Answering Dawkins’s Challenge

It was very interesting to see a recent interview of famed author, scientist, and atheist Richard Dawkins on CNN, conducted by anchor Clarissa Ward, acting as a stand-in for Christiane Amanpour on the latter’s eponymous show. Dawkins has few contemporary equals when it comes to explaining hard science to laymen, and also in standing up to bigots and charlatans of various stripes. Indeed, in this very interview, Dawkins’s takedown of Trump, on account of the latter’s aliteracy and lack of scientific temper, was thoroughly enjoyable. However, in defending his stand against Islamism, Dawkins suggested that Islam is the “most evil” religion (an opinion he has espoused previously as well, as in this tweet), and challenged the interviewer Ward to name another alternative if she disagreed. The interviewer, of course, did not take up the challenge, but this is an attempt to do so on her behalf.

Let us start by examining the preconceptions that underlie the question of what religion — if not Islam — can possibly be the most evil. The first and most obvious is, of course, that good and evil exist in the world (a proposition that many atheists are unwilling to accept, though Dawkins evidently does). The second one, quite related to the first, is that good and evil not only do exist, but can actually be attributed to inanimate religions (rather than to sentient beings/humans). The third one is that good and evil, as pertaining to religions, can be described as having degrees, and thus being on a scale, so that religions can be ordered in terms of the degrees of their evil.

These preconceptions are surely problematic enough if examined in detail, and it would in particular be quite challenging to defend them within an atheistic framework where no authoritative scripture is posited, and no extra-sensory entities are supposed to be accepted without direct evidence.

Be as that may, however, if one simply accepts the view that a religion can be evil, and in particular that a religion is more so if it is seen to cause more putative harm to people in the world, then too the challenge can be answered in a different way.

The obvious answer to the challenge is: atheism, which is also capable of being described as a religion. Of course, not all atheists are harmful, nasty people, and indeed most of them are surely thoroughly decent (as is Dawkins). But then again, this is true of Islam as well: hardly anyone would suggest that all Muslims are evil. If Islam can be called evil on the basis of the harm done by some Islamists, what is to stop atheism being called likewise, on the basis of the vile and horrendous actions of atheists such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or the Kims of North Korea? If one tallies up the extent of the massacres and such evil inflicted in the past century of so, atheists handily outdo Muslims.

Of course, it can be suggested that most atheistic tyrants are deceased, so that in our own time, Muslim wrongdoers are a bigger scourge than atheists, Kim Jong Un notwithstanding. However, this is hardly a convincing argument — the common cold kills many more people each year than Ebola (and perhaps has done so when tallied over all of human history), but hardly any sensible person would support the claim that the cold virus is a deadlier pathogen than the one that causes Ebola. The fact that the living atheist Kim Jong Un (or any other example of his type) does not harm more people than he does, just means that he is an incompetent evildoer, not that atheism is less evil.