Paul Greenaway reviews Richard Dawkins's The root of all evil? (Channel 4, Monday January 9 and 16, 8pm)
In this two-part "consciousness raising" exercise, Richard Dawkins attacks the "process of non-thinking called faith" - a process which will continue in September with the publication of his new book, The god delusion. How is it, asks a puzzled and sometimes furious Dawkins, that in what "should be an age of reason", instead there is an "elephant in the garden" called religion - a superstitious thought system which in his damning view invites the "positive suspension of critical faculties" and thus promotes intolerance, fanaticism and violence?
Somewhat predictably, for the viewpoints expressed in The root of all evil? and elsewhere Dawkins has been denounced as an "atheist fundamentalist", "secular extremist", etc. In this vein, Madeleine Bunting in the pages of The Guardian complained that Dawkins' "voice is one of the loudest in an increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists" who are so "badly rattled" that they have "even turned their bitter invective on Narnia" - before rather stupidly commenting: "As GK Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in god is not that they believe nothing; it is that they believe in anything" (January 7). Hardly an accurate description of Richard Dawkins, or indeed most atheist humanists - whether "fundamentalist" or not.
But who can deny that Dawkins' latest blast against religion is timely indeed? Clearly, the principles of secularism and free speech are under assault. So violent Sikh protests managed to prevent Gurpreet Bhatti's play Behzti (Dishonour) from running at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre - while their christian counterparts attempted to intimidate the BBC, and its staff, for daring to broadcast Jerry Springer, the opera.
Then we have Tony Blair's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill - criminally supported by the Socialist Workers Party and George Galloway - which aims to make 'incitement to religious hatred' a criminal offence. At the same time the Blairites continue to promote faith schools - a pernicious separatism enthusiastically supported by multiculturalists like Bunting, of course - in the name of 'promoting excellence' and other such nonsense.
Even more monstrously, Blair is a keen supporter of the christian-driven Vardy foundation schools - which now have two 'city academies' in the form of Emmanuel College in Gateshead and the King's Academy in Middlesbrough, with plans to foist another one upon the unsuspecting population of Thorne, near Doncaster. The Thatcherite Sir Peter Vardy has been widely described as a "christian fundamentalist car dealer" and the official school curriculum of these 'academies' teach that evolution is just an "unproven" theory and therefore accord an equal - and in reality a greater - importance to creationism (or 'intelligent design' theory, as they like to call it these days).
Setting out his christian ethos, Nigel McQuoid, who is the headmaster of King's Academy and was previously head at Emmanuel, believes that "if relativist philosophy is acceptable" then it follows that "sadomasochism, bestiality and self-abuse are to be considered as wholesome activities" - not to mention the fact that the bible "says clearly that homosexual activity is against god's design", and therefore he, McQuoid, would "indicate that to young folk."
Meanwhile - as Dawkins wearily reminds us in The root of all evil? - some 45% of all Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.
During the programme we are introduced to a fairly frightening array of characters, and perhaps most alarming of them all was pastor Ted Haggard - a staunch Republican and leading representative of the "American Taliban", as Dawkins puts it. Haggard is the president of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, the largest such group in America. He also serves as president of both the Association of Life-Giving Churches, and "worldprayerteam.org" - apparently the only real-time global internet prayer network.
Deeply worried about what he calls the "islamification of Europe", Haggard enjoys a weekly conference call to fellow fundamentalist, George Bush - so much so that Harper's Magazine has suggested that "no pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted."
Haggard's website tells us that "the holy bible, and only the bible, is the authoritative word of god" - indeed, "it alone is the final authority for determining all doctrinal truths". Furthermore, according to Haggard, "In its original writing, the bible is inspired, infallible and inerrant" and that "the blood that Jesus Christ shed on the cross of Calvary was sinless and is 100% sufficient to cleanse humankind from all sin" (www.tedhaggard.com/believe.jsp).
Not that christian piety and the pursuit of mammon are in any way incompatible - far from it. On Haggard's website, for instance, for $19 you can buy his best-selling book, Dog training, fly fishing and sharing christ in the 21st century - or, if you prefer, the much cheaper How to take authority over your mind, home, business and country ($4). Scarily, this is what serves as bedtime reading for George Bush.
In a bizarre incident during the filming of this section of the programme, Haggard and his goons suddenly turned nasty and physically chased Dawkins and his TV crew off the premises - on the grounds that Dawkins had called Haggard's children "animals"! Later, Dawkins worked out that what had so upset the good Pastor Ted was his advocacy of evolutionary theory/Darwinism - which to the likes of Haggard translates into the insulting, and truly shocking, idea that human beings (made in the image of god) share a common ancestry with monkeys, apes, etc.
Not that Haggard's fury is a mere laughing matter - many academics, and others, in the United States are in danger of losing their job if they are too outspoken in their atheism. Dawkins spoke to American secularists who were deeply worried about the spread of the sort of "domination theology" or "dominion christianity" so aggressively peddled by fundamentalists like Haggard. Dawkins expressed his fear about the rise of "christian fascism" - though some might find that formulation a tad exaggerated.
Another fascinating - though slightly depressing - insight was garnered by Dawkins' discussion with Joseph Cohen - a Zionist Jew from New York who in 1998 moved to the Gaza Strip as a settler. However, Cohen quickly became Yoseuf al-Khattib, one of the "soldiers of Allah" and an all-round fanatical political islamist - burning with the desire to "rid the land of Mohammed of all kaffir" (infidels). He also declared that he "hated" all atheists like Richard Dawkins as they had no "fixed" rules or belief-system - and sternly instructed Dawkins to "go home" and "fix your women", who "dress like whores". To put it mildly, Dawkins was not amused by al-Khattib's suggestion.
Dawkins now holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and is married to ex-Dr Who assistant, Romana (the actress, Lalla Ward) - a fact of great envy to any straight male of my age and generation. He is also well known for his great dislike of the fashion of wearing baseball caps back to front.
However, he is of course more famous (or notorious) for his immensely influential 1976 book, The selfish gene - where he argued that natural selection worked only through the medium of genes - not species or individuals. Hence, believes Dawkins, humans are to be viewed as "gene survival machines" or "lumbering robots" built to protect the genes that hide within them. In that work he also speculated on the existence of so-called 'memes' - that is, self-replicating cultural transmissions, or "viruses of the mind", that are passed on both vertically and horizontally within families. For Dawkins, religion is an example of a much unwanted 'meme' that lingers on in the collective gene-pool - hence the title of the second and final programme in this series, 'Religion as virus'.
Obviously, this makes The selfish gene - and perhaps certain aspects of The root of all evil? - problematic. Despite his many insights and flashes of brilliance, Dawkins' central thesis has an ineluctable reductionist logic to it, centred as it is on a gene's-eye view of the world. Consequently, Dawkins and his fellow 'ultra-Darwinists' embrace an 'adaptationist paradigm', which decrees that every phenotypic feature - ie, the characteristics of every individual organism - must at the end of the day represent something which either has been (naturally) selected or is available for selection.
In this way, the living organism itself, the wider environment, the role of chance and accident - ie, contingency - become obscured, if not dismissed. Natural selection is, literally, everything - there are no limits to its power. Or in the case of 'memes' and religion, as presented in The root of all evil?, religious beliefs - and conflicts - are divorced from their social-political context, and real, very earthly origins. In which case, as sometimes implied by Dawkins in his Channel 4 programme, the only hope of beating the 'memetic' genes that carry religion/superstition is a somewhat abstract - though admirably passionate - force called 'Reason' or 'Science'.
But, having said all that, Richard Dawkins' militant defence of secularism - as laid out in The root of all evil? - is a much welcome shot in the arm, and puts to shame those 'Marxist' comrades in the SWP and elsewhere who now seem to regard secularism as a "shibboleth" which can opportunistically be set aside - or even dumped for the sake of political convenience.