I’ve been fairly negative about the way that Richard Dawkins approaches the relationship between science, atheism and theism. Rather than just being negative, I’d like to offer a positive defense of my view on the issue.

Two years ago, when Thoughts from Kansas was an unknown hovel by the side of the information superhighway, we dedicated a lot of time to Kris Kobach. Kobach was running against Dennis Moore in the Kansas 3rd District. He was then employed by an anti-immigration outfit that was suing the state of Kansas on behalf of people from out of state who felt that they deserved in-state tuition if the state allowed anyone who graduated from a Kansas high school after living in the state for 2 years to get in-state tuition, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.

In digging into the group’s background, and into the background of donors to Kobach’s campaign, it became clear that he was being funded by the leaders of the Dominionist movement. These were people who want to see the Constitution replaced by the Ten Commandments; they are the closest thing we have to an American Taliban. One major Kobach backer had helped create the militia movement of the ’90s in hopes of reproducing the death squads that rampaged in Guatemala and the Philippines.

It wasn’t Kris Kobach’s Christianity that I objected to, it was this authoritarian vision of politics. It happens that the movement aimed to replace the Constitution with religious law, but I would have objected equally to any attempt to impose that sort of totalitarian law. Opposition to Kobach came from religious people as well as the secular Brights Enlightenists.

My interest in that issue, and my research on it, was aided immensely by Dave Neiwert’s books and blog. Neiwert focuses on the Dominionists, but also on their comrades in arms from groups like the Aryan Nations and so-called Christian Identity. The latter may have “Christian” in the name, but bears no resemblance any Christian church in its practices or ideology ? it’s racism dressed up as religion. What unites these movements, and what makes them deserving of scrutiny, is that they are fighting (in some cases literally) to impose their authoritarian vision on us all. They are not united by religion.

Neiwert posted some important insights into who these people are:

In my experience, I found that the notion that these people were simply ignorant didn’t jibe with reality. Any number of them, actually, have very detailed and thoroughly thought-out universes that provide them with rationales for their beliefs. What was lacking was a basic Human Decency gear that they seem not have been born with.

To me, that’s the fight. When Dennis Moore won, I didn’t have to wait long for the creationist Board of Education (backed by some of the very same people who funded Kobach) to start trying to impose their religious beliefs on science classes. And again, the issue isn’t the religion behind the actions, it’s the authoritarianism. Carol Rupe voted against the bogus science standards, but still asserts her belief in a divine Creator. The difference between her and the people I’ve worked so hard to oust from office is not her theological view, it’s her political views ? views about the appropriate role of the government.

As the example of the Aryan Nations demonstrates, this attitude is not restricted to religious matters. Fascism may have historically prospered by parasitizing religious faith, but that doesn’t mean we should focus on religion instead of fascism.

Examples of this dynamic abound. Billmon’s examination of the Mark Halperin affair gives yet another eerie example. Halperin, ABC News’ political director, has been on a tear lately, trying to convince as many people as possible that he isn’t a liberal. He appeared on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program to defend himself, but even after abasing himself before his right-wing overlord, he could not have his self-perceived sin absolved.

As Billmon observes, the issue is Treason in the Blood, and the Stalinist mentality behind Hewitt’s inquisition. Billmon concludes:

All of this simply reinforces my long-standing belief that there are basic totalitarian personality types, and that these types are essentially the same across societies and ideologies — e.g. if Joseph McCarthy had been Russian he would have been an Andrei Vishinsky (Stalin’s chief prosecutor) and if Vishinsky had been born an American he would have been a Joe McCarthy. From what we know of the aides who ran Nixon’s White House, it certainly seems like the only differences separating some of them from the ones who ran Hitler’s Reich Chancellery were the external limits imposed by law, custom and social habit — all of which are currently being eroded away by Nixon’s political and spiritual heirs.

I think that’s basically correct. There are people who, by virtue of their childhood or genetics or whatever, are susceptible to authoritarian leaders, and others who are susceptible to becoming those authoritarian leaders. Give them a religious background, and they will follow or become religious zealots. But McCarthy’s success (like that of “Signing Statement” W) should remind us that authoritarianism need not be religious.

This is why I think Dawkins is wrong to argue that the real war is not against creationism in the schools, but against religion per se. He refers to people who insist that science should only be applied to matters that science can address as “the Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists.” On page 66 he writes:

A possible ulterior motive for those scientists who insist on NOMA ? the invulnerability to science of the God Hypothesis ? is a peculiarly American political agenda, provoked by the threat of populist creationism.

He then develops an analogy to World War II in which he is Winston Churchill (or possibly Patton, champing at the bit to push through the German lines and on into the Soviet allies), and these lily-livered hypocrites with their “ulterior motives” and “superficial appeal” are Neville Chamberlain, seeking appeasement with the evil forces of religion.

I see it differently. I don’t see myself in a fight like the fight against fascism, I see myself fighting against fascism, and against totalitarianism more generally. In the book and in an interview with Salon.com, Dawkins has said “If you think the war is between supernaturalism and naturalism, then the war over the teaching of evolution is just one skirmish, just one battle, in the war.”

I don’t think that’s the war. I don’t find that war interesting intellectually or philosophically.

And that’s why I see myself like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of American volunteers who trained and fought against the fascists in the Spanish Revolution. Had more people joined that cause, Franco’s fascism might have been beaten back, blocking a key supporter of fascism in Italy and Germany. Had the Abraham Lincoln Brigade gotten more support, we might have prevented the second World War entirely.

In my view, Dawkins is not Churchill, standing boldly against Hitler (while himself appeasing Franco). He is Condoleeza Rice drafting plans for a world in which China will be America’s greatest threat, all the while ignoring warnings that a group called al Qaeda is gearing up for a major attack within the next year.

We should fight totalitarianism of any stripe, and in Dave Neiwert’s words above, work to promote Human Decency.


  1. #1 mtraven
    November 2, 2006

    This post and your last one on Easterbrook have been excellent, IMO.

    You could say that Dawkins is playing into the hands of the Christofascists, by taking their conflation of religion nad politics and making it his own. It drives me crazy, because if you fight against religion in general you are quite obviously going to lose, but a fight against authoritarianism is at least potentially winnable.

  2. #2 lockean
    November 2, 2006

    You might be interested in this. Frank Shaeffer, the son of the Shaeffer whose books were one of the ideological sources of Dominionism (though not the major source), is planning to resign from the Republican Party.


  3. #3 lazarou
    November 3, 2006

    While I agree that Dawkins’ Churchill analogy doesn’t stand up to any close scrutiny I still have to agree with him that evolution vs creationism in schools is just one front in a larger war. To take your own example there are the Dominionists and their campaigns to have the 10 Commandments enshrined in law, etc. Then there are campaigners against gay marriage, abortion, etc. culminating in the lunacy of Fred Phelps & co. Around the world we have buildings being burned and people attacked over cartoons, people being routinely slaughtered over a patch of land that featured prominently in some old book and the old chestnut of suicide bombers/pilots.

    These things are all worth fighting against and there is one common thread uniting them all – they are drenched in irrationality and, yes, religion. Ignoring any of these and pretending they’re not related is a mistake which is why it’s important to fight on the local level against individual issues but also to launch larger salvoes like Dawkins’ book (and those of Dennet, Harris, etc.).

    People such as mtraven may say a fight against religion as a whole is unwinnable and that may be right but I think it’s important to keep the bigger picture in the spotlight.

    (It also seems to me that this may be a case where the smaller fights can be seen as being aimed at symptoms whereas the grand salvoes are targeting the disease itself. Mind you that just came to me as I typed so it may not stand up. Any thoughts?)

  4. #4 Josh
    November 3, 2006

    I would argue (indeed I thought I did) that there are two threads those examples share: religious authoritarianism.

    I think the problematic part, the part that unites them as battles to be fought, is the authoritarianism. I cited a number of non-religious authoritarians who are just as dangerous, if not moreso, as religious authoritarians.

    Why is it that we should see religion, rather than political authoritarianism, as the problem? I know that Dawkins and Harris and Dennett disagree, but even having read them, it isn’t clear to me why. They point at examples of religious authoritarians and generalize to opposing religion, even while noting that there are religious people who stand with them in opposition to authoritarianism. It seems strange to me.

  5. #5 mtraven
    November 3, 2006

    We moderates need a catchy name, hopefully better than “Brights”. I propose “NOMAds”. OK, that’s pretty bad.

  6. #6 Tree
    November 5, 2006

    Yes! Thank you! It’s not really about religion, though that makes good cover. Recall from The Prince:

    “Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

    And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion.”

    Those of us who’ve been at the cocktail parties where the bigwigs chuckled over the gullibility of the rubes know exactly how shallow those bigwigs’ piety really is. But why would the ‘rubes’ subordinate themselves to authoritarian Daddies (who will eventually be making noises about massages and curiosity)?

    I’ve thought about it a lot (Mommy was in the Hitler Youth – there’s a lot of family dysfunction I’ve had to dissect and decode), and it seems to me that Mark Jurgensmyer comes closest to explaining the psychology of religious authoritarians:

    “The point I have been making is that the homophobic male-dominant language of right-wing religious movements indicates not only a crisis of sexuality but a clash of world views, not just a moral or psychological problem but a political and religious one. It is political in that it relates to the crisis of confidence in public institutions that is characteristic of postmodern societies in the post Cold War world. It is religious in that it is linked with a perception of the loss of spiritual bearings that a more certain public order provided.

    When the lead character in The Turner Diaries saw on television the horrific scenes of mangled bodies being carried from the federal building he had just demolished with a truckload of explosive fertilizer and fuel oil, he could still confirm that he was “completely convinced” that what he had done was necessary to save America from its leaders these “feminine,” “infantile” men “who did not have the moral toughness, the spiritual strength” to lead America and give it and its citizens a moral and spiritual purpose. From his point of view, his wretched act was redemptive.

    Trivializing the effect of their violence, this character and his real-life counterparts Timothy McVeigh, Mahmud Abouhalima, and many other calculating but desperate men have tried to restore what they perceive to be the necessary social conditions for their sexual and spiritual wholeness. Their rhetoric of manhood has been a cry to reclaim their lost selves and their fragile world.

    What they have in common, these movements of cowboy monks, is that they consist of anti-institutional, religio-nationalist, racist, sexist, male-bonding, bomb-throwing young guys. Their marginality in the modern world is experienced as a kind of sexual despair that leads to violent acts of symbolic empowerment. It could almost be seen as poignant, if it were not so terribly dangerous.”

    Why Guys Throw Bombs from Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Third Edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003

    I hate to simplify and say ‘It comes down to sexual frustration’ (how Freudian), but it seems to me that what really enrages a lot of these authoritarian rubes is the feeling that they can longer afford to attract a wife. The good jobs aren’t there anymore, and the chicks are all going to college, instead of staying home (barefoot and pregnant). Odd, how these guys are so desperate for approval from the authoritarian oligarch daddies – the very group who outsourced the good jobs. I’m sure it’s just my own paranoia that leads me to think ‘keep the rubes down on the farm, the better to control them. Indoctrinate them with false history and never teach them science’. Though it did seem to work for the Romans… Hey, Bread and Circuses for all! Hail to the New American Empire! (Maybe later I will thank Mommy for teaching me how to survive in an authoritarian culture.)

    Tree, figures that uppity women such as herself will come to a sticky end