religion, one that really matters. By far the easiest grounds for gaining
conscientious objector status in wartime are religious. You can be a brilliant
moral philosopher with a prizewinning doctoral thesis expounding the evils of
war, and still be given a hard time by a draft board evaluating your claim to be
a conscientious objector. Yet if you can say that one or both of your parents
is a Quaker you sail through like a breeze, no matter how inarticulate and
illiterate you may be on the theory of pacifism or, indeed, Quakerism itself.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from pacifism, we have a
pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions. In
Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are euphemized to 'Nationalists'
and 'Loyalists' respectively. The very word 'religions' is bowdlerized
to 'communities', as in 'intercommunity warfare'. Iraq, as a consequence of
the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, degenerated into sectarian civil war
between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Clearly a religious conflict – yet in the
Independent of 20 May 2006 the front-page headline and first leading article
both described it as 'ethnic cleansing'. 'Ethnic' in this context is yet another
euphemism. What we are seeing in Iraq is religious cleansing. The original
usage of 'ethnic cleansing' in the former Yugoslavia is also arguably a
euphemism for religious cleansing, involving Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats
and Muslim Bosnians.6
I have previously drawn attention to the privileging of religion in
public discussions of ethics in the media and in government.7 Whenever a
controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that
religious leaders from several different faith groups will be prominently
represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio or
television. I'm not suggesting that we should go out of our way to censor the
views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as
though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral
philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor?
Here's another weird example of the privileging of religion. On 21
February 2006 the United States Supreme Court ruled that a church in New
Mexico should be exempt from the law, which everybody else has to obey,
against the taking of hallucinogenic drugs.8 Faithful members of the Centro
Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they can understand God
only by drinking hoasca tea, which contains the illegal hallucinogenic drug
dimethyltryptamine. Note that it is sufficient that they believe that the drug
enhances their understanding. They do not have to produce evidence.
Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that cannabis eases the nausea and
discomfort of cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy. Yet the Supreme
Court ruled, in 2005, that all patients who use cannabis for medicinal
purposes are vulnerable to federal prosecution (even in the minority of states
where such specialist use is legalized). Religion, as ever, is the trump card.
Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that
they 'believe' they need a hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their
understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet, when a church
claims an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such
is the power of religion as a talisman.
Seventeen years ago, I was one of thirty-six writers and artists
commissioned by the magazine New Statesman to write in support of the
distinguished author Salman Rushdie,9 then under sentence of death for
writing a novel. Incensed by the 'sympathy' for Muslim 'hurt' and 'offence'
expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion-formers, I
drew the following parallel:

If the advocates of apartheid had their wits about them they would claim – for
all I know truthfully – that allowing mixed races is against their religion. A
good part of the opposition would respectfully tiptoe away. And it is no use
claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational
justification. The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is
that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected
to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and
you infringe 'religious liberty'.

Little did I know that something pretty similar would come to pass
in the twenty-first century. The Los Angeles Times (10 April 2006) reported
that numerous Christian groups on campuses around the United States were
suing their universities for enforcing anti-discrimination rules, including
prohibitions against harassing or abusing homosexuals. As a typical
example, in 2004 James Nixon, a twelve-year-old boy in Ohio, won the right
in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words 'Homosexuality is a sin,
Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!'10
The school told him not to wear the T-shirt – and the boy's parents sued the
school. The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it
on the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn't:
indeed, they couldn't, because free speech is deemed not to include 'hate
speech'. But hate only has to prove it is religious, and it no longer counts as
hate. So, instead of freedom of speech, the Nixons' lawyers appealed to the
constitutional right to freedom of religion. Their victorious lawsuit was
supported by the Alliance Defense Fund of Arizona, whose business it is
to 'press the legal battle for religious freedom'.
The Reverend Rick Scarborough, supporting the wave of similar
Christian lawsuits brought to establish religion as a legal justification for
discrimination against homosexuals and other groups, has named it the civil
rights struggle of the twenty-first century: 'Christians are going to have to
take a stand for the right to be Christian.'11 Once again, if such people took
their stand on the right to free speech, one might reluctantly sympathize. But
that isn't what it is about. The legal case in favour of discrimination against
homosexuals is being mounted as a counter-suit against alleged religious
discrimination! And the law seems to respect this. You can't get away with
saying, 'If you try to stop me from insulting homosexuals it violates my
freedom of prejudice.' But you can get away with saying, 'It violates my
freedom of religion.' What, when you think about it, is the difference? Yet
again, religion trumps all.
I'll end the chapter with a particular case study, which tellingly
illuminates society's exaggerated respect for religion, over and above ordinary
human respect. The case flared up in February 2006 – a ludicrous episode,
which veered wildly between the extremes of comedy and tragedy. The
previous September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve
cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Over the next three months,
indignation was carefully and systematically nurtured throughout the Islamic
world by a small group of Muslims living in Denmark, led by two imams who
had been granted sanctuary there.12 In late 2005 these malevolent exiles
travelled from Denmark to Egypt bearing a dossier, which was copied and
circulated from there to the whole Islamic world, including, importantly,
Indonesia. The dossier contained falsehoods about alleged maltreatment of
Muslims in Denmark, and the tendentious lie that Jyllands-Posten was a
government-run newspaper. It also contained the twelve cartoons which,
crucially, the imams had supplemented with three additional images whose
origin was mysterious but which certainly had no connection with Denmark.
Unlike the original twelve, these three add-ons were genuinely offensive – or
would have been if they had, as the zealous propagandists alleged, depicted
Muhammad. A particularly damaging one of these three was not a cartoon at
all but a faxed photograph of a bearded man wearing a fake pig's snout held
on with elastic. It has subsequently turned out that this was an Associated
Press photograph of a Frenchman entered for a pig-squealing contest at a
country fair in France.13 The photograph had no connection whatsoever with
the prophet Muhammad, no connection with Islam, and no connection with
Denmark. But the Muslim activists, on their mischief-stirring hike to Cairo,
implied all three connections . . . with predictable results.
The carefully cultivated 'hurt' and 'offence' was brought to an
explosive head five months after the twelve cartoons were originally
published. Demonstrators in Pakistan and Indonesia burned Danish flags
(where did they get them from?) and hysterical demands were made for the
Danish government to apologize. (Apologize for what? They didn't draw the
cartoons, or publish them. Danes just live in a country with a free press,
something that people in many Islamic countries might have a hard time
understanding.) Newspapers in Norway, Germany, France and even the
United States (but, conspicuously, not Britain) reprinted the cartoons in
gestures of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, which added fuel to the flames.
Embassies and consulates were trashed, Danish goods were boycotted,
Danish citizens and, indeed, Westerners generally, were physically
threatened; Christian churches in Pakistan, with no Danish or European
connections at all, were burned. Nine people were killed when Libyan rioters
attacked and burned the Italian consulate in Benghazi. As Germaine Greer
wrote, what these people really love and do best is pandemonium.14
A bounty of $1 million was placed on the head of 'the Danish
cartoonist' by a Pakistani imam – who was apparently unaware that there
were twelve different Danish cartoonists, and almost certainly unaware that
the three most offensive pictures had never appeared in Denmark at all (and,
by the way, where was that million going to come from?). In Nigeria, Muslim
protesters against the Danish cartoons burned down several Christian
churches, and used machetes to attack and kill (black Nigerian) Christians in
the streets. One Christian was put inside a rubber tyre, doused with petrol
and set alight. Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners
saying 'Slay those who insult Islam', 'Butcher those who mock
Islam', 'Europe you will pay: Demolition is on its way' and, apparently without
irony, 'Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion'.
In the aftermath of all this, the journalist Andrew Mueller
interviewed Britain's leading 'moderate' Muslim, Sir Iqbal Sacranie.15
Moderate he may be by today's Islamic standards, but in Andrew Mueller's
account he still stands by the remark he made when Salman Rushdie was
condemned to death for writing a novel: 'Death is perhaps too easy for him' –
a remark that sets him in ignominious contrast to his courageous
predecessor as Britain's most influential Muslim, the late Dr Zaki Badawi,
who offered Salman Rushdie sanctuary in his own home. Sacranie told
Mueller how concerned he was about the Danish cartoons. Mueller was
concerned too, but for a different reason: 'I am concerned that the ridiculous,
disproportionate reaction to some unfunny sketches in an obscure
Scandinavian newspaper may confirm that . . . Islam and the west are
fundamentally irreconcilable.' Sacranie, on the other hand, praised British
newspapers for not reprinting the cartoons, to which Mueller voiced the
suspicion of most of the nation that 'the restraint of British newspapers
derived less from sensitivity to Muslim discontent than it did from a desire not
to have their windows broken'.
Sacranie explained that 'The person of the Prophet, peace be
upon him, is revered so profoundly in the Muslim world, with a love and
affection that cannot be explained in words. It goes beyond your parents,
your loved ones, your children. That is part of the faith. There is also an
Islamic teaching that one does not depict the Prophet.' This rather assumes,
as Mueller observed,

that the values of Islam trump anyone else's – which is what any follower of
Islam does assume, just as any follower of any religion believes that theirs is
the sole way, truth and light. If people wish to love a 7th century preacher
more than their own families, that's up to them, but nobody else is obliged to
take it seriously . . .

Except that if you don't take it seriously and accord it proper respect you are
physically threatened, on a scale that no other religion has aspired to since
the Middle Ages. One can't help wondering why such violence is necessary,
given that, as Mueller notes: 'If any of you clowns are right about anything,
the cartoonists are going to hell anyway – won't that do? In the meantime, if
you want to get excited about affronts to Muslims, read the Amnesty
International reports on Syria and Saudi Arabia.'
Many people have noted the contrast between the hysterical 'hurt'
professed by Muslims and the readiness with which Arab media publish
stereotypical anti-Jewish cartoons. At a demonstration in Pakistan against
the Danish cartoons, a woman in a black burka was photographed carrying a
banner reading 'God Bless Hitler'.
In response to all this frenzied pandemonium, decent liberal
newspapers deplored the violence and made token noises about free speech.
But at the same time they expressed 'respect' and 'sympathy' for the
deep 'offence' and 'hurt' that Muslims had 'suffered'. The 'hurt' and 'suffering'
consisted, remember, not in any person enduring violence or real pain of any
kind: nothing more than a few daubs of printing ink in a newspaper that
nobody outside Denmark would ever have heard of but for a deliberate
campaign of incitement to mayhem.
I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of
it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of
religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to
disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What
is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?
As H. L. Mencken said: 'We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only
in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is
beautiful and his children smart.'
It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for
religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my
way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more
gently than I would handle anything else.

Copyright © 2006 by Richard Dawkins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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