The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

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The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions

In January 2006, The Root of All Evil, two programmes by Richard Dawkins appeared on British TV Channel 4. The aim here is to summarise and comment on the programmes in so far as they relate to Dawkins's main theme of Science and Religion.

The overall title of these pages is explicable as follows. Firstly, the two programmes are basically Dawkins's atheist engagement with Protestantism. The small amount of material on other religions and the tenuously linked references to religious terrorism are essentially window dressing.

Secondly, Dawkins offers an entirely Protestant view of religion, as being about God and holy texts. He obviously thinks that by dismissing these he is dismissing religion. Of course, this site has different ideas.

Thirdly, Dawkins's particular brand of scientistic atheism is demonstrably descended from Protestantism, with Science replacing God and scientific evidence replacing the holy texts.

Here's a quotation from later:

We have to view Dawkins as forever echoing Protestantism even as he condemns it, revealing an atheism that exists only in terms of the prior monotheism, the way a black mass exists only in terms of the mass proper.


The God Delusion

Dawkins's book of this name was published on 25-09-06. Before publication, I had planned to give the work extensive coverage on this site. However, it turns out to be so embarrassingly pathetic as to preclude serious consideration.

Reference to the last paragraph of page 1 will be quite enough to make clear what I am getting at. Here Dawkins invites us to

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion.

Then he gives us a list of bad things associated with religion.

Name dropping

Note first of all the name dropping that is such a prominent feature of the book. In this case, it is as difficult to find the late celebrity's having been against religion as any more significant than his colleague's, George Harrison's, having been in favour of it.

The Gunpowder Plot

Then be aware that most of the bad things listed involve, surprise, surprise, Islam or Catholicism: including, incredibly, the mindlessly petty example of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, of all things. The use of this revealing example alone should be enough to persuade us of how in general Dawkins lacks judgement in relation to religion and how in particular his thinking on religion is immersed in old-fashioned low-level Protestant bigotry.

The only specifically Protestant bad thing Dawkins comes up with is

shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people,

anodine alongside his other examples: he has had to supply the extravagant adjectives here in order to lend some semblance of comparability with the other items on his list.

No c20th genocides

Far more importantly, Dawkins ignores the non-religious genocides and other mass atrocities of the c20th. With no religion, we would still have had Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot ... Later in the book, Dawkins discusses whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists or not. But that's an irrelevance. The point is that their crimes were not motivated by religion, that in general religion was not responsible for most of the horrors of the last century, that getting rid of religion is no guarantee whatsoever that such horrors will not be repeated in the future.

At the very bottom of the page, Dawkins burbles,

Imagine no Taliband to blow up ancient statues.

Later in the book, he refers to these statues as Buddhas:

I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would would bulldoze Mecca - or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan. [p 249]

But he totally ignores the fact that all these were religious creations in the first place.

Our Religious Past

This consideration leads us to the main point of this note. Dawkins effectively invites us to imagine a world without its religious past. But if we do indeed try to imagine a world with no religion, where does it all end. The world as we know it is inconceivable without its religious past. Thus, apart from houses and fortifications, there can be very few buildings or monuments over a few hundred years old anywhere in the world that are not in some sense religious.

Or take for example, music. One of my favourite composers, Brahms, was an atheist, (as I am myself,) but his music could not exist in the absence of a musical tradition that grew up in religious contexts. The same applies to every area in the arts.

Or take the science that Dawkins goes on about so much. Science is as rooted in the religious past as are the arts. For instance, it is pointed out that Arab scholars transmitted Greek learning to the European Middle Ages. Well, those scholars were part of a culture that would not have existed without the rise of Islam.

Or take Oxford University, where Dawkins has been ensconced most of his life: the colleges there are mostly religious foundations, as some of their very names tell you. And so it goes on.

It is one thing for a mass market song writer like John Lennon to imagine a world without religion in a sentimental lyric. But it is something entirely different for a supposedly serious writer to do so. In proposing as the first point in his book that we should imagine our world without religion, Dawkins is just being ridiculous: embarrassingly so.

We cannot pretend that religion is some superficial blemish in an otherwise ideal world. No, in various ways, it's an integral part of all of us. In fact, Dawkins himself is undoubtedly as bound up in religion as anybody, as these pages demonstrate. What we have to do is not to try to destroy religion, but to transform it so as to help us make a better world.

Understanding religion

The first issue we have to tackle is the very definition of religion. Let's start by grasping that understanding religion the way Dawkins does, as being essentially about God, holy books and how individuals relate to those, is simply the Protestant way.

It is doubtless because he understands religion in the Protestant way, that he is blind to the religious foundations of our entire culture, including for example that the Gothic splendours of Chartres, York Minster and Notre Dame he seems to cherish were created by Catholicism.

One of the aims of this site is to point to a quite different understanding in which God as such does not figure, nor do holy books.      [Back to the main text]

(c) John C Durham, 2006

The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions