Dawkins v God - stop the fight
By OLIVER KAMM
Added: Thu, 02 Nov 2006 00:00:00 UTC
The atheist has some good points to make, but his attack on religion is objectionable
Thomas Aquinas 's proofs of the existence of God "don't prove anything, and are easily . . . exposed as vacuous", wrote Richard Dawkins in The Times this week. Aquinas also offered, inadvertently, one of the strongest cases against Christian orthodoxy. In order that the happiness of the saints in heaven be made more delightful, he argued, they will be "allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned". I would go to some trouble to avoid the company of those who take pleasure in others' torment. I would do almost anything to eliminate the risk of eternal fellowship with those who believe such a spectacle is their reward for righteousness.
Yet after reading Dawkins's philippic against theism, The God Delusion, I am not so sure. A life of obeisance to a deity one disbelieves in may be a price worth paying. Dawkins's harangues in this life are assertive enough. In the unlikely event that there is a region of the hereafter reserved for us infidels, hearing them again at full volume without end would be one more reason for penitence.
Dawkins is a formidable advocate of science and reason against pseudoscience and superstition. He has deserved sport with the scientifically illiterate. He scorns the scandalous suggestion of the Prime Minister that a school that teaches creationism is part of a healthy diversity of educational provision. He demolishes the notion that science and religion are, in the phrase of the late Stephen Jay Gould, "non-overlapping magisteria" that deal with different branches of knowledge.
Biblical literalists have integrity enough to understand that science is not merely different from religion but clashes with it. Science is critical; liberal religion accommodates criticism as best it may; dogmatic religion rejects criticism in favour of revelation. But Dawkins cannot leave it there.
The problem is not with his well-known pugnacity. Referring to the controversy about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet, Dawkins rejects the notion that religious sensibilities are uniquely entitled to respect. He thereby uncharacteristically understates. In a recent Channel 4 debate about Muslims and free speech, one of the Danish imams who had sparked the protests stated that he was entitled to respect. In a free society he is entitled to no such thing, but only to religious and political liberty. Whether he enjoys respect as well is up to him.
But Dawkins is himself uncomprehending of the argument for separating religious and civic authority. His message is not only that religion is false, but that it is the source of oppression. He quotes "the respected journalist Muriel Gray" — the obsequious honorific immediately alerts the reader to a tendentious proposition — about the bombings of 7/7. "The cause of all this misery, mayhem, violence, terror and ignorance is of course religion itself," declares Gray.
Well, no. The cause of those acts of terrorism was a particular theocratic movement, Islamism. Dawkins does his best to draw analogies with other religions, giving warning of the political influence of American evangelicalism, and, at the fringes, an American Taleban intent on the repression of women and the suppression of liberty. But this is tosh.
Dawkins quotes approvingly the writer Sam Harris: "Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the US government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency."
Any significant component of the US government? We have a test case, for President Reagan did believe exactly this. "The president had fairly strong views about the parable of Armageddon," Robert McFarlane, his National Security Adviser, later disclosed. "He believed that a nuclear exchange would be the fulfilment of that prophecy [and that] the world would end through a nuclear catastrophe."
Reagan's convictions may have been bizarre, but his political inferences were fundamentally different from those drawn by Osama bin Laden. Beth Fischer, the political scientist, has plausibly argued that Reagan reversed his arms policies on becoming convinced that a nuclear exchange was an imminent possibility. He implemented a rapprochement with the Soviet Union in 1984, with his saccharine "Ivan and Anya" speech, 15 months before Gorbachev became Soviet leader.
Religion, and even religious fundamentalisms, are not all alike. Liberal societies, partly because of the spread of knowledge borne of scientific inquiry, have come to an accommodation with religion — not intellectually, but socially. The founders of the United States sought the separation of Church and State. They were adamant that religion should not divide people. But they still regarded religion as a rich civic resource. In motivating and inspiring social action it is. Reagan' s pacific arms policies are still widely unrecognised both by his liberal critics and his conservative adulators. Martin Luther King's witness against racial segregation is a more obvious example.
The secularist argument for having no religious test for public office is not the same as the argument for atheism. The argument for atheism is not the same as deriding religion as the source of conflict. Dawkins's polemics are to secularism what C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters is to religious apologetics: knowing, insular and sanctimonious. They are testament to how convictions about religion can lead serious scholars to intellectual disrepute.
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