The Root of All Evil?

Channel 4 has recently screened a two-part documentary by Professor Richard Dawkins vigorously making his case for the irrational and pernicious nature of religion. Judging by the reviews in UK national newspapers (e.g., Guardian) even sympathetic critics considered Dawkins’ style and argument to be over the top.

The British Jesuits’ web page has a couple of responses by two Jesuit philosophers, Gerard Hughes of Campion Hall, Oxford University and Louis Caruana of Heythrop College, University of London.

Dawkins is a fascinating man. I admire his creative and imaginative communication of scientific ideas, particularly that of evolution. He writes in his own field with a clarity and energy that is inspiring. On the subject of religion his evangelical fervour mightily undermines his credibility.

I had the interesting experience a few Mondays ago of watching, on DVD, a programme from Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, entitled ‘Knowledge and Certainty’, immediately followed by Richard Dawkins’ first programme. In his essay, Bronowski attacks many of the same targets Dawkins aims at — fanaticism, irrationality, intolerance, and certainty that goes beyond the evidence — but where Dawkins annoyed and alienated, Bronowski moved me to tears.

11 replies on “The Root of All Evil?”

  1. After reading the arguments at the links you provided, it sounds to me like Dawkins has an emotional investment in his thesis, started with his own belief, and then gathered questionable evidence to support it … not very “scientific”

    So, you were able to convince your community to buy the Bronowski DVD

  2. Crystal,

    I think — and I wouldn’t be prepared to defend this thesis too earnestly — that Richard Dawkins doesn’t really intend his argument to be ‘scientific’ in the sense of using scientific methodology to prove his point. I think his basic argument is one of morality: he believes religion is wicked.

    Such a claim takes a very different kind of justification than a scientific one, though one based on evidence. In the TV programmes in question he presents a number of individuals that claim to represent various religious groups and gives them plenty of chance to demonstrate their own stupidity and/or wickedness. Insofar as those individuals really can claim to be card-carrying people of religion then religion does have a case to answer.

    In the name of religion, as Dawkins says (quoting Stephen Weinberg), good people do evil things. That seems to me to be true and we have to answer for that, find out why, and let that shape our faith and practice. Otherwise Dawkins’ second argument, which on the face of it is empty, that faith by its very nature is responsible for the wickedness of its extremists, gains a foothold by default. At least in the sense that Dawkins offers an explanation however spurious and people of faith offer none.

  3. But, isn’t it true that wikedness, if it does exist, is part of being human and if you chose representatives of any group, religious or not, you’d likely find someone who would be “wicked”?

    Which isn’t to discount all the bad stuff for which religion has been responcible. Maybe the very nature of religion is the problem … I think religion and science could be seen as having the same goal – the search for the Truth … but if instead one sees religion as a certain answer to all life’s questions, well, nothing seems as deadly as a person who thinks they know absolutely what is Right.

  4. I think that is what Dawkins is saying. The full quotation from Weinberg goes “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.”

  5. I se. I guess I find that hard to buy. I can see two instances where a good person might do a bad thing … either they know what they are doing is wrong but are convinced that the ends justify the means, or they are “accidentally” doing a bad thing, wrongly convinced that it is indeed good. Surely these scenarios occur both for people of religious and non-religious belief.

    Or I’m just too dopey to understand, which is entirely possible.

  6. No, I think you are dead right. Dawkins’ argument has more rhetorical force than logical correctness. It sounds so good that presenting obvious counter-examples which defeat his argument make the quibbler seem petty.

    The whole documentary is full of that kind of problem. You are left spluttering, ‘but.. but…’, as you think of obvious objections while the wave of his rhetoric rolls on.

    I think we need to do more than point out the holes in his reasoning. We need to answer the arguments he should be making, attending to those problems, saying for ourselves why ‘fundamentalism’ has no part in our religion and why our faith is more than an excuse not to think.

  7. I think you’re right about asking ourselves why one must check one’s brain at the door if one is religious, or why fundamentalism flourishes. I don’t hold out much hope for that being popular, though. It seems like religion satisfies a lot of different needs in people – some of those needs might be to not have to think independantly, or to feel one has the real skinny on everything (intolerance). But those questions should still be discussed.

  8. From my perspective, religion is neither good nor evil, but rather a social construction usually centered around (although not necessarily so) one’s spiritual beliefs or the common beliefs of a group.

    When those beliefs are centered around love, compassion and forgiveness, it removes our sense of separation from our Source (aka God). However, when those beliefs are centered around guilt, fear and judgment, it becomes a weapon of the ego and does not serve the purposes of God.

    I hear people such as televangelist Pat Robertson spouting hate, calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez or blaming gays and non-Christians for the 9/11 attacks. It breaks my heart because there are people who belief him. This is when religion serves the ego and not Spirit.

    On the other hand, we see people reaching out to those in need in profound ways. Mother Theresa is a classic example, but it happens all the time, but rarely gets press. Such acts of compassion and agape love, which may or may not stem from a formalized religion, serve Spirit.


  9. When it comes down to it, religion is not needed and does more harm than good. More people have been killed in the name of religion than anything else. Crusades anyone? If you need the crutch of religion to make you do the right thing all the time, you aren’t a good person to begin with.

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