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Richard Dawkins and The Root of All Evil

A few months ago we had Jonathan Miller's ™s TV series on atheism, and now here is Richard Dawkins with another (a two-parter this time). In Part 1 we saw Dawkins at Lourdes, interviewing devotees. He made the important point that there is something seductive about being in the company of thousands of believers caught up in an emotional state of (literal) enthusiasm. Even he, it appears, felt something of the kind.

His later encounters were less benign. We were introduced to some distinctly creepy fundamentalists (one a Christian, the other a Muslim). Dawkins commented that fundamentalist Christianity in the USA is the mirror image of Muslim extremism and the interviewees he chose largely made the case for him.

It would be possible for religious believers to take issue with some of his claims. Certainly religion has been responsible for terrible slaughter and persecution, but the twentieth century provided examples of even worse crimes perpetrated by atheists (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot). Religious believers have no monopoly when it comes to large-scale atrocity. Does religion perhaps just provide the pretext for a tendency that is always there potentially in human nature?

Dawkins is surely right to be fearful about the rise of irrationality and the increasing reluctance on the part of secularists to criticise religion. Rejection of reason and the values of the Enlightenment is not something we should be indifferent to. We have already seen terrorism in the name of Islam; would a nuclear-armed Iran be tempted to put its tradition of martyrdom into effect on a grand scale? Even if religion is true, can we accommodate it?

And yet on the other side of the scale much of Western (and Eastern) art has been inspired by religion. Shortly before seeing Dawkins’s programme I had listened to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, with the utterly sublime Bernharda Fink as soloist. If anything could make me believe in God and Christianity, that could. The strongest grounds for religious faith, it seems to me, are aesthetic. The music of Bach, Gregorian plainchant, and Russian Orthodox choral music have a transcendental quality. They take the hearer into realms of being that seem to be beyond or above those of ordinary life.

But this does not make the beliefs that inspired them true. You can get a similar experience in other ways, for example from Sufi chanting, which arises from a different belief system, or from Buddhist chanting, which does not have a theistic background at all. Indeed, it can come from purely secular music without any basis in any kind of religious faith. Aesthetic experience, no matter how profound, has no intellectual content. Keats was wrong when he said: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all / ye know on earth, and all ye nee to know." We need to know more than that.

The truest kind of religious experience, it seems to me, is concerned with a sense of longing, the desire for a state of complete fulfilment or permanent ecstasy. The Sufis and the Ismailis were particularly strong on this idea. According to H. Corbin, the Ismailis derived the word Allah from Al-lah, the root lah conveying the idea of sadness or longing, as of a wanderer in the desert. Similarly, the Arabic letters that represent the word meaning "divinity" can also be read as meaning "sighing, desire". The question is whether such longing can ever find what it seeks.

The religious claim that it can find it, in God, but I think this is an illusion. The best treatment of the question that I know is to be found in a book by an atheist, Marghanita Laski, called Ecstasy (reviewed here).

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