Thursday 24 October 2019

God bless us and save us from that annoying Mr Dawkins

Evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins seems to be under the impression that he's successfully converted the entire planet to his own atheism.

In the first instalment of his three-part series, Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life (More 4), he prefaced arguments with such phrases as "In our post-religion world . . ." and "Now that we've left religion behind . . ." -- as if what he'd always fervently wished had miraculously become a self-fulfilling reality.

He should tell that to the millions -- nay, billions -- of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and whoever else still cussedly believes in a divine creator. These would have no truck with his thesis that in this supposedly "post-religious world" we're kinder and more moral human beings, which anyway strikes me as a very dubious proposition -- what if, say, Christianity actually helped us to be kinder and more moral?

Dawkins doesn't entertain such notions, insisting instead that he has science and reason on his side, though it never seems to occur to him that, in the cosmic scheme of things, these may well turn out to be as meaningless as any devotion to a deity of one's choosing. Who knows what forms of life are on other planets and other solar systems?

As it happens, I tend to agree with a lot of what he says; it's his manner of saying it and his reaction to those who beg to differ that get up my nose. Whereas I'm not certain about my agnosticism, he most definitely knows that his atheism is the only correct stance to take.

"I wish I were as sure of anything as he is of everything," said William Windham of his fellow politician Lord Macauley, and that's pretty much my response to Dawkins's supercilious tone when he's enunciating his smug certainties.

And just as hard to take is that disbelieving smirk when anyone chooses to voice a dissenting opinion, as if he finds it hard to credit that people can talk such tosh.

This was evidenced in his patronising attitude to a middle-aged black youth leader in London who uses the tenets of Christianity to underpin his admirable work.

"This is challenging," Dawkins said, while simultaneously managing to ignore the challenge.

Much more nuanced, indeed uncommonly thoughtful, was Alan Gilsenan's approach to assisted suicide in his film A Time to Die? (RTÉ1).

You could argue that his sympathies lay with those who wish to decriminalise the helping of others to kill themselves, but he gave due time and weight, too, to those who are against making it legal in this country.

And so, though Tom Curran would willingly flout the law in helping his wife, Marie, to seek terminal escape from her multiple sclerosis, we also heard from Margaret -- another MS sufferer -- who declared: "I've one life, I value it deeply, and I wouldn't dream of assisted death." Narrator as well as tactful interviewer, Gilsenan told us that Margaret "passed away peacefully last Friday night".

In London, he interviewed Nan Maitland, crippled with chronic pain from arthritis and on her way to Dignitas in Zurich so that she could avoid "the long, long stretch of years" with nothing to which she could look forward. "God bless the Swiss," she said, condemning the law in England as "so wicked".

Six months after she achieved her bleak aim, her son lamented that she couldn't have fulfilled her wishes "in the comfort of her own home".

She'd probably still be alive, he said, if she hadn't had to ensure that she was physically able to get to Zurich.

This humane film had nothing new to tell but was nonetheless very moving about the responses of people who are forced to confront a dreadful dilemma.

Does someone in RTÉ owe Offaly County Council a favour? That, at any rate, was what I wondered after sitting through A Grand Experience (RTÉ1), a truly bizarre documentary which took three local artists through the county on a canal barge and which was commissioned by the county council.

I can't even tell you what happened on their five-day journey because nothing at all happened throughout the entire time (almost an hour, though it seemed an awful lot longer) it took them to get from Shannon harbour to Edenderry.

Well, that's not entirely true. At one point, dramatist Eugene O'Brien looked out over a lake and at another he sat in a disused Bord na Móna carriage, an experience he found "mesmerising".

Songwriter Wayne Brennan, for his part, stared out a window and strummed a few chords on his guitar, while photographer Veronica Nicholson pointed her camera at the canal bank as it drifted by very, very slowly.

They also all had tea with a group of nuns, gawked at a few churches and listened dutifully as various local historians imparted arcane knowledge. But we never saw them chatting to each other or having a laugh, so it was something of a surprise when they all hugged each other at the end and declared they'd had a great time.

"That was amazing," Wayne said, though I can think of other words.

In Following the Traveller Millions (TV3), reporter Paul Connolly visited Australia and the United States in pursuit of conmen from the Traveller community who've been engaged in various scams.

The only thing missing from his investigation was any reason why I should have been remotely interested.

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