Carl Sagan, Reasonable Atheist

During my crosstown commute this evening I watched a recording of a late-1980s television broadcast, “God, the Universe, and Everything,” featuring Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke. The trio and their host discussed the nature of the cosmos and of God, with a brief detour into Clarke’s fractal fetish. I’m struck that in contrast to fellow avowed atheist Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan addressed questions of God and faith during the program without resorting to philosophical mouth farts. And so it was with his appearances on “Cosmos” and other programs. Even Sagan’s final work, 1996′s The Demon-Haunted World sets forth its arguments against religion in a reasonable way, and chooses to devote most of its energy to fighting pseudoscience.

It could be that Dawkins is more confrontational (I would in fact call it nasty) because times are different and the religious are now perceived as more of a “threat” to science by the atheist-humanist crowd. Though, as memory serves me, the debates involving politics and religion, and by extension, science, were awfully contentious during the 1980s. Margaret Atwood’s Christian fundamentalist-bashing dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1985 and greenlighted for a movie shortly thereafter. At the same time, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was already well-known in the West. We had already experienced kidnappings, terror bombings, and had to contend with fundamentalist leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued his famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. So if we discount the reality of “threat” to nonbelievers, and the effect it would have on tone, then the difference between atheists like Dawkins and atheists like Sagan seems to be one of style, substance, and perhaps even decency.

Where have all the nice atheists gone?

Richard Dawkins, Cranky Atheist

This week I watched “The Root of All Evil?,” a 2006 BBC documentary adapted from Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, in which Dawkins, as host, unleashes a long, unrelenting sneer against the three Abrahamic faiths. Ours is a time when religious extremism threatens lives, liberties, and political stability in several regions of the world, so a polemic aimed at such extremism, especially in militant Islam, should be welcomed. But Dawkins is after a bigger target than Islamic death cults: he attacks religion in all its aspects, from its ability to offer consolation to the sick and dying, to its capacity to develop social capital in communities of faith, to the notion that religious morality stems from anything but the fear of God. Someday, a philosopher may make a passionate, convincing brief in favor of atheist humanism, but this isn’t that argument, and after watching him for two hours, Dawkins clearly isn’t the man for the job.

For such a brilliant man in his own fields, Dawkins’ pontifications on religion are tired and stale. Note that for lack of time or personal animus, Dawkins ignores Asian faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism and instead spends most of his time criticizing Christianity. The usual litany of atheist attacks on Christianity are advanced during the documentary, including a focus on the Old Testament and Paul’s views on the faith while ignoring the Person and the Values of Christ. Catholicism is attacked as little more than an institution in favor of miracles and opposed to birth control, while the Church’s progressive values or nuanced ethical beliefs (such as those outlined in Veritatis Splendor) are wholly ignored. Not surprisingly, profound Christian thinkers from Soren Kierkegaard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to C.S. Lewis go also unmentioned in the documentary, lest Dawkins be forced to deviate from his “Christian ignoramuses” script.

And if I were to judge Christians based solely on the Christians shown in Dawkins’ documentary, I, too, might find Christianity a ridiculous or disturbing faith. The segments with the Hell House producers and the Paul Hill supporter are eye-rolling at best and infuriating at worst. That said, Dawkins even made me feel a twinge of sympathy for creepy (and now disgraced) megachurch pastor Ted Haggard when Dawkins likens one of their church gatherings to a Nuremberg rally when the documentary itself seems to favor Haggard’s claim that it was “like a rock concert.” Now, calm scholarly sort that I am, I’m not a fan of the megachurches or pop Christianity, but I recognize that they represent another attempt at community-building like the Catholic mass or black American church. Watching Dawkins scowl his way through Haggard’s flock, I couldn’t help but also picture him frowning during a parade or a football game or any other event where a group of people come together in shared feeling. And thank God he wasn’t around at the March on Washington to liken it to Nuremberg.

In fact, Dawkins is not only afraid of Christians in large groups, he’s also against the notion of Christian families. And Jewish families. Muslim families too. For him, and a psychologist he speaks to during the film, childhood religious instruction is a form of child abuse. Dawkins argues that since we’d never call a child of two Conservatives a “Tory child,” why do we label a child according to his/her parents’ religious affiliation? I’m not sure if this is a sign that British society is radically different from the United States or evidence that Dawkins is out of touch, but in America (and here in China too) parents shape the identities of their children across the board — from religion, to politics, to their self-conceptions as members of a race or ethnic group, and we most certainly speak of, among other things, Christian families, Democratic families, and black families. To suppose otherwise is to posit an ideal society where children are alienated from their parents by the power of the State and indoctrinated by would-be Philosopher Kings — an arrangement we’ve wisely chosen to avoid, knock on Popper.

Finally, a key theme in Dawkins’ documentary is to contrast faith and rationalism, stressing the advantages of the former while seemingly exasperated as to why anyone would still be religious in this day and age. Along the way, he actually offers several misrepresentations of science and humanism, draping those of his mindset in an almost — dare I say? — religious mantle.

For instance, Dawkins offers up an anecdote from his college years as proof of the inherent open-mindedness of science and willingness to accept newly discovered truths. According to Dawkins, a professor of his had staunchly defended a particular scientific theory only to have his arguments rebutted by a visitor, who was then thanked by said professor for setting him straight. Yet such gracious acceptance of rival theories tends to be rare (if not nonexistent) in most of science, where adherents of a particular theory will often fight tooth and nail with rivals lest they be overtaken in the latest paradigm shift. In my own former field of political science, for example, I can’t imagine the rational choice types and the perestroikans sitting down to break bread like Dawkins’ exemplary professor.

Similarly, when discussing the nature of morals, Dawkins puts forth an intriguing (though familiar) argument about mankind’s genetic predisposition towards altruism then muddies the water by tying this plausible evolution of cooperation to the way our social attitudes about race and homosexuality have liberalized over the years. (The implied contrast is: religion frowns upon these things, so let’s hear it for natural morality.) What exactly Dawkins is trying to say by linking ancient, inborn morality to modern secular cultural morality — which cannot be inborn unless we accept some version of Lamarckism — is unclear.

While Dawkins and I might agree that minorities and gays and lesbians deserve to be treated with respect, he offers real no argument to explain why his views are justifiable, desirable, or indeed anything but arbitrary choices. He goes on to outline the process of how secular moral views are spread in the media and mass culture, yet this merely explains why they’re popular, not why they’re correct. Moreover, it’s foolish to act as though secular moral views progress on a straight line — as Dawkins seemingly does by deeming said views “progressive” — or that, in the absence of religion, we would automatically follow a morality in line with Mr. Dawkins’ tastes.

This brings me to the most ridiculous little bit in all of Dawkins’ documentary, the quote which inspired Dawkins’ BBC producers to give the documentary such an inflammatory title. After talking to Michael Bray, a supporter of abortion doctor murderer Dr. Paul Hill, and noting what a nice person Mr. Bray seemed to be, Dawkins quotes American physicist Steven Weinberg:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

This quote no doubt impresses Dawkins, since he repeats it often. The problem with Doctors Dawkins and Weinberg is, the numbers just aren’t on their side.

Update: Post edited to reformat and clear up a couple of paragraphs.