Saturday, January 21, 2006

Jacobson vs Dawkins vs Religion

Howard Jacobson’s on fine form today gently rubbishing Professor Richard Dawkins and, especially, his recent programmes about atheism on Channel 4. Writing in the Independent*, Mr Jacobson puts into words rather better than I could many of the misgivings I had about these two programmes entitled ‘The Root of All Evil’. “Professor Richard Dawkins, in his role as evangelist of disbelief, offering a walk-on part to every crackpot who ever took the name of God in vain” isn’t bad for starters but I’m not sure he’s correct to assert that “Nothing returns one quicker to God than the sight of a scientist with no imagination, no vocabulary, no sympathy, no comprehension of metaphor, and no wit, looking soulless and forlorn amid the wonders of nature.”

Jonathan Miller's ‘Brief History of Disbelief’ series on BBC4 which was later repeated on BBC2 and the associated ‘Atheism Tapes’ (unhappily not repeated) presented the case far more powerfully than The Root of Evil. With quiet rational debate and a wealth of historical research it was far superior to the hysteria that spoilt so much of Dawkins’s programmes.

I can’t agree with Jacobson when he writes that Dawkins’s argument was “that what you cannot scientifically prove cannot be”. On the contrary one of the best aspects of the programme was the emphasis on the uncertainty which pervades all scientific investigation and its superiority over blind faith. But he’s right to criticise the choice of obvious extremists for most of the interviews. I’d have liked to have heard much more of the conversation Dawkins had with the Bishop of Oxford and far less of the ranting clerics.

Jacobson neatly illustrates what was wrong by pointing out that you wouldn’t be playing fair if you made a programme attacking atheism and used Stalin or Pol Pot to support your argument. Fundamentalists, wherever they lurk, are dangerous.

There’re a couple of letters on the topic also in the Indy under the title “Unscientific theories about religion”. I especially liked this paragraph: “I am not claiming this as an argument in favour of religious belief, but I think it's fairly strong evidence that religious bigotry is only a symptom of a more general human tendency towards tribal violence: get rid of religion and people will simply kill one another over socio-economic theories, or nationality, or race, or culture, or, failing all else, football. They do all of that already.” in the one from Gillian Ball.

* unless you subscribe to their portfolio service, you’ll have to pay to read all but the first couple of paragraphs. But Howard Jacobson is the principle reason I shell out GBP1.30 on Saturdays. Others are (in the magazine): the Weasel, Debora Ross and Will Self.


At 18:20, Blogger Gert said...

Good post.

I don't agree that Dawkins was wrong in parading a few religious fundamentalists. Which are more representative of religion? Those who've put more water in their wine like the Bishop of Oxford or those who interpret their faith uncompromisingly?

The fact the we feel more sympathetic towards the former doesn't change anything to the fact that dogmatic thinking (religious or other) exists and is very ugly and rather widespread.

At 21:23, Blogger Hughes Views said...


I agree that he needed a few religious fundamentalists my gripe is he had too many. This allows followers of the Bishop off the hook. Had he continue the discussion with said Bish, which I thought Dawkins was having the better of, he might have got him on the ropes (if that's not too aggressive an analogy)

At 12:36, Blogger Neil Harding said...

AC Grayling argues in his book 'the meaning of things', that liberal Christians like the Bishop of Oxford and Bishop of Edinburgh (who wrote 'godless morality' and has liberal views on sex, homosexuals, drugs and abortion), are 'trimmer[s] to adapt the church to modern times...that religion has to be reinvented practically out of recognition to stay alive'.

How reasonable is their position, and are not the fundamentalists more representative of the real religious aganda?

At 12:46, Anonymous Jenni said...

There's a piece in today's Times Higher Educational Supplement (online here but you have to subscribe) criticising Dawkin's scientific method that seemed quite interesting from what I read of it!

At 14:50, Anonymous Anonymous said...

God save us all from religion!


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