The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Defending Dawkins?

I mentioned earlier that I recently finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Despite having never finished The Blind Watchmaker, I decided to pick up a copy of because I was curious about what he had to say, given the amount of press he’s been getting of late. So, I went looking for the book, only to spend a week looking before I could find it, because every bookstore I visited appeared to be sold out of its compies. I asked a clerk in one of the stores, and he confirmed they’d sold out, and indicated that the publisher may have underestimated the book’s potential popularity.

Of course, I was already a fan of Sam Harris, so I didn’t think all of what he’d have to say would be new to me. (When Dawkins delved into physics and other esoteric matters, however, I discovered I was wrong.) I finally went out and bought a copy after reading an article about Dawkins with the puzzling title “An Atheist Bullies the Faithful.” How, I wondered, could Dawkins alone bully entire groups of religious believers? For that matter, were there enough atheists anywhere to bully anyone?

The article is a critical take on Dawkin’s provocatively titled documentary The Root of All Evil (available here on Google Video, and including a now amusing clip of Rev. Ted Haggard being interviewed), and its chief complaints seem to be Dawkins travels the globe challenging the faith (and faith-based assumptions) of devoutly faithful people and that Dawkins doesn’t interview religious moderates in his documentary.

I think the second charge isn’t quite right. I don’t have my copy of The God Delusion handy for reference, but I recall that in it Dawkins mentions the he invited a number of moderate religions scholars and leaders to be interviewed for his documentary, and all but one declined. (Which, also, gives me a feeling of deja vu, if you know what I mean.)

As for the first charge, this constitutes “bullying” how? Well it depends on how you define bullying.

First of all, if you look a the documentary and just take the scenes at Lourdes you see Dawkins the apparently lone nonbeliever in a sea of believers. And he’s bullying them? The idea that he’s even in a position to bully anyone is, to borrow from Dawkins’ title, the height of delusion; but not an uncommon one given the tendency of some American Christians to adopt the pose of persecuted minority despite being one of the overwhelming majority of Americans who profess religious beliefs. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas is just the latest example of this.

I wonder about the question. Why is it “in vogue” to disbelieve in a Creator of the universe, who loves us and wants to have a relationship with us and not “in vogue” to believe?

“In vogue”? You wouldn’t know it from the numbers. After all, nearly 90% of Americans profess a belief in God according to a recent poll. And only 37% would consider voting for an otherwise qualified presidential candidate who also happens to be an atheist. It gets even more interesting when you take into consideration that less than half believe in evolution, and something like 25 percent believe Jesus will return in 2007. That last number is still more than twice the percentage of those identifying as atheist.

So how does this qualify as “in vogue,” or some kind of overwhelming trend of Dawkins-led heathens “bullying” the faithful? More to the point, how does any sane person convince themselves of such a trend in the face of very real evidence of a very different kind of trend?

I don’t know that HIllary Clinton, Barack Obama, or the incoming Democratic congress heard about the 37% of Americans who would vote for an atheist candidate, but they seem to have taken to heart the rhetoric that the way to power is to appeal to evangelicals, to the point of hiring consultants to help them do just that by advising them to distance themselves from provocative ideas like the separation of church and state.

Dr. Welton Gaddy, president of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, said her encouragement of such overt religiosity raised “red flags” about the traditional separation of church and state.

“I don’t want any politician prostituting the sanctity of religion,” Mr. Gaddy said, adding that nonbelievers also “have a right to feel they are represented at the highest levels of government.”

To Ms. Vanderslice, that attitude is her party’s problem. In an interview, she said she told candidates not to use the phrase “separation of church and state,” which does not appear in the Constitution’s clauses forbidding the establishment or protecting the exercise of religion.

“That language says to people that you don’t want there to be a role for religion in our public life,” Ms. Vanderslice said. “But 80 percent of the public is religious, and I think most people are eager for that kind of debate.”

Well, that’s one step closer to alignment with people like Katharine Harris and outgoing Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, who have stated that separation of church and state is “a lie” and “made up,” respectively. Of course, Democrats don’t necessarily have to go as far as Harris or Ehrlich by making declarations. They can just not talk about it, as minister Jim Wallis suggests on topics like gay rights and reproductive rights.

Neither, of course, went into detail about just what a union of church and state (which, presumably, they think would be a good thing and which they believe nothing explicitly prevents) would look like. And, while it’s safe to assume they would both prefer the state cleave closely to their particular beliefs (or at least not offend against them), they don’t have to paint us a picture. That work is already underway.

It has it’s beginnings when you believe your country is “God’s favorite,” or a president believes he’s appointed by God, as does his staff and a number of his supporters.

Its more than a notion when a U.S. Army General declares the “war on terror” a holy war, or when uniformed military officers film a promotional video for an evangelical organization, in the Pentagon.

It’s already underway when Bush appointees prohibit the National Park Service from giving an official estimate of the Grand Canyon’s geologic age, because it doesn’t jibe with the belief that the earth is just 6,000 years old, yet must carry in it’s gift shop a book that the canyon was created by Noah’s flood.

It’s underway in the form of taxpayer funded prison programs that proselytize for evangelical Christianity.

It’s underway in the form of taxpayer funded “abstinence-only” AIDS education in Africa that proselytizes for evangelical Christianity, but doesn’t lower infection rates. (A point Dawkins addresses in his documentary.)

It’s underway in the form of Bush administration initiatives and congressional riders that weaken regulations designed to protect separation of church and state, and make it easier for religions organizations to proselytize on taxpayers’ dime.

It’s underway in the form of Bush administration policies to de-fund international women’s health programs, in favor of giving government funding to proselytizing, “abstinence-only” religions organizations.

It’s underway in the form of government funding for evangelical “abstinence-only” educators who declare, in safe company, that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t work.

It’s underway in the form of a government office of faith-based initiatives that favors evangelical Christian organizations over non-Christian applicants. And supplies the entire budget of the Salvation Army while allowing it to discriminate against Jews and homosexuals in employment.

It’s underway in the form of a local government declining to fund suicide prevention for gay youth, in the name of “family values.”

It’s underway in the form of the Bush administration making it harder to launch a legal defense of church/state separation.

It’s underway in the form of the IRS investigating churches that opposed Bush administration policies, but not churches that support the Bush administration.

Its uglier side becomes evident when families challenge state-sponsored religion in public schools, and are exposed to potential attack.

It’s underway when a state legislature declares Christianity the state’s official religion, or when another state legislator wants to criminalize out-of-wedlock pregnancies, or when another state legislator wants to require jail time for failing to report a miscarriage to law enforcement.

It’s underway when a Bush appointee fights to block an HPV vaccine that might prevent cervical cancer (the second deadliest in women), because it might remove the threat of disease as an means of encouraging abstinence.

It’s already being established when a state tries to force a 13 year old to carry a pregnancy to term.

It’s evident when the government won’t give Wiccan soldier a religious symbol on his headstone, and in outrage the the government provides Muslim U.S. soldiers with a place to worship.

It’s already entrenched when evangelicals take over the Air Force Academy and make it a hell for nonbelievers.

It’s already underway when the Bush administrations sides with Iran’s fundamentalist government to block U.N. access to gay human rights activists.

It’s more than underway when U.S. foreign policy is influenced by belief in the Rapture to the degree that evangelical organizations have the ear of the White House and hold court with elected officials when it comes to policy related to Israel Palestine, because a significant number of people take any sign of unrest in the Middle East as the prologue to Jesus’ return (even this year, remember?); enough, in fact, to support a small tourism industry.

(The author of the aforementioned article admits that Dawkins notes there are political reasons for Middle East conflict, but fails to include that there are deep religious roots there too, as laid out in The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount by Gershom Gorenberg, another favorite read of mine from last year.)

Its uglier side is evident in the uproar over the (misinformed) idea that a Muslim congressman-elect will take his oath of office on the Koran rather than the Bible.

(No word on reaction to the reality that two Buddhists will be sworn into Congress as well, and probably won’t swear on anything at all, since no one else does anyway. But I can’t imagine a positive reaction from people who think non-Christians are unfit for office and atheists aren’t really citizens.)

This list could go on and on, but stopping here should be sufficient to at least cause one to question who’s doing the “bullying.” I’ve focused mostly on American Christianity in its extreme (but not necessarily uncommon) manifestations. Dawkins goes on to point out how religious belief, in the context of Islam, is one of the root causes of the practice of suicide bombing. It’s also a root cause of something I blogged about earlier, a fatwa against Iraqi gays which is still yielding victims. (That religious anti-gay death squads should thrive in U.S. occupied Iraq is worth thinking about too.)

The irony is that Dawkins has actually taken a stand against what might be considered actually “bullying” of people of faith. That of course, is likely to get about as much attention as when the ACLU takes on cases defending religious speech. What get’s Dawkins accused of “bullying” is that he breaks an unspoken but inviolable rule; one that Sam Harris has laid out before and that Susan Jacoby — whose Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism I intend to finish reading some day — spelled out more recently.

Although I do not believe that atheism is in vogue at the moment, there is indeed more open discussion of the subject than there was when Freethinkers was published three years ago. This debate has been stimulated by three books–Sam Harris’s The End of Faithand Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.Both Harris and Dawkins have made the invaluable point–one that has yet to be absorbed by most Americans–that religion does not deserve any special exemption from criticism. Moreover, speaking openly about atheism works to dispel the notion that atheists have horns.

Dawkins, Harris and others are, more than anything else guilty of breaking the rule that matters of faith are exempt from criticism. Put another way, they’re guilty of continuing to talk, and question, even upon reaching the boundaries of what Harris has called “the great conversation stopper.”

Religious faith is a conversation-stopper. Religion is only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and–all too often–what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. Only a fundamental willingness to be reasonable–to have our beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments–can guarantee that we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.

And if you doubt the reality of that unspoken rule, or it’s effectiveness, I’ve pointed out before how well it encourages people to keep their mouths shut rather than criticize religious belief, even if they’re not believers themselves.

I return from Oxford enthusiastic for argument. I immediately begin trying out Dawkins’ appeal in polite company. At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. “Who here is an atheist?” I ask.

Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, “I am!”

But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: “You would be.”


“Because you enjoy pissing people off.”

“Well, that’s true.”

This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.’” This is the type of statement she would never want to make.

In the name of that kind of politeness, the only people qualified to speak about religious belief are the ones least likely to question it themselves; believers. The rest of us, at risk of being labeled “anti-religion”, best keep our mouths shut or at least maintain the expected degree of deference to religion in general. And that means not asking certain questions. It means, to borrow an example from Harris, when the president or any other person of faith says “our right to liberty comes from God,” we may not ask how that’s different from saying our right to liberty comes from Zeus, Odin, Brahma, Pangu, or the Great Spirit.

To do that would be, well, rude. And may even be, as Dawkins is often accused of being, arrogant. But consider the long list above before applying that label exclusively to Dawkins and other non-believers and whether it reflects the kind of “arrogance of certainty” Dawkins is accused of, or the humility that faith supposedly inspires. (See the comments on the post at the previous link for some interesting discussion.)

If Dawkins is guilty of anything, it’s that he’s asking questions and making assertions that many well-mannered people think shouldn’t be uttered, even if they share some of his opinions about the nature and consequences of religious belief, and he’s doing it too loudly. Given how few people like Dawkins speak up in the first place, and how many of those well mannered folks keep quiet in the name of keeping the peace, it’s a wonder that Dawkins and others are heard at all amid all the things in the long list above.

And given all that, it’s a good thing he and others do speak up. Otherwise the din above might be all that’s heard. So, rather than hear him unjustly accused of bullying, I say “Bully for him!” Because if he and others don’t speak up, and aren’t defended when they do, how do the rest of us defend ourselves the forces referenced above if/when the time comes?


  1. I see what you’re getting at – however… the thing that bothers me about Dawkins is that he doesn’t respect religion. I am as atheist as it comes, but I don’t bring down other people that *are* religious. I don’t think that they’re any less intelligent than any given atheist, or any less worthy of respect. Dawkins doesn’t seem to share this view. He is intolerant of religion, and to me that’s the biggest problem with religion – intolerance. So to see him giving the same treatment only in the name of atheism is just shameful.

  2. But why does religion deserve any more respect than any other set of beliefs or unproven hypotheses? That’s the question I think Dawkins and others are asking. And there haven’t been many answers to that question beyond that many people have religious beliefs and that those beliefs make them feel better.

    The other arguments Dawkins effectively answers. And despite the invalidity of the two above (the don’t, after all, outweigh the trouble caused by intense religious belief) people still cling to them as reasons why religion deserve more respect than anything else.

  3. I actually believe that an ardent atheist is religious, in the sense that he or she has absolute conviction that he or she is right. And the template, in this culture, and many others, is for an ardent religionist to agressively advocate for his or her views. In that sense, I see Dawkins as simply mirroring his culture with his aggressive stance. Of course, given the relentless attack of the religious right on science and intellectual thought, I am not terribly upset at his approach. The good news is that the so-called religious right positions used to be the consensus attitudes of most people. The good news is that we have moved further from these attitudes over time.

    I was raised as a Christian Scientist. Beyond that having branded me, to most other so-called Christians, as an heretical cultist, it left me with a different attitude about prayer, and the proper place of religion. I took to heart Matthew 6:5, which, to me, says that I should not be pushing my beliefs on anyone, by making a big production out of my faith. I empathize with the folks in the article, who call themselves agnostics, so as not to publicly call out those who may feel differently.

    But Dawkins serves a useful purpose, as he throws others’ intolerance right back in their face, forcing them to confront how their attitudes repel any who are not already “convinced”.

  4. Pingback: Why Dont You…Blog? » Blog Archive » Religion or not?

  5. Excellent post and very interesting thanks for making it. I cant say I agree with (how I have interpreted) Katie’s comments though, I really do not see why some one who is devoutly religious has any more right to my respect than anyone else.

    Is an “ardent atheist religious?” Personally I don’t think so, but I can see where the point of view comes from.

  6. Found you via The Zero Boss. I am reading The God Delusion right now myself, and I can understand why a believer might be upset by it. They’re used to being treated with kid gloves. Hell, I do it — I hid the book while my sister was visiting.

    And Dawkins makes the point that while the vehement atheist may SEEM as blindly dogmatic as the vehement believer, all it would take is one piece of real evidence to the contrary to force him to rethink his position. Whereas the believer, in the face of thousand of pieces of evidence, still isn’t budging.

    Your tagline says you’re a Buddhist. What do you make of Dawkins’ assertion that Buddhism doesn’t count as a religion? My exposure to Buddhism comes mostly from “Buddhism Without Beliefs”, by Stephen Batchelor, and I have to say, the idea that you can practice it without having to believe in god(s) or even a soul really appeals to me. But is that idea common or even accepted among Buddhists in general?

  7. Pingback: Why Dont You…Blog? » Blog Archive » Religious Furore

  8. For the record, the claim about the Grand Canyon employees not being allowed to tell visitors the real age of the canyon is false. When the report came out, there wasn’t a shred of evidence for that claim and we’ve now verified from those who work at the park that it’s not true. There are other things in the report that are legitimate and worthy of criticism, but the headline claim is fictional.

  9. Very thought provoking.

    Personally, I like Dawkins’ assertion that Buddhism isn’t a real religion, mostly because I identify strongly with Buddhism and I think of it in much the same way. To me that just gives it even more credence.

  10. Regarding an ardent atheist being religious: Dawkins points out that being passionate is not the same as being fundamentalist.

    Regarding Buddhism not being a religion: Dawkins doesn’t assert that, he raises the possibility with regard to Buddhism and Confucianism, in the process of saying he won’t be attacking them. Partly because he doesn’t know as much about them.

    As for whether they are religions: that’s a bit like asking whether a living Neanderthal would be a human. Kind of depends on how you define religion! Also on what you mean by Buddhism: the agnostic path to enlightenment through meditation put forth by Gautama, or the more supernatural melange of reincarnation, boddhisattvas, “merit” (sometimes obtainable through spinning prayer wheels, or reciting belief in a Buddha who’ll gather souls to a paradise), and demons often found in Buddhism-as-practiced.