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Aiming for knockout blow in god wars

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Scholar says scientist has overstepped the ethical mark, writes John Huxley.

THEY may be worlds apart, physically and philosophically, but Australian-born Margaret Somerville, one of the world's leading writers and thinkers about ethics, arrives in Sydney today determined to do battle with arch-atheist Richard Dawkins.

"He is a dangerous man who is causing me disturbed, sleepless nights," Professor Somerville said of the creator of the controversial shockumentary series The Root of All Evil?, showing on ABC Television and which concludes this Sunday.

"By attacking religion Dawkins thinks he is going to eliminate the world's evils, but he is so negative, so destructive in his approach, that he is escalating the conflict between warring cultures at a time when we should be seeking common ground," she said.

Professors Somerville and Dawkins have clashed before, at an exclusive conference in Oxfordshire. "We were seated at a large, oval table - me at one end, him at the other - when we got involved in this terrible battle.

"Other people there couldn't believe it. It reminded me of when I was a kid watching the Davis Cup on television. The heads going back and forth," explained Professor Somerville, who teaches at McGill University in Canada.

Her return to Sydney, where she studied for her first degree in law, coincides with an upsurge of Australian interest in life's big questions: morals, meaning and the role of religion.

Books by new atheists such as Professor Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason) and Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) are bestsellers.

The first episode of The Root of All Evil? was watched by 760,000 people in the capital cities, almost twice the usual number for the Sunday evening Compass slot. The ABC has been inundated with requests to repeat the program, or release it on DVD.

The Herald received several hundred email comments and almost 100 letters in response to an article on Professor Dawkins and the rise of atheism on Monday.

The Oxford don admitted to the Herald yesterday there was a danger that his aggressive attack on religion could exacerbate differences between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. "There's some merit in a gently-gently approach but it looks to me that the in-your-face approach associated with me, and to a greater extent Hitchens, is getting results," he said.

The documentary's original screening on Channel 4 in Britain had prompted an unprecedented response, three-to-one in his favour, he said. "People were strongly one way or another. This is an issue that polarises."

A recent tour of the US, including parts of the Bible Belt, confirmed his view that atheists are far more numerous than thought. "Repeatedly, people thanked me for giving voice to feelings they'd been afraid to express." Professor Dawkins describes his campaign to kill off God, to replace religious superstition with science, as "consciousness-raising".

Professor Somerville disagrees. "These atheists are so passionate, dogmatic, they have created their own secular religion." She will present "The Alternative to Richard Dawkins's God Delusional View" at the Sydney Writers Festival.



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