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Brace yourself: Dawkins said something stupid on Twitter again.

This might seem a rather trivial example of all the wreckage he’s left across Twitter, but I think it’s instead one of the most significant. To understand why, let’s rewind to the Dawkins of over twenty years ago.

Think about the two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium,. the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendly towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses. These qualities are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.

Cellular machinery and electronic computers excel in both these virus-friendly qualities. How do human brains match up?

One major advantage to viewing religion as a virus was removing the notion that religious people are gullible, stupid, or sub-human.

Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won’t know it, and may even vigorously deny it. Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by imaging how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer (arbitrarily assumed to be male).

1. The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn’t seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as “faith.”

2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith’s being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief […]

3. A related symptom, which a faith-sufferer may also present, is the conviction that “mystery,” per se, is a good thing. It is not a virtue to solve mysteries. Rather we should enjoy them, even revel in their insolubility.

Notice the use of “victim,” “patient,” “symptom.” These do not come with a value judgement, in the same way that cancer or a cold isn’t the fault of the person that contracts them. By viewing religion through this dispassionate instrument, it’s much easier to gain compassion for the people who practice it, and deconstruct the construct to preserve the parts you cherish.

Would he ever go into a church? ‘Well yes, maybe I would.’

But at this point he turns it back around again. I try to clarify my own views to him. ‘You would feel deprived if there weren’t any churches?’ he asks. ‘Yes,’ I respond. He mulls this before replying. ‘I would feel deprived in the same spirit of the English cricket match that I mentioned, that is close to my heart. Yes, I would feel a loss there. I would feel an aesthetic loss. I would miss church bells, that kind of thing.’

And what about the fear of losing the tradition? ‘Yes. I sort of understand that. I certainly would absolutely never do what some of my American colleagues do and object to religious symbols being used, putting crosses up in the public square and things like that, I don’t fret about that at all, I’m quite happy about that. But I think I share your Anglican nostalgia, especially when you look at the competition.’

Twenty years on, Dawkins still subscribes to the notion of religion as a virus, as his recent memoir attests. He has no problem applying it to Anglicism and some branches of Christianity. But when it comes to other religions…

‘I am thoroughly in favour of educating people in this country in the Bible,’ he says. ‘So you know where phrases like “through a glass darkly” come from.’ But wouldn’t students also have to learn the Koran and all other ‘religious’ books?

‘I don’t think you have to actually,’ he says. ‘Because if the justification for it is a literary one — since in this country we are on the whole not studying Arabic literature — it’s enough to know the King James Bible, like you have to know Shakespeare. European history you can’t begin to understand without knowing about the perennial hostility between Catholics and Protestants so I suppose for history we need to. But I don’t buy the feeling that because we have Christian faith schools we therefore have to have Buddhist and Muslim and Hindu faith schools as well.’

… the metaphor disappears. Does Dawkins honestly think that no history is contained in the Rigveda, that some of the earliest Indo-European literature we have is of no interest to Europeans? That the Qu’ran was not considered an influential literary work across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe? That few people would be enriched by reading Buddhist poetry?

That brief Twitter exchange is the most damning evidence I’ve seen for Dawkin’s duplicity; only Christians are worthy of the virus metaphor, in his mind, while the followers of all other religions are mere idiots no matter how intelligent they are.

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