Friday, September 07, 2007

Bunting on Dawkins

More pot and kettle from Madeleine Bunting in another piece on 'New Atheism' and of course, Dawkins:

The smallest signs of retreat

Richard Dawkins' normal arrogance and contempt for religious belief faded briefly to conciliation today, when challenged by one of his critics.

Madeleine Bunting

So, right from the off, the tone is set in competitive terms: signs of retreat. Funny for someone who will later on argue that the debate should be held in less confrontational terms... Next up, the old and completely subjective charge of 'arrogance'. I've had the pleasure of meeting Dawkins very briefly after one of his lectures on The God Delusion' and I saw not a trace of arrogance there at all. Self-confidence of the calm variety, yes, but arrogance, no. And with this highly subjective slur, for religious readers Bunting has already determined the mindset: Dawkins is arrogant (and worse besides that: later on we'll learn that he's also... wait for it... dangerous!)

It was tantalisingly brief, but welcome all the same: the scientist, Richard Dawkins, finally agreed to debate religion with one of his critics. He has repeatedly refused a head-to-head with protagonists such as his Oxford colleague, Professor Alister McGrath, but on the Today programme this morning, we got a snippet of a fascinating exchange between two very clever men. John Cornwell's book, Darwin's Angel published today, is a powerful riposte to the huge success of Dawkins' The God Delusion and draws on Cornwell's background as a philosopher, director of the science and human dimension project at Cambridge and his Catholicism.

Under challenge from Cornwell, Dawkins came over all conciliatory. It's not a tone we are familiar with from his book. But in the process he got very tangled up trying to justify his comments that bringing a child up with a religious faith is akin to a "milder form of sexual abuse". He got even more contradictory on Cornwell's main critique of the book developed in the Guardian last week. No, said Dawkins, I never said religion was a disease, only "a virus". It was a shame we didn't have time to establish the fine distinction Dawkins was trying to make.

A shame? Even this blatantly pulled out of context as Bunting does it here, only a literalist can't see that a disease and a virus aren't the same thing. And in Dawkins' context it becomes even clearer what he means precisely when he compares religion to a virus. Or rather, as he prefers to put it more accurately, a 'meme'. A story or myth that gets passed on from generation to generation through education, a story that over generations quite literally mutates can indeed be accurately compared to a biological virus. The term is also used to describe a hugely successful method of advertising, known as 'viral marketing', yet no one is suggesting that this form of promotion or product placement is a disease.

But the conciliatory tone from Dawkins - "religious people have done plenty of good in human history, plenty of good people are religious, very few people are extremists" - is welcome. Is this a new departure for the New Atheists whose aggressive, shrill attacks on religious belief over the last year, is prompting increasing distaste? Magnus Linklater in the Times yesterday voiced sentiments one hears from many quarters. Isn't the aggression counter-productive? Doesn't it do more harm than good? As Cornwell sums up, the danger is that polemics such as The God Delusion are "liable to persuade religious fundamentalists that a pluralist secular society is every bit as hostile to the practice of faith as they ever thought it to be".

Personally I doubt if the 'tone', whether it's set to bellicose or conciliatory, has much impact on the outcome of the debate. Do Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris really believe that their dissections of religious myths will somehow reduce the preponderance of religiosity in society? That a significant retreat of religion would somehow lead to a 'better' society? I doubt that very much. Hitchens has certainly expressed serious doubts about the latter.

The truth of the matter is that 'the religious' not only suffer from a delusion but that that delusion is so often accompanied by long toe syndrome. In short, the godbotherers are easily offended and quickly cry "foul!" (oops, I meant "blasphemy!")

But there is another possibility: Dawkins has always had a gentler side - just look at the exchange with the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries here. But of course, this was the bit cut out of the Channel Four documentary made by Dawkins in January 2006. What the media wants is polemic not reasonable exploration of complex issues - does Dawkins resist that tendency or play up to it? He clearly has a huge vested interest in doing the latter because it has made him a fortune out of booksales.

Yes, I do think that Dawkins by and large has learnt to resist that urge to play it up (whether that has anything to do with book sales is another matter). Dawkins' The Root of All Evil wasn't really his finest piece by a long shot and he's now definitely staying clear of sensationalism.

But does Dawkins' approach advance human understanding? Does polemic increase our capacity to understand people who are very different from ourselves? Because it seems to me that this is the most urgent challenge facing every public intellectual today. We live in a crowded planet and bump into diversity in a way that no previous generation have ever done to the same extent: we have to increase our imaginations to grasp the enormous variety of human experience. Narrow certainties - wherever they come from - have unprecedented capacity to generate destruction.

True, but what exactly will "advance human understanding"? One side rolling over and accepting defeat? That ain't going to happen. Mutual understanding and tolerance of respective positions? I think the 'New Atheist' are very tolerant and not at all out to complete another crusadette against the bastion of organised religion as Bunting and her ilk seem to believe. Their tone may indeed sometimes be polemical but so what? Bunting's reaction and perception of Dawkins et al really does smack once again of religious hurt feelings. You would think with the Almighty on their side they'd feel at least a bit invulnerable but apparently religious conviction today doesn't even offer that kind of solace anymore.

And this is why I think Dawkins is dangerous. He has spent enough time now thinking about religion and listening to thoughtful religious people such as the Harries, yet he persists with a parody, a childlike perception of God and religion. Of course there's no man with a beard crashing about in the sky. He persists in believing (note the verb) that belief is an intellectual assertion based on reasoning. But belief is a word derived from the old German "to love" as Diana Eck, Harvard professor of comparative faith, argues. Only in the last couple of centuries has belief become a matter of the intellect rather than an expression of commitment.

Dangerous... Dawkins must be chuckling if he's reading Bunting's musings. And to those who've completely ran out of arguments, etymology is usually the last line of defence...

In common with our highly rationalised culture, Dawkins fails completely to understand how powerful myth is - not in terms of factual, historical truth - but in terms of emotional, spiritual truth. Human beings make and use myths and have always done so; the crucial issue is whether those myths are benign, sustaining or destructive. Dawkins insists on taking the most literal - and least sophisticated - reading of religious myth as factual truth; he calls for "evidence" for belief in his interview on the Today programme today.

Does he, really? Or is he in fact, as I see it, all too aware of the power (and awfulness) of many myths and "emotional, spiritual truth"? Did Bunting not watch Dawkins' excellent mini-series 'The Enemies of Reason'? Does she not agree that while myths and "spiritual truths" are powerful and unavoidable (an integral part of the human experience), they lead to an incredible volume of deceit, carpet-bagging, manipulation, mis- and disinformation, in practically all walks of life?

This is a crazy reading of belief. He needs a crash course in the anthropology of religion. Meanwhile, he remains wilfully blind to the myths of his own time and age. Just because secular societies have junked religious mythology, doesn't mean they don't have myths - the ones they have developed to replace the religious can be deeply destructive - celebrity, consumerist aspirations that material wealth brings happiness, the winner takes all. These are myths which cause untold unhappiness in lives blighted by dissatisfaction, disappointment and frustration - and the impulse to deaden such emotions through alcohol or drugs.

I'm convinced that Dawkins is acutely aware of the anthropology of religion: he's a clear and loud advocate of the realisation that God is a man-made concept. And Bunting now also accepts that mythologizing is indeed dangerous and not simply because most myths are irrational nonsense.

But does she? Or is she simply saying that displacing a relatively 'benign' belief system like religion leads to the emergence of other, more detrimental belief-systems like "celebrity, consumerist aspirations that material wealth brings happiness", and that it's therefore better to cling to what we know best (better the devil you know)? The potential damage the latter can do is plain for all to see. But that religious belief systems are generally speaking 'benign' is highly contentious: there really is no clear evidence that religion-based societies are internally or externally more benevolent to its members, let alone to members of societies with competing religious bases. And as regards the old chestnut that 'the religious do a lot of good', let me invoke Hitchens (paraphrasing from memory): "there is nothing good a religious person (or organisation) can do that a secular person (or organisation) can't do (and often better)".

There's a fascinating debate to be had between atheists and people of faith and, often, they can find the gulf between them is not nearly as wide or unbridgeable as is often suggested. Even when there is a gulf, both sides can find the process helpful in clarifying their positions - Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan's exchange for example. What I find hard to forgive of Dawkins is that he's led his huge army of admirers in the opposite direction, away from thoughtful engagement and towards a dangerous contemptuous arrogance.

There's a fascinating debate to be had... Really? I don't think so. I've had such debates countless times (with religious bloggers for instance) and these debates tend to be long, tiresome and fairly fruitless. At the end of the day, the religious are trying to rationalise something that is inherently irrational: the belief in a supernatural being, a living God, capable not only of creating the world but also of intervening in it on a personal level. This belief is in absentia of any verifiable evidence at all. And this is were Dawkins' analogy, religion - meme, is so powerful: centuries of demystification and even unearthing of positive evidence that God is a man-made concept has forced religion to constantly adapt to new threats, often with risible results. Creationists now have to resort to spoofy "proof" that dinosaurs walked in the Garden of Eve, in order to against all sounder judgement defend their belief that planet Earth is about 6,000 years old, not 4.5 billion years. Against such wilful stupidity and blindness, rationalism can't really win.

But I'll concede this: there is danger in any extremist interpretation of any idea or opinion. Atheism too, is to some atheists, erroneously, an article of faith: to absolutely believe in the non-existence of God is indeed as much as an article of faith as the absolute belief in God's existence. God's existence simply cannot be proved or disproved. It's therefore more honest to consider oneself an agnostic rather than a downright atheist. But most nominal atheists, Dawkins included (and me), are in fact agnostics: they accept that ultimate certainty regarding the question of God cannot be obtained while being comfortable with the idea that the absence of evidence for God's existence, combined considerable positive evidence that the concept of God (or Gods) is man-made, makes the case for 'God doesn't exist' proved beyond reasonable doubt (but without absolute certainty).

Note how "arrogance" is once again the last word. Damn those damned rationalists and atheists (and agnostics) for wanting to prove they're right and not shutting up about it!

Madeleine, this was a boring and confused piece...


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