Richard Dawkins and the Root of all Evil

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.

17 Comments on "Richard Dawkins and the Root of all Evil"

  1. 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.

    I’m glad you recognise Dawkin’s rather selective sampling makes a rather weak arguement, but I’m curious which of Dawkin’s arguements which condemn all religions do you consider to be good? As far as I’m aware his main arguements are:

    1) Modern science has made God redundant. This entails atheism.
    2) Relgious faith is “blind trust in the absence of evidence”
    3) Belief in God is just a meme (or virus) which infects an otherwise healthy minds.
    4) Religion gives us a deficient view of the universe depriving us of the beauty science offers.
    5) Religion leads to violence and other bad things.

    As you’ve noticed 5 is invalid because he portrays the pathological as normal, but I think there are similarly obvious problems with his other arguements, so am curious to know which one (or more) you accept?


    1. I’m not pw201, obviously, and I agree with both of you about the weakness of some of the arguments being made, but I find #2 fairly compelling – not that theism is demonstrably false but that there isn’t any evidence that convinces me it’s true. Do you contend that there is evidence of a God, or do you believe that in the absence of evidence, it’s still a reasonable model?


      1. I am anonymous (LJ ate my cookie!).

        I think the problems with #2 is that it is a straw man. Religious people do not define faith as blind trust in the absence of evidence. In Christianity the claim is that there were events which happened which we have a number of written records to consider as evidence of these events (neatly collected together in the Bible).

        If Dawkins position was that he did not find such evidence sufficient, but acknowledged that other people (or similar intellect) had considered such evidence and found it sufficient, that would be a reasonble position to argue and could then progress to a discussion about the reliability of the various documents which make up the Bible. But to claim that such evidence does not exist is spurious.


        1. I didn’t see Dawkins speak, so I’m just responding to you on this. I’m aware that Christians don’t believe that there’s a complete absence of evidence. On the other hand, I was given to understand that there is seen as something of a virtue in faith beyond that which is directly demonstrable, that certain things are known purely de fidei.

          My point was mainly that I don’t see that which is posited to be evidence as convincing. But I also think that most theist cultures encourage people to be uncritical in their interpretation of that which is open to question.


          1. I agree Christian faith (and many other forms on knowledge) go beyond what is directly demonstrable, but that is a very different thing to having no evidence.

            I don’t think the lack of critical thinking is a particular feature of theistic cultures. I don’t think theistic cultures encourage uncritical thinking. I think there are simply lots of people who are uncritical in their thinking, some of whom are theists. In areas people do think critically (eg. here in Cambridge) the theists do think critically about their faith (which I think is what pw201 has observed).

            On the subject of what evidence is convincing. What evidence would you consider reasonable to support the claims that miracles 2000 years ago?


            1. Your point is well made – a claim that someone performed a miracle 2000 years ago is essentially unfalsifiable. This is why I would say that there is a lack of evidence rather than actually evidence against.


              1. I’d personally have fairly small priors as regards miracles, which certainly affects my way of thinking. If you think I should think them more likely, you’re welcome to explain why.


            2. Sorry to be replying in lots of little chunks – but does go beyond what is directly demonstrable mean similar to make some claims that are unsubstantiated by evidence (alongside other claims which are substantiated)?


              1. By directly demonstrable I am meaning things which can be observed in such a way that primary source material could be created based on those observations. Whereas the Biblical evidence is mostly secondary sources.

                That is the distinction I am trying to make. Dawkins seems to write off those secondary sources as not being evidence.


                1. I will allow you that secondary sources are evidence, but they are very weak evidence. Only if one had a prior expectation that miracles were very probable would such evidence be convincing – and I can’t see whence one would achieve such an expectation.


                  1. I guess the right question to ask then should be what is our a priori expectation of miracles?

                    Clearly if we start with the expectation that miracles don’t happen we will conclude that Biblical documents are false because the refer to miracles, and will therefore conclude that there is no evidence for miracles. (I think this was Hume’s arguement in On Miracles)

                    If we start from the position that our expectation of miracles is the same as that of no miracles, then I think any evidence, however weak, (as long as such evidence is not show to be false by other means) makes miracles likely.

                    So the question should be what is a reasonable a priori expectation of miracles?


                    1. This is interesting! My first instinct is to say that I define a miracle as something that happens in contravention (as it were) of the “laws of nature” – not merely our understanding of them but the actual underlying principles. Therefore (my train of thought runs), anything that these principles have a finite probability of allowing is not a miracle. Therefore any miracle must have a zero chance of occurring – I’m effectively saying that to be a miracle something must be impossible, and anything impossible that actually happens is ipso facto a miracle. It would follow from this that if something apparently impossible happens I would be much more likely to attribute it to a faulty understanding of nature or to a mismeasurement than to a miracle. I can see the flaw in this, which is that I haven’t given a value of unreliability of “natural laws” – such as if they are liable to be overridden. I find this unintuitive (which isn’t an argument), and in contravention of my empirical experience (which obviously is limited). I’m also aware that whilst Occam’s Razor is useful it’s not authoritative. I’m also influenced by the evidence that there are many known instances where what is perceived to be a miracle is later found to be a trick, a hitherto-unknown natural phenomenon, a misperception, &c. The effect of these is to decrease the probability that any given apparent miracle is a genuine miracle (regardless of the rate of genuine miracles).

                    2. I think the right way of looking at it is something like this. There are, or at least might be, lots of different ways of describing regularities in nature. Suppose R is any description of what regularities there are. (They might be imperfect regularities or statistical ones.) Then call anything an “R-quasimiracle” if according to R it’s wildly unlikely.

                      We get to choose what R is. There may be lots of choices of R that give a pretty good description of the world; there needn’t be a best one. Call something a “quasimiracle” (unprefixed) if it’s an R-quasimiracle for every good choice of R. “Good” means, roughly, that the regularities alleged by R are very reliable, that R isn’t too complicated, that R captures about as much of the world’s regularity as is possible without much more complication, and — I think this is an important part of what’s meant by calling something a “law of nature” — that the regularities in R are expressed in general terms, so that it doesn’t say things like “except in Gloucestershire”.

                      I suspect that making this definition of “good” rigorous is difficult; perhaps impossible. Indeed, the notion of a “law of nature” or “natural regularity” or whatever is itself very tricky. Never mind; let’s suppose it can be made to work and see what we get.

                      So, anyway, a “quasimiracle” is something that you can’t accommodate comfortably in any good description of the world’s regularities. And a “miracle” is a quasimiracle that’s brought about by some entity with a general ability to bring about quasimiracles. (You can call such an entity a “god” if you like.)

                      Now, if someone describes what purports to be a miracle, and a fortiori purports to be a quasimiracle, then it’s necessarily not the sort of thing that happens often. However, the requirement that a “good” choice of R shouldn’t talk about specifics means that quasimiracles could be *locally* quite common. That is, there could be particular regions of spacetime (say, Galilee circa AD 30) where they happen a lot. And a quasimiracle doesn’t need to be *impossible* according to any particular R, still less according to all good choices of R.

                      If anything like the above account is coherent, then I think Hume’s argument (and also yours) fails: it’s possible for the probability that something’s a quasimiracle to be quite high, given the evidence.

                      Of course there may still be good arguments that quasimiracles don’t occur — based, perhaps, on the paucity of well-supported claims of quasimiracles or the greater simplicity of accounts of the universe in which there are no quasimiracles (assuming that such claims are few in number or that such accounts are simpler than their rivals). But such an argument will need to engage with the actual facts, rather than claiming to establish on a priori grounds that (quasi)miracles can’t ever be supported by the evidence. Good; a priori arguments purporting to establish facts about the real world are always dubious at best.

        2. Replying here so you’ll get the comment notification…

          1) Modern science has made God redundant. This entails atheism.

          I’m not sure he ever explicitly says that. What I read in some of his books is that modern science makes it intellectually plausible to be an atheist, in that religion is no longer required in order to explain things like life on earth. I see it as a plausibility argument for atheism.

          2) Relgious faith is “blind trust in the absence of evidence”

          I think he’s over-stating this, as there are things which believers in a variety of religions will point to as evidence. However, as the recent threads on atreic‘s journal show, there are theists who thing believing things on authority and rationalising them after the fact is just fine. I don’t agree with your statement that theism doesn’t encourage people to uncritical. I think it does, and that the environment of CICCU/StAG (and of Cambridge Christianity in general, although the more Catholic end of it seems to be pretty uncritical if atreic‘s friends are anything to go by) is very atypical.

          I’m not so much interested in gjm11 and pseudomonas‘s discussion about the probability of 2000 year old miracles as I am in the question of why we should have to rely on 2000 year old evidence of them. If God wants to make himself known, he could do a better job.

          3) Belief in God is just a meme (or virus) which infects an otherwise healthy minds.

          I don’t think this can be a valid argument against the truth of a religion, however, it’s a reasonable explanation of why religion persists despite not being true.

          4) Religion gives us a deficient view of the universe depriving us of the beauty science offers.

          This is an aesthetic argument, so I don’t think it’s an argument against theism so much as a way of a saying that atheists don’t have to reject the beauty of the universe.

          5) Religion leads to violence and other bad things.

          This certainly seems to be true. The quote from Weinberg said what I’d want to say about that: there are good people and bad people, both religious and not, but to make good people do bad things takes a religion (or, I suppose, an equivalent ideology: we might say that Nazism functioned as a national religion for Germany in WWII).


          1. Subject: atheism versus theism
            Religion also makes people do good things. Charity. Seeking justice and peace. Compassion. Kindness. Etc. These are values taught by religious traditions. Honestly, saying “religion makes people do bad things” is twaddle.

            Remember that Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists, while Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, etc. etc. etc. were all “theists” and deeply religious within their Jewish, Christian, or Hindu traditions, drawing their inspiration from their traditions.

            The enemy is not “religion” but rather dogmatic ideology.


            1. Subject: Re: atheism versus theism
              Actally, terms like “Dogma” and “Fundamentalist” are woefully misused. A Fundamentalist is not a closed minded bigot out to force everyoen to do things his way, he’s just a man ho sticks ot the fundamentals of his beleifs.

              And everyoen is Dogmatic. Dogma is simply a body of collected beleifs from which we draw basic assumptions. Just as Doctirnes are teachings about spacific things.

              As to that having been said, Richard Dawkins arguments ar eUniversally Spurious. He defines Faith poorly, as noted, as Beelif without evidence, which is not the true definition of Faith, and tends to view extremism as soley the domain of rleigion when we have seen atheistic extremism as well.

              But the argument agaisnt htat is that such things as NAtional Socialism, COmmunism, ect, where all “Secular rleigions”. However, this si simply a cop-out. Especially when mad eby those whod efine religion as “BEleif in the supernatural”, another false claim btu often the same who make it make the claim of “Secular rleigions” such as communism.

              Under that argument, every evil is done by rleigion. Every extremist Ideology is relgiion. This means that if an Ahtiest does go off the deep end and commits multiple murder sint eh name of his own view of Eugenics and natural seleciton, tis not relaly Atheism, but reliion thats at fault, because the man was folling effectivley his own “Sicnetific religion”, which isnot true sicnece or Ahteism.

              The argument is spurious because its designed ot shore up the claim that relion causes violence and th eonly way to a peaceful world is to abandon religion. To do this, counterexample smust be explaiend away. Thus, those Athsistic regeme where “Sdecular religions”.

              It sliek the reverse argument that “the good doen in the name of relgiion was done by good people, who woudl have been good anyway” argument, that tries to prevent any good beign attributed to religion.

              And its htis sort of thinkign that prvents me from seing Dawkisn work as “Sceintific”. Its just him shorign up his own ideological views by argumentaiton without any real raitonality at all.


  2. Nobody can prove or disprove the existence of God. So, why believe in Him in the first place? I dont think we have a clue as to what He is or She is or whether He or She exists, if God is a He or a She? I have not seen a single argument that can argue strongly in either direction. If there is one and there is evidence to back it, please let me know.
    Dawkins’ documentary should be seen as a tool to further one’s investigations, because even he has an agenda. He is not immune to subjectve biases. Actually, this applies to all of us. I think even his arguments have holes in them and these have already been mentioned. But I would like to add one. I dont think that religion is the root of all evil. Religion is not some abstract concept. We created it, and so that comes from within. Man has the ability to do good and evil whether he is a believer of a religion or not. So, I think religion is nothing more than a justificatory tool for his actions, both ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ i think its about time we accept that we can do both regardless of what social system we choose. Its not like good or evil hasnt been committed by others in other social systems. Communism was supposed to be atheist, wasnt it? I dont think that man acted any differently.
    But he does make a valid argument. Why do we need religion anyway? I think that its just another social system that outlines ways of expressing co-operative altruistic behaviours. People survive in groups and follow leaders, just like you see in chimpanzees. Exemplary figures have existed throughout time and figures like Jesus and Buddha all preach altruistic principles by which to follow. And it seems that what they said is being repeated by figures like Martin Luther King and Ghandi. However, unfortunately, religion has been used as a tool for doing evil as well. So, no matter what system you choose, it allows for the expression for both sides of man to be expressed. Blaming it on religion is a pointless argument. Blame yourself. But because out sense of morality is subjective, imagine a world where everybody had their own sense of morality. Would it be a better society or absolute disaster? The problem is that man is a social animal and so survives by being around others. So, we need to find ways of co-operting with others to survive. And social systems like religion or political parties are ways of doing so. So, why religion? Well, it seems unlike any other social system, it seems to stand the test of time. Dont know why, but it does. Is there something innate in us where we seek a higher power? Perhaps or perhaps there is a higher power. Dont know. either way, I dont see religion going anywhere!

    Our arguments are based on making hypotheses and seeing if the evidence provides you with enough to reject or support a hypothesis. The idea that a hypothesis is true is rubbish. We make interpretations of evidence and those interpretations come from within i.e. they are subjective. So, because there does not seem to be strong evidence to argue either way regarding the existence of God, you can take one of three directions. Believe, not believe or continue to question. Those who are scientists and believe in the pursuit of knowledge, well I dont know what you guys will do, but I choose to continue that avenue of investigation because it interests me. Its my research interest!
    Those who are believers, continue to believe. But ask yourself honestly, do you have any doubts? If you do, dont try to turn a blind eye to it. It will only grow. If you dont, good 4 u. Those who dotn believe at all, tend to argue in favour of science. well, the purpose of science is to continue to investigate. Nobody said that because science hasnt rejected or supported the hypothesis, that God may not be out there. If you dont wish to research it, thats fine 2.
    Anyway, good luck guys. Hope you figure it out, if u care that is.


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