The Intersection

More on Richard Dawkins

PZ links to Discover‘s letters section, where there are a range of reactions to a recent article about Dawkins (aka “Darwin’s Rottweiler”). “Talk about polarizing,” says PZ of the letters. Precisely! In the context of this country, Dawkins is a divisive figure — which means that he’s very good for some things and very bad for others.

Here’s what Dawkins is good for: Making people think critically about their most cherished assumptions. In this area, Dawkins completely rocks. I’m a firm believer that we desperately need public intellectuals who are willing to slaughter sacred cows, and there’s no cow killer who quite compares to Dawkins (except, perhaps, for Sam Harris, who has been coming on strong lately).

Nevertheless, it is not wise to go slaughtering sacred cows amidst one’s defense of evolution in America. Ask any pollster, any communications strategist–the tactic will backfire. And this is where the Dawkins approach isn’t so effective.

To me, it’s very much akin the strange quest to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Sure, it’s probably the right thing to do under the law. On the other hand, it’s largely a symbolic issue, and politically it does grave damage to the actual defenders of church-state separation because it gets the country completely outraged about “secular humanism.” Indeed, the political fallout is so bad that Democrats generally have to go and hide when something like this comes along. Meanwhile, if the pledge lawsuit had actually succeeded, we might well have gotten a constitutional amendment restoring it right back where it was–which would have been an even worse outcome from the vantage point of church-state separation than putting up with the pledge to begin with.

There’s a larger point here. My experience with the nation’s atheist community generally–and I speak from considerable experience–is that few of its members think very strategically about how to achieve their goals. They’re too angry, too ready to pop off about religion, too quick to file lawsuits, too eager to offend people. This is not, in my opinion, how you achieve positive cultural change. If you want to advance the cause of atheism and cut through societal prejudices, why not put out some positive messages for once, about how atheists have morals, have families, have fun, own houses, contribute to society?  


  1. #1 The Inoculated Mind
    January 11, 2006

    Getting atheists to come together and do something is often described as like trying to herd butterflies. Atheists can, however, be part of organizations like humanist organizations, which put forward the positive aspects of secular life, ethics, and social stuff, too.

    I consider the anger of fellow atheists to be tantamount to the kind of anger that women have felt toward culture, or marginalized racial minorities, the black panthers being a good example of that. It is righteous anger, but still anger that can come off as anti-social and even unethical when taken to extremes.

  2. #2 tristero
    January 12, 2006

    I found myself in the rather remarkable position of having to defend Richard Dawkins’ voice as well as the efforts to remove the phrase Under God despite the fact that Dawkins and the pledge interest me hardly at all.

    But I do care to fight the good fight against the very weird people who are behind “intelligent design” creationism and the Godding of American political life. And a strategy that isolates Dawkins somewhat too “controversial” or “abrasive” for American consumption only strenghtens the hand of the people we are trying to confront.

    As I’m sure you know much better than I, If one actually reads what they’ve written, and listens to what they are saying, their mission is not merely to protect a traditional pledge (which really isn’t so traditional) or wreck science. It’s to reverse what they believe are the harmful, destructive attitudes of the Enlightenment. They want to establish an American theocracy and eliminate “secular” culture as we know it. Does that mean Beethoven and Mozart along with Eminem? It does indeed. And I have no doubt that, if they succeed, they plan to do exactly what they say they will do.

    (For those who think this is shrill and/or paranoid, I refer you to the writings of Rushdoony, the career of Walter Ahmanson, the speeches of Tim LaHaye, the speeches of Randall Terry, Jonathan Wells and numerous others. It is all available on the net and it makes for very sobering reading.)

    Now, if your logic about strategy was viable, it should be those people, the real extremists and crazies, who should be trying not to antagonize people that much. But they haven’t taken your advice and yet they’ve done very well for their cause! They cheerfully go around spouting their outrageous nonsense with nary much effort to conceal their ideas or their intent. And the country’s public discourse becomes more and more surreal.

    It’s not hard to find Wells defending “young earth” creationism, or Dembski arguing that “intelligent design” creationism is just a scientific translation of the Book of John. On evangelical websites, you can read arguments for the proof of God’s existence that date from before Aquinas, arguments in which the refutations are conveniently sidestepped and the religious intolerance is so thick it reads like something out of the Middle Ages. Let’s not forget that Pat Robertson, even now, numbers his flock at over a million. And he has never retracted any of the terrible things he’s said.

    Given how seriously nuts all this is – scientifically, spiritually, and politically – how come they don’t try to hide it better from an American public that’s presumed wary of extremists like Dawkins? Why don’t they cover up the fact that they want religious litmus tests for political office, tests that would make it impossible for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims to hold religious office? The reason is obvious.

    The far religious right recognizes that while some Americans are sometimes wary of extremists, nearly all Americans loathe namby-pambies who can’t or wont speak plainly and bluntly. To mince words, to compromise issues of truth with the American public is a loser strategy, plain and simple. Need proof? Look at the Democratic Party and their waning influence in decisions of national importance.

    Another example. I’ve read, and I’m sure you have as well, Judge Jones’ decision in Kitzmiller. It’s brilliant and it’s blunt. In fact, it’s take no prisoners style recalls some Dawkins’ writing, even if – unlike Dawkins- the judge keeps his personal spiritual beliefs (or lack of same) private. In deed, aside from a few pro forma nods towards the religious, Judge Jones flatly refused to cowtow to the political aspiration of the self-righteous holier than thous despite Robertson’s calling down upon Dover, Pa the wrath of a scorned God.

    And I say that’s just great what Judge Jones did, it’s just what this country needs more of. Blunt talk about exactly how stupid and dangerous “intelligent design” creationism is. Blunt talk that calls the fundamentalists propagating this trash exactly what they are: liars, which is what Judge Jones did.

    As for “Under God,” I say that if getting people riled up about this silliness gives us an opportunity to express our very serious concerns about faith-based science and faith-based government donations to charity, then let’s push it. Compared to the actual effect of the repeal estate tax on the income of average Americans, removing “under God” from the Pledge is of paramount importance in the real world.

    Bottom line, Chris: if you think you will get anywhere with the American public by pulling punches and hiding the likes of Dawkins, you are quite wrong.

    Malcolm X was savvy enough to say to Martin Luther King that he was crucial to Dr. King’s success, because white people knew that if King failed, they’d have to deal with him. Malcolm was right. Similarly, let Dawkins be Dawkins and keep your attention on the ravings of the Dobsons and LaHayes. If nothing else, it makes it far more difficult for the opponents of science to portray a brilliant ariticulate voice of reason like Kenneth Miller as the “far left fringe of the neo-Darwin establishment.” And it prevents the center of this debate from shifting further and further towards catering to the lunatic obsessions of the religious right.

  3. #3 plunge
    January 12, 2006

    If atheists are hard to organiza, there’s a reason for it: they have nothing necessarily in common, even goals. Atheists aren’t a group of people who believe the same thing. They are an outgroup. So it’s not surprising that there is no unifying banner or cause they would share AS atheists. In fact, I can’t think of a SINGLE major political issue that only an atheist would care about. SoCaS is something that many religious people care about as well, for instance, and most of the major advances were made by religious people fighting against secretarianism.

  4. #4 Tom Ellis
    January 13, 2006

    I had a rather unpleasant awakening recently, participating in comments on the “Atheist Manifesto” at Truthdig. I found way too many purported atheists who had the same mind set as assertive fundamentalists: absolute certainty that they, and only they, understand the truth. (Reality can be so disappointing at times.)

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    January 13, 2006

    The trouble I see with Dawkins is that his critiques are shallow. He is right in attacking the kind of faith that is knowingly believing without evidence (a.k.a blind faith), but he is wrong in assuming that everyone who talks about their faith means it quite that way. As a philosopher, he’s a zoologist; his “who designed the designer” argument is one of those arguments that looks intuitively obvious but becomes highly questionable when looked at in depth. He doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish conflicts driven by nationalism with conflicts driven by religion. He’s willing to take on the burden of publicly speaking out against religion, but he doesn’t seem to have given any thought to taking on the burden of understanding what he’s arguing against, and this makes him look arrogant. In reality, he probably is arrogant.

  6. #6 Zaine Ridling
    January 14, 2006

    The reason I do not pledge allegiance “under god” is because there is no god. I’m waiting for someone to prove their god’s existence, and yet no one ever does. But god-believers are always willing to tell me about their imaginary friend in the sky and some guy named Jesus who hates stem cell research and gays.

    Any questions?

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