Last Sunday, I drove to Ladysmith. I have had a cold, and I didn’t have the energy to ride, so I took a short trip up island. On the radio, Michael Enright and The Sunday Edition, with Enright interviewing Richard Dawkins. The interview is accessible as a Real Audio file – it runs to a little over 36 minutes. The interview was mainly devoted to Dawkins’s identity as a public atheist and his arguments against religion, presented in The God Delusion. Enright gave Dawkins a chance to cover the main themes of the book, challenging him mildly on a few points. Dawkins was consistently polite in his tone, but he lived up to his reputation as an intellectual Rottweiler because he just doesn’t back down or let go.
In the course of the week, I read From Slogans to Mantras, a sociological study of the student protesters of the 1960’s, who turned to cult religion in 1970’s by Stephen A. Kent, which looked at the intersection of personal value, group dynamics and belief systems. In the 1960’s, students arrived on American campuses with an appetite for fulfilling experiences, which was filled by Beat poetry, Hermann Hesse, Alan Watts, drugs and radical politics, escalating into violence. After the Vietnam War, many student radicals made a transition into Eastern religion – usually the more extreme varieties – or cults like the Children of God and Scientology. The constant was their quest for fulfillment, which led them into risk taking, confrontation, drugs, radical left politics and violence. The same people submitted to the authority of gurus and adopted bizarre life styles to enjoy the emotional rewards of membership in a cult.
I also read “Atheists with Attitude”, by Anthony Gottlieb, in the New Yorker which reminded me that Christopher Hitchens’s contribution to the “There is no God and his fundamentalist followers are Assholes” genre is about to hit the bookstore. Gottlieb suggests that history is on Dawkins’s side, but his zealous advocacy is unnecessary, and perhaps counter-productive. Hitchens is less concerned than Dawkins about whether atheists are right about God, and more concerned with the fundamentalist political and cultural agenda in articles like “Londonistan Calling” (Vanity Fair, June 2007) and his new book.
Andrew Brown, reviewing TGD in Prospect, had pointed out:
Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it’s nothing to do with their atheism.
He repeats the theory that suicide bombs are caused by religious schools: “If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior value of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools.” Evidence? As it happens, the definitive scientific study of suicide bombers, Dying to Win, has just been published by Robert Pape, a Chicago professor who has a database containing every known suicide attack since 1980. This shows, as clearly as evidence can, that religious zealotry is not on its own sufficient to produce suicide bombers; in fact, it’s not even necessary: the practice was widely used by Marxist guerrillas in Sri Lanka.
When Enright brought this up, Dawkins’s response was that he may have overstated his arguments but he was sure that religion is a bad thing. I don’t think that repetition strengthened his point.
Human beings can be mobilized into violent action without, or in spite of, any consideration of religious ideas. Religion often frames social divisions, identifying those who safety we value, and those who are justifiable targets for violence. Verbal explanations and rationalizations for violence work around these divisions, so that religion can appear to be the cause of conflict, but religion is often a proxy for class, tribe and nation. Religious beliefs may be called into play in the process of recruiting and training persons as soldiers, suicide bombers, and religious martyrs. Organized violence happens under all religions and belief systems. It must be a human universal. Religious ideals can be part of the narrative of explanation for violence, and the narrative of manipulation, in any particular culture and at any particular time, but they are no more central than language or any other symbols.
Putting it another way, the problem with fundamentalists is not that they profess a religion – it is that they strive to create the culture they aspire too, a culture in which they can feel empowered, close to the members of their own group and to create a community in which they can feel wise, strong, valued and respected. Unfortunately, they find those values in the parochial values of the Wild West, the farming village, the medieval village or the desert tribe.
Wikipedia also summarizes Dawkins on morality:
In chapter 6, Dawkins turns his attention to the subject of morality, arguing that we do not need religion in order to be good. Instead, he maintains that our morality has a Darwinian explanation: altruistic genes have been selected through the process of our evolution, and we possess a natural empathy.
This group of claims hasn’t been discussed in the reviews, and Enright didn’t push Dawkins on them. One of the claims appears to be that morality like language, is a human universal. The rules may vary from time to time and place to place, but every culture has rules – deeply felt, personal, emotional, unwritten rules – about how to treat other people. This claim appears to be solid, and it implies that religions express the morality of the prevailing culture, perhaps interacting with morality, and that religion is not necessary to support morality. The idea of an altruism gene is more difficult. Humans seem, universally, to have powerful emotions associated with people that we care about, so there is something to the idea that humans are affiliative and social by nature. The idea of an altruism gene is politically loaded speculation. It dumbs down the science. It seems to revert to the political ideals of the early Enlightenment: people are intrinsically good by nature, and only society makes them bad. The idea that people are intrinsically good doesn’t seem to fit with experience – people can be good, but it depends on whether they have any use for you, or any reason to care for you. The idea that natural morality can be inferred from the altruism gene involves the is-ought fallacy and the naturalistic fallacy.
Enright asked Dawkins about his claim that atheists suffer disadvantages and discrimination, comparable to the prejudice against homosexuals. His response, once again was that he had overstated a point, and that no one was bashing atheists, but he thought that atheists were facing disadvantages in politics. Enright asked something about anti-muslim sentiments after 9/11 which allowed Dawkins to say that he hates all religions equally.
Many writers who share Dawkins’s distaste for superstition and anti-intellectualism have distanced themselves from Dawkins, complaining about his tone and about his insinuations that people who hold religious ideas are irrational, stupid, evil, deluded, sick and abusive.
Dawkins treats religion as a set of ideas that can be rationally debated and scientifically tested. Dawkins also implies that things would be better if other people would let go of their beliefs and embrace his version of humanism.
This view is too optimistic. People are needy and greedy and willing to assert power for the sake of having things done their way. Religion is wrapped up with memory, language, ritual, music, stories, empathy, anxiety, dignity and many other natural human capabilities and concerns. Through religion people frame their experiences in belief systems which invests their personal desires with ultimate meaning. None of that changes by declaring that there is no god. None of that changes by investing religious leaders with less power – someone else is going to take over the fulfillment and inspiration racket.
Dawkins appeals to people who already think like him. He reinforces their sense of personal superiority and their sense of indignation. He tried to appeal to people who are not quite as Bright as him, but who like to see themselves as smarter, kinder and more highly evolved persons than the members of past generations. This is all wonderful to build your self-esteem as a Bright, but not too useful as a contribution to public discourse in a democracy.