More on Dawkins

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I've seen several reviews of Richard Dawkins' latest infantile rant book The God Delusion, most of them by his fellow atheists. Some of them have tried to say something positive but have gone on to distance themselves from some of his rhetoric, some of his arguments, and some of his views. Others have been more critical. Most of what I've seen hasn't been overwhelmingly positive. Even some of the more favorable ones register what seem to me the kind of criticism I find myself writing on first-year philosophy papers, not the sort of thing you should expect of a serious academic, even one so far outside his field as Dawkins is when it comes to religion.

For examples, see reviews by Jim Holt in the New York Times, philosopher Thomas Nagel in The New Republic (unfortunately subscription only), Marilynne Robinson in Harper's Magazine, Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books, Kenan Malik in the Telegraph, and Gregg Easterbrook at Beliefnet. While I'm at it, there's also my post in response to one of his points and Brandon's post criticizing him on several other issues.

Add to those a new one from Shannon Love, which I very much enjoyed reading, enough to want to post several excerpts that I thought were very much worth highlighting. [hat tip: Mark Olson]

Atheists reflexively repeat the mantra that religion causes oppression, war and general cruelty of all kinds, while asserting or implying that atheism does not. Dawkins falls right into this mindless argument in the opening paragraphs of the book and never lets up. (Reading someone like Dawkins making such a pompous, counterfactual argument is like chewing glass.)

This particular fallacy arises from three sources: (1) attributing every bad decision in the distant past to religion, (2) ignoring all of the bad decisions made by atheists in the recent past and (3) ignoring all of the good decisions that religious people made in the recent past.

Laying all bad decisions of the distant past at the feet of religion comes from projecting a wholly modern western cosmology onto pre-modern cultures everywhere.

This leads to a form of confirmation bias on the part of atheists. They look into the distant past, see some actions we disapprove of in the modern world, notice that the people who chose the actions had a religious world view, and conclude that the religious world view caused the problem. However, since everybody in the distant past had a religious world view, and no significant decision makers until the very recent past had an atheistic world view, the fact that decision makers in the past were religious tells us about as much about them as the fact that they all breathed oxygen. . . .
The very fact that we atheists feel compelled to reach back 400-800 years for our kneejerk examples of bad religious behavior should set off warning bells.) Yet both events had significant materialistic or practical drivers that would have created much the same events without any religion being involved. The Crusades arose as a counterattack against the Muslim military expansion that had consumed half of the Christian world. Had the United Atheist League conquered half the lands of the League of United Atheists the same dynamic would have applied. Contrary to many people's view, no atrocities occurred during the Crusades that hadn't occurred when Christians fought Christians or Muslims fought Muslims. The massacres of the inhabitants of cities that so occupy the modern mind did not arise out of religious bigotry but from the established rules of medieval siege warfare. Cities taken by storm were put to the sack. The Crusaders established Christian kingdoms in the Middle East that lasted nearly two centuries. Those kingdoms were 98% Muslim with a Christian nobility. The Christians didn't try to exterminate those populations based on religion.

Likewise, the Spanish Inquisition sprang from the very secular needs for political control and money. The purpose of the Inquisition was to create legal and cultural justifications for the seizures of vast amounts of wealth from those accused. The religious aspects of the persecution were just a gloss, as in every other action taken during that time. In modern times, atheistic communists carried out nearly identical actions for nearly identical reasons. (The most strange thing about our view of the Spanish Inquisition is that we regard it with special horror even though the use of torture for both investigation and punishment was a universal standard at the time. What so shocked the contemporaries of the Inquisition was not the fact that it tortured people. Every police power of the time tortured people. What shocked the contemporaries was the class of people who got tortured. Mutilating peasants didn't raise anyone's eyebrows, mutilating the rich and noble did.) . . . .

nfortunately for atheists, recent history shows that the more atheistic a political ideology, the more destruction it wreaks when it acquires power. The first true atheistic regime in history arose during the 1792 French revolution, which promptly consumed itself in the Great Terror. Atheistic communism next assumed power, and it killed 120 million people over 80 years, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation more than once. Mussolini was an atheist and the Nazis, who held a diverse mixture of atheistic, deistic and pagan beliefs, were united only by their antipathy towards traditional religion. National Socialism as an ideology was rigorously secular and justified its killings with appeals to a materialistic pseudo-science. . . .
Dawkins tries to lay claim to the American Constitution as an example of a successful atheistic experiment but again he falls into ahistorical stereotypes. The cosmology behind the American Constitution is quite definitely a theistic cosmology in the Baconian model. The founders believed that men could govern themselves because God had created an orderly and lawful natural world . . . . Moreover, Dawkins doesn't appear to spend any time considering the positive role that religion has played in the last two-hundred years. . . .
Like Dawkins, I am troubled by the resurgence of the supernatural in the modern world . . . . Unlike Dawkins, however, I don't shrug my shoulders in bewilderment and conclude that the reason for the decline of the atheistic world view lies in the inherent stupidity of non-atheists.

5 Comments

Are there any reviews in Phil. journals ? Or is the book too much the popular phil type of book for that?

Finals are here ... throw in a prayer for me... I think I have to go on the basis of what I know, not what I've read.

Ciao and trust alls well up there!
- Raj
(I used to think the winters up there were bad...geez!)

I wouldn't expect philosophy journals to publish reviews of this book. It's not really a philosophy book. It includes some very bad philosophy of religion, but I don't think that takes up a large percentage of the book. Much of the book is historical and sociological, I think.

Thomas Nagel's review should be sufficiently philosophical, though, if you can find it.

The most thorough review I have come across is this one by Andew Wilson from Kings Church in Eastbourne. He includes an outline of the argument of the entire book, which is useful if you've not got the time to read the whole thing.

http://www.kings-church-eastbourne.org/library-page/documents/The_Dawkins_Delusion.pdf

By far, the best is Chopra's 7 parter over at the Huffington Post. (I'll leave it to the reader to determine the proper sense of 'best').

I haven't seen that one, Clayton. I'll have to check it out when I finish the Wilson one, which I have to say is very comprehensive and on the whole pretty good, despite a few places I disagree with it.

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