Richard Dawkins and Mehdi Hasan on Religion

Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion caught me at the right time. I read it shortly after finishing school when I was already teetering on the edge of agnosticism, peering into the abyss of atheism. It was enough to push me over the edge. I went on to study philosophy at university, which only confirmed that, happily, Dawkins and myself were right: it is, it turns out, philosophically immodest to posit a God when none is needed!

I had largely stopped paying attention to what he and other so called ‘New-Atheists’ were saying, but the other day I came across a youtube video of a recent discussion between Dawkins and Mehdi Hasan at the Oxford Union. The video was interesting for two main reasons.

Firstly, Hasan, whose journalism I have always enjoyed and often agreed with, revealed himself to be a Qu’ranic literalist. When Dawkins, speaking aloud, assumed that Hasan did not literally believe in the Islamic miracle of Muhammad flying to the moon on a winged horse and splitting it in two, Hasan immediately replied that, in fact, he did. Perhaps I’m unaware of some pertinent nuances of the Islamic tradition, but this seems the equivalent of a Christian believing that God literally created the earth in seven days. It’s bonkers. So it’s kinda strange that he was the politics editor at the New Statesman, a magazine with a proud history of secularism and atheism.

The second interesting part of the exchange concerned the role atheism putatively played in the horrors perpetrated by Communism and Nazism. Hasan suggested that as both these ideologies were avowedly atheist, it bears some responsibility for their evils; to which Dawkins countered that because the evil done by these ideologies was not done in the name of atheism, it is not responsible. Having to have evil done in the name of atheism seems like quite a strong criterion for finding it responsible or not. If atheism could be found to have been a contributing factor to that evil in any way, then surely that would be enough to say it bears an according level of responsibility. And I don’t imagine it would be especially difficult to show that it had in fact been a contributing factor in some way. So maybe Dawkins is a little too unyielding on this point.

Anyway, for these and other reasons, the video is well worth a look.



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3 responses to “Richard Dawkins and Mehdi Hasan on Religion

  1. You say he is being unyielding, but I’m not really sure the point is worth yielding to. In lots of debates between the religious and Dawkins/other prominent atheists, this argument always comes up, every time presented as some sort of trump card. Atheism isn’t really a belief system, its more a lack of certain beliefs. Trying to attribute the crimes of Stalin or Mao to atheism is much like saying that if they did actually believe in God, they would have behaved better, which seems unlikely at best. There must have been lots of other things that these characters also didn’t believe in, but no-one ever thinks that these other non-beliefs help to explain their horrible deeds in the same way that atheism is supposed to. The real problem surely is dogma and subservience, which is the essence of religion, and which also characterises the rulings of Stalin, Hitler and the like. Taking all the worst crimes in human history and trying to add them to either the atheist or theist tab to see who is most responsible is perhaps slightly misleading.

    I also couldn’t believe the part about the flying horse! I can’t say that I have come across Mehdi Hasan much before, but he seems to be an intelligent and well-educated fellow (though I didn’t really like the way he conducted this discussion), and then he starts saying things like Prove it didn’t happen!

  2. Ben, my first commenter! For that I thank you!

    In response to what you said … I’m a signed up member of the Dawkins/Hitchens brigade, but I do think that the one chink in the atheist armour is this point about Stalin and Hitler. With Stalinist communism at least, a rejection of God was a constituent part of the worldview. You say it’s unlikely they would have behaved better had they believed in God, but I think if Stalin had believed in God, then he probably wouldn’t have been a communist, and so he wouldn’t have been in a position to do the dreadful things he did.

    I suppose though, if one could find an example of a religious member of the politburo, my point would no longer stand.

    • Its an honour to be the first!

      I still think it’s unfair to somehow associate atheism with these parts of history. I haven’t read Mein Kampf for myself but I gather that in it Hitler gives us good reason to think he was a Catholic, and the mutually-beneficial relationship that sprang forth between him and the Vatican surely doesn’t give the impression of an atheistic or secular Germany.

      I accept your point about Stalin probably not being a communist if he believed in God, but I guess the point that I was really trying to make was about atheism causing people to do certain things, which I don’t think it ever does. Anti-theism maybe, but we’re probably just getting into semantics with that. Again, I don’t think atheism is really the cause of anything, it is a product; a product of free enquiry and taking a critical, rational view of the world (an approach which could technically also lead to theism, if that was the way the evidence pointed). Shouldn’t then a chink in the atheist armour really be thought of as a chink in the armour of scepticism and free enquiry? So I think I could turn your challenge back on you and ask for an example of a mass-murder committing state that was free from superstition and censorship and that upheld the values of scepticism and free enquiry for your point to stand!

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