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Blog // Thoughts
October 2, 2007

Dawkins’d

It is amazing how Richard Dawkins’ brand of neo-Atheism (or should that be neo-Logical Positivism) has gained traction in the mainstream media. In fact, it is filtering down to level of everyday conversation, which is the only real reason I’m continuing to comment on it. As far as Dawkins himself – when he speaks on […]

It is amazing how Richard Dawkins’ brand of neo-Atheism (or should that be neo-Logical Positivism) has gained traction in the mainstream media. In fact, it is filtering down to level of everyday conversation, which is the only real reason I’m continuing to comment on it. As far as Dawkins himself – when he speaks on the subject of religion his rhetoric takes on the form of any populist ranter and it becomes very difficult to take him seriously.

For the sake of intellectual fairness, I will outline and engage the (few) good points he makes with regard to religion.

First, the use of religion in the service of populist (and often regressive) politics is dangerous and harmful. Agreed, which is why I have been a long-standing advocate of the separation of church and state, religious freedom and liberty of conscience. In fact, many Christians I know also share concerns about this issue, especially in the light of some disturbingly idolatrous trends in US conservative politics.

That said, it must be pointed out that in a number of important cases, religion has played a key and inspirational role in progressive politics. Moreover, Dawkins reveals his hand rather too easily in being unwilling to count the social and moral cost of strictly Atheistic regimes (especially Communist) with the same vigour he prosecutes religiously oriented regimes.

Second, children should not automatically be counted into the religion of their parents and a narrow religious education can be harmful. Agreed, which is why I find the trend towards home-schooling amongst some Christians worrying and I’m also uneasy about some Sunday School programmes.

However, when Dawkins wants to claim that parents who expose their kids to religious ideas are in fact guilty of child abuse, he coarsens our moral rhetoric in an unhelpful way. The reality is that religion plays some practical role in the life of most people in world and a child who is not educated in the nature and substance of religion is no less unprepared to face and understand our world than a child who has no education in geography, politics or economics.

Third, Dawkins is very keen to point out that one does not need a religious outlook in order to have a sense of morality. Agreed; it frustrates me deeply when believers claim someone must have a religious, or a particular religion’s, outlook in order to have a coherent morality.

That said, even if all religious claims were false, that would not discount the value in using a religious tradition to inform one’s morality. Not only, is most western morality still in debt to centuries of theological thought, but it seems perfectly valid to use outright works of fiction as moral sources. Would we dismiss everything Shakespeare has to say about human nature because of his abstract religious beliefs? Moreover, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle based their morality on thoroughly pre-modern concepts of reality.

Fourth, religious beliefs are plainly absurd and no religious thinker or theologian can counter Dawkin’s super-argument-against-the-existence-of-God. Of course, the question really is, why would anyone want to?

I’ve never met a Christian who came to the faith through reading a philosophical argument for the existence of God. In fact, these kinds of arguments (like most apologetics) largely serve a negative purpose, to shore up commitments already made to an idea. Any theologian worth their name would be aware of these debates, but choose instead to focus on the more sociologically important areas of ecclesiology and belief. Such arguments really have their place not in theological debate, but in small niches of Church History and Philosophy of Religion.

Interestingly, Dawkins engaged with blogger Richard Hall (Connexions) via the letters page of the Independent (original letter here, Hall’s letter here and Dawkin’s reply here). The tendency to extreme and populist targets is again present. In fact, it is an example of the block thinking we looked at recently – all theology is extreme like this little example here, so don’t need to consider the variations in the sample. Hardly a good method.

In fact, Dawkins all too often displays a lack of intellectual virtue, not just in the way he approaches interlocultors, but in the way he approaches learning as a whole. We’ve already highlighted the failure to engage with insights from political science and there is an equally important failure to engage with what sociology has to tell us about the role of globalisation and localism in the breeding of resentment and fundamentalism.

The reality is that the world we live in is far more subtle, the religions found in it are more nuanced, and the adherants of the those religions are far more varied in their beliefs and practices than Dawkins is willing to admit.

[tags] Richard Dawkins, Neo-Atheism, Religion [/tags]

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Responses
Paul 15 years ago

I think that Dawkin’s does highlight some dangers of religion well worth taking on board but then when your arguement is religion bad rationalism good it makes it a bit hard to look at him in any other way than a high priest of a faith system all of his own. Maybe i’ll start a religion based on the teachings of Dawkins, hmmm a name, what about dawkians???

Fernando Gros 15 years ago

Agree and to a large extent it is a shame really, because Dawkins’ frothiness gives believers a ready-made excuse to not take his criticisms seriously (same could almost be said of Hitchens). From my (post-constantinian) viewpoint this is a real problem, because the church needs to hear criticisms about its abuse of power and alignment with political forces.

As for Dawkianism, well the less said the better I think…

😉

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