At the Washington Post, More on the Dawkins Problem


In the Post's Sunday Book Review, atheist and Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau reviews Michael Novak's "No One Sees God: A Catholic Philosopher Attempts a Dialogue with the New Atheists."

In the review, Berlinerblau emphasizes many of the same points that I have made at this blog and in articles over the past year. Namely, that Dawkins & co. alienate religious moderates with whom they could otherwise make common cause.

I elaborate on the Dawkins problem in this recent video interview I did with Big Think.

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I think the wrong word here is "alienate". The better word is "make uncomfortable". The religious moderates would prefer not to be pressed to make this uncomfortable choice. If they choose to side with the fellow Christianists of the fundamenalist shades, they reveal, to their own grouchy angst, that they were not very rational to begin with. If they side with the Reason, they are forced to re-analyse their own religosity - something that they uncomfortably do not want to do. So, what the vocal atheists do is really good and useful - putting the religious moderates on the spot and force them to take sides. We then see who is who. The religious moderates, while they may whine in the process, are forced to rethink their own allegiances and at least some will make the correct choice.

In reference to Coturnix's post: Seriously? Isn't that a bit of a false dichotomy? Religious moderates have plenty of problems, and sure many of us are made uncomfortable by certain scientific advances that might seem to challenge our beliefs, but we have a long history of working those out as well (which stretches back to Augustine, who also was not a creationist). Many people throughout history have acknowledged their doubt and still chosen to believe in a certain telos or God or some certain assumptions that give life meaning (ie to believe in scientific rationalism, or the possibility of democracy, or human agency).

Yes, Jeff, seriously.

In a week I am going to have Stephen Matheson of Calvin College on my show as a guest. I am a New Atheist, and he knows it and is grown up enough to have a dialogue with me. The possibility I will cause him to question his faith is unlikely, and no, he is not a creationist. But he is willing to talk and has not asked me to tone my rhetoric.

Religious moderates need to stop acting so wounded whenever Dawkins speaks. Matthew needs to stop pretending that Dawkins is damaging to science "framing." People need to be able to defend themselves without attacking others. This constant harping on Dawkins is alienating Matthew from the scientists who are atheists. (How's that for overblown rhetoric?)

The Dawkins Effect works, as evidenced by the (to date) 281 letters on his website written by converts directly impacted by Dawkins.

At the end of the day, I think Dawkins (and followers) are still a positive force. While you acknowledged my major disagreements with you (i'm one of those who thinks that religion has been weakened by science, aka galileo, geologic time etc), you did not refute. Even if I were to grant that your way is better at teaching the general public about science... it still has an element of smoke and mirrors, which you deny.

From Berlinblau's review; His analysis suggests that the central dilemma confronting us today is not whether God exists but how those who disagree about God's existence can live together./i>

They are already living together, and the dialogue on both sides is still mainly words. Sometimes one side or the other feels offended, but the dialogue continues. I don't see Dawkins as alienating people so much as providing this decade's spark of much-needed conversation.

The whole Dawkins-is-strident bandwagon is in my opinion, still just a "how dare he call a spade a spade!" reaction.

It is not often acknowledged that Dawkins has been attacked by religious so-called "moderates" throughout his career. He would write some perfectly innocuous piece in a newspaper not even mentioning religion, and as if by magic droves of letters attacking him for imaginary slights of religion would appear in response. I've no idea why this happened, but happen it did. The only difference is that in recent years Dawkins has responded, and with overwhelmingly positive results.

Imho, atheism in the US does not have enough strength yet to engage in a debate. Atheists are still at the first step of emancipation, that of energizing and mobilizing the base. They need to be somewhat radical for that; it's something one can see at the start of almost any emancipation movement. In Germany it's different. Mrs. Merkel is very religious, but she will never mention her believes in a political debate or as a reason for a policy. There the aggressive rhetoric of Dawkins et al. does more harm than good.

I used to be one of the Old Atheists, and no one ever "attempted a dialogue" with us. They just treated us with the loathing they now treat the New Atheists, but with a side order of contempt instead of fear. Well done new atheists.

The bonus for me is that I'm now a nice moderate atheist, instead of a baby-eating satanist. I haven't changed my views one bit, but now I'm not at the most extreme end of the spectrum, Dawkins is. The Overton Window working for the good guys for once.

I find Dawkins's manners occasionally lacking. I suspect this is largely due to frustration erosion. Perhaps he should seek arrange a seasonal brunch with Judith Martin?

Nisbet: "Namely, that Dawkins & co. alienate religious moderates with whom they could otherwise make common cause."

OK, some "religious moderates" cannot make common cause with "Dawkins & co" (or vice versa). So what? What is mankind losing?

Or: what would mankind win, if "Dawkins & co" would follow all of Nisbet's advice and not speak out their more controversial ideas?

@ Martijn ter Haar

In Germany it's different. Mrs. Merkel is very religious, but she will never mention her believes in a political debate or as a reason for a policy. There the aggressive rhetoric of Dawkins et al. does more harm than good.

The second sentence does not make sense, besides being a non sequitur. Compared to German critics of religion, Dawkins is exceedingly polite. Authors like Karlheinz Deschner or Hubertus Mynarek are far more polemic, to the point of abrasiveness. They are also more familiar with Christian history and theology, and so are able to confront lukewarm believers in detail with the bloody history and lunatic doctrines of their religion. This appears to make it more difficult for many to maintain even a purely formal membership in their churches. Publication of Deschner's and Mynarek's major works coincided with substantial defections from the two predominant Churches. My guess is that this association was causal.
The suggestion that Dawkins is the problem is silly. Just wait until eg. Deschner's 'Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums' is available in an English language translation. It's already translated into Spanish.

By dubiquiabs (not verified) on 01 Oct 2008 #permalink

Dubiquiabs is overlooking something: The statement very much makes sense, because vociferousness is only one issue. The other is the search for publicity and the forcing it down people's throat. Deschner is, of course, available in Germany, but ask the average person on the street and likely, more will have heard of Dawkins than of Deschner. The claim, of course, that Deschner is more familiar with Christian history and theology is, of course, wishful thinking. The mere suggestion that a single person could cover periods in knowledge that takes a whole host of historians to cover is naive, and it's one of the failures of Deschner -aside from his tossing fundamentals of good scholarship- that he believes he can easily interpret the actions of people of 2000 years ago by his own standards. That he admits writing out of "enmity" disqualifies his work pretty soundly anyway.

His first main critical work, "Abermals krähte der Hahn", also admittedly by the author himself, was written "by a layperson for a layperson". Unfortunately, this can't be taken merely in a clerical context, but also in a historical one. He gets historical facts wrong repeatedly, and not just the fabrications he expouses.