Beautiful Minds: Richard Dawkins

Rooting about in the great YouTube basement of forgotten television programmes, I came across this BBC documentary in the Beautiful Minds series. I saw all the second series, broadcast last year.  This episode was interesting to me because I knew practically nothing about Dawkins’ scientific credentials – it was primarily as a polemicist for atheism that I came to know him, and of his many books I’ve only read The God Delusion. I’m probably similar in that respect to his detractors, who may not even have read that one book.

What comes across is his absolute respect for the scientific method, combined with an almost child-like wonder at the world it reveals:

Science is magical in the best sense of being spell-binding, spine-crawling, exciting, magical in that sense.

I  can understand his impatience with religion, which seeks to reduce all this incredible complexity to an authority-driven dogma.

TED Talks: Richard Dawkins on our strange universe

A new weekly post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is what the internet was made for – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettoes and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

Richard Dawkins talks about the “queerness” of science in reference to J. B. S. Haldane’s quote: My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. In this enlightening and entertaining talk, he pulls the rug out from under our feet to demonstrate that “science, as opposed to technology, does violence to common sense.” Watch out for a fascinating and slightly scary story about Major General Albert Stubblebine III, US Intelligence Commander from 1981 – 1984.

Blasphemy for the Day: Strange Bedfellows

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

You might have heard that education secretary, Michael Gove, hatched a cunning plan to distribute a copy of the 1611 version of the King James Bible to every school in the UK. It was to be a handsome volume, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of its publication, with a foreward by Gove himself. But the project ran out of funds. The bibles were printed Abroad – enough, I’d have thought, to enrage any Little Englander – and there they languished on the Continent with scarcely a penny to pay their passage home. Fortunately for Gove, Tory donors saved his bacon by stumping up the rest of the money.

Not surprisingly, Gove’s vanity project attracted a lot of criticism from atheists, agnostics, and secularists in general. Then – shock horror – Militant Atheist, Bane of Believers, and all round Pain in the Arse of the religious establishment, Richard Dawkins, rode to the rescue. In this article – Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible – he applauds the idea on the grounds that the King James Bible is a literary and cultural treasure every child should be familiar with.

A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.

Well, you can’t put it much stronger than that. But Dawkins’ support is double-edged.

I have an ulterior motive for wishing to contribute to Gove’s scheme. People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality. This mistaken view may have motivated the “millionaire Conservative party donors”. I have even heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.

Fair enough. But is Gove’s gift to the schools going to achieve this? I suspect not. It will be locked away from the grubby little hands of children, probably in a display case, and only available for inspection under strict supervision. And it’s not as if there aren’t other copies out there. Amazon, much as I hate doing their advertising for them, is selling the Anniversary Edition online. If you don’t want to pay an eye-watering $71.21 for a print copy, you can read the digital version at King James Bible Online for free.

The Bible is a fascinating book. I studied it at school in Religious Education classes, and I even have a GCE O Level in the subject, which fueled my interest in mythology and religion. When I took an English degree as a mature student, one of my elective classes compared the Genesis story and Greek creation myths. Later on, I re-read Genesis for the pleasure of it – surely there’s never been such an over the top soap opera since, with larger than life characters doing bat shit crazy things. To be taken seriously now it would have to be set in Hollywood. Or during the GOP primaries.

So I’m sympathetic to Dawkins’ view of the literary importance of the Bible, but it is only one flower in the glorious garden of eloquence that graces the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Shakespeare, anyone? I would argue that while the language of the Bible and Shakespeare are equally magnificent, Shakespeare’s humanity transcends any noble sentiment in the Bible. If Gove had suggested giving each school a copy of the Collected Works, he would be doing them a far greater favour, though the gift would probably be as little used as the King James Bible will be.

Sorry, Richard, it’s not going to work.

Blasphemy for the Day: Richard Dawkins’ Hate Mail

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

Richard Dawkins reading a bizarre selection of emails from his detractors. Notice the idiocy, vindictiveness, and complete lack of argument in these missives. All expressed with a paucity of language and much profanity. But Dawkins seems to be enjoying it, and someone is laughing in the background. Could it be the lovely Lalla Ward, now married to Dawkins, who I used to drool over when she played Romana in Doctor Who?

Blasphemy for the Day: Richard Dawkins vs Rowan Williams Debate

A new feature in response to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, for that blessed day of rest, Sunday. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

Not so much blasphemy, more a game of two halves, as someone famously said about football. Though not famously enough for me to know who it was. This is a heavyweight bout between two champion contenders in the field of religious belief and unbelief. On the right is that Godless Heathen and Militant Atheist, Richard Dawkins. On the left is the Archbishop of Canterbury and winner of the Best Ecclesiastical Beard Contest, 2011, Rowan Williams. Apparently they’re good friends outside the ring. The event, sponsored by the University of Oxford, was held at the Sheldonian Theatre on February 23rd.

This is a treat for me – haven’t seen the video yet – and I hope you enjoy it as well.

A Temple to Atheism? Dear God, No!

I have been driven to prayer by faux philosopher, Alain de Botton’s idea for a “temple to atheism” in the City of London, as outlined in this Guardian article. Why does he want this temple? Because he thinks Richard DawkinsChristopher Hitchens, and other militant atheists are a “destructive force.” In other words, he wants a kinder, gentler atheism that stresses positivity and goodness, with an awe-inspiring building to evoke the correct response.

I think most people seek positivity and goodness in their own way, atheists and believers alike. Including Dawkins, who recognizes that the lies and institutionalised power of religion are the enemies of reason, and any happiness derived from religion depends on studiously ignoring the reality of how the world works. I don’t think Dawkins et al are being overly zealous in combatting what would be insane ideas if someone had only invented them just a moment ago. With hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind them, they have accumulated an entirely undeserved authority. We think Scientology is utter bollocks, a cynical, money-making scam, but time will turn it into an established Truth.

That said, I part company with Dawkins in not thinking that religion will eventually succumb to the forces of reason, or that believers are influenced by everything in their holy books. Institutional religion has such deep roots in human societies that digging them all up is impossible – they’re like weeds, springing up where fear and longing meet a supernatural idea.

What makes this truth palatable is that we’re only human, and only give practical credence and expression to those parts of a holy book or political dogma that accord with the manners and mores of the society we inhabit. Obviously, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but societies do evolve in response to real events and real knowledge. Bad news if you live in a theocracy, because real knowledge is in short supply. For citizens of liberal democracies, religious institutions are generally more benign, their practiced doctrines more or less compatible with civilization. Even these societies have their fundamentalists, but they’re more likely to be marginalized. A glaring exception is the US, which has a thriving Christian Taliban, currently choosing the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

So I try to respond to people as fellow human beings, and refrain from criticizing their religious beliefs unless they bring them up, or behave in a completely unacceptable way. People are interesting and generally do the decent thing – I’d rather talk and try to understand where they’re coming from. I reserve my criticism and anger for the institutional coercion of secular societies and special pleading. Nobody should be exempt from secular laws.

This is the “temple” proposed by de Botton:

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Brilliant. Sounds like a really imaginative architectural project. I’d be proud to back something like that if only he didn’t tack the silly label of “temple to atheism” on it. Ask yourself, what does this project have to do with belief or non-belief? It’s about science, evolution, the whole glorious panoply of emerging life on earth. Isn’t that enough? And we already have such buildings. They’re called the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum among many others. The only way de Botton’s project could be a temple to atheism is if he installed an altar at its centre, housing an illuminated copy of The God Delusion. Even then, it would be pure idolatry.

The fact is that being religious does not preclude either respect for the scientific method or the well-established theories derived from it. Catholics, for example, accept the Big Bang and evolution, although they insist on a God somewhere in the process. By and large, only fundamentalists reject the basic tenets of science. By calling this a temple to atheism, he is in fact shutting the door in the faces of those believers who respect science. As atheists, we can’t afford to do this. We need all the help we can get to establish and maintain secular societies where both belief and non-belief are protected and tolerated.

As it happens, de Botton has already run into trouble with his daft label.

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well, d’uh!

Please read the Guardian article, which has all the meat on its bones. I hope there’s a cif article on the subject soon, so we can all pile in with comments.