Richard Dawkins has begun a new TV series examining how atheism might change our perceptions about the meaning of life, what happens when we die, and right and wrong. The prominent ‘humanist’ personality has a very provocative style, which this programme also embodies. However, his thinking is clearly flawed.
Dawkins has never made any secret of his own views on God. In his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins said that God is a delusion, a “psychotic delinquent invented by mad, deluded people.” In this programme, he appears to have moved on from this, as if religion is now dealt with and is no longer a threat. The programme begins with: “this series is not about whether God exists or not – but more challenging questions. We have moved on from religion.”
These are a few of the problems in his logic.
He assumes the viewer already agrees with him about leaving religion behind. The programme was full of references to our “post-religion world”, and “now that we have left religion behind”, despite the fact that he consulted many Christians throughout the programme and admitted at various points that he could see the value in invoking God as an authority. Why has he assumed there is nothing rational about religion to begin with?
His evidence is often skewed. For example, he asks if religious believers resisted temptations better than anyone else. He showed that after asking 14,000 people, both religious and non-religious, about their sexual habits, there was no difference between the two groups. His conclusion, without any further investigation of other things that might be going on, is that religion doesn’t help to fight temptation, it merely forces people to live a lie which then spirals into hypocrisy. He then claims that “sin” clashes with reality and creates a society of lies. This seems a bit of a jump.
He consults Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker, well known for his views about the goodness of human nature. Pinker cites a lightning-speed array of statistics such as rape declining by 80% in the last few years, child abuse rates going down, the number of wars and deaths in war plummeting over the last 20 years, attributed rather vaguely to “Home Office data”. But there are no proper scientific figures. The whole programme began with footage of the London riots last year and the fear that society’s bonds are fragile, but this was not revisited when Pinker produced his rosy headlines. Instead we heard bold claims like “we now live in a more peaceful and civilised world than ever before.” But there are no statistics about crime rates, suicides, spending on defence, fear of Terror, the Arab Spring, and so on.
His arguments sometimes seem juvenile. He used lemurs as an example of natural order without religion, which is on offer to us humans too. Yet the zookeeper admitted that one day a year, when the lemurs mate, there is absolute chaos and fighting to the death – not order at all. Without a sense of authority, lemurs are effectively savages when the reproductive instinct is awakened. Dawkins claims that “all mammals have evolved a way of dealing with the lust instinct.” But to claim that they are all ordered and worthy of replicating in humans is bizarre.
At another point, he said “if you want to see the good in humans, look at them with a pet.” His point is that we are hard-wired to have empathy, and are good at putting ourselves in the position of others, so we know how to treat each other well. There is innate goodness in human nature, he says. So why then is it natural for toddlers to be selfish and violent? Why would humans have a different nature to animals, who never act unselfishly or generously, if we have all evolved from common ancestors?
He says we have no need for absolute authority. The line between right and wrong is essentially now about whether doing something actually harms someone else. There is no need for any more authority than that. Yet who will draw this line when we have no authority apart from everyone’s own interpretation? His view is that debate and reason will carry the day, but then admits that some people are unable to reason because they make outcasts of others in their heads – a process which apparently stems from our tribal origins. Again, no hint of how this can be resolved. He mentioned the San Francisco free love culture in the 1960s and said that this just died out naturally because it didn’t work, yet according to his logic, since it didn’t appear to directly harm anyone, there was no reason for it to end.
Finally, his obsession with evidence is sometimes laughable. He stated several times that there is no evidence for the reality of an afterlife. This is an absurd, almost laughable claim – where was he expecting to find such evidence? There was no mention of the billions of people who subscribe to a religion across the world as evidence that some people find religion to be at least slightly logical and rational, and of course no mention of the lack of evidence in the evolutionary record or of the Big Bang itself.
For a scientist, he doesn’t seem to know how to use science very well.