Some of you may have heard arguments from a growing militant atheist movement among intellectuals. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others have launched frontal attacks on religious institutions, belief and faith. Though their critique focuses on “Abrahamanic” religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, they rarely spend the rhetorical effort to differentiate Abrahamanic religion from religion per se. They argue that religious and spiritual philosophies are inherently destructive, spreading intolerance, and that scientific and rational thinking must be atheist.
Dawkins in a speech featured here in front of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) reiterates these arguments: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/113 . They don’t hold water.
For one, he tries to correlate IQ and religious thinking. But any serious scientist has to know that the IQ test is in no way, shape or form a serious metric of “intelligence”. It tests a particular type of intelligence poorly and is heavily class and culturally biased. The same data is used across populations to declare people of different races to be stupid. Dawkins compounds this error by implying that religious thinking is also negatively correlated with socioeconomic status and education. But neither of those vectors are true indications of intelligence otherwise, because we do not live in an intelligence-based meritocracy. We live in a class, race and gender-riveted society where perfectly capable people are artificially denied equal wealth and educational opportunity.
This social understanding is one of the Dawkins/Hitchens school’s most severe misunderstandings and utter failings. There was hardly a more antagonistic atheist on the globe than Bakunin, who as an anarchist declared that were there to be a Lord of the world he would try to overthrow that Lord as he would all others. But Bakunin also knew that scientific oligarchy or rule would be just as onerous and disgustinig as rule by a priesthood. I think quite a bit of people’s knee-jerk reaction to Dawkins and his ilk is their extreme contempt for people’s views and their quite clear implicit belief that those people do not have equal capacity to discharge their rights as human beings.
Why have we seen an upsurge in fanatical religious thinking the globe over? Well, globalization and American foreign policy have intentionally deprived governments of the capacity to control their own societies. There is a “democratic deficit” that is quite alarming. When people’s faith in secular political institutions decline, their faith in religious institutions as an alternative civil society grows. This can occur even without religion: The fascist uprisings in Europe were roughly the same phenomenon. One can harshly oppose fanaticism and inflexibility of all kinds while bearing in mind their structural causes.
One might argue, as a good friend of mine has, “So what? Everyone has their battles. Why not let them focus on the religious fanaticism?” The problem with this is manifold. For one, Hitchens in particular are in support of the very institutions that propel fanatical thinking. Putting aside Hitchens’ support for globalization and conventional “capitalism”, he also has been in support of the American imperial project in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet a greater hotbed of Abrahamanic fanaticism could hardly be found. “Christians” (read: radical statists subverting authentic Christian belief) use crusading rhetoric and real bombs to devastate Muslims (both ordinary, innocent, decent people and a tiny nasty minority), while “Jewish” Israel slips further and further away from democracy and towards a military-run state.
Second, people like Harris go further and even let their monomaniacal focus on religion obscure obvious truths. Harris has declared that there is a “problem with Islam” that inherently drives terrorist acts. The fact that this argument could fit in George W. Bush’s living room does not seem to bother him. This kind of rhetoric that views the beliefs of Arabs and Muslims as somehow inhuman and less than worthy is an integral part of the problem. Of course, the true phenomenon is that butchers on all sides point to justifications as they always do while fighting for their own interests.
Third, religion per se is not the problem. One can look superficially at the Crusades and see that, yes, people of varying religions battled. But then why the siege of Constantinople? Why the horrible atrocities on all sides? Why the enslavement of the Children’s Crusade? The answer: Religion was the pretext. The Muslim empires and the rising European empires were destined to battle. The way to mobilize ordinary people was religion.
One could look at the above and say, “All right, religion was still a problem though, it was still the pretext used for recruitment.” But religion is by no means the only way of getting the message out. Nationalism, racism, fear, greed, any number of justifications and appeals can be used to spread war and violence. The solution is to eliminate the war and violence, not the religion.
One can go down the line with this logic. Religious fanatics? Get rid of fanaticism, not religion. Religious intolerance? Get rid of intolerance, not religion. Religion leading to closed minds? Get rid of closed minds, not religion. There has been no argument anywhere, precisely because it’s absurd, that religion can’t be separated from those bad outcomes, that there is no way to have faith and spirituality without accepting negative consequences.
Dawkins also makes a quite abusive analogy, taking advantage of Douglas Adams (a man who I have nothing but admiration for), by pointing out that religious thought has been made socially inured to challenge. I agree that this is unnecessary and problematic. So do almost all religions. The Trickster mythos in almost every religion I’m aware of, from Nasrudin in Islam to Coyote to Ananasi to Buber’s irreverant interpretations of Judaism, is a myth that defiles the sacred in order to remind people of what really matters. Being able to discuss openly any aspect of life, religion included, is essential, and anyone who opposes that because they favor their dogma is wrong. But that includes atheist dogma. What many Christians and religious people derive their hostility to people like Dawkins and Hitchens from is not the notion of having the discussion but the notion that the discussion will inherently be from militantly hostile people who have it in their minds that the only right answer to the questions they’re asking is their own. No one willingly gets into that conversation. The answer to dogmatic religion is not dogmatic atheism.
Dawkins goes on to extend Adams’ analogy far beyond what it was ever intended to say. For Dawkins, anything that we can’t subject to rigorous scientific analysis is bunk. Well, say goodbye to ethics then, because there is no litmus test in the world that will tell you why murder is wrong. One must have an ethical edifice that says so or not. Indeed, most human inquiry is largely immune to scientific analysis. Some of it is simply the limits of science: Things like human emotions, say. But others are in PRINCIPLE beyond any empirical or objective argumentation: Aesthetics, morals, etc. Dawkins doesn’t dispense with these because he sees that there is more to life than science. But he inconsistently dispenses with religion on that ground. Unfortunately, the reasoning is just as bad in this context.
When faith and science clash, that is when there is an empirical fact that science has observed that faith disagrees with, who should win? By and large, science. But that’s neither here nor there.
Dawkins focuses almost entirely on Hitchens’ Abrahamanic religions, the monotheisms of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, any number of other religious thoughts simply do not fall under his criticisms. For example, it is not actually the case that we are all atheists except for one God. Most polytheistic religions are perfectly fine with throwing in another God from another culture. But Dawkins nonetheless repeatedly says the term “religion”.
This is a problem much deeper than semantics, though. Dawkins has irresponsibly coupled dozens of aspects of religious and spiritual inquiry, including myths, faith, spirituality, organizations and institutions of religion, dogma, laws, etc. Religion is not a monolith: There are dozens of facets, some not so good and some quite good.
Dawkins reminds me of the anti-science postmodern crowd. For these people, science’s failures, its creation of the nuclear bomb, make it completely destructive whereas its successes, say the theory of relativity, are irrelevant. The entire project begins with the notion that we should deliberately throw the baby out with the bathwater and hope a new baby springs to life when we run the tap again. The answer to Dawkins is the same answer given by scientists to postmodernists: Get rid of the bad and keep the good, because the bad is not intrinsic to the structure.
Has religion done destructive things? Yes, depending on how you define your terms; so has science. Have religious people been dogmatic, been jerks and warmongers? Yes; same for atheists, science, people with political or economic dogmas, people named Jeff and Bob and Nancy, and indeed pretty much every person alive at some point in their life. But what these thinkers are never able to do is make the argument that would say that there is no context, no proper deployment, for spiritual thought, precisely because the argument would be both offensive and stupid. If spiritual feeling is kept within its sphere of inquiry, it can be the source of brilliant and wonderful passion, philosophy, ethics, and beliefs.
One can look into the stars and see the wonder of the universe, or into the woods and see the wonder of life, and be profoundly moved whether one sees God or not. One can embrace basic human decency, respect, tolerance, compassion and ethics whether one is religious or not. Religion can help with acquiring such moral guidance, but so can other means. The point is that the questions of faith and spirituality are ones that we should answer ourselves, and that there are an array of rational choices, not just one.
I reject militant atheism. I support people embracing their beliefs, whatever they are, and being ready to proudly discuss them. I look forward to a revival across the globe of what China succeeded at: Realizing that many spiritual ways are all in fact on one path, trying to resolve core questions about who we are, what makes us happy and what is out there. Across the millenia, if we commit to a society of discussion, might we find that all of the spiritual thought we had was deeply inadequate? Absolutely, as with science, philosophy and any other worthwhile sphere. Will atheists have a part to play in our journey? Yes. Atheism is the null hypothesis. It answers the spiritual question by saying “Nothing on the table is valid”. If we can’t explore the null hypothesis, we cannot fully explore the question. Atheists act as skeptics, as people who will help to buoy our wildest notions and anchor our philosophies. In the end, I hope we will collaboratively as a human species find a spiritual truth that resonates as brilliantly and logically as any other essential philosophy we have discovered.
June 7, 2014 Edit: I stand by everything I’ve said here, and I have come to be even more opposed to militant atheism.
This will be a subject of an upcoming blog post, but: Atheism is not a belief system. Humanism is. I highly recommend Greg Graffin’s Anarchy Evolution as well as the work of Simone de Beauvoir and other existentialists.
I will reiterate this analogy in the upcoming post on the issue, but I think it deserves to be said a few times: Saying atheism is your philosophy is like saying “Not chocolate” is your favorite ice cream. It just says what you don’t believe.
And when people put as their core ideology, a null hypothesis, it is an empty thing they are holding onto.
People like Dawkins and the now late Christopher Hitchens who made that their philosophy were about tearing down others. Dawkins has other great work, of course, but his work on atheism is overwhelmingly negative, dismissive and arrogant.
Believing in the potential of science, rationality, technology and untapped human capability is a fine belief system that one can adopt. Atheism isn’t.