Feb 06 The strange religion of Richard Dawkins

The strange religion of Richard Dawkins, Part 1

            Richard Dawkins has been in the news again, condemning and denigrating religious belief in general, and Christianity in particular. He is a scientist who insists that the natural sciences demand an atheistic worldview. It is his assertion, expressed in increasingly shrill (and intolerant) tones, that the scientific explanation is the only one. Darwinism to Dawkins is not simply a theory, or a mechanism describing change; it is a philosophy of life, and one to replace religion. More than that, he portrays Christian people as dishonest fools who are unable to cope with the harsh realities of the world, and prefer to live in a make-believe world into which they entice the unwary and the young. He equates Christians with people who believe in fairies. He pursues his crusade against religion with an astonishing evangelical zeal, missing no opportunity to put across his point of view.

            There are several strands to his antipathy towards religion, and I shall spend a couple of newsletters responding to them.

            Richard Dawkins is an Oxford academic, Simonyi Reader and professor of the public Understanding of Science. He is an ardent atheist, an honorary associate of the National Secular Society and vice-president of the British Humanist association. He is an ethologist, interested in animal behaviour and particularly the role of genes. I first came across Dawkins when I was a student. His book ‘The Selfish Gene’ was causing a stir, especially because it contained not only novel scientific ideas, but because these ideas were presented in the context of the author’s atheism. 

            About ten years later, I read ‘The Blind Watchmaker,’ in which he argues that evolution inevitably leads to the conclusion that the universe has no designer. It is worth saying that in his earlier writing Dawkins could be an entertaining, if infuriating, read. But as the years have gone by his arguments have become more strident, but (it seems to me) no more developed, and, at times, seem no more sophisticated than the kind of shallow name-calling which can characterise ill-tempered playground squabbles.


            This month let me respond, in this brief newsletter, to his insistence that religion is an evil. This is a moral objection to religion. Here is what he said following the events of September 11th:

Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!

            Dawkins regards all religion as an evil. He has described it as a ‘virus of the mind’. Religion is a malignancy of the mind, which should be eradicated through education. Unfortunately, in order to substantiate this, Dawkins lapses into one of his most unattractive habits, which is to misrepresent his opponents. He describes the wildest religious fanatics as typical, and then condemns all religion for that fanaticism. He portrays Christians like you and me as being the same as Osama Bin Laden. He seems to reason that since those who carried out the September 11th attacks did so for religious motives (in itself a debatable point), then all religious motivation is evil.

            This is nonsense. What bad people do in the name of a distorted religion does not make all religion bad, any more than what bad people do in the name of science makes all science bad. During the war several Nazi scientists, the most infamous being Josef Mengele, performed appalling experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Victims were put into pressure chambers, tested with drugs, castrated, frozen to death. Children were exposed to experimental surgeries performed without anaesthesia . At Auschwitz, Mengele did a number of medical experiments, using twins. He carried out twin-to-twin transfusions, stitched twins together, castrated or sterilized twins. These twins, some as young as five years of age, were usually murdered after the experiment was over and their bodies dissected.

            Mengele injected chemicals into the eyes of the children in an attempt to change their eye colour. The barbaric manner in which hundreds of thousands of people died continues to appal most right-thinking individuals.

            However, we do not do what Dawkins does with religion. We do not conclude that all science is wrong because of the evil of a few scientists. We can distinguish how bad people misuse science from the worthwhile nature of much scientific enterprise.

            Over recent weeks our news has carried many stories about the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk, whose claims in connection with Stem Cell research, published in the prestigious ‘Science’ Journal, have been exposed as fraudulent. Once again, the wrongdoing of one scientist does not mean all science is wrong. One scientist has been exposed as a fraud and a charlatan, but not all science is fraudulent.


            It is generally recognised that people arrive at their religious views on grounds other than science. John Polkinghorne, the renowned particle physicist, who resigned the chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University in 1979, in order to study Christian theology and become an Anglican minister, has written of how he found his scientific colleagues to be similar to any other group of people and no more likely or unlikely to be Christian than any other group. Their science seemed not to affect whether they would be Christian or not. One suspects Richard Dawkins’ real objection to religion has nothing to do with science. His is a religious point of view (the religion of atheism) dressed rather misleadingly in scientific clothing.

            Yours sincerely


            Martin Thomson

<< Return to letters

Copyright © 2009 Dalry Trinity Church of Scotland