The Root of All Evil?

2006-02-05 at 21:05 (musings)

Richard Dawkins recently had a two-part documentary on Channel 4 recently, called “Religion: The Root Of All Evil?”. Note the question mark. In the documentary (and perhaps predictably), he gives a whole bunch of reasons why religion is bad, but he never quite decides it’s the root of all evil.

At some point, he quoted Steve Weinberg (a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics), who said:

“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”.

I feel that this is unfair on religion. Take, for example, the Milgram experiment, where ordinary people were asked to apply lethal electric shocks to someone because they were told to. Religion had no part in that; similarly, many of those who “just took orders” during the Nazi reign in Germany had no strong sense of religion.

As a result, religion is too narrow a term. It’s also too wide a term — you would have a hard time convincing me that Buddhists would do evil things because of their religion. So religion is clearly not the right word.

I propose “fear” is the right word. The Nazis used fear. The Milgram experiment seems to show authority inspires some kind of fear — a fear stronger than that the fear that you’re slowly killing someone. A common theme in the monotheistic religious tradition is fear of going to hell (if you don’t have faith in Jesus Christ, in the Christian tradition, you’re doomed to eternal torment in hell. Lucky you).

As a result of this, I’d like to steal Mr. Dawkins’ title, and claim “Fear: The Root Of All Evil”.

What does this mean for us? If we’re evil, then pretty much nothing. If, on the other hand, we’re good, then we should probably look at what we’re afraid of and work out if it’s something we should actually be afraid of. Fear is the only thing that can manipulate a good person. Don’t let the good person be your good self.

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