10 January, 2006

Richard Dawkins' The Root of All Evil?

You have to love Channel 4. On the one hand, this is the channel that is currently bringing us Celebrity Only (But In Their Own Minds) Big Brother, and is responsible for Space Cadets, the current low water mark for 'reality' (or 'make the proles look stupid') TV. But then last night it gave Richard Dawkins, the atheist Christians love to hate, the first of two prime-time slots to put forth his...erm...passionate views on religion (go here for the Channel 4 blurb). Now that's diversity.

I must admit straight away that I like Richard Dawkins. His writings about evolutionary biology are models of clarity, and in his more general writings on science he articulates an awe and wonder at the Universe revealed by science makes you realise that he is a long way from the nihilistic caricature often called up by his opponents. However, he makes no secret of his disdain for religion, and his use of his position in the public consciousness to make negative pronouncements on 'the process of non-thinking called faith' have earned him censure even from those who have sympathy for his views. But let's face it, religious bigotry is hardly soley the purview of the atheist; indeed, to paraphrase one of Dawkins' more famous quotes (which he used himself in the programme last night), we are all condescending and bigoted about most of the religions that humanity has ever believed in; he just goes one religion further.

That said, I'm not really sure what this program was trying to achieve. The actual scientific content was quite thin (what was there was well-explained), and as a meditation on why people reject reality in favour of ancient holy texts it wasn't particularly illuminating either. This was, I feel, the fault of both the interviewer and also the choice of interviewees. Dawkins was disinclined or unable to conceal his distaste for the views of those he was talking to - I suspect the former, because he also made several statements which were bound to inflame the discussion. For example, when talking with the Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he told him,'I was impressed by your show, it reminded me very much of...' paused, waited for everyone to mentally fill in '...rock concert', then finished '...the Nuremberg rallies'. Not likely to go down well. And it's really not much of a revelation that Haggard is not a great believer in the scientific method - I'm more interested in the why. Because this stuff is not restricted to the American Bible Belt; I personally know many evangelical Christians, both in the UK and abroad, who are surprisingly (and disturbingly) sympathetic to notions of Biblical literalism, and who are therefore rather uncomfortable when I talk about things geological. Why do they reject the majestic, strange and mind-blowing cosmos revealed by science, far more worthy of their God, in favour of the limited and petulant deity perceived by our ancestors? I don't think you're not likely to gain much insight into this question when you compare your subject to the Nazis (the interview with Haggard did, however, provide the most entertaining moment in the whole hour, when he said that he knew scientists 'who did not believe that structures like the eye and the ear could ever have arisen by accident'. Dawkins' own eyes almost exploded in the face of this misrepresentation of evolutionary theory).

Trawling the blogosphere for other posts which discussed this programme, two stand out. There's a much fuller review than I have time for at leyton.org; and A Very British Dude points out that Dawkins, rather oddly perhaps, omitted to talk about how the religious 'meme' from an evolutionary perspective (it might, for example, confer some advantage in terms of creating united, expansionist societies). I wonder whether Dawkins' second programme, unprovocatively entitled 'The Virus of Faith', might talk about that. Dude's conclusion is a bit dystopic for my taste, but it's well worth a read.

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