Enemies of Reason

Posted on August 22, 2007

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Richard Dawkins’ latest documentary, Enemies of Reason, was shown on Channel 4 in England and almost immediately appeared on the internet. Where in The root of all evil? Dawkins attacked religion here he is opposing superstition. A number of people have claimed that he is strident but, frankly, I think he is actually quite gentle when dealing with people who make superstitious claims. He asks them, quite straight forwardly, various questions which must be quite difficult for them – maybe some think it inappropriate to even ask them those questions – he does not rant and rave, he does not belittle them, nor does he talk down to them. Indeed, I would say that his manner is just as you’d expect from an English scientist asking what he sees as the pertinent scientific questions. In other words, he is treating his interlocutors as capable of talking on the same level with him. Importantly, I did not see him using his scientific competence to browbeat anyone. Instead, where it was clear the other person would not necessarily understand the issue, he explains it in terms that any intelligent person can grasp. So, I think that he is actually fair to a fault where he could have easily made those he talkedĀ  to look like fools. In addition, at a number of times he makes the important point that they themselves probably believe what they are telling others and, therefore, are most probably not crooks. His section on homeopathy goes to great lengths to point out how compassionate the practitioners usually are.

The thing that Dawkins is riling against is not the people but the beliefs and practices, it is them that he identifies as dangerous. And here I am really not sure to what degree I would agree. The two main arguments he seems to put forward is that superstition is dangerous in that it undermines science and in that it leads people to do things that are dangerous in themselves. To that I would probably add that it opens us up to being manipulated by others. These are all potentially very significant problems but I am just not sure how big a causal role superstition plays here. I do not have any specific counterarguments at this point but am merely expressing my uncertainty. What I would say is that it seems to me that we simply lack the research needed to show how dangerous superstition is. And, what is more, I am not sure what that research would look like.

Having said all this, I am glad that Dawkins has made this documentary as it can be used as a way to get people thinking about and discussing the issues. Of course, if those discussions are to be valuable they then need to be directed into particular avenues of research. As such, this documentary appears to have much the same utility as his book The God Delusion – a popular introduction that gets the people thinking about the issues. And, no, I do not think that it is likely to make those discussions more difficult or less useful by being strident.

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