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The Root of All Evil?: Part 2—The Virus of Faith (Review) 5 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Documentary Film, Ethics, Evolution, Judaism, Political Commentary, Religion, Reviews, Science, Secular Humanism.

Whereas when I watched Part 1, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social-scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons.

First, Dawkins addresses directly the thinking and arguments of religion, especially of conservative brands of Judaism and Christianity. The Christians he engaged were difficult to listen to as they defended both their moral positions and their immoral actions. But what is worthwhile about Dawkins’ response is that he remains relatively calm and with more patience than I could muster, responds and engages their arguments with basic reasoned responses. Although I do still think that such engagement is, at the end of the day, probably a waste of time, simply because religious adherents don’t share the basic assumptions of scientific method or rational inquiry, I think that some people might be given pause by Dawkins’ simple insistence that they give reasons for their beliefs and actions. [Incidentally,I found it a stark lack that there were no imams interviewed for the program; and I also wondered how he would have addressed Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which, incidentally, have fundamentalist forms).]

Secondly, I found the actual science, albeit watered down, to be strong. Two main points from evolutionary and cognitive sciences are given: a) that children are genetically set up to absorb information from their surroundings and will accept information given to them by authority figures; and b) that we are genetically selected for altruism, the biological source of our basic morality. On both points, Dawkins raises the scientific evidence as reasons for his positions, namely that children should not be subjected to harmful ideas that create faulty and dangerous morality and that moral behavior is not based on a divine lawgiver.

I also found Dawkins to be magnanimous in his dealings with the likes of Michael Bray, who was arguing for why murdering OB-Gyns who perform abortions is morally justified. Dawkins notes that he could tell Bray was sincere and at base a good man, but that because of his religious views, he couldn’t see the moral complexity of the issues and the immorality of his own position, which he simply passed off to God. Equally frustrating to me was Dawkins’ conversation with the pastor running a Hell House in Colorado. For those not in the know, about 15 years ago, an Assemblies of God congregation staged an “alternative” haunted house for Halloween, wherein people would see, in stead of monsters, the fate of torture and damnation awaiting sinners in the next life. Rather than engaging Dawkins’ arguments, Keenan Roberts simply resorted to “witnessing,” that it is God’s law and he must scare children so that they’ll not burn in hell. [I highly recommend the documentary film Hell House as a bird’s eye view into the social construction of hell and sin and the inner workings of a conservative evangelical school, congregation, and family.]

Dawkins quoting Steven Weinberg (1979 Nobel Laureat in Physics):

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

As a normative, I would argue that moral positions must be supported and held provisionally as we would any proposition about the world. That means that moral positions must be accompanied by reasoned arguments and evidence, just as we would expect of any other kind of position, political, economic, etc. The primary disconnect between people of faith and people of reason is precisely there: for a person of faith, the morality is a given, an end-in-itself, beyond critique and examination. This faithful position is held without realizing that their own moralities are historical and culturally specific, even though they experience them as transcendental and divine. Either that gap must be bridged or we must find a way within democracies to rein in the power of this kind of thinking.



1. mattblack - 5 July 2006

Just finished watching Part 2. I think I pretty much agree with Bob McCue’s assessment that Dawkins is preaching to the choir. Though Dawkins may be trying to be magnanimous(?) he constantly says stuff (e.g. children are the victims of religious education) that would immediately throw up barriers among his religious viewers. And to some extent rightly so, I think. He’s clearly on the attack.
I found myself in that strange position, while watching, of agreeing with what he said and yet wanting to defend the opposition. Maybe because I found his arguments too easy, his interviewees too bumbling, and his solutions to problems too glib.
I have very conflicting feelings about the role of religion in my background. I suffered an insane amount of unncessary guilt because of my Mormon upbringing (though I would hardly call it abuse as the psychologist in Dawkins’ show might), but, for instance, I also profitted by finding my literary roots in the study of scripture as a child. Religion was an incredibly powerful social tool in my young life and I can trace many positive things directly back to it. And, of course, that made it all the more difficult for me to leave it later in life when I found I couldn’t live with some of the personal compromises I’d have to make in order to remain actively religious.
One of the things Dawkins fails to address is the positive social aspect of religion and how there is no analog in secular society. I no longer meet and see my neighbors every Sunday at church. There are no busy-body church ladies bringing me soup when I brake my ankle, or opportunities to help out the new guy moving in down the street. Religion can do a really good job of facilitating community and I find I still miss that.
I guess finally I’m really looking for a way to bridge the gap between religious and secular people (especially politically) in this country. Dawkins seems to be burning bridges or at the very least accepting the line drawn by the religious right. Maybe this is inevitable and it will come down to the religious vs. the secular, but I’m not ready to resort to that quite yet. For a different angle, I recently ran across a speech Barak Obama gave to the Sojourners, a religious social justice organization, at their Call to Renewal Conference. A good example of addressing the reality of religion in American politics if you are interested.


(June 28th podcast)

2. J. Todd Ormsbee - 7 July 2006

I think I felt more like you did watching Part 1 than Part 2. For some reason in Part 1, I was just annoyed by Dawkins’ easy elision of certain fundamentalist forms of religion with religion in general. As a social scientist, that just struck me as sloppy and empirically wrong. But for whatever reason I experienced Part 2 as more Dawkins’ engagement and evaluation of specific religious ideas. There was one moment when Dawkins is speaking to the liberal Anglican bishop where Dawkins again makes the fundamental mistake of conflating some kinds of religious thinking with others. [Incidentally, Sam Harris, a philosopher of religion and advocate of atheism, has said in an interview with Salon.com that religious moderates are the worst of them all. I find these kidns of positions to be irrational and culturally and socially simplistic.] I The problem that Dawkins (and other non-social scientists) seem intent on making is the same one held by religious adherents themselves: He cannot see religion as a meaning-making system. Instead he sees it as a truth-source and then rejects it compared to science. Further, he cannot see that religion is a kind of social institution independent from a particular religion’s meaningful contents, which are historically and culturally specific and connected to people,languages, experiences, institutions etc. Finally, the scientific evidence that our brains are set up for religious experience (i’ve posted about this several times in the past), whether these be adaptive or, as I think, evolutionary spandrels, is pretty strong. That would mean that religious feelings are going to occur in the society and that the society is going to need social structures to deal with them. If that is the case, the arguments need to be refined and pointed, more along the lines of how Dennett is approaching the issue, which is an engagement with the arguments and moralities of particular religious belief systems for evaluation, not with RELIGION writ large.

3. mattblack - 7 July 2006

“He cannot see religion as a meaning-making system. Instead he sees it as a truth-source and then rejects it compared to science.”

Agreed. But I think it goes both ways. It’s interesting to watch scientists try to push their science beyond a truth-source system into a meaning-making one. Not that they can’t or shouldn’t, but they often seem to fall into all the same old traps that they criticize religionists for. They make dogmatic and divisive statements and draw lines between the enlightened and unenlightened. They insist on using their own terminology and refuse to try to engage people who don’t use it. They paint their adherents as victims and martyrs. They make leaps from what they know to how they think people should behave.
There is a big gap between knowledge and morality. Rationality is a good point to leap from but there’s no solid ground on the meaning side of things, at least not in the scientific sense. For instance, when Dawkins starts telling us that we should be happy because there’s an insanely small statistical chance we exist at all–part of me just wants to slap him. I’m suddenly back in Sunday School being made to feel guilty for being depressed by a well meaning old man. Maybe I’m too jealous of my own capacity to make meaning and that’s why Dawkins gets under my skin. I balk at priests and scientists alike when they tread that territory.

4. The Root of All Evil?: Part 1—The God Delusion (review) « Todd’s Hammer - 12 November 2006

[…] [My review of Part 2—The Virus of Faith can be found here.] […]

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