Dawkins is wrong about religion

…or so claimed Dr William Reville in last Thursdays Irish Times. (Sub. required)

The article has caused a great deal of controversy in the letters pages for the last week, see what you think yourself:

Under The Microscope: Europe has become strongly secular, in contrast to the US where religion plays a prominent part, as demonstrated by the recent presidential election, writes Dr William Reville

Traditional Christianity has been in retreat for many years in Europe, too jaded to effectively fight off attacks from the secular left. Religion is also under attack from some scientists – most notably from Richard Dawkins, who has written several fine books explaining the importance and implications of the main scientific theory in biology: the theory of evolution. Dawkins is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and he interprets his brief to be much wider than explaining evolution. He is a proselytising atheist, believing religion is bad – principally because, in his opinion, religion prevents its adherents from acquiring a true understanding of the world. He speaks frequently against religion and his onslaught has become much more forceful and bitter since 9/11.

Dawkins believes the concept of God is man-made and that religion was invented as a “comfort-blanket”. He believes the concept of religion has infected the human mind as a mental virus that is transmitted from generation to generation. This hypothesis can be presented in a plausible manner and, although impossible to prove, it is also impossible to disprove.

Dawkins rails against the media for routinely inviting religious leaders to express opinions on important technological developments in society, for example when Dolly, the first cloned adult animal, was produced in 1997. Dawkins believes that only people who have expert professional knowledge in the particular area – pre-eminent people such as himself, of course – should be asked to express views, and not people whose only claim to prominence is that they are spokespersons for what he sees as irrational beliefs.

Dawkins claims religion teaches people to be content with not understanding (or misunderstanding) the world. For example, fundamentalist Christianity does not believe in biological evolution. He also believes religion is a convenient badge of identity for groups intent on attacking each other over ancient grievances, as in Northern Ireland. You can read more of his ideas in A Devil’s Chaplain (Phoenix, 2004).

Although not all of Dawkins’ points are wrong, in my view he is entirely wrong in his overall argument. It is true that some terrible things have been done in the name of religion. But what about the countless number of people whose lives have been enriched by religion? I can speak only of Christianity because I don’t know enough about other religions. I fail to see how the basic Christian message of love God, love your neighbour, forgive your enemy and take responsibility for your actions can do anything but good for those who abide by it.

It is true that the Christian churches, as human institutions, have often erred grievously – but name any human institution that has not. The failings of churches as institutions do not discredit the basic Christian message. Many people are killed by cars every year. So what do we do – ban cars? No, cars are useful things. The problem is careless driving.

All human institutions have a tendency to err. Science is a human institution and it has erred. Eugenics was a very popular scientific movement in the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century. It advocates the improvement of the human stock by selective breeding and was enthusiastically promoted by prominent biologists. The movement degenerated into notions of racial hygiene and racial superiority and was an important underpinning of Nazi philosophy.

In A Devil’s Chaplin, Dawkins charges that much of Hitler’s anti-Semitism can be attributed to his never-renounced Catholicism and his belief that Christ’s real mission was to fight the Jews. He never mentions Hitler’s clear and acknowledged dependence on “scientific” racial hygiene. If Dawkins applied the same criteria to science as to religion he would also have to denounce science.

If religion has such a bad influence, one would expect that regimes in which religion played no part would be singularly happy and thriving places. We had two such notable regimes in the 20th century – Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. We must hold our nerve in Europe. Because religion has erred we should not heave the water out of the bath – the baby is in there. Institutions that err need reform, not obliteration. When Gandhi was asked for his opinion on western civilisation, he replied: “It would be a good idea.” You could say the same for basic Christianity.

The main alternative to religion is secular humanism. This philosophy holds that nothing greater than mankind exists and we must work out our lives entirely reliant on our own resources. Some people, but I believe no more than a small minority, can live decent and fulfilled lives drawing on this philosophy. The majority of people need the solace of religion.

Conventional Christianity is a decent philosophy with predictable societal consequences when practised genuinely. Secularists would be well advised to stop trying to reduce it to a position of no significance.

The average person’s need for religion remains and a greatly weakened Christianity could be replaced by some other form of religion hostile to social progress.

William Reville is Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Director of Microscopy at UCC

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