October 29, 2006

Thoughts on Richard Dawkins at Cal Tech

Two items to set the stage:

First, calling someone wicked or foolish or telling them directly or indirectly that they are deserving of eternal punishment by perpetual torment or claiming that their heart is hard or absent or that they have some essential quality missing is not seen as impolite. But, somehow, saying that those same polite folks are delusional is.

Second, George Tamarin, an Israeli psychologist, had over one thousand Israeli school children, 8-14 years old, read the Biblical story of Joshua's sack of Jericho. He then asked the question "Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not? They had three choices: A) they approved of Joshua actions; B) they partially approved; C) they disapproved. 66% approved and 26% disapproved. The remainder (8%) partially approved. He then slightly modified the story by replacing Joshua with "General Lee" and Israel with "a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago." This time he asked for the same responses from a control group of 168 different Israeli children. Now 75% disapproved and only 7% approved of "General Lee's" actions. [apud Dawkins]

Shirley and I went to Cal Tech yesterday afternoon to hear Richard Dawkins pitch his new book, The God Delusion. Dawkins was witty, charming, humble and inquisitive. In large measure, he was also correct. The over one hour of questions and answer was the best part of the event. On a couple of occasions, Dawkins' British academic style might have been seen as a little abrupt. But most of the time he gave very full and revealing answers to questions. He responded to one question by saying, "I do not know, to my shame."

Biblical scholars, church historians and theologians may question his interpretations of some specific accounts and traditions. I also think him wrong on some of these. He has a somewhat annoying habit of using the most poorly formulated expression of religious doctrine rather than the most carefully formulated expression to make his point. But, as he correctly says, it is exactly these ill-formed expressions that makeup the body of the belief of most religious people.

Two of the common complains about Dawkins is that he is a "god hater" and that he is profoundly impolite, even offensive, in talking as he does about religion and belief. It is also common to complain that when he makes his claims about religion and belief, he is speaking outside his expertise. In addition, it is said that he blames religion and belief for evils for which they are actually blameless. Let me take up those four complains and then suggest what I think is the real problem with Dawkins' understanding of religion.

"Dawkins is a 'god hater'": No, Dawkins is not a god hater. He is an atheist and therefore would claim that there is nothing in that neighborhood for him to hate or, for that matter, love. Just as I don't hate or love mermaids, Dawkins doesn't hate or love god or gods. How can one reasonably hate something that doesn't exist? He does hate those who do unspeakable evils in the name of religion and those who impose their delusions on children. While some religious people can forgive him his first hatred, the second is a little hard for them to swallow. It may be reasonable to say that Dawkins is wrong and that he should either hate or love a god or group of gods because they do exist. It may even be reasonable to suggest that his atheism is driven by his hatred of religion (after all he does believe that religions exist.), but it is illogical to call him a "god hater." Note that Dawkins refers to supernaturalists as delusional not "god lovers."

"Dawkins is impolite or offensive": Well, as I hope my opening paragraph illustrated, he is certainly no less polite than many of those who resist his positions. During the almost two hours I spent in his presence, I found him extremely polite even differential to the points of view of others. I think the problem here is that he, like Daniel Dennett and others, brings up things that are just not supposed to be discussed in polite society. Religious people of every stripe can say the most outrageous things about us and we are supposed to sit back and take it. And we sure aren't supposed to bring up things like there not being the slightest evidence for any god or gods unless you invoke a "special" epistemology separate and different from the epistemology that would be in play in any other area of inquiry. Something many of us are just not willing to do. While I am often confused about epistemology, I do believe that there cannot be one epistemology for knowing about physics and biology and another one for knowing about god or gods. Dawkins is thought impolite because he refuses to give religion or faith a privileged place in human discourse. Is it really impolite to ask why faith, rather than doubt, is a virtue? Is it really impolite to inquire into the possibility of negative effects of religion and belief? Is it impolite to speculate that there may be several political leaders in the US or Britain who have consistently lied about their faith because they know they would never get elected if they told the truth? And how is any of this more impolite or offensive than claiming that atheists are wicked or foolish or the many other things that people have said about them.

"Dawkins speaks outside his expertise": When Dawkins talks about the Bible and the Koran; about topics of religion and faith this is of course true. He is a trained biologist. But with the exception of a relative small cadre of trained scholars, nearly everyone who talks about the founding documents of a given religion or its doctrines and beliefs is speaking outside their expertise. And this is as true when they talk about their own faith as when they speak of the faith or lack of same of others. Much of this complaint is evidence for a socially acceptable privileged place for religious belief. The "witness" of believing non-experts is acceptable in society but the witness of non-believing non-experts is not. One of the things I found most appealing about Dawkins in person was how open he was to ideas outside his expertise and the extent to which he was willing to admit that he didn't know. While Dawkins may speak outside his formal expertise, he does not speak outside his considerable experience.

"Dawkins blames religion and belief for evils for which they are actually blameless": There may be an element of truth in this charge. But some of it comes from a number of misconceptions on the part of his critics. He did a BBC series about religion that was called "The Root of All Evil - The God Delusion." It is possible that this series provided much of the fuel for the criticism. You can watch the series on YouTube. It is true that early in the first segment Dawkins says, "Religious extremism is implicated in the world's most bitter and unending conflicts." But religion being implicated in these conflicts and religion being the cause of these conflicts is two different things. Dawkins told us yesterday that he wanted the title of the series to be "The Root of All Evil? - The God Delusion." The question mark might have made a difference. This is not a simple issue. There are certainly events in history in which religion is as much a victim as a cause of deadly conflicts. I think the of "troubles" in Northern Ireland. But what religion often does do is harden positions and turns human disputes into theological wars of faith. I think Razib at Gene Expression said this well,

I believe that institutional organized religion, e.g., Christianity, Islam, etc., can increase the magnitude of a social vector, but has little influence on its direction. For example in relation to slavery religion was a force for inflaming both abolitionist enthusiasm and justifying the holding of other humans in bondage. Religion doesn't do good or evil, humans do, religion is simply a 'virus of the mind' which hitch-hikes and surfs on cultural waves. [emphasis in original]

Now to what I think is the real problem with Dawkins. I will turn to Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles to help me formulate the issue

[This is] where I think Dawkins (and Myers, and Harris, and Dennett, and all the rest) is misguided. I think you could get people to give up the metaphysical stuff, if not for the social and cultural aspects-- God isn't the key to religion, community is the key to religion. The way to raise the standing of atheism is not to be more vehement about attacking the metaphysical beliefs of religion, because that only backfires-- people see it as an attack on the community, and draw together even tighter. If you want to make atheism more attractive, you're not going to do it by trying to make religion look worse. You need to offer something to offset or replace the social and cultural aspects of religion.

Chad is absolutely correct. When I have, in the past, missed going to church it was the fellowship and group identity not the theology that I missed. It was the fact of belonging. I was a Methodist and that alone meant something to me. These days Shirley and I have replaced that element of the religious experience with different groups and activities. We belong to The Skeptics' Society, which sponsored the Dawkins talk. It is a large group and like many who attend a mega church, we may recognize a few but we actually know no one. Over time that will change but it will take time. But it is becoming part of our identity. From this we get some great lectures, a quarterly magazine and an emerging sense of identity.

Perhaps more importantly, we participate in a small group whose main goal is to eat lunch together on Thursdays. All the participates in the group once worked at the same place or are married to someone who did. Among the regular lunch eaters are a of couple of atheists, one or two agonistics. And a few that are just plan confused on this subject. We also have one regular who also attends church quite often and on occasion refers to the rest of us as her "non-Christian friends." The truth is that we seldom discuss religion but it is not a taboo subject and we have discussed it. It is more likely that we will discuss politics and while we are all generally liberal, a couple of us are liberal Republicans! Perhaps the most common topic of discussion is health insurance. This topic is typical of our age and station: retired or semi retired. Over the course of our several years together, we have supported each other through severe and not so severe health crises. One of our regulars is now facing chemotherapy. We have seen another through similar treatment. We joke and flirt and gossip and make fun of the world and each other. And before and after lunch we hug. We have fellowship. And that is a positive function of religion that Dawkins does not address.

Not all will find the same alternatives that Shirley and I have found, but until secular humanist and just plan atheists can provide alternatives to organized religion in this area of human interaction, it will be difficult to increase our numbers beyond the 8 to 10% of the population or to be elected to office or achieve the same level of respectability as other minorities that hold less reasoned views. While we must work to replace faith with reason, we must also find secular alternatives for the fellowship that organized religion so conveniently provides and on which it so successfully maintains itself.

Other blogs that I regularly read have also commented on Dawkins and The God Delusion.


Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006

Posted by DuaneSmith at October 29, 2006 06:19 PM | Read more on Religion |

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Post a comment

Please read Abnormal Interest's Comments Policy.


Email Address:


Remember Me?


The following HTML tags are allowed in comments:

and no others.