Miscellaneous Dawkinsiana

I sat down and watched both episodes of Dawkins’ series, The Root of All Evil? this weekend (because I can!), and I have to say…I liked it very much. I’ve already commented on the first episode, and if you want to know what’s in the second, Dawkins himself has an editorial that summarizes the main points: the pattern of indoctrination of children, the kneejerk rejection of honest criticism, the spreading corruption of education by dogma. It was marvelous to see it all laid out lucidly, in a tidy 50 minute spot. (Hmmm, just the right length that if I wanted to “infuse religion in student learning”, it would fit perfectly in a lecture hour…)

I’ve heard a few complaints about the show. Some point out that Ted Haggard and that Muslim bucket o’ hate on the first episode aren’t really representative of the religious; I have to disagree. They are common enough that they represent many millions of assertive, politically active religious people, and Haggard is regarded as a leader by a large community—Dawkins did not seek out outré Theodore Kaczynski types and prop them up to stand for a majority that detests them. In the second episode, we also meet some other religious types who aren’t as pathologically vile as the fellows in the first, but are more foolishly ignorant—and that’s appropriate to the message that the religious are not evil, but are victims of a pernicious cultural atmosphere that perpetuates ignorance.

I’ve also heard the show dismissed as “preaching to the converted”…which I think is roughly 180° misdirected. If I have any complaints, it is that I am not the audience for the show—what he said was nothing I haven’t thought myself for years. The target audience is actually that great mass of people out there who have never heard a peep of that great body of secular criticism of religion. Seriously, most Americans can go through their lives hearing nothing but repetitive paeans of praise for the virtues of religious life; The Root of All Evil? is one of those too-rare attempts to reach out to the uninformed and explain the freethinker’s argument against religion (unfortunately, the devout seem to be too enraptured with this ‘faith’ nonsense to understand—we just need to repeat our message loudly and with more variations, I hope, and it will sink in). I think it is also prompting some interesting discussion among infamous atheists, so the show is doing its job…don’t judge it by the thickheadedness of the blinkered god-botherers.

I hope the show picks up a sponsor willing to show it here in the states. The hue and cry it would elicit would be extremely entertaining, and I’m sure it would get tremendous amounts of publicity, denunciations, shouts of “Heresy!”, etc., etc., etc. But it would also expose a great many people to a point of view that has been closed off to them.

Oh, and by the way, Dawkins has a diary online. It’s not clear whether this is a one-shot deal or not, and it has a rather stream-of-consciousness feel to it. I was thinking that if it were broken up into a couple of entries, it would look just like a weblog. Somebody get Dawkins a blog, quick! Hey, Seed Media, have you considered approaching Richard Dawkins to see if he’d like some space here?


  1. #1 fwiffo
    January 30, 2006

    I also saw both episodes this weekend and do have one complaint – Dawkins seemed to let himself get flustered when talking to the megachurch guy to the point where he let himself get bullied. He was spouting the same old nonsense that we’ve all heard a thousand times about “the eye spontaneously forming itself,” etc. and Dawkins got all flabbergasted like he’d never heard that one before.

    I mean, seriously, what sort of things did he expect him to say? Careful, rational arguments that demonstrate a real understanding of biology?

    I’m not saying he shouldn’t be fiercely critical – just that if he had kept his cool, the fundie guy would have been the one sounding defensive and short tempered.

  2. #2 Patrick
    January 30, 2006

    I downloaded both episodes (I know, bad me, but I had to see it, if Dawkins wishes, I’ll send him the 4 bucks it would it have cost to get it off itunes).

    I thought the show was done really well. I think it was aimed at the religios, the people that need to hear it. Whether it will get through to them, I dunno. I think it might. They’ll get that rotten feeling in their gut b/c the only response they can generate is a quick emotional one equivelent, “uh uh, you’re wrong…”

    As the converted, it was great to hear the arguments well put and on TV where anyone can watch. It was a great feeling to see my viewpoint in the mass media.

    To the point about the religios whackos (Haggard and the lunatic muslim from NY), I agree with PZ, those guys represent a large population of people. Being an hour Colorado Springs, I know that Haggard speaks for more than he doesn’t down there. That place is insane. It’s the home of Focus on the Family and a whole host of similar bigotted organizations.

    I hope this gets shown in the US. I wonder what channel would have the balls to show it? It could set off a storm here like no episode of the Sopranos or Ellen kiss ever could…

  3. #3 SA
    January 30, 2006

    Dawkins’ programme was a polemic. It was fine as far as polemics go, and indeed nice to see the arguments against religion laid out for once, but I’d like to see another programme that addresses the concerns of some of his critics who said that he wasn’t approaching the issue in the scientific way. They’re right, he wasn’t, but he didn’t have to for a polemic.

    I’d like to see him approach seriously the issue that there are some top scientists who are religious. I’m a researcher (I’m also an atheist, and not fond of religion) and there are some people in my field who are both AMAZINGLY intelligent, highly logical, and in their fields not just demanding of evidence, they need more, they need proof, and yet they are Christians, and it just blows my mind how that can be so?!

    Also there’s scope for programmes that set out to convince, not entrench sides with a polemic. Where’s the programmes that show us why the earth is so old? Where’s the programmes that show us how amazing evolution is and how/why/when it happens? There are some amazing visuals to be had with those topics, it surely can’t make bad TV. Yet I have to find out about this stuff from books alone? (ok you guessed it my science background is not in biology or geology :-) )

  4. #4 Ed Darrell
    January 30, 2006

    Howls of protest?

    You mean, showing these videos would be teaching some sort of controversy?

    If the school officials dictate that “controversy be taught,” they won’t expect the Dawkins show. But it would fit, in some cases. Oh, my.

  5. #5 squeaky
    January 30, 2006

    SA–I agree–it would be interesting for Dawkins to address honest to goodness scientists “who are both AMAZINGLY intelligent, highly logical, and in their fields not just demanding of evidence, they need more, they need proof, and yet they are Christians” reconcile their faith with science.

    I am sure that in some cases Mark Paris is correct–“it’s called compartmentalization.” And this is in a couple of senses: In one sense, it is compartmentalized such that they put faith in one box and science in another box, and never ever mix the contents of the boxes. In another sense, they compartmentalize when their branch of science doesn’t deal with evolution or the age of the earth.

    However, in another sense, to say “it’s called compartmentalization” is also a sweeping generalization.

    There truly do exist Christians who have done the kind of thought and investigation into science and into their faith and have come out with science and faith reconciled. Kenneth Miller’s “Finding Darwin’s God” is a good example. The recent PBS series on Evolution had a nicely done episode of science vs. evolution, particularly how geology professors and geology majors at Wheaton College deal with the issue. Hugh Ross reconciles age of the Earth issues quite well (although most here would disagree with his take on evolution…) So they DO exist!

    I am disappointed that Dawkins chose Ted Haggard as the representative of evangelical Christians. Finding extremes of fundamentalism as an argument against religion strikes me as stacking the deck.

  6. #6 Glen Davidson
    January 30, 2006

    Well I can’t imagine that Dawkins’ shows were any worse than, say, religious programming, political programming, or for that matter, most any TV program (other than the few good science programs). Otoh, I can’t really imagine what anyone thinks they’re going to do taking the merely negative position on just about anything, including religion. It’s good for a jolt at best, and any real work toward increasing secularism is going to have to take other tacks.

    Imagine, for instance, that we fought ID and creationism simply on philosophical grounds, bringing up the solid and incontrovertible fact that these “hypotheses” have no positive evidence for them which means that they say nothing. This would work among some scientists and some philosophers, and it will do almost nothing among the populace at large. What is more, the scientists and philosophers who agree (as they did with Hume prior to Darwin) are already in the choir, and presumably don’t need revivalist preaching. The positive claims made by IDists in the past and present trump simple negative attacks on ID, something that should be remembered when we fight “intelligent design” (that is to say, the positive evidence for evolution needs to be brought out more than it is).

    Only a good positive position will ever have much impact, as indeed evolution does, no matter how tenuous its grip on the American public is (likely it would be more effective if it related to what people do and know, but unfortunately it is not directly relevant to the thinking of most people). That is to say, secularism can probably make inroads against religion, but it has to put forth its strengths and abilities for providing good solid answers to questions and human needs, and not use its strengths to “fight religion” (at least not for the most part).

    It is not particularly attractive in the latter role (why would one wish Santa Claus to go away? And don’t tell me about the vengeful God, He’s not the one people want to have around), as all it really does is to tell people that they are wrong. Get people to subscribe to the methods and language of secularism and you are no longer telling them that they are wrong, you just point out where they are right to use empiricism and skepticism in their lives, and suggest that they extend this to questions of God.

    What is more, this is not going to work with any number of people no matter what. We have to recognize this fact. Besides that, for many in our society the power of secular methods is not particularly helpful to them in any direct way. In Animal Farm Orwell noted that the crows (preachers) came back when it was clear that the ruling pigs weren’t giving much of a share to the other animals. This could as easily apply within a capitalist society where little is given to many people, other than the hopes peddled by the crows. That Orwell was overly simplistic in his tale of the crows doesn’t change the fact that he almost certainly was partly correct about the return of the crows in communist societies.

    Displacing religion was long the goal of past secularists. Marx had religion fading away, and didn’t really trouble much with trying to “counter religion”. What is this “countering religion” anyway? How does one argue against beliefs which are already held without evidence (yes, I know that there are “evidences” held out to many people, but these are generally quite unconvincing to anyone who knows how to deal with evidence)? No, you either have to give people something better, or what’s the point of telling them to accept aporia into their lives?

    Even Nietzsche, no matter how harsh he was toward religion, really didn’t attempt to argue against religion in his writings. Rather he used psychology, sociology (embryonic sociology, anyway), history, and philosophy, to explain the origins of religions, particularly Xianity (not that he was always right, however much of his critique remains sound). This again is displacement of the inadequacies of religion, not merely telling people that their worldviews are wrong (they have access to other worldviews?). Unfortunately for many people, though, explanation of religion such as we find in Nietzsche are really not accessible to their understanding, yet one should be able to reach a many by educating them, as well as by simplifying the secular explanations of religion.

    I have mentioned the following before on Pharyngula, and I think it’s worth repeating again. Language in our society has not been critiqued and stripped of its magical meanings in the same way as it has in continental Europe (partly this is because modern English is more varied, problematic, and with less precise than other European languages in normal speech and writing, yet the metaphysical magic that remains in English has thereby escaped much criticism). To paraphrase Nietzsche, we have not gotten rid of God because we still believe in grammer. The very language we use, often even when discussing evolution, typically is teleological and suggestive of some kind of designer existing behind everything. Behe exploits this fact by saying that we are made up of “machines”, which to most people already suggests “designer”.

    Naturally we respond by noting that when we say “machines” in biology we don’t mean anything other than that functional objects exist within bodies. I would add further that we speak of “machines” because there is nothing that categorically sets off functional evolved biological objects from functional “designed” objects created by humans and operating in an organism. The very fact that we could make biological machines, much as evolution can, shows that there is nothing that automatically sets off “intelligently designed” objects from evolved objects, that vitalism is dead, and we may either copy biology as much as we want, or even introduce novelties into organisms.

    Behe is oblivious that scientific usage “machine” for all functional objects exists precisely because there is no categorical difference between design and evolution (though there are numerous practical differences). Instead he focuses on the teleological aspect of the term “machines”, and he uses this to persuade others who only know the teleological meanings built into our language.

    Of course it works. Our language actually evolved during the understanding that God (or the gods) warrants the meaning of language, and the creationist/theological beliefs of many people simply agrees with the form of our language. The “purpose” of body parts is what concerns many people (we seem to be born to think in terms of purpose, however our language prolongs this stage beyond what is necessary), “why” things are as they are is what people wish to know, and the “reasons” that we are “built the way we are” become the questions people ask. We have conceptually detoxified the languages of science and of philosophy (well, only partly in philosophy) in our own usage of scientific language, but this has not happened in the schools and in the discourse of the public at large, so that many IDCists and creationists don’t even understand how we can think of biological purpose as having been fulfilled by “accident” (and yes, accident can apply to many of the particulars, and more properly to the whole).

    God remains built into our language. This is not so much the Biblical God as the Platonic God who gives telos to organisms and to their parts. Dawkins is going against the linguistic understandings of people, apparently without really even noticing how difficult it is to root out the one “religion meme” from the constellation of “memes” supporting God in our language (I hate the “meme” concept, as it seems a sledge hammer among more nuanced understandings of language and conception, nevertheless it seems appropriate to use “meme” terminology here).

    Nietzsche noticed that God was not fading away when it seemed that such a dead, despiritualized God really ought to go away. Nietzsche was the one who recognized that this was due to the metaphysics written into our language (probably he wasn’t the first to recognize this, still he appears to have considered it properly into philosophy, perhaps the first to do this), and that railing against God and religion wasn’t going to change things much, even if language-bound people turned into atheists (Nietzsche’s famous madman faults run-of-the-mill atheists, after all).

    All of Dawkins complaints about religion are not going to have much effect, particularly since he seems not to recognize the dangers that remain within our metaphysical language no matter how irreligious people become. Secularization has to occur through means other than railing against religion. In fact it may not be bad if Dawkins wishes to fault religion like he does (the jolt, anyhow), as long as most secularists don’t follow his lead. The latter must instead promote the positive aspects of secularism, notably its ability to conceptually remove teleology from language even as its teleological form remains.

    English still asks for purpose and reason for what is simply found in nature. IDists supply “purpose and reason” to answer this “question”, and somehow the mystery of why religion maintains its hold on so many people is still not resolved on our side. Dawkins thinks he can simply use the values of science to show how inadequate religion is, when science cannot answer the questions that exist within the very fabric of our language (until our language is reinterpreted, that is). So long as the fight remains as ill-informed as it is at preset, expect religion to continue to do well, while we have to continually fight even for the small spaces within school in which evidence can be presented without the overt intrusion of religion.

    Glen D

  7. #7 Torris
    January 31, 2006

    I would love to see the Dawkins show broadcast on television in the United States. Does anyone have any ideas of how we can get it shown? Who would we need to contact?

  8. #8 keiths
    January 31, 2006

    Congratulations on the gift from Dawkins. You deserve it for writing “Planet of the Hats”:

  9. #9 John Faughnan
    January 31, 2006

    As a teen I was an agressive proselytizer (terrible spelling word) for atheism. I stopped doing it because I was disturbingly effective — and my victims were not happy.

    Let’s look around a bit. We live in a universe where we sentient life is exceedingly rare ( We live a very brief life and often die in great pain and misery. Most of the human beings that have ever lived have had a vastly more miserable death than my dog (ok, so she had a perfect death). The universe itself is in advanced middle age and is likely to tear itself apart leaving utterly nothing forever.

    Even the wealthiest and most powerful of us may be reduced to bitter sorrow and the taste of ashes in a moment. For many humans such pain is a daily event.

    Now, I must say I like my life. I’m even reasonably happy (hard to believe, eh?) — but evolution has programmed us to find our situation acceptable. Absent such programming, any rational entity would run screaming for the nearest exist. Except there isn’t one. We’re stuck.

    This universe, frankly, sucks.

    Now Pharyngula and Dawkins may be fine with the above. Evolution has given them just the right set of genes to face reality and be perfectly fine about it. I don’t think everyone has these genes. If people need religion (and they do, they do) to get by, then yes, let them have their religion. If you are compassionate, encourage them. Support this. Have mercy.

    Has religion, en-masse, made humanity more miserable? Maybe, but we’re genus Pan you know. We’re just not very nice to begin with. If we didn’t have religion, we’d invent another reason to kill “the Other”. In any case, it’s only adding a bit to a much greater burden we can’t change.

    Bottom line — let religion be.

    PS. Don’t expect tolerance to be reciprocated. Remember, the very existence of your atheism is a terrible threat to those who’s very sanity depends on not questioning what keeps the dark at bay. Live with it.

  10. #10 Keith Douglas
    January 31, 2006

    Frankly, as someone whose French is pretty good and who has studied philosophy the notion that French is somehow less metaphysical than English is crazy. Both languages are full of metaphysical concepts like time, space, cause, god, determination, part, whole, etc. some useful, some not.

    As for the Dawkins video, talk to someone like George Soros to finance putting it on somewhere. :)

  11. #11 Corkscrew
    January 31, 2006

    Glen D: interesting post. I’d note that Dawkins does indeed provide a leavening of “positive secularism” in his shows – for example the story of his former instructor who, on having his life’s work proven wrong by a guest lecturer, walks up to the stage and shakes the guy warmly by the hand with the words “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.”

    He also chats to a bunch of atheists around the US. This is all in the first show – haven’t seen the second one yet (it’s waiting for me when I get back from uni in 7 weeks or so 😀 )

  12. #12 AC
    January 31, 2006

    This line stands out for me in the Dawkins editorial:

    “The human brain is a consummate hallucinator”

    I think this can be expanded beyond the specific example of hallucination. Between self-deception by religious followers and deception of followers by religious authorities, the dark heart of religion is easy to see.

    John F. thinks we should leave people to their deceptions. I disagree. I am not responsible for the existential dilemmas of others. The human condition, harsh as it may be, is not and cannot be improved by us all crawling under the covers and playing with our imaginary friends, or by surrendering to nature. Our minds allow us better solutions – but only if we use them.

  13. #13 Pierce R. Butler
    January 31, 2006

    Anonymous: Speaking as … one of the “lucky Brits” … the programmes … came across as a sort of voyeurist look at extremists…

    Speaking as an American: you don’t know how lucky you are. Haggard & his ilk are clearly extremists (though not as much as others), but they also represent a major and growing political trend here in the Sole Superpower. Though comprising perhaps a quarter of the population, they have captured the political machine which has captured the government, and are systematically expanding their power in every vulnerable area.

    Today’s failure of the Senate to block the Alito nomination shows that both Congress and the Supreme Court have succumbed to the Bushevik alliance of megacorporate & christocratic string-pullers. Perhaps Bush’s speech tonight will show us which domino is next in line.

    Dawkins is not playing the voyeur: he is warning of a serious and growing danger.

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