A Futile Crusade

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.


More like this

Based on the manner in which you've simplistically categorized Dennett's book, I'm tempted to think you haven't yet read it. I have read every page of it, and I find it to be a nuanced and sensitive invitation to explore religion as a natural phenonemon.

I didn't sense any ridicule at all (though I would admit that fundamentalists might consider Dennett patronizing or condescending for suggesting that religion is a natural phenomenon to be explored scientifically). In several places of his book, Dennett expresses delight at various aspects of religious practices. He is fully aware that skeptical and analytical logic doesn't compel most believers away from their religious beliefs.

I am still in the process of reading The God Delusion, so I am not able to comment on Dawkins's work.

I think you're right about the 'New Atheist' movement being driven by shock and dismay at the resurgence of faith after so many 20th C intellectuals assumed that atheism and secular humanism were the future - a future free from the benightedness of religion.

I am an atheist myself. While agreeing with the 'New Atheists' (Dawkins, Stenger, Moran, Dennett etc... Sam Harris, on the other hand, is a quasi-New Ager) on a lot of things, I have some problems with the New Atheist project. A few of my objections:

1) Any attempt to wed anti-theism to the movement to promote the teaching of evolution in the public schools can only harm the latter. The more reasonable New Atheists have already figured this out.

2) The tendency of some of the more hardline of the New Atheists to question the scientific standing, legitimacy, or competence of theistic scientists like Ken Miller is scandalous. Miller and other theistic scientists are sometimes accused of being more subversive for science than Intelligent Design advocates, or of being 'stealth creationists.'

3) Branding those atheists who are more accommodating to, or at least understanding of, religion as appeasers and enablers of irrationalism and anti-science.

4) Hints that they aspire to a totalizing and evangelical program to make atheism (or at least agnosticism) a fundamental requirement of the practice of science (and hence identity of scientists), rather than merely being a philosophical choice. I can see where this is headed: If you're a physicist, you'd better not be a theist, or else you are as unscientific and disreputable as a young-earther.

Dawkins does seem to lack compassion when it comes to "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads". His merciless intolerance for faith will not win over the faithful. BUT... I think it will inject energy into many introverted and inactive naturalists.

I see Dawkins using his one-sided stance to create a dyad that just hasn't existed before; which allows all of us to pick a more public position between Faith and Empiricism that works well for us. Before this "New Atheists Movement", the dyad was well defined on the Faith side, and loosely defined on the Empiricism side. So while Dawkins is extreme, I see the results of his actions as important.

I agree that Dawkins is likely alienating more than he's converting. I agree that telling people what to think is paternalism of the worst kind, and I'd be perfectly happy if the religious and irreligious will leave each other alone. But it's not going to happen, because built into evangelical Christianity (as opposed to other Christian movements) is the imperative to show everyone else the error of their ways for their own good. Most of my Christian friends stifle it for social propriety, but it's still there (they admit it). I acknowledge that I'm not all-knowing, and therefore I could be wrong about God and what he wants. But they don't have room for any ambiguity. They think I'm morally flawed and going to burn in hell, and there is no way my view of the world is possibly correct. (Which puts a bit of a damper on having a few drinks and hanging out.)

Dawkins is only turning the tables. Whether it's right that he do so is another question, but if evangelicals claim sole and intolerant authority over truth, they shouldn't be so scandalized when someone else does it too. Turnabout's fair play.

First and foremost, there is fear.

I haven't read Dawkins and Dennett latest books as I assume the poster has. But from some of their articles I believe they are reacting to religions prevalence, and I haven't seen them claim it is from fear.

Let's also set aside the fact that telling another human being what to believe is the worst kind of paternalism.

Nor do I think they tell people what to believe. They analyse religion from some aspects and conclude that it�s world view is improbable and a human construct. As usual it is up to the individual to make a decision. I believe Dawkins even point out that forcing religion on kids is a form of abuse, directly arguing against the above claim that this is what he is doing.

Being empirical idealists, Dawkins and Dennett simply cannot understand the impulse to cling to an antiquated belief system not grounded in fact.

I don't think that is true. For example, Dennett seems to have analysed such reasons behind religious beliefs at length in a book. And a regular complaint about Dawkins is that his latest book discusses religion as it is practiced and not the ephemeral religion of philosophers.

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.

Many seems to have picked up Dawkins book. As Anthony I think the reason is to open up a debate and move the possible positions. I think it may have succeeded already, as this post attest to. :-)

By Torbj�rn Larsson (not verified) on 25 Feb 2007 #permalink

Dennett claims that he is not campaigning against religion, and he certainly isn't as stridently anti- as Dawkins. See his reply to a review of his book by Freeman Dyson where he defends himself (not entirely convincingly) against that reading.

agree with mtraven. i'm reading Dennett's latest book, breaking the spell, and he takes a neutral stance and tries to explain religion without attacking or belittling religion.