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The Root of All Evil? - a Review
by: Bob_Bourne 05 february 06
The first programme of Professor Richard Dawkins’ TV two-parter on “The Root of all Evil?” took it’s start from what are some of the more obvious public evils from religion in our times. These include the suicide attacks by Muslims and others on innocent men, women and children. There was also mention of the hatred present between religions in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Mention could equally well have been made of the terrible things done in the name of Christianity in earlier centuries; the horrors of the Crusades, including the “Albigensian Crusade” against fellow Christians (the Cathars), or the burnings at the stake of people who didn’t happen to agree with one’s particular doctrine.
Mention could also have been made of the terrible human sacrifices of the Aztecs, and of many other religious peoples.
It wasn’t though. It wasn’t needed. We know that, throughout recorded history, men have done terrible things in the name of their gods.
The programme tried to understand why, in an age in which we have never been better educated, people are turning their backs on education and blindly following indoctrinated creeds. It showed how an increasingly high proportion of US citizens are doing this.
Most, but not all, of Professor Dawkins’ critique concentrated on Christianity. However we were left in no doubt that it was aimed equally at the three great religions related to Judaism. (Christianity, Islam and of course Judaism itself), as well as “religion” in general.
We were shown images of Lourdes, and images of US church rituals. Only a negligible proportion of visits to Lourdes have been claimed even by the Catholic Church to have given rise to authentic miracles, and as Professor Dawkins pointed out, all of these cases are susceptible to other explanations. Nobody has ever had a missing limb miraculously restored for example.
Professor Dawkins likened the atmosphere of one Christian church US proceeding as reminiscent of that at a Nuremburg rally. One of the US church leaders who, we are to presume, accepts the Bible as literal truth, accused Professor Dawkins of intellectual arrogance. We were left to draw our own conclusions as to which pot was calling which kettle black.
Professor Dawkins is uncompromising in his stance. There is no room in his thinking for anything other than what we can appreciate with our senses. Science does not of course know all there is to be known. Nevertheless there is nothing behind the existence of the universe, or behind our evolution on this tiny planet. We are apparently here through pure chance.
Other commentators have taken a more liberal view. Yes, evolution by natural selection has been shown by the evidence to be a satisfactory theory (though it may not be the last word on the subject). Even so there is room for something – whether called spirit, force or even god – which underpins and sustains our universe, and which drives the physical “laws” and our existence through evolution. For Professor Dawkins this only moves the problem back one stage, because “who created the creator?”.
There is a fundamental mistake which is often made by commentators who allow that the material world shown to us by our senses might not be all that there is, and that there may well be an underlying spirit or god behind it or underpinning it. They then go on to identify this with their own particular god, be it Yahweh, Allah or whatever. There is a huge logical gap here, but people often bridge it without realising it. As an aside, a subsequent “Horizon” on so-called “intelligent design” showed us something of this.
In fact any religion which describes it’s god in words is putting finite constraints on something which may well be infinite and beyond our comprehension. The image of God which Christianity and Islam have constructed in words is actually as much of a graven image as any idol constructed in stone or metal. It’s an image constructed in words, effectively a graven image such as their religion of origin (Judaism) has preached against virtually from the outset.
Professor Dawkins failed to point out that any possibility of intelligent design does not in any case imply that the designer need have anything to do with the God of the Christians or Muslims. But he did point out that, from some perspectives we are all atheists. We are atheists in relation to many earlier gods, and many gods other than our own. We no longer believe in the Roman’s Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the Greek’s Zeus, or the Philistines’ Dagon, for example. There are many, many other gods in which we do not now believe.
The programme well brought out the intolerance inherent in a slavish devotion to an unsubstantiated faith. This is where the institutionalised religions are in fundamental error. They should not be about the institutionalised propagation of unsubstantiated dogma. They should be about a genuine effort to explore the divine part of our nature and our world, whatever that turns out to be. They should not be intolerant. They should realise that they are not the last word on the subject of God, but a stage in understanding, that in due time will be thrown away in the same way that earlier gods have been thrown away.
Unfortunately the man made religious institutions have their vested interests; the vested interests of their wealth, their power, the leaders’ livelihoods, hope of everlasting life, and so on. Very often the more tenuously held beliefs are the more vigorously, or even viciously, defended. It is almost as though “believers” require other people’s approval of their beliefs in order to justify to themselves that they believe them. This actually makes sense, because in reality the only substantiation they do have for their beliefs is the fact that other people also believe them.
Ultimately we were shown that the followers of the American churches are in need of something, whether it be human fellowship, a sense of awe, a prop for morality, a hope of life after death, or a purpose and assumed certainty in their lives. It seems that they find it worth closing their minds to reason in order to achieve these things for themselves.
The paradox is that these religions are indeed about morality. The same religions that drive people to great acts of evil also drive others to great acts of goodness.
There is an obvious question here. Although these moral actions are apparently driven by religion, would they happen anyway? Would we be good or evil in equal measure whether we are religious or not?
In his second programme, Professor Dawkins came up with a sort of answer to this. “Without religion a good man may do good things, and a bad man may do evil things. But for a good man to do evil things you need religion.” In reality we are all capable of the best or the worst, given an appropriate back-ground and motivations. And few men probably think they are evil. All men rationalise their actions to justify them to themselves.
Professor Dawkins introduced us to one church school leader who believed that, without the moral cement of religion, men would be free to rape, murder, steal and do all manner of evils. I must stay I was left staring at this leader and thinking: “If you were released from your so-called religious obligations tomorrow, is this really what you would personally do?”.
There was a US church leader who believed that adulterers should be executed. This man also believed that his friend, who had been executed for killing an abortion performing doctor, was in heaven. Professor Dawkins’ question whether Jesus would want murderers in heaven went unanswered.
Another church leader was making films about abortion and homosexuality which we were told used visions of hell to drive home their points. It’s amazing that anyone could believe that a “loving” god would create sentient beings in order that they could be consigned to everlasting torment; and amazing that anyone could want to inflict such ideas on young children. The church leader involved said homosexuality was wrong because that’s what the Bible says.
Professor Dawkins only had an hour for his second programme, but he gave us enough quotations from the Bible to illustrate that it’s ideas were ideas of it’s time, and are totally out of step with twenty-first century thinking on human rights and sexual equality. For example, few now think we should kill people who worship gods other than Yahweh, as the Old Testament teaches (even though recent events show that some still think we should do this to those who worship gods other than Allah).
It was something of a relief to be introduced to the rational thinking of the Bishop of Oxford, who felt that the Bible should be looked at as a whole for it’s overall message. We should not take individual texts in isolation, but should make allowances for advances in human education, thinking and knowledge since the books were written. For example the Bishop believed that we now know that homosexual tendencies are inborn, and are not under the control of particular individuals.
The Bishop of Oxford also felt that the truth or otherwise of the New Testament miracles was not too important. He did though still believe that the resurrection of Christ was fundamental to Christianity. Professor Dawkins clearly felt more empathy with the Bishop than with other church leaders he had met. Nevertheless his response was typically uncompromising. “Thinking as you do, I’m surprised you stick with Christianity at all”. “If you are going to cherry-pick the Bible, why accept any of it?”.
It’s true that when you start critically evaluating what the Bible says, it’s a bit like peeling an onion. Is there anything left at the end of it? Personally I think there is only one thing left. Jesus said: “Love your fellow human beings as yourself”. For me that is it. But it’s a big “it”. And it’s a far cry from flying passenger aircraft into the World Trade Centre, or killing and maiming innocent people in underground railways, burning people at the stake, or even (as we were shown is happening in America) simply hounding people who don’t happen to agree with your religious ideas. It could be said that “love your fellow human beings as yourself” is a pearl of great price at the centre of it.
Professor Dawkins pointed out that the doctrine of salvation through the resurrection of Jesus, was actually developed later by St Paul (and of course others). The doctrine that Jesus “died for our sins” has in fact never been rationally explained by Christianity. Why was it necessary for him to die, and how could such a death have any bearing on our sins? Professor Dawkins put it simply and clearly. “If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them?”
The central pivot of Professor Dawkins’ second programme was the illustration of how unsubstantiated faith propagates itself by indoctrinating children at their impressionable age. It was pointed out that young children are genetically pre-programmed to believe uncritically what their parents and other authority figures tell them. This is necessary to ensure their survival through their vulnerable early years.
Later in life many adolescents and adults work through such religious indoctrinations, and reject this early conditioning. Others retain this conditioning and go on to condition the next generation.
I was reminded of how, as a young child, I was aware of inconsistencies in the Bible stories, and of how I suppressed these because the stories were told to me by adults. For example, the story of the animals going into the ark. Clearly no boat could hold enough animals to propagate the continuation of many (or even any) species, let alone all the species in the world. Or take the star that guided the three wise men. Stars are so far away that it’s just not possible for a star to stand over a stable. Just two examples of inconsistencies generated by the limited world knowledge of the Bible writers compared to our own.
Professor Dawkins has put together two fine, intelligent and thought provoking programmes. They are timely, because the evils of religious fanaticism seem to be upon us again, and to be growing as threats.
Unfortunately one has to be pessimistic about whether these programmes will have much effect. Many of those who should have watched will not have done so, and even if some have, they will probably have watched with closed minds. Christianity includes some clever elements to foster it’s survival. Consider for example the parable of the sower, or the story of “doubting” Thomas. “Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are those who find faith without seeing me”.
The two programmes ended in a way reminiscent of Jostein Gaarder’s “The Orange Girl”. We, who are here are the lucky ones. We are lucky just to have been born at all, and to have been bestowed with the gift of life here and now.
As an idea this may be OK., but it will probably leave many people dissatisfied. I believe that thinkers like the Bishop of Oxford are our greatest hope. If the moderates in the religions will speak out, and if the moderates will accept that they bear a responsibility for the fanatics, then we may get somewhere. These three great religions have just got to accept that much of what they take as truth from their holy books is in fact myth, religious propaganda or just plain error. By doing so they may preserve the central morality of their religions, while at the same time avoiding increasing inter-religious conflict. If not they are going to find that membership of their religions will increasingly be dominated by religious fundamentalists and fanatics with closed minds.
It was C S Lewis who, as long ago as 1942, got his fictional devil Screwtape to say to the pupil devil Wormwood: “If you look into your patient’s mind when he is praying …., if you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. But…. you must keep him praying to it – to the thing he has made, not to the Person who made him. For.… if he ever consciously directs his prayers “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be”, our [the devils’] situation is for the moment desperate.”
Could I suggest that “what I think thou art” incorporates the whole of the religious dogmas of the institutionalised religions, including the belief that the holy books are the words of God.
It’s time for a new reformation of the Christian and Muslim religions; a reformation quite as sweeping as the 16th century protestant reformation in the Roman Christian church. These two religions still have much to offer the world in terms of morality. Both religions should feel an urgent need to re-evaluate their books in the light of modern knowledge.
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