Resistance is not Futile

The Herald on Dawkins on religion on channel 4.

This new two-part documentary, which begins on Channel 4 tomorrow, asserts that there is no safe or defensible middle ground between science and religion, its thesis being that even the moderate followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are deluded, defective and potentially dangerous…It is in this capacity that Dawkins travels to various theological flashpoints…challenging a full range of beliefs and their advocates. And for an ambassador, he is not particularly diplomatic. The programme takes its cue from a statement Dawkins made immediately after September 11, 2001: “[Religion is] lethally dangerous nonsense. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”

Well, we’ve tried diplomacy, and what has it gotten us? Only more and louder demands. Only an ever-stronger and more entrenched sense of entitlement, to an infinite quantity of respect. So the hell with it.

While Pastor Haggard, for example, may have a point when he counter-accuses Dawkins of “intellectual arrogance” on camera, he does himself no favours by later throwing the film crew out of his Christian-industrial mega-compound.

I don’t think Pastor Haggard does have a point, as a matter of fact. I heard the soundtrack from that particular bit on Saturday Review, and it seems to me Pastor H was the arrogant one. He made a silly pronouncement about evolution – about the eye or the ear evolving ‘by accident’ – which showed he had no understanding of what he was pronouncing about. Dawkins said as much – and Haggard called him arrogant. Well how silly! How completely inane! Yet again – this kind of thing doesn’t fly in other areas, and we know it doesn’t, but as soon as people clutching prayer books turn up, all the rules change. We don’t wander into operating rooms and tell neurosurgeons that it’s really hard to believe they’re going to be able to repair the aneurism that way. We don’t stroll into the pharmacological factory and start querying the recipes. So why does Pastor Haggard think a zoologist is being ‘arrogant’ in telling him he doesn’t understand evolution? Which of them is more likely to know something of the subject? But Pastor H is a godbotherer, so it’s ‘arrogant’ to tell him he’s clueless and confused and ignorant.

Producer Alan Clements will accept credit for the original “uneasy and timely idea” of making a documentary about the apparent “rise of faith and retreat of reason in modern society”. He stands by the finished product 100%. “I think these are important films,” says Clements, “and programmes like this need to be made and watched.”…This is, then, for better or worse, a programme that lets Dawkins be Dawkins. His views, already well known, are expressed here with often electrifying clarity. He deconstructs such “fairy stories” as the assumption of the Virgin Mary with witty, angry and rigorous academic passion.

Isn’t a little clarity on this subject a welcome relief? We hear more than enough mumbling about deep piety and devout faith and pious depth and faithful devoutness – isn’t a little of the other thing useful for clearing our heads?

Dawkins describes all religious faith as “a process of non-thinking”…What, though, does he actually hope to achieve with these programmes, in this country? He must know that audiences will respond according to the polarities of their own faith or lack of it. True believers will be affronted, while the typical, liberal Channel 4 viewer will have their non-belief validated.

No, I don’t think you know that. I don’t think anyone does, or can. It’s likely that many people will be in one of those two categories, but no one knows how many people will think about what is being said, perhaps for the first time in their lives. We do sometimes change our minds about things, we do sometimes listen and hear, we do sometimes take in new ideas and new evidence, we do sometimes see things in a new light. It’s not useful to write that possibility off in advance. One never knows.

“But I think a fairly substantial number of people haven’t really given it a lot of thought, and only vaguely think of themselves as Christian. This programme just might open some eyes to the fact that you don’t have to believe this stuff, that it’s OK to be an atheist. It’s a bit like being gay 30 years ago, when it was necessary to consciously come out of the closet. I’m hoping that I may sway people in that middle category, who might be shaken into thinking about it.”

Just so. It’s not possible to tell what eyes will be opened. (Consider the massive impact Carl Sagan had with ‘Cosmos’. These things happen.)

Television, like the society from which it broadcasts, has found it expedient to display ever greater tolerance, indulgence and relativism in regard to lifestyle choices, particularly matters of faith. For this reason, Dawkins’s eminently reasonable argument may come across as almost radical in its forcefulness. “Yes it will,” he says. “Because you’re simply not allowed to attack someone’s religion. You can attack their politics or their football team, but not their faith. I think it’s very important that this should be seen as complete nonsense. Why shouldn’t people be required to defend their religion?…I think moderate religion makes the world safe for extremists, because children are trained from the cradle to think faith in itself is a good thing. So then when someone says it’s part of their faith to kill people, their actions need no further justification, and are almost respected as such.”

Exactly. We’re constantly bombarded with that silly idea that faith in itself is a good thing. How can we resist except by resisting?

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