I’ve been holding off on commenting about the anti-religion campaign being spearheaded by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for a number of reasons. But I find myself growing increasingly frustrated with it and I finally feel compelled to put in my two cents.
Initially I hesitated to speak out because I understand the impulse behind the Dawkins/Dennett campaign and I have some sympathy for their plight. There are, of course, a number of factors fueling their crusade. First and foremost, there is fear. For most of the twentieth century, secular humanism reigned supreme. And those of us who felt comfortable in a godless universe looked forward to a time when biblical literalism was a colorful part of our past, like druidism and human sacrifice. Empirical idealists — men who feel sure that reason will cure all that ails us — believed we were in the process of ridding ourselves of the last vestiges of religion, thus paving the way for the next stage of cultural evolution–a period when reason would hold sway and an enlightened world community would come together to work towards the greater good. Sure, there were still pockets of religious extremists, but they would eventually see reason. Barring that, they would simply die off, like the dodo.
But this isn’t what happened. Instead, the latter part of the twentieth century and the early part of the new millennium saw sectarian violence of near-biblical proportions. Rather than going from Communism versus Capitalism to The Community of Man, we went from Communism versus Capitalism to Muslim versus Christian and Jew. Add to this the resurgence of Evangelical Christianity in the States and all that has meant for science and you begin to see why Dawkins and Dennett are so beside themselves. Muslims are blowing themselves to smithereens in the name of religious purity. Israeli Jews and Palestinians are committing one mutual atrocity after another in the name of the motherland. And Americans are rejecting the touchstone of modern science — evolution! — en masse.
Despite its indisputable validity, rationalism is not ruling the day. And for empirical idealists, convinced that religious zealotry was on its way out, this is a stunning revelation. Men like Dawkins and Dennett are having a very hard time with the current state of affairs. And understandably so, the rebirth of religious extremism is alarming. It’s not their concerns I take issue with, it’s their methods.
Let’s set aside the fact that heralding the death of religion, as the empirical idealists were so fond of doing, was extremely premature. Let’s also set aside the fact that telling another human being what to believe is the worst kind of paternalism. None of this seems to matter to Dawkins and Dennett. So let’s focus instead on the fatal flaw in their campaign: Its futility.
Being empirical idealists, 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 suppose it’s possible that a few ambivalent souls may pick up Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and see “the empirical light.” But just a few–and these folks were already predisposed for conversion. How do I know this? Because no self-respecting, god-fearing person would ever pick up a book that so openly condemned and ridiculed their belief system. Dawkins is so blatant in his scorn for religion, so unequivocal in denunciation of belief in all its forms, that he makes room for only two types of readers: the like-minded, and the masochistic. (Dennett is not much better.)
No levelheaded, thinking person is going to condone the return of religious zealotry. This brand of intolerance has proven detrimental to the human species over and over again. But by dismissing every aspect of religion as wrong-headed nonsense, Dawkins and Dennett are practicing their own brand intolerance.