Richard Dawkins and Fundamentalist Atheism

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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 Dawkin 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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55 Comments

55 Comments

  1. wht  •  Jan 4, 2007 @3:17 pm

    Until somebody of atheist or agnostic persuasion gets elected to a high office, the arguments are moot. Sadly, the A&A contingent will basically continue to have no voice in the political discourse. Notice how the voters in England don’t treat this as a litmus test.

  2. the Rev. Mike  •  Jan 4, 2007 @3:37 pm

    I am surprised his love of science hasn’t lead him to examine exactly what you present – a different view of religion/god than the fundies do. I was once trapped in hard atheism and unable to see anything but the fundie dogma on the other side of the fence. My love of science eventually made me stop and think how can all these people who claim these experiences in all this multitudes of faiths be wrong? Is there something back there they can see I can’t? Having to anser that led me to conceptualizations of the Divine that transcended fundie dogma while maintaining scientific cohesion and truth for me. My atheist friends can’t see what I have now found any more than the few fundies I know. But that is okay. It’s all good in the process of constant creation within which our illusion of existence plays out.

  3. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @3:44 pm

    Until somebody of atheist or agnostic persuasion gets elected to a high office, the arguments are moot.

    I’m all for electing atheists and agnostics, but I don’t see how politics will solve the religion questions presented.

  4. digby  •  Jan 4, 2007 @3:45 pm

    Not that I’m here to defend his general thesis because I’m unconvinced, but Sam Harris is extremely well versed in all religious traditions and has read all the great religious books. He may be a “fundamentalist atheist” but it’s not out of ignorance of religion. In fact, I heard him speak on C-Span recently and in recent years he has spent a lot of time studying with Yogis and Buddhist monks — and getting an advanced degree in neuroscience in order to better understand the higher consciouness these holy men achieve.

    I don’t know about Dawkins. He seems to be a fundmentalist by temperament as much as anything else.

  5. Griff  •  Jan 4, 2007 @3:50 pm

    Maha,
    “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”.
    Very well put. People use religion and political ideology to justify their hatred and fear. I hope someday we can pin this down and get at ways to prevent these catastrophes.
    Have you read Harris’ essay on Buddhism? It’s on his site in the articles section. He thinks the core teachings of Buddhism are incredibly powerful and useful, but many of the sects take on rigid hierarchy and superstition (reincarnation, karma) also. Just curious.
    The comment by wht is right on. Non-believers are considered bad people by a huge segment of the population, and most everybody in power.
    Regards,
    Griff

  6. Jacob M  •  Jan 4, 2007 @3:55 pm

    I was raised as a Southern Baptist but parted ways with that organization a long time ago. I do not call myself a Christian any longer, though I do accept the story of Jesus and the Resurrection and believe in a higher, unified power. My split from Christianity came when I realized I did not have it within myself to condemn a faithful practioner of Hinduism, Judaeism or Islam. It was, of course, then a short step to realize that I could not condemn the manner in which anyone found their connection with Deity. Since that point I have wandered off into a hazier spiritual path. For a while I believed I was pagan, but even that was too restrictive for me. So I’ve read about many religions in a cursory manner, having never plunged- for fear of drowning- too deeply into another one. With the gloss over many, however, I have started to believe close to what you have described: religion is a human institution marked by its attempts to reveal the Divine. That Divine exists outside of language and thus outside of human institutions. The Holy, thus, can be found in the simplest of things. Every day is a revelation of the Divine and existence itself is the medium through which Deity reveals itself.

    These are all opinions, of course. In the end that is what religion is: opinion. It cannot be proven or disproven; much like the claims of the fundamentalist atheist. The problem, I believe, with fundamentalism of any stripe is the prevailing vanity which drives it. That is why I left the Southern Baptist faith and that is why I can not understand or empathize with Richard Dawkins. To share your beliefs is one thing; and since existence is itself a medium of revelation there is no way that I can say that even your denial of the existence of the Divine is good or bad. It is your opinion and perhaps the course your life is to take; I cannot know the mind of Deity and wouldn’t want to if I could.

    I can, however, say that a refusal to reason and respect the beliefs of others is a dark thing because it necessarily precludes revelation. This is true whether it is found in the heart of a fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist.

  7. wht  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:01 pm

    Dawkins is from England and so has been exposed to a different mindset growing up and I think this has at least something to do with knee-jerk reactions to him from a lot of Americans.

    If an atheist or an agnostic can never be voted a Senator or President, don’t you think they will make up for it with a case of stridency? I think Dawkins understands this and thus sticks it in our face.

  8. Gordon  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:03 pm

    It amuses me when a bright guy like Dawkins fails to apply science to a subject he says must be treated scientifically. His “God must be simple” is tautological reasoning, just like ID’s “proof” that there is a designer. Dawkins assumes that complexity can only come from simplicity; IDers assume that order can’t come from chaos. Both end up labelling their assumptions as conclusions.

    What Dawkins perhaps should be thinking about: Einsteinian physics says that space and time are inseparable. We are in 4 dimensions of space-time, not 3 of space and 1 of time, despite how we experience it. So when we leave space-time (ie, die, or perhaps see things from God’s perspective), we also leave behind any notion of “forever”.

    To my mind, the only 2 teachers whose cosmologies don’t collapse under Einstein’s ideas are Buddha and Lao T’zu.

  9. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:04 pm

    Dawkins is from England and so has been exposed to a different mindset growing up and I think this has at least something to do with knee-jerk reactions to him from a lot of Americans.

    Did you even read what I wrote?

  10. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:05 pm

    digby — you’re probably right that Sam Harris isn’t a fundamentalist athiest.

  11. sniflheim  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:07 pm

    Ascribing all 20th century atrocities to secularism is either ignorant or disingenuous. The God squad definitely got its licks in. I presume you’ve heard of Central and South America. And please no more of the Hitler vs. Christianity BS. Eskow commits the same mistake with secularism that he accuses Amis of making with belief. Well the other guy did it first I guess.

  12. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:13 pm

    In the end that is what religion is: opinion. It cannot be proven or disproven; much like the claims of the fundamentalist atheist.

    This tells me that you have no grasp of, or experience with, mysticism. In the mystical approach to religion opinion is irrelevant.

    Like Armstrong said, religion isn’t really about dogma or doctrine or belief. It’s about transcendence. If you’re approaching it as a hypothesis for which you must find proof, you’re going about it the wrong way.

  13. wht  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:17 pm

    Yes, but I haven’t read any of Dawkins. I am just guessing what he is up to.

  14. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:29 pm

    Ascribing all 20th century atrocities to secularism is either ignorant or disingenuous.

    I probably should have been clearer that I had a problem with Orr’s comment on secularism. I don’t think “secularism” causes atrocities, but then (for the same reasons, which I did explain) I don’t think “religion” causes atrocities, either.

    And please no more of the Hitler vs. Christianity BS.

    I did a keyword search (Hitler) of my post and the essays I linked to and found no mention of Hitler (except in comments, which don’t count) until Robinson, and she was only paraphrasing Dawkins, not offering Hitler as an example of bad anti-religion.So stop whining. I agree with Orr, however, when he says

    … 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.

    The point being that if you think there will be fewer atrocities in the world if you eliminate religion — guess again. The psychopaths will just find a new excuse.

    Eskow commits the same mistake with secularism that he accuses Amis of making with belief.

    Eskow neither mentioned Hitler nor said anything about Amis. The quote about Amis was from somebody else.

    How’s about actually READING a post before you comment on it next time, hm?

  15. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:30 pm

    I am just guessing what he is up to.

    That’s very unscientific.

  16. wht  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:44 pm

    You got me. I am just trying to make sense out of these metaphysical needs like everyone else.

  17. rwgate  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:45 pm

    something that has no form, no emotions, no personality, no likes and dislikes, no senses, no cognition.

    Isn’t this the very definition of non-existence?

  18. Tom Hilton  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:45 pm

    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.

    I think this is true up to a point. I would argue, though, that belief systems based on absolute authority inherently lead to oppression and atrocities, and are inherently incompatible with democratic society. I’m not talking about religion in general here, but about ‘fundamentalist’ or authoritarian religion.

    On the other hand, authoritarian religion isn’t so much a coherent set of beliefs so much as a bunch of ‘dark and fearful impulses arising from subconscious depths’. So maybe that distinction is semantic.

  19. zen_less  •  Jan 4, 2007 @4:56 pm

    You should be very careful when you write things like “I can tell from his writing he hasn’t even been exposed to much about religion.” without actually knowing Dawkins’ background. He was raised an Anglican and had as he put it, a normal churchgoing upbringing. In accusing Dawkins of being ignorant about religion, you expose your own ignorance. And saying saying “I can tell fromhis writing” exposes your rush to judgment.

  20. sniflheim  •  Jan 4, 2007 @5:06 pm

    The preemptive point about Hitler seemed a good one to make in connection with this 20th-century-as-secular-atrocity meme. And feel free to change “Eskow” to “Hobson” in your mind so you can, like, address the actual point, if you care to.

  21. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @5:07 pm

    Isn’t this the very definition of non-existence?

    What about air?

    It strikes me that the stuff we take most for granted is the stuff that’s most mysterious. People get worked up over the face of the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich, yet never stop to reflect on the mystery of existence itself. What is it to exist — is it to be a phenomenon of matter in time? Or is time itself existence? Is there existence outside of time? Is there existence in time without matter?

    I have a headache, therefore I am.

    Mahayana Buddhism teaches that that form is empty of intrinsic existence, but at the same time the emptiness of intrinsic existence is form, and the Great Reality neither exists nor not-exists. And that believing all that plus 50 cents gets you coffee and a bagel, except in midtown Manhattan.

  22. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @5:11 pm

    In accusing Dawkins of being ignorant about religion, you expose your own ignorance. And saying saying “I can tell fromhis writing” exposes your rush to judgment.

    By the same logic, we must conclude that Ann Coulter is a scholar and a genius. All I have to go on to tell me otherwise is her writing.

    If Dawkins really does have a more sophisticated grasp of theology than he reveals in his writing, that makes him worse than ignorant. That makes him a common demagogue.

  23. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @5:15 pm

    The preemptive point about Hitler seemed a good one to make in connection with this 20th-century-as-secular-atrocity meme.

    Then why debate at all? Let’s just keep it simple and assign all of our preconceptions some kind of number value, so that when somebody says “42″ you can retort (as expected) with “87,” and then we can all go home for supper. Saves us from having to, you know, read, or think..

  24. felicity smith  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:20 pm

    To exercise any thought as to how the world would be today had religion in any form never existed is an exercise in futility. Kind of close to trying to prove you don’t have something that you don’t have. Sound familiar?

    And then there’s that old saying, for one who does not believe that God exists, no argument is possible, and for one who does believe God exists, no argument is necessary. Simple, direct and a dead-end.

    I am a Catholic which has nothing to do with the basic discomfort I experience in reading Dawkins, Harris or whoever. Robertson and his ilk elicit the same discomfort. Treating the existence or non-existence of God etc as a scientific investigation into the validity of either argument is specious at the outset because the accepted scientific method to discovery is not applicable. Practically speaking, the literature insults the reader.

  25. Joe  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:30 pm

    I think Dawkins is a militant, strident atheist, but I don’t think the term “fundamentalist” applies. If he were a fundamentalist, he would say “There is no god,” and not “There Almost Certainly Is No God.” Every fundamentalist I have known expresses no uncertainty at all when expressing their belief in God.

    I saw Dawkins in an interview where he admitted that there was a small possibility that God exists, but that he has not seen any evidence for it. This is consistent with the scientific method, and in that respect, you could call him a “fundamentalist scientist.”

  26. DoubleCinco  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:32 pm

    Last year on Book TV Karen Armstrong answered a question (can’t remember what it was) with, ..”don’t be concerned, Atman is Brhaman.” Wikipedia says atman is “a philosophical term used within Hinduism and Vedanta to identify the soul. It is one’s true self (hence generally translated into English as ‘Self’) beyond identification with the phenomenal reality of worldly existence, and that, Brahman is the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all things in this universe.”

    The only thing I have ever experienced as transcendent was(is) authentic healthy human relationship, and thus perhaps, my true self contains and/or experiences moments of unchanging, infinite and immanent experience that can be called God or Dog, but it still is what it is–sacred.

    “Dark and fearful impulses” is a bit Freudian for me, but certainly sadistic hatred fueled by fear has been a constant throughout our doing the do, and so, I think your observation has merit and has sparked me to spend more time with it in thought.

    Certainly enjoyed the post–thank you.

  27. felicity smith  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:37 pm

    Just for fun St. Anselm’s proof of the existence of God is a kicker. It goes something like – Do you agree that if God exists there is nothing greater than? Do you agree that something which exists as a fact and an idea is greater than that which exists only as an idea? Of course the conclusion is obvious. Interestingly, whenever I run this by someone, normally a non-believer, the answer to the first premise is always yes. I’ve always found that interesting.

  28. zen_less  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:46 pm

    “By the same logic, we must conclude that Ann Coulter is a scholar and a genius. All I have to go on to tell me otherwise is her writing.”

    That response makes no sense (why on earth would we conclude that Ann Coulter is a genius?). If all you have to go on about Dawkins is his writing, then you should not be making claims about him as a person. You can say “from his writings it would seem…” but I guess that’s not snippy enough for you.

  29. Quentin Crain  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:57 pm

    Hi Maha!! Well, I very much disagree with Eskow’s article and do not find it very compelling. And before you get mad at me the rest of this comments is only about his post so if you want to just skip it cool.

    Item: He says: “Their movement is based on a piece of dogma which can’t be challenged without enraging them. … For people who advocate reason and the primacy of hard data, they’re surprisingly dismissive of both when it comes to religion.” and then seems to offer no proof *except* via some personal communication with the author: “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.” Of course, I do not agree. In Dawkins’ God Delusion chapter 8 is titled “What’s Wrong with Religion? Why Be So Hostile?” Chapter 4 in Harris’ is “The Problem with Islam”. Relying on personal experience is not very impressive.

    Item: In the section “They’re elitist” 4 of the 5 paragraphs (some 2 sentences long admittedly) are about the term “Bright”. At [ http://www.the-brights.net/movement/synopsis.html ] we find “Antonym: A person who is not a bright is a super.” I am not sure where Eskow got his info that “Bright” means “Get it? They’re ‘brighter’ than people who believe in any form of God.” Maybe it does; any citations? But if the antonym is “Super” then are the “Brights” saying that non-Brights are “Super”-people? Honestly that section seemed immensely stupid.

    Item: Eskow says: “They lack a sense of the mysterious and beautiful.” Well, Dawkins wrote a whole book on the “wonder” in science called “Unweaving the Rainbow”. See [ http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0618056734/ref=sib_dp_pt/002-0480380-0808867#reader-link ] Again, not very impressed by Eskow.

    Now I will continue with the rest of your post (please remember that I really like your blog, so don’t get too mad at me – grin!). Respectfully, Quentin

  30. AndyS  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:57 pm

    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.

    That makes two of us! So glad to see a blogger write this.

  31. Steve  •  Jan 4, 2007 @6:59 pm

    It intrigues me that atheists are so threatening to religious people. If religion is about transcendence and proof is not relevant, then why do religious people feel the need to rebut Dawkins or Harris?

    Also, it isn’t like atheism is going to change anyone’s mind. For every book about atheism in the bookstore, there are 100 books about spirituality and religion. Atheism is to religion what a lemonade stand is to Wal-Mart.

  32. erinyes  •  Jan 4, 2007 @7:05 pm

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557
    This is pretty much my opinion.
    Interesting post Maha, this is why I love your blog.

  33. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @7:24 pm

    If all you have to go on about Dawkins is his writing, then you should not be making claims about him as a person. You can say “from his writings it would seem…” but I guess that’s not snippy enough for you.

    I’m making a critical judgment of Dawkins’s understanding of religion, based on his own writings about religion. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I quote reviews of Dawkins’s book that corroborate my opinion, and those people also made critical judgments of Dawkins’s understanding of religion based on his writing about religion. In fact, reviewers of any nonfiction book generally assess the author’s understanding of the subject matter based on what the author writes in the book. Exactly what part of this do you not understand?

  34. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @7:29 pm

    Quentin: I agree with you that Eskow goes too far when he says “They lack a sense of the mysterious and beautiful.” I don’t think any of us can know if other people do or do not sense the mysterious and beautiful.

  35. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @7:40 pm

    It intrigues me that atheists are so threatening to religious people. If religion is about transcendence and proof is not relevant, then why do religious people feel the need to rebut Dawkins or Harris?

    I don’t personally feel threatened by Dawkins. I just think it’s a damn shame that someone who has a fine mind when it comes to science is actively spreading ignorance and misinformation about something outside his area of study.

    Narrow-minded people on both sides are creating an unnecessary conflict between science and religion.That bothers me.

  36. Steve  •  Jan 4, 2007 @7:49 pm

    Maha: “Narrow-minded people on both sides are creating an unnecessary conflict between science and religion.That bothers me.”

    Of course, I don’t find any fault with that. But isn’t it true that far more often (far, far, far more often) narrow-minded people of different religions create unnecessary conflict? I think that’s the crux of Dawkins and Harris’ complaints about religion.

  37. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @8:00 pm

    Quentin — I followed your link to the “brights” site. They seem to be an organization trying to establish an identity for nonreligious people that is not based on religion or lack thereof.

    I find that hysterically funny, but you’d have to be acquainted with the Madhyamika school of Buddhism to get the joke.

  38. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @8:04 pm

    I think that’s the crux of Dawkins and Harris’ complaints about religion.

    The crux of Dawkins’s (I’m not sure Harris is in the same boat) complaints about religion is that ALL religion, no exceptions, is wrong and bad for mankind and should be eliminated. He has said that giving children a religious upbringing — ANY religious upbringing — amounts to child abuse. I call that an extreme and radical and unreasonable and ignorant position. Stop making excuses for him.

  39. sisyphus  •  Jan 4, 2007 @8:14 pm

    Please read Freud for some worthwhile commentaries.

    He thought that mental mastery was the highest acheivement of the mind. I think there are other achievements, such as “spirituality” that are profound.

  40. Doug Hughes  •  Jan 4, 2007 @9:02 pm

    A recent university study established that laboratories cause cancer in mice.

    That’s a joke that illustrates the falicy that religion is the source of evil. Frequently religion is right in there with the abuse, but is a mistake in logic to say it’s the cause. (Religion is frequently right in there with acts of charity and compassion, but religion is not the cause of good, either)

    A cure for cancer may be found in a laboratory. But the laboratory will no more be the cause of a cure than it is a cause of the disease. Likewise religion can be a means to spiritual awakening, but it’s incidental to the event.

  41. Steve  •  Jan 4, 2007 @9:16 pm

    “Stop making excuses for him.”

    Sorry to have bothered you. I’ll try to say only things you agree with in the future.

  42. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @9:30 pm

    I’ll try to say only things you agree with in the future.

    That goes both ways, son.

  43. r4d20  •  Jan 4, 2007 @9:49 pm

    0) Its articles like this that made me a reader of your blog Maha.

    1) Some (if not most) of the “fundamentalism” exhibited by Atheists is a diurect reaction to the rise of aggressive Fundamentalism exhibited by Monotheists. Thats not an excuse, or an attempt to shift blame, but it I think its worth keeping in mind. I doubt Dawkins would adopt the same tone if Religious Dogmatists (Muslims in the ME and Christians here) weren’t already on the attack.

    2) re: He thinks the core teachings of Buddhism are incredibly powerful and useful, but many of the sects take on rigid hierarchy and superstition (reincarnation, karma) also.

    I tend to think of 2 Buddhisms – the Philosphical and the Religious. The core of Buddhas teachings (re: impermenance,desire, attachment, and suffering) are more like a Philosphy than a religion. In fact, when summarized/explained the core teachings of Buddha to an evangelical friend he admitted that he had never actually learned about Buddhism before (just more pagan idols, right?) and that they were not incompatible with Christianity and belief in Jesus as Messiah.

    The religious stuff mostly came after and was added to the various Buddhist traditions. I say “came after”, but actually, many are pre-Buddhist religious ideas incorperated into the Buddhist tradition by the cultures that adopted Buddhism (even in its home of India, where pre-Buddhist hindu concepts merged back in with Buddishm). This is why Buddhism is different in almost every land, because each combined native ideas with Buddhist thought to form a distinct form of the Philosophy/Religion.

    3) Re: 20th-century-as-secular-atrocity meme.

    The Question here is Do the atrocities of Nazism and Communism belong to Atheists or Religion? Norman Geras (at normblog) insists that equating secular faiths like Nazism/Communism with Religion is misguided. He believes that the Deity concept is a fundamental part of Religion, but what is the “Deity” concept to begin with ? Does it HAVE to refer to a bearded judge or other “human-like” entity. Frankly, in quite a bit of Communist writing the abstract collective “The People” is treated so similarly to God (itself an abstract concept) that I have trouble accepting this distinction at face value.

    4)In the mystical approach to religion opinion is irrelevant. Like Armstrong said, religion isn’t really about dogma or doctrine or belief. It’s about transcendence. If you’re approaching it as a hypothesis for which you must find proof, you’re going about it the wrong way.

    Well said.

    5) Re: The Bright Movement

    Apparently the definition includes Their worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements – which assumes a distinction between natural and mystical. I got my BS in Physics, and while I am often peeved at facile connections between Physics and Mysticism (like the people who blindly regurgitate from “What the Bleep do We Know” without actually knowing anything about the Physics that was discussed), few things will make you more open to (a kind of) “mysticism” than studying how our universe actually works.

    Of course, I may be misinterpreting the word “Mysticism”. The kind of Mysticism I refer to has nothing to do with notions like The Soul, Life after Death, Telepathy/Telekenisis, Astral Projection, or other “New-Age” fads. Its a deeper mysticism that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all things without assuming that we can use or control it to do our bidding (just because you and I are “interconnected” does NOT mean I can communicate with you mentally across time and space…duh).

    6) The BEST online source I’ve found for good material on world religions is http://www.sacred-texts.com, which has LOTS of first-hand sources. I love it and am buying the DVD both to have it and to support them. Its incredibly cheap compared the the cost of buying the equivalent material in book-form. And, NO, I am not associated with them in anyway. I really just think its a kick-ass site that is a great resource.

  44. Quentin Crain  •  Jan 4, 2007 @9:51 pm

    Hi again Maha!

    You say: “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. … But if one kind of cause goes out of fashion, another will be found that serves just as well.” Seems to me, in my readings of Dawkins and Harris, that they mean to say that religion is a great organizer of those “dark and fearful [subconscious] impulses” whereas reason/rationality/science (RRS), which they mean to encourage, is much less so. Religion exalts as one of the highest virtues *faith*, the belief without evidence. RRS is the opposite and will not “serve just as well.”

    You say: “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.” Err, seems to me then that if you admit that your religion is different from most people’s then of course you will object to Dawkins’ and Harris’ attacks on religion. But then they are not attacking your religion. Not sure why (or even if) you have a beef with either.

    You say: “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.” I am not sure I understand this, but why are Tillich, Spinoza and Dogen the representatives of religion that Dawkins and Harris should be addressing? They seem to be, to use Orr’s dichotomy, the theory-side of religion vs. the “practical”. Dawkins and Harris are attacking mainstream “practical” religion.

    I would recommend everyone visiting beyondbelief2006.org and watch video of debates — a number of which include Dawkins and Harris.

    Respectfully, Quentin

  45. Marshall  •  Jan 4, 2007 @10:04 pm

    Here is one reason why I can’t totally agree with Dawkins. Please bear with me.

    Suppose an entity came to you and said that the universe we see and live in is a big experiment, being run by beings outside of this universe for their purposes, and that they needed your help to make things run better, this help only being possible from the inside. Suppose also that they were able to convince you of this by whatever proof you demanded – want to see your birth, your wedding night, the sinking of the Titanic or the dinosaurs, whatever, they can show it to you. (As a physicist, I would have some pretty high demands here.)

    Now, Richard would say that these beings cannot be God. If God is beyond all things, then, since they exist, God would have to be beyond them. In a sense, you haven’t solved anything, just pushed it one level higher up the stack. This is a very common philosophical response to God in the last 100 years or so.

    While this is true in one sense, in another it is nonsense. If such an entity came to you, you would have to pay attention, and yet the scenario I just described is the pattern of most of the revealed religions. That certainly does not make them true, but it also doesn’t make them false either.

    Just for myself, I think it is sad to see how much superstitious mumbo jumbo there is in this country now. The evangelical movement is chock full of con men and grifters, and I think that this will inevitably lead to a substantial diminishment of the respect given to religion in the future (at least for a while).

  46. Quentin Crain  •  Jan 4, 2007 @10:10 pm

    Hi Maha!

    (First, I would like to mention that my second comment @ 9:51pm was actually composed at 5pm Pacific and then I had to go off and make dinner and finished it up at 7pm — without reading any intervening replies of yours.)

    In comment #38 [ http://www.mahablog.com/2007/01/04/richard-dawkins-and-fundamentalist-atheism/#comment-66388 ] you said: “The crux of Dawkins’s (I’m not sure Harris is in the same boat) complaints about religion is that ALL religion, no exceptions, is wrong and bad for mankind and should be eliminated.” Here is what Dawkins says about religious education in The God Delusion (pp. 340-4) titled “Religion Education as a Part of Literary Culture”: The King James Bible of 1611 – the Authorized Version – includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right … But the main reason the English Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture. … Here is a quick list of biblical, or Bible-inspired, phrases and sentences … [1.5page list follows] … P. G. Wodehouse is, for my money, the greatest writer of light comedy in English, and I bet fully half my list of biblical phrases will be found as allusions within his pages. … Let me not labour the point. I have probably said enough to convince at least my older readers that an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education.”

    I do not believe Dawkins wants religion stamped out and down the memory hole. I think he mostly wants faith replaced with reason.

    Respectfully, Quentin

  47. Quentin Crain  •  Jan 4, 2007 @10:49 pm

    Maha (another delayed comment): Also in reply to comment #38 of yours, again I do not believe Dawkins wants religious education to children disappeared but: “Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether any are ‘valid’, let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.” So, I interpret Dawkins as having a problem with children being only taught their parent’s religion and then being told it is the one true religion.

    Respectfully, Quentin

  48. Quentin Crain  •  Jan 4, 2007 @10:53 pm

    Oops! That last citation of Dawkins is God Delusion page 340. Quentin

  49. Quentin Crain  •  Jan 4, 2007 @11:02 pm

    Maha/All: I am not sure if I am a “fundamentalist atheist”. To start with, I do not believe there is a God, but am willing to change my view on evidence. And if I were to say: “All true knowledge can only come from the Scientific Method. But, of course, given so, I am will to be convinced otherwise.” Would I be a dogmatic fundamentalist with regard to epistemology? Am I a “fundamentalist atheist”? I am quite unconvinced by Eskow that Dawkins and Harris are. So I am wondering if there are other examples — I am finding it hard to believe that (very many) such people exist. Respectfully, Quentin

  50. maha  •  Jan 4, 2007 @11:42 pm

    Quentin: You aren’t getting it. What makes someone a Fundamentalist Atheist has nothing to do with his own beliefs about God. You could tell me you wouldn’t believe in God even if She came to your house for dinner, and yet that by itself wouldn’t make you an FA. And let me say heartily that I do not give a bleep about whether you or Richard Dawkins believes in God. Hell, I don’t believe in God, and I can’t imagine I ever will. God doesn’t fit into my understanding of reality.

    What makes someone an FA are stupid assumptions about what other people believe about God.

    Let me give you an example. Once upon a time there was a lovely spirituality web forum in which a number of intelligent and well-educated people from several religious traditions had some high-level, intellectual discussions of advanced theology. No one in this group had a literal belief in scripture. No one as I remember insisted that God was a distinct being, although some believed in “God” as a metaphor for something else. It was from some Christians in this forum that I first learned about Paul Tillich and his writings on God as the ground of being, which have some interesting parallels in Buddhism. And I’d post blather about the Garden of Eden story being a metaphor for the development of consciousness, and while they didn’t all agree with me they were at least cool with it.

    Anyway, the fly in the ointment in this forum was a group of atheists who would interrupt the discussions with taunts about how we must believe the world is only 3,000 years old, or that we must believe God is some kind of supernatural person, and when we said we didn’t actually believe that, they’d tell us we were hypocrites. And those people were fundamentalists atheists. We even called them fundamentalist atheists; that’s the first time I heard the phrase. This was nearly ten years ago.

    The spirituality forum broke up after the host began to charge, and because of some other people who were causing problems. It was a shame. I cherish the memory.

    But the point is that a fundamentalist atheist is someone who has some really narrow-minded ideas about religion, is on a crusade to fight those ideas, and who is willfully clueless about religious beliefs and practices that don’t conform to his narrow ideas about religion.

  51. 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.

  52. 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
    “And, because he doesn’t respect religion enough to study it, he remains willfully ignorant of it.”
    AND
    “Dawkins has his own “missing link” bugaboo, which is the existence (or not) of a material God.”
    AND
    “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

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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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