Sunday, October 29, 2006

Against easy atheism

Atheism is much in the air these days, with new books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and a secondary wave of reviews and criticism, including Thomas Nagel in TNR, Marilyne Robinson in Harpers, Terry Eagleton in the LRB, and Jim Holt in the NYT, and Gary Wolf in Wired. These responses are mostly not from a standpoint of religious faith, rather, insofar as they are critical it's because of Dawkins' deliberately crude argumentation tactics. I find myself fence-straddling in this conversation -- on the one hand, I'm a sciencey guy and am alarmed at the rising political power of religious nfundamentalists. On the other hand, I don't think dismissing a large chunk of human culture and experience as simply a "delusion" is wise, from both the abstract philosophical standpoint and as a political tactic. So I find myself in sympathy with Dawkin's critics.

Dawkins engages in inverse cherry-picking (there should be a word for that) when it comes to religion, cataloging its many sins and failures but mostly ignoring whatever positive contributions it makes to human life. Robinson points out that science is not without sin itself and that if you are going to compare the two it must be done fairly:

The nineteenth-century abolitionist, feminist, essayist, and ordained minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the always timely point that, in comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule. The same principle might be applied in the comparison of religion and science. To set the declared hopes of one against the real-world record of the other is clearly not useful, no matter which of them is flattered by the comparison. What is religion? It is described by Dawkins as a virtually universal feature of human culture. But there is, commingled with it, indisputably and perhaps universally, doubt, hypocrisy, and charlatanism. Dawkins, for his part, considers religion wholly delusional, and he condemns the best of it for enabling all the worst of it. Yet if religion is to be blamed for the fraud done in its name, then what of science? Is it to be blamed for the Piltdown hoax, for the long-credited deceptions having to do with cloning in South Korea? If by “science” is meant authentic science, then “religion” must mean authentic religion, granting the difficulties in arriving at these definitions.

Dawkins fails to recognize that religion is not primarily about belief. Religion is about community, ritual, and emotional comfort, which is why people are so attached to it. The facticity of religious belief system is a secondary matter, and that's why attacks like Dawkins just seem misplaced. Dawkins takes religion as merely a bad form of science, a theory of nature which happens to be untrue. This misses the point completely, and it misses the point in the same way that religious fundamentalists seem to miss the point of their own faiths. Dumb religion breeds dumb criticism of religion. He's picking on the weakest form of religion, practiced by the weak-minded. It's not very interesting.

It's also ineffectual. The spiritual side of human nature isn't going to respond well to reason and argument. By deliberately promoting war between fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism, and lumping in religious moderates with the former, Dawkins may stir controversy but is unlikely to change any minds. Religion won't go away. Atheists don't have the numbers to win a straight-out political war, so it just seems like better tactics to promote weak forms of religion that do not conflict with science, rather than lump moderates with fundamentalists.

So, while no religious believer, I'm not a fan of the sort of fundamentalist atheism espoused by Dawkins, Harris, and PZ Myers. I'm find it much more interesting to search for some way to reconcile spiritual concepts with with science. It's more challenging and risks being ridiculous, but something compels me to think about this nonsense (see here and here for previous attempts).

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

"Dawkins takes religion as merely a bad form of science, a theory of nature which happens to be untrue. This misses the point completely, and it misses the point in the same way that religious fundamentalists seem to miss the point of their own faiths. Dumb religion breeds dumb criticism of religion. He's picking on the weakest form of religion, practiced by the weak-minded. It's not very interesting."

Well said!!!!! I wish I could have put it so eloquently.

You also might be interested in this review in New Scientist (subscription only so I hope you can read it)
http://www.newscientist.com/channel/opinion/mg19225721.600-review-ithe-god-delusioni-by-richard-dawkins.html

P.S. found you by your "Are we not men?" Comment on PZ's blog. I was thinking the exact same thing!

Anonymous said...

I kinda like Dawkins, Harris, and especially Christopher Hitchen's rabid attacks on religion. Its refreshing. Perhaps even a bit of a cultural revolution, finally... I don't think they miss the point or don't understand the history and import of myth and mythmaking among human beings - they're playing an important role in re-acerting ideas of liberal, secular humanism and, reason and science in the contemporary world.

They're not the first to do so, but in an age of disfunctional mythic systems and existential uncertainty their voices are a clarion call to a better world - not some idealistic, magical, or apocalyptic one - but one of true freedom and reason... Perhaps even a whole new mythic system by which humanity and the world may be better served...

"Dumb religion breeds dumb criticism of religion."? - "He's picking on the weakest form of religion, practiced by the weak-minded."? - C'mon... Most of the world's orthodox religions haven't chaged thier core beliefs and world-views much in the last two thousand years, and people often interpret religious metaphor literally and out of historic context. In short - they don't work in todays world, they're out-dated, they've been superceded by science and knowledge. Those who believe in a literal, fundamentalist world-view are deluded people who are being manipulated and used. Its a travesty... To say so doesn't discredit or totally devalue all spiritual systems... the myths and symbols and rituals of the past still have value, power and resonance... But organized religions today are more often political entities that foment injustice, prejudice, and hate in the world, not to mention psychological cruelty upon their own members. Its far past the time for our species to begin to adopt self-reflective insight and gain a responsible perspective about our relationship to each other, our planet, and our species future...

Anonymous said...

Easy atheism is not the problem.

Easy know nothing self-righteous religiosity is a far greater problem.

Such "religion" is growing in leaps and bounds every year. A phenomenon which is being written about in praise-worthy terms even by the Economist magazine.