Dawkins on the War and Evil

So I avoid commenting on the war by commenting on religion, in particular the points of view of Richard Dawkins and Fred Clark of Slactivist.

Dawkins opines thus:

Bush seems sincerely to see the world as a battleground between Good and Evil, St Michael’s angels against the forces of Lucifer. We’re gonna smoke out the Amalekites, send a posse after the Midianites, smite them all and let God deal with their souls. Minds doped up on this kind of cod theology have a hard time distinguishing between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Some of Bush’s faithful supporters even welcome war as the necessary prelude to the final showdown between Good and Evil: Armageddon followed by the Rapture. We must presume, or at least hope, that Bush himself is not quite of that bonkers persuasion. But he really does seem to believe he is wrestling, on God’s behalf, against some sort of spirit of Evil. Tony Blair is, of course, far more intelligent and able than Bush. But his unshakable conviction that he is right and almost everybody else wrong does have a certain theological feel. He was indignant at Paxman’s wickedly funny suggestion that he and Dubya pray together, but does he also believe in Evil?

Like sin and like terror (Bush’s favourite target before the Iraq distraction) Evil is not an entity, not a spirit, not a force to be opposed and subdued. Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do. There are nasty people in every country, stupid people, insane people, people who should never be allowed to get anywhere near power. Just killing nasty people doesn’t help: they will be replaced. We must try to tailor our institutions, our constitutions, our electoral systems, so as to minimise the chance that such people will rise to the top. In the case of Saddam Hussein, we in the west must bear some guilt. The US, Britain and France have all, from time to time, done our bit to shore up Saddam, and even arm him. And we democracies might look to our own vaunted institutions. Are they well designed to ensure that we don’t make disastrous mistakes when we choose our own leaders? Isn’t it, indeed, just such a mistake that has led us to this terrible pass?

Dawkins concludes with the pertinent question of how a nation with people as brilliant as the people of the United States could elect such a ridiculous person as Bush. Good question for which I have no answer.

Fred Clark adds these points in a recent post:

The dangers of such an approach are obvious. All considerations of consequence and outcome (including respect for the potential of unforeseen consequences) become secondary to the matter of intent. For Mr. Bush, if someone has a “Good Heart,” his intentions are pure and he can do no wrong

This sentimental approach is also aggressively individualistic, producing idiosyncratic and novel ethical positions that may, in fact, contradict longstanding, catholic (small “c”) Christian tradition. These positions are not held in deliberate opposition as a challenge to the tradition, but rather in blissful ignorance of that tradition. After all, if you’ve got a Good Heart, all that tradition is just an unnecessary distraction.

This evangelical sentimentalism also explains Bush’s impatience with the cautious, disciplined ethics of the Christian just war tradition. It did not matter to the president that the papal emissaries pleading against a “pre-ventive/emptive” war of aggression could cite 2,000 years of Christian thought. For evangelicals like Bush, all that Christian teaching just showed that these people were spending a lot of time reading and writing books other than the Bible – the meaning of which, he believes, is self-evident and unambiguous to anyone with a Good Heart. Apostolic traditions, systematic theologies and the like are seen as barriers between individual Christians and the Jesus who lives in your heart.

This approach also explains why evangelicals – including George W. Bush – can get so angry and aggressively personal in any political or ethical dispute. If you believe that the only (or at least the primary) reason you hold political opinion X is because you love Jesus, then you will also come to believe that anyone holding opinion Not-X must therefore not love Jesus. Thus evangelicals who disagree will quickly move to accusing one another of not loving Jesus, which – for an evangelical – is about the worst thing anybody can accuse you of (except, of course, for homosexuality or voting for Clinton).

This is what prompts President Bush’s angry indignation when any initiative or position of his administration is questioned. He interprets all such questions as challenges to the Goodness of his Heart. Thus his response is usually to angrily reassert that he has a Good Heart, without ever responding to – or hearing and considering – the substance of the critique.

I don’t have anything to add. I thank both Dawkins and Fred Clark for expressing my thoughts so clearly.