Richard Dawkins's latest attack on religion is not worthy of a great scientist. Madeleine Bunting
The Hindu Tuesday, Jan 10, 2006 © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
By all means, let's have a serious debate about religious belief, one of the most complex and fascinating phenomena on the planet, but the suspicion is that it's not what this chorus wants. Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there's the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again. There's an aggrieved frustration that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now. Secularisation was supposed to be an inextricable part of progress. Even more grating, what secularisation there has been is accompanied by the growth of weird irrationalities from crystals to ley lines. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in God is not that they believe nothing, it is that they believe anything.
There's an underlying anxiety that atheist humanism has failed. Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence. Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, and a mindless absorption in passing desires. Not knowing how to answer the big questions of life, we shelve them — we certainly don't develop the awe towards and reverence for the natural world that Prof. Dawkins would want. So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Prof. Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers.
This is the only context that can explain Prof. Dawkins's programme, a piece of intellectually lazy polemic, which is not worthy of a great scientist. He uses his authority as a scientist to claim certainty where he himself knows, all too well, that there is none; for example, our sense of morality cannot simply be explained as a product of our genetic struggle for evolutionary advantage. More irritatingly, he doesn't apply to religion — the object of his repeated attacks — a fraction of the intellectual rigour or curiosity that he has applied to evolution (to deserved applause). Where is the grasp of the sociological or anthropological explanations of the centrality of religion? Sadly, there is no evolution of thought in Prof. Dawkins' position; he has been saying much the same thing about religion for a long time.
There are three areas in his programmes where the lack of rigour is most striking. First, Prof. Dawkins is featured in Jerusalem; the point is that religion causes violence and most of the world's conflicts can be traced back to faith. If only they didn't have segregated schooling in Israel and Palestine then peace could emerge. Likewise in Northern Ireland.
Let's leave the political scientists to point out the absurd simplification of these political struggles over land, rights and resources, but take a wider point. Human beings develop collective identities — ethnic, nationalist, religious or political — and find in them a sense of belonging, of personal identity and solidarity; the problem is how, at points of competition and threat, those identities flare up into horrible violence. Pinning all the blame on religion blindly ignores the evidence; the Rwandan tragedy was about ethnicity, the Holocaust about a racist political ideology. Crucially it fails to grasp the modern phenomenon of fundamentalism and how religious identity is being mobilised in an attempt to carve out positions of power within a rapidly globalising world; this kind of violent religion is a political product of rapid social and economic change.
Secondly, Prof. Dawkins mounts a charge of "child abuse" against religious education; it manipulates childish minds, inculcating in them a terror of hell and damnation. On this argument, I'm with Prof. Dawkins for a while; he's right that many religions have a horrible habit of using fear to shore up their authority. But that's only part of the story — religion can also provide children with a deep sense of confidence from the teaching that they are each precious in the eyes of God, of reverence for their gift of life and of ethical bearings.
His conclusion is that no children should be exposed to religion until they are old enough to make a choice; anything else is indoctrination. But this is quixotic; how can they ever make any choice without knowledge and how can they ever have knowledge without running into Prof. Dawkins's allegation of indoctrination? Furthermore, the concept of a child to be kept a blank slate, free from parental influence, is absurd — or does it just apply to religion, and if so, why? What about the many ways in which parents shape children (so constraining many choices) for both good and ill? Isn't the point that children should be encouraged to develop thoughtful, inquiring minds and a strong ethical framework — and that this is possible both with, or without, religious belief?Finally, Prof. Dawkins returns to the old complaint that religion "cuts off a source of wonder"; he once famously described the medieval view of the cosmos as "little" and "pokey." It's a revealing comment because it exposes a remarkable lack of empathy for how people in other ages or cultures imagine the world. That seems a terrible poverty of his imagination. Just think: when most people's radius of experience was a few miles, the world must have seemed a vast, deeply mysterious entity.
That lack of empathy also lies behind Prof. Dawkins's reference to a "process of non-thinking called faith." For thousands of years, religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery, whether Islamic astronomy or the Renaissance. But his contempt is so profound that he can't be bothered to even find out (in an interview he dismissed Christian theology in exactly these terms). If this isn't the "hidebound certainty" of which he accuses believers, I'm not sure what is.
Let's be clear: it's absolutely right that religion should be subjected to a vigorous critique, but let's have one that doesn't waste time knocking down straw men. It's also right for religion to concede ground to science to explain natural processes; but at the same time, science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe — such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos (Prof. Dawkins does finally acknowledge this point in the programmes).
Prof. Dawkins seems to want to magic religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, J.S. Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience — sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Prof. Dawkins's, he pointed out the suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilised by the need for gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on.