Is religion the root of all evil?

spiked-TV: Richard Dawkins' attack on religion ended up giving atheist humanism a bad name.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

The Root of All Evil?, Channel 4, first part 9 January, second part 16 January.

At a time when criticising religion is now considered a ‘hate crime’, eminent scientist Richard Dawkins’ two-part Channel 4 programme, The Root of All Evil?, should have been a welcome riposte to backward-looking religiosity. Instead it was the type of crimson-inducing programme whereby peering through half-closed fingers seemed highly advisable. There is plenty to say about religious belief, why it emerges and what role it plays today. So it is depressing that Dawkins seems to have little to offer. And what he does say contains all the insight of a saloon-bar loudmouth.

Dawkins’ main presentation was reasonable enough. In primitive times, man’s mercy at the hands of nature gave the impression that supernatural forces controlled the Earth. Religious worship arose as the need to appease what man saw as powerful Gods. So far, so good. Yet when explaining why religion continues to play a part in modern life, Dawkins’ explanation is to flash the ‘you must be stupid’ card.

Religious worship, and with it religious symbols and texts, emerged as man began to realise there was something more important than the individual – the social group. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, French sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out that the symbols of God are often the symbols of society too. As Durkheim pondered: ‘Is that not because the god and the society are only one?’ (1) In worshipping God, people are in fact worshipping the idea of society. Durkheim derived this proposition from how all societies divide the world into two categories, the sacred and the profane. Sacred things, often represented in religious symbols, are ‘considered superior in dignity and power to profane things and particularly men’ (2).

No doubt Dawkins would dismiss this behaviour as irrational madness at work. In fact, it is a fairly rational reflection of the relationship between the individual (profane) and society (sacred). As Durkheim argued: ‘Primitive man comes to view society as something sacred because he is utterly dependent on it.’ (3) Religious worship – or the worship of the social group – creates values and beliefs that form the basis of social life. In pre-modern times collective worship enabled members of a social group to formulate and communicate bonds that helped forge social solidarity.

Religion isn’t ‘the root of all evil’ as such, but a primitive attempt to understand what it is to be human and thus provide meaning and purpose to our action. Ironically, Dawkins fails to appreciate how religion has contributed to the humanism he is seeking to defend. Instead he presents atheist humanism as something straight out of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – all machine-like creatures bedazzled by reductive technology yet blind to what makes us truly human.

By fixating on irrational explanations, Dawkins ignores why values, beliefs and solidarities are a key plank of major religions. This is why he gets tongue-tied when arguing with an Islamic fundamentalist – amusingly a former New York hipster who looked like he had gone from worshipping The Strokes to worshipping Allah (perhaps he’d heard their new album). All this guy was interested in was discussing the importance of values and why the West was devoid of them. Mulling over the existence of Allah was of no concern to this Cat Stevens-like convert. His concerns were rooted in society, not theology.

Dawkins’ response here was revealing. For all his scientific arguments, he seems to take more exception to the concepts of truth, absolutes and commitment to a higher cause. Yet these are invaluable tramlines that can guide purposeful human action. Dawkins casts the existence of firm belief systems as being responsible for conflicts around the world. So for Dawkins, the dispute between Jewish settlers and Palestinians is reducible to religious dogma rather than more complex issues arising from politics and oppression.

There is also a broader point to be made here. An understanding of religion, and the role it plays, cannot be isolated from the specific social and material conditions that give rise to it. To do so means you could end up reaching misanthropic conclusions about why individuals have attachments to religion. For such an avowedly staunch humanist, Dawkins’ own assessments can come across as anti-human.

The other problem is that singling out religion for diminished humanism sets up a false battleground. In fact, even today religion expresses kernels of humanism that sometimes appear progressive compared to contemporary thinking. For example, the major religions recognise that as humans are capable of making moral choices, we are fundamentally different from animals. How many secularists share such views today? Elsewhere, religion’s understanding of truth and selfless commitment to a wider community or cause appears preferable to today’s culture of narcissism and navel-gazing.

There is a programme to be made on critically examining religion, but this was not it. Certainly, the irrationality of religious belief and how it has been a bulwark of reaction needs to be taken to task. And at a time when a human-centred worldview is at the lowest-ever ebb, banging the drum for human subjectivity should be done as loudly and as stridently as possible. Unfortunately, not only does Dawkins fail to address the social climate responsible for shrill anti-humanism, he ends up dismissing the very qualities needed to reconstitute our place on the world’s stage.

Many aspects of religion certainly have a shameful and woeful repute. Dawkins is in danger of doing the same to atheist humanism.

Read on:

A scientist’s view, by Alom Shaha

spiked-issue: TV

(1) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Emile Durkheim, Oxford World’s Classics

(1) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Emile Durkheim, Oxford World’s Classics

(1) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Emile Durkheim, Oxford World’s Classics

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Topics Culture


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