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In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech


While the media has largely ignored The Reason Rally, the one most popular bit of news that seems to be traveling around and getting criticized is Richard Dawkins’s recommendation to the crowd that we should incredulously and mockingly ask people who say they are Catholic whether they really believe in the transsubstantiation during the Eucharist in which bread becomes literally the body of Christ and wine becomes literally the blood of Christ.

Critics are responding to Dawkins’s remarks by accusing him of hypocritically and perversely using what was nominally a rally for reason to pump up prejudice and mocking unreasonableness. To interpret his critics charitably, the following assumptions must be in play:

“To be rational in the utmost is to consider one’s opponent’s best arguments rather than to attack either strawman or ‘weak man’ arguments.”

“To attack with mockery, rather than argument, the prima facie absurdity of transsubstantiation is to evade serious rational discussion of the question of God’s existence.”

“To attempt to persuade someone by mocking their beliefs rather than carefully refuting them is to attempt an end-run around rational debate and to try to bully someone into agreement by pressuring them that if they do not agree with you they will look silly and be thought a fool.”

“To mock someone’s beliefs is an inherently demeaning thing to do to them.”

There are several reasons these assumptions miss the mark.

First of all, these criticisms of Dawkins lazily and unreasonably ignore the actual rationale that he gave for specifically raising the issue of transsubstantiation. It was actually not to make the believer feel stupid for believing such nonsense. Dawkins explicitly expressed doubt that the majority of nominally believing people really do believe such absurdities. He did not impugn their intelligence but rather he actually assumed they were smarter than their supposed beliefs. He was calling atheists to challenge nominal Catholics to confront the dissonance between what they actually believe and the Catholicism they often only passively belong to.

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TAGGED: CONFERENCES, REASON, RELIGION


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