Mon Jan 21st, 2008 at 10:48:01 AM EST
I tried to get out of the atheism debate, but they keep pulling me back in.
The small band of people who are now referred to as 'the new atheists' finally lost the last bit of my respect when a few years ago, they were trying to re-label themselves as 'brights'. To be honest, I never cared all that much for Dawkins, but I had expected Dennett to know better. At the time, I was more sympathetic to the notion of developing a fitting label for philosophical naturalists than I am now -- but not something that self-evidently stupid. The entire episode made me cringe.
If you want a reasoned take, read Chris Mooney.
Upon first hearing of the 'new atheists', then, I must admit I had a preconceived idea about Dawkins and Dennett. I also had a preconceived idea about Christopher Hitchens, based upon Hitchens doing a joint tour of the UK with David Horowitz, and reading oh, dozens of his columns on Slate either spewing bile and unsupported allegations on Bill Clinton or claiming that there really were WMD in Iraq. Hitchens is a polemicist for the sake of polemics and I feel I've quite saturated the empirics to make that determination without reading his latest column or book. It just is not worthwhile anymore.
So you have this group of people (including Sam Harris, whom I don't know much about and thereby won't comment upon) who go into the media with each to his a book with a provocative title, talking about how they are no longer going to be quiet in the face of the widespread societal intolerance engendered by people of faith! It doesn't take much to think that these people are just being confrontational. I used a common pejorative to describe that, which I shan't repeat in this rejoinder.
(This diary is a response to Ted Welch's 'On misunderstanding Dawkins', which was in turn sparked by ThatBritGuy's diary 'On not understanding Religion')
You can find an interesting critique of 'The New Atheists' in this article by Michael Schermer, a friend of the movement. To take out a quote:
Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: "An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be."
This is a very important point, which raises deeper questions that I will dive into at a later point. Schermer's answer to this, however, is to shine the light of reason and science, which I don't think to be sufficient.
Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science."
One central point of the diary of ThatBritGuy, as I understood it, was that people do not flock to religion for intellectual reasons, but for a range of services and in the context of a broader social system. Reason is an answer to this like stones are an answer to thirst. You could go further and say that rationalism itself has severe deficits. Although I haven't yet found a presocratic source, this argument is not novel. It is quite common in cultural philosophy and has come to a full formulation in Horckheimer and Adorno's Dialektik der Aufklärung
, almost 65 years ago.
|Es scheine nur so als ob das aufgeklärte Weltbild dem mythischen überlegen sei. In Wahrheit seien diese beiden Ansätze sehr eng miteinander verwandt. Das Ideal der Aufklärung ist die rationale Erklärung der Welt um die Natur zu beherrschen. In ihr werde der Begriff durch die Formel ersetzt. Durch die argumentative Verteidigung der mythischen Weltdeutung werde das Prinzip der Rationaliät der Aufklärung schon anerkannt. Dadurch werde sie in jeder Auseinandersetzung mächtiger. "Als Sein und Geschehen wird von der Aufklärung nur anerkannt, was durch Einheit sich erfassen lässt; ihr Ideal ist das System, aus dem alles und jedes folgt." Alle Götter und Qualitäten sollen zerstört werden. Dabei übersieht sie, dass die Mythen schon ein Produkt der Aufklärung sind. "Als Gebieter über Natur gleichen sich der schaffende Gott und der ordnende Geist." Sie haben die gleichen Wurzeln, denn "Mythen wie magische Riten meinen sich wiederholende Natur." || ||It would only appear as if the enlightened worldview is superior to the mythical. In reality, both approaches would be closely connected. The ideal of enlightenment is the rational explanation of the world in order to control nature. In it, understanding is replaced by the formula. Through the argumented defense of the mythical interpretation of the world, the principle of rationality would already be acknowledged. As a result, it would get stronger with each confrontation. "As being and an event, enlightenment only recognises that which can be compassed in the unit; its ideal is the system, from which all and everything follows." All gods and qualities should be destroyed. In this, it overlooks that myths are already a product of the enlightenment. "As commander over nature, the creative God and the ordering intellect are alike." They have the same roots, as "myths like magical rites hold themselves to have a repetitive nature."|
Now, this is yet a bit simplistic. But there are two important insights we can draw from it. First, rational, humanistic enlightenment thinking has its own implicit myths. Second: because it is based upon the active disavowal of myth, it hinders an active examination of these myths, and a consideration of how they might be improved so as to work towards greater appeal and societal betterment.
Again: this is nothing really new. The notion that we need a new conception of progress - in a relative shift: away from the scientific towards the moral; away from the personal towards the relational; away from maximisation towards satisfaction - has been buzzing around green circles for decades. So you can easily think of a secular parralel to Emil Möller's idea that we need a 'shift up' in consciousness, which started off the heated dustup on religion here.
Humanism has not yet integrated these criticisms.
Can we exculpate Dawkins et al. for the public image of atheism they create with their campaign? Does Dawkins really not know what he is doing when he publishes a book called 'The God Delusion' and takes it into the media? He should know, as he is clever enough to realise how the broader public will receive this. But, one has to admit, the 'brights' episode shows that Dawkins may be hapless when it comes to public perception and framing.
Ted kindly pointed to substantial outtakes from the first chapter of 'The God Delusion' and a number of videos showing Dawkins in action at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, US, and on the BBC. After reading and watching all of that, I have come to a slightly more differentiated view of Dawkins.
First, the speech:
The speech by Dawkins did not quite set me aback with admiration of his equanimity and erudition. On the other hand, I was irritated by a number of things. First, Dawkins states that he intends to fight religion on its strengths, but then spends most of the time discussing intellectually very weak and typical formulations of a personal creator god.
I disagreed with his historical take on Catholicism as having developed a pantheon of saints -- Catholicism took over a pantheon as Christianity replaced the earlier polytheistic religions of the Roman empire. For that matter Judaism is also not a purely monotheistic religion, just a tad more monotheistic than polytheism as it used to exist across Europe -- it has a pantheon of good and evil angels. His use of the example of the assasination attempt on the Pope to ridicule the belief in both saints and belief in miraculous fortune was inappropriate. You can say many bad things about John Paul II, but he handled the assassination attempt admirably, meeting up and talking at length with the would-be assassin only two years afterwards. I do not know when the Pope claimed that it was 'our lady of Fatima' that helped him recover, but do note that there was another assassination attempt on the Pope in Fatima, Portugal a year later on the day before the anniversary of the assassination attempt in 1981. For that matter, also note Ratzinger's explanation of the 'third secret' of Fatima:
"The purpose of the vision is not to show a film of an irrevocably fixed future. Its meaning is exactly the opposite: it is meant to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction. Therefore we must totally discount fatalistic explanations of the "secret", such as, for example, the claim that the would-be assassin of 13 May 1981 was merely an instrument of the divine plan guided by Providence and could not therefore have acted freely, or other similar ideas in circulation. Rather, the vision speaks of dangers and how we might be saved from them."
I do not think it is needed for Dawkins to understand every aspect of Catholic history and theology in order for him to reject Catholicism. But it would come in handy if he tried to understand some of it before trying to ridicule Catholicism on such specific points.
This is but one example of the tin ear Dawkins seems to have when he discusses religion, as this quote from the first chapter of his book demonstrates:
There are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews and observe Jewish rites, perhaps out of loyalty to an ancient tradition or to murdered relatives, but also because of a confused and confusing willingness to label as 'religion' the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein.
Being a Jew and observing Jewish rites can only seem a chore to Dawkins, which must be due to loyalty to relatives killed in the holocaust, and which can only be maintained by not seeing Dawkins' determinate, definitive, ultimate take on what religion is.
What is religion, then, according to Dawkins? That is rather simple: it is an evil disease.
In 1991, Dawkins wrote a short essay called 'Viruses of the Mind' which forwarded a speculative argument that religion operates akin to a virus. Note that the piece is not a work of science, even though it uses some jargon, as Dawkins only provides an argument, no evidence. The entire theory behind the piece, if it can even be called a theory, has never been tested. Now, note the first paragraph:
A beautiful child close to me, six and the apple of her father's eye, believes that Thomas the Tank Engine really exists. She believes in Father Christmas, and when she grows up her ambition is to be a tooth fairy. She and her school-friends believe the solemn word of respected adults that tooth fairies and Father Christmas really exist. This little girl is of an age to believe whatever you tell her. If you tell her about witches changing princes into frogs she will believe you. If you tell her that bad children roast forever in hell she will have nightmares. I have just discovered that without her father's consent this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year-old is being sent, for weekly instruction, to a Roman Catholic nun. What chance has she?
Can you feel the hatred, the contempt? Can you see the emotional divisiveness?
To be fair to Dawkins, he might have written the piece in an angry fit as he had just found that Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the Devil's Verses, had been murdered.
Nonetheless, Dawkins does not seem to have gone down on the old hatred.
In the penultimate chapter of his best-selling book The God Delusion, biologist and world-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins presents his view of religious education, which he explains by way of an anecdote. Following a lecture in Dublin, he recalls, "I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place." Lest his readers misunderstand him, or dismiss this rather shocking statement as mere off-the-cuff hyperbole, Dawkins goes on to clarify his position. "I am persuaded," he explains, "that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell."
Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion--to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state--is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism.
The answer would seem to be that Dawkins, like some teenage Randian objectivist, gets too carried away with his rhetoric, severing all connections between his professed stance and its implications upon reality.
Dawkins is supposed to lay out his views upon religion in Chapter 5 of 'The God Delusion', which according to Wiki has the following qualification:
"the purpose of this section is to ask whether meme theory might work for the special case of religion" (italics in original, referring to one of the 5 sections of Chapter 5), The God Delusion, page 191
So it would seem he still thinks his 'Viruses of the Mind' argument holds some water, but he may have become more cautious about it. The readers of 'The God Delusion' are actively invited to give their feedback :-)
Next, the Q&A at R-M Woman's College:
Now, Dawkins gave a good acount of himself in the Q&A, answering most questions politely and intelligently. Quite a few of the questions were posed by students of the nearby Liberty University, and I think it's only fair to add that most of the Liberty students were polite as well and asked coherent, pointed questions. If you have some time to look at the video, listen to a few questions and then skip to the young woman who asks a question at around 59 minutes. I'll just say it seems to be a very cathartic moment for the young women at the college, who have quite a bit of pent up anger about their religious upbringing. So Dawkins definitely has a role there, in terms of channeling some of that anger and making people who are atheistic in a very religious setting more self-assured.
On the BBC Interviews:
At 6 minutes, Dawkins is talking about the tribal/political conflict in Northern Ireland:
Religion is an identifier, and that's the point. If it wasn't for religion then those two communities would long ago have intermarried have interbred, have merged into each other. There would no longer be two tribes that you could identify. (...) There are of course other badges, other labels, other dividers. But when there's nothing else, as in Northern Ireland, religion does the job very nicely.
Tribal conflicts marked by large economic and status differences can survive for a long time, without any clear identifiers other than wealth and status. The Hutus
and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi are a case in point. I see no reason why the same could not have happened in Northern Ireland.
When Dawkins says that it's "truly wicked" to label a child a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish child, he is missing the cultural aspects of these religions. This is another side-effect of his overall take on religion as a primarily intellectual affair. It is not that uncommon for people to say 'this is an Armenian child' or for that matter 'this is a hippie child'. And we think little of it, or at least I do. Similarly, being Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and to a lesser extent, Christian, is also a matter of cultural identity.
Dawkins loses me when he talks about moderate belief:
Once you sell a pass about faith, once you agree that faith doesn't have to be justified, then the vast majority of people who have faith are never going to do anything bad, that's fine. But a few are going to do very violent things and if you then tell them why do you do that, why do you that, how could you make yourself into a suicide bomber, how could you kill like that, they say 'that's my faith, you mustn't question that' and they've been taught that, they've been taught to respect faith by moderate teachers.
The argument of Dawkins that moderate faith can act as a smokescreen for radicalism and that suicide bombers (before blowing themselves up, apparently) are going to offer these kinds of intellectual justifications for their actions seems... specious! Detached from reality. I'd venture to argue that most violent believers have in fact been taught by altogether non-moderate teachers, and that the respect or lack of it in broader society towards moderate faith has nothing whatsoever to do with their violent ideology. On the other hand, since people of faith are generally a quite large portion of the population, it may be worthwhile to cooperate with the more moderate believers who will agree to things like teaching science in the classroom and protecting their belief from the corrupting influence of politics.
No major disagreements on the third part. I don't entirely agree with the idea of Dawkins that our brains are predisposed to be religious belief. Ideas like 'the god part of the brain' always struck me as implausible (and yes, scientistic). Mankind was together not that long ago (our genetic adam is 60,000 years old), so there could well have been a primal, animistic religion -- and on the other hand the inferences behind animism are so simple that it is completely conceivable that it would spring up universally as a cultural phenomenon. A more balanced take (on the 'god gene') can be found in this article by Carl Zimmer.
Given all that... it's only fair to say that Dawkins is quite able to engage in civil, reasonable dialogue. I guess at times he makes a good joke, I won't assess his wit as I was looking at him sceptically. Nonetheless, he seems driven by a deep hatred of religion which causes him to make a great deal of ill-considered statements. Inevitably, intolerant statements like this one tend to make me angry:
I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miraclewreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.
Dawkins, author of 'The Selfish Gene', of all people, accuses scientists who use an anthropomorphical image (of god) metaphorically... of intellectual high treason.
To the church of what, exactly?
I keep being struck by the remarkably imprecise discourse that physicalists offer up on belief. In all these long discussions on religion, those who prefer a scientific understanding of everything have not displayed a very scientific understanding of belief, or reason, or rationality. Belief is a folk lore, or Aristotelian, concept. What evidence do we have that we can talk about it in the mentalist fashion that we have so far?
Dawkins repeats this error, although he offers up a more functional, reductive take on belief by casting it into the unit of the 'meme'. Nonetheless, this take - for which, again, no evidence has been brought, only arguments - is still mentalist in that it presumes these units to be actually existant in the mind or brain. Dawkins thereby falls into a common physicalist error of hypostatising the function of a largely unexamined, and certainly not tested mental category he is talking about. When he starts developing claims on the basis of this speculative and highly dubitable model of mental functioning, he crosses the line into scientism.
I am not uncomfortable with mentalist interpretations of belief myself: I am pointing out that people who would claim the dominion of positivist science over all domains of understanding should be.
On the other hand, we may want to form a narrative understanding of an issue, as is done in many approaches in the social sciences, including anthropology (see: thick description). Dawkins is incapable of taking that approach, which is why I tend to sympathise with many of kcurie's contentions in Ted's diary, even though kcurie should have done a better job of explaining those contentions... but here's an attempt on my part:
- Dawkins does not do 'context'. His model for explanation of belief is based upon a hypostatised group of units of beliefs that replicate themselves. Because Dawkins is blind to the context, the broader social role of belief, he is incapable of seeing non-intellectual reasons for participating in religious practice (as demonstrated above by his quote on Jews)
- Dawkins has a profound antipathy towards his subject. He views believers as people who are afflicted with a partially or wholly incapacitating disease. He talks about 'the weakness of the religious mind'.
If Dawkins were to do religious anthropology, he would be a very bad anthropologist indeed. In order to form a narrative understanding you need to look in a detailed matter at all aspects of a society, to develop a feel for its functioning. A minimum level of sympathy towards the people you are trying to understand is necessary to be able to do that. Dawkins can't, and anyone who shares his contempt for religious people, won't.
Contrary to what Dawkins thinks, religious belief is not perpetuated by infection and incapacitation of the intellect. It is primarily perpetuated by perpetuating the institutions of religious belief. That, I would guess, is mainly a story of power and social control. Growing areligiosity is a testament to the increasing obsolescence of these institutions, not to some silly little intellectual war being fought between believers and nonbelievers.
Edge: Why the Gods are not Winning
In Commonweal Peter Quinn contends that Stephen Gould, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have sanitized the social philosophy of Charles Darwin, which was not sufficiently kindly and tolerant to produce "the sole and true foundation for a humanistic society, free of the primitive and dangerous irrationality of religious belief."
Aside from the above nontheists never having promoted Darwin's personal world-view as the sole fountain of societal goodness, Quinn is making the even bigger mistake--the same mistake nearly everyone is making--of believing that the contest between popular faith and secularism is an epic struggle of ideas that then determines the quality of societies. But the level and nature of popular faith is really set by economic conditions, and only secular egalitarian prosperous democracies that reject extreme social Darwinism can produce the best practical conditions.
Areligiosity, lest we forget, is growing. We seem to have internalised the conventional wisdom media narrative on 'resurgent religion'. But there is little evidence for that, as the Edge piece demonstrates. Also see Chris Bowers:
I also thought of the studies showing that a rapidly increasing number of Americans do not self-identify as Christian, and the studies showing that those Americans are predominately grouped within Generations X and Y (born 1965-1994). According to a 2005 study by Greenberg Research, only 62-63%% of Americans under the age of 40 self-identified as Christian, compared to over 80% of previous American generations. Further, fewer than 50% of the younger generations now self-identify as either Protestant or Roman Catholic.
Cheer up, atheists. You're not in a war. You're certainly
The answer to your ills is simple: progressivism.