Friday, October 05, 2007

Dawkins Again

I am not the only one who sees something repulsive in Richard Dawkin's arguments. I do not mean his arguments against the existence of God, which are not very good, and which have certainly been made better by other people. Rather, it is his views on religion in society which are bothersome.

See Theo Hobson in the Guardian 1 Oct 2007

The truth is that Dawkins does not want equal rights; he wants what he says that the Jewish lobby has: disproportionate influence. If atheists had more political power, "the world would be a better place". He wants the gospel of atheism to spread; he wants it to change the culture.

I have been chided in the past for referring to the "militant" atheism of Dawkins and his like. But the desire for one's creed to spread, in order to make the world a better place, surely merits the label. Atheists reply that there is nothing dangerous or sinister in the desire to see more rationality, less superstition. Really? Dawkins was asked what he hoped an atheist bloc in the US might achieve, and this is the first part of the answer he gave: "I would free children of being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community." Is this not amazing? I have seldom read a sentence that has induced such a sharp shiver of revulsion. This man evidently dreams of a state in which it is illegal to take one's children to a place of worship, or to say prayers with them as one puts them to bed.

Do I overreact? What else does he mean by wanting to "free" children from a parent's ability to "indoctrinate" them? He wants a culture in which saying bedtime prayers is considered child abuse. Presumably in this bravely rationalised new world, atheist teachers will encourage children to inform on their parents.


Other people have picked up on the Dawkins problem:


Daniel Finkelstein, The Times 5 Oct 2007

Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish 5 Oct 2007


Travis said...

I have no problem with athiests as long's as they don't question the intellect of people who are not. Many, Hitchens being one of them, have this idea that people who are not athiests are mentally weaker than those who are not. I find that to be somewhat arrogant.

I also noted that they blame religious people for slowing down education and scientific discovery. Yet they don't recognize that many scientists, like Newton, Galileo and Gregor Mendel were religious men. They also never mention that it was intellectual athiests in the 1800's that perpetuated the myth that people thought the world was flat during the time of Columbus (something I learned from you at UNF). They never mention that.

Paul Halsall said...


I would not be surprised if self-declared atheists (as a group), especially in the US, were more intelligent on average than self-declared believers. [I think the situation is different in the UK since so few people give a damn either way.]

To be fair, Dawkins is an important thinker in science in his own right. Hitchens is just a blowhard.

Nick said...

I can't speak for Dawkins, but I am one atheist who does not believe that faith and stupidity necessarily correlate. Indeed, it must take some intellectual agility to believe in something for which there's no evidence whatsoever.

My personal theory is that theists are either prone to wishful thinking or following the herd. Or some combination of the two.

Travis said...

I think you are right that the vast majority of believers are less intelligent than those that are not (I consider myself a dieist, in the same manner as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine). I do find it interesting that many athiests have more knowledge about the bible than those that consider themselves devout christians.

Regardless, I still think it is wrong for someone to assume that another person is less intelligent because they are a Christian, Jewish or whatever religion.

Nick said...

Another important factor in belief is when the believer (intelligent or otherwise) lived. Dawkins writes sympathetically about Paley's Natural Theology, which was a sophisticated theory for its time. But Darwin's subsequent discoveries made it completely untenable.

Anonymous said...

Paley's Natural Theology was never especially good theology, let alone good science. It simply never has been, and never will be, good science that explains anything by saying "God did it." The only explanatory role that God can play in nature is explaining why it is there in the first place and why it continues to be there. But that sort of 'explanation' is not the same sort of explanation that people aim for in science. Scientists who reject the question "why anything at all?" do so because they imagine that they are being asked to provide a scientific explanation. But there is none available -- the question is metaphysical, and not one that empirical science can tackle even in principle.

As for theists being intelligent, I suppose that there might be a greater number of atheists and agnostics among educated people. But education is not a completely satisfactory measure of intelligence, and the numbers would not prove any necessary connection between intelligence and disbelief in God. The correlation is due more to sociological factors than to rational ones.

As for Nick's three possibilities -- 'following the herd,' 'wishful thinking,' and belief based on 'evidence' -- I'm not quite sure what to say. Religious beliefs, like all beliefs, are formed in communities. Plenty of religious believers are actively critical of their own communities' beliefs, so I don't think that 'following the herd' really explains it (though the social role of religion does much to explain the vast number of people who belong to a religion without treating it as a central part of their lives).

I'm inclined to reject the idea that beliefs must otherwise come from 'wishful thinking' or 'evidence.' Most theists believe in God in part because it yields a more satisfying world view. But honest and genuine theistic belief makes life harder rather than easier. So, unless the 'wish' that's being fulfilled is that our experience of love, justice, beauty, goodness, forgiveness, and divine grace all ultimately make sense -- then I don't know what 'wish' believers are supposed to be fulfilling.

It is obvious that belief in God is not a simple matter of 'evidence,' but neither is a lot else. Anyone who believes in 'human rights' or 'human dignity' should consider just how closely his belief in those things resembles a theist's belief in God. We come to believe in these things because they make satisfying sense of our experience as a whole. Of course, if we fail to defend them against charges of incoherence and the like, then we have trouble. But nobody came to believe in human rights because they walked out the door one day, saw a human right walking down the street, and said, "Ah, so I have evidence now!" The fact that most people in our country believe in human rights would not lead us to think that individuals only believe in them because they are 'following the herd.' And yet, for my money, belief in human rights is epistemically very similar to belief in God.

Of course, you might just reject the existence of human rights. But then we'll have to have a different argument.