Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Saturday, March 03, 2007

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...


At 3/04/2007 8:46 AM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, I'd have commented earlier but until today I wasn't able to - there was a glitch with Blogger's character-recognition (namely, no characters were displayed) and even their work-around didn't work for me.

For me, part of the problem in making any alliance with moderates is that they object strenuously whenever you attack the radicals. They insist that the radicals "aren't REALLY Christian" or whatever - and yet they don't condemn them. Because religion is priveleged and they don't want to open up that can of worms.

They want their own beliefs to remain sacred, and that means they won't attack others' - though those others don't, of course, mind attacking them.

Also, the radicals are not content to be religious - they want to legislate their beliefs into everyone else's lives as well.

I'd have no problem with the whole NonOverlapping Magisteria thing, if only religion could be persuaded to stay on its side of the divide. But instead, it comes dancing across the line, making its claims about the real world, and then getting angry when those claims are treated like science.

At 3/04/2007 1:16 PM, Blogger Lifewish said...

Here's me standing up and being counted - I'm a Dawkins supporter.

His rationale, as best I can tell, runs something like this: an approach to life that is scientific or otherwise reality-based is a Good Thing, because it improves our ability to control our world in a sane fashion. Therefore, any group that muddies the waters is, to a greater or lesser extent, screwing the human race over.

Fundies are of course the worst offenders, but the moderates' hands aren't clean. At best, they seek special exemptions from rationality, which the fundies of course then try to crowbar open. At worst, they go epistemological and start denying the general validity of science. This is not a victimless crime - it directly costs lives.

Different people with different motivations will come to different conclusions based on the available evidence. Evil may still result*. I would, however, agree with Dawkins that, if everyone got their facts straight beforehand, a large proportion of the more obviously destructive dogmas would just evaporate.

The primary objection to Dawkins is that, by courting religious moderates, we can erect a mutual bulwark against the nutters. That's a fair point - but against the nutters doing what, precisely? Denying reality? The moderates are doing that too, just on a smaller scale. Affecting school science teaching? That's a noble aim, but school is not exactly the biggest influence on a child's thinking.

The question Dawkins raises is: when we trade in some of our forthrightness for a truce with the moderates, what are we gaining? Is it enough to offset the risk of losing sight of the mission? Dawkins thinks no. Other atheists think yes. I'm honestly not sure.

* Dawkins mentions in The God Delusion that the name for his show ("The Root of all Evil") wasn't of his choosing

At 3/04/2007 6:25 PM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Never forget Steven Weinberg:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

At 3/05/2007 8:19 AM, Blogger Gary McGath said...

I think it's more productive to regard religion as an error than to regard it as an enemy. Any error can, under some circumstances, lead to nasty results; one as benign as confusing centimeters and inches crashed a Mars probe and cost millions of dollars.

Advocates of most religions retreat into faith, claiming that it's a separate sphere of knowledge in which reason and evidence might help to support an assertion, but can't be used to rebut it. This is a harmful way of thinking, and needs to be challenged, but advocates of reason shouldn't be talking about "stamping out" an opposing view; we should be talking about rebutting it. When we view others as the enemy, they tend to view us as the enemy.

At 3/05/2007 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I'll throw in my two cents worth, too. Since I've become an atheist, I've debated with myself about the correct approach to take with Christians, whether I should just live and let live, or try to convince them of the errors of their ways. And I've decided that I probably ought to be trying to convince people (although, like you, I'm not real open about my atheism in the real world, so I'm careful about how I go about this). The problem I have with Christianity, even moderate forms, is that it's not victimless. People look to the Bible as their ultimate source of morality, instead of trying to figure it out on their own, so they end up accepting as "gospel" the moral teachings of a herding society from thousands of years ago. A couple hundred years ago, those teachings were used as a justification for slavery. Now, they're being used as justification for discrimination against other groups, such as homosexuals, and stopping researchers from studying things such as stem cells. When people are faced with moral questions, instead of trying to figure out what would be the best approach to take for real world consequences, they try to figure out what would be the best way to please God. This dogmatic approach to morality would be a problem with any book, but it's especially worrying once you consider some of the teachings of the Bible, particularly sections like Leviticus, and the types of conclusions people can come to after reading those sections.

Also, like you said, just on general principle, I think it would be nice for people to live in reality instead of a fantasy land.

As for Dawkins, I haven't read any of his books - I've only seen him in a few interviews, so I can't really comment on his writings. But what I've seen of him in interviews I like. He's always polite, but he doesn't compromise on his position - that whether you're moderate or extreme in how you practice it, religion just plain isn't true at its foundations.

As for all the talk I always see about alliances, I never really understood what people meant by this. I mean, call a spade a spade. If you don't think there's a god, say so. You don't have to be a jerk about it and insult people, but you shouldn't have to hide your opinions, either.

At 3/05/2007 12:27 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

This is a harmful way of thinking, and needs to be challenged, but advocates of reason shouldn't be talking about "stamping out" an opposing view; we should be talking about rebutting it.

Oh, I don't disagree with that; when I used the phrase "stamped out", I was intentionally putting it harshly to represent the popular perception of Dawkins as an overzealous crusader. That's certainly not the kind of phrasing I'd actually advocate using in normal discourse.

At 3/05/2007 9:27 PM, Blogger BlackSun said...

I wholeheartedly concur with both Dawkins and Harris.

Their primary argument is: With founding scriptures which are completely baseless and violent, the fundamentalists are actually more intellectually honest than the moderates. Therefore, it is the moderates who are the most delusional: They want their cake and eat it too--supporting and defending outmoded and destructive scriptures while ignoring the most offensive parts.

Dawkins and Harris just state the obvious: if scriptures have to be cherry-picked to be accepted as coherent with modern morality, then why have them at all? Why not just define morality in human terms, relative to reducing human suffering?

Dawkins and Harris are hated mostly not because they are strident, but because they make irrefutable points and they are uncompromising. The only defense religions have against them is to tar them with the extremist brush.

But neither has done anything but write and speak. And usually from what I've read, heard, and seen, both are soft-spoken and non-confrontational.

So to me, the label of extremist is nothing but an empty epithet.

At 3/09/2007 9:05 AM, Blogger Complete Bastard said...

I think the point is that just as ID/creationism has very hard working, very devious people trying to infiltrate every area of politics with their ideas, that Darwinism and rationalism need someone just as fervent, and Dawkins takes that necessary role.

I don't agree with everything he says, but his major arguments are hard to dispute.

As for religion being all bad, not even Dawkins believes that; what he asks is "Why live in ignorance?"

At 3/09/2007 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have mixed emotions on allowing everyone to "believe whatever they want to believe". Some people use that phrase when describing the concept of religious freedom. People seem to be saying, "you believe what you want to believe, and let others believe what they want". But my answer to that is usually, "I don't want to believe what I want to believe. I want to find out what the truth is, and if that is what you really want, then lets investigate together and see if we can find out what it is."
There are some people though who honestly want to maintain their belief. I asked a friend, whose belief system is populated with lots of ideas from the New Age religious movement. Specifically, one day she was telling me of another friend of hers who she believed had psychic abilities. To me that warranted investigation. I asked her, "if what you believe about your (psychic) friend were not true , would you want to know it?". She surprised me greatly by answering "No". I had no choice but to drop the subject and let her believe as she wishes. For myself, I'm eager to get take steps toward getting at the truth by first disabusing myself of whatever mistaken ideas I've latched onto.

At 3/14/2007 4:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a complete exposure of the dangers of religion, especially Christianity, is to be found in my website I find Christian hypocrisy shocking. Like the statement of Pope Benedict XVI that there is no room for violence in religion though he reads plenty of violence commanded by his God in his Bible. The hypocrisy of claiming a child as a Christian just because he or she was baptised is hardly a good example to be setting the child. It tells the child that dogma not the child's beliefs or ethics makes the child a Christian.


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