The root of all anti-science?
A scientist's view of Richard Dawkins' televised assault on religion.
The Root of All Evil?, Channel 4, first part 9 January, second part 16 January.
I heard several months ago that Richard Dawkins was making a film for Channel 4 in which he would challenge so-called ‘intelligent design’. However, I started to worry as soon as I heard it would be called The Root of All Evil?. My worries were confirmed when I watched the first instalment this week.
Here was an opportunity to show us how science is being denigrated by religious fundamentalism, convince us why scientific thinking is superior to religious dogma, and expound the merits of reason. Instead we got what could have been an extended segment from the BBC’s Grumpy Old Men (1).
Dawkins has made no secret of his disdain and contempt for religion and its followers. However, unlike his previous attacks, such as his recent article in the October 2005 issue of Prospect, this televised polemic lacked any wit or intellectual rigour. Instead, Dawkins presented a thoroughly unscientific argument that ‘religion is the root of all evil’ and came across as a fundamentalist himself.
Scientists, including Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, have examined why religion is such a powerful force. But Dawkins chose not to include any reference to this; instead he merely ranted at us and anyone he met on screen. He tried to play on our fears about suicide bombers and terrorists, as if they were the only ‘evil’ things done in history. He seems to have forgotten that the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Communist China had little, if anything, to do with religion. Even the writers of US drama Lost, also on Channel 4, seem to have a better grasp of the latest scientific thinking on what really motivates suicide bombers – and it’s not just religion (2).
Dawkins seems to have chosen a deliberately condescending, patronising and aggressive approach, unnecessarily re-enforcing the notion that scientists are arrogant bigots themselves. When interviewing a celebrity pastor in the US, Ted Haggard, Dawkins compared Haggard’s Christian service with the ‘Nuremberg Rally’ in an obvious attempt to get a rise out of the guy. The pastor laughed the suggestion off and proceeded to demolish Dawkins, accusing him of being arrogant.
When the pastor challenged Dawkins with the notion that evolution might one day be laughed at by his grandchildren, Dawkins response was simply to retort angrily ‘do you want to bet?’ Hardly the height of sophisticated argument. The pastor seemed to come off better in the argument. Dawkins told us that the pastor lost his temper after the interview but this was not caught on camera; Dawkins came across as a sore loser.
Dawkins repeatedly stressed the importance of evidence in science. Yet he was guilty of ignoring his own advice as he talked of Christian Fascism and the ‘American Taliban’ without providing any evidence for their existence.
At one point, when interviewing someone who can only be described a nutter, Dawkins, rather disingenuously, stated that he was an atheist who didn’t ‘hate’ anyone. The film so far put the lie to this – Dawkins’ contempt for the religious masses was obvious throughout the film. Why did Dawkins choose to interview someone who was obviously a nutter when there are several intelligent, articulate Muslims who he could have met? He would argue that they’re all the same, but this is simply not fair.
I understand Dawkins’ anger and frustration. I grew up in a Muslim community but rejected Islam at a young age. I lose patience with people who believe in astrology or think that homoeopathy is something scientists simply don’t understand. I have been accused of being an ‘arrogant scientist’ myself, when I told a lecture theatre full of astrologers that a 12-year-old could show scientifically that they all believed in a load of nonsense. However, even with my strong views, I found Dawkins’ polemic unpalatable and suspect it may have done more harm than good for ‘the cause’.
This film was a missed opportunity to engage the public with some of the issues facing science today. I fear it may only have exacerbated the situation. The arrogance that Dawkins displayed is perhaps the root of all the hostility we see against science. As someone who believes that science on TV really needs to look more closely at the interplay between science, culture and politics, I found this programme disappointing.
Is religion the root of all evil?, by Neil Davenport
(1) Grumpy Old Men, BBC
(2) Turning ordinary people into suicide bombers, New Scientist, 23 July 2005
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