In this two-part Channel 4 series, Professor Richard Dawkins challenges what he describes as ‘a process of non-thinking called faith’. He describes his astonishment that, at the start of the 21st century, religious faith is gaining ground in the face of rational, scientific truth. Science, based on scepticism, investigation and evidence, must continuously test its own concepts and claims. Faith, by definition, defies evidence: it is untested and unshakeable, and is therefore in direct contradiction with science. In addition, though religions preach morality, peace and hope, in fact, says Dawkins, they bring intolerance, violence and destruction. The growth of extreme fundamentalism in so many religions across the world not only endangers humanity but, he argues, is in conflict with the trend over thousands of years of history for humanity to progress to become more enlightened and more tolerant.
The God Delusion
There are would-be murderers all round the world who want to kill you and me and themselves, because they are motivated by what they think is the highest ideal. Of course politics are important, Iraq, Palestine, even social deprivation in Bradford, but as we wake up to this huge challenge to our civilised values don’t lets forget the elephant in the room, an elephant called religion. The suicide bomber is convinced that in killing for his God, he will be fast-tracked to a special martyrs’ heaven. This isn’t just a problem of Islam. In this program I want to examine that dangerous thing that is common to Judaism and Christianity as well, the process of nonthinking called faith.
I am a scientist, and I believe there is a profound contradiction between science and religious belief. There is no well-demonstrated reason to believe in god and I think that the idea of a divine creator belittles the elegant reality of the universe. The 21st century should be an age of reason, yet irrational, militant faith is back on the march. Religious extremism is implicated in the world’s most bitter and unending conflicts.
Yusuf Al-Khattab: “We want the non-Muslims off the lands of Mohammad. We want the kafir out of it.”
America, too, has its own fundamentalists.
Ted Haggard: “The Issue for the next generation is going to be the islamification of Europe.”
And in Britain, even as we live in the shadow of holy terror, our government wants to restrict our freedom to criticise religion. Science, we are told, should not tread on the toes of theology. But why should scientists tiptoe respectfully away?
Dawkins: The time has come for the people of reason to say enough is enough. Religious faith discourages independent thought, it’s divisive and it’s dangerous.
It looks lovely doesn’t it? Inoffensive and gentle. But isn’t this the beginning of that slippery slope that leads to young men with rucksack bombs on the Tube? If you want to experience the medieval rituals of faith, the candle light, incense, music, important-sounding dead languages, nobody does it better than the Catholics.
At Lourdes in southern France, the assault on the senses appeals to us not to think, not to doubt, not to probe. And if we can retain our faith against the evidence, in the teeth of reality, the more virtuous we are.
Dawkins: Pretty impressive sight isn’t it? I could imagine finding it very seductive, partly because of the tremendous feeling of group solidarity that there must be. If you have the delusion that you’re Napoleon, it must be fairly a lonely feeling because nobody else agrees with you. Your faith that you are Napoleon needs a lot of shoring up. But these people here, thousands of people all have exactly the same delusion, and that must give wonderful reinforcement to their faith.
I used to think reason had won the war against superstition but it’s quite shaking to witness the faithful droves trooping through Lourdes. This is a benign herd but it supports a backward belief system that I believe reason must challenge.
Daylight reveals more of this shrine, where a myth is perpetuated that a virgin who gave birth, Christ’s mother Mary, appeared here once to an impressionable, and I do mean impressionable, young girl. The faithful make the pilgrimage here because they believe that terrible afflictions can be cured by dragging their poor bodies up to a pool of water where the Virgin Mary made her miraculous appearance. In reality, they’re probably more likely to catch something from thousands of other pilgrims who’ve wallowed in the same water.
Dawkins: Is it something that Catholics feel they ought to do in their life, rather like Muslims going on the Hajj to Mecca?
Well no, but you don’t have to be a Catholic to do it you see, I know a lot of people that are not Catholics at all and they’ve been here.
Dawkins: And what are you hoping to get out of it?
Well I’ve got a lot out of it: I’ve got faith, I’ve got trust and a belief that there is a person out there who is stronger than any medical person.
Dawkins: Right. What about a cure though?
It may seem tough to question these poor desperate peoples’ faith, but isn’t bracing truth better than false hope? What is the evidence for any miracles?
Father Liam Griffin, Sanctuaries of Lourdes: There are actually 66 declared miracles, there are about 2000 unexplained cures here, but then we would say there are millions of people who have been healed in different ways.
Dawkins: Healed in some sort of mental way?
Griffin: Healed in spiritual ways where people who have come to terms with their own particular situation, people who have rediscovered God in their lives again, people who have received a new grace here in Lourdes.
Dawkins: So you tend to get about 80,000 people per year?
Griffin: About 80,000 sick pilgrims who come here every year.
Dawkins: That’s been going for more than a century now? About a century and half?
Dawkins: So, 80,000 per year, and of those 66 have been cured. I just want to.. ..you see the way I’m thinking.
So the hard fact is that over the years, with their millions of pilgrims, there have been 66 supposed miracles. Statistically, it adds up to no evidence at all.
Dawkins: I cant help remarking that nobody has ever had a miraculous re-growing of a severed leg. The cures are always things that might have got better anyway.
People lean on their faith as a crutch, but I fear that the comfort it provides is a shallow pretence, and I want to look at how the suspension of disbelief inherent in faith can lead to far more dangerous ideas beyond.
People like to say that faith and science can live together side by side, but I don’t think they can. They’re deeply opposed. Science is a discipline of investigation and constructive doubt, questing with logic, evidence and reason to draw conclusions. Faith, by stark contrast, demands a positive suspension of critical faculties. Science proceeds by setting up hypotheses, ideas or models, and then attempts to disprove them. So a scientist is constantly asking questions, being sceptical. Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakeable truth, through the power of institutions and the passage of time.
Let me give you an example of this with a story of the assumption of Mary. Catholics believe that Jesus’ mother Mary was so important she didn’t physically die. Instead, her body shot off into heaven when her life came to a natural end. Of course there is no evidence for this, even the Bible says nothing about how Mary died. The belief that her body was lifted into heaven emerged about six centuries after Jesus’ time. Made up, like any tale, and spread by word of mouth. But it became established tradition.
Dawkins: It was handed down over centuries. And the odd thing about tradition is that the longer it’s been going, the more people seem to take it seriously. It’s as though sheer passage of time makes something that was to begin with just made up, turns it into what people believe as a fact.
By 1950, the tradition was so strongly established that it became official truth. It became authority. The Vatican decreed that Roman Catholics must now believe in the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin. Now if you had asked Pope Pious XII how he knew it was the truth, he would have said you had to take his word for it because it had been “revealed to him” by God.
Dawkins: He shut himself away and thought about it. He just thought, private thoughts inside his own head, and convinced himself that, no doubt on tortuous theological grounds, that it just had to be so.
None of this is particularly harmful when it is limited to the Virgin Mary going to heaven. But what about the Pope’s personal convictions when it comes to, say, discouraging the use of condoms in AIDS-ridden Africa? Then, the power of the church through tradition, authority and revelation comes with an appalling human cost.
Dawkins: It would be unfair to pick on the Catholics. All religions are up to the same tricks. It could be Muslim Imams issuing fatwahs, it’s the same principle. It’s issued by the authority, it then passes down through the ranks to parents, to children, and all without a shred of evidence.
Unlike science, which sees it as a challenge, religion thrives on unsolved mystery. For early humanity, what was mysterious and unexplained was so vast that only an equally vast higher being, an Alpha male in the sky, could fill that gap.
Dawkins: How would our ancestors have responded to the sunrise? There must be a fiery charioteer, a Sun God, to accept our sacrifices. A supreme being who, on the first day of creation, announced “let there be light”.
But scientific investigation has rolled back that mystery. Today we know the sun is a giant nuclear reactor. One of billions of stars pumping out electromagnetic radiation, heat and light. How do scientists know the things that they know about the world and the universe? How do we know, for instance, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and that it orbits the sun that nourishes it?
Dawkins: How do we know that these dinosaurs are hundreds of millions of years old? The answer is evidence. Tons and tons of mutually supporting evidence.
Science is about testing, comparing and corroborating this mass of evidence, and using it to update old theories of how things work.
Dawkins: I do remember one formative influence in my undergraduate life. There was an elderly professor in my department who had been passionately keen on a particular theory for a number of years. And one day an American visiting researcher came, and he completely and utterly disproved our old man’s hypothesis. The old man strode to the front, shook his hand and said, “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these 15 years.” And we all clapped our hands raw. That was the scientific ideal of somebody who had a lot invested, a lifetime almost invested in a theory, and he was rejoicing that he had been shown wrong, and scientific truth had been advanced.
So what does the overwhelming evidence of all these fossils tell sceptical science? How did we and every creature get here, in all our improbable diversity? In past centuries, humanity had no choice but to resort to a supernatural hypothesis. Among the many creation myths around the world, the Book of Genesis imagined a designer God who fashioned the world and life in just six days. Finally, in the 19th century, science pieced together what had really happened. Charles Darwin hit upon a truly brilliant idea that elegantly explains all of life on earth, without any need to invoke the supernatural or the divine.
Here’s a helpful way to look at the problem Darwin faced. Climbing a mountain. Let’s call it Mount Improbable. Let’s say at the bottom we have the simple bacterial beginnings of life on earth. At the top, man today, or any complicated piece of biology. So how did we get to the top? If it had happened by blind chance or by design, it would be equivalent to leaping up a sheer cliff in a single bound. Utterly out of the question.
Dawkins: If we come round the other side of Mount Improbable, we find something very different. Here, there is no sudden precipitous cliff, here there’s a gentle slope, a gradient of evolution. All we have to do is put one foot in front of the other and we’ll get to the top.
Darwin’s great insight was that life evolved steadily and slowly, inching its way gradually over four billion years. Natural selection, not a divine designer, was the sculptor of life.
Dawkins: So evolution, driven by Darwin’s motor of natural selection, gets us to the top of Mount Improbable. From primeval simplicity to ultimate complexity. The design hypothesis couldn’t even begin to do that, because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who made the designer?
The abundance and variety of life on earth may seem improbable but it’s self-evidently futile to invent an improbable god to explain that very improbability. I thought that in my lifetime evolution would be accepted and taught around the world as a scientific fact, supported by overwhelming evidence. But unfortunately, the whole point about faith is that even massive and constantly accumulating physical evidence cuts no ice. Evolution today is under threat.
* * *
In the Bible Belt of middle America, evangelical Christians are fighting back against science. In the new world, religion is free enterprise. Rival groups set up shop on every street corner, competing to save people’s souls and collect their money. Fundamentalist Christianity is on the rise among the electorate of the world’s only super power. Right up to and including the President (Bush). If you believe the surveys, 45% of Americans, that’s about 135 million people, believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old.
This is the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Where conservative Christians have built an 18 million dollar worship center as their new Jerusalem, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Evangelical churches like this have become a powerful lobby, exerting enormous influence on everything in America from the teaching of science in schools, to foreign policy. This place strains belief. It isn’t just a church but a ready-made social network. The 12,000 strong congregation can also attend 1,300 organized programs where they can meet to exchange Christian tips on everything from marriage to dog walking. It’s all terribly exuberant and intense. Much less tradition here than in Lourdes, but plenty of swaggering authority. The pastor is Ted Haggard. A powerful man. Chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals and the New Life is Ted’s evangelical Vatican.
Haggard: “Welcome to all of our friends! Take a moment and say hello to the people behind you, in front of you, to your right, to your left.” “Hey we wanna welcome all of you that are visiting here with us today, if you are here for the very first time,” “we have a packet of information that we wanna give to you..”
Sadly, the warmth of the welcome would prove short-lived when I started talking to Pastor Haggard about the Bible and scientific fact.
Haggard: You will find yourself wrong on some things, right on some other things. But please, in the process of it. Don’t be arrogant.
Haggard: “We exalt you here this morning, Lord God. Everything that’s within us wants to give you praise and glory and honor, ‘cos we are so grateful for..”
The New Life Church in Colorado Springs is a bastion of American religious conservatism.
Haggard: “Thank you for transforming our lives. Thank you, Lord God, for..”
I’ve come to try to understand why what I see as irrational faith is thriving. And why it’s attacking science.
Haggard: ” ..and in Jesus’ name we pray. And everybody says Amen!” “Amen!”
“Welcome to the United States!”
Dawkins: Thank you very much.
Pastor Ted Haggard has a hotline to God and to George Bush. A staunch Republican, he claims he has a weekly conference call with the President, and has also rubbed shoulders with Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon.
Dawkins: Well that was really quite a show you gave us today. A fair bit of money seems to have been spent here.
Haggard: Yes. I wanted people to be able to worship and enjoy it, and be in a setting where the speaker is close to them, that’s why it’s in the round, and so they can be up close to me and so l can look at them.
Dawkins: Well it’s certainly very effective, what you do, I mean, it seemed to me you have all the arts of … I mean, I was almost reminded me, if you’ll forgive me, of a sort of Nuremberg rally. I mean… such incredibly.. Doctor Goebbels would have been proud.
Haggard: Well I don’t know anything about the Nuremberg rallies, but I know lots of Americans think of it as a rock concert.
When I prepare a presentation, I don’t prepare it to get a group of lunatics to come in and just say “oh yes Pastor Ted, you’re just so wonderful, I believe everything you say”. I would be opposed to that.
Haggard: “Here the Bible says:..” “..who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God, the Father..” this is talking about us, “we’ve been chosen for..” “What’s that word there everybody?” – “Obedience.” – “Say it out loud.” – “Obedience!” – “Okay, so we have been chosen..”
Every person needs, at the center, some sense of meaning about existence. It is life and death to us. It makes us who we are. Yet most of us, as we grow up and become responsible adults, accept that life is complex, that we live in a world of subtle shades, not sharp black and white. I worry that these born-agains are being persuaded to return to childish certainties. The only truth they need is God, God as interpreted for them by their pastor.
Haggard: “You’ve been set free from sin!” “Think about that!”
Haggard: Everybody knows that we believe the Bible’s the word of God. And today I talked about love your neighbor as yourself. Now, I didn’t have to produce evidence, sociological evidence or psychological evidence..
Dawkins: But you have a book, How can you say they’re asked to think for themselves.. ..and they’re told everything in this book is true?
Haggard: Because they don’t have to believe that.
Dawkins: The evidence that I presented you can go and read. This book, it says one thing, that book says another, that book says another, that book contradicts the others..
Haggard: Well the evidence I can present is we’ve got a book, written over 1500 years by 40 different authors, on one subject, and it doesn’t contradict itself.
Dawkins: It doesn’t?
Haggard: Where you cant give me two, two experts in certain areas that are in the same generation, in the same area of study, that don’t contradict themselves.
Dawkins: That’s the beauty of science. We have lots of evidence, and the evidence is all the time coming in, constantly changing our minds. Whereas you have one book which you say it doesn’t change..
Dawkins: That’s not getting them to think for themselves!
Haggard: …and we’ve all decided as a group, to go to the holy place. True or false? (Congregatlon) True! True! Everybody say TRUE! “TRUE!” Alright then. That’s the vote…
But my biggest concern is that evangelicals like Haggard are foisting evident falsehoods on their flock.
Haggard: “..are so wonderful, and so necessary, that I wanna..”
The evangelicals are denying scientific evidence just to support Bronze Age myths.
Haggard: “…alive in our lives. And then of course, we need the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Haggard: We fully embrace the scientific method, as American evangelicals. And we think, as time goes along, as we discover more and more facts that we’ll learn more and more about how God created the heavens and the Earth.
Dawkins: The scientific method clearly demonstrates that the world is 4.5 billion years old. I mean, do you accept that?
Haggard: Yeah, you know what you’re doing is you are accepting some of the views that are accepted in some portions of the scientific community, as fact. Where in fact, your grandchildren might listen to the tape of you saying that and laugh at you.
Dawkins: You want a bet?
Haggard: Sometimes it’s hard for human being to study the ear or study the eye, and think that happened by accident.
Dawkins: I beg you pardon? Did you say by accident?
Dawkins: What do you mean, by accident?
Haggard: That the eye just formed itself somehow.
Dawkins: And who says it did?
Haggard: Well, some evolutionists say it did.
Not a single one that I’ve ever met.
Dawkins: Really. You obviously know nothing about the subject of evolution.
Haggard: Or maybe you haven’t met the people I have. But you see, you do understand, you do understand that this issue right here of intellectual arrogance is the reason why people like you have a difficult problem with people of faith. I don’t communicate an air of superiority over the people because I know so much more, and if you only read the books I know, and if you only knew the scientists I knew, then you would be great like me. Well, sir, there could be many things that you know well. There are other things that you don’t know well. As you age, you’ll find yourself wrong on some things, right on some other things. But please, in the process, of it don’t be arrogant.
Dawkins: We just had a rather disconcerting experience. We were just packing up our stuff ready to go, when he suddenly drove up in his pick up truck and said, “Get of my land immediately”, “I´ll have you thrown in jail” and “I´ll have seize your film”. And he then says a very curious thing, he said, “You called my children animals.” Afterwards we worked out, that what he must have meant, was that I talked about evolution. He thought that I was saying, that his flock were animals. Which of course in some sense I was, because all humans are all animals.
* * *
Haggard’s approach is to say let’s teach evolution as just another theory alongside the Bible’s creation story. Or so-called Intelligent Design, which claims God helped evolution along. It sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? But of course it’s nothing of the sort. These are not equal theories. Evolution by natural selection is supported by mountains of evidence. While creation contradicts the evidence and is only backed by some ancient scribblings. With Haggard and his followers on their doorstep, the rational atheist minority here feel so browbeaten, that they’ve organized themselves into what they call “a freethinkers group”, which meets furtively, perhaps to fantasise about moving to Canada!
Dawkins: How nice to meet you!
Hey Richard! It’s wonderful! Welcome, welcome, it’s so good..
Dawkins: Do freethinkers in America feel pretty beleaguered at the moment?
John Spangler: I’ve had my fair share of vitriolic letters and messages from parents saying that I’m Satan’s incarnate for teaching evolution, and there are ministries here in Colorado Springs that indoctrinate students in summer programs to challenge biologists, biology teachers, in the classroom. And I’ve…
Dawkins: So it’s an organised campaign to challenge biology teachers?
Oh they’re organised campaigns, absolutely. I do not tolerate it, because I..
But they have this mindset that they are right.
Gary Betchan: If a person comes out in this country as an atheist, they’re likely to suffer career damage, they might lose a job, they might not get a job, they might lose an opportunity for an apartment.
Rick Baker: Waking up, as most Americans do, very late on this, coming to a realisation, as we did during the McCarthy era, and even during..
Dawkins: It’s very similar to the McCarthy era..
Baker: Yes, it is. We do begin now to see the dangers of this extremism.
Dawkins: Christian fascism isn’t it?
Baker: Yeah. And whatever mantle you want to give it, which I’ve heard lately is “domination theology”, “dominion Christianity”..
(Christian radio advertisements)
Fundamentalist American Christianity is attacking science. But what is it offering instead? A mirror-image of Islamic extremism, an American Taliban.
We live in a time of lethal polarisation. When the great religions are pushing their conflict to a point where it is difficult to see how they can ever been reconciled. In New York, Madrid and London we’ve witnessed the religious insanities of the Middle East penetrate the heart of the secular west.
(George W Bush voiceover)
To understand the likes of Osama Bin Laden, you have to realise that the religious terrorism they inspire is the logical outcome of deeply-held faith. Even so-called moderate believers are part of the same religious fabric. They encourage unreason as a positive virtue.
* * *
Dawkins: What’s really scary is that religious warriors think of what they are doing as the ultimate good. Those of us brought up in Christianity can soon get the message: ‘Onward Christian soldiers’, ‘fight the good fight’, ‘stand up! stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross!’ But as far as I’m concerned, the war between good and evil, is really just the war between two evils.
This is the holy land, where the terrible certainties of faith began and still rage. I’ve come here because it’s a microcosm of the religious conflicts which threaten rational values and civilisation. The dreadful combination of politics and extreme faith has caused the death of almost 4000 people here, in shootings, suicide bombings and reprisals in the last five years.
Despite the troubles, tourists still flock to Jerusalem, to places that their particular brand of religion taught them to revere as a child. The Via Dolorosa, where Jesus was allegedly whipped and beaten during the last hours of his life. Or the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Or the Western Wall, Judaism’s, and the world’s, most holy ruin. On the surface, it looks like a place of harmless myth.
Because here is the hill of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb of Jesus. And here, what we are facing, to the stone of anointment, where the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross, so this is the slab where Christ’s body was anointed with oil.
Dawkins: How do we know that? Is there any evidence that it was here?
You see, this is by telling from person to person.
Dawkins: It’s tradition.
Traditional, from generation to the next. We can see the hole where the cross was stood, Where they put(ing) the cross inside the hole, and this is the place where, the place of the crucifixion, where Jesus died on the cross.
Dawkins: You don’t really believe that, do you?
Ah, this is the Christians, as I explained to you that they believe, this is the place where the crucifixion took place. If we come in closer to my side please, thank you. [The] guard of the tomb is a Greek priest. Guarding of tomb of Jesus. This is left from big part of the stone which closed the tomb, What we call the rolling of angels. Watch your head please, thank you very much. This is where he stayed, and rose from death, we call it Sepulchre, is empty tomb. God bless you, you can touch[ing] the tomb, you can make your prayer.
I get four days off! You come here tomorrow..
This holy city has to be one of the least enlightened places in the world. And it is also a place of barely suppressed religious hatreds.
There will come the day and that day is now. When you are on our lands, spreading these ideas, that the soldiers of Allah will not put up with this.
We live at a time when religious belief is fighting back against reason and scientific truth. This is a problem for all of us, because religion’s irrational roots nourish intolerance to the point of murder.
I’m in Jerusalem’s old city, trying to understand the role deeply-held faith plays in the bitter conflict here. One of the first things you notice is the edgy watchfulness, the different ethnic and religious communities live cheek-by-jowl, but there are security checkpoints throughout the old city, and one section above all is under heavy guard. For the Muslims, the compound enclosing the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque is, after Mecca and Medina, the third holiest site in Islam. It was from here, they believe, that the prophet Mohammad flew up to heaven. As bad luck would have it, the Jews believe the same place is the site of the long-destroyed first and second temples, the holiest shrine in Judaism.
Jews are not allowed to worship inside the compound, their prayers are restricted to the ruined western, or wailing, wall.
Yisrael Medad, Mount of the Lord Advocacy Group: “When Jesus came here to overturn the tables, there was no mosque in view.” “When the Arabs conquered this part of the world, they established the Al-Aqsa mosque.” And then they put over where we think is the main temple compound, where the altar was, where the holy of holy was, they put another building called the Dome of the Rock, it was not properly a mosque, and we at the present moment are simply not allowed in there, inside the compound, identifiably as Jews.
The Muslims reject these Jewish claims. And when Ariel Sharon entered the Temple Mount area in the Year 2000:
Ariel Sharon: “I came here with a message of peace.”
His visit sparked the second, or Al-Aqsa Intifada, a Palestinian uprising that has cost 4000 lives so far.
Haj Amin Al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Palestine: And if the Jews sincerely want peace with the Arabs and Muslims, then they should stand away, keep away from the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Yisrael Medad: “In the Muslim religion, there is no possibility anyway of sharing the territory.” If I come in there, in some far corner, far away from a mosque, in an open area, under a tree somewhere, if a Muslim will catch me murmuring psalms or some other prayer, he will call the police to have me ‘egressed’, shall I say.
Haj Amin Al-Husseini: As far as the Al-Aqsa mosque is considered, there are no negotiations, absolutely no negotiations about it. Because no Muslim has the right, worldwide, to negotiate over the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Again and again my conversations come back to the solid walls that religion puts up. Back to implacable faiths. “My holy book is true” , ” I am right” ,” He is wrong”. So I went to meet someone who, in my naivety, I thought might be able to see both sides of the story. Yusuf Al-Khattab used to be called Joseph Coen, born and brought up as a secular Jew in New York. In 1998 he moved to Gaza as a Jewish settler, but there he discovered a different God, Allah.
Dawkins: What I notice coming to this centre of world religions, is what a lot hatred religion fosters. I mean, I’m an atheist, and I am rather gentle, I don’t hate people. But it seems to me that I’m hearing hate on all sides, and it seems to me is all to do with religion.
Yusuf Al-Khattab: I hate atheists because atheists don’t care if somebody fornicates in the middle of the street, they don’t care if their women go bouncing around on TV topless, it makes no difference, they don’t believe in anything. If you don’t believe in a set rule, and you believe that a constitution can change, and you can amend the rules as they go along, and if you don’t believe in God’s rule, then what law do you have? You just have man-made laws.
I realized I was in the company of someone who has willingly bought into fundamentalist dogma.
Dawkins: What do you think about the September 11 attacks on New York, and the July 7 attacks in London?
Al-Khattab: Okay, since you like to speak about evolution, I’d like to start before What do you think about the Jews that have destroyed over 417 Arab villages, including all mosques and majids? Which wouldn’t affect you, ’cause you’re an atheist. So what are are you saying? That we should sit back.. Not at all. …and say: Oh, you know what? Let us progress and let us sit down and drink tea, and talk about what to do. I think that’s the most ridiculous thing. All I could say is if there was noquote-unquote “state of Israel”, there would have been no September 11.
Dawkins: But if we’ve all got to live together, it’s not going to be helped if there are people of very, very strong faith who simply “know” they’re right, and are not amenable to argument because… There’s somebody out there who’s just as faithful as you, and has his faith just as strong as yours, which is opposite to yours.
Al-Khattab: You see the problem is, Richard, I think that you have fear. You know that this party of occupying Muslim lands, and polluting society with these evil ideas that are around, it’s not gonna last forever. There will always be the soldiers of Allah there to give the response to this. So we also want the same thing. All we want is… we want the non-Muslims at this point off the lands of Mohammad, sal-allahu-alleihi-wasallam. All the lands of Mohammad, We want the kaffir out of it.
Dawkins: Do you want Islam to take over rest of the world?
Al-Khattab: Of course I want it to, and it will. So my advice is to clean up your show at home, take your forces off our lands, correct yourselves, fix your society, alright? Fix your women..
Dawkins: Fix your women? That’s not my business, that my women’s business. They’re not my women..
Al-Khattab: No, it is your business. It is your business. When you take the women and dress them like whores on the street..
Dawkins: I don’t dress women, they dress themselves!
Al-Khattab: But you allow it as a norm, to let the women go on the street dressed like this. What’s goin’ on with your society?
Dawkins: But I’m interested in religion and the effect that it has on peoples’ minds, and I’m worried about it.
Al-Khattab: And we’re very worried about you. I mean, what’s goin’ on with the stealing? With the theft? It’s out of control..
Clearly, historic injustice towards the Palestinians breeds hatred and anger. But we must face up to the fact that in creating the death cults of suicide bombers, it’s unshakeable, unreasonable conviction in your own righteous faith that is the key. If preachers then tell the faithful that Paradise after martyrdom is better than existence here in the real world, it’s hardly surprising that some crazed followers will actually swallow it, leading to a terrible cycle of vendetta, war and suffering.
Dawkins: I’m here on the Mount of Olives, looking out over this beautiful old city. We’ve heard some pretty extreme statements, some hatred, some bigotry, such as I haven’t really heard before. I don’t see what future the world has, as long as people think like that, and people are going to go on thinking like that, as long as they’re brought up from childhood, from the cradle, to think that there’s something good about faith. To think that there’s something good about believing because you’ve been told to believe, rather than believing because you’ve looked at the evidence.
I want to say that killing for God is not only hideous murder, it is also utterly ridiculous. Unlike religion, science doesn’t pretend to know everything. There are still deep questions about the origins of the universe that have yet to be explained. But just because science can’t answer them right now, doesn’t mean faith, tradition, revelation or an ancient holy text, can. Science can’t disprove the existence of God, but that does not mean that God exists. There are a million things we can’t disprove!
The philosopher Bertrand Russell had an analogy: Imagine there’s a china tea pot, in orbit around the Sun. You cannot disprove the existence of the tea pot, because it’s too small to be spotted by our telescopes. Nobody but a lunatic would say ‘well, I’m prepared to believe in the tea pot because I can’t disprove it’. Maybe we have to be technically and strictly agnostic, but in practice we are all tea pot atheists. But now, suppose that everybody in the society, the teachers, the tribal elders, all had faith in the tea pot.
Dawkins: Stories of the tea pot had been handed down for generations, it’s part of the tradition of the society, there are holy books about the tea pot. Then, somebody who said they did not believe in the tea pot, might be regarded as eccentric or even mad.
There’s an infinite number of things like celestial tea pots that we can’t disprove. There are fairies, there are unicorns, hobgoblins. We can’t disprove any of those. But we don’t believe in them anymore than nowadays we believe in Thor, Amen-Rah, or Aphrodite.
Dawkins: We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
In the next program, how faith acts like a virus that strikes the young, and how the good book, which people follow for moral instruction, actually reveals a god who is surely the most vindictive character in all fiction.
The Virus of Faith
How do we explain the mysteries of life? Science has steadily overturned old religious myths about how all this came to be. Yet those who adhere to Judaism, Christianity or islam still prefer to ignore reason, and have faith in their forever unprovable, omniscient creator.
I had thought science was rolling back religious belief, but I was wrong. Far from being beaten, militant faith is on the march all across the world, with terrifying consequences.
As a scientist, I am increasingly worried about how faith is undermining science. It’s something we must resist, because irrational faith is feeding murderous intolerance throughout the world.
Dawkins: In this program, I want to examine two further problems with religion. I believe it can lead to a warped and inflexible morality and I’m very concerned about the religious indoctrination of children.
I want to show how Faith acts like a virus that attacks the young and infects generation after generation.
I believe in a law-giver, a god right there actually not behind it, right imminent here, right now.
I want to ask whether ancient mythology should be taught as truth in schools.
Professor Dawkins, I’m very impressed that you’re the new messiah, and I appreciate your desire to redeem the world, but..
It’s time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas of hellfire and damnation.
I would rather for them to understand that hell is a place that they absolutely do not wanna go.
And I want to show how the scriptural roots of the Judeo-Christian moral edifice are cruel and brutish.
“…thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them…”
Dawkins: What in the 21st century are we doing venerating a book that contains such stuff?
Science weighs up evidence and advances. Religion is high-bound belief for belief’s sake. It’s bad for our children, and it’s bad for you. There is something exceedingly odd about the idea of sectarian religious schools. If we hadn’t got used to it over the centuries, we’d find it downright bizarre.
Sectarian education has proved to be deeply damaging. It has left a terrible legacy.
When you think about it, isn’t it weird the way we automatically label a tiny child with its parents’ religion?
Dawkins: These are Jewish children. In another part of Jerusalem, we’ve seen Moslem children. In Northern Ireland we have Catholic children and Protestant children all going to separate schools.
But what’s so special about religion that it is allowed to label small children ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, ‘Jewish’ or ‘Moslem’? Nobody would categorise children by the political party their parents support; call them ‘Tory’ or ‘Labour’ children. We agree they’re too young to know where they stand on questions of politics. So why is not the same for where they stand on the cosmos, and humanity’s place in it?
Dawkins: In genetic evolution, a species divides into two, initially geographically. There’s some initial separation between the two sub-species, and they divide away from each other genetically. There’s no longer gene flow between them, and so they can become separate species. It’s a divisive force.
Sectarian education acts in a similar way. Children are initially isolated from each other because of their parents’ Faith. Then their differences are constantly drilled into them and they embark on opposing life trajectories. Such divisions are encouraged, not just in faraway Israel but right on our doorstep, in Northern Ireland for instance or in London. In north London, the Hasidic Jewish community is the largest after Israel and New York. Here, religious division is taken to its extreme. These ultra-orthodox Jews only marry within their sect. Television is frowned upon, and of course children attend exclusive religious schools, cloistered away from external influences which just might persuade them to look outside their community. I want to find out why these children are being segregated, and whether their culture allows them to open their minds to reality.
Rabbi Gluck: Hello? Hello.
Dawkins: Rabbi Gluck.
Gluck: Nice to meet you.
Dawkins: I’m Richard Dawkins. How do you do?
Gluck: Thanks for coming, nice to meet you. Please come in.
Dawkins: Thank you very much.
Rabbi Gluck is London born and bred, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. His accent is a testament to the isolation of this religious sect.
Dawkins: Why should children be victims of the particular tradition in which they happen to have been born, rather than choosing for themselves by being shown all the evidence that’s available?
Gluck: We are all to a certain extent affected by our surroundings. There’s no such thing as a person living in a vacuum.
Dawkins: No, indeed.
Gluck: We’re all affected by our parents, by our families but at the same time we have a choice to stay or otherwise. I think it’s important for a minority to be able to have a space where it can express itself, where it can learn about itself.
Dawkins: Well couldn’t you preserve the customs, the traditions, the history without somehow imposing upon the children views about the universe which modern science would say are simply false?
Gluck: I would say impose upon a Jew anything, I would say that’s something which is impossible, I think it’s scientifically impossible. We believe that God created the world in six days, we know about evolution, every single Jewish kid knows about evolution and has thought about it and has studied it, and has looked at it, and has thought, “What’s going on here?”
Dawkins: How many of the children who come up through your system, your school system end up believing in evolution?
Gluck: I think that the majority don’t believe in evolution, they… but at the same time it isn’t they don’t believe because they don’t know about it.
Dawkins: You realise they’re being taught that the entire world began after what archaeologists would recognise as the agricultural revolution? I mean, these children are being brought up in a very distorted world indeed, and I worry about children being victims of this kind of what I can only describe as mis-education.
Gluck: I find the terms ‘distorted’ and ‘mis-education’ rather disturbing. Judaism has its tradition. I think there are various scientists who have their tradition. This so-called ‘the theory of evolution’..
Dawkins: Well it’s called that, but that’s in a very technical sense.
Gluck: But still, but still it’s called that, and it’s not called the ‘law’ of evolution.
Dawkins: Well I will call it the ‘fact’ of evolution, and..
Gluck: Then you’re a fundamentalist believer in it.
Dawkins: No, no, I’m not a fundamentalist believer. The age of the earth: 5,000 years? I mean that is.. I’m sorry, Rabbi, that is ridiculous!
Of course, Rabbi Gluck is right that it’s important for us to learn about our own background, but what upsets me is that in pursuit of that, these innocent children are being saddled with demonstrable falsehoods. And this is not just a problem of the Jewish minority. There’s pressure from an increasing number of Faith schools of other religions to put scientific fact on a par with primitive creation myths. In science classes, why can’t they simply teach science?
You said this is truth ‘cos it’s based on evidence.
Well no, you don’t exactly say that, you say, “We’re struggling towards the truth,” and as new evidence comes in, we refine it. And in the middle of that, Jesus says, “I am truth.”
We live in the shadow of a religiously inspired terror in an era when science has plainly shown religious superstitions to be false. And yet it’s a strange anomaly that Faith schools are increasing in number and influence in our education system, with active encouragement from Tony Blair’s government. There are already 7,000 Faith schools in Britain, but the government’s Trust Reforms are encouraging many more. Over half the new City Academies are expected to be sponsored by religious organisations.
The most worrying development is a new wave of private evangelical schools that have adopted the American Baptist A.C.E. curriculum: ‘Accelerated Christian Education’.
Adrian Hawkes, Phoenix Academy: Have you been to one of these schools before?
Dawkins: No, I never have.
Hawkes: No. Okay.
Accelerated Christian Education slips religious superstitions back into science.
Hawkes: If you want to be rude, you’d say it’s “programmed learning”, if you want to be polite, it’s “individualised instruction”.
Hawkes: So really, each one is teaching themselves. To a certain extent, of course. That has to be modified with adult supervision and so on.
Dawkins: I had a look at the curriculum booklet that you use for science, and it was very noticeable that God or Jesus did come on just about every page.
Hawkes: Yes, yes. We don’t have anything like religious instruction in the school ..because it is part of the..
Dawkins: I can see you wouldn’t need it.
Hawkes: No, of course not. Absolutely.
Dawkins: In one section of this thing, I suddenly, I was sort of taken aback, because I suddenly started reading about Noah’s Ark. I mean, what’s that got to do with a science lesson?
Hawkes: Well I suppose that depends on your opinion. It could have a lot. If you believe in the story, it could have a lot to do with science. But I mean the stuff that I was taught when I was a kid at school in science now you would laugh at and say it was a myth, – But that’s what I was taught..
Dawkins: But what were you taught?
Hawkes: When I was taught at.. one of the things that they told me at school that I’ve always remembered was that the moon came from the ocean, here on earth, and was flung into space, and that’s where it came from.
Dawkins: Well what you should have been taught, I suppose, is that there is a strong current theory that that’s what happened.
Hawkes: So what you’re really trying to ask me is: “Do you think the Genesis story was true, and that.. God created the world in seven days?” That’s what you’d really like to ask me, right? My answer to that is: “I don’t know.” Having said that, do I think that if God wanted to do it in seven days, he could? Yeah, I think he could.
Dawkins: He can do anything.
Hawkes: So it’s sort of an academic question, which actually I don’t care about the answer very much really. Does that make sense?
Dawkins: Kind of, yes. It does make sense. It doesn’t make sense to me because I do care about the answer.
Dawkins: Because I care about what’s true, and I..
Hawkes: I care about what’s true. Well I find Christianity encompasses everything about life. Christianity is life, so it’s about everything. It touches education, politics, care, social services, everything.
Dawkins: Let me ask about another thing in the booklet, which was about AIDS and HIV. I think somewhere it talks about AIDS being the wages of sin. Is that mixing health education with moralistic preaching?
Hawkes: I suppose the flip side of that is that if there is no God and there is no law-giver, why does it matter what I do? Why is rape wrong? Why is paedophilia wrong? Why are any of these things wrong if there is no law-giver?
Dawkins: You’ve just said a very revealing thing. Are you telling me that the only reason why you don’t steal and rape and murder is that you’re frightened of God?
Hawkes: I think that all people, if they think they can get away with something, and it is, there is no consequences, we actually tend to do that. I think that is the reality. Look at the world in which we live. That is the reality.
Dawkins: Okay, well I think better leave it at that.
Adrian Hawkes, I’m sure, is a well-meaning man. But why should he impose his personal version of reality on children? Not only are they encouraged to consider the weird claims of the bible alongside scientific fact, they are also being indoctrinated into what an objective observer might see as a warped morality.
Let me explain why, when it comes to children, I think of religion as a dangerous virus. It is a virus which is transmitted partly through teachers and clergy but also down the generations, from parent to child to grandchild. Children are especially vulnerable to infection by the virus of religion. A child is genetically pre-programmed to accumulate knowledge from figures of authority.
Dawkins: The child brain, for very good Darwinian reasons, has to be set up in such a way that it believes what it’s told by its elders, because there just isn’t time for the child to experiment with warnings like: “Don’t go too near the cliff edge,” or “Don’t swim in the river, there are crocodiles.” Any child who applied a scientific, sceptical, questioning attitude to that would be dead.
No wonder the Jesuit said, “Give me the child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man.”
Dawkins: The child brain will automatically believe what it’s told, even if what it’s told is nonsense. And then, when the child grows up, it will tend to pass on that same nonsense to its children.
And so religion goes on, from generation to generation.
For many people, part of growing up is killing off the virus of Faith with a good strong dose of rational thinking. But if an individual doesn’t succeed in shaking it off, his mind is stuck in a permanent state of infancy, and there is a real danger that he will infect the next generation.
I’m going to meet someone who has experienced religion as child abuse first-hand.
Dawkins: Jill Mytton.
Jill Mytton, London Metropolitan University: Oh, hello.
Dawkins: I’m Richard Dawkins, how do you do?
Mytton: Hello, Richard.
Jill Mytton was brought up in a strict Christian sect. Today she’s a psychologist who rehabilitates young adults similarly scarred by their narrow religious upbringing.
Mytton: They need to be allowed to hear different perspectives on things. They need to be allowed to investigate. They need to be allowed to develop their critical faculties, so that they can take a number of different viewpoints and weigh them up, and decide which one is for them. They need to find their own pathways. Not to be forced into a particular mould as a child. If I think back to my childhood, it’s one that’s kind of dominated by fear. And it was a fear of disapproval while in the present, but also of eternal damnation.
Dawkins: Do they get taught about hell fire and things like that?
Mytton: Absolutely. And to a child, images of hell fire and gnashing of teeth are actually very real, they’re not metaphorical at all.
Dawkins: Of course not.
Mytton: No. If you bring a child up and discourage it from thinking freely and making choices freely, then that’s still.. to me that is a form of mental abuse or psychological abuse.
Dawkins: Or if you tell a child that when it dies it’s going to roast forever in hell.
Mytton: In hell. That is abusive, yes.
Dawkins: What did they tell you about it? I mean, what happens in hell?
Mytton: It’s strange, isn’t it. After all this time, it still has the power to affect me when you asked me that question. Hell is a fearful place. It’s complete rejection by God. It’s complete judgement. There is real fire. There is real torment, real torture, and it goes on forever, so there is no respite from it.
It’s deeply disturbing to think that there are believers out there who actively use the idea of hell for moral policing.
In the United States, Christian obsession with sin has spawned a national craze for ‘hell houses’, morality plays-cum-Halloween freak-shows, in which the evangelical hobby-horses of abortion and homosexuality are literally demonised.
Pastor Keenan Roberts is rehearsing a new production of his Colorado-based hell-house, which he’s written and staged for almost fifteen years. He fervently believes that you have to scare people into being good.
Pastor Keenan Roberts: The call upon my life as a pastor, as a minister, is to tell people what the book says, and what I, and we in our church, and hundreds of churches across this country and around the world are doing is we have found a very creative, effective tool that is getting people’s attention ..to consider the message.
Dawkins: I believe it. I believe it.
Roberts: We want to leave an indelible impression upon their life that sin destroys. Every scene preaches the truth that either sin destroys or Jesus saves.
If this is a rehearsal, think how horrific the full production must be.
Dawkins: I presume you have a cut-off age for the tour, I mean no children below an age of.. What is your cut-off age?
Roberts: Well over the years of having audiences and people go through this, we have come to the decision that the best age for young people is really at twelve.
Dawkins: Would it worry you if a child of twelve coming to see your performance had nightmares afterwards? Or would you like that?
Roberts: I would like them… I would like for their life to be changed. No matter what. I would rather for them to understand that hell is a place that they absolutely do not wanna go. I would rather reach them with that message at twelve, than to not reach them with that message, and have them live a life of sin and to never find the lord Jesus Christ.
Dawkins: In the case of homosexual marriage, what harm does that do? Why would you be so passionately against that?
Roberts: They’re living in sin.
Dawkins: That’s your opinion. But it’s nothing to do with you, is it. It’s their decision.
Roberts: It’s not my opinion. I’m telling you what the bible says.
Dawkins: It’s the bible’s opinion. But these are two people who want to live together. Isn’t it their own business? What right have you to interfere?
Roberts: I want them to know homosexuality is sin.
Dawkins: But you believe it presumably on the basis of scriptural authority.
Dawkins: Yeah, um…
Dawkins: Yes, unapologetically. But why are you so sure that’s right? I mean if you think about where the scriptures come from, I mean, who wrote them, and when? What makes you so confident they’re right?
Roberts: It’s what I believe.
Dawkins: I know you believe it, but why?
Roberts: It is a faith issue with me. Why do you not believe it?
Dawkins: Uh… because of evidence.
Hell House is the brash end of a much bigger problem with the way religious belief works. Taken to its extremes, as by American evangelists, the bible is scanned for passages to justify right-wing views on abortion and ‘family values’.
I’m about to meet a believer who uses the word of God to fight against centuries of human progress. I think execution for adultery is not rejected. Not rejected by who? By you? – No. By the New Testament. – What about you? Do you favour execution in adultery? I think that’s fair to say, that that’s still a proper punishment that the State ought to prosecute.
It’s not so bad, surely, to believe in moral codes handed down to us from the good book. Doesn’t the bible give us a moral framework in which to live? Well no. The holy texts are of dubious origin and veracity, and they’re internally contradictory. And when we look closely, we find a system of morals which any civilised person today should surely find poisonous.
The Old Testament is in every church and synagogue throughout the world, and is the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace tries to secretly seduce you, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods”…
This is God’s advice on what to do to a friend or family member who suggests you believe in another deity: “You must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death..” “..and the hands of the rest of the people following.” “You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God..”
Dawkins: The god of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it. Petty. Vindictive. Unjust. Unforgiving. Racist. An ethnic cleanser, urging his people on to acts of genocide.
If God doesn’t set a good moral example, who does? Abraham, the founding father of all three great monotheistic religions? The man who would willingly make a burnt offering of his son Isaac? Maybe not.
How about Moses, he of the tablets which said, “Thou shalt not kill”? Well the same man, it says in the book of Numbers, was incensed by the Israelites’ merciful retraint towards the conquered Midianite people. He gave orders to kill all male prisoners and older women. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
Dawkins: How is this story of Moses morally distinguishable from Hitler’s rape of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs?
So let’s leave Moses out of it. But there are lesser characters facing somewhat more everyday moral dilemmas. Maybe they provide a better role model.
In the book of Judges, a priest was traveling with his wife in Gibiah. They spent the night in the house of an old man. But during supper, a mob came to demand that the host hand over his male guest.
“..so that we may know him…”
Dawkins: Yes, in the biblical sense. Well, the old man replied:
“Nay, my brethren. Nay, I pray you. Do not so wickedly.” “Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine..” “..them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you..” “..but unto this man do not so vile a thing.”
Dawkins: So enjoy yourselves by raping and humiliating my daughter, but show a proper respect for my guest who is, after all, male. Whatever else this strange story might mean, it surely tells us something about the status of women in this religious society.
Now of course, nice Christians will be protesting, “Everyone knows the the Old Testament is deeply unpleasant.”
The New Testament of Jesus, they claim, undoes the damage and makes it alright. Yes, there’s no doubt that, from a moral point of view, Jesus is a huge improvement, because Jesus, or whoever wrote his lines, was not content to derive his ethics from the scriptures with which he’d been brought up. But then it all goes wrong.
Dawkins: The heart of New Testament theology invented after Jesus’s death is St Paul‘s nasty sadomasochistic doctrine of atonement for original sin.
The idea is that God had himself incarnated as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be hideously tortured and executed to redeem all our sins. Not just the original sin of Adam and Eve, future sins as well, whether we decide to commit them or not.
Dawkins: If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them? Who’s God trying to impress? Presumably himself, since he’s judge and jury, as well as execution victim.
To cap it all, according to scientific views of prehistory, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place. An awkward fact which undermines the premise of Paul’s whole tortuously nasty theory.
Dawkins: Oh but of course the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it. Symbolic? So Jesus had himself tortured and executed for a symbolic sin by a non-existent individual? Nobody not brought up in the faith could reach any verdict other than ‘barking mad’.
The strange theology and questionable texts wouldn’t matter, but for the unfortunate fact that there are people out there who really believe this stuff is the word of God, and act on it challenging progressive values and the rule of law. If you take the ‘good book’ to its literal extreme, and some people do, you can justify murder.
In 1994, the reverend Paul Hill shot and killed Dr John Britton outside his abortion clinic in Florida. In 2003, Hill was executed for murder. But he went to his death claiming his actions were backed by holy scripture.
I’m going to meet the Paul Hill’s friend and defender, the reverend Michael Bray.
Dawkins: Mr Bray?
Rev Michael Bray: Yes, sir.
Dawkins: I’m Richard Dawkins.
Bray: It’s good to meet you, sir. Michael Bray.
On what moral basis can he, as a Christian, defend a self-professed, cold-blooded killer?
Dawkins: Your friend Paul Hill, who was convicted of murdering a doctor, he took the law into his own hands, didn’t he?
Bray: No. Paul Hill, by his own testimony, acted defensively, not in retribution. That’s the job of the law. The job of the law is to punish. – No. The job of citizens is to, is indeed out of love, to protect one another.
Dawkins: Does it ever occur to you that that doctor had a wife to grieve for him? Paul Hill killed him! Now the embryos that Paul Hill was ‘defending’, they were tiny little things without any knowledge, without any memory, without any fears, without all the things that a full-grown adult doctor had. Doesn’t that give your conscience a little bit of a twinge?
Bray: Well I don’t think we measure the value of someone by their cognizance of their surroundings or their.. or even of their relationships. The value that we give human beings historically, and thankfully from the scriptures, is that they are created in God’s image, and they are. They have a certain sanctity because of that. So whether they be imbeciles or…
To most sensible people, Bray’s fellow clergyman Paul Hill looks like a dangerous psychopath, righting what he perceived as wrong by committing another, more terrible wrong. Yet people like Hill and Bray don’t see the world that way. They declare that their justification is in the bible, and by re-declaring the bible as the absolute word of God they give their actions validity.
Dawkins: Many of us who don’t subscribe to any particular holy book worry about suffering. We actually worry about whether the victim of a murder, whether it’s the murder of a, in your terms, of an embryo, or of an adult doctor. I mean, can you not see that there’s a big imbalance there between those two deaths.
Bray: Well I couldn’t take into account, because I’m not omniscient, to know all the sufferings that various people suffer.
Dawkins: Where do you think he is? Paul Hill.
Bray: Oh, I have high hopes that he’s doing well.
Dawkins: You think he’s in heaven.
Dawkins: You think Jesus approves of murdering doctors.
Bray: I think that, uh… he said that, uh… he said that we’re to love the children just as we love others. Suffer the little children to come to me.
Dawkins: I reckon I have a fairly strong moral conviction as well, but I’m not that confident. I wouldn’t like to go and kill somebody for the sake of my morality. How can you be that confident?
Bray: I think, uh… my own confidence, I guess, has come with time. The more I, I think the scriptures, the more I live, the more satisfied I am intellectually that they interpret reality for me.
Dawkins: It was curious. I quite liked him. I thought he was sincere. I thought he wasn’t really an evil person. And I was reminded of a quotation by the famous American physicist Stephen Weinberg the Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist Weinberg said, “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.”
* * *
People like Michael Bray are a big problem for Christian morality. Not all Christians are as rooted in the spoil of scripture, but they do all take inspiration from the same holy text. But who is right? The established Church of England is being painfully torn apart by these differences of opinion over the scriptures. The battleground is not so much abortion, but homosexuality and gay clergy. On one side are vociferous scriptural purists. On the other: more moderate believers who interpret the bible selectively.
Dawkins: You’re on the liberal wing of the Anglican church. Maybe the other side are the ones who are being true to their scriptures in a way that you’re not. I mean you, who are liberal and much closer to what I would think, are the one who’s departing from the… certainly from the scriptural, and perhaps from the fundamentals.
Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford: Um, well if you take the issue of homosexuality there’s no doubt about it, there are a number of texts, not as many as people think, but a few texts, which clearly regard homosexuality as wrong, both in the Old Testament very strongly, but they’re also there in the New Testament. But of course it’s a question of how you interpret the bible, whether it’s really right to just simply extract a few isolated texts rather than seeing the whole message of the bible, the whole message of Jesus. But I think there’s another, perhaps even more fundamental one which links in to your fundamental interest in evolution. Our understanding of what it is to be a gay or lesbian now is very very different from what it was, let us say in the Roman world, when the New Testament was written. Therefore it’s purely a matter of choice. We now actually know that a significant percentage of people are predominantly attracted to members of their own sex. So it’s a question of the changing facts, as well as a changing understanding of how the bible should be interpreted.
Dawkins: This of course is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering why you stick with Christianity at all therefore. And maybe some of the fundamentalists might say just that to you.
Harries: I think that moderates need to be passionate, both about their religious beliefs, and about rationality, and it’s possible to be a passionate moderate. It’s much more difficult…
Some say that while religious fundamentalists betray reason, moderate believers betray reason and Faith equally. The moderates’ position seems to me to be fence-sitting. They half-believe in the bible. But how do they decide which parts to believe literally and which parts are just allegorical?
Dawkins: I take it that as an Anglican bishop you wouldn’t deny miracles, and I think you ought to, to be consistent with what you’ve just been saying.
Harries: I think if God was doing miracles the whole time, then we would live in an Alice in Wonderland-type world.
Harries: It would be unpredictable. And you and I wouldn’t be able to have a rational conversation.
Dawkins: It’s almost as though you think there’s a kind of ‘ration’ of miracles, which mustn’t be exceeded, or we get into ‘Looking Glass’ territory.
Harries: We can’t say what that ‘ration’ is. If miracles were happening all the time, whenever we wanted them to happen, then human life as we know it couldn’t exist.
Dawkins: And what about the sort of really big miracles, like the virgin birth? What do you think about that?
Harries: I don’t think that it’s on a par with the resurrection, for example. I mean, I actually do believe that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is absolutely fundamental to Christianity, in a way that I don’t believe the virgin birth is.
It seems to me an odd proposition that we should adhere to some parts of the bible story but not to others. After all, when it comes to important moral questions, by what standards do we cherry-pick the bible? Why bother with the bible at all, if we have the ability to pick and choose from it what is right and what is wrong for today’s society?
I suspect that religion is simply a parasite on a much older moral sense. I want to examine how science reveals the true roots of human morality. Morality stems not from some fictional deity and his texts, but from altruistic genes that have been naturally selected in our evolutionary past.
Oliver Curry, London School of Economics: Humans have much more sophisticated versions of the kinds of social instincts you see in chimps and other creatures. But really there’s no great leap. It’s just… If you can think of chimps as MS-DOS, and humans as Windows 2000.
Religious believers like to claim that their god and ancient texts provide them with an inside track to defining what is good and what is bad. But it is surely far more moral to do good things for their own sake, rather than as a way of sucking up to God. Our true sense of right and wrong has nothing to do with religion. I believe there is kindness, charity and generosity in human nature. And I think there is a Darwinian explanation for this.
Through much of our prehistory, humans lived under conditions that favoured altruistic genes. Gene survival depended on nurturing our family and on doing deals with our peers. The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” principle.
Curry: I don’t think we need religion to explain morality. And if anything, it just gets in the way. Morality is a lot older than religion. Humans have an innate moral sense, or a range of moral senses that you could think of as sophisticated versions of the kind of social instincts you see in chimps and other social species.
Dawkins: What sort of morality or proto-morality would you expect to find in a chimpanzee troupe?
Curry: We find that they live in family groups, the mothers look after their kids, they work in teams, and also chimps are particularly good at competing for status through what’s been called public service. So they compete for status not just through brute force, but by being good leaders, by intervening to settle disputes…
Dawkins: What are the main evolutionary reasons for cooperating and being altruistic?
Curry: Working together often produces mutual benefits for those that are involved, so you can often just do better by working in a team than you can by working by yourself.
Perhaps it is our genetic inheritance that explains why those of us with no allegiance to a holy book or a pope or an ayatollah to tell us what is good still manage to ground ourselves in a moral consensus which is surprisingly widely agreed. As social animals, we’ve worked out that we wouldn’t want to live in a society where it was acceptable to rape, murder or steal. We have a moral conscience and a mutual empathy, and it is constantly evolving. Religious or not, we have changed in unison, and continue to change in our attitude to what is right and what is wrong.
Dawkins: Fifty years ago, just about everybody in Britain was somewhat racist. Now only a few people are. Fifty years ago, it was impossible for gay people to walk along the street hand in hand. Now it’s easy.
Some of us lag behind the advancing wave of moral standards, and some of us are ahead. But all of us in the 21st century are ahead of our counterparts from the time of Abraham, Mohammed or St Paul. But progressive shift often emerges in opposition to religion. It’s driven by improved education, and then expressed by newspaper editorials, television soap operas, parliamentary speeches, judicial rulings and novels.
Ian McEwan: I guess my starting point would be: The brain is responsible for consciousness, and we could be reasonably sure that when that brain ceases to be, when it falls apart and decomposes, that’ll be the end of us. From that, quite a lot of things follow, I think especially morally. We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness, and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. You cannot rely, as Christians or Moslems do, on a world elsewhere. a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, and crucially, make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvellous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own. and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.
Dawkins: I profoundly agree with you, and I’ve always felt that one of the things that’s wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all.
McEwan: And if you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began, or what the relationship is between this sky-god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity and all the other major religions.
To an atheist like Ian McEwan, there is no all-seeing, all-loving God who keeps us free from harm. But atheism is not a recipe for despair. I think the opposite. By disclaiming the idea of a next life, we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life-affirming, in a way religion can never be.
Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, ultimately unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity.
People sometimes say, “There must be more than just this world, than just this life.” But how much more do you want?
Dawkins: We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they’re never going to be born. The number of people who could be here in my place outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. If you think about all the different ways in which our genes could be permuted, you and I are quite grotesquely lucky to be here. The number of events that had to happen in order for you to exist, in order for me to exist. We are privileged to be alive, and we should make the most of our time on this world.