Stratford Herald review of the Dawkins talk

I am highly entertained by the Stratford Herald‘s review of last week’s Richard Dawkins talk. Whether you agreed or disagreed with the various points raised during the evening, and taking into account that it’s just a local paper, it’s still astonishingly bad. There are many, many problems, but I’ll concentrate on one paragraph from the centre, which starts off badly and ends up completely nutty:

Religion imposes social control on society and without it, as the vicar of Holy Trinity rightly said, anarchy would rule in a state of chaos.

I think believer and non-believer can agree that this is ridiculous. Whether you take the humanist, evidence-based position that humanity is essentially good, or even the H.L Mencken “[p]eople say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police” side, this makes no sense. Some go further and suggest there’s evidence of the inverse: Sam Harris has pointed out the positive correlation between levels of religious belief and crime levels throughout the world, but that of course doesn’t imply causation.

However, to demonise one particular “brand” or denomination and pitch it against another is surely leading to the new world order[…]

Woah. ‘new world order’? That phrase rarely appears outside of conspiracy websites. Odd. I don’t know what this sentence is all about, to be honest – it doesn’t relate to anything that came previously. Maybe it’s the old ‘atheism is a faith position too’ argument, but it’s far from clear.

[…]which is precisely the reason for Britain and America’s fanatical anti-Islamic attitude.

Ah, that. Yeah, it’s terrible that Muslims don’t get to live freely and practice their religion without hindrance in the UK or the US. Also that both countries have intervened on behalf of Muslim countries, or tried to liberate them from dictatorships. I appreciate most people disagree with the Iraq war, but are there any sensible people who actually think it was because of an anti-Muslim agenda?

It would appear that Prof. Dawkins is a one-world government devotee[…]

Bit of a leap.

[…] and he seems to promote his ‘non-belief’ with all the zealousness of the religious afficionados he corrals together as the deluded.

I’ll come back to this point.

This one trick pony of a man, I would suggest, is a signed-up member of the illuminati.

*splutter* What? I’m going to assume the author – the deputy editor of the newspaper, no less – isn’t actually suggesting the Illuminati really exist, even though his use of ‘new world order’ is bizarrely compatible with that view. I’ll charitably assume what he really means is that Prof. Dawkins is of the opinion that scientists should rule the world. I think that in debating circles this is known as the Argument from Dan Brown.

The review ends by saying that the whole religion debate is clearly about making money. It’s just godawful, to coin an appropriate word, and I don’t understand how it got through editorial controls.

I’ve been trying to read reviews of The God Delusion, both positive and negative, and haven’t seen much coherent argument against. The best I’ve come across was somebody who said he knows God exists through personal revelation, not scripture. I can counter that I think it far more probable that whatever experience he had was the result of something in his brain – psychologists can induce states of religious euphoria in laboratory situations – but this will always end in stalemate.

Incidentally, the vicar of Holy Trinity who argued with Prof. Dawkins during the evening does himself no favours by being quoted here:

“Dawkins is the acceptable face of what he espouses, but an atheistic world would be very ugly at the edges – remember Stalin’s Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. At the end of the day the man is an Oxford don trying to sell a book. I wonder who or what he turns to in his hours of need? He’s probably too ashamed to say he prays.”

Ah, the age-old debating technique of making things up. It’s a shame he said this, as on the evening he did a good job of being friendly and polite. This just sounds petty.

Russia and Cambodia are flawed arguments, too. It’s not like the horrors were committed because of an atheist outlook. If you’re going to say that a lack of religion caused it, you have to deal with the genocides and wars in the name of religion (plus the many in which religion fostered hatred and prevented any hope of dialogue between the sides). I personally tend to agree with Steven Weinberg: “with or without [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

The point that comes up time and time again in descriptions of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett etc. is that they are ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘dogmatic’ in the same way as religious extremists, therefore no better. That completely misses the point. They’re not fundamentalist in the same way, because there’s always room for doubt. Criticisms of the dogmatic nature of religious fundamentalists are because they do not acknowledge any possiblity of error, not that they hold their opinions strongly. There’s nothing wrong with having and expressing strong opinions, providing you’re open to evidence and will debate reasonably. If you’re going to argue that they are not open to argument – this review called Dawkins “brainwashed by his own beliefs” – then present your alternate evidence. But no reviews do this, or they come out with the same old tired comments about Stalin, or atheism as a faith position, which have invariably been ripped to shreds in the very tomes they’re reviewing. The Dawkins-as-fundamentalist-therefore-we-must-look-for-middle-ground argument gets way more time than it deserves.