Stranger Fruit

On Atheists, Agnostics and Dawkins

Friend Fruit asks:

Has any of those people [Ed mentioned], Dawkins, Myers, et. al. advocated the elimination of religion and religious believers by stoning, disembowlment, burning at the stake, or other forms of auto de fe?

I do agree that perhaps Ed’s original phrasing is a little inflammatory and should perhaps have read “religion itself, in any form, is to be attacked and destroyed.” However, that doesn’t alter Ed’s essential point. Those of us who have been working to fight anti-evolutionism have all seen this schism occur in various groups – a schism between moderates (whom people like Larry Moran call “wimps”) and a group of individuals who practice a very strident, intolerant atheism that in many ways mirrors the religious intolerance they so despise and often make it more difficult for us to fight for sensible science standards. (Note I am not including all atheists in this latter group – that would be a definite falsehood.)

This latter group also seems to have a strange attitude to Richard Dawkins, a quasi-worship, if you will. As a biologist, Dawkins has had a couple of original ideas (most a relatively long time ago), is worth listening to as a biologist on such matters, and thus should be given the same deference one would give any evolutionary biologist … when talking about biology. I cannot however give too much weight to his writings on religion, precisely because he seems to have not made any effort to seriously engage with the extensive philosophical literature. Sure, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear someone speak out, but I cannot understand why he is taken so damned seriously, and why criticism of him is dealt with such fervor.

I’ll now crawl back into my foxhole.

Update 11/23: Readers sent here from other blogs may want to read this.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    November 20, 2006

    Because Dawkins is the Messiah!

  2. #2 Federico Contreras
    November 20, 2006

    Could have something to do with his internally consistent arguments and the fact that he’s right…
    :)

  3. #3 noself
    November 20, 2006

    I suppose it’s because perceptionally, it appears that he’s apparently the only one who hasn’t ignored the 1 ton elephant in the dining room.

    Doing a report on the Evolution/Creationism debate near destroyed whatever remenants of an interfering personal deity that I had.

    It’s so scary to see the fantastic defense of Evolution and taking down in the process all the godditit arguments and then suddenly stop at this arbitrary point and say that it’s not logically impossible for say theistic evolution (but of course, since god is by definition outside of the realm of possibility) to occur but not Last-Thursdayism etc.

    So, how is it even logically possible that Science does not have a position on something like the resurrection? Or shapeshifting into animals and then copulating with a human female to create a half-breed?

  4. #4 Dave Carlson
    November 20, 2006

    I swear, if this keeps up, they’re going to have to change the name of this website from Science Blogs to Arguing about God Blogs and you can’t make playful–but semi-kitschy–words like “Sciblings” out of that name! Not that I wouldn’t probably keep reading, but this is just getting ridiculous. Meh, I think I’m going to convert to to Apatheism

  5. #5 MarkP
    November 20, 2006

    Contrary to the inane babblings of the more paranoid of the pious, it still carries great potential cost in main street America to be public with one’s atheism, both socially, and in the sticksier areas, physically. A recent poll just showed us to be the most untrusted group in America. Many still think we should not hold public office, and lack morals. I once had a girlfriend respond to me saying I was an atheist with “No, you’re not an atheist“, using that apologetic tone you use for embarrasing family secrets.

    This environment leads many atheists to choose to keep it to themselves, out of a fear that is not unwarrented in many circles. But they still believe they are right, as we all do. So it only makes sense that if you think you are right about something, but made to feel afraid to say so, someone like Dawkins who does have the balls to do so, intelligently, unapologetically, and politely as bonuses, is going to become a hero of sorts.

    Those who think Dawkins is rude, or would call him an “evangelical atheist”, are simply falling prey to the influence of that environment. Here we as a society don’t see it as lunacy that victors in sports events credit the supreme creator of all the universe for their performance, and victims of natural disasters thank said deity for being so kind as to not kill their children when he was allowing, if not actively causing (they think) that to happen to others. Were people to act this insanely on any other front, they would be called on it. But society tells us we have to let pretty much any lunacy go, as long as those performing it based it on their religion. Calling this variety of loony, “loony”, is “rude”.

    Dawkins will have none of this. His bullshit meter, while imperfect as all ours are, is at least always on. “Evangelical atheist” my ass. Someone who shows up at your door to deconvert you would be an evangelical atheist. If you ever see an athlete, or actor, win an award, and say “no deity had anything to do with this victory”, then talk to me about evangelical atheists. When a group of atheists lobbies for a law that runs counter to science, or tries to prohibit the free exercise of religion solely because it is religion (as opposed to a dispute over where the seperation wall lies), then you will have an example of “evangelical atheism”. Until then, it is just as much an equivocation as it is to claim that atheism is a religion. In the ways that really matter, they aren’t on the same planet.

  6. #6 PZ Myers
    November 21, 2006

    Who are the Dawkins worshippers?

    I think he’s valuable because he’s popular and he’s blunt and he writes well, but I (and Larry Moran) actually have some substantial disagreements with his ideas about evolution.

    I suspect a case of projection. I’ve noticed that among some people, Eugenie Scott and Ken Miller may not be criticized.

  7. #7 Roberta Millstein
    November 21, 2006

    I’ve only been half paying attention, so maybe someone has said this already… but one of the things that angers me about Dawkins and his ilk is that — just like the ID proponents — he makes people think they have to choose between evolution and God. And for many people, that’s no choice — they will choose God. I think it’s a losing strategy and that people like Dawkins do damage to the very thing they are trying to promote.

    However, it’s not just a losing strategy. I really do believe it is a false one. Sure, certain beliefs about God (most obviously, a literal reading of the Bible) are ruled out. But other beliefs about God (e.g., that God created the laws of the universe, or started the big bang, or some such) are not. Perhaps to some those don’t seem like “real” or “significant” religious beliefs. However, to many people they are very meaningful and important. And I fail to see how empirical discoveries are going to bear on them one way or the other.

  8. #8 John Lynch
    November 21, 2006

    > semi-kitschy words like “Sciblings”

    Hey! I invented that word :)

    Seriously, I did.

  9. #9 John Lynch
    November 21, 2006

    Roberta,

    I agree.

    Dont let the surprise kill you …

  10. #10 noself
    November 21, 2006

    Hold on now, I’m not certain that’s a fair criticism. In his latest book, he doesn’t take aim at what Roberta calls that the “God (e.g., that God created the laws of the universe, or started the big bang, or some such)”.

    Instead I believe he distinguishes this form of Einsteinian “god” (or Nature or whatever you may want to ascribe or describe it) from the sort of personal, interfering, jealous, requires worshipping sort of God i.e. the sort of God that beggars scientific belief, the sort that people actually worship.

    While I am partially sympathetic to the losing strategy argument it seems infused with a huge bit of defeatism and worse still seems premised on a disregard for a search for the truth (or at least a closer approximation of the truth).

    It’s one thing to say choose god or evolution but fundamentally different from saying choose god or science. You can compartmentalise all you want, but at least acknowledge it as just I am forced to acknowledge to some degree that god must be taken as a logical possibility (albeit an unlikely one)

  11. #11 G. Shelley
    November 21, 2006

    I suspect that the reason criticism of him is dealt with with such fervor is because almost none of it addresses the arguments he makes.

  12. #12 PZ Myers
    November 21, 2006

    Yes. Dawkins does take great pains at the very beginning to point out that he has no objection at all to the pantheism of Einstein or the deism of Ursula Goodenough, and actually likes what those guys are saying (even if he personally doesn’t buy into it.)

    Everyone claims that associating evolution with godlessness is a losing strategy. Is it? Has it ever been tried? It seems to me that the current strategy, of closing our eyes and pretending that the majority of biologists aren’t freethinkers, that education isn’t corrosive to evangelical/fundamentalist belief, is what’s losing. Are people actually content with a situation where a vocal majority with strong political influence are held at bay by a never-ending series of court cases?

  13. #13 jeff
    November 21, 2006

    I think it’s a losing strategy and that people like Dawkins do damage to the very thing they are trying to promote.

    I don’t think it’s a losing strategy at all. Atheist books are hot right now, and the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction, from years of fundamentalist dominance. Dawkins is like a battering ram pounding a door. The first blow may not do anything visibly, but it weakens the door for subsequent attempts. More atheist books are coming out, from what I understand. I think that can only be a healthy thing, even though some might not agree with everything they say. Better that than more behe-style books.

  14. #14 Grigory
    November 21, 2006

    “I cannot however give too much weight to his writings on religion, precisely because he seems to have not made any effort to seriously engage with the extensive philosophical literature.”

    That’s not true at all. Have you bothered to read The God Delusion before coming to this conclusion? If you can tell that he hasn’t engaged with the extensive philosophical literature, then presumably you have? It seems to me that your argument echoes one that I’ve been hearing a lot these days, usually levelled at Dawkins and Dennett, which essentially boils down to this: criticism of religion made by anyone who is not a specialist (i.e. a theologian) is layman’s criticism, and can therefore be dismissed immediately as uninformed. So the only people who can possibly have anything valid to say about Catholicism, for example, must have read Aquinas and must be well-versed in canon law etc. and the only people who can criticize Judaism must be intimately familiar with the Midrashim and the Talmud…. which amounts to saying that there can be no criticism of religion at all, because the only people who have sufficient knowledge to offer such criticism are believers… moreover, they are probably priests or rabbis. Dismissing the opinions of non-specialists works when you’re talking about science, because the specialists themselves spend their careers in debate and controversy and questioning of their own field; that’s their job: that’s what science is. But you’re making a big mistake in applying the same standards to religion, where by definition the “specialists” (priests, theologians etc.) are NOT open to debate, controversy etc. in their field. If this was the kind of “extensive philosophical literature” that you were talking about, then you’re probably right that Dawkins is not acquainted with it, but you’re wrong in thinking that he should be disqualified from making criticism for that reason. However, if by “extensive philosophical literature” you meant something more reasonable, like the traditional arguments for God’s existence, the writings of Kant, Descartes, Spinoza etc., then you are wrong in saying that Dawkins is unfamiliar with them. So your statement about his credentials is either true but trivial, or non-trivial but false….

  15. #15 coturnix
    November 21, 2006

    Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are changing the landscape of the discourse, forming an environment in which it is possible to talk about atheism and religion on a level field. Without them, we’d be forced to hide our atheism even more than before and allow the fundies to define us as amoral.

  16. #16 Friend Fruit
    November 21, 2006

    cannot however give too much weight to his writings on religion, precisely because he seems to have not made any effort to seriously engage with the extensive philosophical literature.

    Where’s the beef? What convincing part of theology is Dawkins missing out on? Theology has been around for thousands of years. Where are the generally agreed on findings of the field? What evidence can it must in their favor? Do all theologists agree on the existence of god(s)? There go the Buddhists. On the number of gods? There go the Hindus. You used the word Philosophy rather than theology. Has philosophy made a convincing case for teh existence of god(s)? Not that I’ve seen. You say Dawkins is missing out on something. Therefore, you should be able to point to something that he is missing. Sustained dialogue about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin doesn’t cut it.

    Sean Carroll makes the same point very well at Cosmic Variance.

  17. #17 Friend Fruit
    November 21, 2006

    Sure, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear someone speak out, but I cannot understand why he is taken so damned seriously, and why criticism of him is dealt with such fervor.

    Perhaps the last is due to the generally low quality of the criticism of Dawkins. The most negative reviews here at Scienceblogs have been posted by those who have not read the book. (Does this include you? You were not clear on that point.) They dislike Dawkins and his message, and so grabbed onto a negative review posted elsewhere (e.g. NY Times) that supported their pre-conceived notions and climbed aboard the bandwagon.

    It is the very model of their thoughts on religion in general: “Evidence? We don’t need no stinking evidence. So what if we hold beliefs we cannot justify rationally?

  18. #18 Friend Fruit
    November 21, 2006

    No beef? How about Show me the money?

  19. #19 Roberta Millstein
    November 21, 2006

    John wrote:

    I agree. Dont let the surprise kill you …

    Not entirely shocked, no. :)

    noself wrote:

    Hold on now, I’m not certain that’s a fair criticism. In his latest book, he doesn’t take aim at what Roberta calls that the “God (e.g., that God created the laws of the universe, or started the big bang, or some such)”.

    Instead I believe he distinguishes this form of Einsteinian “god” (or Nature or whatever you may want to ascribe or describe it) from the sort of personal, interfering, jealous, requires worshipping sort of God i.e. the sort of God that beggars scientific belief, the sort that people actually worship.

    But there seem to be only two versions of God at play here. I think my point is that there are many versions of God — for example, people might be happy to worship, in a church or a synagogue, what seems like a very “minimalist” religious belief to some.

    While I am partially sympathetic to the losing strategy argument it seems infused with a huge bit of defeatism

    My argument isn’t “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Rather, it’s recognizing that there are a lot of people on “our” side — that is, the side of evolution, or science more generally, who also consider themselves to have substantial religious beliefs. So, more like “why kick out those who are on our side?” Unless, of course, you take “our side” to be atheism. But that’s not something I’m going to get all fired up arguing about. I just don’t care that much. I do, however, care about science.

    and worse still seems premised on a disregard for a search for the truth (or at least a closer approximation of the truth).

    Assuming that we know for a fact that atheism is true, but I don’t think that we can demonstrate that empirically.

    It’s one thing to say choose god or evolution but fundamentally different from saying choose god or science. You can compartmentalise all you want, but at least acknowledge it as just I am forced to acknowledge to some degree that god must be taken as a logical possibility (albeit an unlikely one)

    Yes, there is a bit of comparmentalization going on by those who accept both God and science. But I do that in many aspects of my life; for example, I don’t approach my personal relationships scientifically, either. :) So, I don’t criticize those who choose to have religious beliefs, as long as those beliefs don’t impinge on me. And there are many religious people out there who DON’T want to impose their beliefs on others. I see no reason to alienate them.

  20. #20 Friend Fruit
    November 22, 2006

    No beef? No money?

    No cat, no cradle.

    All hat, no cattle.

  21. #21 Daniel Morgan
    November 24, 2006

    I agree with you that we atheists can sometimes mirror religious fundamentalists; yet, I’m not sure that Larry’s comment deserves that sort of comparison.

    I think atheists can let fear take over just as theists can — and I think fear underlies all forms of fundamentalism. People who are afraid cling desperately to whatever they think will allay their fears, and they will do so in denial of reality. I think this whole damn flame war is based on hyperbolic language and some people denying the reality of their motives, and of the schism between science religion.

  22. #22 Orac
    November 24, 2006

    Hey! I invented that word :)

    Seriously, I did.

    So you’re the one I need to blame for that, eh? ;-)

  23. #23 Friend Fruit
    November 25, 2006

    I could have sworn I made another post to this thread; no telling how it might have been misplaced.