Deus ex Point/Counterpoint

This month's issue of Wired (to which I have recently (re)subscribed for almost entirely different reasons than I did in the 90s) has a cover story by Gary Wolf called Battle of the New Atheism. The so-called "New Atheism" is, in particular, the brand of atheism espoused by Richard Dawkins whose latest book is called The God Delusion. Dawkins is extremem in his atheism -- to the point of anti-theism. He thinks tolerating the good that religion does is as evil as tolerating the evil religion does. It's an extreme view, but one many people are adopting, it seems.

"I'm quite keen on the politics of persuading people of the virtues of atheism," Dawkins says, after we get settled in one of the high-ceilinged, ground-floor rooms. He asks me to keep an eye on his bike, which sits just behind him, on the other side of a window overlooking the street. "The number of nonreligious people in the U.S. is something nearer to 30 million than 20 million," he says. "That's more than all the Jews in the world put together. I think we're in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago. There was a need for people to come out. The more people who came out, the more people had the courage to come out. I think that's the case with atheists. They are more numerous than anybody realizes."

Dawkins looks forward to the day when the first U.S. politician is honest about being an atheist. "Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists," he says. "Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everybody knows that an atheist can't get elected."

That "Smart people are atheists, and I'm wicked smart, so I hate your 'God'!" attitude is largely what turns me off when I read or hear something from Dawkins.

Myself, I'm a card carrying agnostic. My views on spirituality are as variable as the weather, honestly, but my opinions on religion are fairly static:

  • Fundamentalists are evil in their intolerance
  • Organized religion often gives fundamentalists a means to get people to act on their intolerance (take your pick: Crusades or "jihads")
  • Religious ceremony gives me the heebie jeebies.
  • (These basics can be extrapolated further, but these are sufficient for this particular monologue.)

Basically, I think religion is a lot like sexual preference: as long as you're not causing someone else harm, it's all good.Personally, I don't really buy most definitions of "God". In fact, the Wired article has a pretty good description of me:

... technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don't harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, "Atheism is like telling somebody, 'The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'" This is the type of statement she would never want to make.

So anyway, you get the point. Dawkins says all relgion is BAAAAD, I don't really agree because lots of religious folks are genuinely good people and I see no reason to crush their beliefs just because I don't share them.

Case in counterpoint: Terry Eagleton in the London Book Review's coverage of Dawkins' tome: Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching (which comes to me via Garret)

Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?) Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Now, why can't more believers express themselves like Mr. Eagleton? Why does the Christian mainstream seem to be more about banning the study of evolution and other such nonesense? Perhaps the rational, sensible church-goers tend not to make much noise. (You would expect so, since they should be tolerant types filled with love for all things, right?) If so, they should realize that much like Mr. Dawkins makes folks like me look like elitist pricks, the teeth-gnashers are making them look like loons.

I'm sure Rod would be able to go on for days on this subject. Personally I'm worn out... I'll just close with the Gary Wolf's sentiment after a discussion with Sam Harris author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation:

Here is the atheist prayer: that our reason will subjugate our superstition, that our intelligence will check our illusions, that we will be able to hold at bay the evil temptation of faith.