Thursday, July 14, 2011

God, the 'New' Athiesm and Delusions- For Victor and Sean

Over the past year, I've been working my way through Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. That is a long time to read a book, I know, but school related things slowed me down. Well, that and I can't read a author like Dawkin's quickly. He is so infuriating and such an expert at rhetorical manipulation that three or four pages at a time was about as much as I could deal with without throwing the book at the wall. So, in order to preserve my serenity and the spine of the book, I took my time. So, finally, I'm done and have lived to tell the tale.

Under normal conditions, I wouldn't post comments on a book like this. Over the years on the posting on Internet bulletin boards and on blogs, I have found that arguing with someone who is as invincibly and stubbornly atheist as Dawkins is a futile endeavor. As even that irascible North African theologian, Tertullian, says about speaking with hardened opponents"you will lose nothing but your breath, and gain nothing but vexation" (de praescriptione haeriticorum, 17). However, when I'm given a book by someone who wants to hear an opinion (thanks, Victor!) or about which I have an interesting correspondence(that's you, Sean), I do feel an obligation. So, for what its worth, here is what I think.

Dawkins is not unspiritual (whatever that means)

This came as something of a surprise to me. Dawkins' basic issue is with theism, not with spirituality, if we define spirituality as believing in something beyond ourselves or our simple material existence. In God Delusion, this rather amorphous concept of spirituality (arguably, the dominant one in our culture) is reflected in a belief in the universe or nature or something like that. In that sense, Dawkins' belief is in the processes of evolution and physics and such like. His ire is raised by the concept of theism- the belief in a separate God who intervenes in the world which he views not only as preposterous, but, out and out dangerous. Personally, I'm a pretty convinced theist, so I tend to find the spirituality of this book rather abstract and unhelpful as I try to live out my life on a day-to-day basis, but, then, I (the annoying theist)would say that, wouldn't I?

Dawkins continues to fight the great evolution/creationism debates

While happy to heap scorn on religion on general principle, Dawkins keeps his real ammunition for the creationism debates which continue to plague the discourse between religion and science. Now, I'm happy to concede that, in some settings, this is a real debate, especially among the more conservative evangelical/fundamentalist Christians, but it is troubling to me that Dawkin fails to really recognize that most Christians and Christian denomination have long since moved on from this debate and accepted some form of modified evolution. The result is either a resounding "Huh?' from most mainline Christians or a not particularly stifled yawn or a heightened sense of embarrassment that such a debate even remains current. I mean, really, all this creationism is so 19th century!
Of course, this is a bit of flippant response to this section of the book. One of Dawkins' most consistent mantras is that everything is explainable using evolutionary theory which explains his emphasis on that rather oddly speculative field, evolutionary biology. Yet, it is entirely possible to accept that God might have made use of evolution and perhaps we need not get too hung up on the number of days or other details in the Genesis account (which can be read as following an order not unlike evolutionary theories). This would not suit Dawkins, mind you, because he wants Christians to be fundamentalists and scientists to be atheists. Unfortunately, the world is rather less tidy that all that.

Dawkins and Intelligent Believers

A striking element of Dawkins' discussion is his general contempt for the intelligence of religious people. This comes out in several ways including his recommendation of the annoyingly self-congratulatory epithet, brights, as a 'reclaimed' name for atheists (on the analogy of gay or queer for homosexuals- except these worlds were reclaimed from insults, not from complements, making the transformation and the subversity of the reclamation rather more compelling). On the odd occasion that Dawkins has to concede the intelligence of a believer, there is a sense of bemusement of that admission as he's wondering "but he/she seemed so intelligent...."
This is a failure of imagination on Dawkins' part. The inability to accept that one's intellectual opponents may actually have some point in what they're saying and that they are capable of intelligent discourse is a common fault in this culture of ours which enjoys the slap down, rather than the cut-and-thrust of a good debate. It is also central to our post-Enlightenment fixation on 'objective' truth which, really, represents a narrowing of possible intellectual options to one worldview. This, combined with a optimistic view of progress, means that we have to assume that someone who doesn't think like us, must be backward and stupid. This is demonstrably not true, if you have the occasion to read, say, Greek philosophy or, even, (*gasp*) Christian patristics.

Dawkins the fundamentalist?

This particular accusation has been made against 'new Atheism' for a few years now and it evokes a few pages of incensed denial in God Delusion. And that denial isn't necessarily wrong in the sense that fundamentalism is rather a conversational atomic weapon to throw about in a debate. It is not calculated to continue the discussion in a rational way, but rather to obliterate everything within a ten mile radius of the point argued. Yet, there is a family resemblance between the kind of 'scientific' stance which Dawkins takes in this book and fundamentalism. Both are relentlessly literal, seeking objective truth defined in its own terms and seeks to impose that truth on anyone outside the system. The difference is that Dawkins' authority is that authority of science and fundamentalists is in their own writings. The fact that the authority of science is in the ascendancy in our culture shouldn't hide the fact that there are assumptions within this belief system which are not anymore provable than the assumptions in a religious world view. We just accept those assumptions in the 21st century West because they are self-evident, we think. Dawkins' rigidity is not all that different from the rigidity of a fundamentalist in full sermon.

Dawkins the extremist

One of my fundamental issues with polemics of this kind is that they rarely acknowledge the existence of a via media which covers a wider range of beliefs than the extremists ever will. That means that there are a wide range of moderate Christians, Muslims and Jews as well as atheists and agnostics who are genuinely struggling to figure out how to react to religion and to science in a way that is constructive, but sensitive to where they have come from (tradition). And that this producing many different and sometimes beneficial ways of reacting to the world manifested in the actions of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and many, many anonymous do-gooders.

Dawkins, however, wants to have neither truck nor trade with any of this. For him, the problem with agnostics is that they either don't have enough guts to be atheists or they are just too fuzzy headed to recognize the difference between evidence which should produce provisional disbelief and evidence which should suggest a probable no. As for moderate religious people, they are as dangerous as extremists because they encourage the same, distorted evolutionary maladies as extremists even if they won't act on the logical outcomes. All that means is that religious people are caught coming and going. If you're an extremist, you are just acting to type. If you are a moderate, you are just breeding more extremists.

I think this is one of the most troubling aspects of God Delusion because there is no moral nuance, no shades of gray. There is an attempt to polarize here which can only lead to conflict which can, conveniently, be used to justify more polemic. It is also one of those reasons why I kept remember Tertullian's warning quoted above. Richard Dawkins isn't someone who is interested in debate, but rather in obliteration of his opponents. As a good liberal, he wants to argue them into the ground, but that is a form of coercion and, in a sense, violence.

Dawkins and evolutionary biology

I find this also a particularly disturbing section in that Dawkins argues that the impulse to theism is an obsolete evolutionary adaptation whose time has passed. In itself, this could be mere polemic, but the part that disturbs me is his insistence that belief in a God leaves an imprint on brain chemistry. This has two equally disturbing consequences to me. First, to Dawkins, he sees any attempt to influence one's children to belief in God to be something just short of child abuse because it is transmitting an disability (i.e. the disconnection from an atheistic reality) to them. Second, this whole idea of faith and the brain makes me think of the Soviet Union which was known to incarcerate religious figures in insane asylums as their faith was prima facie evidence of their insanity. No, Dawkins does not advocate this, but it is but a hop, skip and a jump to get there from Dawkins' reasoning. And this should be disturbing to anyone who is interested in human rights.

Dawkins the liberal

Ultimately, what saves Dawkins from such totalitarian solutions is that he is, like most academics, a good liberal, who is bound by the concepts of human rights and such like. He may not like us and he will work tooth and nail to prevent religious people from making more inroads into the culture, but he is bound by the limits imposed on him by his post-Enlightenment tradition. So, there are glimpses of toleration, even permitting religious studies in school, albeit as a way to inoculate people from (dead or freshly killed) religion. Still, he is not ungrateful. He is even positively nostalgic about his days at an Anglican boarding school. He would just prefer to see religion fade away.

I could continue on, but, really, those are the most important observations I would make. If, however, you want a chaser, you could do worse than to look up David Bentley Hart's Atheist's Delusion: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, to get the other side. I'm not sure I'm quite with Hart all the time, but his writing is lively and his thinking compelling.


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