January 12, 2006

Dawkins: Beyond belief

The Guardian speaks to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins about his upcoming book, The God Delusion. Excerpt:
According to memetic theory, memes are subject to the same process of natural selection as genes. And yet one meme, the religious meme, steadfastly refuses to die. You can see where the religious meme sprung from: when the world was an inexplicable and scary place, a belief in the supernatural was both comforting and socially adhesive. But as our understanding of the world grew, you might have expected the religious meme to give way to rationalism. Yet the opposite has happened. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence for the Darwinian explanation of evolution, religious belief - and fundamentalist religion at that - remains as ingrained as ever.

Religion offends every bone in Dawkins's rational, atheist body. "You can see why people may want to believe in something," he acknowledges. "The idea of an afterlife where you can be reunited with loved ones can be immensely consoling - though not to me. But to maintain such a belief in the face of all the evidence to the contrary is truly bewildering." If individual faith is, for Dawkins, an expression of an ignorance, collective faith and organised religion embody something much more pernicious. That is what drove him to make two films for Channel 4, the first of which was shown last night, and to write his new book, The God Delusion, to be published in September.

Dawkins describes these projects as "consciousness-raising exercises" but the films come across as full-frontal assaults. Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism and Islam all get both barrels. Powerful and well-argued, they are; subtle, they ain't. Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, gets a walk-on role as the liberal voice of religion, but mostly it's the fundamentalists of all faiths who fall under Dawkins's scrutiny. "They are profoundly wrong," he says, "but in some ways I have more sympathy with their views than I do with the so-called more liberal wings. At least the fundamentalists haven't tried to dilute their message. Their faith is exposed for what it is for all to see."
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