The Crusading Atheist: Richard Dawkins’ “The Root of All Evil?”

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71)


Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and many other excellent books, recently did a TV program on BBC called The Root of All Evil? – about religion. [Apr, 2007 – Now available on DVD – some footage from it is richly abused in the video above.]

Dawkins has devoted much of his career to explaining evolution to the general public. He does this extremely well, and richly deserves all the praise and awards he has garnered.

Unfortunately, all his explaining doesn’t seem to be getting through to those who need it most. I share his despair as I look at a world where science can show and explain so many fascinating things – and there is still so much to discover! – yet so many people prize blind faith above independent thought. And we have only to watch the evening news to see what blind faith in religion is doing to us all.

Hence, I suppose, this program. Intelligent, rational, polite, and genuinely puzzled by religious belief, Dawkins visits various religous sites, such as an American mega-church and the “holy land” in Jerusalem, trying to understand what people find in it all. He makes no progress towards mutual understanding, in part because he picks extreme examples: Ted Haggard (an American mega-pastor and supposedly an adviser to George W. Bush), who condescendingly tells him: “Don’t be arrogant.” And then chases him off the property, threatening to take his crew’s film because “you have called my children animals.”

“Well, so I did,” says Dawkins, “in the sense that ALL human beings are animals.”

In Jerusalem, Dawkins manages to get hold of a New York Jew who moved to Israel to help colonize the Gaza strip, then converted to Islam and now wants all “kaffirs” out of the Muslim holy lands. This man’s fundamental problem seems to be an obsession with female lewdness. “Look how you dress your women,” he expostulates.

“I don’t dress my women,” retorts Dawkins,”they dress themselves.”

And there, I think, we come to the heart of the problem with religions: they are mostly run by men desperately afraid of, and therefore seeking to control, women’s sexuality. I’ve written about this before, but in several more years of thought am no closer to understanding why women put up with it.

To say that women must be covered up so as not to present a temptation to men is a profound insult to both sexes: to the men, who apparently couldn’t restrain themselves from rape if they were to see a bare ankle. To the women, who are thought to be unable to say “no” should anyone offer them sex. Have we (men and women) no more self-restraint than dogs in heat, that the slightest sexual stimulus will have us copulating in the public square? Where is the dignity of humankind in that?

<sigh> I shouldn’t even bother. Trying to make sense out of religion is about as useful as banging my head against a wall. Seeing that a recent real head-bang left me with a headache for a week, I shall desist.

I fear that Dawkins is, um, preaching to the choir; his show won’t have been watched by those who need it most (and I doubt it will be shown in the US outside of PBS). But at least he is trying to shed a light of science and sanity in a murky world.

One worrying effect of the Danish cartoons rumpus is statements from governments and the UN that “all religions should be respected,” and calls for laws against offenses to religion. WTF? Italy already has such a law, which has been ridiculously applied to a satirical website showing Pope Benedict in a Nazi uniform.

No, religion does not deserve to be protected or respected under law, any more than any other belief does. If I were to state publicly that, oh, say, the moon is made of green cheese, people would feel free to ridicule that belief, to my face. Much of religion seems equally ridiculous to me, but I am supposed to be polite and not trample on people’s beliefs.

In fact I am polite where I respect the person, if not the belief. I count among my friends a number of deeply religious people. We manage to respect each other in spite of a deep divergence of views in some areas. I also have friends with whom I disagree on politics or economics. It is even possible to discuss our differences, while keeping a firm grip on our mutual respect: all that’s required is an open mind and willingness to listen.

But to enshrine such common-sense civility in law is ridiculous. You never know when you may need to be uncivil about something, especially when the other side is far from civil. I hereby declare and defend my right to be as rude as I damn well please, about religion or anything else. If you’re civil to me – and that includes respecting my rights and freedoms as a human being – I will certainly be civil to you. On the other hand, if you try to tell me that I’m going to hell, or that I should cover myself so as not to tempt men, or that I’m not allowed read or write or do certain things – well, you’ll find out just how rude I can be.

Clarification and Amplification

Feb 28, 2006

In case it needs saying: I do not gratuitously insult any person or religion (except sometimes inadvertently, when I don’t realize what set of beliefs I’m dealing with). I don’t seek fights about religion, though sometimes sorely tempted. But when the fight comes to me… For example, I had a sharp exchange with a Jehovah’s Witness who insisted on proselytizing to me while I was peacefully minding my own business one morning at the Lecco railway station. I neither started nor desired that discussion, but anyone who insists that I cannot attribute the glories of the world around me to anything but God is asking for trouble.

She went on to dismiss certain non-Christian origin myths as “less advanced” than her own beliefs, setting herself up for the obvious retort: “Then surely my belief in no god at all is more advanced than your still needing a god.” (I don’t think I actually said that, but definitely thought it.) As Dawkins says: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

My article said: “…the heart of the problem with religions: they are mostly run by men desperately afraid of, and therefore seeking to control, women’s sexuality.”

David responded:

“I think you should cut the word ‘women’s’ because they indeed want to control SEXUALITY, PERIOD (in fact, anything that has to do with the human body).

It’s pure POLITICAL CHOICE that the Catholic Church (in Italy and America) drones on and on about homosexuality and abortion – thereby supporting the RIGHT WING government – and never drones on and on (as CHRIST did in the gospels) about PEACE and love of neighbor (ie: the application of that philosophy to the current war on terror) – which would thereby support the LEFT WING government.

In reading the New Testament you’d get the impression Jesus really didn’t care what people did sexually…he seemed way ahead of all that, with his focus on bigger and better goals…just as today the Church is WAY BEHIND all that with a focus on tiny worldly goals of money and power that are so antithetical to the higher philosophies upon which it was established.”

David was the first (of many) to respond to this article and, shortly after reading his email, I was highly amused to receive a call from Ross, recounting her day at school. I don’t explicitly instruct my child to follow in my radical atheist footsteps, and I certainly don’t want her to be rude about it, but she is her mother’s daughter, and has a very low bullshit threshhold.

A Franciscan monk had come to speak in religion class. The original intent of his talk wasn’t clear, but he immediately got up Ross’ nose by trying to act cool, saying he liked teenagers, and trying to prove it by swearing the way they do (but would never dare, in front of their teachers – and he even said that theyweren’t allowed to!).

He also claimed that he liked kids to openly discuss issues with him. 99 out of a hundred teenagers would do no such thing in that situation, but… Number 100 was in the classroom. (At Ross’ new school, religion class is required. The person who normally teaches the class likes her, because Ross applies more real thought to the topics at hand than her Catholic classmates do.)

After some stuff about how beautiful the world is, the monk said that the most beautiful thing in the world is love (amore – for which he gave a totally wrong etymology). Ross asked: “If love is such an important concept and we should all love, why are some types of love not accepted by the Church?”

“Oh, you mean why don’t we accept culattoni?” (a rude word for gays)

After further discussion, the best answer he could come up with was: “Sometimes the concept of love is right, but the object is wrong.” But he refused to define what he meant by ‘object’ …and it was all downhill from there.

“Ross is the class non-conformist,” explained one of her classmates helpfully. (I think he had already figured that out for himself.)

I have been accused of being proud of my daughter’s pagan attitudes. Well, yes. If Christian parents can be proud of their child’s Christianity, Hindus of their child’s Hinduism, etc., then I have a right to be proud that my daughter has grown up as atheist as myself and her father. Am I pleased if she’s rude to people about it? No… but an adult talking down to teenagers through a hypocritical veneer of “I’m one of you” is not giving them credit for much intelligence – an insult unworthy of any adult, let alone one who represents both scholastic and religious authority.

In response, again, to “the heart of the problem with religions: they are mostly run by men desperately afraid of, and therefore seeking to control, women’s sexuality,” Julia wrote:

“Indeed; I think that’s the heart of the problem with most cultures and governments, too. I believe that ultimately almost all wars (gloss for a variety of conflicts) are a struggle for control over resources (which is why reproduction and thus women’s sexuality is involved), and at the same time, almost all wars are “justified” (“sold” to the cannon fodder and their families) by religion (which is sometimes masked by nationalism or racism but is nevertheless the underlying rationale, never mind that it perverts the fundamental tenets of the religion).

And one reason that religion — especially fundamentalist religion — is so useful to convince people to act against their own interests is precisely what you say later in the newsletter: ‘Children raised to blindly follow the dictates of another person, or a book, or a way of life, are less likely to have the critical faculties needed to evaluate every opinion that comes their way.’

Fundamentalism in anything is dangerous.

‘I’ve written about this before, but in several more years of thought am no closer to understanding why women put up with it.’

Well, religion is clearly not rational, so rational thought isn’t likely to bring understanding. I’ve asked the same question. I ask myself whyput up with it, especially at a time when my own religion is headed by Papa Ratzi, the Gland Inquisitor (I wish I had come up with that one, but it’s the title of an article by William Saletan in the current issue — the one with the two punk lesbians kissing on the cover — ofConscience, a pro-choice Catholic newsjournal I subscribe to). I think the answer is that we don’t just put up with it. Sometimes we are marvelously disrespectful. As part of the larger fight against patriarchy, there are many organizations and people who are constantly struggling against the stupidity of many of the Vatican-down decrees and for a faith community based on the example of Jesus (egalitarian, non-violent). Some of my favorites are:

Women-Church Convergence 
Women Priests
Priests for Equality
Call to Action
Pax Christi

Like the larger fight, this one is a long and incremental struggle. Sometimes real change (i.e., Vatican II) as well as backlash against it (recent and present situation) can be seen within a lifetime. In the meantime, we often just roll our eyes at the leadership while living our lives and practicing our faith as we see fit.”

Stan wrote: “Just one tweak about freedom of speech. I agree mostly but differ on the right to mock and insult. Turkish law, as I understand it, makes a distinction between criticism, permitted, and insult, not permitted. The Orhan Pamuk case hinged on this.

Related is the issue of the absolute freedom of speech. Does one have the right to say anything at any time, or are there limits? I think most everyone would agree that there are limits. So then the problem is one of determining what the limits are. One thing is clear. Mocking someone else’s religion is hardly the way to commend the right of free speech to him, The “Cartoon War” is a case in point. Perhaps mocking own’s own religion would be different, because the mocker knows, and accepts, what the result might be. Criticism, even of the most tabu matters, has to be protected by the right of free speech. So where is the line between that and being insulting? Your thoughts, please.”

Ooh, that’s a hard one… and not one I am likely to solve. My gut feeling is that it’s best treated as a private matter, even in the media.

First, we can never be sure what another person’s intentions are. The now-infamous Danish newspaper may in fact have intended to mock and insult Islam by publishing those cartoons, but we’ll never know that unless the publisher explicitly says so. The same is true in face-to-face conversation: how many times has someone protested: “I was only joking!” when you know they truly intended to hurt?

Even when there is no intent to offend, anyone publishing anything can never be sure who may be offended by whatever they say – something I’m keenly conscious of when I write potentially incendiary articles like that one. Though I was writing about topics that make me very angry indeed, I thought long and hard about that article and revised it several times, because I care about my relationships with my readers, some of whom, as I mentioned, I know to be deeply religious.

Another reason that I don’t want to gratuitously offend anybody is that it’s not conducive to dialog. I remain baffled by the concept of faith, but I am willing to concede that there has been and can be good in religion. The kinds of people who read my newsletter are more likely to practice religion constructively than destructively, so I’m interested to hear what their belief does for them individually, and how they feel it can be a force for good in the world. If we could collectively find a way to bring religions back to their core concepts (e.g., perhaps, the teachings of Jesus before Paul got into the act) I could live at peace with most religions – and, more importantly, so could the world.

your opinion (on any of this)?

BoingBoing’s take on Dawkins

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