Next up is Gregg Easterbrook’s review of Dawkins. Overall the review was a pleasant surprise. Given Easterbrook’s track record, I would have expected a barely coherent anti-Dawkins tirade. Actually the review is pretty thoughtful, and I agree with some of what he has to say.
But I also have a few disagreements. So let’s get started:
Easterbrook begins with the obligatory description of the book’s contents. He then agrees to some of the book’s basic premises:
There’s no doubt that all faiths contain their share of claptrap. There’s no doubt religion has done the world considerable wrong in the past and will cause more wrongs in the future. There’s no doubt many believers are hypocrites or can barely describe the most basic tenets of the theology they claim to cherish. There’s no doubt the religious often act as though they don’t believe what they profess. In one of the best passages of The God Delusion, Dawkins asks why Christians mourn the righteous dead, when their faith holds that a perfect afterlife awaits, and Jesus taught not to fear death. “Could it be that [Christians] don’t really believe all that stuff they pretend to believe?” he asks. (I’ve written pretty much the same thing myself.) And there’s no doubt that televangelists are a shameless, seedy group. If Jesus was moved to rage when he saw moneychangers in the temple, how would he feel about late-night religious charlatans with their 800 numbers flashing on the screen?
Hard to disagree with that. But I disagree with what came next:
But The God Delusion overstates the case against religion by blaming faith for practically everything wrong with the world. Suppose we woke up tomorrow morning and found that every denomination had disappeared. The Israelis and Palestinians would still be at each other’s throats: their conflict is about land, liberty, and modernity, not faith. (Israel is among the world’s most secular nations; the fact that most Israelis are not particularly religious has hardly reduced tensions.) If neither Hinduism nor Islam had existed in 1948, the partition of the Subcontinent might still have occurred and been as awful. Very strong ethnic hostilities, combined with resource scarcity, were at work. September 11? The key fact is not that the United States was attacked that day by Muslims. The key fact was that the country was attacked by Arabs, and there would be radical Arab hostility to American suzerainty in the Persian Gulf even if religion vanished.
Here I think it is Easterbrook who is overstating Dawkins’ case. Dawkins neither says nor implies that faith is to blame for pracitcally everything that is wrong with the world. He would agree that people would manage to find reasons to hate one another even if religion did not exist. He merely argues that religion does far more harm than good, and is responsible for more bloodshed than virtually any other social force you can think of.
It’s a bt too hypothetical for my taste to wonder what would happen if religious faith simply disappeared from the face of the Earth. That said, I don’t think Easterbrook’s examples are well chosen. It’s all well and good to say the Israelis and Palestinians are fighting over land, liberty and modernity, but the fact remains that this particular plot of land is so valued mostly because of its religious significance. And it can not be denied that the 9/11 terrorists were motivated to do what they did because of their adherence to an exceptionally foolish version of Islam. U.S. foreign policy might anger a lot of Muslims, but it is their belief that they are doing the will of Allah that leads them to suicide bombings and terrorism.
Easterbrook then turns to the ability of religion to inspire charitable acts and improve the lives of individuals. I agree that Dawkins is too dismissive of religion’s benefits, but Easterbrook slips badly with this:
If God does exist, then the redeeming and consoling impacts of faith are integral to the human experience. If God does not exist, why should Dawkins object to others using whatever coping mechanism works for them?
Dawkins, I suspect, has no objections to people using whatever coping mechanism works for them. I think he would argue simply that they are doing themselves more harm than good by living in a fanatsy world, but that is their business. The problem is that religious belief has a tendency not to remain in the private realm. For all too many, it is not religious belief by itself that is comforting, but rather being part of a community of believers. And when a community starts to see itself as defined by religious faith, it tends to become intolerant of outsiders.
Or to put it more generally, it is not a good thing when large numbers of people start believing nonsense.
Easterbrook offers strong praise for Dawkins’ discussion of the potentially harmful effects of religious education on children. I found that interesting, since I’ve seen other commentators single out that section as being especially crazy. Needless to say, I’m with Easterbrook on that one.
But then he closes with two points where he thinks Dawkins is wrong. The first concerns the importance of religious fundamentalism in America:
In order to present a worst-case view of religion, Dawkins greatly inflates the role of Christian fundamentalism in American life. Polls consistently show that two-thirds or more of Americans support women’s choice, oppose discrimination against homosexuals, believe in strict separation of church and state, and score highly on similar measures of tolerance. Dawkins thinks the fundamentalists in the United States have run amok–“Pat Robertson is entirely typical of those who today hold power and influence in the United States.” That’s an exaggerated view of the significance of Robertson and others of the same ilk. They aren’t running the country, though the British media may like to make it seem that way. Political Christian fundamentalism is just one factor in a big, complicated country where the main current of recent decades has been toward ever-more tolerance and diversity.
I don’t know what polls Easterbrook is talking about. It’s hard to square the overwhelming popularity of anti-gay-marriage laws with two-thirds majorities opposing discrimination against homosexuals. The political action on abortion for the last decade or so has been in the direction of passing limitations on abortion rights, and now we see Democrats running from, and Republicans embracing, the issue. As for separation of church and state, again, I see far more politicians trying to weaken the separation than I do defending it vigorously.
Furthermore, even if it’s true that fundamentalism is less of a threat at the national level, that does not change the fact that in many parts of the country it is a dominant political force. Prior to living in Kansas, I had the same mellow attitude on the subject as Easterbrook. I am not so snaguine on the subject now.
Here’s Easterbrook’s second point:
Dawkins states a case against God–but only against the fundamentalist conception of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and in direct control of earthly events. This is only one of many possible understandings of the divine. Many Christians and those of other faiths do not view their Maker as a flawless Absolute, nor does scripture necessarily claim this. In a sense, Dawkins argues against a straw God: the rigid, wrathful ruler of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. Millions do believe in such a God, but by addressing only the kind of supernatural envisioned by fundamentalism, The God Delusion ignores the huge numbers of thoughtful believers who approach faith on more sophisticated terms. For instance, the latest study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that only one-third of American Christians, Muslims, and Jews regard their scriptures as the inerrant word of God to be taken literally; Dawkins writes as if it’s 99 percent.
I think it will come as news to most Christians that the view of God as omnipotent, omniscient and in direct control of earthly events is a fringe view held only by fundamentalists. In fact, I was under the impression that it is reasonable to wonder whether someone who denies it is really a Christian at all.
As it happens, though, almost nothing Dawkins says is specific to an omnipotent yada yada God. Most of the arguments in Chapters Three and Four, where Dawkins examines classical arguments for God’s existence, are directed toward the idea of a supernatural creator God. And he does not ignore people who hold more flexible views of God then what the fundamentalists preach. He merely feels that such people provide cover for the extremists, and that their views are no more reasonable. So Easterbrook is badly distorting Dawkins’ arguments here.
Anyway, go have a look for yourself. For Easterbrook, not a bad effort. But still wide of the mark on some key points.