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Monday, January 09, 2006

Dawkins on Religion: The Channel 4 Programme

There has just been a Channel 4 programme here in the UK by the very anti-religious Richard Dawkins on religion and why he thinks it is a bad thing. My general view of Dawkins on religion has been at best very mixed. Despite appearances I'm not anti-religious at all and I certainly don't believe religion is the root of all evil. In fact I don't think by itself it is inherently good or evil (in some ways like science you could say). As I've said before, in most cases it requires some kind of specific socio-economic context to trigger off deadly responses. It's happened with secular Marxists too which should say something.

Dawkins mentioned the key point of unshakeable belief in being absolutely right and told to believe but religion doesn't have a monopoly on this. This may be structurally the same kind of thing as religious belief of course.

And there are of course countless examples of Jew living peacefully with Muslim, Christian with Jew, Muslim with Christian or whatever. That fact alone should say something about the importance of social, ecnomic and political factors. I think there is some serious danger in blaming religion for the problems in the Middle East or wherever in that it shifts blame away from the serious damage that can be done by social, economic and political systems.

So for me there was simply not enough stress on non-religious problems. Dawkins did concede in passing problems such as 'even' social deprivation in Bradford. That is just not enough. There are plenty of available and empirically grounded historical and sociological approaches which have shown that social and economic circumstances can lead to historical change and action. Think of an example known to your biblioblogger: C1 Palestine. Did banditry emerge because of religion alone? Or did it emerge due to a complex of economic change, bad harvests, politics, and so on? Look at it this way: without religion would the world be any more safe?

But some parts of Dawkins argument cannot be denied. The religious views on condoms and AIDS was the obvious one to chose and a pretty undeniable example. Yet would such views be avoided without religion? I don't know.

Perhaps there would be more open thought without religion. There should be little doubt that secularism and the much maligned 'Enlightenment' among certain Christians has had a genuinely important influence on free thinking. As John Cleese once said in response to criticism of Life of Brian: 400 years ago we would have been burned for saying such things - I'm saying we've made an advance. But religion has had to adapt to this and some have done so positively.

So Dawkins had some perfectly senisble points. Is it really so extreme to say that tradition and authority lead to belief in some frankly weird things (also found in scholarship I would say). The hostility to evolution and scientific views on the origins of the planet in parts of the US... And so on and so on. But then all I have to say is Stalinism, though that again can structurally be seen as religious belief for all its fraudulent scientific claims.

The conversation with the Republican conservative evangelical pastor was absolutely hilarious (not to mention all too familiar), particularly the bit when Dawkins pointed out that the pastor was completely wrong on the scientific views concerning evolution.

Incidentally, Dawkins noted that no miraculous cures ever have the growing back of a severed leg. As it turns out someone tried to convert me to a conservative evangelical form of Christianity by claiming precisely that.


Anonymous Matt said...

The programme was largely enjoyable and the encounter with the pastor was brilliant.

The interview with the Muslim fellow from New York was slightly more worrying though.

I think you are right about him not investigating other factors enough and I'm not really surprised. He is pretty biased after all.

January 09, 2006

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

I felt Dawkins was strong in what he affirmed (his positive points in favour of scientific method) and weak in what he denied (his criticisms of what he calls 'religion', i.e. a diverse and amorphous mass). A lot of his points both positive and negative were cliches, but I suppose he had to be approachable to a TV audience. So the cliched rejoinders apply once again:what about the human rights record of atheist communism? What about the questionable fruits of atheist regimes and media (the New York Muslim convert, whose whole demeanour was chilling, was right on this point)? Are the Christians who worship every Sunday in Britain really on the slippery slope to tube bombings??

Ted Haggard was right to say his approach was a bit arrogant - how does he know his views won't be outmoded in 2 generations? But Haggard was being equally arrogant himself,not to mention less well-informed.

January 10, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Yes, I think as soon as you start giving counter examples it just shows that religious believers are hardly on a slippery slope because they are believers. His real problem is that he just can't understand religion in context and all that.

January 10, 2006


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