Richard Dawkins and Fundamentalist Atheism

big picture stuff, Religion

In a recent Huffington blog post, E.J. Eskow describes the traits of the fundamentalist atheist. This reminded me that after I wrote about “God Nazis” last November, followed up by “Dichotomies,” I had vowed to someday write a longer post about why Richard Dawkins is off base about religion.

But first, about fundamentalist atheism: The fundamentalist atheist, Eskrow says, is dogmatic, intolerant, elitist, and authoritarian.

They’re dogmatic. Their movement is based on a piece of dogma which can’t be challenged without enraging them. It’s sociological and historical in nature, not theological, and can be summed up as follows:

    “Humans would be better off if religion in all forms was eradicated.”

Are they right? Nobody knows. … I’d like to see some research into the issue of religion and human conflict, perhaps by an interdisciplinary social sciences group. I’d like to know more, so that I can make an informed decision.

Fundamentalist atheists think they already know, without study. In our only personal encounter, Sam Harris pointedly refused to consider reviewing the work of the Fundamentalism Project or any other scholars who have studied the impact of religion on society.

Only Dennett proposes any real research – and he’s the least popular of the lot. The others are already sure the world would be better off without religion, and they throw gentle and passive forms of theism like Quakerism into the burn pile along with the more organized and militant forms.

Another pet belief of theirs is that our society doesn’t permit criticism of religion. They hold this belief so strongly that they’ve written several best-selling books about it. The fact that this might be a contradiction doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

You can read the rest yourself, it’s a short post.

It’s true that a great many bad things have been done in the name of religion, but a great many good things have been done in the name of religion also. Note that you can substitute the word “politics” or even “science” for “religion,” and the statement would also be true. The point is that human beings act out in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons, and if one were to eliminate every kind of movement or organization or discipline that has ever been associated with doing harm, you’d have to pretty much do away with civilization itself.

H. Allen Orr discusses the same point in the January 11 New York Review of Books (“A Mission to Convert“):

Throughout The God Delusion, Dawkins reminds us of the horrors committed in the name of God, from outright war, through the persecution of minority sects, acts of terrorism, the closing of children’s minds, and the oppression of those having unorthodox sexual lives. No decent person can fail to be repulsed by the sins committed in the name of religion. So we all agree: religion can be bad.

But the critical question is: compared to what? And here Dawkins is less convincing because he fails to examine the question in a systematic way. Tests of religion’s consequences might involve a number of different comparisons: between religion’s good and bad effects, or between the behavior of believers and nonbelievers, and so on. While Dawkins touches on each, his modus operandi generally involves comparing religion as practiced —religion, that is, as it plays out in the rough-and-tumble world of compromise, corruption, and incompetence— with atheism as theory. But fairness requires that we compare both religion and atheism as practiced or both as theory. The latter is an amorphous and perhaps impossible task, and I can see why Dawkins sidesteps it. But comparing both as practiced is more straightforward. And, at least when considering religious and atheist institutions, the facts of history do not, I believe, demonstrate beyond doubt that atheism comes out on the side of the angels. Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual facts that (1) the twentieth century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before. …

… it’s hard to believe that Stalin’s wholesale torture and murder of priests and nuns (including crucifixions) and Mao’s persecution of Catholics and extermination of nearly every remnant of Buddhism were unconnected to their atheism. Neither the institutions of Christianity nor those of communism are, of course, innocent. But Dawkins’s inability to see the difference in the severity of their sins— one of orders of magnitude—suggests an ideological commitment of the sort that usually reflects devotion to a creed.

I contend that oppressions and genocides and atrocities are not caused by religion or ideology, but by dark and fearful impulses arising from subconscious depths. These impulses then latch on to a belief or a cause for justification, and the carnage begins. Religion served that purpose over many centuries of human civilization. But if one kind of cause goes out of fashion, another will be found that serves just as well.

I agree with Dawkins on many points. For example, I agree with him (and Sam Harris) that good socialization is a better prerequisite for moral and ethical behavior than religious belief. I agree that much religion is a stew of shams and inconsistencies and superstition that people use as an emotional crutch. What Dawkins writes about religion is, IMO, generally true of that part of religion he is writing about.

Unfortunately, like every other fundamentalist atheist I’ve ever encountered, he is profoundly ignorant about religion as a whole. The small part of religion he knows and writes about is not representative of the whole. He’s like a really backward space alien who lands on the North Pole and assumes the whole planet is covered by ice. And, because he doesn’t respect religion enough to study it, he remains willfully ignorant of it. This is, pure and simple, elective ignorance, which is the hallmark of a fanatic.

What Theo Hobson says here about Martin Amis applies also, IMO, to Dawkins.

What is striking is that Amis uses the phrase “religious belief” with such little care, with such little “passion for the particular”, in Marianne Moore’s phrase. Once this imaginary enemy is in his sights he forgets his usual habits of meticulous attentiveness to detail, humility before the awesome complexity of the world. Basically, he loses it, he goes ape: a more primitive form of mind takes over.

It is a fascinating blind spot. For it exactly illustrates the very fault of which he accuses religious belief: that it kills nuance, difference, respect for the actual and particular.

Orr again:

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

Atheists fundamentalists are no better than the creationists who insist that evolution hasn’t been “proved” because it’s “just a theory” and no one had found a fossil of the Missing Link. You cannot have a meaningful discussion with a creationist until you can sit him down and relieve him of his assumptions — like, what is “proof”? What is “theory”? What is “science”? Most of the time, creationists have only a hazy and mangled notion even of what evolution is.

Dawkins has his own “missing link” bugaboo, which is the existence (or not) of a material God. Marilynne Robinson wrote a review of The God Delusion for the November 2006 issue of Harper’s that speaks to this nicely.

The chapter titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God” reflects his reasoning at its highest bent. He reasons thus: A creator God must be more complex than his creation, but this is impossible because if he existed he would be at the wrong end of evolutionary history. To be present in the beginning he must have been unevolved and therefore simple. Dawkins is very proud of this insight. He considers it unanswerable. He asks, “How do they [theists] cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?” And “if he [God] has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know,” and “a first cause of everything.. . must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).” At Cambridge, says Dawkins, “I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology.” Dawkins is clearly innocent of this charge against him. Whatever is being foisted here, it is not a scientific epistemology.

“That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology,” Robinson continues. And then, of course, you ought to clarify what you mean by exist. Dogen’s Uji argues that being is time. What we normally think of as “existence” is a function of time and matter. It’s very difficult for the human brain to grasp any other kind of existence. Thus, ideas about God run the gamut from an anthropomorphic creature with a personality, emotions, likes and dislikes, and thoughts — perhaps even political affiliations — to, well, something that has no form, no emotions, no personality, no likes and dislikes, no senses, no cognition. Quoting Karen Armstrong,

In my book “A History of God,” I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said you couldn’t think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God. …

… Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn’t necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words.

But this is a terribly difficult thing to do. Twenty-five centuries ago the Buddha taught that the existence of a God or gods was irrelevant, which is a nice distinction from saying there isn’t one. Instead, the Buddha taught that through the discipline of the eightfold path the true and absolute nature of existence itself is revealed. (This is a bit like looking at the picture of a vase and then realizing it’s also two faces. I can’t explain it any better than that.) But any preconceptions whatsoever about this reality — the literature refers to Buddha Nature or sometimes Suchness — gets in the way of realization, so it’s better not to cling to ideas or doctrines about What It Is.

Saying that our limited notions of existence do not apply to God or Suchness or Whatever is not the same thing as a “god of the gaps” argument. Even some Christian theologians (Tillich, for example) consider the G/S/W thing to be the ground of beingness, or existence, itself, upon which all other beingness and existence depends. Tillich’s understanding of God is about as far removed from the “watchmaker” Dawkins derides as a Da Vinci painting from a child’s crayon drawing.

Let me say (if you are new here) that I do not “believe in God” as people normally understand those words, and in particular I don’t believe in a personal God, yet I am religious. And I sincerely believe that if Dawkins ever tried to wrap his brain around religions as I understand it, his head would explode. I can tell from his writing he hasn’t even been exposed to much about religion and has no idea how ignorant he is.

If Richard Dawkins wants to apply himself to a criticism of Tillich, or Spinoza, or Dogen, or any other religious teacher or thinker who doesn’t fit the religion mold in his head, that’s grand. But until he does, he’s stuck at the level of claiming evolution can’t be proved until someone finds the Missing Link.

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  1. A. Citizen  •  Jan 5, 2007 @12:23 am

    Easily the worst post I’ve read in a while. You appear to be ‘reading’ Dawkins third hand through reviewers. Dawkins central thesis is that there is no god.

    Thus folks who believe god are deluded.

    If he’s wrong then demonstrate the existence of God. Don’t insult and denigrate views which differ from yours.

    That’s the action of someone who takes themselves entirely too seriously.

    Which whenever this topic comes up you certainly seem to do.

  2. Quentin Crain  •  Jan 5, 2007 @2:07 am

    Hi Maha! Thanks for the description of FAs. I am still confused as to why you believe Dawkins is a FA. Here is what you have said:

    “Unfortunately, like every other fundamentalist atheist I’ve ever encountered, he [Dawkins] is profoundly ignorant about religion as a whole. The small part of religion he knows and writes about is not representative of the whole.”
    “And, because he doesn’t respect religion enough to study it, he remains willfully ignorant of it.”
    “Dawkins has his own “missing link” bugaboo, which is the existence (or not) of a material God.”
    “Let me say (if you are new here) that I do not “believe in God” as people normally understand those words, and in particular I don’t believe in a personal God, yet I am religious.”

    It would probably help me to understand if you could give some citations of Dawkins (and/or Harris) that you feel show his/their FA-ness. Examples of Dawkins showing how he “is profoundly ignorant about religion as a whole” and “doesn’t respect religion enough to study it” and “remains willfully ignorant of it” would help me understand your position. And (to repeat a bit of my comment #44) I still feel that your “religion” is not the “religion” Dawkins and Harris intend to target — and if your religion is not a “normal” religion (quoting you: “… I do not “believe in God” as people normally understand those words …”) I am not sure why they ought to address it?

    Respectfully and really trying to get it, Quentin

  3. marijam  •  Jan 5, 2007 @6:04 am

    Talk about “hitting a nerve!”

    I contend that oppressions and genocides and atrocities are not caused by religion or ideology, but by dark and fearful impulses arising from subconscious depths. These impulses then latch on to a belief or a cause for justification, and the carnage begins.

    Of course, I agree with you totally.

  4. maha  •  Jan 5, 2007 @7:26 am

    Quentin — the Marilyn Robinson quote in the post provides an example of Dawkins’s ignorance of religion and of his “missing link” bugaboo. Read the entire Robinson and H. Allen Orr for clarification (I am not your monkey). And my religion IS the religion Dawkins targets, because Dawkins paints all religion with the same brush. That’s what makes him a fundamentalist atheist.

    At this point, Quentin, I have to assume you are being deliberately stubborn about not getting it and are asking stupid questions just to annoy me. Comments are now closed.

  5. maha  •  Jan 5, 2007 @7:37 am

    One more comment

    A Citizen — I’ve deleted some of your anti-religion rants off this site before, so I know you to be a fundamentalist atheist yourself. I appreciate it that you disagree with me on religion. Let me explain to you that if you don’t like the religion posts — don’t read them. Then they won’t bother you. These matters may not interest you, but they do interest other people.

    Re “Don’t insult and denigrate views which differ from yours.” — you first, son. The fact, I don’t denigrate Dawkins personal views on religion or the existence of God. He can believe or not believe whatever he likes. I am slamming him because he denigrates other peoples’ beliefs, and he does so in a way that demonstrates he has no idea what those beliefs actually are. The very idea that the existence of God can or ought to be proved or disproved demonstrates that he has no clue how most believers understand God. It’s just as clueless as saying that evolution hasn’t been proved because no one has found the missing link.

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