I was surprised that there weren't more critical comments on TBG's diary:
"On not understanding religion
Or why I finally lost patience with Dawkins, et al.
But, to be fair, he himself described it as "a very sketchy bullet-point diary". Worse was nanne's comment on Dawkins. TBG understandably deplores the decline of civility recently -but didn't comment on this:
Re: On not understanding religion
Dawkins is just another argumentative asshole, as far as I can see, and Hitchens is worse (his atheism has become a thin veil for Islamophobia). Dawkins' entire simplistic religion as an evil meme 'theory' is based upon begging the question.
... He's an atheist asshole...
No evidence to support this, yet again. I think if you are tempted to attack someone this nastily, you should offer some supporting evidence, or cut it out if you don't have enough time to justify it.
I acknowledge that I am fortunate enough to have more spare time than most people here, which partly explains the length of this - sorry, but there was a lot of relevant evidence for the various issues discussed and this compensates for the marked absence of any evidence in the criticisms of Dawkins (even so, I have left out quite important things like a critique of one of the more thoughtful reviews of Dawkins' The God Delusion (in the NYT, by Orr)).
Dawkins' book on religion is far more thoughtful, complex, and evidence-based, than just an "evil meme `theory'". Unfortunately, of those who commented, only "someone" seemed to have actually read it.
Equally deplorable was that the only comment on nanne's comment was from Migeru (of whom I would have expected better) saying, again with no attempt at justification:
Re: On not understanding religion
I agree completely on your characterisation of Dawkins,
Then there was metatone:
"I lost patience with Dawkins almost immediately simply because he comes across (in his media ramblings, I am told he's different in person) as just another upper class smug git product of the British system. I don't think hectoring people in such a manner works all that well.
In other words M had not (apparently) actually read the book, has no criticisms of any of his arguments, but just feels that he's an "upper class smug git" - not exactly serious criticism.
The stormy present agrees:
I agree with you entirely on Dawkins et. al. I continue to be amazed (uh, recent events notwithstanding) at how many otherwise intelligent people can fail to realize that haranguing someone is not a great way to change his or her mind, but just makes them dislike you.
Neither of them actually gives any examples of this supposed "hectoring" or "haranguing" - a standard criticism from Christian opponents and from a few atheist reviewers. Nor did they consider whether he is actually trying to change the minds of those who are committed believers (he has said that that is unrealistic in his interview with Paxman for Newsnight - where, as usual, he is very reasonable).
In fact Dawkins is a very reasonable man and has noted this kind of criticism; rather than hectoring such critics, or haranguing them, he examines what evidence there is. Others, he notes, have described his book as "strident" - he considers this - one critic had said that he was strident from page one. He reads page one, you can do so too, here:
Obviously this is anything BUT strident. Ever reasonable, he picks out a passage from his book which he thinks Christian critics might well find "strident". It's at the beginning of chapter two, where he describes the god of the Old Testament in very negative terms (but based on what is in the OT). However he said that here he was attempting to be funny - clearly he succeeds, with some Americans, as you can see here, from his reading (there is a Q & A session in Pt 2, see below) at the Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia (the god bit is 8 minutes in):
Let's consider a few other relevant facts and set them against this unsubstantiated abuse.
New Humanist magazine had a poll of nearly 2500 readers They're probably not that unlike most members of ET - with the significant difference that they are more likely to have actually read Dawkins and Hitchens, if not their books, at least some interviews with them. They might well have thought the two were not doing the Humanist cause any good. Like Dawkins himself, I was surprised by the results - given how prevalent this "too strident", basically Christian accusation has been, echoed by some atheist reviewers.
Are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens a good thing for humanism?:
1 Yes, it's time to get serious in our rejection of religion
2 Yes, they enliven the debate
3 No, their aggressive tone is unhelpful
4 No, they're a menace to humanism
The results showed that there was a surprisingly (given the criticism in the media) positive reaction:
1 1935 (80); 2 409 (16%); 3 65 (2%); 4 8 (close to 0%)
The appeal of the book has been wide and, like some of his other books, it has received an important award already:
As of November 2007, the English version of The God Delusion had sold over 1.5 million copies and been translated to 31 languages. It was ranked #2 on the Amazon.com bestsellers' list in November 2006. In early December 2006, it reached #4 in the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller list after nine weeks on the list. It remained on the list for 51 weeks until September 30, 2007. It has attracted widespread commentary, with several books written in response.
...The book was nominated for Best Book at the British Book Awards, where Richard Dawkins won the Author of the Year award. It has been controversial, and has provoked responses from both religious and atheist commentators. In the 2007 paperback edition, Dawkins responds to many of the criticisms that these reviewers raise.
See also the evidence of the feedback he's had personally and on his web site (see below). He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997 and Royal Society in 2001 - few have been elected to both.
Dawkins topped Prospect magazine's 2004 list of the top 100 public British intellectuals, as decided by the readers, receiving twice as many votes as the runner-up. In 2005, the Hamburg-based Alfred Toepfer Foundation awarded him their Shakespeare Prize in recognition of his "concise and accessible presentation of scientific knowledge". He was the winner of the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science for 2006 and the Galaxy British Book Awards Author of the Year for 2007.
A pretty impressive record - for an "asshole".
Here's a challenge to nanne, Migeru, Metatone and the stormy present - and anyone who shares their view about Dawkins.
Watch this Q & A session at the Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia (very close to Falwell's absurdly entitled Christian "Liberty University", where some of the questioners came from):
Note the applause and laughter of the audience.
Having watched that, come back here and explain why this is not the display of intelligence, erudition, courtesy, a sense of humour, and sympathy it seems to be to me, and apparently the audience - even one of his opponents acknowledges how amusing he was. Or else apologise for your derogatory remarks.
Or you can watch his interview on BBC World's Hardtalk, where the same qualities are on display:
There are three parts.
If you don't have time for those you can watch him vainly trying to engage Bill O'Reilly of Fox in a reasoned discussion - it's only 4 minutes 40 secs, during which the guest is allowed to talk for just one minute 23 seconds !:
There's a longer version where someone has filled in the arguments against O'Reilly:
"quite funny" - "good points"
As I said, it seemed that the only person who had actually read the book (nobody else referred to anything specific in it or said that they had read it) was "someone" and, surprise, surprise, she had quite a different view from the ET critics above:
Re: On not understanding religion.
I found Dawkins far more sympathetic after reading his book: The god delusion. It was quite funny, I though. And I though he made some very good points...
... I see no reason why Faith and Religion should be these great Untouchable subjects about which we are not allowed to make disagreeing statements but must proceed with uttermost care and delicacy and tolerance or feelings gets hurt.
There was no response.
TBG reminds us that religions (like other things - pubs, sports groups, ET, etc.) provide a sense of community and that people get very sensitive if their views and hence, by implication, the community they identify with, are attacked. He argues that it's counter-productive to try to change their views by rational means.
People do change their views and books can play a part
People are complex and not everybody who might be described as religious is equally committed to their views and, as we know, people DO change their views (some of them quite early) and the causes of this can be complex. ONE of the things which CAN precipitate this, or contribute to it, is reading a book. It certainly did in my case - thanks to the public library and popular science books, which seemed to me to offer far more convincing explanations than the Christan theology I had swallowed up to age of about ten.
Dawkins is well aware that he is unlikely to convince those who are very committed to their views (as he says in his interview with Paxman on Newsnight), but says, quite reasonably, that there are those that are not sure and who might welcome a reasoned case for atheism. He is clearly right about this - in at least some cases - cf. his comments on his book-signing experience. Most people thanked him for writing it, supporting this are some of the comments emailed to his site (see below), as well as on other sites:
Support for his own community
It's also wrong to suppose that there can be just one function/aim for a book. Dawkins says that another aim for the book is to support those who are already atheists and to encourage them to be more outspoken about their opinions and thus change the often intimidating general cultural climate in the US, as far as atheists are concerned. Cf. one of the other few dissenting comments on TBG's diary, from rdf:
I think those outside of the US underestimate the power that the right wing fundamentalists have exercised over the past several decades.
... Not only have several candidates gone out of their way to proclaim their disbelief in Darwinism, but they have also stated that their duty, when elected, is to promote "God's" agenda, not to uphold the constitution.
During the Cold War, the United States often characterized its opponents as "Godless Communists," which tended to reinforce the view that atheists were unreliable and unpatriotic. Against this background, the words "under God" were inserted into the pledge of allegiance in 1954, and the national motto was changed from E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust in 1956. In the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush said, "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God."
We now have in the US the bizarre spectacle of two front runners as Presidential candidate on the Republican side, one of whom is an ex-Baptist minister who believes in creationism and the other is a Mormon, and, on the Democratic side, Obama, the man for change, does the pious thing too:
December 14, 2007
Candidates need refresher on First Amendment
Mitt Romney declares, "Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone." Barack Obama opens his speech at his South Carolina Oprah rally with "Giving all praise and honor to God. Look at the day that the Lord has made." Mike Huckabee explains his surge in the polls thus: "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people."
You can see Hitchens' - (also reasonable) - commentary on Romney's beliefs here:
Here Dawkins clarifies this part of his motivation in writing the book - encouraging others to have the courage of their atheist convictions:
Well, I call it an excellent magazine, but that particular Issue contains a disappointing review by Ian Johnston of Sam Harris's brilliant The End of Faith. I am getting sick and tired of the sheer negativity of reviews of books like Sam's which begin with the ominious words "I am an atheist but . . ." and then launch into a long, moaning, defeatist caterwaul about "preaching to the choir", "religion is here to stay, accept it and give up the struggle", "what's the point of upsetting people's most cherished beliefs", "why be so disrespectful . . ." etc etc etc. We have a fight on our hands, Sam is a brave champion, please can't we stop the defeatist negativity and get on with it? The other side will never give any quarter to us. Why be so eager to give, give, give to them? They won't return the favour.[ my emphasis, TW]
My talk at McGill was greeted, like several others, with a reassuringly wholehearted, and almost universal, standing ovation. I am under no illusions that I deserve these enthusiastic receptions personally, or that they reflect the quality of my own performance as a speaker. On the contrary, I am convinced that they represent an overflowing of bottled-up frustration, from masses of decent people pushed to breaking point and heartily sick of the sycophantic `respect' that our society, even secular society, routinely and thoughtlessly accords religious faith. Time after time, people in the signing queues thank me for doing no more than say in public what they have, in private, long wanted to say, and probably could say more eloquently than I can. I think people are fed up to the gills with the near universal expectation that religious faith must be respected. Let us, by all means, respect what people say when it is well thought-out and makes sense. Let us not respect it just because it shelters behind a citadel of `faith'. Faith is nothing. Faith is empty. Beliefs that are worth respecting are beliefs that are defended with evidence and reason.
Responses on his web site show support for his claim about the reaction at signings - the first from someone who was against Dawkins' "all out approach of challenging religious convictions" - till he read the book:
... I would listen to the other side without presenting mine, feeling strongly that I did not want to do to others what was done to me during my religiously abusive childhood.
Because of this perspective, I was critical of Dawkins all out approach of challenging religious conviction and beliefs. I did not want to become like them.
Now with reading this fantastic, superb, and perfect presentation of his, he has won me over to his argumentative style. Bully for you, Richard!
Atheists have been bullied hard and long enough by supporters of religious superstition. Believers in religious superstitions may not be the majority of people on the planet after all, as most atheists, for various reasons, do not even admit their atheism to themselves, less to others.
Dawkins is doing work that many do appreciate and some are extremely grateful to him:
Thank you for putting into words what I have been struggling with the last 50 years. I am a product of 12 years of catholic school with all the associated guilt.
(This one especially for Kcurie)
I do not write letters to celebrities. I do not write to authors, actors, singers or scientists even though Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are among the people I admire most. This is the first time, in my almost 67 years
... Now I understand I was really an atheist all that time. I was making the mistake, about atheism, that you described in your book.
My purpose in writing is to encourage you to keep writing. Keep talking, because I agree with you that there are a lot more of us than is normally suspected. When people like you and Bill Mahr and George Carlin speak out it gives the rest of us the courage to do likewise when the opportunity presents itself. If that courage spreads, who knows, maybe someday those who benefit from the ignorance of others will be forced to show some shame.[my emphasis, TW]
Religions aren't just clubs for nice people to enjoy belonging to communities, they are not just about tea parties in the vicar's garden; religious people DO have beliefs and many take them very seriously and make great efforts to impose them on others- despite TBG's airy and patronising dismissal:
Religious people aren't really defensive about dogma, or evangelical about dogma, no matter how much it seems otherwise. What they're really defensive about is their community and tribe.
Historically religious people have shown themselves willing to fight amongst themselves and to torture and kill those who refused their version of the faith - this has divided communities and even families. Of course things are often complicated and these conflicts weren't always solely about theology, but that often played a significant part, cf.:
It is never a pleasant thing so to hear about Christians persecuting other Christians: How dissonant and jarring to hear of disciples of Christ, followers of the one who gave himself as a ransom for the many, whose end was engineered in large part by those so sure in their religious certitude they were willing to see him done to death.
And church history ever since has been replete with such continued internecine struggles. Those with the power to do so have marginalized, exiled, persecuted -- and at the most extreme, executed -- those they saw as heretics or sinners, traitors to the cause of Christ, even though they too bore his name.
I will not dwell on recent events in the Anglican Communion -- if we dare still call it either Anglican or a Communion -- except to note that those who expect a final solution to all our disagreements with next week's Windsor Report will, I think, be sadly disappointed. Those who see the Episcopal Church as a cancer to be surgically excised will be content with nothing less. Intolerance will not be satisfied with compromise now, as it never has been, by its very nature.
If some are so intolerant of each other's variations on their faith - as a significant proportion of them are - there is no hope of such people being on the side of atheists - as TBG suggests in his reply to Jerome. It IS possible with SOME of the more moderate Christians, and Dawkins is quite willing to work with them and they are willing to work with him, despite his supposed "stridency" (see below on opposing the spread of creationism).
But many are much more extreme, especially in the US. Being nice to them and not questioning their faith is no more likely to succeed than Obama's hope to work with the Right, as Edwards has scornfully pointed out. The most dangerous ones are not just a powerless, eccentric fringe in the US, but people who've organised to get power.
The growing threat of creationism
From the US, a report on the Museum of Creationism:
The New Yorker's George Packer finds something far more sinister: a full assault on the Enlightenment, one which portrays our rise from the Dark Ages as a form of falling:
... Many of the quarter of a million people expected to visit the Creation Museum by the end of the year will be children. They will be indoctrinated into an ideology that systematically warps their understanding of the physical world and fills them with hostility toward the facts and concepts of modernity. As we have learned over the past few years, this doesn't mean that they'll be outcasts and failures. A great political party has largely abased itself before their world view and offered them unprecedented access to government power. The Creation Museum, a combination of a natural-history museum and a Communist Party propaganda center, will help to arm and arouse the next generation of Christianists in the ongoing war against secular and scientific America.[my emphasis, TW]
As they've gained power they have tried even harder to impose their views on everyone else, and they are trying to impose their views in the UK and Europe generally - and even Christians have worked with atheists like Dawkins against their fellow Christians:
Leading clerics and scientists have warned Downing Street about their 'growing anxiety' over the spread of faith schools in Britain.
Led by the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, and biologist Richard Dawkins, the group has called on Tony Blair to ensure that all school curricula be 'strictly monitored' to ensure future scientific and religious teaching in Britain is properly respected.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, the group - which includes Sir David Attenborough and Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, as well as six bishops, including those of St Albans and Hereford - expresses concern over the introduction of creationism in British schools, a problem that has in the past been confined to American education.
Atheists like Dawkins have no problem working with such Christians, who are more worried by some members of their own faith than by even outspoken atheists like Dawkins
This is not just a UK concern, cf.:
Doc. 11297 8 June 2007
The dangers of creationism in education
Committee on Culture, Science and Education
Rapporteur: Mr Guy LENGAGNE, France, Socialist Group
The theory of evolution is being attacked by religious fundamentalists who call for creationist theories to be taught in European schools alongside or even in place of it. From a scientific view point there is absolutely no doubt that evolution is a central theory for our understanding of the Universe and of life on Earth.
Investigation of the creationists' growing influence shows that the arguments between creationism and evolution go well beyond intellectual debate. If we are not careful, the values that are the very essence of the Council of Europe will be under direct threat from creationist fundamentalists. It is part of the role of the Council's parliamentarians to react before it is too late.
One American's reaction:
I shoulda been learned that there French stuff. Then I coulda defected.
Translation: There are times when the education-phobia inherent in all aspects of American culture so discourages me, that I review my options as regards emigration. Today is one of those times.
There is an "ongoing war against secular and scientific America" (cf. Packer above). Dawkins prefers to describe it as a "consciousness-raising war" - very positive, and I'm glad that Dawkins is such an eloquent fighter and that he's on my side. For most people here in ET, Dawkins is NOT the problem; THIS kind of person is the problem and they are very far from being "meek and mild":
In her latest book "Godless," Ann Coulter writes "I defy any of my coreligionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell."
This section ["the ugly"] is dedicated to insanity such as this that finds its way to our inbox. When it goes beyond criticism and into Crazytown, we post it up here for all to see.
Coulter is not some unknown religious nut, but a leading US columnist - which tells you something in itself. Cf.:
From John Doe:
Dawkins, you and your atheist friends cannot win. America WILL become a Christian Republic even if we have to write a whole new constitution. Millions of us are dedicated to this righteous cause. We will suceed. And then we will invade godless countries like "Great" Britain and kill all of your heathens. First we need to take care of things at home and in the Middle East but we will get around to Europe. You Godless freaks will die but then you will roast in hell for infinite time. Goodbye you loser.
Despite being forthright, Dawkins is a LOT more civil and courteous than people like these.
The anti-religion tradition
There is a long and noble tradition of struggle by people, some equally as forthright as Dawkins in their attack on religion, even in times when Christianity was extremely oppressive. It is a tradition well worth continuing:
Among those accused of atheism was Denis Diderot (1713-1784), one of the Enlightenment's most prominent philosophes, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopédie, which sought to challenge religious, particularly Catholic, dogma: "Reason is to the estimation of the philosophe what grace is to the Christian", he wrote. "Grace determines the Christian's action; reason the philosophe's". Diderot was briefly imprisoned for his writing, some of which was banned and burned.
An early atheistic influence in Germany was The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). He influenced other German 19th century atheistic thinkers like Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
The 21st Century
Perhaps due in part to the September 11 attacks and the increase in the political influence of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, the early 21st century has produced a small revival in secularism and atheism in the Western world. This has been assisted by the Brights movement, as well as a plethora of accessible antitheist and secularist literature. Authors of such books have included: Sam Harris, Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Victor J. Stenger, and Anthony C. Grayling. Currently among 16-29 year olds, atheism is rising at higher levels than ever before recorded.
This is positive development and the writers listed above are encouraging it by standing up and taking the flack - some of it, sadly, coming from some people here in ET. But they are standing up for the Enlightenment/humanist values shared by many in ET, where we expect views to be challenged and examined, but on the basis of reason and evidence, as I have tried to do here. But they are values which are under attack (cf. Packer above) in the name of religion.
Nietzsche certainly didn't believe in respecting Christians' feelings, and he would have been even more scathing than Dawkins or even Hitchens of the flourishing of Christianity in the US the 21st century:
"Can one believe that such things are still believed?"
Christianity as antiquity. When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! This, for a jew, crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God's son? The proof of such a claim is lacking. Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that the claim is believed - whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining pretensions - is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage. A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross -- how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed?
from Nietzsche's Human, all too Human, s.405, R.J. Hollingdale transl.