Thoughts About Dawkins
First of all, I, um, just wanted to mention that my stating in Thursday's post that I hadn't gotten any comments lately and wasn't sure anyone was reading this? That wasn't meant as a plea for comments. I mean, not that I'm upset that people commented, or anything like that, and it is kind of good to know there are still people reading this, but...I just wanted to make it clear that wasn't my intention in writing that.
Anyway, I also mentioned in that post that I was going to write a post on my thoughts about Richard Dawkins. So I guess that will be this one.
First of all, I should admit that I haven't actually read any of Dawkins' writings on religion and atheism. I have read some of his books on biology--before he was as militant as he is now about his atheism (or at least before I knew about his militance)--but I haven't read The God Delusion or anything else he's written on the subject of religion. But I've read second-hand about what he's written, and really, what I wanted to write about here was as much the perception of Dawkins' writing as about what he actually wrote, so I think that's enough for me to have some opinion on the matter.
Dawkins is virulently anti-religion, claiming that the world would be a better place if all religion were stamped out. He includes not only the fundamentalist religions in his indictment, but more tolerant religions as well, under the rationale that they act as a gateway to the more directly harmful varieties. At least, that's the impression I've gathered from what I've read about what he's written; as I said, I haven't read his writings on religion directly, and it's possible they're more complex and nuanced than this. But this is the way his writings seem to be perceived, whether or not it's actually what he meant. (Though, truthfully, it seems unlikely that so many people have all managed to misrepresent his writings in the same way, so I'm pretty sure this perception is accurate.)
Atheist opinion on Dawkins' fervor seems to be divided. On the one hand, there are those who cheer him on as an important leader of the cause. But, at least in the pages I've happened to read, those seem to be in the minority. There are many who think he's going too far, that even if his ultimate goals may not be bad he's going about them the wrong way. Moderate theists could be valuable allies against the excesses of the fundamentalists, and in his zealous call for the undiscriminating eradication of all religions, he's alienating these potential allies. Moderate theists may still be misguided, but as long as--unlike the more insistent fundamentalists--they're not hurting anyone else, there's no reason not to go ahead and let them believe whatever they want without trying to dissuade them.
Okay, so far I've just summarized what everyone reading this probably already knew. Now I guess it's time I should put in my own two cents' worth.
The crux of the question is, of course, whether all religion inevitably leads to evil, as Dawkins believes, or whether moderate religions are relatively harmless, as his detractors claim. And on that matter...I'm really not sure one way or the other. As I understand it, Dawkins' main argument here (or at least the main argument imputed to him) is that moderate religions, while they may cause little direct harm in and of themselves, will end up leading back to fundamentalism and dominionism. I'm not sure I believe that. And when I say I'm not sure, I don't mean I think he's wrong; I mean I'm really not convinced one way or the other. There's a part of me that wants to see truth prevail just on principle, and would rather see all superstition stamped out--but realistically that's not going to happen. Even without the force of organized religion behind it, astrology has hung on very well, and doesn't show any signs (no pun intended) of going away anytime soon. Trying to get everyone to rationally consider their beliefs may be a laudable goal, but it's probably not possible. So the question of whether or not religion in general is really something worth fighting isn't an altogether moot one--although the complete elimination of religion really isn't a goal I think is likely to be met. Still, there may be room for pragmatism, for alliance with more moderate sects to fight the larger threat of the more dangerous fundamentalists. That is, assuming the more moderate sects aren't really just a shade away from turning into dangerous fundamentalists themselves, as Dawkins seems to believe. I'm not convinced he's right. So on those grounds alone...maybe it would be best to ally with the more moderate religions; as a worst-case scenario if it becomes obvious it's not working the option's there to change tactics later, and as a best-case scenario the more dangerous sects do finally get more or less removed and what's left is relatively benign.
While I'm not sure Dawkins is right about moderate religion inevitably leading into the more dangerous varieties...there are good grounds for considering even moderate religion to be not entirely harmless. I said earlier that members of moderate religions are "not hurting anyone else"...but that's not entirely true. If it were just a matter of everyone believing what they want, that would be one thing. But it's not. Because even the more moderate religions--at least, those that I'm aware of, and I suspect any religion that claims not to do this isn't speaking entirely in earnest--is trying to inculcate others with its beliefs. Namely, its adherents' children.
I've seen Dawkins quoted as saying that indoctrinating children into a religion is "child abuse". I might quibble with the loaded language--but there I really do think he has a point. And I have some personal experience to draw upon here; I know there's a lot I missed out on, and a lot I had to go through, due to having been raised Mormon. Now, granted, the LDS church is certainly a rather strict denomination, and may not really qualify as "moderate", but I think it's only a matter of degree. Raising children in falsehood, teaching them, or even forcing them, to follow meaningless codes of conduct with no real basis in morality or reason, is harming the children. (And yes, obviously some religious guidelines are based in morality, but many aren't, and those that are would be taught just as well in a moral atheist household) So unless there's a religion out there that really doesn't try to indoctrinate the children of its adherents, and that really does leave everyone to make their own choices, religions, even the moderate ones, do hurt people. They hurt the children. And I'd rather as few children as possible are stuck being brought up in religious practices like I was.
So, whether or not Dawkins is right about moderate religion being a metaphorical gateway drug into religious extremism, I think it would be a good thing if religion were (as far as possible) eradicated, on the grounds of what it's doing to the children.
However, I also think, of course, that it would be a good thing if rape and murder and spousal abuse were eliminated. Unfortunately, I don't see any of that happening.
So, even if eliminating religion would be in principle a laudable goal, are Dawkins' detractors still right on pragmatic grounds? If religion can't be eliminated entirely, might it still be wise to ally with the moderate sects to try to eliminate the more extremist varieties? It might be unpalatable to form an alliance with something that is, after all, still harmful, but mightn't it be the lesser of two evils?
Maybe. But as defensible as it may be on pragmatic grounds, I'm still not sure I like the idea. I'm not really comfortable with making--if you'll excuse the religious metaphor--a deal with the devil.
Then again, I'm just speaking hypothetically here; I'm not likely to come out as a Dawkinsesque vocal enemy of all religion myself. I guess my point, to the extent that I have a point, is that while I can see where Dawkins' detractors are coming from, I think I can see where Dawkins is coming from too. And while I may not be entirely comfortable with his vehemence, I think he sort of has a point.
Not that I could ever bring myself to be that forceful about the matter. I care much more than I probably should what people think of me. Witness the fact that I still haven't come out publicly with my atheism. Ah well...