Tip-toe through the minefield: Richard Dawkins on the big screen

An incredibly interesting session, and I got there feeling there weren’t too many people of any religious persuasion in the room. Dawkins had the crowd in his palm – they laughed at nearly everything he said. Sean Plunket, even with a bad case of laryngitis, did a great job, and really got the most for the audience.

I liked that Dawkins said he would be happy to change his mind if presented evidence, and how he went further to say that that is what scientists should do. He gave an example where he publically apologised and changed his stance after ridiculing the handicap theory and the scientist who put it forward.

“It’s exciting to discover you have been wrong,” he said.

He also made the point that all religions of the past have already been got rid of – such as the Greek and Roman gods – so what was one more? The crowd chortled.

Plunket alluded to the cult status that might be building up around Dawkins and I think there was an element of that. This man is a champion of science and a hero to scientists. They might not use that word, they might say they admire his brain or his thinking. He is a hero, people want to make themsleves in his image, aspire to be like him, he is worshipped. If they played the theme to 2001: A space odyssey, there would have been rapture and teary eyes.

That said, his points about the damage religion causes and the wickedness of indoctrination I couldn’t agree more with – to damn a child to a burning eternity, and to threaten them with that as punishment, is a form of cruelty. He also decried the “cynical political manipulation” of suicide bombers. While I think many people in the room had suffered at the hands of nuns or priests at school, which may have been why they liked Dawkins so much, I bet a shiny gold coin none of them had been directly affected by a suicide bomber.

Do people martyr themselves solely for religion? Perhaps their sisters, brothers, children or families have been killed by tanks, bombs and guns – many of them made in the west. Yes, bombers are recruited using religion, but if your family or people you care about get blown apart wouldn’t you want to do something about it?

I think it’s also important to remember that Islam is also a system of state – and if people have chosen to found their state around religion it is trying to drive a stake into the heart of that system to say there is no evidence of their God.

Dawkins didn’t say that, but it is an implication of his argument. Western scientists are free to say that but it strikes me that this could be construed as the 21st century equivalent of a crusade – saving the infidel because he is unenlightened? Teaching him a lesson? That sounds remarkably similar to the religious argument for the crusades – first we said our god was better, now we say well actually, God doesn’t exist anyway. Part of me wondered what Robert Fisk would make of all this. Part of me wonders if people don’t want God to exist so they can avoid zealots in the street, or religious people knocking on their door.

To be fair to Dawkins, applying his argument like that would be wrong. He is taking quite a pure scientific approach. He wants people to think individually with a critical and evidence-based framework and he puts money into foundations to encourage education and reason and this is highly admirable. He also stated very clearly that he didn’t want to disabuse people of their faith.

He thinks in scientific terms, and although he tries very hard to say it nicely and politelty, it still to me comes across partly as a stance where people who believe in religion simply haven’t been educated out of it. The reaction of the room reinforced this for me – he used many pejorative terms to prove his point and the audience lapped it up. Mostly he talked about western religion.

To me, people are irrational and it’s not always explained by chemical imbalances or genetic disorders. Alcoholics get sober, drug addicts get clean, some criminals turn their lives around – and some of them attribute that change to a religious experience. If people truly believe that God changed their lives, however irrational it is, it is true for them. Is it necessary to judge them as nutters? Perhaps I am too tolerant. Perhaps this is too much for my brain to cope with.

Dawkins has certainly made me think – and write – about this, so he has succeeded in that regard. I applaud his bravery in elegantly tip-toeing his way through a minefield of a subject.

It is unfortunate that, for one reason or another, scientific arguments and theories, however cogent, logical, scientifically sound and intellectually pure, have a habit of escalating into fights: My science is better than your faith. Fights like that become wars, and God and science together have given us some pretty good ways of wiping each other out.

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