Since I’m criticizing my SciBlings today, permit me a few words about this post from Orli over at Neurontic.
Orli is unimpressed with the recent glut of atheist books. She begins by reproducing a segment from a previous post:
Dawkins and Dennett simply cannot understand the impulse to cling to an antiquated belief system not grounded in fact. (They seem incapable of recognizing that religion, despite its myriad flaws, provides a type of moral succor in times of strife that science can’t.) To convince the masses of the errors of their ways, they’re using the only weapon at their disposal: logic. The irony, of course, is that faith is not grounded in logic. Reason is toothless in the face of belief.
I’m afraid I find a lot to criticize here. First, my impression is that Dawkins and Dennett have little trouble understanding the appeal of religion. Dennett in particular, in Breaking the Spell, devotes a considerable amount of space to the question of whether it’s even appropriate to use reason to criticize religious faith. And the whole point of his book is to try to understand in great detail the origin of the religious impulse.
Second, the idea that faith is not grounded in logic runs counter to what most Christians claim. I know very few Christians who extol the virtues of blind faith. Their refrain is that Christian belief represents faith backed up by evidence.
And third, the picture of religious people standing with their hands on their hips, saying “Your puny logic is no match for my irrational faith!” is simply not accurate in my experience. Certainly there are some people who fit that description, but there are many others who hold their faith with far less passion. Books like those of Dawkins and Dennett can have a real impact on people who simply haven’t been exposed to religious views different from those in their immediate community. Sadly, I think that describes many in the American South and Midwest. I’ve previously addressed some of these issues here.
Paragraphs like the one above are ubiquitous in the writings of the non-religious, anti-Dawkins camp, but I rarely hear similar sentiments echoed by religious people themselves. In a way, I think Dawkins and Dennett actually have more respect for religion than people like Orli. They have enough respect to take seriously the empirical claims made by various religons, to examine the evidence provided to back up those claims, and to engage religious people on the level of reason. They don’t simply dismiss religious people as being immune to logic and reason.
But let’s move on. After the quote given above, Orli writes:
This may sounds a little didactic (because it is). But my goal wasn’t to defend religion, or to deny atheists the luxury of expressing their righteous indignation. My goal was to carve out a space for those of us in the middle: Non-believers who understand that faith can play a healthy role in the lives of others. Atheists who oppose evangelizing on principle, whether it’s practiced by fundamental Christians or the Anti-God Squad. People more interested in building bridges of understanding then in fortifying their own position.
Dawkins et al are not evangelizing (which means specifically to preach the gospel, by the way). They are attempting to persuade. There is a big difference. All they are doing is putting on paper arguments they find persuasive on subjects they find important, and making those musings available to people in book form. For this they get dismissed as evangelists?
But the bigger point is that those bridges of understanding on which Orli is so keen will not come about because atheists sit on the side lines and allow various religions to promote their ignorant dogma unhindered. It’s nice that Orli wants to be ecumenical and promote harmony, but I see all too little of that sentiment coming the other way. If the polls are to be believed, upwards of sixty percent of the American public believes that Orli’s non-belief renders her unfit to hold public office. We live in a culture in which atheists are expected to be understanding and deferential towards religion, but a politician can blithely say that religion is essential for morality and not be criticized for it. It is not Dawkins who is preventing bridges of understanding from being built. Rather, it is the dominant religious culture in our society that has made no effort at all to be understanding of those who do not share their faith.
From here Orli goes on to discuss the argument, similar to the one I just made, that Dawkins and co. are pushing back against the dominant religious culture of our day. Eventually we come to this:
These are undoubtedly scary times for liberal secularists. And the commenter is right in saying that it’s time for us to step up and make ourselves heard. In no way am I advocating rolling over in the face of attacks on the separation between church and state, abortion rights, gay marriage, and sex education. These rights must be vigorously defended. But that’s not the primary goal of the New Atheists.
Pretty good, except for that last sentence. So what are the goals of the New Atheists?
Dawkins and those in his camp aren’t interested in brokering a compromise with the other side to ensure that our basic rights are safe, and people on either side have the freedom to conduct themselves as they see fit. That wouldn’t signify a victory in their minds. They want to catalyze a total ideological conversion. If everyone gave up god, we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with, they argue. While this is a logically defensible position, it is completely unrealistic–a position destined not just to fail, but to breed contempt on both sides in the process.
Oh, dear sweet Orli. You intend this in jest, oui?
Look again at all of those issues mentioned in the previous paragraph. Why is the separation of church and state threatened? Why is it that homosexuals can’t marry? Why are abortion rights and sex education under attack? Not because of atheists! No, in every case it’s because of people’s religious views. And not just crazy, fanatical, fire-breathing religious people, but also perfectly charming, pleasant, mainstream religious people.
Dawkins and co. would consider it a major victory indeed if we lived in a society in which religious people did not presume to make their faith the basis for public policy. Hitchens in particular states specifically that his intention is to promote secularism, not to eliminate religion. Orli is simply putting words in people’s mouths when she suggests that nothing less than a total ideological conversion would count as victory. I’d be curious if Orli can back up with quotations her assertions concering what Dawkins and the others would regard as a victory.
Basic rights and liberty are not things you compromise to obtain. They are things you fight for against an enemy who does not want you to have them. And one, relatively mild, way you fight that enemy is by writing books in which you expose its beliefs for the delusions that they are.
And what does Orli suggest instead? On the one hand we’re not supposed to roll over in the face of attacks against our basic rights and freedoms. But we’re also not supposed to write books or speak out against the ideology underlying those very attacks. So what are we supposed to do?
When I see some evidence that any significant percentage of religious people share Orli’s live and let live approach, I’ll throw in with her. But for now I’m sticking with Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. I think their approach is far more likely to bear fruit than anything Orli is advocating.