Friday, October 9, 2009

The Documentaries of Richard Dawkins

Everybody has their own folk hero. Some people follow sport stars. Some people obsess with fictional characters like Batman. Other people faint at the sight of rock stars. My girlfriend and I are different. Our folk hero isn't attractive, strong, athletic, or even a vigilante. No, our folk hero is British, arrogant, logical, intelligent, controversial and funny as all hell. He is Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, and he's my favourite person in the world right now.

His bestseller The God Delusion is what brought Dawkins to the attention of the mainstream world, but Dawkins has been around much longer, publishing influential works such as The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker. His output before The God Delusion was more hard science, more in line with his academic background of evolutionary biology.

At some point, around 9/11, Dawkins looked around and realized that there is a dangerous enemy in the world, far more dangerous and elusive than the Al Qaeda. This enemy fights against logic, reason, and preys upon the whole world's imagination. This enemy is religion, in Dawkins' mind. It doesn't matter which religion, as they are all guilty of plaguing the thoughts and actions of humans.

Dawkins partnered with the BBC and released two documentaries, one after another: The Root of All Evil? and The Enemies of Reason. This post will take a look at the two documentaries and surmise my thoughts on the presentation, rather than the message.

The Root of All Evil? is a question for a title, but the answer is quite clear from the first couple minutes of the program. Dawkins loathes religion. He blames it for mass murderers, suicide bombers, genocides, stoning, rape, and a whole host of other serious crimes. In the course of the program, Dawkins interviews numerous religious experts, psychologists, sociologists, the Bishop of Canterbury, novelist Ian McEwan, and a bunch of pastors, preachers and priests.

The best part of Dawkins as an interviewer is his sheer politeness. When somebody says something completely ridiculous, Dawkins never argues, he merely states the opposing point. His graciousness and quiet British manner are like a subversive tool, making him seem much more sane than the person being interviewed.

One of the highlights of the show is the interview with Pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Dawkins is impressed with the sheer size and theatricality of the building itself, and sits through a sermon with Haggard, and thousands of believers. Watching Dawkins' silent, unimpressed sour face is a hoot. This face appears a hundred times throughout this program, but this is the best example. Once the sermon is over, Dawkins gets a chance to ask Haggard if religion is dangerous. Of course, the conversation spirals into Haggard making wild claims about the veracity of evolution (something near and dear to the Professor's heart). Haggard says Dawkins and other "evolutionists" are guilty of scientific arrogance, and Dawkins begins pressing his points much stronger. There's a great sense of tension but both men try to stay calm. However Haggard's facade slips briefly but his smile never leaves. It's an awesome scene.

In Jerusalem, Dawkins talks to high ranking officials of both Islam and Israel, and comes up with nothing satisfactory. It's obvious that both sides are irreconcilable. So, Dawkins goes to meet an American born Jew who on traveling to the Holy Land, switched sides and became Muslim. His name is Yousef al-Khattab, and he is an angry young man. Immediately, he begins accusing of Dawkins personally of allowing women to dress like whores and he advises Britain to fix their own land, and fix their own women, and get their troops out of Jerusalem. It's unsettling, and Dawkins almost loses his composure.

There are some other great highlights to this show, but none as good as those two. In the rest of the series, Dawkins looks at the invasion of religion in the education system, how some American teachers were accused of being "Satan's incarnate". He examines the morality of the Bible, and comes up with a bunch of examples of why we should never ever ever use the Bible as a moral compass. He concludes the discussion of morality, by discussing the lessons of morality from an evolutionary standpoint. Reciprocal altruism is used by countless species of animals, and it seems to work for them.

The major conclusion that Dawkins comes up with is that atheism doesn't contend that life is an obstacle to the hereafter, the reward that can't be proven or disproven. Therefore, atheists believe they have only one life to live for a short time. Atheism is ultimately more life-affirming than religion could ever hope to be.

A year later, Dawkins produced the second documentary called The Enemies of Reason. In this program, Dawkins takes a look at the intrusion of alternative beliefs rooted in pseudo-spirituality, and alernative medecine such as homeopathy.

Dawkins argues that there are so many wonders in the natural world, and science is doing so many amazing things, but 25 percent of Britain still believes in astrology and the horoscope. This is dangerous, Dawkins believes, and he attempts to get an understanding of it, and why it's never been put to the proper scientific method of testing, retesting, and retesting again.

He visits a health fair that features tarot card reading, crystals, and angels and whatnot. Every time, Dawkins submits to their nonsense with a polite tone and a gentle pressing of logic. When he gets frustrated, the arrogance and stiff-upper-lip come out, which is what makes Dawkins such an entertaining presenter. He demands answers of people who can't give them, and when they don't, he dismisses them, and lectures on the benefits of the scientific method.

He calls this alternative medicine and beliefs dangerous because there are better, more scientific healing methods that are given a bad reputation from the media, and people avoid them. Modern medicine is the boogeyman according to the press. He cites the MMR vaccine scandal as the best example. He argues that one of the reasons why people distrust modern medicine is because it has become far too complicated for the layperson to even attempt to undersand, and therefore, that which man doesn't understand, man fears.

In the absolute best scene of the both series, Dawkins visits a holistic and alternative healing spa, where a mixture of chanting and meditation. The woman who runs the spa believes that she can alter DNA. In the beginning of the interview, she tells Dawkins that some people have three strands of DNA in a form other than the double helix. The woman's voice fades out and Dawkins' voiceover says "I know what you're thinking. 'I thought I was watching a serious program about science and here's Richard Dawkins' picking on an easy target'." While this is being heard, the camera closes in on Dawkins' silent, unimpressed sour face. My girlfriend and I were laughing so hard.

The second documentary takes a look at other alternative medicine such as homoepathy, which involves the belief that water has a memory and dilution of a substance is a cure against the same substance. It's all nonsense, Dawkins says, but what is worse, is that the British taxpayer is subsidizing homoepathy.

Skeptical rational inquiry is best to figuring how the body works, and what is needed to heal it, not superstition and other dangerous beliefs. It's a very compelling argument that he makes.

A common theme in both programs is Dawkins' unwavering stance that the scientific method of experimenting and testing and peer-review is best. He asks people to submit to double-blind experiments or rigorous studies to prove their claims and very few rise to the challenge. Individual scientists can be immoral or biased, but the scientific system is designed to remove all such biases and morality. There are only facts, logic and reason. For Dawkins, you can see the excitement in his voice when he gets a chance to say this. His enthusiasm for science is palpable and contagious.

For this reason, and his absolutely hilarious method of interviewing people, Dawkins has become my hero. His books entertain and educate me, his documentaries enlighten me, and he is simply a funny man to watch. I propose that he be given a man-on-the-street style program, in which he is launched at imbeciles around the world and watch him get utterly frustrated with the idiocy in the world.

Both series are highly informative, highly entertaining and extremely compelling. Religion is dangerous, superstition is dangerous, and science is the better more rational method of divining the secrets of the world. Highly recommended.

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