Truth lies and faith
He describes his astonishment that, at the start of the 21st century, religious faith is gaining ground in the face of rational, scientific truth. Science, based on scepticism, investigation and evidence, must continuously test its own concepts and claims. Faith, by definition, defies evidence: it is untested and unshakeable, and is therefore in direct contradiction with science.
In addition, though religions preach morality, peace and hope, in fact, says Dawkins, they bring intolerance, violence and destruction. The growth of extreme fundamentalism in so many religions across the world not only endangers humanity but, he argues, is in conflict with the trend over thousands of years of history for humanity to progress * to become more enlightened and more tolerant.
At the extremes
He explores the state of the three Abrahamic religions in the world today, from the political influence of rich and powerful Christian fundamentalist institutions in America to the deadly clash of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Middle East. He describes the Holy Land as the least enlightened place in the world, a microcosm of the threat to rational values and civilisation posed by religion, whose irrational roots, he says, are nourishing intolerance and murder.
There are plenty of characters to illustrate his thesis. There are fanatics, like the former West Bank settler who has taken the small step of converting from Jewish fundamentalist to Muslim fundamentalist, transferring his hatred from one side of the looking glass to the other. And the frighteningly charismatic leader of Americas National Association of Evangelicals, who believes he has been chosen by God to convert Americans through religious gatherings that resemble rock concerts * though to Dawkins they feel more reminiscent of Nuremberg rallies.
Then there are the desperate, like those carrying burdens of disability or disease, who are among the 80,000 people a year who make the pilgrimage to Lourdes. Dawkins does the maths: out of the millions who, over a century, have placed their faith in a miracle restoring them to good health, there have been only 66 authenticated cures. This is hardly a strong record, he says, arguing that it is better for us to embrace truth than false hope.
A sense of belonging
Drawing on such examples, it is not difficult to demolish the claims of religion as fairytales, and dangerous ones at that. But there is more to religion than ancient stories and articles of faith. Dawkins touches on the sense of belonging promised by religious groups but dismisses this as seductive group solidarity, which he describes as a shared delusion. In doing so, he glances off the more subtle dilemmas of how religions and religious traditions are woven through peoples notions of community, history and identity.
Having a sense of ones place in the world is important to everyone but has particular significance for minorities and peoples under political, economic or military pressure. Individuals may even accept Dawkins atheistic and scientific deconstruction of the myths they have grown up with but still defend and nurture the matrix of institutions, practices and relationships which make them who they are.
Toot of All Evil* Part 2: The Virus of Faith
How is it, asks Richard Dawkins, that despite science having exposed old religious myths, militant faith is back on the march* The mechanism for perpetuating beliefs that Dawkins describes as leading to murderous intolerance, is by imposing religion on children who are too inexperienced to judge it for themselves.
We wouldnt categorise children according to their parents political stance, says Dawkins, since they are too young to make up their minds about such matters. But we segregate them in sectarian religious schools, where they are taught superstitions drawn from ancient scriptures of dubious origin, which promote a contradictory and poisonous system of morals.
From generation to generation
Dawkins compares this to a virus, which infects the young and is passed down the generations. Visiting an ultra-orthodox Jewish school, he describes the British-born headteacher Rabbi Glucks Yiddish accent as testament to the isolation of his community. Gluck says that its important for members of minorities to have the space to express their own beliefs and traditions. He describes science as one tradition, and Judaism as another. His students are taught about evolution and if only a minority end up believing in it, he says, this is not out of ignorance.
The number of faith schools is increasing. More than half the Governments proposed City Academies will be run by religious organisations and theres a growing number of private evangelical Christian schools. ACE * Accelerated Christian Education * has developed a curriculum which includes a mention of God or Jesus on every page of its science text book. The head of a school which uses this material argues that if there were no lawgiver, there would be no reason to see rape and murder as wrong.
Hellfire and damnation
Transmitting such a warped reality to young people, says Dawkins, amounts to indoctrination. Children are uniquely vulnerable and if they fail to question and shake off such superstition, they remain in a state of perpetual infancy. He talks to a woman brought up in a strict Christian sect who describes the terror of eternal damnation, which dominated her childhood, as a form of abuse.
Hellhouse movies are a new growth industry in the USA today. Graphically filmed, they demonise abortion and homosexuality with the explicit aim of scaring the viewers. Pastor Keenan Roberts explains that the aim is to leave an indelible impression on their lives that sin destroys * and Jesus saves. The result, says Dawkins, is a mindset which can justify the murder of a doctor who carries out abortions on the grounds that he is destroying a being created in Gods image!
Physicist and Nobel prizewinner Stephen Weinberg describes religion as an insult to human dignity. Without it, he says, youd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion. Dawkins agrees. It is more moral, he says, to do good for its own sake than out of fear. Morality, he says, is older than religion, and kindness and generosity are innate in human beings, as they are in other social animals. The irony is that science recognises the majesty and complexity of the universe while religions lead to easy, closed answers.
Is there no more than just this life* asks Richard Dawkins. How much more do you want* We are lucky to be here, he says, and we should make the most of our time on this world.