Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dawkins Revisited

I have blogged before about Richard Dawkins and his popular book, The God Delusion. I read it a few years ago and was very impressed with a lot of his arguments. I have slowly come to disagree with a lot of his views, and I no longer find his book as valuable as I once did. While I think some of his points are worthwhile, many of his other points are exaggerated, extreme, and imprecise.

I have some problems with him as an individual. Saying that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach shrieks like Hitler is inexcusable. His behaviour in the Elevatorgate tumult last year was also unconscionable. However, my main concerns with his approach lie in his views on religion, primarily as a social vehicle for many people to find meaning in their lives. God may not exist, but to dismiss religion without paying sufficient attention to its social role and benefits is to simply miss the point.

For all his hysterics about honour killings and suicide bombers, does he address the role religion plays in social life? Does he address the fact that religions have been around for a long time, and that they have done a lot to organize people into cultural groups? Humans are social animals, and as a social construct I find it hard to knock religion. Sure, it’s not perfect, but then what is? Saying “there is no God” is irrelevant to the question of religion’s social utility, and saying religion is evil is a claim that he has attempted valiantly to make in the book, and it is an argument that I think he has failed at.

His book starts off with a number of arguments against God’s existence. Garden fairy, teapot, blah blah blah. I have nothing against philosophical arguments for or against God, but I didn’t read the book for these. I read it for his arguments against religion as a social reality and about morality and the evils of religion. I find that he has failed on most of these counts. He barely addresses the social value of religion, and his discussion of the evils of religion is just unfair, overblown, and simplistic. He has some insight on morality (with his zeitgeist), but that too is far from earth-shattering, and his discussion of the evils of childhood indoctrination is, you guessed it, exaggerated.
He gets off to a roaring start:

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings', no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money ('God wants you to give till it hurts'). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it. (p. 1)
 
I get it. Religion is the root of all evil. Let’s all go torch a bunch of churches now. I bet they’re all just a bunch of child molesters, anyway.

I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'. Speak of a 'child of Catholic parents' if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a 'Catholic child', stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics... I'll say it again. That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not. There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child. (p.3)
Good grief. I bet there’s no such thing as a rich kid, either.
I am also conscious that the Abrahamic God is (to put it mildly) aggressively male, and this too I shall accept as a convention in my use of pronouns. More sophisticated theologians proclaim the sexlessness of God, while some feminist theologians seek to redress historic injustices by designating her female. But what, after all, is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male? I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might indeed be a less salient attribute than gender. (p. 36, emphasis added)

I see. You hate theology and feminism. Good thing you’re a science teacher. You wouldn’t last a minute in the humanities.

Yes yes, of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political. There really has been economic and political oppression of one group by another, and it goes back centuries. There really are genuine grievances and injustices, and these seem to have little to do with religion; except that - and this is important and widely overlooked - without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge. And the real problem in Northern Ireland is that the labels are inherited down many generations. Catholics, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went to Catholic schools, send their children to Catholic schools. Protestants, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went to Protestant schools, send their children to Protestant schools. The two sets of people have the same skin colour, they speak the same language, they enjoy the same things, but they might as well belong to different species, so deep is the historic divide. And without religion, and religiously segregated education, the divide simply would not be there. From Kosovo to Palestine, from Iraq to Sudan, from Ulster to the Indian subcontinent, look carefully at any region of the world where you find intractable enmity and violence between rival groups. I cannot guarantee that you'll find religions as the dominant labels for ingroups and out-groups. But it's a very good bet. (p. 260)

So it’s about labels now? Without religion, there would be wars but there would be no labels? Or there would be no wars? In other news, Moshiach is here.

Even Adolf Hitler, widely regarded as pushing the envelope of evil into uncharted territory, would not have stood out in the time of Caligula or of Genghis Khan. Hitler no doubt killed more people than Genghis, but he had twentieth-century technology at his disposal. And did even Hitler gain his greatest pleasure, as Genghis avowedly did, from seeing his victims' 'near and dear bathed in tears'? We judge Hitler's degree of evil by the standards of today, and the moral Zeitgeist has moved on since Caligula's time, just as the technology has. Hitler seems especially evil only by the more benign standards of our time. (269)

Yeah right, Hitler would have been quite the nice guy back in the day.

There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part of me is made to feel very queasy indeed. (p. 331)

This is quite unfair. As a society, we try to be tolerant and inclusive (if you, Dawkins, are another one of those angry old white men who wants all the Muslims kicked out of England and you can’t stand diversity one bit, please just go right ahead and admit it). There is a thing called multiculturalism. It means we tolerate and allow other cultures to flourish alongside us, and we generally don’t mix into their business. Yes, this sometimes allows for excesses, where, for instance, children are denied an education, but for the most part, it means people are given the privacy to carry on their lives without authorities prying their noses in. No, we don’t promote diversity because we like their “quaint little buggies” but because we believe in tolerance and allowing various cultures to coexist independently. We don’t allow them this freedom for our benefit, but for theirs. One does not need a graduate degree in theology or feminism to see that.

While I thought some of his points were worthwhile, the majority were overshadowed with rhetoric and nitpicking. I would have been happier with a little less attacking of religion, and a slightly more balanced approach.

Since he barely addressed the role religion plays in contemporary life, I thought I’d do a little research of my own. This writer found that active involvement in religious organizations is among the strongest predictors of both philanthropy and volunteering, and that American religious communities spend roughly $15-20 billion annually on social services:

Religious involvement is an especially strong predictor of volunteering and philanthropy.  About 75-80 percent of church members give to charity, as compared with 55-60 percent of nonmembers, and 50-60% of church members volunteer, while only 30-35 percent of non-members do. In part, of course, this is because churches themselves do things that require funds and volunteers, but religious adherents are also more likely to contribute time and money to activities beyond their own congregation. Even excluding contributions to religious causes, active involvement in religious organizations is among the strongest predictors of both philanthropy and volunteering.

...Churches have been and continue to be important institutional providers of social services. American religious communities spend roughly $15-$20 billion annually on social services. Nationwide in 1998 nearly 60 percent of all congregations (and an even higher proportion of larger congregations) reported contributing to social service, community development, or neighborhood organizing projects. Congregations representing 33 percent of all churchgoers support food programs for the hungry, and congregations representing 18 percent of all churchgoers support housing programs like Habitat for Humanity. Partners for Sacred Places found that the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of older urban congregations provide community services, such as food pantries, self-help groups, and recreational programs, and that 80 percent of the beneficiaries of these programs are not members of the congregations... (pp. 67-68).

8 comments:

  1. You may enjoy reading an Atheist defends religion by Bruce Sheiman. I'm currently in the middle of it and find it am interesting perspective.

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  2. I recognize there's a humanitarian aspect in orthodox judaism but the price is just too god damn high in terms of the bull shit rules they make you go through.

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  3. BTW I seen youtube of Rebecca Watson from the way she looks I highly doubt she has to worry about someone sexually objectifying her. XD

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  4. This was... different, for you.

    > Good grief. I bet there’s no such thing as a rich kid, either.

    Well, technically, no, there isn’t. Not unless the kid actually owns the money. I agree that Dawkins takes it too far in describing religious education as abuse, but like all the atheist writers at the time he was more polemicizing than making real arguments.

    > So it’s about labels now? Without religion, there would be wars but there would be no labels?

    I think his point is that religion, at least in these cases, provided ready-made, deeply entrenched labels. And yes, without labels, there probably wouldn’t be any wars. We tend to split ourselves into little groups, name them, assign attributes to ourselves and to the “other,” and then to persecute, demonize, and fight with the “other.”

    > Yeah right, Hitler would have been quite the nice guy back in the day.

    Just like Ghengis Kahn was a “nice guy.” I don’t know if his argument that Hitler is not necessarily worse than other villains of history is valid, but he’s not arguing that Hitler was nice.

    > It means we tolerate and allow other cultures to flourish alongside us, and we generally don’t mix into their business.

    When we do interfere is just a matter of where to draw the line. Should we allow the Mormons to practice polygamy? I don’t see why not, but the government periodically raids polygamous Mormon communities. Should we allow Indian women to burn themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres? Should we allow parents to refuse blood transfusions for their children? Should we allow children to be denied a twenty-first century education? I don’t know, but it’s a lot more complicated a question than simply saying that we should tolerate other cultures.

    Do you feel as magnanimous towards yeshivos that don’t give their students an adequate secular education as you do towards the Amish?

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  5. >I agree that Dawkins takes it too far in describing religious education as abuse, but like all the atheist writers at the time he was more polemicizing than making real arguments.

    Polemicizing, yes. Would you say it affects his credibility as an author and the credibility of the book if it is about polemics? And by the way, he doesn’t seem to agree that his book is about polemics. Here’s a direct quote: “It’s a gentle book. It’s not a confrontational book at all...If you actually read it, you’ll find it has a very reasonable tone, a very quiet tone...” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=roFdPHdhgKQ start at 4:45.)

    >And yes, without labels, there probably wouldn’t be any wars.

    Yes, but without religion would there be no labels? Would there even be fewer labels?

    >Should we allow Indian women to burn themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres? Should we allow parents to refuse blood transfusions for their children? Should we allow children to be denied a twenty-first century education? I don’t know, but it’s a lot more complicated a question than simply saying that we should tolerate other cultures.

    I agree that this is not a simple subject. My point is just that his point that we tolerate diversity for our own benefit is unreasonable. We tolerate and even encourage diversity out of an interest in allowing freedom and dignity to people, not a sort of entertainment for ourselves. Here is an excerpt from page 329-331 that explores this point more fully (the full version can be found online):

    Humphrey is scathing about our enthusiasm as a society for maintaining cultural diversity. “All right, you may want to say, so it's tough on a child of the Amish, or the Hasidim, or the gypsies to be shaped up by their parents in the ways they are - but at least the result is that these fascinating cultural traditions continue. Would not our whole civilization be impoverished if they were to go? It's a shame, maybe, when individuals have to be sacrificed to maintain such diversity. But there it is: it's the price we pay as a society. Except, I would feel bound to remind you, we do not pay it, they do.”

    The issue came to public attention in 1972 when the US Supreme Court ruled on a test case, Wisconsin versus Yoder, which concerned the right of parents to withdraw their children from school on religious grounds. The Amish people live in closed communities in various parts of the United States, mostly speaking an archaic dialect of German called Pennsylvania Dutch and eschewing, to varying extents, electricity, internal combustion engines, buttons and other manifestations of modern life. There is, indeed, something attractively quaint about an island of seventeenth-century life as a spectacle for today's eyes. Isn't it worth preserving, for the sake of the enrichment of human diversity? And the only way to preserve it is to allow the Amish to educate their own children in their own way, and protect them from the corrupting influence of modernity. But, we surely want to ask, shouldn't the children themselves have some say in the matter?...

    There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of 'diversity' and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part is made to feel very queasy indeed.

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  6. Thank you for this insightful post. That's exactely what I feel when I hear Dawkins. Actually, I love listening to him, since he has such a beautiful oxford english, but like you, I think he is a bit naive in his thinking. The world would not be a better place without religion, just that the horrors of the world would be committed in the name of something else. It is really religiously naive to think that by abolishing one carrier of evil, you can eliminate evil...

    Probably, he should stick with biology and not venture into other fields he knows nothing about (like sociology)... I suppose that sociologists gave more competent answers to those complex questions of society...

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  7. Oh, brother. Don't tell me you're siding with Rebecca Watson!

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  8. Look what I found today:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRc3MiP6Tok

    It is a treasure. Theis guy, Ray Jackendorf, really has a systematic approach about moral values and gives us a concept that allows us to talk about it seriously.

    Dawkins is a biologist, and Ray jackendorf is a living proof that Dawkins should not venture into realms that are not his. If Dawkins wanted to speak about religion seriously, he should go into serious religion philosophy and sociology of religions. And if not, he should stop speaking about it and just stay with his evolutionary biology, where he is competent.

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