A few nights ago I watched the Richard Dawkins documentary “The Root of All Evil?” from 2006. In it Dawkins re-makes the old argument that religion is the cause of all of the problems in the world. And while making his main argument he, of course, couldn’t resist taking some shots at religion itself, pointing out many inconsistencies and logical failings of religions.
Despite the fact that I’m an atheist, and Dawkins is seemingly a flag-bearer of atheism, he isn’t someone I agree with very often. First of all, to answer the question in the title of his documentary - is religion the root of ALL evil? Of course not. Human nature has plenty of flaws independent of religion that are evil enough. For example did the ongoing Global Financial Crisis, which is causing hardship around the world, have anything to do with religion? No, it was pure and simple greed. But Dawkins is correct in some extreme cases, sometimes religions can be evil. A few examples that come immediately to mind:
- institutionalized sexism and homophobia (sexism in Catholicism and Islam, homophobia in many religions)
- the promotion of unsafe health practices (for example, the prohibition of contraceptives in Catholicism which is playing a significant role in the spread of HIV around the globe)
- the promotion of ignorance (by many religions – like the push to teach Creationism in Science classes).
Dawkins illustrates many other examples in the documentary, some of which are horrifying, but for the most part are isolated and rare cases, enacted by people with extreme religious beliefs. Despite what Dawkins suggests, the vast majority of people in the world who practice religions are moderate and fairly modern. Most people, whatever their religious beliefs, are moral and decent and are just as horrified by the extremists as he is.
Even though I’m not a religious person myself (unless you classify atheism as a religion) , I can accept and understand why so many people are religious. Like Dawkins, as a scientist and an atheist I know that the universe is rational and logical and everything in it, including us – humans and human life – can be explained by chemistry, physics and biology. But there are questions that some people have that can’t be answered scientifically – so they turn to religion. Many people seem to have a fundamental need of some form of spirituality in their lives. So, like Dawkins, I might not agree with most religious beliefs, but unlike Dawkins, I can accept the fact that religion is fundamental to many people. And I understand that asking them to abandon religion would be like asking them to stop breathing.
In my opinion many of the problems with religion that Dawkins discussed aren’t caused by religion per se, but by religious intolerance. How many times has religion been blamed for conflicts through history? Too many to list – the Crusades through to the Holocaust, the 911 attacks, Suni and Shia conflicts, and the Troubles in Ireland, to name a few. The ongoing “oil wars” in the middle east may be another example – would George W. Bush (a proclaimed born-again Christian) have attacked Iraq for it’s oil if it was a Christian country? Who can say, but I personally doubt it.
All of these conflicts were caused by religious intolerance. Now, you might argue that if there was no religion there would be no religious intolerance – and you’d be correct. But if religion is a fundamental part of human nature, then that point is moot. We have to accept that there are many different religions around the world, and that’s not going to change. So we have to accept the fact that many people around the world have fundamentally different beliefs than we do. It’s the inability or unwillingness to accept this that leads to conflict.
And this is my biggest problem with Dawkins: when it comes down to it, he’s just as intolerant as any extremist Islamic cleric preaching hatred of the west, or any bible-thumping pastor from the American Bible Belt preaching hatred of Islam. Dawkins is preaching intolerance of all-of-the-above. Intolerance is intolerance, coming from a “non-religious” atheist or not.
Extreme atheism can cause just as many problems as religious extremism – and it’s just as wrong.