Thursday, September 10, 2009


It's obvious from the start that we're in a different league now. Gone are the hoppings of Hitchens, the touching faith in C17 Prod propagandists of Harris. the uncritical belief in popular myths both authors share. Instead, we get measured prose, well-structured, coherent arguments, things you can get your teeth into. Funny so few reviewers could spot the difference.

But we're still in the world of anger. All of the four guys except Dennett are angry, and in a subsequent post ("The Anger of the Atheist") I shall go in some depth into the reasons for this, because it's far from obvious why it should be so. Actually when it comes to anger there are two issues bundled into one. Not just, why are atheists so angry, but why is anger so popular nowadays? For popular it undoubtedly is. If you can go by Amazon rankings and review numbers, Dennett's sales are much lower than the others, and while other factors are probably involved, I'm sure his relative lack of anger is an important one. I'll examine some reasons for the popularity of anger when I try to put this whole science/religion debate into its sociohistorical context.

However, for the moment we're stuck with Dawkins' anger. Unlike the other two Angry Guys, he's a little uncomfortable with it. He starts The God Delusion with a rather labored explanation of how he isn't really angry at all. What ignorant folk saw as anger was actually just... good humor! The opening to Chapter 2, most often cited as evidence, is "guaranteed to get a good-natured laugh", and he "invariably use(s) it as the warm-up act to break the ice with a new audience." (This, btw, is the passage in which he describes the God of the Old Testament as "petty", "unjust", "vindictive", "bloodthirsty", "racist", and "a bully", among many similar things--I'd give anything to see him "breaking the ice" at, say, a Southern Baptist convention.) So, far from the ogre he's been depicted as, he's just your friendly neighborhood atheist, always good for a quip and a smile.

And then, just 21 pages later, he blows it.

He says (all this is on p. 38) "The president of a historical society in New Jersey wrote a letter that so damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind, it is worth reading twice."

Here it is, in its entirety. "We respect your learning, Dr. Einstein, but there is one thing you do not seem to have learned: that God is a spirit and cannot be found through the telescope, no more than human thought or emotion can be found by analyzing the brain. As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith, not knowledge. Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, 'There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another's faith'...I hope, Dr. Einstein, that you were misquoted and that you will yet say something more pleasing to the vast number of the American people who delight to do you honor."

Okay. Have you read that twice? I've read it three or four times. Can you please tell me exactly how and where it "exposes the weakness of the religious mind", damningly or even mildly?

To the contrary, it seems to me a perfectly reasonable (and far from weak-minded) letter, not one I would write myself, perhaps, but unexceptionable as far as it goes. In addition, it touches on a couple of deep truths about the whole issue, truths we'll explore in depth at a later date. and also show a genuine warmth and solicitude for others. The politeness to Einstein is a bit oleaginous for my taste, but my taste tends to prefer the sour to the sweet, anyway, and that's the only fault I can find in it. The writer comes off as a thoroughly decent guy, one who knows that charity doesn't just mean tax-deductible donations.

But now listen to what Dawkins has to say about it (and only bold italics will do justice to his response):

"What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice."

Okay, readers. Go through the letter a third time. See if you can catch any of the drips of intellectual or moral cowardice. Expose the devastating revelations!

I mean, really, come on! Only someone blinded by his own anger (and totally lacking in (a) sensitivity and (b) fellow-feeling for other human beings) could write such wildly inaccurate, over-the-top trash. It shows, too, the kind of Taliban-ready intolerance that he, and especially Harris and Hitchens, are so quick to spot among the religious (and from which the moderate/liberal Christians who get so much flak from him are singularly free). Truly I say unto you, we have met the enemy and he is us.

I hadn't meant to spend so much time on this aspect of Dawkins' work, but I'm not sorry I did. Some very big questions here--questions that lie beneath those that people on all sides of the debate ask and answer--involve the extent of human reason, the extent to which it can be relied upon, and whether there is in fact far more to life than the exercise of reason. What may seem to be a trivial tizzy of Dawkins over some letter some unnamed president of some unnamed New Jersey historical society allegedly wrote in fact opens up vast vistas on the human condition.

Among other things, I shall inquire into the privileging of reason--the way in which reason is treated by atheists as the supreme form of human activity. It turns out that belief in reason has extremely flimsy rational foundations, a fact that believers in reason avoid at least as strenuously as the religious avoid things that might threaten their faith.

But next time I'll be dealing with the substance of some of Dawkins' arguments.


  1. Can you please tell me exactly how and where it "exposes the weakness of the religious mind", damningly or even mildly?

    Well, I'll give it a shot. I don't have my copy of TGD handy, so I can't tell offhand if this is how Dawkins talks about it, but I can see where he's coming from.

    First off, even in Einstein's time we were getting a handle on the fact that "human thought or emotion can be found by analyzing the brain". A look at how brain pathologies affects thought and emotion shows that anything like simple dualism is untenable, and even more complex forms of dualism have been in retreat for a while. A lot of people haven't wanted to confront this, and it seems to be at least a sign of intellectual cowardice on the part of the letter writer.

    As to 'There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another's faith', even C.S. Lewis, the noted Christian apologist, noted the problem with this argument. In "The Screwtape Letters", he has his devil - advising how to lead people astray - say "Believe this, not because it's true, but for some other reason..." Being unwilling to face a possible truth seems like cowardice to me, I'm afraid.

    And I can't really sympathize with "I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being" - for the same reason. White lies are one thing, but if the question of the existence of God(s) really is that important, then being unwilling to even discuss or touch upon it is... well... cowardice.

  2. I shall inquire into the privileging of reason... It turns out that belief in reason has extremely flimsy rational foundations

    That'll be interesting. But be very careful how you proceed. As Ethan Allen put it over a century ago:

    "Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle that they are laboring to dethrone, but if they argue without reason, (which, in order to be consistent with themselves, they must do) they are out of the reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument."

  3. Ray, again let me reverse orders on you. My whole take on the deification of HUMAN reason(and we know no other kind) is an evolutionary one, and that will be getting a whole post to itself later on. Meantime, re Ethan Allen (not the one of the Green Mountain boys, surely?) reason is a process with an input and an output, and, as with any process, it's Garbage In, Garbage Out (take eugenics, a perfectly rational creed).

    As for accusing people who believe differently from you of cowardice, feels like we were back in the schoolyard, Grade 6 or thereabouts. The corollory is, atheists are such brave fellows! Well, when a Dominionist government in the U.S. offers you the choice of swearing belief in Jesus or facing the stake, then will be the time to talk about your bravery. Till then, it's just juvenile.

    As for the content of the nameless and unreferenced "president of a historical society", that must have been produced over half a century ago, when we knew a lot less about the brain than we do now. And we still don't know much--in a gross sense we know that if something goes wrong in your head your thinking gets screwed up, but we're as far away from understanding how the brain processes words, let alone ideas.

    And what on earth makes you think the anonymous writer was 'unwilling to face possible truth"? He said he had, remember?
    I quote him again: 'Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time.'
    Have you ever been assailed by doubt? Or were you always, absolutely convinced by the atheist creed?

  4. Yup, the very same Ethan Allen of the Revolutionary War, author of "Reason: the Only Oracle of Man." If your case about reason resembles Plantinga's, though, you'd best address the points here.

    And I wasn't accusing the letter writer of cowardice based on the fact that he "believe[d] differently" from me - I was accusing him of cowardice based on the fact that he didn't want to confront a difficult but allegedly important subject for fear of hurting people's feelings. Doctors didn't want to confront the idea that they were killing their patients by not washing their hands after messing with cadavers, but Semmelweis pursued that anyway.

    Not being willing to discuss doubts because they might make other people doubt, too, is not a valid reason - as I thought the C.S. Lewis quote made plain. If something's false, it should be doubted, and if it's true, then doubt will lead to investigation, that'll more firmly establish its truth.

  5. Thanks for the heads up about Ethan Allen. A writer as well as a fighter--he rises still further in my estimation.

    But the letter writer never actually said anything about being afraid of hurting people's feelings (that's SO C21!) He talked about "disturbing life and hopes." If he'd not wanted to disillusion people because he was afraid they might punch him on the nose, that would have been cowardice. To my mind, in his case it would have been charity (in its biblical rather than IRS sense), or certainly intended as such. Whether you believe in telling people unwelcome truths is a matter of ethics, a judgment-call in many different situations. Semmelweis was obviously right, for what was at stake, but that's one end of a long cline of possibilities. To adopt the stance that YOU ALWAYS MUST TELL what you think is the truth is exactly the kind of rigorous position that has given Christianity such a bad name.

  6. The more important the subject, the more important it is to tell the truth. Not telling a couple their baby is ugly harms no one, unless they're betting their mortgage on an infant beauty contest or something.

    But supposedly the idea of God is of supreme importance. People have been willing to sacrifice their own lives (or, more frequently, the lives of others) over that.

    Sorry, I gotta go with another figure from the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson: "Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear."

    And what's the support for the idea that questioning the existence of God "might... disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being"? If he's got evidence that's a likely or even necessary consequence, that'd be one thing. But if he's just shrinking from a hypothetical, a "might"... well, I've already noted what I think of that.