January 22, 2006

Apparently (as in, I read on some blog somewhere), one of Channel 4‘s newspaper adverts for Richard Dawkins‘s Root of all Evil? programmes was a picture of the New York skyline with the Twin Towers intact. It was captioned “A world without religion”.

From this you can tell that the UK’s most famous atheist meant business. Watching the introduction to the first programme, The God Delusion, it’s obvious Dawkins is worried by the apparent resurgence of militant religious faith, both Islamic and Christian, and has decided to draw his own line in the sand. Over the course of the two programmes, he outlines his case against religion.

<lj-cut text=”1: The God Delusion”>His argument in The God Delusion is that the methods of science and religion are totally incompatible. Religion is about accepting things on authority, and believing them on faith. Science is about setting up models and constantly trying to disprove them. Dawkins makes the point that something which has been accepted for a long time gains a certain religious weight, regardless of whether there’s any evidence for it, citing the Assumption of Mary as a doctrine which is not even in the Bible, but which grew in popularity over time until it received papal approval.

Dawkins’s field of expertise is evolution, so it’s not surprising that he uses it as an example of a subject where science is under threat from religion. He takes us to Colorado Springs, home of New Life Church, which Harpers called America’s most powerful megachurch. In conversation with Ted Haggard, the pastor, Dawkins seems adversarial from the start, comparing his service to a Nuremberg rally. Dawkins seems particularly angered when Haggard claims that evolution teaches that the eye evolved “by accident”, telling him that he obviously knows nothing about the subject. Haggard calls Dawkins intellectually arrogant, and later throws him off the mega-church’s compound for “calling my children animals”.

For all his fearsome reputation, with the exception of his reaction to Haggard, Dawkins is pretty polite to his interviewees. He visits Jerusalem, and listens to both Jewish and Islamic people talking about the Dome of the Rock site. When talking to Yusuf Al-Khattab, a Jewish convert to Islam, Dawkins remains polite until Al-Khattab’s most outrageous statements. When the theist tells Dawkins “You dress your women like whores”, Dawkins snaps back “I don’t dress women, they dress themselves”.

After hearing the Jerusalem theists, Dawkins seems to despair. Each side is implacable, committed to their holy book and their truth.

In the second programme, The Virus of Faith, Dawkins is concerned with how religion is spread to children, and with the morality taught by the religious scriptures.

<lj-cut text=”2: The Virus of Faith”>Dawkins points out that assigning children to a religion seems bizarre: we do not label children as “Marxist” children or “Conservative” children. He compares sectarian education to speciation: information stops flowing between populations, and eventually they see themselves as totally different.

Dawkins visits the rabbi of some Hassidic Jews in London who school their children themselves, and a private school using the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum. I’ve written about ACE schools before: I think they come into the “mad, but probably harmless” category, as they’re privately funded schools which only a few parents would care enough to send their kids to. However, if Dawkins’s statement that the Blair government is making it easier for religious schools to get public money is true, that’s slightly more concerning.

Dawkins then moves on to his meme theory, although he doesn’t use the word meme, but rather, the much stronger “virus”. He points out that children are predisposed to believe what they’re told by their parents: this is necessary for survival. Religion piggy-backs on this, the cuckoo in the nest.

Dawkins talks to a psychologist who counsels people who have had an abusive religious up-bringing, and then visits a pastor in the US who organises Hell Houses, who tells him that the best age for children to visit such a performance is 12. Dawkins is unfailingly polite, while in the background the pastor’s peformer prances about pretending to the the Devil officiating at a lesbian wedding.

Dawkins moves on to the morality preached by the religious texts, and notes that “the God of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction”, before quoting examples like Deuteronomy 13 and Numbers 31. He does allow that Jesus was a good bloke, but considers Paul to have made up the doctrine of original sin and substitutionary atonement, calling it sado-masochistic (and not in a good way, either).

To illustrate just what going to the Bible for morality leads to, Dawkins then visits Michael Bray, a supporter of Paul Hill, a pastor who murdered a doctor for performing abortions.

Dawkins knows, and says, that not all Christians agree with Bray and Hill, but points out that people like them are a problem for Christians, since the alternative is a selective interpretation of the Bible, which leads to the question of whose selection is correct. He turns to the ructions in the Church of England caused by the debate over homosexuality. Dawkins talks to Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, who gives the standard liberal rationalisation of the Bible passages on homosexuality.

Dawkins argument against liberal Christianity is that it is redundant: if we can pick and choose from the Bible, why do we need it at all? Our picking and choosing implies that there is a higher standard than the Bible, so why not just use that?

Dawkins goes on to say that altruistic behaviour arises out of our genetic predisposition to co-operate. We have an idea of the sort of society we’d like to live in, and an empathy towards others. He cites attitudes to racism and homosexuality as examples of how a modern morality is better than the Biblical one.

Finally, Dawkins plays up atheism as life-affirming: if the here and now is all we have, we’d better make the most of it.

As a post-script, over the credits, the announcer said: “Turn over to More 4 now, where historian Michael Burley argues that a faithless world has lead of a collapse in the fabric of society: A Dark Enlightenment. On Channel 4 next: Celebrity Big Brother“. Well, I laughed.


So, what did I make of it all? I’m in broad agreement with Dawkins, in that I’m worried about playing the Netherlands (a handy bit of flat ground where generations of Europeans have staged wars) in a battle between two armies of crazy people.

I don’t think his ambition to stop the religious indoctrination of children is a realistic one: while public money should not be going into religious schools, the right of parents to bring up their kids as they like is not something the government should mess with, except in extreme cases. It’s sad that some kids end up scared to death of hellfire and need the services of the counsellor he talked to, but there’s not much a government can do about that.

Some reviewers have accused Dawkins of attacking extremist straw-men. Since many of his targets in the programme were Americans, I’m not sure how true that is: the perception on this side of the pond is that America is 51% populated (and 100% governed) by people who think they have an invisible friend who likes laser-guided munitions but doesn’t like the gays. The fact that the atheists in Colorado Springs had formed a support group speaks volumes.

Dawkins’s interviewees might be unrepresentative in another sense. We might place the religious on two axes: how crazy are they, and how much do they think about stuff? All of Dawkins’s religious interviewees were people who had thought about stuff and were crazy anyway. In that sense, they’re the dangerous sort: the people who will tell other, simpler souls, to, say, vote against gay marriage, or in extreme cases, to fly airplanes into buildings. The religious people I know in Cambridge are largely not crazy and have thought about it. In that sense, they too are unrepresentative.

Most theists haven’t thought about it very much, and are varying degrees of crazy. Dawkins’s argument about them seemed to be that they’re the soil in which the real nutters grow. I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to condemn all religion, especially when Dawkins has given us plenty of other good reasons. As an acknowledged Internet expert on kooky religious groups, I can tell you that to my knowledge, none of CICCU‘s alumni have ever flown an airplane into a building. Something else is going on, as I’ve said before. I wish I understood what it was.

In any case, the selection pressure on variant strains of theism seems to favour craziness at the moment, although I’d concede that some of those pressures are coming from sources external to the religion in itself, such as politics. Some of the pressure is merely from the fact that being crazy means you’re more enthusiastic (check the etymology), excited and exciting. You make converts, you stand on street corners, you write threatening letters to the BBC, and so on. The Bishop of Oxford is right: liberals should be more outspoken about their liberalism. And rationalist atheists, it seems, should start forming support groups. The Root of All Evil was part of an attempt to turn the tide, and despite its flaws, I welcome it for that alone.

Dawkins’ reaction as he walked back from his talk with Michael Bray was that he’d quite liked Bray, who didn’t seem to be an evil person. He quoted the physicist Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”. I think that’s my take-home verse.

Those of you who missed the programmes or who are Foreign may obtain the videos of both programmes by waiting for them to fall from the back of a passing lorry or by fishing them from the torrent of information that is available on the Internet. Verbum sap., as E.E. “Doc” Smith used to say.