In Defence of Dawkins

I generally ignore blog posts I strongly disagree with, but when norm links to one and thereby lends it some credibility I feel it’s fair to point out the various problems. Tonight’s The Root of All Evil? is bringing the snipers out from the woodwork, and it’s entertaining to listen to them. Richard Dawkins is an easy target because of his strong views, and it’s easy to snipe from the sidelines by claiming that his arguments are “obviously” wrong. It’s easy to mistake passion and dedication for arrogance, and it’s surprisingly common even within the atheist community. In this case the author goes on the attack, but analysing the arguments rather than summarising them falsely would be a far more effective tactic if the aim is actually to change people’s minds.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Dawkins, but only because I’ve thought about his arguments and decided I agree. Because I’ve agreed with previous arguments I’m more inclined to listen and actively seek out any new thoughts, but I don’t just accept them because he said them.

Now, taking issue with either Dawkins or Bunting on the subject of religion is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel because with both of them, their propensity to pontificate about the subject is in inverse proportion to their knowledge of the subject

If you’ve read Dawkins you’ll know how much knowledge he actually has of religious method, instruction and history. I don’t understand this statement; to me it seems rather bitter. There isn’t any evidence to back it up. What follows is:

Does one really have to deconstruct his stupid and really quite vicious argument that parents who bring their children up as believers are guilty of child-abuse? Or his ridiculous idea that theology departments in universities should be closed-down because they’re devoted to the study of something that doesn’t exist? She writes that, “a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins’s anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers” and I find myself thinking she’s on to something here. I cringe when I hear people describe religious belief, and believers, as stupid. The majority of the human race, both now and in the past, have believed in a deity or deities; I’d confine myself to the observation that, in my experience anyway, those who consider themselves on account of their atheism to be intellectually superior to the majority of the human race really ought to take a more sober estimate of their abilities – to say no more than that.

There are a large mixture of bizarre statements and untruths in here, so I’ll take them in turn:

  • The child-abuse allegation is summed up by a Dawkins article from a 1997 edition of Humanist magazine:

    Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London’s leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

    What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

    How is this ‘stupid and really quite vicious’? I don’t see that this is clear-cut. It’s different from the normal associations of child abuse, but I think the point stands. When we hear of suicide bombers brainwashed by fanatics we know that they’ve been taken advantage of, used and duped. How come it’s ok to do this to children who don’t know any better? Because it’s the norm? Is it ok to forcing children to think what you think? It comes down to the definition of ‘child-abuse’. I’m not making a statement about whether this does or doesn’t fit the definition, but it’s not so obvious as the claim suggests.

  • The closing down of theology departments. Hmmm, not sure about this. I can’t find any Dawkins quotes calling for this, and indeed it wouldn’t appear to be something he’d say. I guess the claim comes from writings like this:

    What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

    If you look up the word ‘theology‘ there are various definitions. Is Dawkins talking about the “course of specialized religious study usually at a college or seminary” or “The study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions.” Given his other writings, I’d almost certainly say it’s the former. To me he makes a valid point, and there would certainly be an argument for educational establishments not offering courses in religious doctrine (if such things even exist). Like I said, I can’t find anything relating directly to the closing down of specific courses, and I’m happy to be proven wrong.

  • Cringing at people calling believers stupid. Yep, with you on that one. But, again, I can’t find any evidence of Dawkins doing this. The idea probably comes from strong statements like this:

    To claim equal time for creation science in biology classes is about as sensible as to claim equal time for the flat-earth theory in astronomy classes. Or, as someone has pointed out, you might as well claim equal time in sex education classes for the stork theory. It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

    That’s not saying that believers are stupid, that’s saying that people who actively claim not to believe in evolution are either lacking in knowledge of the facts, unable to think clearly, or lack the intelligence to comprehend the facts. This isn’t referring to people who don’t know what to think, this is actively
    not believing. It’s not a passive thing. Given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, his point stands. Evolution is entirely independent from the idea of a deity, anyway. It’s entirely possible to acknowledge the incredible likelihood that evolution is a fact while still believing in a deity. No reasonable atheist / secular humanist would ever call believers ‘stupid’, as there are extremely large factors that could prevent people from gaining access to what we see as the truth.

    Dawkins expresses very strong views very succinctly, but care must be taken not to read more into them than is actually there.

  • “The majority of the human race, both now and in the past, have believed in a deity or deities; those who consider themselves on account of their atheism to be intellectually superior to the majority of the human race really ought to take a more sober estimate of their abilities”. This is a tricky one, and depends on your definition of ‘intellectually superior’.

    If I know more about photography, say, than a friend, do I consider myself ‘intellectually superior’? If you confine it to knowledge of photography, yes. By this I mean that it’s a fact that I know more. I take satisfaction in my knowledge, but not in that I have more of it than somebody else. That would make no sense. The statement seems to imply smugness, moral superiority and looking-down-upon those who know less, and I don’t see that in Dawkins’ writings, although admittedly it’s a failing of some atheist writers. It’s closely linked to the ‘believers are stupid’ idea above.

    The scientific method says that we should look at all available evidence, form a tentative hypothesis and be open to further developments. I’m an atheist because I see no evidence for the existence of a deity. That ‘the majority of the human race…have believed’ is entirely irrelevant. I’ve read widely on the topic, and consider myself more educated about it than the average man on the street. But this doesn’t mean I’m claiming to be ‘intellectually superior’ or that I can understand more than the average person. It doesn’t mean I think I’m a different class of human, or morally superior. It simply means that I think I’ve looked at the evidence and come to a conclusion that any reasonable person would. I’m grateful that I have had the opportunity to do such a thing – it would make no sense to consider myself ‘better’ than anybody else for doing so.

The rest of the post deals with other matters, but I just wanted to put my case forward here. Blanket statements and attacks from the sidelines annoy me, especially when the issues involved are so important. If you think I’m wrong about anything, feel free to argue in the comments.