Friday, November 03, 2006

The Dreadful Dick Dawkins Part III

by Drek

This week I've been engaged in something of a series on Richard Dawkins and the responses to his new book. On Wednesday I posted over on Total Drek about a debate between him and a Catholic apologist that Dawkins supposedly lost. I concluded that he didn't do as well as I might have hoped, but that he wasn't defeated- he just lost. Monday I posted here at Marginal Utility on a review of Dawkins' book in the New York Times. Generally in this period I have been defending Dawkins against what I feel are unreasonable attacks.

Today I complete the series by spreading the attention a little more widely from Dick Dawkins to atheism generally, and I do so in an ironic twist with the help of the goons over on Wild Bill's Blog. Recently they mentioned an article to be found in Wired magazine titled "The Church of the Non-Believers." Wild Bill even went so far as to remark:

Interesting article in WIRED on the unholy trinity Dawkins-Dennett-Harris. Their atheist extremism may be selling books but is it winning converts?

"Indeed?" I thought, "Atheist extremism?"

My interest was piqued. So, I wandered over to Wired to see for myself.

The article by one Gary Wolf is, indeed, quite interesting, and begins as follows:


It's a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I'm afraid I have no choice. We find ourselves, this very autumn, three and a half centuries after the intellectual martyrdom of Galileo, caught up in a struggle of ultimate importance, when each one of us must make a commitment. It is time to declare our position.

This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.

Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A few months ago, I set out to talk with them. I wanted to find out what it would mean to enlist in the war against faith.

As you can see, Wolf has set for himself an interesting task: an exploration not simply of Dawkins' book and his arguments, but of the growing number of "atheist extremists," if you will, who seem to be cropping up. I, of course, take issue with the "extremist" label. After all, what this batch of vocal atheists are doing is merely what countless religious groups have done for time immemorial. Namely, politely observe that in their opinion every other religious system is wrong. And let's not mince words, such a claim is virtually definitional of religious systems with the possible exception of Unitarian Universalism, which is so permissive as to hardly qualify as a system. In any case, "extremism" is only applicable insofar as this new behavior is revolutionary compared to what atheists used to do- stay silent and stay hidden.

From this modest beginning Wolf embarks on an interesting and mostly sympathetic voyage into modern atheism. In the process, he gets us a little close to understanding why atheists seem to be so rare. As a first step he begins asking his associates at gatherings, "Who here is an atheist?" What happens next is instructive:

Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, "I am!"

But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: "You would be."


"Because you enjoy pissing people off."

"Well, that's true."

And so we see one of the lived realities of atheism- mostly it's something to be hidden and, when it does come out, all sorts of things are ascribed to the atheist. Such as that he, or she, must just enjoy being provocative or inflammatory.

Yet, I can't quite disagree with that assessment, at least not entirely. It is one of the unfortunate truths that many atheists are just a bit... uncooperative. The reason isn't too hard to see, and Wolf even points it out:

As one said, "Atheism is like telling somebody, 'The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'"

Too true and it explains the perception of atheists as argumentative: if being an atheist means privately deciding that most of the world is, as Dawkins argues, experiencing a collective delusion, you must have a great deal of self-confidence or be a terrible egotist. Unfortunately, I often think it a little of both.

This is also, unfortunately, the reason why atheists are so poorly organized. The sort of independence and will that lends itself to the declaration that god does not exist doesn't make group-building terribly easy. The very thing that unites us ironically also divides us.

Atheism is also, as Wolf points out, rather cerebral and doesn't "quicken the blood." This is true- if the basis of religion is a collective effervescence, then atheism is in some ways a faith without a religion. Indeed, the groupings of atheists that do exist may not inspire much ardor:

As the tide of faith rises, atheists, who have no church to buoy them, cling to one another. That a single celebrity, say, Keanu Reeves, is known to care nothing about God is counted as a victory. This parochial and moralistic self-regard begins to inspire in me a feeling of oppression. When Adams starts to recite the names of atheists who may have contributed to the television program Mr. Show With Bob and David between 1995 and 1998, I leave. Standing in the half-empty parking lot is a relief, though I am drenched from the heat.

But, then again, Buddhism isn't known for its fire-and-brimstone sermons, but rather for its sublime spirituality. If there's any term I would use for the beauty of an atheistic worldview, "sublime" would definitely be it. Likewise, all religions are probably spearheaded by the irrascible and the independent, so that's hardly an adequate explanation for the current invisibility of atheists and atheism. These are obstacles, to be sure, but not insurmountable ones.

Looking at it from a different perspective, we may not know why atheism is so invisible, but we do know why it refuses to die. In a world filled with a bewildering array of religious doctrines and believed deities, what could be similer than the idea that they can't all be right? More fully, why need any of them be right? And so, atheism is, if not a popular idea, then one that is brought forth by the very religious doctrines that seek to replace it. Moreover, when one asks the question, the discussion invariably gets interesting:

So is atheism true?

There's good evidence from research by anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran that a grab bag of cognitive predispositions makes us natural believers. We hear leaves rustle and we imagine that some airy being flutters up there; we see a corpse and continue to fear the judgment and influence of the person it once was. Remarkable progress has been made in understanding why faith is congenial to human nature – and of course that still says nothing about whether it is true. Harris is typically severe in his rejection of the idea that evolutionary history somehow justifies faith. There is, he writes, "nothing more natural than rape. But no one would argue that rape is good, or compatible with a civil society, because it may have had evolutionary advantages for our ancestors." Like rape, Harris says, religion may be a vestige of our primitive nature that we must simply overcome.

But this may seem awfully harsh to many as, indeed, it seemed to Wolf. So, he went in search of someone to help him with his woes:

THE DOCTOR for these difficulties looks like Santa Claus. His name is Daniel Dennett. He is a renowned philosopher, an atheist, and the possessor of a full white beard. I suspect he must have designed this Father Christmas look intentionally, but in fact it just evolved. "In the '60s, I looked like Rasputin," he says. Children have come up to him in airports, checking to see if he is on vacation from the North Pole. When it happens, he does not torment them with knowledge that the person they mistake him for is not real. Instead, the philosopher puts his fingers to his lips and says conspiratorially: "Shhhh."


Among the New Atheists, Dennett holds an exalted but ambiguous place. Like Dawkins and Harris, he is an evangelizing nonbeliever. He has campaigned in writing on behalf of the Brights and has written a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In it, the blasting rhetoric of Dawkins and Harris is absent, replaced by provocative, often humorous examples and thought experiments. But like the other New Atheists, Dennett gives no quarter to believers who resist subjecting their faith to scientific evaluation. In fact, he argues that neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school. After all, he argues, "if you have to hoodwink – or blindfold – your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct."

And so we discover a somewhat kinder face to the "New Atheism." Not all rhetoric and harsh criticism, but also a certain amount of gentleness. Likewise we come to a very useful perspective- if an ideological system has to be propped up by ignorance and falsehood, does it really deserve to be perpetuated? I think most of us would answer "no," except, perhaps, when it comes to religion.

So out of all this, this deep voyage into the nature of atheism, does our writer come to any conclusions? Well yes, of a sort:

Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I've decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism – this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism – is too much for me.

The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.

This "extremism" in response to extremism, this alteration of atheism to a level of assertiveness comparable to what we are accustomed to in established religions, is too much for the author. Fair enough, I suppose- I don't much care for a lot of Dawkins' rhetoric either.

That is not, however, the reason why atheism is not more widespread than it is. There are in reality two reasons.

The first, and less problematic, is the very lack of organizational strength I alluded to earlier. Atheists have no unity, no community, we are in some ways rather anomic. This problem, however, can be fixed and new and existing atheist institutions are growing stronger. If there are still few such organizations, then there are certainly many more allies, like the Center for Inquiry. If the skeptical movement is not wholy congruent with the atheist community, it certainly enjoys considerable overlap. Given time, I believe the institutions will be there and, along with them, considerable strength. Doubtless the sage, who has recently been harassing my co-blogger, could offer us some tips.

But the real failure of the New Atheism is not its extremism. Extremism is often highly appealing and traditionally spreads very successfully. No, the failure of the New Atheism, and of atheism generally, is this: Its message is almost entirely negative.

We atheists spend much of our time debating theists- often when we first "come out" as atheists. This gets us used to having to reject theism or, if you're a theist, to rejecting god. Yet, in becoming accustomed to all this, we become so ready to voice our rejection of superstition and mythical skybeasts, we often forget entirely to vocalize the beauty of our own beliefs.

Atheism is, for many people, defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. atheism is not the belief in god, true, but for most people that's where it stops. Beyond that the philosophy seems empty and, quite likely, meaningless. Perhaps many more people that we realize have doubts about religion, perhaps many more doubt the existence of an all-powerful being than surveys would lead us to believe, but if the alternative to fantasy is... nothing... can we blame them for refusing to wake from their delusion? If there is one theme that seems to run through objections to atheism, including the critiques of Dawkins we have reviewed this week, it is this notion that however flawed the religious view of the world may be, atheism has not even that much to offer.

It is time for atheists to push for something more than a closet. It is time that we became if not liked, then at least respected and accepted. It is time that people did not respond to our presence in social occasions with the belief that we are necessarily combative. All of this is true.

But if we are truly going to achieve these goals we must do something more: we must learn to take a chance. We must begin to describe not just the foolishness of our detractors, but the worth of our own position. Our beliefs are noble, they are good, and there is a sublime beauty to our vision of the universe. To atheists mankind is not a bunch of ruly children to be ruled with the paddle, or disgusting sinful creatures marred by the behavior of our remote ancestors. To atheists humans are flawed creatures that, amazingly, strive to become more perfect than they are now. To atheists humans are not destined to a very limited and, ultimately, pointless existence- we are the masters of our own future. We can become as great or as base as we choose. What could be more wonderful than that?

It seems that what many people find objectionable in atheism isn't this new extemism, which is shared by many popular movements, nor its rejection of alternatives, which is shared by all other faiths, nor even its lack of institutional power, all religions lacked it once. No, what people find objectionable is what they perceive as a total absence of a message of hope.

So let's finally share it with them.
Hello Drek,

Here's another viewpoint on this debate. Go to my webpage from my profile page and look over the Doctrine of Two Spirits. What I think both religion and atheism lack is a true understanding of wisdom and its importance. It is great to feel positive about personal potential, but it is even more important to know how to make use of it to help others and to end the great evils and injustices that bedevil this world.

Analyzing the Creator Debate

Did you ever consider that atheism arose because certain people saw that religious characterizations about the nature of an omnipotent "God" were seriously flawed and then concluded that religion and the Creator were the same things? This is the exact same conclusion at the base of religious beliefs; namely that the Creator and religion are inseparable. Consequently, both atheists and religious followers are arguing over a flawed assumption without considering that other possibilities negate the common core conclusion of both groups. These arguments are actually over religion and whether it represents a reliable model of reality. The answer to that question is of course not. Religion is not only flawed, it is purposely deceptive! Though atheists are certainly sincere in their conclusions, the fact remains that they and religious followers are locked in a debate that cannot be won by either side because both base their positions upon whether the same flawed premise is the truth. In order for this debate to conclude with a truthful answer, a greater level of discernment is required.

One apt clarifying question is, if someone tells lies about you, does that negate you or make you a liar or a lie? Certainly, the image cast about you would be a false one, but that is their image, not the real you. Consequently, faulty religious assertions about the Creator of this universe do not negate the existence of a Creator. Considering the possibility that this universe is not by chance leaves the door open to how it arose, which leads us to seek what could have created and maintained it. Since neither religion nor science has yet adequately answered that question, it is safe to conclude that those who argue about the Creator based on either are most certainly wrong on one or more aspects. Thereby, another point of view and additional knowledge are required.

From your blogpost:

"There is simply too much order and precision to this universe to have come about by chance."

Ah, the good old argument from design. Been there, heard that, got the t-shirt.

When you have something new or interesting let me know. Until then, best of luck to you.
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