An Unbelievable Beginning (Part 2)

Richard Dawkins

Below we present the conclusion to Richard Dawkins’s foreword to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn (the first part was published in the February/March 2008 issue of Free Inquiry). Dr. Dawkins composed this foreword before completing his 2006 best-seller The God Delusion. Readers familiar with that work may recognize earlier versions of some of the structures and arguments employed in Dr. Dawkins’s later-written but earlier-published book. —Eds.


The United States of America is now suffering an epidemic of religiosity that seems almost medieval in its intensity and positively sinister in its political ascendancy. On a now notorious occasion in 1987, the following dialogue took place between George Herbert Walker Bush and Robert Sherman, one of the reporters at a news conference held by the then-vice president and soon-to-be-successful presidential candidate:

Sherman: What will you do to win the votes of the Americans who are atheists?

Bush: I guess I’m pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in God is important to me.

Sherman: Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?

Bush: No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

Sherman (somewhat taken aback): Do you support as a sound constitutional principle the separation of state and church?

Bush: Yes, I support the separation of church and state. I’m just not very high on atheists.

The tone in which Bush uttered these disgracefully bigoted words—just try substituting the word Jews for atheists in the above dialogue—is not recorded. I imagine it as condescendingly jocular, which makes it even more deplorable. Again, try the experimental Jew substitution and see whether a humorous tone makes it sound any better. It doesn’t.

Disgraceful it may be, but it is indicative of the standing of atheism in modern America. One can argue that the problem lies in the ludicrously demonized word atheist itself. Julia Sweeney’s parents made this more or less explicit (see Part 1). If Robert Sherman had quoted Einstein and asked Bush about his attitude toward those Americans who do not believe in a personal God but harbor a deep reverence and awe for the majestically deep mysteries of the universe, he probably would have received a far more sympathetic and civilized answer. Yet, if you look at the details of what Einstein said, notwithstanding his God-encumbered language, he was just as much of an atheist as, say, Bertrand Russell, Robert Green Ingersoll, or any typical Fellow of the Royal Society or the National Academy of Sciences. Einsteinian euphemisms have probably enabled more than one intelligent, thinking person to achieve election to high office.

Some see this as a tactical argument for ditching the word atheist altogether and calling ourselves “Brights,” by analogy with the way homosexuals positively rebranded themselves as “Gays.” Various more or less attractive attempts are made to turn Einstein-style pantheism into organized quasi-religions with names like Religious Naturalism or World Pantheism; perhaps this, or Universism, is the politically expedient way to go. Others prefer to tough it out and call a spade a spade while making consciousness-raising efforts to rehabilitate the word atheist itself.

Maybe “politically expedient” is too cynical. Carl Sagan’s ringing declaration in Pale Blue Dot can be read as positively inspiring:

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. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

Shedding religion can be liberating, but we experience liberation only by comparison with captivity. Nobody today feels liberated by unbelief in Thor’s hammer or Zeus’s thunderbolts, though our ancestors might have done so. Today, huge numbers of people—depending on an accident of birth—are brought up to treat belief in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism as an expected norm, departure from which is a grievous and onerous decision (to put it no more strongly: the official Islamic penalty for apostasy is death). Women, in many parts of the world, have additional reasons to regard the end of religion as liberation.

I frequently receive letters from readers of my books thanking me for liberating them from the bondage of religion. I’ll quote just one example, renaming the author “Jerry” because he is deeply worried that his parents might discover his newly gained unbelief. Jerry’s youthful indoctrination as an evangelical Christian was depressingly successful. He recounts how, in his last year at school,

. . . the headmaster chose a small group of brighter boys to study philosophy with him. He probably regretted selecting me, as I made it perfectly clear during class debates that there really was no need for such discussions—the answer to all life’s problems was simple, and it was Jesus.

Jerry’s liberation had to wait until his postgraduate years:

My postgraduate studies, however, opened my mind to a world of ideas I barely knew existed. I met highly intelligent fellow students who had applied their rationality to all aspects of their lives, and come to the conclusion that there was no God. And, amazingly, they were happy, they enjoyed life, they didn’t feel the “God-shaped hole” that I had warned people about so often [Jerry had done a stint as a missionary, financed by well-meaning donations from his home church]. . . .

For the first time in my life, I was willing to be challenged. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” [Wordsworth]. I craved more intellectual meat . . . and so I spent the summer of 1998 devouring book upon book.

Among the books Jerry devoured were two of mine, which explains his writing to me. He went on to expound his reaction to these and other books:

The dawning realization that I could safely jettison my increasingly tenuous faith, and that a world without God wouldn’t be the joyless hell I had always imagined it would be, was overwhelming. I felt liberated. All the benefits of Christianity that I had promoted—that faith brings you freedom, meaning, purpose, joy etc.—I now discovered for real, but on the wrong side!

How are we liberated when we forsake religion? Let me count the ways! Morally we are freed—especially if we were brought up Catholic as I, thank goodness, was not—from an ominous burden of guilt and fear. The awful notion of private “sin” is never far from the minds of the pious, and we cannot but feel joyous release when we shake it off and replace it by the open good sense of moral philosophic reasoning. In place of private “sin,” we choose to behave in such a way as to avoid causing suffering to others and increase their happiness.

Practically, we are freed, depending on the details of the particular faith in which we were raised, from the fatuity and inconvenience of time-wasting rituals: freed from the necessity to pray five times a day; freed from the duty to confess our “sins” to a priest; freed from having to buy two refrigerators, lest meat and milk should meet; freed from enforced laziness on Saturdays to the point of being unable to move a light switch or lift a telephone; freed from having to wear uncomfortable and unflattering clothes lest a flash of forbidden skin be exposed; freed from the obligation to mutilate children too young to defend themselves.

Intellectually, we are freed to pursue evidence and scholarship wherever it might lead, without constantly looking over our spiritual shoulder to check whether we are straying from the party line. The phrase “party line” is appropriate even when it is not dictated by living priests, elders, or ayatollahs but fossilized in a book (actually a motley collection of arbitrarily stitched-together fragments whose anonymous authors were writing in different times and to different audiences, reflecting different local and long-dead issues).

Personally, we are freed to direct our lives toward worthwhile fulfilment in the full knowledge and understanding that this is the only life we shall ever have. We are freed to exult in the privilege—the extraordinary good fortune—that we, each individual one of us, enjoy through the astronomically improbable accident of being born. The measure of the privilege you and I enjoy through existing is the number of possible people divided by the number of actual people. That ratio—too large for decent computation—should be the measure of our gratitude for life and our resolve to live it to the full. Well might the newly liberated unbeliever quote Wordsworth and his blissful dawn.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008.


Below we present the conclusion to Richard Dawkins’s foreword to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn (the first part was published in the February/March 2008 issue of Free Inquiry). Dr. Dawkins composed this foreword before completing his 2006 best-seller The God Delusion. Readers familiar with that work may recognize …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.