I picked up Richard Dawkins‘ The God Delusion as airplane/vacation reading last week. As with everything I’ve seen by the “New Atheists”–Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett–I find myself in complete agreement with 95% of Dawkins’ points–indeed, with practically everything except his overall premise.
Let me get some of the obvious points of agreement out of the way. Yes, belief in an anthropomorphic personal God, especially as described in pretty much any set of sacred scriptures, has no rational justification. Yes, many dreadful things have been done in the name of religion (but note how I phrase that, and read on). Yes, it boggles the mind that evolution and stem-cell research are at all controversial. Yes, people who claim that our Constitution and laws are based on the Ten Commandments are either willfully ignorant or outright lying. Yes, atheism should be respectable and acceptable in public life. Yes, atheists are on average exactly as moral and ethical as religious people.
That said, on to the more interesting criticism. Dawkins is a prominent (and interesting) enough figure that his book has elicited a great many responses, to many of which he responds in turn in his preface to the paperback edition. I’ll start by responding to his responses to the responses (his paraphrases of which are in bold):
- You can’t criticize religion without a detailed analysis of learned books of theology. Dawkins points out that learned books of theology are really irrelevant to his point that “the God hypothesis” is very weak. Theologians generally start with the assumption that God exists and proceed from there; attempts to prove God’s existence based on logic or other “scientific” are laughably weak. He’s right there, so far as that goes. The real problem I have isn’t his simplistic analysis of theology, or his simplistic treatment of, say, the Bible, it is his (apparently) simplistic understanding of religion as a whole, on which more below.
- You always attack the worst of religion and ignore the best. To this Dawkins responds that for most practical purposes religion is the worst of religion: “to the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard; Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini.” The “best of religion” is to Dawkins significant only in that it enables and encourages the worst. To this I would say that (i) I hope (and think) that he’s wrong about the numbers–and I’ll note that he doesn’t provide any actual evidence for his position–and that (ii) in my experience the vast majority of evangelical/fundamentalist/pentecostal Christians are altogether more admirable than their alleged leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Ted Haggard (I am resisting the urge to make a Ted Haggard joke here. Oh heck, watch this.). Dawkins is right that the Robertsons and Falwells have altogether too much influence over too many people, including, very unfortunately, much of our government, but their influence can be (and is) overstated.
- I’m an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, and intemperate, intolerant, ranting language. Dawkins points out that in comparison to the language used in e.g. restaurant reviews his is quite mild. Religion, he says, enjoys a wholly undeserved freedom from criticism. Indeed, one of his goals is to help change that. To a certain extent I agree with him here: his language really is pretty mild, though it must be said that in this he is unlike his fellow New Atheists Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. There is however, a certain communications gap at work here: one man’s wit is another man’s rant.
- You’re only preaching to the choir. Well, he is preaching to the choir, but choirs like to be preached to. And there is a point: he is trying to convince “closet atheists” to come out, to make atheism respectable. This is a laudable goal.
- You’re as much of a fundamentalist as those you criticize. No, he’s not, exactly. I believe Dawkins when he says he would be willing to change his mind on, say, evolution, overnight if presented with incontrovertible evidence. That is in fact the way science works, and scientists love nothing more than having to change their minds (not that you’d know it from the way they talk sometimes, but it’s true). The problem here is more subtle, and really applies more to the likes of Hitchens and Harris than to Dawkins himself. The New Atheists may not be fundamentalists about evolution, but the are perilously close to unshakable belief in the superiority of their own reason over, well, everyone else’s. That unshakable belief is just as odious as Christian fundamentalism, and would be just as dangerous if there were more like them. Chris Hedges discusses this at length in I Don’t Believe In Atheists; I’ll have a bit more to say on it below.
- I’m an atheist myself, but religion is here to stay. Live with it.
- I’m an atheist myself, but people need religion. I’m more or less with him here; the first statement (whether it turns out to be true or not) is stupidly self-defeating, the second really is patronizing.
Not covered so succinctly is Dawkins’ assumption that if religion were simply to vanish the world would be a better place. That may be true (insofar as any conterfactual can be said to be “true”), but neither Dawkins nor anyone else I know of has even come close to justifying it. Certainly any number of atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but that is not at all the same thing as saying they have been committed because of religion. Religion is and always provided an excellent excuse for whatever people wanted to do anyway: Dawkins’ list of horrors at the beginning of his preface:
Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles,” no “honour killings,” no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money…
[he left out the Thirty Years’ War, the French Wars of Religion, the fires of Smithfield,…] demonstrates plenty of correlation but less causation than one might think. The Crusades, for example, began because the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I wanted mercenaries to help him fight the Turks, and Pope Urban II was only too happy to rid Europe of even a small part a violent and greedy warrior class. Yugoslavia and Ireland’s problems are far more political than religious: the religions are merely convenient markers (I hope to post about this point at much greater length, eventually). Ditto for the Gunpowder Plot, on a smaller scale. Televangelists are only one species of a great order of scam artists. Even in the more difficult and less comprehensible cases of suicide bombers and honor killings and witch-hunts, true motivations are difficult or impossible to discern. Religion provides a channel for pre-existing hatred, and a tool, one of many, for unscrupulous leaders to control their duped followers. But it is neither necessary or sufficient for hatred and atrocity. If there were no religion, we would be more than capable of finding other reasons to kill each other in awful ways.
The last century provides what should be conclusive examples that we can commit unimaginable horrors without the aid of religion: horrors don’t come much more horrible than Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, to name only the two biggest and most obvious. Dawkins does discuss both at some length, but he misses the point, or at least my point. He seems to be defending atheism from the charge that, without a God-given moral compass, it leads inevitably to Hitler and Stalin. That’s not my point at all. My point is that they show pretty conclusively that religion is not the sole cause of the world’s ills.
Now what does link many of history’s evils is unthinking devotion to ideas and causes. Religion certainly excels at that. But so does nationalism, and even misunderstanding of allegedly scientific principles. Dawkins does understand this, I think. I fear that his fellow New Atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not. Chris Hedges puts it strongly, using the language of sin:
I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don’t believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it’s the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they’re great supporters of preemptive war, and I don’t think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.
Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn’t know anything about religion or the Middle East. For Hitchens, it’s about a performance, and that was true when he was on the left. He hasn’t changed. It’s all about him. It’s all about being a contrarian. He reminds me of Ann Coulter, he’s that kind of a figure. He’s witty, and he’s funny and insulting.
I have another deeper and more subtle problem with Dawkins and the other New Atheists, perhaps the root of all my disagreement with them. They don’t seem to understand exactly what religion is: they confuse Religion with Belief. An easy mistake, to be sure: most True Believers also confuse their religion with their belief. And belief is a central part of most religions, certainly of Christianity in its most prevalent forms. But any religion is much more than its belief system: it’s a culture, a society, a way of life, a worldview. That I think is why we refer to Christian children and Muslim children and Jewish children, a practice Dawkins despises: not because they believe in the various tenets of their religions (although they probably do, of course), but because they are part of their respective cultures.
Perhaps it is because they don’t understand, or at any rate acknowledge, the full reality of religion and religious experience that Dawkins and the other New Atheists do not admit of any categories other than “deluded believers in anthropomorphic deities” and “atheists.” That scares me a little; it reeks of a fundamentalism as insidious as the religious right’s. Or perhaps the reason they don’t allow “deeply religious nonbelievers” to identify as such is purely polemical: they want all nonbelievers to proclaim themselves proudly as atheists.