Last night, I tuned in to Channel 4 for The Root of All Evil? a programme by Professor Richard Dawkins (Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, pictured) damning the revival of religious superstition.
Most unfortunately, as soon as the programme had started, nearly-two-year-old Harrison woke up, and made such a noise that he also woke newly-four-year-old Joe. So my attention to the first section of the show was limited. Still, it lasted an hour, which was thankfully longer than my kids’ wakefulness. So I’ll pass a few comments.
In religious programming and beyond, there is plenty of TV that presents religious belief without questioning it, so this programme was welcome. On the broad question he addressed – science versus religious superstition – Dawkins is absolutely right, and he is right to raise the alarm about the revival of religious belief and the repression and violence it can lead to. He has a beautiful turn of phrase at times – there were plenty of soundbites in the opening ten minutes that I would have written down had I not had a child in each arm. And he addressed Islam, Christianity and Judaism, so sparing himself ridiculous accusations like “Islamophobia” that the defenders of reaction and superstition like to chuck at people whose arguments can take them apart.
But, there are some buts. Before laying into him, I should point out that this TV programme is a two-parter, and some of these points could well be covered next week.
Firstly, Dawkins chose to interview some of the more obviously barmy advocates of religion. It is quite right to show that such people exist, and that they have frightening power over their flocks and in politics, but they were easy for him to expose, even lampoon, because they pretty much did it themselves. If, as he claims, he wants to debunk religious belief per se, not just its extreme manifestations, then it would be good to see him argue with someone more “reasonable”.
Secondly, whilst the Prof showed how religionists influence politics, I did not hear him address how willing politicians are to be influenced by them. Creationists are certainly villains against science and humanity; but so are the politicians who want to let them run state schools.
Thirdly, the programme appeared to present the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as simply a clash of religious fundamentalisms. Of course, there is a strong element of this, and it certainly makes the situation worse. But you can not understand this issue without also acknowledging that the Palestinians are dispossessed and denied national self-determination, and that their intifada is not simply an uprising against the desecration of a mosque, but against the military occupation and terrible conditions that they live under. Nor that Israeli Jews are not simply fixated on keeping their own holy land, but have understandable fears about anti-semitism and conquest. And that there are secularists, even atheists, on both ‘sides’ of the conflict, who are not in the least motivated by religious crusading.
Finally, and I think most importantly, Root Of All Evil? showed the limitations of bourgeois secularism. Dawkins is very articulate in his de-bunking of religion, but often seemed reduced to exasperated shoulder-shrugging about how ignorant and primitive people are.
He explained well how delusion persists if it is mass delusion, as people’s superstitions are reinforced by hearing them back from others. But that is not all there is to it. Many people stick to religion because they cling to a hope of something better than their inadequate life in an unjust society. Yes, science debunks religion, but does it offer people a better life in a better world? On its own, no.
To effectively win people away from religion, you have to show that people ourselves can change the world through our own struggles. It is no accident that the revival of religion has come during a slump in the labour movement.
The conditions in which capitalism makes people live will always drive them into the arms of religion. It seems highly improbable to me that there could be capitalism without religion. But even if there could, it would still be a system that exploits, impoverishes, debases, discriminates and kills.
Religion is, if you like, “evil”. But the root of all evil is not religion, but the division of society into classes.
Part 2 reviewed here
I entirely agree with Janine. I enjoyed the confrontations with Christian and Muslim fundamentalists (and sympathised with Dawkins' inability to argue with them). But the case against religion as such is put with such crassness that by the end I was wondering if the whole effort would not prove counterproductive.
Dawkins basically says that all religious belief is the 'thin end of the wedge' to violent extremism because it is a system of thought based on not thinking.
But religious belief has also, for example and just to take one example, inspired some of the world's greatest works of art. The idea that everything from Bach to Coltrane, etc etc, is only the thin end of the wedge to suicice bombings is simply nuts.
And - so far - Dawkins only attacks religion at its weakest. There are scientists who, without being 'religious' in any obvious sense, argue that there are, for example, peculiar aspects to the nature of the universe - which don't necessarily prove the existence of a creator or anything, but require more of a response than Dawkins gives. Not all religion is stupid people relying on texts.
Part two promises to be Dawkins on religion as a virus, a comment for which he is quite famous.