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Tue, 3 Feb 2009

The Root of All Evil?

I recently watched Richard Dawkins's two-part series from a couple of years ago "The Root Of All Evil?" about religion and its place in society.

I'm afraid that, while I think Dawkins was right about just about everything, it wasn't very satisfying. There was very much a feeling of "preaching to the choir". There's no way that it would convince a critical viewer who wasn't already an atheist. Dawkins made sure that except for one brief segment all (and I mean all) the religious people he interviewed were from the, umm, lunatic fringe of their faiths, and really obviously so. None of them tried (presumably because they couldn't) to justify why they reject various bits of the scriptures - eg, the ones who thought killing doctors and adulterers and shunning homosexuals was good obviously rejected "love your neighbour", but didn't say why. That one brief segment was mostly Dawkins agreeing with the bishop of Oxford, while still legitimately pointing out that the bishop was rejecting scripture selectively, and not giving the bishop much time to expand on his thoughts about why he rejected the bits of scripture about stoning unbelievers while keeping "love your neighbour".

Without fair interviews with main-stream thinkers in proper churches, the piece comes across as being in places smug, and in others a strident propagandist attack, and I'm afraid that people these days are far too cynical to simply swallow propaganda from a smug bastard. If Dawkins is so sure of himself, presumably he thinks he can out-argue the mainstream, so why didn't he? The obvious answer, of course, is that it wouldn't be as visceral as the loonies - it would be more Open University than Channel 4.

Of all the people in the programme, the one I'd most want to have a drink with is the bishop of Oxford. It's a toss-up which one I'd most want to punch in the face, whether it's Dawkins or Ted Haggard.

Update: on further reflection, it would be Haggard. Dawkins is an old man and it would be about as much of a challenge as mugging a five year old, whereas Haggard could fight back with those teeth.

Posted at 22:45 by David Cantrell
keywords: culture | tv
Permalink | 7 Comments

Much of the New Testament consists of the debate amongst early Christians about the extent to which the Old Testament laws applied, to which the conclusion was they didn't. One might note, for example, the passage in the Acts of the Apostles where Peter has as a dream in which he is told he can eat what he likes, he no longer has to obey the Law of Leviticus on this issue.

Any atheist who criticises Christianity on the basis "you don't obey every bit of scripture" is simply showing their ignorance of Christianity. It's an argument you tend to hear from Protestant atheists (i.e. atheists brought up in a culture which was historically Protestant) because it fits in with certain sorts of Protestantism and those atheists are too thick/uncultured to realise their experience of religion is not the only one that exists. You will find that Catholic atheists tend to use quite different lines.

Posted by Matthew Huntbach on Wed, 4 Feb 2009 at 10:59:11


Matthew: I entirely agree. What I dislike about the whole religion-is-wrong debate from the fundies is that they focus on a very narrow, post-1800 Western viewpoint of Christianity, ignoring most, if not all, of theological thought.

But I agree with Dave, in that Dawkins is such a smug and arrogant git. I have been saying that for an age now. It is his implicit tut-tutting, slow shake of the head and looking down on people that gets me.

And if Haggard is down, I guess that means it is up to me to punch Dawkins in the face. After all, I can take 34 five-year-olds in a fight (http://www.howmanyfiveyearoldscouldyoutakeinafight.com/), so one old man shouldn't pose much of a problem.

Posted by Stray Taoist on Wed, 4 Feb 2009 at 19:46:09


Perhaps I didn't make myself clear enough (or perhaps we're just agreeing furiously), my main problem with the programme was that Dawkins avoided the sort of fair interviews that would have permitted the less obviously mad and more literate type of religious person to explain themselves. And it's that that made it so smug (ha ha, look at all these stupid extremists!) and propagandistic.

Incidentally, I do ignore most theological thought, partly because I'm unaware of most of it, but also partly for the same reason that I ignore most racist thought - arguments from bogus axioms don't bring much useful to the debate. Convince me of the axioms' correctness, and then I might make the effort to edumacate myself about the arguments stemming from them.

Posted by David Cantrell on Wed, 4 Feb 2009 at 20:11:25


Yes, I think we're agreeing furiously.

Dawkins starts off with a particular image of what religion is, and attacks all religion either for being that, or for being hypocritical because it isn't that and he thinks it should be, or because he thinks it must lead to that. He then looks for forms of religion which best fit in with his image, and says "there you are".

As Stray Taoist and I have noted, it's an image of religion which is actually just a certain rather modern sort of Western Christianity. Although I agree with what you say about Dawkins, David, your line about axioms is still to some extent making assumptions about what religion is that I don't think necessarily apply to all religions. Some religions may not be axiomatic, others might be like much modern mathematics - you assume some axioms and see where you get playing with them rather than being concerned over them being "correct".

Dawkins approach and attitude brings shame to the Chair he held in "public understanding of science" since it is neither a scientific approach nor one which generates any public understanding of either science or religion.

Posted by Matthew Huntbach on Thu, 5 Feb 2009 at 12:08:49


Matthew: I totally concur. More furious agreement!

Try somthing like The History of God. While certainly Theology Lite(tm), it contains a reasonable broad brushstroke of quite a few ideas, without any particular pushy viewpoint. (I like her 'Great Transformation' too, but there is a bit of overlap.) It won't convince you of anything, I don't think it is supposed to, but it might further your understanding of what Matthew has already said. She has a light style, which isn't quite as hard going as some of the more esoteric theological tomes I ponder over on the train.

Posted by Stray Taoist on Thu, 5 Feb 2009 at 13:10:33


Dawkins is a bigot and is smug with it. He has a very one sided view on evolution and an very strident dislike of religion.

Is he right? Mostly. Are the religious nuts dangerous? Probably. However the problem is most people in the UK are not religious nuts and for them Dawkins just rubs them up the wrong way even if he is right. So in that sense he is not winning the argument.

Attenborough's recent Darwin program was much better. His arguments for evolution were much better reasoned and argued and he was not at all aggressive and in your face.

Personally, I agree with Dawkins that religion is a divisive and highly corrosive force is society and we are much better without it. However I don't go round screaming hysterically about it.

Posted by Adam on Thu, 5 Feb 2009 at 20:27:43


Yes, exactly! Matthew hit the nail on the head. While Dawkins's layman-friendly explanations of evolution are Good Science and did him (and his chair) credit, his programme on religion appears to be neither scientific nor as rational as it could be, despite his constant mention of science and reason. Admittedly this is a hard subject to be scientific about ("The Enemies of Reason" in which he debunks silly superstitions like homeopathy, crystal healing and dowsing is much better for precisely this reason - they are testable, whereas god is defined in such a way as to be untestable, and whether religion is bad is in the purview of the social "sciences") but one can at least be rational about it.

Incidentally, the most important of the axioms I referred to above is the existence of the supernatural (whether it's the Trinity, or Allah, or the Hindu pantheon, or animist spirits, or Buddhist reincarnation is irrelevant). It seems to me that any theological argument has to start with that assumption. Without that, it's just ethics/morality/sociology. And it is not an assumption I can accept, as I have seen no reliable evidence to support it being true. At least with, say, Euclid's axioms (eg that parallel lines never meet, which mathematicians fret about) I have a load of experience of parallel and nearly-parallel lines to draw on and the modern formulation of the axiom is strictly limited in its scope.

Posted by David Cantrell on Fri, 6 Feb 2009 at 00:52:57


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