Easterbrook on Dawkins

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    November 2, 2006

    Good job. I’ve been enjoying this meta-review series to no end (in the time when I should have been working, but let’s not get into that).

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 2, 2006

    Sorry to drag you away from work, but I’m glad you’re enjoying the series.

  3. #3 Dave M
    November 2, 2006

    Apologies if this appears twice: I tried to post this earlier to no apparent effect. I have zapped my cookies, as suggested, and here it is again:

    Nagel’s review (plus a lot of comments in Russian) is available here.

    More about ontological arguments (seven kinds!) here.

  4. #4 Kesh
    November 2, 2006

    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.

    From discussions I’ve had, a number of folks don’t see the two as related. They oppose discrimination against gays, but think that anti-gay-marriage laws are fine and proper. That denying gays marraige rights is not discriminating, because it’s not a right gays should have in the first place.

    That’s when I start to get a headache and walk away…

  5. #5 Jonathan Weed
    November 2, 2006

    Kesh is right on the money. The majority of Americans support same-sex civil unions (see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4496265/, for example), but they think that gay marriage is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. I actually think that Easterbrook is pretty much correct on this point: for all my disgust with the power of fundamentalism in America, I still believe that the majority of Americans are pretty rational when it comes to issues of same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, and abortion. (A rationality, unfortunately, which seems to be missing on the evolution issue.)

  6. #6 MartinM
    November 3, 2006

    They oppose discrimination against gays, but think that anti-gay-marriage laws are fine and proper. That denying gays marraige rights is not discriminating, because it’s not a right gays should have in the first place.

    The argument that usually comes up is that anti-gay-marriage laws are not discriminatory because they prevent heterosexuals from entering into a gay marriage too. In much the same way as anti-crucifix laws are not discriminatory because they apply equally to Christians and non-Christians.

    This incredibly stupid argument was raised and dispatched in Loving vs Virginia, but that doesn’t stop the morons from resurrecting it.

  7. #7 Dom
    November 3, 2006

    Getting OT, but the belief is that gays do have marriage rights: They can marry any person of the opposite sex they choose. Can they marry a person of the same sex? No, but straights can’t either.

    A man can not marry another man, for the same reason a man can not marry his sister, or three women, or a dog, or a toaster. It isn’t marriage.

  8. #8 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 3, 2006

    Another instance of the “straw God” argument. The incredible proliferation of god-concepts is not an argument in favor of any underlying truth; in fact it is an argument against. It is as if each person is making up his/her own god. I consider that to be clear evidence against any god who wishes people to have an accurate idea of him. Either that, or Mr. Omnipotent is having a very tough time getting across a consistent message.

  9. #9 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 3, 2006

    A man can not marry another man, for the same reason a man can not marry his sister, or three women, or a dog, or a toaster. It isn’t marriage.

    This is not clear. A dog or a toaster could not get married because they could not be said to give consent. That is a different reason than the one you presume is in effect.

  10. #10 MartinM
    November 3, 2006

    Getting OT, but the belief is that gays do have marriage rights: They can marry any person of the opposite sex they choose. Can they marry a person of the same sex? No, but straights can’t either.

    Now that sounds strangely familiar.

  11. #11 Chris Bell
    November 3, 2006

    [T]here are more fundamental considerations. The rights ceated by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment are, by its terms, guaranteed to the individual. The rights established are personal rights. It is, therefore, no answer to these petitioners to say that the courts may also be induced to deny [lesbian couples] rights of [marriage] on grounds of [gender]. Equal protection of the laws is not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities.

    ~Supreme Court of the United States, Chief Justice Vinson writing.

    (The original opinion talked about dividing neighborhoods into Black and White. No one was hurt because each had their own housing.)

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    November 3, 2006

    Sure, a man can marry three women. It’s called polygamy, and it comes with the penalty of getting three mothers-in-law. (Is anyone surprised that the Internet now has Polygamy.com? Man, I wish I’d registered that domain back in 1994.) In ancient Sumeria, women took second husbands before getting rid of the first.

  13. #13 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 3, 2006

    It’s called polygamy, and it comes with the penalty of getting three mothers-in-law

    Unless they’re sisters.

  14. #14 Dom
    November 3, 2006

    The issue of gay marriage is not an issue of discrimination. There are many people who want to marry. The line is currently drawn at a couple of opposite genders. On the other side of that line are many other couples and groups. Most people who favor gay marriage do not want to remove that line, only move it a bit over so that it includes couples of the same gender. But they still want to discriminate against others. The problem is that their arguments do not permit this. What argument do you have against polygamy, or adult-child relations, or the marriage of close relatives?

  15. #15 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 4, 2006

    What argument do you have against polygamy, or adult-child relations, or the marriage of close relatives?

    I’ll go for the easy one. My argument against adult-child relations is that a child cannot be said to have given consent. Most people advancing the cause of gay marriage would use the phrase “consenting adults.” Since I’ve already raised a version of this argument in this very thread, I have to ask: Dom, are you paying attention?

  16. #16 Dom
    November 4, 2006

    I don’t want to highjack this thread, because I really enjoy Jason’s posts on evolution. But … you did go for the easy one. There were other examples. But even the easy one holds up. The age of consent, it can be argued (and is argued by the ACLU) differs too widely to afford equal protection. That is just within the US. Outside the US, child marriage is accepted.

    The idea that marriage involves two “consenting adults” is just another way of moving the line only a little bit. If you get rid of the “opposite genders” clause, which was accepted in most countries, then the “consenting” clause, which was never universally accepted, can be easily dismissed. Wait till NAMBLA becomes the favored minority group.

    Again, I have no wish to highjack this thread. I expect an answer, but don’t end it with a question. Then I won’t answer, and we can just agree to disagree like rational gentlemen.

  17. #17 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 6, 2006

    The idea that marriage involves two “consenting adults”

    Thank you for leaving the additional word two outside the quotation marks, because you’ll notice that I never wrote it.

    The age of consent, it can be argued (and is argued by the ACLU) differs too widely to afford equal protection. That is just within the US. Outside the US, child marriage is accepted.

    Different states and different societies disagree on where the dividing line is, but they agree that someone below the dividing line cannot be said to give consent. You don’t have a point here.

    I read last week about a man in India who married a hill. I don’t see that such outliers have any bearing on law here in the U.S.