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.

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5 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins, Cranky Atheist

  1. Randomly came across this.

    Anyway, your fallacy is that whilst Dawkins does indeed focus on the bad parts of religion to make the case against it, you assume that examining the good parts would serve as a sufficient defence. You are incorrect.

    It doesn’t matter if a religion is indisputably ‘good’ or beneficial, that does not make it TRUE. Which is the key point he was making. It is also worth while to show that religion is capable of leading to immense suffering, there is a logical pathway that follows from ‘faith’ that leads to such things (the 19 jihadists from 11/9/01 being a good example of what can happen).

    Your rebuttals to his points consist solely of personal feelings and anecdotes (would you honestly label a child a marxist if his/her parents were?). Your particular one about your field (political ‘science’) is, of course, not analogous to real science where scientists are begging to be proven wrong. You seem to think such attitudes are rare in science but you could not be further from the truth and you offer no examples to counter this (apart from some personal feeling from the field of political ‘science’).

    Finally, you have made that age old mistake of linking the mass murders of atheistic despots to atheism itself. Do you honestly believe they murdered ‘in the name of’ atheism? I should think not.

  2. JK, thanks for your comments. Not surprisingly, I respectfully disagree.

    For starters, I think you confused the point of my little review here. The post is not intended as an apologetic for religion so much as an exercise in anti-anti-religious philosophizing, especially when attacks on faith take a form that’s, frankly, snobby and mean-spirited. (I include among these polemicists both Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens but not someone like Carl Sagan.)

    Now, given that most of Dawkins’ arguments in the documentary are feelings and personal anecdotes, I am puzzled as to why you deem my supposed use of feelings and personal anecdotes insufficient, unless you are shifting the burden of proof and requirement of methodological rigor onto those you disagree with. (Not very scientific of you.)

    You, channeling Dawkins, opine, “there is a logical pathway that follows from ‘faith’ that leads to such things [terrorism].” Does religion motivate some terrorists? Absolutely. But so does ideology and ethnic divisions. Recall that the fiercest wave of suicide bombing was brought to us by not by Muslim terrorists but by the Tamil Tigers. Rajiv Gandhi was blown up not by a zealot dreaming of virgins in the hereafter but a woman killing in the name of a Tamil state.

    Moving on, as for labeling, I wouldn’t readily say today that the child of Marxist parents is a Marxist, but at times we had “Red Diaper Babies” who were raised Marxist from their formative years on. Also, I think your comparison is weak since Marxist parties are pretty rare these days and one wouldn’t ordinarily speak of a “Marxist household” the way one might discuss a “Democratic household” in the States or “Tory household” in the UK.

    For another example of labeling in action, I wouldn’t readily say that a half-black or half-white child is either “white” or “black,” but his parents would probably make the choice of raising him by one identity or the other, as was the case with Barack Obama, who was raised “white” by his mother before discovering his “blackness” in young adulthood. The point of these examples is that parents shape the identities of their children across the board, so how should we single out the imprinting of a religious identity as improper yet allow others?

    As for your arguments about what science is, I would ask you — your bias shown by your use of sneer quotes — to consider that the modern discipline of political science is science qua science, rigorous, logical, and mathematical, and not mere politics or political history. And in this field the debates are intense, the adherents of theory devoted, and few people are “begging to be proven wrong.”

    As to the broader field of science, I would reference Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which offers us a sketch of how the reigning paradigm within science attempts to suppress alternative theories up until the point at which those theories reach sufficient momentum to “overturn the chessboard,” so to speak. Now, perhaps science as practiced in our time is different, but the history of science, stretching back to the ancients, is not a history full of gracious men like Dawkins’ anecdotal professor.

    Finally, I make no mistake in linking the mass murders of atheistic despots to atheism, since I am not making the argument that atheism leads to mass slaughter. On the contrary, I am merely refuting — with a hundred million lives — the idea that religion, alone, can bring good men to do evil. That argument is favored by Dawkins yet easily misproven. A conversation with a few Chinese who survived the Cultural Revolution should suffice. Or perhaps you might enjoy the film The Lives of Others or read a bit about the GDR to learn how common German people did great evil without religion to inspire it.

  3. I think the point being made is that religion is not required to bring goodness to men, therefore it is not necessary as some part of one’s moral framework.

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