A little criticism of Richard Dawkins

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Recently, I have seen the following video with Richard Dawkins, prepared by Al Jazeera English and discussing Dawkins’s book The God Delusion:

While I generally like the way he is able to tear his opponents into pieces in most interviews he’s been through, I think the moderator had raised a few interesting points Dawkins failed to deal with:

Dawkins argues that religion is the root (but not sole) cause for some really bad things individuals do (like suicide bombing). The moderator presents a study (by which I believe he means Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism) which says that geopolitical situation and patriotism rather than Islamic fundamentalism play a much more important role, but Dawkins nevertheless argues that it is the doctrine those people believe which makes it possible (and thus the doctrine had better be eradicated).

Later, the reporter presents examples of horrible dictatorships, such as Stalin’s Soviet Union or socialist Albania, which used the scientific fact (which indeed is a scientific fact) that most religious statements about the real world are false, in order to persecute and murder religious people. Dawkins replies that this is an appalling thing to say and expresses that he absolutely does not support such a way of spreading scientific truth.

I believe that Dawkins missed the point a little. Obviously, using scientific facts as a motive to murder people who disagree with them is wrong. But why in the case of suicide bombing, for instance, the root cause, according to Dawkins, is the religion itself, whereas in the case of the above mentioned tyrannies, the cause is misuse of scientific facts? If someone misuses science, it is not a reason to abolish science—why then should misuse of religious teachings be a reason to abolish religions? I find that a little unfair (but I am not saying there might not be other good arguments for abolishing religion; this one just doesn’t seem objective to me).

Of course, on might argue that persuading people to do such horrible acts is an inherent property of the respective religions. But religions, although many adherents of particular religions would like to deny it, do develop. They develop because of social, political, and scientific pressure. For example, it indeed is written in the Old Testament that those who break the Sabbath should be stoned to death, but no one really believes that anymore, much like scientists in modern Germany don’t believe that it is acceptable to use Jews as experimental objects, as many did less than a century ago.

When someone makes a case against religion on moral grounds, he or she should distinguish the finer shades of religious beliefs. What most religious people believe is completely harmless. I don’t think it is appropriate to condemn a religion per se based on immoral behaviour of people who have been brainwashed using particular teachings of a minority of adherents of the religion.

When the reporter gives Dawkins examples of famous people (such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi) who did very good things (and religion played an important part in their motivation for doing so), Dawkins replies that he doesn’t care about their motivation, but that he doesn’t see any logical connection between religion and doing good things.

I feel that these arguments are not really consistent. Dawkins says he actually doesn’t care about what the motivation of these people was, but yet, when it comes to suicide bombers, religion is the most important cause to blame. The problem is that Dawkins, on one hand, attacks religion on moral grounds when it comes to bad things that presumably happened because of religion, but on the other hand, is completely indifferent when it comes to good things that happened because of religion or bad things that happened because of science.

I believe that, if religion is to be attacked on moral grounds, then all moral aspects, and the causes of moral issues, should be considered. For example, the pope, or more generally the elite of the Catholic church, is responsible, through its anti-condom policy, for the deaths of millions of people in Africa. That’s certainly a moral issue to be discussed, but does it relate to the question of faith and religion themselves, or is it rather a question of actions of a small set of individuals?

I believe that it is appropriate to attack religion on factual grounds when, for instance, religious people want to teach children that the Earth is less 10 000 years old, because there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that it is not. I believe that it is appropriate to attack religious authorities if they are a cause of suffering. But I don’t believe it is appropriate to attack religion itself on moral grounds without taking into account other delicate moral issues, not necessarily connected to the religion itself. What do you think?

By the way, are you not a native English speaker? Then you should check out the list of over 500 commonly mispronounced words I have compiled in the form of a book. There's also a downloadable PDF version.

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