The Root Of All Evil? Part 1 - The God Delusion
Here’s a review of a programme, The Root Of All Evil?: The God Delusion, written and presented by Richard Dawkins.
The trailers for Richard Dawkins’s new two-part programme for Channel 4 television, The Root Of All Evil? (not, apparently, a title that Dawkins would have chosen given free reign), broadcast in the UK on Monday 9th, gave a pretty clear idea of what to expect. It opened with Dawkins looking straight into the camera and saying, “Religion is an insult to human dignity”. For those of us inclined to agree, this suggested a promising programme. And for my money, I wasn’t disappointed.
The bulk of the show, called The God Delusion, was dedicated to showing that faith, the cornerstone of religion, is utterly opposed to the scientific approach to gaining knowledge about the world. They foster completely different ways of understanding the world, and have very different standards for accepting claims as worthy of belief in. It is for this reason that science and religion are incompatible, not because the findings of modern science actually disprove the existence of God (given the way God is traditionally conceived, how could it?).
Dawkins characterises faith as a form of non-thought. This will anger religiously sensitive viewers, who might call to mind scholarly Popes, Bishops and philosophers who have reflected deeply on the nature of faith and the religious life. But this is to miss the point. Faith is defined by the OED as “Confidence, reliance, belief, esp. without evidence or proof” and “Belief based on testimony or authority”. So it is to literally to take a claim as true, and assent belief in it, on the basis of no evidence – on mere assertion, in other words. But perhaps not by assertion from just anyone, but from an authority – a priest, a Pope or the Bible, perhaps. Where does thought, let alone critical thought, come into this, apart from in comprehending the message? There’s no evaluation of the claim on its merits – its source is more important in determining its acceptability than reasons, whether they be empirical or logical, for holding the belief. So faith necessarily subdues reflective thought, at least about whether the claims of religion should be accepted or not. As if this weren’t enough, religions also usually have proscriptions against questioning the authority of tradition, as the story of Doubting Thomas makes clear. Faith is touted as a virtue, and to have strong faith in the face of mountains of contrary evidence is the highest virtue of all.
In contrast, science is about the setting up of hypothesis, the testing of models, and the collection of evidence, all of which could mean that we have to revise our thoughts. There’s no template to which all new facts have to be crowbarred into, like in the religious worldview. It’s an open-ended, relentlessly self-critical enterprise – if you won’t subject your pet theory to close scrutiny, you can bet the guy down the corridor will. Authority counts for little in science (or at least should do). Sure, we have enormous respect and admiration for scientific greats such as Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Watson and Crick, but that doesn’t make their ideas immune from criticism, or beyond revision. The arguments and evidence, in an ideal world, dictate what we should believe.
The next step in Dawkins’s critique is to show how raising people to believe that it is fair game to believe in whatever they like, so long as their faith is strong and sincere enough, is potentially a recipe for disaster. For in this mindset there is no clear line between accepting benign or benevolent beliefs - that you should love your neighbour and give to charity - from beliefs such as the possibility of a fast-track to paradise that can lead to suicide bombings and other acts of martyrdom. The claim here is not that everyone with faith will do something crazy, but merely that even religious moderates are complicit in fostering an environment that says it’s OK to hold beliefs about what is right and wrong in this life based on faith in a divine creator. It's disingenuous to pretend that religion, specifically the certainty provided by faith about the moral correctness and purpose of certain actions, didn’t play a role in 9/11 and 7/7. Once faith enters the picture, it becomes reasonable to believe anything. And of course politics play an important role in the conflicts around the world where religions clash; Dawkins acknowledges this. But does it help to have a further divisive ideology floating around that helps characterise the “other”, the group that "we" struggle against?
One depressing aspect of this programme was watching Dawkins try to talk to the religiously devout. In the US, he meets up with an evangelical pastor, a staunch Republican who claims to have weekly telephone meetings with Bush, himself devout, and who has also hob-knobbed with Blair and other dignitaries. The pastor raises the issue of evolution, and ridicules the notion that the eye happened by “accident”. Poor Dawkins must have feared his head would burst, as I did, when he heard this! He replied, incredulously, “Accident?! I’ve never heard any evolutionary biologist describe evolution as an accident!”. The pastor carried on, unfazed, saying that if only Dawkins had read the books that he’d read, spoken with the scientists that he has spoken to, then he might see things differently. To his credit, Dawkins was forthright and said, essentially, that it was clear that the pastor knew nothing about biology, at which point the pastor adopted a slow, deliberate, patronising tone, and told Dawkins not to be arrogant – having just claimed that the bible is correct and unchanging and has all the answers. He later chased Dawkins off the premises of his religious megaplex, threatening to call the police and accusing Dawkins of calling his children animals (presumably because Dawkins believes in evolution). Words fail me.
Later we met Jonathan Cohen, formerly a secular Jew from the US, now a militant Muslim (with changed name and full transformation) living in Jerusalem. He launched an attack on Dawkins who, as an atheist, he claimed “allows women to dress as whores”, to which Dawkins pointed out that he doesn't dress women, they dress themselves, the rhetorical point of which was lost in the rant. This interview descended into a diatribe against atheism and an instruction for Dawkins to go home and sort himself and his society out. If one fails to see the hand of faith in all this, one must be blind.
The God Delusion ended with Dawkins providing a response to the charge that an allegiance to science does not entitle one to reject religion and embrace atheism, because science doesn’t show that God doesn’t exist – it still leaves open the possibility that he does (ignoring for the moment the fact traditional accounts of God and the creation are incompatible with what science reveals to us). Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, Dawkins points out that there could be a teapot orbit the sun, yet we wouldn’t know because we couldn’t detect it, because it was too small. Our science couldn’t prove that the teapot didn’t exist, but that would scarcely provide for asserting that it did exist – you can’t prove a negative. Logically, this might mean we should only commit ourselves to agnosticism, but in the case of the teapot, would you really say, “Well gee, I’m just not sure if it’s there” – in practice you’d be an atheist towards the teapot, wouldn’t you, unless there was good evidence to suggest it existed? So instead of calling ourselves agnostic, we might call ourselves teapot atheists.
In any case, what is supposed to follow from the fact that we can’t disprove God’s existence? Do religious folk believe in anything whose existence can’t be disproved – pixies, goblins, unicorns, and mermaids? Of course not. As Dawkins says, nearly everyone on the planet is a teapot atheist with respect to most of the Gods that have ever been invented, from Thor to Aphrodite, and every member of a monotheistic religion is an atheist to every conception of God bar one. “Some of us,” Dawkins concludes, “just go one God further.”
Next week I'll review the second part of the programme, The God Virus.