Saturday, October 28, 2006

Movie / Root of All Evil

Richard Dawkins is the foremost advocate of the doctrine of Evolution, and a professional athiest. A telegenic Oxford biology professor and prolific author, he is funded by Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi. Thus who better to ask why our world is being torn apart by fundamentalist religions, based on faded scriptures, that have gone beyond ignoring Science and are actively attacking it?

This 90 minute documentary is a film version of two shows prepared for British television, screened back to back minus the commercials. In it he visits many religious sites, interviews religious leaders, and insults them all by asking why do they believe and teach such obvious nonsense? To the most liberal one, the Bishop of Oxford, whose views seem pretty sane, he asks, why are you in religion at all?

His tour takes him to Lourdes (France), Ted Haggard's New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock (al-Aqsa Mosque) in Jerusalem, a Hasidic school in London, a rehearsal of a "Hell House" drama production, and more. He limits himself to the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and there is no discussion of Eastern religions (which are far more compatible with Evolution).

It is impossible to summarize the ideas expressed in this provocative film, which will be best remembered for Dawkins' aggressive questioning, every bit as dogmatic and self-assured as those he is attacking. He spends some time analyzing horrendous biblical passages, and looking at bones in a museum, but his discussion of Evolution is so minimal and watered down that it won't change anyone's mind.

Dawkins' job title at Oxford is "the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science," and with such prestige and backing he must have considerable resources at his disposal. Yet, alas, I must give this film a D-, or maybe an F, for failing to help the public understand Evolution and why it matters.

Rather than a travelogue of Richard sparring with Imams, this should have been a high-budget documentary on the Theory of Evolution itself, with him standing up like Al Gore in front of $3 million worth of graphical animations, interviews with top scientists, and tours of biotech labs and factories, to actually make the case for why one should abandon bogus religious beliefs! For him to just presume he's right, rather than show us why, is preposterous.

If he felt any need to debate religious leaders, rather than appeal directly to the common man, he should have prepared his talking points better. One could conclude that US evangelical leader Ted Haggard defeated him in debate, and that in all cases both he and they made no effort to formalize their assumptions, and talked past each other, usually in their case with well-honed debate points.

Despite these failings, the film has a driving energy. It is fascinating (and terrifying) to see all these intolerant beliefs on display, his included. An Islamic activist in Jerusalem tells him he'll be damned for failing to demand that women be covered. And Haggard kindly warns that the issue for the next generation will be the Islamisation of Europe. (Translation: Once we're taken over by folks who behead women who appear uncovered in public and men who trim their beards, you'll wish you had me back, who only wants to behead gays and adulterers.)

The film has no promotion budget, appearing at only one art house with an audience of 14 on opening night. Dawkins could have reached a wider audience more efficiently by releasing these two shows on YouTube and appearing on Colbert to promote them. There are enough bizarre moments to provide a field day for TV comedians!

Not Rated. No sex, no violence. However it could bore to death anyone who is not a left-leaning intellectual. There are scenes of people boarding buses in Jerusalem, and he could have intercut footage of bomb attacks, to add dramatic intensity to his long rant on religious extremism, but did not.

At a deeper level of substance, for anyone still reading, he makes a brief stab at suggesting that a basis for morality might be derived from genetics, as seen in cooperative social behaviors of chimpanzees. Yet this contradicts the famous view of his prior books that social altruism is a myth. Further, to provide full scientific disclosure, he must own up that Mother Nature spiced the broth with a small percentage of social predators (e.g., psychopaths), in an evolutionarily stable state (ESS), and hence that aggressive creeps who enslave people and lead them to their doom are part of Nature's Plan.

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