Second part of “The Root of All Evil?”

The conclusion to Richard Dawkins’ Channel 4 documentary ‘The Root of all evil?’ was shown tonight. Apparently Dawkins dislikes the title, and it’s certainly a misnomer. He himself quoted Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

The argument is certainly that religion is a major negative factor in the world’s problems, but not that it’s the sole cause.

In the last week I’ve been engaged in various discussions, both on this blog and others, about religion and the flaws in Dawkins’ arguments. Although I disagreed with most critiques, I tried to watch the show with these in mind. I felt that the two shows needed to be seen together – the first was an out-and-out attack on religion, with the second explaining more about why regular religion is dangerous, not just the extremists, and clarifying that it’s entirely understandable why religious beliefs prevail in a psychological sense.

Tonight’s show had more that was new to me than last week’s. I hadn’t heard of the disturbing Hell Houses, or the Accelerated Christian Education program in which children are isolated and given science textbooks with references to Noah’s Ark. I thought Dawkins did a good job of explaining why these fairly extreme examples were the natural extension of the more normal moderate beliefs, particularly when he tried to question how moderate believers justified picking and choosing the parts of scripture they liked.

The only part I’d have changed was the section on morality. While the point was to provide an evolutionary explanation for why we behave in a moral fashion, I think it could be easily confused with a morality drawn from science, which I don’t think is possible. Science and morality are in different spheres, and it’s hard to imagine how they could ever link. I personally work from the principles of ‘the greater good’ and ‘treat people as you’d like to be treated’, and from that I think that decent methods of behaviour can be drawn. The conclusions often cross over with religious ideas, but without the messy problem of contradictory scripture. But that’s brancing into secular humanism, which is a whole other topic 🙂

At one point Dawkins politely, but directly, asked a rabbi how the ‘faith school’ could justify teaching that the Earth is only 5000 years old, an idea shown to be incorrect by every branch of science. And it’s then that you can see through the bluster and the rhetoric and realise that the rabbi simply has no answer. And that’s exactly the point. How can that be justified? And why is it acceptable to the majority of the population?

It also touched on the idea of religion as a meme. I find that an absolutely fascinating idea, because it’s entirely logical and anybody can do it as a thought experiment. If you wanted to create an idea, or a thought, that although false would never die out, what properties would it have? It could require that you spread it as widely as possible, it could make a virtue of mystery, etc. etc. Once you’re done you look at the results and the parallels with religion are obvious. That’s just coincidence? Unfortunately the program couldn’t go into much detail, but it’s great to see it getting some exposure on national tv.

Overall, I think the two shows were an excellent introduction to the idea of religion as both dangerous and flawed. If nothing else, it has hopefully started many people thinking and debating, and that can’t hurt.