Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Atheist Delusion

 The Atheist Delusion: Answering Richard Dawkins

By Greg Taylor

There is no more esteemed debunker and denouncer of all things religious than British intellectual Richard Dawkins. In his latest book, The God Delusion, Dawkins makes a frontal assault on not just religious fundamentalism, but religion in general. To quote the name of the accompanying television series, Dawkins appears to see it as “the root of all evil.”
There is much truth in Dawkins’ criticism. One only has to look at human tragedies occurring around the world to see the effects of unquestioning faith and religious righteousness. And not just in recent years; consider the Albigensian Crusade, the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages, right up to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Belief in a dogma, without doubting the actions that arise out of that faith, can be the foundation upon which horrors grow. Millions have died fighting for, and against, particular religious ideas. Dawkins is a gifted thinker, and some of his questions and insights about religion are certainly worthy of contemplation. For instance, Dawkins queries the righteousness of any particular religion in the following passage:
If you have a faith, it is statistically overwhelmingly likely that it is the same faith as your parents and grandparents had. No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe would have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.
Also insightful is his concern for political representation. In The God Delusion, Dawkins points out that religious groups can form powerful lobbies, able to effect large-scale changes in government policy which rule all of our lives. One of the more prominent examples is the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research, a strand of science which perhaps offers the most profound steps forward in medicine for decades (suggested as a possible treatment for spinal injury paralysis, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s). Current US leaders rely far too heavily on ‘heartland’ support by the large Christian voting blocks to allow research into stem cells – even if the arguments against seem to be at best scare campaigns based on faulty logic. This situation, in which non-believers like Dawkins are at the ‘democratic’ mercy of religious groups able to exert political pressure, must be a particularly troubling one for him – and I must confess, it is to me as well.
The Most Dangerous Delusion
However, in his attacks on all religions, regardless of individual philosophies, as being the source of all ills in the world, Dawkins goes too far – and it is astounding that someone of his obvious intellect could err so badly. Religious writer John Cornwell summed up the major problem with Dawkins’ vitriolic stance towards religion in these words:
If there is a dangerous delusion in the world, it is not so much moderate religion, as Dawkins would have it, but fundamentalism in all its forms – ideological, scientific and religious – as the imposition of dogma that brooks neither doubt nor respect for disagreement.
Cornwell’s comment is incisive. Dawkins’ attack singles out the very worst elements of religion – fundamentalist, non-thinking faith, and intolerance of others outside the ‘flock’ – while ignoring the large-scale charity work carried out by many religions, both large and small, as well as the profound morality teachings found in each, from the parables of Jesus Christ through to the Buddhist doctrine of protecting all life.
Professor of English Literature Terry Eagleton, himself no defender of fundamentalist religion, was quick to point out this massive flaw in The God Delusion.
 “In a book of almost 400 pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false,” Eagleton wrote. “The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history – and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.”
So too, in characterising religious believers as “faith-heads” (his words), gullible believers of nonsensical stories, does Dawkins paint with a broad and superficial brush. While it is true that most believers grow within their religion of birth, many eventually connect with a more universal sense of deity, rather than continuing with a blind faith in the particular godly identity defined by their religion. Dawkins also does not delve into the worldwide mystical traditions closely tied to each religion, such as the Jewish Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, and Hindu teachings of yoga, all of which speak more to a personal, wondrous gnosis than the blind worship of an autocratic, vengeful god that Richard Dawkins appears to take umbrage with.
Dawkins, in his inimitable style, once eloquently asked, “If there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is he a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports?… Is He manoeuvring to maximise David Attenborough’s television ratings?” While on the surface it is a humorous and insightful quote, it also betrays the lack of depth to Dawkins’ own conception of deity. In Eagleton’s words, “He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.”
Indeed, the ‘God’ that Dawkins argues against is actually the ‘non-God’ of the unintelligent “faith-heads” he so despises – and one can only be struck by the ridiculous realisation that the acerbic Oxford professor, one of the intellectual giants of our time, is engaging religion on the same philosophical level as ‘Bubba’ from the deep South of the United States of America. Dawkins is directing his antipathy toward the white-bearded grandfather figure sitting in the sky, patiently listening to all our prayers on his intercessory answering machine – the same ‘God’ that many of us left behind with our childhood. And yet the most profound teachings of the mystics through the ages are consigned to the same dark definitions that Dawkins foists upon all religious beliefs, universally.
Returning to Cornwell’s comments, it is worth pointing out that as many atrocities have been carried out in the name of religious disbelief as in blind faith. Stalin was an atheist who brutally attacked priests under his regime, let alone the horrors he visited upon the general populace. Fundamentalism isn’t the exclusive domain of religion it seems. Indeed, as the evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr said, atheism must be held to the same standards as religions when judging their comparative flaws and benefits. And, to quote Orr directly:
Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual fact that (1) the 20th century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.
In political ideology, this fundamentalism has mixed with an ugly dualism to create overly simplistic and ultimately useless categories – liberal or conservative, commie or capitalist – with a complete disregard for the true spectrum of political ideas. In the words of George W. Bush: “You’re either with us or against us.” It is therefore the polarising elements of ‘ideology’ which we need to be fearing, far more than any particular religious belief. Especially the ideology of ‘us’ being somehow better, more intelligent, more moral, than ‘them’ – ironically, a trait which Dawkins describes as a particular Darwinian adaptive trait known as the “kin-selection principle.” Again, the Oxford professor seems not eager to find the quite obvious “evils” of science, technology and Darwinism.
Richard Dawkins once argued against a quote by John Keats: “Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy? There was an awful rainbow once in heaven: we know her woof, her texture; she is given in the dull catalogue of common things. Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, conquer all mysteries by rule and line, empty the haunted air, and… unweave a rainbow.”
Dawkins thought that the scientific truth behind the rainbow was even more beautiful – a worthy comment, but one that disregarded all the other various ways of seeing and knowing due to a belief that his way was the only way – and that is the very definition of Fundamentalism. It is an ideology which seeks to replace all other thoughts and philosophies, and if Dawkins thought with a clear mind on the topic he would see that this is exactly his real concern.
Let us attempt to understand the rainbow in all its beauty – physical, emotional and spiritual – without dogma and prejudice, and allow all others to find their own way freely.
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