21 January 2007


Smashing Telly has the BBC documentary of biologist Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion, with the provocative subtitle “The Root of All Evil?”

Dawkins delivers a vigorous, well-articulated, and unflinching rendition of the hard atheist scientistic Enlightenment position. In Part One he articulates why being surrounded by people driven by faith rather than reason gives him the willies. A few interesting things stand out for me.

There's an amazing little interview with creepy Evangelical (former!) leader Ted Haggard. Dawkins and Haggard spar over the usual questions—how could the eye have evolved?—and when Dawkins tells Haggard that he has never met an evolutionary biologist who believes the things that Haggard attributes to them, Haggard reveals a well of resentment.

You do understand that this issue right here of intellectual arrogance is the reason why people like you have a difficult problem with people of faith. I don't communicate an air of superiority over the people, “Because I know so much more. And if you only read the books I know, and if you only knew the scientists I knew, then you would be great like me.” Well, sir, there could be many things that you know well. There are other things that you don't know well. As you age, you'll find yourself wrong on some things, right on some other things. But please, in the process of it, don't be arrogant.

Seeing Haggard and Dawkins' contempt for one another escalate is worth checking out; the interview starts at the 22 minute mark.

Dr Dawkins has a very narrow conception of what “religion” means, conflating it with the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam ... which in turn are conflated with religion as a system of religous belief. The other religions of the world, and religion defined by practice rather than belief, aren't on Dawkins' radar.

Which means that a syncretic worldview doesn't occur to him as a possibility, a blind spot which turns up in an interesting way during his tidy description of the logical basis of atheism at the very end of Part One.

Science ca’n’t disprove the existence of God, but that does not mean that God exists. There are a million things we ca’n’t disprove.

The philosopher Bertrand Russel had an analogy. Imagine there's a china teapot in orbit around the Sun. You cannot disprove the existence of the teapot because it's too small to be spotted by our telescopes. Nobody but a lunatic would say, “Well, I'm prepared to believe in the teapot because I ca’n’t disprove it. Maybe we have to be technically and strictly agnostics, but in practice we are all “teapot atheists.”
There's an infinite number of things like celestial teapots that we ca’n’t disprove. There are fairies. There are unicorns. Hobgoblins. We ca’n’t disprove any of those. But we don't believe in them, any more than nowadays we believe in Thor, Amon-Ra, or Aphrodite. We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

I know I have readers who are chuckling because they in fact are not atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Fairies, Thor, Amon-Ra, and Aphrodite? Count ’em in! Unicorns and hobgoblins? Sure, if you have something interesting to say about them.

I suspect that this would surprise Dr Dawkins. Even more so, I think he'd be astonished to learn that many of these Pagans, like many Buddhists, are vigorously opposed to faith and in favour of skepticism, just like him.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Thanks for posting that. I missed it when it was broadcast on TV. By the way, it was on Channel 4, a commercial station, not the BBC. Oh dear, I agree with 99% of what Richard Dawkins says, but I wish he'd have more of a sense of humour about it. It feels like being pummelled into submission.