The fundamentalist delusion
By BARNEY ZWARTZ
Added: Fri, 13 Jul 2007 23:00:00 UTC
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser;
a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
HERE'S Richard Dawkins, sword flailing, mowing down his foes — all of them, Christian, Muslim, Jew, male or female, old or young. He cannot sheath his sword until the world is cleansed of religion, all of it, because it is a superstition, everywhere and always evil, blinding people to the "truth".
He's on TV, the internet and in print. But he's not alone, he's the vanguard of an army. Just behind him is French philosopher Michel Onfray, gadfly journalist Christopher Hitchens, and Melbourne philosopher of psychology Tamas Pataki — all authors whose books attacking religion have come to me in the past few months.
All have produced outspoken and sometimes vitriolic attacks on religion. It's not enough that they have seen the light themselves, religion everywhere must be extinguished. Let no one believe.
One might easily picture Dawkins as a puritanical preacher, prowling and peering into living rooms to make sure no one is up to sin, such as teaching religious faith to their children. That's "child abuse". Or as the great evangelist, going into all the world to make disciples and bring the "good news" of atheism to set the captives free. "If (The God Delusion) works as I intend it, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down," he writes.
What a wonderful irony: it's almost impossible not to turn to religious metaphors to describe this new and militant atheism with its grand vision of a new earth where the lion will lie down with the lamb and there will be no more tears. Rid the world of religion, insist the crusaders, and you rid it of its greatest evil.
Observing this bilious farrago of fury, I'm bewildered. Of course militant fundamentalist atheists are entitled to their views, and entitled to want to persuade others. But as those who claim their passing virtue is reason, why are they so unreasonable?
Am I too strong? Consider these thematic statements from Michel Onfray (An Atheist Manifesto): "Monotheism loathes intelligence" and is "fixated on death". He would even like to deny democratic equality to believers. "Equality between the believer and the thinker who deconstructs the manufacture of belief, the building of a myth, the creation of a fable? If we say yes to these questions, then let's stop thinking."
He's worse than Dawkins because as a philosopher he should be above his deliberately distorted and unbalanced arguments. (Reason's implicit duty to fairness is apparent in the word "reasonable".) He gave a typical example in Melbourne in May while promoting his cynical and unpleasant book.
Asked to compare social action for justice by atheists and religious people such as nuns and Jesuits, Onfray said they had nothing in common. The nuns acted only for themselves to go to heaven, whereas atheists acted from a love of justice.
It's hard to have any respect for a man who speaks so contemptibly and contemptuously about the self-sacrifice of others. He's wrong. Those nuns do it because they love God, justice and people. No doubt for most it's a complex and shifting set of motivations. All Onfray can manage is the shell of a caricature.
One of the problems with the debate, as framed by these writers, is it's just a shouting match, and they want the bigger megaphone. There is no need to listen to religious people or engage with their thinking because they are wrong, stupid, brainwashed, deluded or wicked. That demonising of most of the world's population rather closes off discussion.
Tamaki apart, they are long on rhetoric and polemic but little else. They take the most extreme examples from religion, treat them as paradigmatic and allow no exceptions. Tamaki, who considers that the Abrahamic faiths are baleful and delusory, suggests many people believe not just from ignorance or inability to reason, but from unconscious psychological needs. Many — but not all — believers are in the grip of narcissism and mental infantilism. In passing, he criticises Dawkins' writing for its "psychological poverty".
Tamaki writes as a scholar, with careful and qualified argument. I'm happy to accept that Christians are influenced by unconscious desires and motivations — and so, of course, are atheists. I would have liked his thoughts on that. Christians, constantly told that they turn to religion because psychologically they need a crutch, retort that atheists reject God because psychologically they are afraid to be accountable. (An important caveat: most atheists, like most believers, are neither militant nor fundamentalist.)
About a month ago I began an Age blog on religion. I was gratified by the large response, but surprised that a sizeable majority came from atheists. Whatever the topic — the new mufti, consumerism, architecture, persecution — they have dominated the debate, constantly returning to argue the fatuity of faith and its evils. Though most posters have been polite, one atheist has sent in 150 posts, always trenchant, usually insulting, seldom reasonable.
Early on, I asked atheists posting to the blog why they were on the front foot. The most common suggestion was that they were responding to a rise in fundamentalist religion — "the back foot hasn't worked. We tried to live and let live, and unfortunately the religious fundamentalists took this to mean we deserved to die," wrote LD.
Rev Des said the causes were 9/11 and the internet, which allowed atheists to form a loose community and find their voice. Zadie suggested: "You've had 2500 years to prove the existence of the Christian god and failed. It's time reason was allowed a hearing." Twist was tired of tiptoeing around religious beliefs, while Wyn Richards took issue with "religion's self-proclaimed monopoly on morality".
There's no doubt that religious fundamentalism — especially, but not only, Islamic — is rising around the world and providing cause for concern. However, theists add at least one other explanation. Alister McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion says increasing atheist stridency stems partly from fear that atheism is failing, and that The God Delusion is more designed to reassure atheists whose faith is faltering than to engage fairly or rigorously with believers. Western atheists thought religion would simply die, but instead it is flourishing. How can belief in God persist when there is no God? "The anxiety is that the coherence of atheism itself is at stake. Might the unexpected resurgence of religion persuade many that atheism itself is fatally flawed as a world view?"
McGrath says it is this deep, unsettling anxiety about the future of atheism that explains Dawkins' dogmatism, aggressive rhetoric, hectoring and bullying.
Interestingly, atheists such as Dawkins seem not to have abolished God so much as replaced him — with "science". The way they speak of science, it is no longer an important and beneficial human practice, as we all recognise, but a transcendent good, the hope of humanity. For Dawkins, it's Animal Farm revisited: science good, religion bad.
But science, as most scientists acknowledge, has limits. As Oxford University philosophy professor Dan Robinson has pointed out in the face of atheists' demands for scientific "evidence" of God, the evidence science produces is "that empirical sort confined chiefly to the marks that matter makes on matter".
It explains causes, but not whether there are reasons behind such causes. It can't determine or explain human achievements in aesthetics, morals, politics or law, let alone whether there is meaning in the universe, or what it is.
Stephen J. Gould was, like Dawkins, an atheist who was an articulate and accessible writer on science. But he clearly saw that the natural sciences are consistent with both atheism and religious belief. Otherwise half his colleagues were enormously stupid — whichever half.
Dawkins dismisses this without reflection (as a fundamentalist ideologue must), saying he simply does not believe Gould could have meant it.
McGrath, like Dawkins an Oxford don, and a molecular biophysicist before he became a theologian, comments: "Whereas Gould at least tries to weigh up the evidence, Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking." Dawkins offers surprisingly little scientific analysis, he says.
TO McGRATH, Dawkins' absolute insistence that real scientists are atheists simply represents the triumph of dogma over observation. He is the mirror image of famous creationist scientist Henry Morris, who saw the world as polarised between believers and atheist scientists in a cosmic battle of truth against falsehood, good against evil. Dawkins simply replicates this fundamentalist scenario from the opposite side.
McGrath says many atheist scientists have vigorously opposed Dawkins. Why? He quotes a leaked email from leading atheist philosopher Michael Ruse last year to Daniel Dennett, author of another anti-religious diatribe, calling Dennett and Dawkins "absolute disasters" in the fight against intelligent design.
"What we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues — neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and engage with the ideas — it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard (Dawkins) claims." No believer could put it better. Or, as John Stuart Mill said: "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that."
Further, it shouldn't shock anyone that scientists themselves are prone to human failures. This is not a criticism of the scientific method, but it is not always practised with complete purity. Drug company sponsorship of research, and influence over findings, for example, show what problems can arise. Nor are they immune from prejudice. Scientists who are believers often meet intolerance, as Francis Collins, a devout Christian who is director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, told The New York Times. "It should not be a taboo subject, but frankly it often is in scientific circles," he said.
The same article quoted Nobel laureate Herbert Hauptman, who was asked whether one could be a good scientist and believe in God? He replied that "belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, but damaging to the wellbeing of the human race".
Again, Hauptman is fully entitled to his opinion, but a pronouncement from a scientist doesn't make it science. That sort of intolerance stems not from science but other factors of psychology and experience that help shape his thinking. The problem is that because an eminent scientist says so, many people accept it unquestioningly. (The same is true, of course, of eminent religious figures.)
Dawkins and many of his followers seem to be resurrecting a short-lived 20th-century scientistic philosophy called logical positivism, which holds that only what you can measure or prove empirically can be called truth. All other discourse is meaningless, especially questions of meaning. It was short-lived, partly because it failed its own test — it couldn't be measured or empirically verified.
The way these books are selling, though, shows they have touched a nerve in modern Western society. And I don't deny that some of their concerns are justified. As an adult, I have been both atheist and Christian, and as both I had and have questions.
No religion has all the answers. Neither does science. Where Dawkins and I can agree, as representatives of the two positions (if I can immodestly assume that role just for a paragraph), is that humans are a tiny and finite part of an overwhelming and infinite cosmos. We are both moved by the awe and wonder the universe inspires.
In an age of extreme polarities, that's a salutary call to humility and perspective from which discussion can be profitable. My blog has provided a microcosm of the God debate, including both ranters and the more irenic who are interested in actually engaging with those who believe differently. I know which are more interesting and persuasive.
As the prophet Isaiah put it, all flesh is as grass — the flower fades and the grass withers. But he also had this advice, which we can all take to heart: "Come now, and let us reason together."
The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, Bantam, $35; The Atheist Manifesto, Michel Onfray, Melbourne University Press, $33; God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens Allen & Unwin, $30; Against Religion, Tamas Pataki, Scribe, $22; The Dawkins Delusion, Alister McGrath, SPCK, $23.
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.
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