This is part of a semi-regular section of The AQ Blog called ‘AQ Reviews.’ It primarily involves book and film reviews. Film will be rated out of 5 stars. Books will either be ‘recommended,’ ‘not recommended,’ or ‘recommended with reservations.’ I will attempt to review things that are readily available on the internet, Netflix, at libraries or bookstores and will provide links to what I can. There’s no sense in reviewing things that can’t be shared by all. Enjoy.
This week I want to focus on a few reviews that I’ve had in the works. There are at least three that I want to focus on: the Richard Dawkins’ documentary series The Root of All Evil?, Simon Reeve’s travel documentary Pilgrimage, a book by Thich Nhat Hahn called Reconciliation. This first review is on the Dawkins’ documentary.
Roots or Branches?
A lot of this documentary comes down to what people do with religious beliefs. The documentary starts off with the words, “There are would be murderers who want to kill you and me.” Dawkins spends much of his time talking in terms of harm and injury, arguing that Islam, Christianity and Judaism all hurt the people involved in them and everyone else as well. It is not a difficult argument to make. But throughout the documentary’s two episodes, it is the wrong argument.
Dawkins makes the mistake of conflating religion with a whole host of other issues. For instance, when he interviews a Muslim Palestinian, he misses completely the political aspects of the issue. Yes, religion plays a role. But he makes no room for nuance. While religion does make up a factor of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the gradual genocide of Palestinians, their incarceration and deprivation of rights and the general degradation of them as human beings cannot be ignored. Religion in this context provides pride, something which is severely lacking for many Palestinians.
Religion has many more functions than just spiritualism. In the context of the Palestinians, it is the one form of identity still available to them which the Israelis cannot change or destroy. Dawkins, a scientist and supporter of reason, does not go into any detail on this. In watching the interview, I wondered, too, whether there were any other people he could have interviewed that would have offered a more measured view of Islam.
Dawkins’ portrayal of religion in this documentary should be treated with a fair amount of caution. The extremists he found to interview and feature surely do exist, but are they the only ones he could have talked to? Assuredly not. This is an absolutely partisan documentary and while some of what it says has merit, it is not balanced by objectivity. Religion as the root of all evil? Most reasonable people would probably doubt that claim. But it does seem very clear that there is evil in some of its branches.
One excellent interview of this documentary was between Dawkins and evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. I don’t like Ted Haggard. I find him dangerous and heretical. And annoying. But at one point during the interview I found myself agreeing with him. Here is the interview seperate from the film (a full version of the first episode will be in the links):
Haggard, I believe, gets to the heart of the problem I have with Richard Dawkins. Haggard is not right about everything he says (perhaps most glaringly, the lack of contradiction in the Bible), but his analysis of Dawkins himself is fascinating. Intellectual arrogance – no one can know everything and no one has the right to hold themselves out as the arbiter of what is correct and incorrect.
In a way, that is exactly what Dawkins does in this documentary. Not because he says, “I’m right and you are wrong.” But because he does not examine his own assumptions as something questionable. Instead, he offers many of his own presuppositions as facts. That makes it very easy to paint the people who disagree with him as just wrong. Haggard, on the other hand, points out that no two people have the same knowledge base. Just because Dawkins may not know a scientist who believes in a creator does not mean one or a hundred do not exist. Thus, he cannot claim with anything more than a personal opinion that all evolutionary scientists believe the theory in the way he does. It is what Dawkins implicitly says that Haggard exposes and the only person who does not seem to recognize that is the biologist himself.
Respect and Reason
My main issue with this documentary is its lack of respect and consistent mockery of those who hold religious beliefs. At the beginning of the first episode, Dawkins asks, “Why should scientists toptoe respectfully away [from religion]?” After all, reason and science are right, religion is evil and wrong, so why tolerate something so egregious? He obviously believes it doesn’t have to.
My question is, is that a reasonable idea? A different line of reasoned thought might conclude quite the opposite. Consider it this way: religion, like everything man participates in, has good points and bad points. The long traditions that add diversity to people’s lives should be respected. They are parts of identity and parts of culture. Thus, they should be respected.
Yet again, a small change in thinking reveals a problem with Dawkins’ premise for the documentary. He assumes that being wrong is enough to discount something. That may be true in strictly scientific circles, but he is not in that realm with this film. Instead, he is examining deeply held religious beliefs and identities. Those deserve more respect than a disproved theory.
Overall, this documentary feels very shoddy. Its reasoning and its arguments are badly done. They are not worthy of an undergraduate let alone a man who claims to be a foremost scientist. For what its worth, I have to admit that I have never liked Richard Dawkins. Christopher Hitchens has always been more my speed (as well as that of my very atheist sister-in-law). Dawkins should not be taken as representative of all atheists just as the religious he interviewed should not be taken as typical. My rating for this film is two out of five stars.