The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins

The Virus of Faith: Summary

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The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions

Here we summarise atheist Richard Dawkins's TV programme, The Virus of Faith, in its entirety, in preparation for commenting on it in later pages.

On this page:  Jewish EducationProtestant EducationReligion as a VirusHellfireThe Moral Values of the BibleRev Paul HillA Liberal ProtestantAltruistic GenesAn Advancing Wave of Moral StandardsAtheism as Life-affirming

After a brief recapitulation of the previous programme, The God Delusion, also summarised and commented on on this site, Dawkins proposes to look at two more issues: the indoctrination of children and morality. [1]

Dawkins starts by challenging the validity of sectarian education, finding it bizarre that we consider it acceptable to teach children the religion of their parents, though not their politics. He sees sectarian education as comparable to the formation of new species, when parts of a species become totally separated geographically.

Jewish Education

Dawkins interviews a Hasidic Jewish rabbi, Herschel Gluck, in North London. He asks why children should be made victims of a particular tradition rather than being presented with all the evidence and choosing for themselves. The Rabbi points out that we must inevitably be affected by our parents and family: and we can choose to opt out. Also, a minority must be able to express itself and learn about itself.

Dawkins asks if minority traditions can't be upheld without teaching children unscientific ideas about the universe. The Rabbi replies that the Jewish children are taught about evolution, but most end up not accepting it.

Dawkins comments that these children grow up victims of miseducation and Gluck rejects this, finding it a matter of a scientific tradition, the theory (only) of evolution, versus Judaic tradition. He suggests Dawkins is a fundamentalist believer, at which Dawkins interrupts to deny it emphatically. (In an initial taster we had seen Gluck saying,

Mr Dawkins, I'm very impressed that you're the new Messiah and I appreciate your desire to redeem the world.

Protestant Education

Dawkins now moves on, to visit Phoenix Academy, a private evangelical school, presumably also in London, that uses an American Baptist curriculum. He claims that this smuggles superstition into science.

Dawkins points out to Adrian Hawkes, presumably either the headteacher or a science teacher at the school, that God or Jesus appears on almost every page of a science programmed learning booklet he's just seen: such as something about Noah's Ark. Hawkes considers it a matter of opinion: he was taught science myths when he was at school, such as the moon having been created by being flung off the earth and into space. He adds that he doesn't actually believe the Genesis story of creation, though God could have created the world in seven [sic] days had he wanted, so it's an academic question.

Dawkins now objects that the science booklet calls AIDS the wages of sin, thereby confusing health education with moralistic preaching. Hawkes replies that without God the lawgiver why would anything be wrong.

Dawkins's response is that Hawkes's morality works through fear of God. To this Hawkes says that without that people tend to try to get away with things.

The Oxford professor judges Hawkes well-meaning, but claims that children are being indoctrinated into a warped morality as well as into considering weird Biblical alternatives alongside scientific fact.

Religion as a Virus

Dawkins now explains his idea of religion as a virus. Children are particularly prone to this infection because:

A child is genetically preprogrammed to accumulate knowledge from figures of authority.

This is necessary, but means a child will believe whatever it is told, including nonsense. Many people shake off the virus as they grow up, thanks to the medicine of rationality, but,

if an individual doesn't succeed in shaking it off, his mind is stuck in a permanent state of infancy

and he will expose the following generation to the infection.


Dawkins now moves on to look at the religious use of the fear of hell as child abuse, briefly interviewing Jill Mytton, a psychologist who was brought up in a presumably Protestant hellfire sect. She says that children should not be

forced into a particular mould,


allowed to develop their critical faculties

and make their own choices. Her own childhood had been dominated by fear of disapproval in the present and literally of hellfire for all eternity: she is still affected when the subject comes up.

[For comment, go to Meaningless Choice.]

The main part of Dawkins's hellfire section is a visit to an American pastor, Keenan Roberts, who creates hellhouse shows, modern morality plays that demonise abortion and homosexuality. We see the Pastor's latest production being rehearsed.

Roberts says he wants to leave the unforgettable message with his audiences that sin destroys. Referring to an abortion scene, Dawkins comments that the real show must be even more horrific than the rehearsal. He asks if Roberts worries about giving nightmares to 12 year olds (the youngest age for seeing the show). The Pastor indicates that the vital consideration is getting the message across.

Dawkins now questions Roberts about homosexuality, suggesting that people of the same sex living together is their own business. The Pastor refers to the Bible, where homosexuality is sinful. He asks Dawkins why he doesn't believe that and gets the answer because of evidence.

The Moral Values of the Bible

In the next section of the programme Dawkins looks at the moral values to be found in the Bible, starting with the Old Testament.

First, there is a quotation to the effect that if anybody, however closely related, tries to lure a person into worshipping gods other than Yahweh, then that person must take the lead in the offender being stoned to death. What is more, for Dawkins, the Old Testament God is actually genocidal.

Second, God's prophets are no better. Abraham was prepared to make a human sacrifice of his own son. Moses, in spite of the commandment not to kill having been delivered by him, gave orders for the Mideanites to be ethnically cleansed. Third, Dawkins points to an episode in the Book of Judges in which it is shown to be preferable to allow your daughter to be raped than your male guest.

In the New Testament, the moral teaching of Jesus was better, but then came St Paul, who introduced the

nasty sado-masochistic doctrine of atonement for original sin.

Dawkins wonders why God would want to bother with such a rigmarole. And of course, Adam, whose fault it was, never existed anyway. Dawkins concludes that the whole thing is barking mad.

Rev Paul Hill

As an example of Biblical values being taken literally today, Dawkins refers to the case of the Reverend Paul Hill, who killed an abortion doctor in Florida in 1994 and who was executed for murder in 2003. Dawkins discusses the matter with Hill's friend, the Reverend Michael Bray.

Bray claims that Hill acted to protect the embryos rather than to punish the doctor. Dawkins argues that embryos are not comparable to an adult doctor: being

tiny little things, without knowledge, without any memory, without any fears

Bray counters that the important issue is that they had sanctity, becasuse they were in God's likeness. In a comment made later, Dawkins suggests that most sensible people find Hill a dangerous psychopath.

Dawkins asks Bray if Jesus would approve of murdering a doctor, to which the Pastor responds by quoting Jesus:

Suffer the little children to come to me.

He says the Bible interprets reality for him in an intellectually satisfying way.

A Liberal Protestant

Dawkins now interviews a liberal Protestant, Richard Harries, Anglican Bishop of Oxford. His church is currently riven over the issue of homosexuality.

Harries accepts that the Bible condemns homosexuality in a few isolated texts, but the matter should be considered in the light of Jesus's message overall. When the New Testament was written, homosexuality was seen as a choice people made, but now we know that a certain percentage of people are predominantly attracted to their own sex. In other words, the facts have changed.

Harries claims he is a passionate moderate: passionate about religious belief and rationality. In a comment added later, Dawkins sees that as merely fence-sitting.

He now tackles Harries on the issue of miracles, the Virgin Birth of Jesus in particular. The Bishop says that this isn't crucial to Christianity, whereas the Resurrection of Jesus is. In a comment added later, Dawkins sees this as cherrypicking what to believe from the Bible. Why bother with it at all when we can decide for ourselves what is right for today's society.

Altruistic Genes

Dawkins now offers an atheist perspective on moral values, based not on a God and his holy texts but on altruistic genes created in our animal ancestors by natural selection. Contributor Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics tells us that we humans have sophisticated developments of the social instincts seen in chimpanzees etc. He proposes a Microsoft comparison, with chimps being to humans what MS-DOS is to Windows 2000. There is no elaboration of this point.

[For comment, go to Curry's Microsoft Analogy.]

Dawkins points to kindness, charity and generosity in our nature: explicable in terms of altruistic genes selected because family nurturing and cooperation with peers had survival value. Curry reports this kind of protomorality in chimps. Also, he tells us that these animals compete for status not only through brute force but through public service as well: this involves being good leaders and intervening to settle disputes. Cooperation and altruism, working as part of a team, are mutually beneficial.

[For comment, go to The Noble Chimp.]

An Advancing Wave of Moral Standards

Dawkins claims there is a contemporary moral consensus that depends on neither holy texts nor religious leaders, but perhaps on our evolution. We have worked out for ourselves as social animals what is not acceptable: raping, murdering, stealing.

What is more, our morality is constantly evolving. Thus, half a century ago most of us in the UK were to some extent racist, now only a few are. Similarly, there has come acceptance of gay people.

There is an advancing wave of moral standards, with some of us ahead of it and some of us lagging behind, though we are all in advance of the people of the Old and New Testament eras. This is explained in a passage that must be quoted in full:

The progressive shift often emerges in opposition to religion. It's driven by improved education and then expressed by newspaper editorials, television soap operas, parliamentary speeches, judicial rulings and novels.

Atheism as Life-affirming

A final section of the programme starts with a sort of atheist testimony from the novelist Ian McEwan. He says that when we die, that's the end of it, but being alive is a privilege we must take responsibility for. There is no reliance on paradise as something to sacrifice this life for, as religious believers do.

The gift of empathy for others is something it is wonderful to see developing in children; this is the basis of our morality. The religions, with their creation story and the relationship between this sky God and you, eliminate the fascination and marvellousness of the world.

[For comment, go to Empathy.]

Dawkins ends the programme by developing that last theme himself, declaring that atheism is life-affirming. This life is not merely something to be gone through prior to heaven or hell, it is something to be made the most of.

We see Dawkins in a setting of natural beauty. He claims that nature excites our curiosity with questions only Science can answer. This life is the only one we need. We are incalculably fortunate to have it and (again) we should make the most of it.

[For comment, go to An Echo of Moses.]


1 The Virus of Faith

The Virus of Faith, televised by Channel 4 on 16-01-06, was the second of two programmes under the overall title of The Root of All Evil.

A lecture with slides

This programme again works as a lecture partially illustrated by slides. Basically, Dawkins delivers a lecture either over a background of stock footage, such as scenes of scientific research, or at one of his locations.

The present summary

The Channel 4 website does not appear to provide a transcript, so the present summary is again based on a personal recording of the screening. The summary is somewhat shorter than that for the first programme. This is because this programme contains more redundancy, with points repeated etc.

But note that the final part of the programme is reported on in detail, as giving an important insight into what positive alternatives Dawkins and co have to offer.

[Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2006

The Protestant Atheism of Richard Dawkins
The Root of All Evil: 2 TV programmes
The God Delusion SummaryComment 1Comment 2
The Virus of Faith SummaryHistoricism 1Historicism 2Contradictions