Programme title: The Root of all Evil?
Starring: Richard Dawkins (presenter)
Broadcaster: Channel 4
First broadcast: 9 January 2006, 16 January 2006

 

Richard Dawkins is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is an enthusiastic advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. But he doesn’t just stop there. He goes further to argue that an alternative belief in divine creation is not only untrue but also deeply damaging to people and to our world.

He has expressed that view in many lectures and books. Indeed, in my own interview with him, he spoke of the ‘evils of theism’. But he has particularly brought this attack on religious belief into popular culture in the first of his two-part series for Channel 4, called The Root of all Evil? [1] In this programme he sought to show that although religions may preach morality, peace and hope, in fact they bring intolerance, violence and destruction. Therefore, he said, ‘the war between good and evil is really just the war between two evils.’ In an attempt to provide evidence for this assertion, he talked to a number of believers in the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. So we moved from film of desperate people in Lourdes to a dogmatic church in America, then on to Jerusalem where we encounter fundamentalist Jews and Muslims.

No doubt many scientists watching the programme (particularly those experienced in social science) were a little embarrassed that this Professor of the Public Understanding of Science was seeking to justify his assertion with such an obviously restrictive and carefully selected sample-set. If one really wanted to establish the effects of religion, one would need a much broader and more representative set of data than this. Meanwhile, no doubt many Christians were praying that somehow they could show him how their experience of Jesus has led them to a greater morality, peace and hope. But even if we accept the data as he presented it, and consider his ideas as he asserted them, it would seem that once again Dawkins had fallen into some of his usual logical fallacies.[2]

For our purposes here, let’s just consider one of these: the logical fallacy known as ‘Self Contradiction’ – a statement cannot be true if it contradicts itself. For example, imagine I tell you that, ‘I cannot speak a word of English.’ That statement cannot possibly be true since I am speaking English in order to make the statement. Thus the statement contradicts itself and cannot be true. When Dawkins argues that we evolved through survival of the fittest and that religious belief is evil, he too is contradicting himself. But we have to look a little more carefully and deeply in order to see that.

When he claims that religious belief is evil, he must assume that a moral right and a moral wrong actually exist, and that evil is a real and meaningful concept. But can he do that if he believes that we have evolved through unguided, undirected natural selection of random mutations? Or do the concepts of right, wrong, good and evil actually only make sense if God exists?

This is sometimes expressed in what is called the ‘Moral Argument for God’ which might be given as follows:

  • Activities such as torturing babies for fun are objectively morally wrong and we really ought not to do them
  • Therefore, because of this and other examples, we can know that there are certain things that are objectively morally wrong and we really ought not to do them
  • Now, let’s unpack the three concepts in that sentence: the concepts of morally wrong, objectively and ought.
    • If there is something that is morally wrong, then there must be a moral law-giver – an activity cannot be right or wrong without someone or something that is outside or inside of us declaring it to be right or wrong
    • If the right or wrong is objective, then the moral law giver must be outside of ourselves and must be infinite – the fact that it is objective means that it goes beyond individual human preference, personality or culture, and therefore cannot be finite like us human beings; it must be infinite
    • If we ought to obey that law then that infinite law-giver must be personal –if we ‘ought’ to do something, we must be obligated to do it, and we cannot be obligated to something impersonal, only something personal
  • So the fact that there are certain things that are objectively morally wrong, and we ought not to do them, means that there must be a personal, infinite moral law-giver
  • That is, there must be a God

Now, whatever we think of the conclusiveness of that moral argument for God, we can use it as a tool to see what will happen if we turn it round the other way. If we work back up the argument from Dawkins’ supposed non-existence of God we will see whether an atheist like Dawkins can logically also believe in the existence of a real right and wrong, let alone the concept of anything being evil.

According to Dawkins, we evolved solely through survival of the fittest. Therefore, there can be no-one to obligate us such that we really ought not to do something. Of course, we might have evolved in such a way that we don’t do something, or we might live in a society in which other people have evolved such that they try to force us not to do something. But that is simply the result of blind, purposeless evolution. We cannot really be obligated not to do it. In an atheistic evolutionary world, things just are the way that they are. If there was no purpose in our evolution, there can be no concept of the way things ‘ought to be’.

What is more, if our evolution took place through the natural selection of random mutations, then there can be no objective source of right and wrong. We can talk about how things are for some people, and we can compare that with how they are for other people. We can even talk about how things make us better fitted for survival. But we can never talk about whether things are objectively morally right or wrong. If there was no design behind our evolution then there can be no objective template against which to judge any absolute right and wrong.

So, how can Dawkins talk about anything being evil? Surely, even any use of that term contradicts his belief about reality.

But, Dawkins self-contradiction doesn’t stop there. In The Root of all Evil? he repeated his regular call for people to test their beliefs by using the scientific method. He called upon people only to believe something if there was scientific evidence for it. By scientific evidence he means some form of experiment that enables us to test the belief in some empirical way. Boiled down to its basic form, Dawkins says, ‘only believe something if there is scientific evidence that it is true.’ Unfortunately, yet again Dawkins falls into the fallacy of self-contradiction. When telling us, ‘only to believe something if there is scientific evidence that it is true,’ he is telling us to believe something (that we should only believe something if there is scientific evidence that it is true). Now, we might reasonably ask him to tell us what scientific evidence he can give us for this belief. By his own argument, there should be scientific evidence for the truth of the statement that we should ‘only believe something if there is scientific evidence that it is true.’ Of course he can’t give us any. That statement is not verifiable scientifically. It is an expression of his belief. It is a statement of his faith.

Dawkins is not the only one to have succumbed to this particular self-contradiction. In the last century there was a group of people who fell into this trap. They called themselves the Vienna Circle. They were a number of people who met in Vienna University in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly under the instigation of Moritz Schlick. They gave birth to the philosophy known as Logical Positivism with its central belief in the Verification Principle. This principle argued that no statement is meaningful if it cannot be verified empirically[3].

Of course, since then many philosophers have recognized that their statement of the Verification Principle was self-contradictory since the principle itself cannot be verified empirically. But that did not stop them from using the principle to launch attacks on religious beliefs.

It is remarkable that, today, while the most basic dictionaries of philosophy highlight the problems with logical positivism, Dawkins receives so much air-time to trot out the same criticism of religious belief, based on a discredited argument.

 

For part two of this article, follow the 'next page' link below



[1] The Root of All Evil, Channel 4, 9 January 2006

[2] A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning that renders an argument invalid. For a large list of fallacies see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy. For an article alleging 11 logical fallacies of Dawkins see http://www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_dawkinsfallacies.htm

[3] Strictly speaking the Verification Principle asserts that a statement can be meaningful, even if it is not empirically verifiable, if it is an analytic rather than a synthetic statement. An analytic statement is one in which the concept of the predicate is included in the concept of the subject. Thus ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’ is an analytic statement – since bachelors are, by definition, unmarried men (and unmarried men are, by definition, bachelors). Therefore the Logical Positivists would say that this does not need empirical verification since it is verified analytically. On the other hand a synthetic statement is one which gives new information – such as ‘This bachelor has brown hair’ – and, according to Logical Positivism, is only meaningful if it is empirically verifiable. But Dawkins’ statement is not an analytic statement, it is a synthetic statement. Therefore, according to Logical Positivism, it is only meaningful if it is empirically verifiable.

 

 

Richard Dawkins’ second programme in his two-part series The Root of All Evil? began with some very clear assertions: ‘Faith,’ he said, ‘acts like a virus that infects the young.’ He elaborated on this by speaking over pictures of young people attending religious schools, and drawing the parallel with gene pools that become isolated and therefore develop separately. So, he argued, children become associated with the faith of their parents and are not encouraged to question or seek truth for themselves. I watched this programme with my seventeen-year-old son who found that he could not identify with that caricature of life within a family of faith. He had always been encouraged to question, to investigate and to think for himself. But Dawkins asserted that it is natural for children to simply accept the things that they are told by their parents so that they will survive. Thus, he argued, the virus of faith reproduces itself and spreads.

This is familiar territory for anyone who has followed Dawkins’ writing over the years. I first came across his concept of religion as a virus through the British Humanist Association, back in the early 1990s when they published his Voltaire lecture entitled ‘Viruses of the mind’, since republished in Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind[1] and also available free on the Internet.[2] In this lecture he drew a particular analogy between the ‘religion virus’ and biological and computer viruses. He then described what he saw as the seven typical symptoms of someone infected by this virus. The first of these he has elaborated at some length since then. This was that ‘the patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason.’ It was this particular ‘symptom of the virus’ that he then referred to again in this programme. He talked of ‘irrational faith’ and reiterated his oft-quoted view that religious people believe in spite of rather than because of the evidence.

But was it then significant that he didn’t expand that position further? Where were the rest of his familiar arguments about the spread of this virus? Where were his further assertions about the so-called ‘epidemiology of the spread of faith’? He didn’t seek to justify his position. Instead he reverted to the assertions of his first programme – that the morality of Christian (and other) belief is actually immoral. Except this time, instead of presenting a carefully selected and unrepresentative set of believers, he presented a carefully selected and unrepresentative set of quotations from the Bible.

First, he read from Deuteronomy 13 and Numbers 31, with their specific commands to destroy those who would lead the Israelites into the practices of the surrounding nations. These are passages that all Christians have to wrestle with at some time, precisely because they appear to be inconsistent with the Bible’s picture of a God of love. But when we look at the appalling practices of the nations around them, we can see that God is, in fact, demonstrating his love by seeking to protect people from these. It is ironic that, in between these two readings, Dawkins referred to Abraham’s willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son. But God stops him because he does not want child sacrifice. And yet that is precisely one of the practices that were carried out by the people around the Israelites, and that God seeks to stop by his strict command![3]

Next, Dawkins told the story recorded in Judges 19 of the man who offers his daughter and a concubine to a group of men who are threatening to rape a man. He presented this as if it is something that God commands us all to do. But surely, even he must recognise the difference between recording something terrible that happened and commanding people to do it.

For a moment he had something nice to say about the Bible, when he told us that Jesus was ‘a huge improvement’. But then, he said, it all went wrong with Paul and his ‘sado-masochistic doctrine of atonement for original sin.’ Dawkins ignores the fact that Jesus himself taught that he had come to die for us, and simply asks the question, ‘If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them?’ In that one question (to which he doesn’t seem to expect or want an answer) he apparently demonstrates an ignorance of the basic biblical message that sin matters; the wrong things that we do are really significant and there is a consequence. If God just let us off, then nothing would ever really matter again. That is why the life and teaching of Jesus is so significant – because he said that he came to take the consequence of sin on himself.

Dawkins summed up his quick tour of carefully selected and misrepresented Bible verses with the words ‘barking mad’. Of course, as an individual he is entitled to his view. But as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science we might expect him to research and present the data accurately, and give a more reasoned and reasonable assessment of it.

He then returned to his assertion that religion is a virus (‘a parasite’) that has infected our minds. With a background of chimps, he presented the view that religion has derived from the evolutionary mechanism that naturally selects co-operation amongst the more developed organisms. But, as we have noted already, he did little to seek to substantiate his virus theory. Perhaps many would have hoped that he would have advanced the arguments of Ludwig Feuerbach or Sigmund Freud. Feuerbach, the nineteenth century Bavarian philosopher sought to argue that humans have created God in their own image, and that religion is best understood in terms of the psychological processes involved in someone coming to faith.[4] More specifically, Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, sought to argue that religion is a form of obsessional neurosis.[5] And since then, Dawkins has sought to argue that religion is a virus of the mind that is passed on from generation to generation. But perhaps he is not so keen to advance what he used to call the epidemiology of the spread of faith. Maybe he has taken to heart the work of people like social psychologist Michael Argyle who argued in his classic paper Seven Psychological Roots of Religion[6] that showing the psychological process by which people came to religious belief, or any other belief for that matter, can tell us nothing about the truth or falsity of that belief. As Argyle put it: ‘It does not follow that because a belief has psychological roots it is therefore false.’

If he wasn’t going to express his previous views on the epidemiology of the religion virus, perhaps he would substantiate his view of the lack of evidence for the truth claims of Christian faith. Perhaps he would present evidence that the fundamental truth claims of Christian faith (or any other faith for that matter) are mere assertions, unsupported by any evidence. But he didn’t do that either. Instead, he simply reiterated his own assertions of the previous week and said that religion is evil and immoral. In watching this, any young philosophy student – my son included – would soon notice the weakness of his argument. As Madeline Bunting said recently in the Guardian: 'Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there's the unmistakable whiff of panic.'[7]



[1] Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind, ed. Bo Dahlbom Blackwell, 1993

[3] For more on this, see David Couchman, 'God and the Canaanites'

[4] Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christentums, 1841

[5] Sigmund Freud, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices, 1907

[6] Theology, 1964, vol. 67, no. 530 pp. 1-7

[7] Madeleine Bunting, 'No wonder atheists are angry: they seem ready to believe anything', The Guardian, 7 January 2006

 

Author: Nick Pollard
© Copyright: Nick Pollard 2006