Dawkins and his critics – 4

January 4, 2011

It has been a couple of weeks since my last entry in this series, my thinking has gone off in different directions since then, and so I think I shall wrap this up with a few final remarks. First as a reminder let me repeat the intro to Part 1:

The springboard for today’s post is one of many critiques of Dawkins from what can be called a modern, open-minded theistic perspective, which I just stumbled on yesterday and found to be rather more nicely written than some of  its kind: “Selling the Soul of Science for a Pot of Message: Evangelizing Atheism in The God Delusion” by Steven C. Walker, published in Brigham Young University Studies 47:133. (This link is to an online version, which appears substantially identical to the hard copy as far as I can recall.)

Now: I think I have made it clear that I share with Dawkins and his fellows the belief that science provides an adequate and self-sufficient method of understanding the physical universe, and that public policy should be based on that rather than on traditionalist-religious truth claims. I can thus be said to support many aspects of the “atheist agenda” – and so by the way do a good many religious people!

I  have dealt also with the claims that there is a whole realm of religious experience which science unjustifiably leaves out of account. I am certainly open to finding myself mistaken on this, but have so far seen no basis for concluding that the sum total of such reported experience points to an objective reality outside the mind of the experiencer.

So now to wrap up I think I should highlight the main point that differentiates me from the “Four Horsemen” school of atheism, the point where I myself think that Dawkins is seriously mistaken.

As I’ve indicated above, religion is not a monolith. Many religious individuals and even some whole denominations publicly share many aspects of the atheists’ liberal-democratic social and political agenda. Most of the Christians I know – mind you, this is in a particularly liberal sub-culture – support strict separation of church and state, want evolution and sound sexual hygeine taught in public schools, celebrate same-sex marriages among their friends and relatives as enthusiastically as they do hetero marriages, and are as appalled as any atheist by the use of religion in the United States to support a right wing political and social agenda, to say nothing of the wholesale repression and violence which go on in the name of religion in many other parts of the world. I don’t know any Jews or Buddhists who would disagree with this either.

Dawkins et al. don’t know what to make of this. They say they can’t see a consistent difference in principle between “good religion” and “bad religion.” How about this: good religion does good stuff, bad religion does bad stuff? The fact is that the Horsemen let their (perfectly understandable) anger at the bad stuff seduce them away from a truly scientific attitude. As I wrote earlier to one of the advocates of the “great mass of religious experience,” science works best when it breaks down generalizations into specific case-by-case observations.  So, why start with the assumption that there is a single  thing univalently called “religion” in the first place? Let us agree that a lot of bad things that happen in the world appear to be motivated by “religion” in some sense. What of that? A lot of bad things are caused by bacteria. Science has succeeded in bringing about a remarkable diminution of these things in recent centuries – how? Not by denouncing bacteria, not by saying “bad bacteria!” but by looking at specific cases, teasing out specific causal connections, putting our (perfectly understandable) repugnance towards disease on a back burner while we look at how the microbes function on their own terms, and using that knowledge to prevent the specific ills resulting in each case. Indeed we have found that there are probably a lot more “good” bacteria than “bad” bacteria, and no one has a problem accepting this.

So let’s put “religion” under the microscope too. Look at how it really works in the world. Study it psychologically and sociologically; try to understand it as a natural phenomenon that exists for its own sufficient reasons; then, when we want to prevent certain consequences, we will have an idea how to go about it without doing more harm than good.

Dawkins et al. are too quick to identify religion with “false belief” and assume that the falseness of the belief is what makes the bad things happen. People just aren’t like that. Their stated opinions on metaphysical questions do not determine very much about their daily lives, not in any consistent way; religious leaders rail against their flocks all the time for this. My own sense is that religious traditions and institutions are socio-cultural phenomena, social in the way political and economic institutions are, cultural like art forms and genres. The creeds and dogmas that people are supposed to believe are, for many people, simply part of the ritual that binds the community together. That may not be entirely accurate either; but in any case further study is needed before anyone has any business claiming that metaphysical beliefs in and of themselves directly cause the atrocities we see in the world.

There, I shall continue writing on these questions from different angles in the months to come but I think I can wrap up this particular series. Thanks to all who’ve come along for the ride! It’s great to know people are reading my stuff!



2 Responses to “Dawkins and his critics – 4”

  1. Carty Says:

    So, why start with the assumption that there is a single thing univalently called “religion” in the first place?


    Dawkins does it to sell books and lecture tours; he’s too bright for an alternate explanation. Not a fan as I have expressed previously.

    Many of the rest of us do it because our language (and our ability to reason) lag behind our collective experience.

    To suggest that there is a common experience, reason, or causality shared by Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Hindus, … is sloppy and uninteresting.

    Want to use science to make the world a better place? Find a compound that targets a disease. Want to use ‘religion’ to make the world a better place? Love people. What’s the problem Richard?

  2. allogenes Says:

    I agree Dawkins should know better, but I don’t think he’s just being mercenary; my gut sense is that he just loses it when triggered by all the stupid anti-Darwinism out there. The professional controversialists, like Hitchens and Bill Maher, are a different story.
    As for “the rest of us,” you’re right, but I would add that many simply haven’t caught up with “our collective experience.” My criticism is not directed towards those who lack either the opportunity or the motivation to look into the matter of what “religion” in general is or how it works; but Dawkins certainly has access to the information, and if he considers “religion” such a great evil he should be motivated to learn more about it because that’s the scientific thing to do!

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