The devil within Dawkins

February 3, 2006

Religious extremists are not hard to find, but demonising all believers along with them does science few favours. Denis Alexander takes issue with the stand taken by Richard Dawkins in his TV series

Anyone familiar with the academic literature on propaganda would immediately have recognised the genre had they watched either programme in The Root of All Evil?, the recent Channel 4 series by Richard Dawkins. The time-honoured propaganda strategy is to paint the opposing side in the blackest possible light, using the most gruesome examples, and then to make stark contrasts with one's own side, which is, of course, full of truth, light and reason. The strategy is used often in politics. In his case, Dawkins chose to go for the old-fashioned black-and-white style of adversarial engagement.

An important aspect of propaganda is that the examples chosen to demonise the "enemy" must be, to a large degree, real ones. Dawkins is on safe ground because the vast majority of the world's population possess some kind of religious belief, so statistically the chances are high that some of those beliefs will be extreme and in some cases downright dangerous. So it is a simple exercise to travel around interviewing a subset of such cases to reveal their absurdities.

This provides the first of several ways in which, in this series, Oxford University's professor of the public understanding of science failed to convey how scientists normally go about their business. In science, it is vital to obtain a random sample to get some idea of variation. Yet Dawkins picked on a Jewish rabbi whose tiny orthodox school opposes evolution and ignored the fact that Jewish scientists are world leaders in research into evolutionary mechanisms and that the vast majority of Jewish schools happily teach evolution. A more informative approach might have been to compare the small percentage of religious schools that fail to teach evolution adequately with those that do - why the few exceptions?

Extrapolating from limited data to propose a general scientific conclusion is a common error among new PhD students, but it is not the kind of simple mistake one would expect from an established scientist. Yet this series was full of such extrapolations. Dawkins finds some religious extremist from the heart of old Jerusalem or from the depths of rural Texas who is anti-scientific or pro-violence in his attitudes and, hey presto, "all religion is anti-science" and "all religion supports violence".

Of course such exemplars exist, but to build general conclusions on such limited data is a bit like a lazy evolutionary biologist finding a few mutant finches with abnormally long beak length in a population on day one of a field outing then returning home to claim that all finches of this species display the same properties.

This raises an obvious question: why did Dawkins choose not to interview people who were more representative of their "species"? There is something very uncomfortable in watching an academic making fun of people who do not share the privileges of his own educational background. Dawkins interviewed the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Richard Harries, but he decided that because he seemed so rational and sensible, he must be atypical of the religious species. The Bishop's voice was faded into the background in favour of Dawkins's voiceover, leaving the Bishop mouthing silently in the background.

Why did Dawkins not interview the many scientists in Oxford or in the wider scientific community, many of them eminent in their fields, who see their faith and their science as synergistic and integrated? He knows they exist because he has debated with many of them in the past. Could this indicate a deep insecurity in allowing his arguments to be exposed publicly to academic rational scrutiny?

One of the attitudes encouraged by the scientific community is informed debate, in which examples and counter-examples are weighed up to draw well-justified conclusions. But Dawkins simply ignored many counter-examples to his thesis. If religion is the root of all evil, why did the 20th century see the mass killing of humans in the name of state-sponsored atheism on a much higher scale than the numbers killed in the "religious wars" of past centuries? Mao Zedong was responsible for the deaths of up to 70 million people, Stalin for at least 20 million, and 50 million people died in the war started by the man who once reminded his dinner guests that "Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature". The applications of science were essential in rendering these numbers of killed so mind-numbingly huge. When, near the end of the series, Dawkins made the extraordinary claim that "we" (who?) are now so much more moral than humanity of a few thousand years ago, one did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Do we thereby conclude from these facts that all atheists are as evil as Mao, Stalin and Hitler? No, of course not, but atheists should at least give pause for thought before they try to take the moral high ground and point the finger at religion. A rational argument should include such data in its deliberations. And it is worth saying that people generally do not give up on science because of its gross misuses. Nor do people give up on sex because of the existence of rape. Nor indeed on religious belief because religious beliefs are sometimes misused and misapplied.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this series is that it made such a botched job of accurately explaining and exemplifying both science and religion in almost equal measure. Nothing was presented in the programmes to dissuade the viewer from the stereotypical view that scientists are grumpy old men, somewhat arrogant, and with a chip on their shoulder. Were I an atheist, I think I would have cringed as I watched, in the same way that members of new Labour cringe when some tub-thumping old socialist party member beats the drum for the revolution on prime-time TV. The public image of science is already fragile enough - this series did not help to challenge the stereotypes.

Even the science itself, scarce as it was in this series, was communicated in such a compressed way as to give a false impression. A geneticist informed us that genes were involved in the evolution of biological altruism - no problem there. But then we leapt by implication to the claim that "genes explain morality". Really? So how come the populations of North Korea and South Korea, barely separated in genetic terms, have such different moral codes? Scientific concepts have to be simplified a bit for television, but there was really no excuse in this case for not explaining the science more judiciously.

Dawkins may not contribute much to the peer-reviewed scientific literature, but he writes great popular books on evolutionary biology. This makes it all the more puzzling that he should stoop in The Root of All Evil? to what is at heart a rather crude propaganda series. Out the window went the judicious assessment of competing theories, the weighing of conflicting data and the idea of scientific tolerance, and in came ranting, misrepresentations and crude exaggerations. Could it be that when opposing fundamentalist believers encounter each other, the mirror image is subconsciously recognised for what it is? One unfortunate spin-off is to perpetuate mythologies about the supposed opposition between science and religion that have long since passed their sell-by date.

A few years ago, Channel 4 aired what was generally accepted to be a rather good series on science and religion under the title Testing God - not perfect, but far superior to The Root of All Evil? It made a genuine attempt to grapple with opposing arguments, and a wide spectrum of views was represented. The relationship between science and religion was presented not within the simplistic conflict framework that Dawkins finds so endearing, but as a multi-textured relationship, full of subtleties and ambiguities. Since then, the science has been moving on rapidly. Who knows, maybe there is some ambitious producer out there who might yet generate an updated TV series that will tackle the fascinating contemporary interactions between science and faith not as a propaganda exercise, but with greater integrity as a rational and richly textured narrative that will educate and entertain the viewer by the sheer intrinsic interest of its material.

Denis Alexander is director of the new Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and is editor of the journal Science and Christian Belief .

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