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Is Religion the Root of all Evil? Part 2

My thoughts on the second part of Richard Dawkins' Channel 4 programme. (By the way, did anyone else notice that there were very few adverts during this programme, and would anyone like to speculate as to why?)

In part 2, the Prof tackles religious schools. “There is something exceedingly odd about the existence of sectarian religious schools. If we hadn’t got used to it over the centuries, we would find it bizarre.” Religion, he says, is alone in being allowed to define children by their parents’ beliefs – you don’t hear, for example, of “Labour children” or “Tory children” in the way you hear about “Muslim children” or “Christian children”.

When schools teach creationism as truth – that the world was created in six days, 5,000 years ago, more recently than when most archaeologists agree that the agricultural revolution took place! - it is miseducation, “innocent children being saddled with demonstrable falsehoods”.

So far, so good.

He points out that there are 7,000 ‘faith schools’ in Britain, and that is set to increase, with more than half of the new Academies expected to be sponsored by religious organisations.

But unfortunately, he goes no further in discussing government policy, or mainstream ‘faith schools’, and instead takes the path of least resistance and takes up the cudgels against private, ‘extreme’ religious schools.

It was a sorely missed opportunity to argue with those who agree that the ‘extreme’ (I dislike that word, for these reasons) version is bad, but would defend mainstream ‘faith schools’ on the grounds that they do teach science, don’t teach creationism, teach kids about different religions, don’t really force it down people’s throats, get good exam results etc. You’d have to look elsewhere for a good argument on this.

Dawkins interviews Rabbi Gluck from North London, who presents the indoctrination of children as the right of communities to pass on their culture and traditions. Dawkins also tells us about Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), in which there is no R.E. because every subject is taught in a ‘Christian’ way (Noah’s Ark figures in the geography syllabus, health education informs pupils that AIDS is the wages of sin).

Adrian Hawkes, of the Phoenix Academy, argues that if there is no god, then there is no lawgiver, and therefore no reason for anything to be considered right or wrong. Professor Dawkins rightly expresses astonishment that you would do good things just to please god, rather than because they were good things. He might have mentioned (but didn’t) that democracy is a lawgiver in the absence of god.

Dawkins went on to expound his idea that religious superstition is a dangerous virus, passed on by clerics, teachers and parents. Maybe that’s a useful analogy, I’m not sure. But if it is, let’s take it further. Viruses are transmitted from person to person in ways which medical science can explain. But the ways in which they are passed on – and the effect they have on individuals – is also strongly influenced by the social conditions in which they live. Viruses spread more quickly, and harm more gravely, in conditions of poverty, inadequate housing, poor nutrition, lack of freedom and democratic accountability, and lack of access to medical services. I reckon that religious superstition does too, but Dawkins does not address this.

There was an interesting interview with a woman to tries to help people recover from childhoods terrorised by religion (conducted, correct me if I am wrong, in the lovely Clissold Park). There was a witty expose of the Bible’s claims to be a moral code, when in fact its Old Testament at times advocates rape, human sacrifice, and killing family members who try to convince you to follow other gods; and its New Testament introduces St. Paul’s “nasty, sado-masochistic doctrine of atonement for original sin”.

There was also some horrifying stuff from the USA about ‘Hellhouses’ – theatrical performances designed to terrify you into following God – and the murder of doctors who carry out abortions. As a thought-on-the-side, I wondered how a country which has these things, and has so many millions of ‘believers’, also made the excellent CSI (premise: evidence is everything) its favourite TV show.

We did have an interview with a liberal cleric, Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, who Dawkins takes to task for ‘cherry-picking’ the Bible. And a thought-provoking discussion about “how science reveals the true origins of human morality” – through “altruistic genes”, Dawkins argues.

At the end of two hours TV, what is my overall view of all this?

Dawkins is right to counterpose science to religion. But to me, his failing is that he counterposes only science to religion.

At the end of last night’s programme, Dawkins returns to the theme with which he opened last week: “The here and now is not something to be endured before some eternal life. The here and now is all we have got. Atheism is life-affirming in a way that religion can never be.” Amen to that, as they say.

Life is beautiful, he says. Quite right. But what he does not say is that life does not look so beautiful if you live in a slum, or under military occupation, or in fear, or if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, if you are exploited or discriminated against.

Leon Trotsky said something more complete that Dawkins does: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.” Dawkins’ atheism allows him to appreciate that life is beautiful, but he says nothing of the need to cleanse it of anything other than religious superstition, and in doing so, weakens his attempts even to do that.

I reviewed part one here.

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