Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Root of All Evil?

This documentary, in two parts subtitled The God Delusion and The Virus of Faith, was shown on Britain's Channel 4 last month. I was a little surprised that the documentary was aired on a mainstream TV channel and got such media coverage there. Rest assured, you are not going to see anything remotely like this in America or India. Although quite good, the format was a little too small to examine religion's place in the contemporary, modern world from all perspectives or do a full-blooded theological critique, but it was well worth my time. Also, I don't think Dawkins, with his phrases like, "a process of non-thinking called faith" or "an alpha-male in the sky", is going to win any converts from the faithful folds but yes, those who are sitting on the fence might be persuaded after watching this.

There are no new arguments here. Same old things about how religion fosters artificial divisiveness, shows contempt to evidence, relies on authority and tradition as means of truth verification and because of all this leads to violence and fundamentalism. How moderates help create an environment of acceptance and how they betray religion and reason both. Why bringing up children by labeling them with the religions of their parents is akin to child abuse and so is sending them to faith-based segregated schools. Also, how dubious the claims of religion as a guide to ethical behavior are, depend as it does on antiquated assumptions of man and his place in society. And at the same time, how evolution can explain our moral instincts which are derived from altruism, kin selection and cooperation, all explained by evolution (and the selfish gene).

The best part of the program was where Dawkins goes to meet an evangelical pastor named Ted Haggard in Colorado who runs a state of the art "worshipping center". His sermon sessions resemble rock concerts (he himself resembles more like a business executive like most the modern gurus and which is perhaps what he is in true sense) and watching the blind devotion of people to the guru, makes Dawkins compare it to the Nuremberg's rally and Haggard to Goebbels. All this on his face! To his credit, the pastor, surely because of his inner spiritual energy, keeps a smiling face throughout. Although it all makes him even creepier. Dawkins later tells us that his team was thrown out by the genial pastor. The pastor was definitely pissed off!

At another place in Jerusalem, a devout explains a long history of how Jesus was crucified on that very place and lots of other things to which Dawkins says, "you don't really believe that do you?"! And of course the best sequence was where he quotes from the old testament and pronounces this judgment on God:

The God of the old testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in fiction. Jealous and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist, an ethnic cleanser urging his people to acts of genocide.

Dawkins doesn't just interview the weirdos and fantatics. Towards the end he meets a genuinely affable Bishop of Oxford, who opines on why religious texts are meant to be interpreted and not to be taken literally. To which Dawkins rather logically says, "then why do we need religious texts?". Also there are a few comments by the acclaimed novelist Ian McEwan on how he finds science exciting even as he is an artist looking for deeper meanings behind things.

All in all, good fun. I was also thinking of how Eastern religions come out much better than the three monotheistic monstrosities. Hinduism and Buddhism, at least in their original/philosophical form, do not make any pronouncements on the phenomenal world, nor do they lay out moral laws with which we should live by. This way they skirt the problems the other religions face with science and politics. Of course, there are texts in the Hindu canon (the laws of Manu for example) which try to do the same thing but thank God, they are mostly of scholarly and historical importance. If the scope of religion is limited to purely and strictly subjective and are individualistic, like true Buddhism and Hinduism it can live amicably with science and modern politics but the problem starts when even these religions are used a label for foisting a group identity on individuals.

Some excellent reviews of the documentary are here and here.
Also a reply to a critical article in the guardian here.


Michele said...

"...the same thing but thank God[?], they are mostly..."

I thought you were an atheist :-)

Alok said...

but that's a metaphor. but still I should have used small 'g' :(

Michele said...

A metaphor for what?

Alok said...

hmmmm... metaphor for "undefined", "something I don't know" or "something nobody knows" in "God knows"

this "God" has really taken over the entire thought and language. no wonder atheists find it so difficult to convince people !!