Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I'm an atheist, BUT . . .

. . . I am still resentful that the world's most famous atheist is such a tiresome old bore on the subject.

Richard Dawkins has recently been weighing in on the topic of atheism: it's good; and religion: it's bad.

And if that were all, I'd have nothing to say. I am pretty much agreed on both basic points. But the trouble is that, in his familiar way, Dawkins is so arrogant, so extreme sounding (he loves to be shocking the way that postmodernists love to be shocking) and so incurious about the subject at hand (religion) that I think he really gives us non-belivers a bad name.

With his recent book (The God Delusion) Dawkins has succeeded in getting some pretty interesting discussions rolling (see, for instance), but hardly anyone will see those, and the interesting bits of those discussions are mostly people offering correctives to Dawkins simplistic portrait of religion.

In a more recent defense of his position against fellow atheists who see his anti-religious crusade as too extreme, dawkins identifies five kinds of non-supportive. I'll write some responses as we move through the five:
I've noticed five variants of I'm-an-atheist-buttery, and I'll listthem in turn, in the hope that others will recognize them, be armed against them, and perhaps extend the list by contributing examples from their own experience.

1. I'm an atheist, but religion is here to stay.
You think you can get rid of religion? Good luck to you! You want to
get rid of religion? What planet are you living on? Religion is a
fixture. Get over it!

I could bear any of these downers, if they were uttered in something approaching a tone of regret or concern. On the contrary. The tone of voice is almost always gleeful, and accompanied by a self-satisfied smirk. Anybody who opens with "I'm an atheist, BUT . . ." can be more or less guaranteed to be one of those religious fellow-travellers who, in Dan Dennett's wickedly perceptive phrase, believes in belief.
They may not be religious themselves, but they love the idea that other
people are religious. This brings me to my second category of naysayers.
While I'm not of this particular "atheist, but" camp myself, I'm rather stupified by Dawkins's misreading of their self-satisfied smirks. That's NOT the self-satisfaction arising out of pleasure that other people believe (a rather weird form of self-satisfaction, if you asked me). That's the self satisfaction that arises when one encounters a person whose grasp of human nature seems to be rather guileless and misinformed. We thus get the satisfaction of congratulating ourselves on our superior knowledge and sophistication.

Do these people believe in belief? Sure. And so does Dawkins or he wouldn't be going on at such great length trying to rid us of it.

But what these folks think is that religion probably serves some sort of purpose for the people who believe it. They do not, like Dawkins, believe that believers are merely mistaken. They don't think that you can stamp out belief in God the same way that you can, say, stamp out belief in Iraqi WMDs or a flat earth: with facts and counter-arguments. (Come to think of it Iraqi WMDs may also be more on the religious faith side of things!)

They smirk becasue they see Dawkins' idea that religion is a bag full of facts and explanations as deeply naive. Not because they love religion.
2. I'm an atheist, but people need religion. What are you going to put in its place? How are you going to comfort the bereaved? How are you going to fill the need?

I dealt with this in the last chapter of The God Delusion, 'A Much Needed Gap' and also, at more length, in Unweaving the Rainbow. Here I'll make one additional point. Did you notice the patronizing condescension in the quotations I just listed? You and I, of course, are much too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But
ordinary people, hoi polloi, the Orwellian proles, the Huxleian Deltas and Epsilon semi-morons, need religion. Well, I want to cultivate more respect for people than that. I suspect that the only reason many cling to religion is that they have been let down by our educational system and don't understand the options on offer. This is
certainly true of most people who think they are creationists. They have simply not been taught the alternative. Probably the same is true of the belittling myth that people 'need' religion. On the contrary, I am tempted to say "I believe in people . . ." And this leads me to the next example.

One wonders how much Dawkins gets out. I've met creationists who know more about evolution than I do. It doesn't matter, it doesn't convince them. They only know what they know to argue with me and people like me. The facts are pretty much completely beside the point.

And who is being patronizing here, the person who says "I don't believe it but the fact that people stick with it in the face of hundred of years (thousands! millions!) of contrary evidence seems to argue that religion has some other role in people's lives that 'the evidence' doesn't touch." Or the person who argues, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that religious believers are merely ignorant?

The essential fact of the matter here is that people already believe in religion. Religion is not a movement founded by the people who have given The God Delusion a bad review. And many of those people who believe in religion have already had the benefit of better than average educational systems.

If Dawkins wants to argue for the radical improvement of education worldwide at the cost of multiple trillions, I say he should go for it. But drop the religion distraction and get on with the good work.

If we were to do such a thing, I would expect religious adherence to drop off. BUT not disappear. And I think that any reasonable observer of humanity would expect the same thing. Only for the relative few is religion a matter to be reasoned about.

3. I'm an atheist, but religion is one of the glories of human culture.

At a conference in San Diego which I attended at the end of my book
tour, Sam Harris and I were attacked by two "I'm an atheist, but . . ."
merchants. One of these quoted Golda Meir when she was asked whether
she believed in God: "I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish
people believe in God." Our smirking critic substituted his own
version: "I believe in people, and people believe in God."

Religion, he presumably thought, is like a great work of art. Many
works of art, rather, because different religions are so varied. I was
reminded of Nicholas Humphrey's devastating indictment of an extreme
version of this kind of thing, quoted in Chapter 9 of The God Delusion.

Dawkins then goes on to discuss Incan human sacrifice and the fact that it gets upheld as an example of spiritual commitment rather than, as he'd have it, and outrage committed in the name of superstition.

Personally, I'm more or less in Dawkins' camp when it comes to how to respond to this particular situation morally. But I'm also puzzled as to why Dawkins thinks responding to an admittedly extreme version of the "religion as glory of culture argument" is sufficient. So this line of thinking can be taken too far? So what? What about the rather less extreme idea that religion has inspired and informed a great deal of what is admirable in our and other cultures? That Dawkins' own sensibility owes quite a bit to religion?

Dawkins finishes this section up by contemptuously quoting someone from the San Diego conference as saying:
"I believe in people, and people believe in God." I could have overlooked the patronizing condescension of his remark, if only he hadn't sounded so smugly satisfied by this lamentable state of affairs.
But the trouble with Dawkins' position here is that he seems so seldom willing to acknowledge religion as something that exists in the world, that has survived for millennia and which seems to serve a function for people. His explanations of why this is the case are simple-minded and grasping. I imagine the smugness Dawkins heard here was the smugness of someone who has identified a phenomenon one's opponent obviously cannot explain.

The rest of Dawkins points are essentially political--arguments over strategy and tactics; arguments about how non-believers ought to present themselves in public. Here again, I agree with Dawkins in his explicit points, but I have to take him to task for not recognizing the pugnaciousness he has assumed in this argument. Not only is atheism out of the closet, but theism is to be contemned and those who quail from heaping scorn on the religious belief of others are also worthy of contempt.

I don't think this attitude is either necessary or desirable.

More on this later.