The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion: Summary

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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

There are two loosely connected themes in Richard Dawkins's TV programme, The God Delusion. These are a major theme of science versus religion and a minor theme of religion and terrorism. On this page we summarise the programme in so far as it relates to the major theme. [1]

On this page: LourdesThe AssumptionScienceAmerican MegachurchNuremburgThe Eye as AccidentFreethinkersRussell's Teapot

Dawkins starts the programme by presenting himself as a scientist and suggesting that science and religious belief, which he equates with belief in God, are fundamentally at odds. [A bit about religion and terrorism follows.] Dawkins refuses to accept governmental attempts to stifle criticism of religion, which does not like independent thinking and which splits people apart.

Lourdes

Dawkins's first target is Catholicism. He visits Lourdes, pointing to the religious theatre there and supposing it is the group experience that validates the religious delusion.

Dawkins elicits from two Irish women pilgrims replies to the effect that the pilgrimage is an expression of faith and that it reinforces faith. With the help of a priest, Dawkins establishes some statistics: there are 80,000 sick pilgrims annually and in the 150 years of operation there have been 66 officially recognised miracle cures. The priest points out that millions have been helped spiritually.

Dawkins concludes that, in context, a figure of 66 alleged miracles is meaningless. What's more, the miracles all involved conditions that could have cleared up naturally.

The Oxford professor indicates his intention of examining how the suspension of disbelief involved in that kind of faith may predispose believers to much more dangerous notions.

He then elaborates a little on his initial opposition between science and religion. He contrasts the open-minded, critical nature of scientific enquiry with the closed-minded, uncritical way in which religious truth is established by authority and tradition.

[For comment, go to Lourdes.]

The Assumption

To illustrate this contention, Dawkins returns to Catholicism, to the doctrine of the Assumption. According to Dawkins, this is a non-Biblical idea to the effect that upon her death, Christ's mother, Mary, ascended bodily into heaven. He says the idea first appeared some 600 years after Christ and gradually became accepted through tradition. Finally, in 1950, the then Pope made it an official doctrine that Catholics had to believe.

Dawkins claims that the pope in question would have said that this truth had been revealed to him by God, that it had been revealed to him in private thoughts inside his own head.

Dawkins does not consider this particular instance too bad. But the Pope's personal convictions in opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids in Africa is a different matter. He finds similar authoritarian dictates in other religions equally unacceptable.

[For comment, go to The Assumption.]

Science

Dawkins now moves on to the issue of Creationism versus Evolution. For our early human ancestors, a world creating supreme being such as a sun god was the only way to deal with the mystery that surrounded them. But science has now explained the sun as one of billions of stars and the earth as 4½ billion years old.

Such scientific knowledge is based on the accumulation and assessment of evidence, including a willingness to abandon long held hypotheses in the light of evidence. Dawkins recounts a memorable episode from his own undergraduate days: he had been moved by witnessing one of his professors publically abandoning a theory on account of evidence.

Former ages had no alternative but to suppose that the world had been created supernaturally. But eventually, Darwin had come up with an understanding from science.

Dawkins explains the evolution of life on earth from the extremely simple to the extremely complex in terms of his image of Mount Improbable, a mountain with a sheer face and a gently sloping one. Life could not have ascended the sheer face (representing chance or divine design), it must have ascended the gentle gradient (representing evolution by natural selection).

Dawkins had supposed that evolution would prevail during his life. Yet, despite all the evidence, it is today threatened by religious faith.

[For comment, go to Why Creationism.]

American Megachurch

Dawkins now visits the USA, where apparently 135 million people, getting on for half the population, believe the world to be under 10,000 years old. In particular, Dawkins visits a Christian fundamentalist megachurch in Colorado Springs, where there is a congregation of 12,000 and where the pastor, Ted Haggard, is a leading American evangelical, a Republican with access to George Bush himself.

This segment of the programme is basically a series of interview moments between Dawkins and the Pastor, shown against a background of Haggard addressing his congregation and interspersed with comments from Dawkins made after the event.

In an introductory comment, Dawkins notes the immense political power of the evangelicals in America, the all-embracing programme of social activities this particular church has for its members, the swaggering authority of its pastor. He says his aim in being there is to find out why unrational faith is on the up and challenging science.

[For comment, go to The social dimension of religion.]

Nuremburg

He starts his interview by remarking on the amount of money spent on the church, with Haggard responding that the aim was to bring him close to his congregation. Dawkins follows up by commenting that it is all reminiscent of the Nuremburg rallies, to which the Pastor responds by rejecting the notion that his aim is to elicit mindless adulation.

[For comment, go to Megachurch as Nuremburg.]

In a comment, Dawkins notes that we all need meaning in our lives, but that as adults we accept that life is not all black and white, whereas these born-again Christians are being returned to the infantile notion that all they need is God: as presented by the pastors.

Presumably answering a question not screened, Pastor Haggard claims that Biblical truth such as love thy neighbour does not require evidence. (He doubtless means it is self-evident.) Under questioning from Dawkins, he says that his congregation isn't forced to believe the truth of the Bible, that it was composed over a 1500 year period by 40 authors without them contradicting one another: whereas scientists frequently contradict one another.

Dawkins rejoices in this last: with the constant flow of new evidence, scientists keep changing their minds. Having a book that doesn't change does not get people to think for themselves. In a later comment, Dawkins claims that Haggard and co are peddling Bronze Age myths in denial of scientific evidence.

The Pastor argues that American evangelicals do indeed use the scientific method to increase their understanding of God's creation. The idea that the world is 4½ billion years old is accepted by only parts of the scientific community and may well come to be rejected.

The Eye as Accident

When Haggard suggests that the ear and the eye came about by accident, Dawkins pounces, snapping out peremptory questions enquiring what the Pastor means and on the basis of whose authority he is speaking. He comments finally, You obviously know nothing about the subject of evolution..

[For comment, go to The Eye as Accident.]

Haggard's response is to invite Dawkins not to be arrogant. He apparently later ordered Dawkins and his crew off the site, threatening jail and seizure of the film.

Dawkins afterwards responds to Haggard's argument by asserting out that evolution and creationism are not of equivalent weight. The former is supported by a vast accumulation of evidence, whereas the latter has only some ancient scribblings.

Freethinkers

The visit to Colorado Springs ends with Dawkins talking very briefly to a tiny local freethinker group. One member says he is under great and organised pressure for teaching evolution and another says the situation is reminiscent of the McCarthy era. He mentions the terms domination theology and dominion Christianity; Dawkins himself suggests Christian fascism.

[For comment, go to Beleaguered Freethinkers.]

In a comment, Dawkins sees American fundamentalism as a mirror image of Islamic extremism.

He reinterates his contention that all religions are implicated in extremism because of their encouragement of unreason.

Dawkins's last overseas destination is Jerusalem, the Old City, for him a microcosm of the religious conflict which threatens rational values and civilisation. [We skip this segment of the programme.]

In a final segment, Dawkins returns to science. Seen cycling along a quiet and leafy Oxford street, past a university building, he says that science, unlike religion, doesn't claim omniscience. The origins of the universe have yet to be fully explained, but that doesn't mean the religions have the answers.

Russell's teapot

In particular, Dawkins tackles the point that God's existence can't be disproved by science. He uses the philosopher, Bertrand Russell's, orbiting teapot analogy.

We can't disprove that there is a teapot orbiting round the sun, but only a madman would believe it on the grounds that it can't be disproved. Yet in a society where belief in the orbiting teapot was taught as part of accepted tradition, then anybody who refused to accept it might be thought mad.

[For comment, go to Teapot analogy.]

There are kinds of things that can't be disproved, but which we don't believe in. These days, people no longer believe in ancient gods such as Thor. Not believing in God is merely taking things one step further.

[For comment, go to One god further and Dawkins's historicism.]

NOTES

1 The God Delusion

The God Delusion, televised by Channel 4 on 09-01-06, was the first of two programmes under the overall title of The Root of All Evil. The second programme, also summarised and commented on on this site, was The Virus of Faith.

A lecture with slides

The programme works as a lecture partially illustrated by slides. Basically, Dawkins delivers a lecture either over a background of stock footage, such as scenes of scientific research, or at one of his locations. The location segments include excerpts from interviews mainly with religious spokesmen.

The present summary

The Channel 4 website does not appear to provide a transcript, so the present summary is based on a personal recording of the screening. The summary is about 1/3 the length of those portions of the original script that are of interest here, about 70% of the whole. As far as practicable, the summary reflects the amount of space devoted to each point in the original.

The minor theme

The minor theme accounts for about 30% of the programme, almost all of it towards the end in the Jerusalem visit segment. [Back to Article]

(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