Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Ten propositions on Richard Dawkins and the new atheists

by Kim Fabricius

1. Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists do not like Christians. They like Muslims even less. We are like people who believe in leprechauns, only worse, because people who believe in leprechauns, while ignoramuses, are not warmongers and terrorists (unless they also happen to be Irish Catholics or Presbyterians). So the New Atheists are our enemies. But remember, Jesus said that we should love our enemies, forgive them, and pray for them. Besides, nothing will piss them off more.

2. But Professor Dawkins is not just angry with Christians, with particular dismay at scientists who are Christians, who, of course, are huge flies in his ointment (at the word “Polkinghorne” he grinds his teeth). Dawkins also gets angry with fellow scientists on scientific matters. One of his most bitter and public altercations was with the late Stephen Jay Gould, the famous Harvard palaeontologist. The religious affairs correspondent Andrew Brown wrote a book documenting this rabies biologorum: it’s called The Darwin Wars. So you’ve got to be fair to Dawkins, he is evenly balanced: he has a chip on both shoulders.

3. I should point out that the word “wars” in The Darwin Wars is (I think) a metaphor. Professor Dawkins himself has a knack for the memorable metaphor. His great book The Selfish Gene is a case in point. People can be literally selfish, but not genes. Indeed Dawkins does not even think that there are genes for selfishness. Okay, he wrote: “The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.” But he didn’t really mean it. Not literally. The author of Genesis said that the universe was created in six days. But who would take that literally except some crazy fundamentalists? Oops – and Dawkins.

4. In The God Delusion Professor Dawkins suggests (no, states, Dawkins doesn’t do “suggests”) that “the Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin.” No commas, unrelenting. And count them: that’s sin x 7. Perhaps this is a clever allusion to Matthew 18:21. After all, even the devil quotes scripture. The self-proclaimed Devil’s Chaplain continues: “What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life.” Yes, we Christians think of little else. But here’s a thought. All those wars like the one in Iraq that Christopher Hitchens is so keen on, or the practice of torture that Sam Harris says is necessary – that couldn’t have anything to do with our “focus”, could it? But, hey, aren’t Hitchens and Harris New Atheists?

5. Their teaching on sin shows the New Atheists to be true children of the Enlightenment – that and their belief in religionless “progress”. Now Professor Dawkins’ case against faith is that it is “belief without evidence”. (For the sake of argument, never mind that this definition itself is belief against the evidence.) So on his own terms we may be permitted to ask Dawkins, “Where is the evidence for this progress?” Forgive me, dear reader, for wearying you with the obvious: the names of such progressive statesmen and harbingers of world peace as the atheists Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot. Oh, and isn’t there the little matter that teleology has no place in evolutionary theory? Progress? My money is on the leprechauns.

6. “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” After this now famous first-line knockdown punch by Terry Eagleton it would be unsportsmanlike to bully the bully. Professor Dawkins does not enter the ring with the intellectual heavyweights of the Christian tradition, though he occasionally throws a bottle at them from the seats. Is he ignorant, hubristic, or just plain chicken? Whatever. The irony is that Dawkins thereby again betrays the very Enlightenment he represents (as Tina Beattie records a comment Keith Ward made to her, with sadness), “everything that the Western intellectual tradition stands for, with its privileging of informed scholarship based on the study of texts.”

7. If Professor Dawkins is the “bad cop” of the New Atheists, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee is probably the “good cop”, while Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly the “corrupt cop”. I saw him on the British TV programme Question Time, contemptuously holding court like Jabba the Hutt. And I sat for half-an-hour at Waterstone’s dipping into the over-priced God Is Not Great as if it were dishwater, a highly flattering simile. Hitchens’ penetrating scholarly appraisals include descriptions of Augustine the “ignoramus”, Aquinas the “stupid”, and Calvin the “sadist”; while Niemöller and Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis was motivated by a “nebulous humanism”, and Martin Luther King’s faith was Christian only in a “nominal sense”. Enough said. It is all rather embarrassing.

8. There are two reactions to this sort of illiteracy that must be avoided. The first is the response of the right, which, when not hysterical, simply confirms the unquestioned assumption of the New Atheists that God is a huge and powerful supernatural being whose ways with the world are, in principle, open to empirical discovery and verification. This is the God of Intelligent Design. If ID is science, it is either bad science or dead science. “Bring it on!” cries Professor Dawkins, gleefully rubbing his hands together. But even if it were good science (and, by the way, weren’t driven by a political agenda), it would be dreadful, indeed suicidal theology, for the god of ID is but a version of the “god of the gaps”, a god deployed as an explanation of natural phenomena, a hostage to scientific fortune, in short, an idol. The operation of ID can be successful only at the cost of the patient.

9. The second response is the response of the left, the liberals. On this Enlightenment view, science is given its due in the realm of “facts”, while religion is cordoned off from the New Atheists in the realm of “values”. There is a superficial attractiveness to this division of territory – Stephen Jay Gould called it “NOMA”, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria, separate but equal – but in the end it amounts to theological appeasement. For the realm of “facts” includes not only the empirical, natural world but also the embodied, public, political world, while religion becomes the sphere of the “spiritual”, the interior, and the private. The church cannot accept this partition for Leviathan, the nation state, is a violent and voracious beast. Nor, however, is the church called to become the state: theocracies are inevitably gross distortions of power, whether the flag bears a cross or a crescent. Rather the church is called to be a distinctive polis forming citizens for the kingdom of God and sending them into the kingdoms of the world as truth-tellers and peacemakers.

10. The New Atheists don’t only have a dashing if reckless officer leading an army of grunts, they also have their aesthetes, a brilliant novelist in Ian McEwan, a master fantasist in Philip Pullman. Are they dangerous? Of course! Yet if the Russian expressionist painter Alexei Jawlensky was right that “all art is nostalgia for God”, there is nothing to fear and something to gain from them, their didacticism notwithstanding. Unlike atheist writers such as Camus or Beckett who (if you like) have been to the altar but cannot kneel, McEwan and Pullman are unacquainted with the God of Jesus. Nevertheless, McEwan, in novels like Enduring Love, Atonement, and Saturday (titles freighted with theological irony), so elegantly probes the human shadows, and Pullman, in the His Dark Materials trilogy (the title drawn from Paradise Lost), so imaginatively narrates the themes of innocence and experience and exposes the corruptions of false religion, that we feel at least that we have been in the outer courts of the temple. It is certainly better to read this outstanding literature and be disturbed by it than not to read it at all.

37 Comments:

michael jensen said...

Kim:

I love it when I am on your team!

Wood said...

This is ythe part where there's a brief silence, followed by wild, ecstatic applause.

Wonderful.

scott said...

That was worth 7 minutes to get to propositions 9 and 10.

kerry said...

BRAVO!!

WTM said...

Well done, Kim. My favorite line: "Progress? My money is on the leprechauns."

salvage said...

This is a pile of gibbering nonsense.

Example:

But Professor Dawkins is not just angry with Christians, with particular dismay at scientists who are Christians, who, of course, are huge flies in his ointment (at the word “Polkinghorne” he grinds his teeth).

Any English teacher would be generous in describing it as gobbledygook.

Are you sure you read "The Selfish Gene"? If so you should read it again, but slower because you didn't seem to understand it.

mkfreeberg said...

I really enjoyed the critical look you gave the new atheists. You made some great points, especially in #5.

Don't mind salvage. Telling you to read slower is his chosen tactic when he's backed into a corner -- it's his way of admitting you've won, basically. If he's to be taken literally, you have joined a long, LONG list of people who are being told things too quickly or are reading too quickly, and I think I speak for everyone when I say we...are...glaaaddd...to...have...yoooouuuuu...

...on.....the.......team...

kim fabricius said...

Hi Savage,

Thank you for taking the time to read my post, slowly. But I am puzzled. If the post is "gobbledygook", that means it is "unintelligible" (as I have a degree in English, I looked up the word in the dictionary, just to be sure), which may be true (my wife would certainly often agree with you), but if it is true, if it is unintelligible, how can you know that I do not understand Dawkins?

Tim Chesterton said...

Great post, Kim; I linked to it on my blog. And also on another blog I guest post at, which is why Salvage is paying you a visit.

Sorry!

Matt said...

Good stuff, especially #5. I'm with the leprechauns too.

PS: You spelled Hitchens wrong (an e, not an i).

Shane said...

Hitchens and Dinesh DiSouza recently had a debate here in the big apple.

DiSouza appealed to Hume's skepticism about induction to argue for the possibility of miracles. And Hitchens conceded the point.

This is hilarious if you know that Hume is notorious for his argument against the possibility of miracles. (And his support of precisely the epistemological position Dawkins is putting forward: proportion your belief to the evidence).

Personally, I thought that whole epistemology had been disproved in the 90s . . . the 1890's.

Jewish Atheist said...

It's not fair to compare fundamentalist atheists to non-fundamentalist Christians and find the former lacking. Dawkins and friends are a reaction to those Christians who do believe that the world was literally created in six days, who are fighting evolution in the schools, etc. etc.

Do they sometimes overreact? Of course. But they're certainly no worse than the likes of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. Let's compare apples to apples.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Jewish Atheist,

You are certainly right that Dawkins and co. are fundamentalist atheists. The problem is that in their polemics, deploying a machete instead of a scalpel, they treat all Christians as fundamentalists too. In other words, they think that all apples are as bananas as they are! And Dawkins is a Professor at Oxford - and there is no Religious Right of any significance in the UK, a much more secularised country than the US, even though the Yanks are trying to subsidise one.

Shane: That is hilarious!

And Matt: Thanks for the heads-up. I've just emailed Ben to correct the misspelling, which is my fault. If there is a Christopher Hitchins out there, I don't want to be sewed for defamation of character!

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled by the puzzled person. I read the Selfish Gene (great book) and don't know how it conflicts with what Kim wrote. The Selfish Gene is a book on science--it was opposed by Gould and Mayr, who thought it was gene reductionist and wrong. But it has no direct connection with Kim's topic.

Donald

dan (poserorprophet) said...

Hello Kim,

Good stuff as always. One brief point on your fifth proposition. I think that the new atheists would object to the inclusion of Hitler in the list that you provided. I forget which one it was that first made the point (they all sort of blend together in my mind), but I think they would argue that Hitler represents a form of neo-paganism, not atheism. Care to comment on that?

Jewish Atheist said...

KF:

You are certainly right that Dawkins and co. are fundamentalist atheists. The problem is that in their polemics, deploying a machete instead of a scalpel, they treat all Christians as fundamentalists too. In other words, they think that all apples are as bananas as they are!

I agree, and I wish they would stop doing that. As I said, I think they are an overreaction to the rise of Christian fundamentalists in power in America. It is kind of strange that Dawkins, as a Brit, is the most vocal and well-known of the bunch. I'm not sure how that happened.

You should also realize that it's the extremists who make the most noise, so just as Pat Robertson has a much louder influence than Bishop Spong, Dawkins has a much louder influence than a more sophisticated atheist. The difference is that an atheist not inclined to argue passionately against religion doesn't really talk about the subject. It's not like there are liberal atheist churches or anything. If you're an atheist but not a fundamentalist, it pretty much never comes up, so people don't even know about it.

Jewish Atheist said...

(Yeah, and no way was Hitler an atheist.)

kim fabricius said...

Well, Hitler was certainly no Christian in any meaningful sense of the term. Does blood-and-soil neo-paganism constitute a form of theism? I don't think so. A religion? A notoriously difficult term to define. Interestingly, in The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths neo-paganism is not mentioned - but "dialectical materialism" is! But I don't want to argue the toss. If it makes anyone happy, delete Hitler. The point stands.

Jimbo said...

Speaking of apples and bananas, my annoyance at your analogy aside, Dawkins' The God Delusion goes into the entire matter at some length. It might even be called the great twist to his book.

He cites examples and studies indicating that while most moderate religion does not actively promote fundamentalism's ignorant regression into caveman violence, it does provide a fertile breeding ground for the particular kind of mind that, yes, DOES go on in life to do great harm at the behest of its particular God; Dawkins further suggests that all the moral and social benefits gained from moderate religion could quite easily be experienced without religion's dogma. Reasonable, really.

I don't see that you've offered much here aside from insubstantial rib-nudging and winking. What is it, exactly, that you're suggesting? Middle of the road godliness? Surely you're a deeper thinker than that.

Matthew said...

"Professor Dawkins does not enter the ring with the intellectual heavyweights of the Christian tradition"

This is a fairly common complaint about the new atheists: they equate Christianity with Christian fundamentalism. But I wonder whether this is such a terrible flaw. Could it be that when you start counting, particularly among Christians in developing nations, you find out that most of them are fundamentalists? If so, maybe we should be cheering for Dawkins, hoping that he'll manage to discredit both fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist atheism in one fell swoop.

El Chico Grande said...

"Professor Dawkins does not enter the ring with the intellectual heavyweights of the Christian tradition"

Does Allister McGrath count? If not McGrath then whom would you care to have Dawkins debate? Would that theologian's lack of knowledge of evolutionary biology weigh as much against them as Dawkin's lack of theology apparently weighs against him in the minds of his critics?

Just passing through. Just curious.

Best.

kim fabricius said...

It is obviously true that you don't have to be a fundy to wage war. The venerable tradition of just war theory gives Christians ample support for mass murder. René Girard in particular has re-opened the discussion about the relation between violence and the sacred in a cogent and challenging way, and theologians like Rowan Williams, John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, and Oliver O'Donovan have responded.

My own position is that the church at war is a betrayal of Christ, and that the solution is not to abandon Christianity - the will to power would then reign unrestrained - but to enter more deeply into its spirit, the spirit of Jesus, which, as I have argued elsewhere (see my "Ten Propositions on Peace and War"), leads inexorably to Christian pacifism. None of the name New Atheists are pacifists. Therefore they, like (I agree) the mainline churchs, are part of the problem, not the solution.

And, yes, I am aware of the Dawkins-McGrath debate - an exception that proves the rule. What Dawkins totally ignores is that the classical Christian tradition does not regard the reality of God as an empirical question, as a question of fact. That is why, in terms of the history of ideas, his whole project is pretentious shadow boxing. To have any credibility Dawkins must take on the giants like Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth. Hitchens calls them names and thinks he has won an argument.

michael jensen said...

My son is in the same Sunday School class as Hitchens' nephew!

Drew said...

To those who think that Dawkins is only arguing against fundamentalists and young earth creationsists and the like...

He is quite clear in The God Delusion that there is no real distinction between any person who holds a view of faith as somehow grounding in life. Faith in even the most open-minded sense of that which is a belief but grounded in tentative and critically open conclusions is also dangerous. His argument is that this kind of faith simply justifies the former fideistic assertions of the fundamentalist. Faith justifies faith. So any belief without evidence - which is observable phenomena open to repeatable scientific testing - is harmful and we have an obligation to debunk such grounds for values.

So atheists need to pay attention to the hard line he takes. It is not a matter of this or that kind of faith for in Dawkins mind there is no distinction. And this is the fundamental problem with his argument. To say, for instance, that William Stacy Johnson's arguments for the consecration of homosexual arguments justify and validate a fundamentalist prohibitionist assertion that homosexuality is in itself a sin is to fail to look in the mirror.

Oppositions define positions. One can trace the history of any idea in terms of how it defines itself in terms of that against which is argues. Pullman is a perfect case in point here. The Catholic league has offered statements to clarify Catholicism in contrast to Pullman's views. If there is anyone helping to validate the faith of a fundamentalist today, it is the surge in atheist pronouncements against religion. It is these vitriolic sentiments that validate the assertions of the premillenialists.

But moderation and critical views of the arguments of any who would subscribe to a specific camp of thinking (atheist, liberal, fundamentalist, liberationist, evangelical,, etc.) are views of Scripture and theological tradition that Dawkins simply ignores because these kinds of views are damaging to his blanket assertions of static categories of religious belief that must be so in order for his claims to work out. So he can ignore biblical scholarship, neo-orthodoxy, so-called emergent church proponents, arguments from more left of center scholars like Funk or Spong in order to make an argument which by necessity is a strawman.

What is more troubling is that atheists assume that he is right and also ignore the wealth of views in religions about pertinent issues and the conflicts within traditions. I have heard from many that liberally minded religious folk are just "making stuff up" to "feel better about themselves" and "dissociate with fundies" and so forth. What this assumes is that the fundies have got it right and present the most consistent view of religion! The point is that that literalist interpretations are just easier to attack because the boundaries of the argument can be more static and clearly defined. This is as dishonest as it is a cheapening of the wealth of views and differences of opinion within traditions of any stripe.

So let Dawkins and the fundamentalist argue amongst themselves. It has become a bore to me overall since moderate arguments critical of both sides and accepting of some of the positions of both sides are largely ignored by both sides since these arguments complicate boundaries. Let the march of strawmen continue. But it is the duty of the critical scholar to seek out these strawmen and burn then to the ground whenever possible. This is the outcome of such posts about Dawkins as Kim's here!

(And then there are all of the assumed value propositions regarding Dawkins' own use of scientific validation of belief that are not themselves verifiable through the same means even as much as belief in God as a foundation for value, but we do not even need to go into that issue at this point - it's another strawman is his wonderful little army of make-believe puppets).

Patrick McManus said...

Kim,

great post! I'm always thrilled when these propositions pop up here. At our church, I'm leading an advent book study on Williams' Tokens of Trust. Of course, given the popularity of Dawkins and Hitchens, questions of atheism have come up, but Williams has an incredible knack of deflating those questions (I'm thinking of his use of trust as the basic activity vis-a-vis the creed).

Have you read it yet?

I must also say that it is very encouraging to witness someone like you (extremely theologically literate) in the daily life of the parish. I have recently, mid-PhD, taken on a 6-point Anglican parish and have found it a rather delicate task to take the time for study (to get the degree done) and to just 'be' in people's lives. It's been a whirlwind these past three months, but an exciting one! Thanks for being, in Hauerwas's use of the term, a 'witness'.

Mike L. said...

I really like Richard Dawkins. I think he and these other atheists are God's prophets to Christianity. Prophets are painful but necessary. These new atheists are holding a mirror up to us Christians and we should take a good look. Our beliefs are silly, manipulative, and often harmful. I'm a Christian, but I am reasonable enough to allow these prophets to point out what we've always known about our beliefs.

We should follow the lead of bishop Spong. This God we learned about as children does not exist. Let's agree with the atheists on this point and move on. We can still follow Jesus. Actually, this may be the one realization that allows us to follow Jesus more deeply than ever before. For the first time, we could involve the whole world in this journey with Christ rather than only those who can devolve their brains to the point of believing in virgin births and resurrections.

kim fabricius said...

Hi Patrick,

Golly, thank you for your kind words. Yes, I know Tokens of Trust - and it's great to hear that you will be using this excellent little book in your parish. It is accessible without being superficial (even if parts, e.g. on theodicy, disappoint me). I would recommend it both for "refresher courses" within churches - faith always needs to go back to its ABCs - and for "starter courses" for that matter - as well as for serious enquirers. Maybe Santa will put one in little Richard's stocking (as he has recently claimed to be a "cultural Christian" who does not bah-humbug the Christmas season, I presume Dawkins has a stocking!).

Looney said...

Kim, thanks for this bit of entertainment.

My understanding has always been that ID undeniably exists, but can never be part of science. Science can ponder the results of genius, but it will never explain genius, nor will it be able to control and manipulate ID as some sort of laboratory play thing. If science could (plausibly) explain ID, then I would be compelled to agree with your point #8. As things stand, science is just as inadequate to explain ID as Dawkins is to explain theology.

wiedmer said...

I for one enjoyed Dawkins' latest book, "why there almost certainly is no god". I found the first quarter to be a constructive bit of academic work (reasons not to believe). The rest I found to be either filler (flaws in creationsim, bizarre beliefs of fundamentalists, etc... most of this is beside the point), or provocational (the Hitler/Stalin arguments). I found especially bizarre how he makes fun of people who devote their whole lives to religion when clearly it is a waste of time, and in fact it is exactly what he is doing! But ultimately, such work is needed to compare notes and to rethink issues; he's just a bit too much of a keener.

Steven Carr said...

Lots of personal abuse of Dawkins and no evidence for a god.



I bet the boy who said the Emperor had no clothes also got a lot of stick.

Most atheists are well used to spotting bluster , and can see straight away when theists cannot produce any sort of rational arguments.

Judging by the 'heavyweights' like John Haught, who has recently written about Dawkins, religion appears to turn you into some sort of gibbering idiot, who never once tells us what any alternative to science actually is, in terms of getting knowledge about the real world.


Still, while theists caricature Dawkins, they are guaranteed to miss the target.

Haught's recent interview on the subject is a good example of theists thinking they are attacking Dawkins, but just convincing atheists that they must be right, because just look at what the opposition are saying.

J. Gyllenhaal said...

This post - and the comments that have followed, both constructive and otherwise - show that D/D/H/H (Dawkins/etc.) have really been a blessing for the Church, esp. of the liberal bent. They've forced us to really articulate what our relationship is to the world in a very public way. It's no fun to be on the defense, but isn't this how theology is made - not in the luxury of long afternoons, but in the crucible of debate and clarification? We should thank them! And you, Kim - nice work.

Renacier said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but many of these comments seem to be along the vein of lumping "new atheists" (not quite sure what that means, by he way) and fundamentalists together in the "ignore the crazies as they fight it out amongst themselves" category.

Wiedmer passingly mentions that The God Delusion has "filler" such as the "bizarre beliefs of fundamentalists."

I live in the American South and those bizarre beliefs are what people truly believe here. I don't mean gape-toothed rednecks and ignoramuses. I mean city leaders and teachers. The governor of my state held a ceremony to pray for rain. My mother, a teacher of children in a public school, believes that it did not rain until the Great Flood. The Creation Story is not story among my peers. It is every word of it fact. In 24 years of living, I have never meet a Cristian who did not believe the Bible is every bit literally true.

Religion and politics are inextricably tied together here. People vote the way their pastors tell them to. These pastors preach that homosexuals are willful sinners against God, that the environment is unimportant because Jesus will be coming soon, and that the separation of church and state is an atheist agenda to destroy Christmas.

It's good that you are rejecting the more primitive, narrowly bigoted aspects of your religion in favor of a more loving middle way. But the people who write and pass the laws that I live under are not.
I don't have time to wait until your pretty theological arguments for Cristian liberalism trickle down to the masses. In this place, at this time, the only defense I have against the fundamentalist religiosity that is encroaching on my life is to make my dissent heard. Stridently and aggressively if necessary.

You may scoff at them if you like,
(you certainly do it well) but Dawkins and his ilk seem to understand the seriousness of the problem far better than you do.

TJ said...

What a pile of crap.

Michael said...

People with faith can be good people. And they can be dangerous.

Atheists can be good people. And they can be dangerous.

I am very sorry to hear about Renancier's situation. Vote with your feet if you can and really want.

Blackblade said...

I think Renacier makes an unbelievably telling point.

The crucible, as it was referred to earlier, of intelligent debate participated in by both sides with enquiring minds and reasonable courtesy takes both sides further in understanding.

The situation that pertains where fundamentalists, of any ilk, are able to exercise control is very different.

I would describe myself as a moderate atheist BUT I fervently support equality of all; for me, persecution of anyone on the grounds of sexual orientation is evil. Hence, I would oppose this situation just as vigorously as I would oppose the erstwhile one in the Soviet Union where Christian faith was prohibited.

Surely moderate Christianity should be condemning such extremism too ?

Matt.

Huinca said...

It is oh so convenient how you pick the people for your team. Christians are only "real" christians if they do what you believe is right, isnt't it?
So Auschwitz is a deed of the atheists? Even assuming this is true, which it is clearly not, you are giving atheists the upper hand. Do you really want to start counting corpses? How about the "evangelisation" of the Americas? Ah, ok, they were no "real" christians those bloodthirsty Spaniards, right... ho hum.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't Mcgrath have a phd in molecular bio-physics?

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