We live in a world plagued by international conflict that threatens the peaceful existence of millions of lives. In this environment, it is useful to examine basic questions in order to understand our very nature. Chief among these enduring questions is what drives humans to kill each other and nations to go to war.
In his recent book, “The God Delusion,” and in the BBC documentary “The Root of All Evil,” Oxford’s Richard Dawkins offers his take. Religion, Dawkins argues, requires a suspension of disbelief and irrationality that inevitably lead to hatred, murder and conflict.
Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary biologist, perhaps the best in his field. However, genius in one field does not always translate into another. Such is the case with Dawkins as he moves from evolutionary biology to the genesis of human conflict.
When he stays with his game, Dawkins can pick apart those who insist creationism receive equal treatment with evolution in the classroom. It’s like watching Michael Jordan at his best. However, when he moves to argue that even moderate religious faith fans the flames of terrorism, it’s like watching Michael Jordan struggle in baseball’s minor leagues.
An analogy: When studying cancer, the good scientist does not observe the uncontrolled reproduction of cells and conclude that the world would be free of cancer if only cells would never reproduce. Instead, the good scientist observes that problems with the regulation of cellular reproduction lead to cancer. Likewise, problems with the regulation of any belief – in God, communism or the master race – explain far more of the deaths and war in recent history.
If we believe Homer, Agamemnon and his armies lay siege to Troy for years because Paris absconded with Menelaus’ Helen. The greatest warrior in the struggle, Achilles, sent many men to their deaths. Was it because of his faith? Dawkins may argue so – that the fanatical faith of Achilles in his destiny as revealed by his immortal mother drove him to slaughter so many in battle.
For me, Achilles’ rage and furious wounded pride seem to explain his actions more clearly. The Trojans and the Achaeans fought not because religion had instilled in them a sense that they were keepers of the true faith and they would die as martyrs. Rather, soldiers thousands of years ago were motivated by reasons that have driven armies to fight ever since: pride, vengeance and the lure of riches.
To be effective, arguments need to be rigorously constructed and display broad explanatory power. This method brought Dawkins acclaim as a scientist and appears in flashes in his recent works. But when he relentlessly assails religious faith as the root of evil, he departs from elegant proofs to build houses upon the sand.
Religious faith does not explain the Trojan War, the purges of Stalin or the violent clashes of the Hutu and Tutsi. In some cases religion plays a strong role in leading individuals and nations to violence. Policy-makers would be foolish to ignore the influence of faith, but more foolish to view religious conflict as the root cause of humanity’s troubles.
The portrait of Dawkins that emerges from his narratives is not that of a wise, detached scientist benevolently offering advice to humanity. Instead, it is that of a scarred man, limping across the deck of a ship in constant pursuit of his white whale.
We need nuanced, thoughtful analysis to resolve human conflict. In Dawkins’ analysis, I see only the monomania of Ahab.
Great minds can help us understand our world and the forces that shape it. Read Homer to understand what drives humanity to murder. Read Dawkins to understand evolution. Read Thomas Friedman for insightful, useful commentary on contemporary global issues.