The Root Of All Evil? Part 2 - The Virus Of Faith
Notice: Long post - 4,700 words
Children are the future
The second instalment of Richard Dawkins’s The Root Of All Evil?, subtitled The Virus Of Faith, concluded this bold treatment of religion, which Channel 4 should be applauded for broadcasting. It was a somewhat different programme to the first half: while still as rigorous as ever, it appealed to the heart a little more, especially when encouraging us to reflect on the moral standing of religions.
The show covered three principal topics: the transmission of religious beliefs down the generations, and the moral indoctrination of children; the moral worth of the moral codes written in holy texts, and their plausibility; and the possibility that it is not religion but evolution which is the source of morality, or at the least of the human moral sense. And so where as my previous post was mainly concerned with the argument Dawkins made, in this post I shall talk a bit about how Dawkins tries to get his point across, and some of the characters he talks to.
The title of the programme, The Virus Of Faith, comes from Dawkins’s conception of how religious beliefs are transmitted from person to person. Dawkins doesn’t go into this detail, but I want to flesh out his idea a bit. At the end of The Selfish Gene Dawkins tries to make the point that Darwinian evolution is not constrained to life on earth, that it doesn’t require DNA to operate. Any sort of replicators with certain characteristics will be able to undergo Darwinian evolution. To illustrate this point, Dawkins came up with the idea (and name) of memes – cultural units of inheritance that are to culture what genes are to biology (it should be stressed that Dawkins was not trying to devise a complete theory of human culture, but just using it as an example). Just as genes are passed person to person (parent to offspring, generation to generation), so to are memes.
Memes can take many forms: snatches of songs (the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, for example), fashions (wearing caps backwards), ideas (those of science, or religion, or myth) and so on. Some are better at getting passed on than other, perhaps by vurtue of being more memorable or emotionally salient. Of course, although genes are only transmitted vertically down generations, from parent to offspring, memes can be passed horizontally as well, from peer to peer, or teacher to pupil. Just as bits of DNA or RNA (wrapped up in a protein coat) that jump from person to person in the way memes do are known as viruses, so Dawkins suggests that virulent memes should be thought of as ‘mind viruses’. Memetics has developed into a serious approach to understanding cultural evolution, but also has many critics. But whatever the status of memetics as a science, it is clear that ideas from a number of sources are passed on to children in a way that looks epidemiologically looks like viral transmission.
And children are born to be susceptible to these viruses. The existence of culture enables us to offload the transmission of valuable information to children from the genome (it can be stored in books, or sayings or songs and so on); and if your environment is laden with valuable information it pays to be a quick learner. Children that experimented with swimming in rivers they’ve been told contain alligators, or who eat berries they have been told are poisonous (and which are), wouldn’t survive. So children have evolved to be open to instruction by authority, because most of the time it pays off. However, it can also be exploited by parasitic beliefs. Hence the title of the programme, and the backdrop to his discussion of religious education.
Dawkins opened the programme with a number of broadsides against religion, stating, accurately in my view, that “Militant faith is on the march all across the world, with terrifying consequences” and “Irrational faith is feeding murderous intolerance around the world”. Dawkins continues: “I believe it can lead to a warped and inflexible morality, and I’m very concerned about the religious indoctrination of children. I want to ask whether ancient mythology should be taught as truth in schools”. The mere fact that this question needs to be asked today – and will strike some as odd – is a symptom of the strength within which religion has much of society’s views in its clutches.
On a number of previous occasions Dawkins has pointed out the fundamental strangeness of having religiously sectarian schools, and makes the point again here. “Isn’t it weird to label a child with its parents’ religion?”, asks Dawkins. What is special about religion such that we think it makes sense to say a child is Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Sikh when they’re too young to even understand the cosmogony that these religions entail? What would we think of parents who described their children as Labour or Tory, Republican or Democrat, Marxist or Anarchist? We’d think they were barmy and merely stating their intention to do their best to foist these views on their developing child. And we might not approve of the idea of sending them to Republican/Democrat or Marxist/Anarchist schools so that they can be isolated from dissenting opinions and reared in a climate in which their parents’ particular ideology is constantly reinforced.
To explore the effects of such isolation, Dawkins visits a Hassidic Jewish community in north London, UK, which is mostly made up of ultra-orthodox Jews that traditionally marry within their sect, and tend to frown upon outside influences (a pretty good strategy for protecting mythical beliefs from critical scrutiny). Here Dawkins talks to Rabbi Gluck, who despite his strong accent (I don’t know what the name for it would be, but it’s distinctly different to your average Londoner) was born and bred in London – testimony to the isolating effects of his religious beliefs. Dawkins asks the rabbi why children should be indoctrinated with specific belief systems, to which the rabbi suggests that the views of religious communities are not imposed on the young – they could be rejected if it was wished. Dawkins doesn’t pick Gluck up on this, but I think it’s a disingenuous response. For sure, people can reject the beliefs of their family, friends, and community, but this usually incurs an enormous personal cost in terms of potentially severed links with friends and family, and even ostracism. Although the beliefs of the community are not forced on children at gunpoint, there’s not much leeway for doubting them and remaining fully integrated with the rest of your community. In this respect I feel sorry for people stuck in religious communities who have doubts – no wonder it seems best to just carry on as if you believe the same things as everyone else, just to make life tolerable.
Dawkins then asks Gluck how many people in his community grow up believing in evolution, to which the rabbi admits that the majority don’t (but, he claims, not through dogma but through studying it and rejecting it on that basis – but I doubt his claim that every Jew has studied and thought about this issue in the depth he implies). Perhaps to demonstrate his ignorance of the status of evolutionary theory (in scientific terms), and what it means to describe something as a theory, Gluck made the usual complaint that “it’s called the theory of natural selection”, so it’s just a theory, perhaps comparable to any other creation story. Dawkins tries to respond by saying that it’s only a theory in a technical sense of being a tentative explanation for the facts of the world (all any scientific explanation can ever logically be, however good it seems). But in another sense evolution is a fact – the fossil record of evolution is a fact in any meaningful sense of the word, and the theory of natural selection is the best explanation we have of this fact. So Dawkins responded with, “Well, I’ll call it the fact of evolution”, to which the rabbi say that of course he would, he’s an evolutionary fundamentalist. This is absurd. Are you some sort of fundamentalist if you believe that the sun is a nuclear reactor? That genetic changes cause cells to become cancerous? That the laws of physics explain why planes fly? I don’t want to be rude, but I can’t help it: this is the sort of intense, unshakeable stupidity that Dawkins has been confronted with throughout these programmes, and it’s infuriating to watch.
But is teaching religion in school really a live danger in the UK, one of the more secular countries around? Yes, according to Dawkins: “Faith schools are increasing in number and influence in our education system, with active encouragement from Tony Blair’s government. There are already 7,000 faith schools in Britain, and over half the new city academies are expect to be sponsored by religious organisations” [for readers not up to speed with British politics and politicians, Blair has openly declared the importance of his faith in his life, and has publicly defended a ‘city academy’ (sponsored by an evangelical millionaire car salesman) that teaches creationist dogma in science classes on the grounds that overall it gets good grades, even if it’s pupils come out believing nonsense. Our Education Secretary Ruth Kelly is a devout Catholic with links to Opus Dei, a bizarre religious sect much publicised through Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – how long Kelly will remain in her post is, at the moment, debatable, after she or her department provided letters to a number of schools saying that specific people, on lists for sex offenders (some of whom were on there for accessing child pornography), were OK to work in those schools].
So Dawkins goes on a visit to Phoenix Academy, which utilises the American A.C.E. system (Accelerated Christian Learning), and where he talks to head teacher Adrian Hawkes, a cheery, smiley, somewhat patronising man with a Christian message to teach. The classes at Phoenix are drenched in religions ideas, and religious imagery is the basis for at least some of the class work (that is, the pupils seemed to be learning the religious dogma by rote, but I could be wrong). After looking through the science curriculum, Dawkins points out to Hawkes that God or Jesus makes an appearance on nearly every page, to which Hawkes replies that they don’t have any separate religious instruction in the school – which of course they don’t need to given this approach, as Dawkins highlights. Hawkes merrily laughs this off, but I think it’s pernicious – it seems that the plan to is to infuse the religious message into everything, so it becomes hard to separate out the fact from the fiction, the myth from the reality, making it difficult to begin to question the religious claims without everything else falling down.
Dawkins also notes that Noah’s Ark makes an appearance in the science curriculum, prompting him to ask, “What’s that got to do with a science lesson?”. Sounding much like a caricature of a post-modern relativist, Hawkes replies, “Well I suppose that depends on your opinion – it could have a lot. If you believe the story it could have a lot to do with science.” This is just bizarre. Does this mean that whatever you chose to believe can automatically relate to science? If science classes are supposed to teach what science has learnt about the world, then Noah’s Ark shouldn’t get a look in. The mere fact that you believe it doesn’t mean it’s relevant to science. What about if you believed in Thor, would that be relevant to science? Of course not, it’d be in a mythology class, where Noah’s Ark belongs. How do you begin to engage with people who think like this? And it gets worse. Hawkes claims that much of what he was taught in science classes as a child we’d toady laugh off as myth, so Dawkins ask for an example. Hawkes comes up with the theory that the moon was formed from matter expelled from the earth. But this isn’t an idea to laugh off, nor is it widely considered to be a myth – it’s perhaps the leading scientific explanation for the origin of the moon. Dawkins does say, “What you should have been taught, I suppose, is that there is a strong current theory that that’s what happened”, but I don’t think the point gets through, and I think Dawkins should have been more forceful in making Hawkes realise that he’s just being ignorant and talking nonsense. It’s actually rather complimentary, however, of Dawkins to assume that his viewers will be able to connect the dots themselves and get the point (and this applies multiple times across both parts of the series).
Sensing where this is going, Hawkes asks Dawkins whether what he really wants to know is whether he believes in the literal truth of Genesis, that God created the world in 7 days. Here’s the following dialogue:
Hawkes: “My answer to that question is: I don’t know [said with what I interpret as a casual, flippant indifference]. Having said that, do I think that if God wanted to do it in 7 days he could? Yeah, I think he could…”
Dawkins: “He could do anything…”
Hawkes: “Yeah, so it’s sort of an academic question, which actually I don’t care about the answer to very much really. Does that makes sense?” [Accompanied by a condescending grin and eye gesture, as if it might be a bit too conceptual for poor old Dawkins.]
Dakiwns: “Kind of, yes it does make sense – it doesn’t make sense to me because I do care about the answer.”
Dawkins: “Because I care about what’s true…”
Hawkes: “I care about what’s true. But I find Christianity encompasses everything about life; Christianity is life. So it’s about everything – it touches education, politics, care, social services, everything.”
So Hawkes doesn’t care whether the earth was formed in 7 days 6,000 years ago, or formed about 4.5 billion years ago in a universe some 15 billion years old? What’s he doing in charge of the scientific instruction of children then? Does it make any difference to Hawkes whether we teach that Shakespeare lived in ancient Greece, or that genes are made of cheese? Yet in spite of his declared indifference to factual veracity, he claims to care about the truth! What sort of epistemological fantasyland is Hawkes living in? How can he be deemed competent to teach children the hard-won knowledge of the physical and social sciences? As for the rest of Hawkes’s response, it doesn’t really mean anything to me, apart from to signify how wrapped up in his religious worldview he is.
So much for scientific instruction. But we haven’t yet got to morality. Dawkins mentions that he noticed in the discussion of AIDS in the science curriculum that there was reference to AIDS as ‘the wages of sin’, and asks, “Is that not mixing health education with moralistic preaching?”; again, here’s the dialogue that follows:
Hawkes: “I suppose the flip-side of that is that if there’s no God or law-giver, why does it matter what I do? Why is rape wrong? Why is paedophilia wrong? Why are any of these things wrong if there’s no law-giver?”
Dawkins: “You’ve just said a very revealing thing. Are you telling me that the only reason you don’t steal and rape and murder is that you’re frightened of God?”
Hawkes: “I think that all [emphasis in spoken sentence] people, if they think they can get away with something, and if there’s no consequences, we actually tend to do it. I think that is the reality – look at the world in which we live, that is the reality.”
Dawkins: “OK, I think we’d better leave it at that.”
Firstly, Hawkes avoids the question, but gets to another very interesting one. It’s a common complaint that atheism is bereft of a moral compass, but this idea can be disabused with a pretty cursory reading of the ethics and moral philosophy literature. Not only does morality not need God, it seems difficult to show how God could even be the basis for morality. Hawkes’s response to the questioning of his moral teachings, if we take him at his word, is to me another sign of the lack of critical self-scrutiny he has subjected his beliefs to – an example of the uncritical, reflection-stunting nature of religious thought diagnosed by Dawkins in the first programme. At the same time, there is a challenge in coming up with a compelling ethical narrative that doesn’t feature God, but science – psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, economics – is making progress on the problems of morality, aided by the conceptual tools of philosophers.
So why should people be allowed to teach a biblically inspired account of the world, or those of any other religious text, in partly state-sponsored schools? Even if we conceded the right to teach whatever ideas you like in a private school, what sort of people or society wants the world to be one in which divisive ideologies can be inculcated in children as true when they have no basis in evidence? What would constitute an argument for such a state affairs? Mere historical inertia is not a reason, or even an excuse.
The Moral Standing Of Religion
As Dawkins mentions in the introduction, he’s very concerned about the moral message that religions impart to children – both its specific content and its inflexible nature. To illustrate the message that some people who derive their morality from religion – in this case Christianity of a distinctly right-wing bent – Dawkins goes to America and visits Pastor Keenan Roberts, who runs The Hell-House Outreach Programme, which uses imagery of hell for “moral policing”, in Dawkins words: “In the United States Christian obsession with sin has spawned ‘Hell Houses’, morality plays come Halloween freak shows in which the evangelical hobbyhorses of abortion and homosexuality are literally demonised.” We’re treated to a rehearsal of the play, directed at 12-year olds (which Roberts thinks is the most appropriate age to see the show). One scene features a woman undergoing a painful abortion, screaming out in agony “You’re hurting me! I changed my mind!”, while callous doctors shout back “It’s only a medical procedure”. Another scene centres on the marriage of two lesbians, a ceremony conducted in a venomous, mocking tone by one of the male Christian actors. It was hard to make out the full lines he was delivering as Dawkins was narrating over the top in parts, but in one section the man says to the lesbians as part of their marriage vows “…burning in a repulsive lust for one another, deceived by all that they were born gay, or joining their lives in this nauseating matrimony.” You get the general idea being conveyed.
Dawkins tries to talk the pastor about the legitimacy of this message, that homosexuality is a sin and needs to be purged from our youth, but the pastor has the faithful fall-back position, “It’s a faith issue, and I believe this is the word of God” type stuff. I was tempted to transcribe some of their conversation, but it’s just a clash of faith-based assertion against an attempt to construct a reasoned argument. To have to listen to that is nauseating if anything.
Dawkins later talks to Reverend Michael Bray, who speaks out in defence of his friend Paul Hill, who was sentenced to death after murdering an abortion doctor and his bodyguard. Although Bray was actually quite articulate and in some ways more serious and intellectual in defence of his beliefs, he was still blinded by his faith, which leads him directly to the justification of murder. And Bray doesn’t stop there; here’s Bray, who Dawkins describes as “fighting to reverse centuries of human progress”, talking to Dawkins about adultery:
Bray: “I think that execution for adultery is not rejected…”
Dawkins: “Not rejected by whom, by you?”
Bray: “No, by the New Testament…”
Dawkins: But what about you, do you favour execution for adultery?”
Bray: “I think it’s fair to say that it’s still a proper punishment that the state ought to prosecute.”
Who wants to put their hands up and agree, and say that this biblically inspired morality is one you’d like to sign up to? Religion doesn’t seem to doing much good in a moral sense, especially among those that take it really seriously. But what about the message in the printed book? Doesn’t that say what’s right, and provide a map for a moral life?
No, says Dawkins – and with the ample evidence from the bible, particularly the Old Testament, the case seems pretty clear: instructions to kill anyone who tries to draw you away to worship other gods, to divert you from Yahweh, your God; complicity in the rape of daughters; and so on. Dawkins concludes that “The God of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist, an ethnic cleanser urging his people to acts of genocide.”
But what about Abraham, or Moses? Weren’t they good; didn’t then display a morality to follow? Well, Abraham would kill his son because God asked him to, and Moses loses points for the slaughter of the Midianites. But doesn’t the New Testament make things alright and undo the damage of the Old Testament? Dawkins concedes that Jesus, “or whoever wrote his lines”, was better than most, but claims that it all goes downhill after Jesus. I’ll quote at some length Dawkins’s summation:
“The heart of New Testament theology, invented after Jesus’ death, is St. Paul’s nasty, sadomasochistic doctrine of atonement for original sin. The idea is that God had himself incarnated as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be hideously tortured and executed to redeem all our sins – not just the original sin of Adam and Eve, future sins as well, whether we decide to commit them or not.
If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them? Who’s God trying to impress? Presumably himself, since he is judge and jury, as well as execution victim. To cap it all, according to scientific views of pre-history, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place, an awkward fact which undermines the premise of Paul’s whole tortuously nasty theory.
Oh but of course the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic?! So Jesus had himself tortured and executed for a symbolic sin by a non-existent individual? Nobody not brought up in the faith could reach any other conclusion than ‘barking mad’.”
Of course, not all Christians interpret the bible in such a literal, fundamentalist way. So Dawkins comes back to the UK to talk to a liberal intellectual Christian, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford. (A previous Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, sometimes known as Soapy Sam because of his slippery debating style, came to blows with Darwin’s Bulldog, T. H Huxley, over evolution 146 years ago. In June 1860, less than a year after the publication of The Origin of Species, the two debated in a packed Oxford lecture theatre. Wilberforce, attempting to mock Huxley, enquired whether he would prefer to think of himself descended from an ape on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side. Legend has it that Huxley turned to a neighbour and said, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands”, and replied to the room that he was not ashamed of a simian ancestry but “would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.” Upon hearing the news that Wilberforce had died after sustaining a head injury falling from a horse, Huxley acerbically responded that at last the bishop’s brain had come into contact with reality.)
Harries is amiable and reflective, but he occupies an odd position: he accepts some parts of the bible as true, and rejects others. Some would say he betrays reason and faith equally. He also believes that we need to revise religious beliefs in light of new scientific knowledge. On the issue of homosexuality, Harries suggest that the views expressed in the bible need not be taken at face value because they were written at time when knowledge of homosexuality was limited. Now that we know that there is a genetic component to homosexuality, that some people are in a sense born gay, we need to revise out thoughts on it. Firstly, why it should be that homosexuality is wrong if it’s a matter of choice rather than biology? Second, why, if the bible is the word of God, is its interpretation affected by the accumulation of facts – surely God had all the facts to hand in issuing his decrees? He could have anticipated the facts that would be discovered and devise codes of conduct consonant with those facts. Thirdly, in the moral realm, if we can decide what to accept from the bible and what to reject on the basis of non-biblical grounds, then what do we need the bible for? We must already have the tools for identifying what is right and wrong if we can be selective about what we take from the bible – so we don’t need it! So while Dawkins agrees with much the bishop says, he’s left asking why he sticks with the Christianity at all. Harries replies that it’s possible to an intellectually fulfilled rationalist as well as a person of faith, but as Dawkins says, this seems like fence sitting. Faith is the antithesis to reason, so how do you make them bedfellows? Perhaps by taking neither fully seriously.
Our Moral Sense
So Dawkins thinks that religion is a poor source of morality, and I have to agree. So are we all left amoral nihilists? Well, not necessarily. It’s quite possible, indeed extremely likely, that evolution, both genetic and cultural (though Dawkins stresses the genetic), has furnished humans with a moral sense, a set of moral resources. The final part of the show, which looked at the evolutionary roots of morality, could be expanded into a series of it’s own, though I won’t say too much about it here as it would only be superficial anyway.
I was pleased to see a guy I used to know at the London School of Economics, Oliver Curry, appear on the programme to talk to Dawkins about the moral systems of chimpanzees, or least the social behaviours that look like building blocks of human morality. Chimpanzees have complex social systems based around kin groups and cooperative and strategic alliances with non-kin. Reciprocity, teamwork and other kinds of prosocial behaviour are present in chimp societies, and can validly be seen as a foundation for building a human morality on – and remember, nearly all the moral virtues are prosocial virtues. Although Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene, he doesn’t believe that evolution necessarily creates selfish creatures, and this is not an inconsistency in his position. He believes that natural selection has imbued humans with a moral sense that leads to anomalously high levels of altruism towards non-kin and strangers. We don’t need to posit a God to have put a moral sense into us – evolution could have well done it (this is a big topic, again for another post). My only complaint is that Dawkins, even if he doesn’t rule them out, doesn’t seem to give enough weight to gene-culture co-evolutionary mechanisms, or cultural group selection ideas, in accounting for altruism, and does not really consider the subtle psychology of human cooperation and altruism that is needed to explain the experimental findings on human behaviour.
Dawkins ended the show with a paean to an atheistic, humanistic worldview. We’re lucky to be alive, so we should live each day to the full, appreciating the time we have before our mortal flames peter out. There might not be a God to provide meaning to our lives, but we can do that ourselves – it just takes a bit of effort. And rejecting God doesn’t mean deadening our senses to the wonder of creation (used in a metaphorical sense, of course): the natural world, as revealed by the natural sciences, is teeming with wonder, with the beautiful, the awe-inspiring and the humbling – “How much more do you want?”, asks Dawkins. The universe, and all it contains, should keep me going until my time is up.