Reply to Bunting's review of 'The Root Of All Evil?'
The Saturday before Dawkins’s programme aired, Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian dedicated a column to debunking Dawkins’s claims about, and critique of, religion. She’d seen the programmes and I hadn’t, so I waited until the first one aired and I had written a review before writing a response to Bunting’s article. I’ve quoted extensively to make sure the original points were preserved (and in fact most of the quotations following directly on from one another). So, taking it from the top:
“On Monday, it's Richard Dawkins's turn (yet again) to take up the cudgels against religious faith in a two-part Channel 4 programme, The Root of All Evil? His voice is one of the loudest in an increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists; something has got them badly rattled.”
I’d say so. The man in charge of the world’s only super-power is a devout Christian whose religious beliefs inform his moral agenda at home, from stem cells research and contraceptive drugs to capital punishment, as well as his international policy. The very phrase ‘axis of evil’ carries religious undertones, and it seems clear that a religiously inspired vision drives Bush in his war on terror and in Iraq. Other people, equally if not more devout, believe in an opposite states of affairs, and some of them are willing to blow themselves up to achieve that state of affairs. Of course, the state of affairs is often political a political goal, but the religious justification for acts of terrorism, to the extent there is one, underpin the extreme political activism. I think suicide bombers are sincere in thinking that their acts are morally justified – but this morality is buttressed by faith in their religious commitments. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church condemns the use of condoms in countries stricken by HIV – and on the basis of what? Manifest falsehoods.
“They even turned their bitter invective on Narnia.”
Well if you don’t think Christian theology in particular, or religious belief in general, should be inculcated in young children, like you might not want fascist, racist or sexist messages beamed into your kid’s head, then you are likely to find films with strong Christian undertones aimed at children unsettling, much like you would find implicit racist ideologies portrayed in a kid’s film offensive. I’m not equating religion with racism or fascism – I’m just saying that if you don’t think that it’s an appropriate thing to bring children up believing, and with good reason, then you will object to such films. It shouldn’t be such a surprise, though of course the surprise is feigned and the intent is to ridicule and trivialise.
“By all means, let's have a serious debate about religious belief, one of the most complex and fascinating phenomena on the planet, but the suspicion is that it's not what this chorus wants. Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there's the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again.”
So what are these unsubstantiated assertions, these sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence? The atheist’s critique of religion, particularly Dawkins’s, is of course general in nature, but it is based on an argument, and contrasts the religious mode of gaining understanding of the world (and I use the term loosely) with a scientific approach. Calling this critique a series of names doesn’t refute it, or make it go away.
“There's an aggrieved frustration that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now. Secularisation was supposed to be an inextricable part of progress. Even more grating, what secularisation there has been is accompanied by the growth of weird irrationalities from crystals to ley lines. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in God is not that they believe nothing, it is that they believe anything.”
Fair enough, some of us lament the fact that the ideals and philosophy of the Enlightenment have not illuminated everyone and everywhere – and I wouldn’t want to achieve this through coercion. But so what? So does every person who desires some state of affairs but is frustrated in their goals. The same could be said of the religious community, lamenting the loss of faith and religion in people’s lives, and fearing a consequent slide into a moral abyss as the moral investment made by Christ’s sacrifice runs dry. And GK Chesterton’s quip, cited by Bunting in the title to her column, gets it precisely backwards: it is faith that enables you to believe in anything, even things contradicted by the evidence of your sense or powers of reason; an atheist of a scientific bent will not believe just anything, but those things which the best evidence and theories point to existing. Of course, we’re fallible in this pursuit – there’s only so much we can hold in our heads, how much time we can spend assessing evidence and theories – but it’s anything but believing in anything.
“There's an underlying anxiety that atheist humanism has failed. Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence. Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires. Not knowing how to answer the big questions of life, we shelve them - we certainly don't develop the awe towards and reverence for the natural world that Dawkins would want. So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers.”
Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – these aren’t good adverts for atheistic regimes. But the link between not believing in a God and committing mass murder and genocide seems less clear than the line from religious faith to extreme Islamism and suicide bombings. For sure, people that don’t believe in God are capable of atrocities, just as religious people are. But there’s nothing intrinsically divisive about not believing in a God – after all, there are many things we all don’t believe in, but they’re not divisive factors in our lives, so why should not believing in a God be, unless you happen to meet those who fanatically do? The idea might be that without a God to ground your moral principles in morality is seen to be an illusion, and then you’re then free to carry out whatever moral barbarities you chose – and further that humans tend to choose mass killing. I don’t buy the argument that morals need to be grounded in religion – indeed, my position starts from a argued rejection of religion – nor that without God humans are complete savages. Indeed, the emerging story about the origins of morality, coming from evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, gene-culture studies, anthropology, behavioural and neuro-economics is what I’d direct Bunting to as a potential basis for a “compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos”.
And what about the charge that consumerism fills the gap of religion? Has Bunting heard of a place called the USA? The richest country in the world, and one of the most religious, it is very much a consumerism-driven society. Even Christians have pointed out the incompatibilities of scripture and the pursuit of wealth among their religious brethren, against which the Bible has more severe strictures than against than homosexuality, which gets the rich Christian Right so fired up. Bunting’s idea seems to be that losing your religion creates a void that is filled by pointless trivia and materialism, as if religious belief pushes those things out, but the evidence is clear that devout religion is compatible with consumerism on a massive scale, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse and all sorts of other criminality. The decline of the power and authority of religious traditions may create periods of moral uncertainty and confusion while we try to find our footing, but isn’t that part of growing up, both individually and as humanity? It is such a base to stand on that secular, humanistic atheists are trying to build.
“This is the only context that can explain Dawkins's programme, a piece of intellectually lazy polemic which is not worthy of a great scientist. He uses his authority as a scientist to claim certainty where he himself knows, all too well, that there is none; for example, our sense of morality cannot simply be explained as a product of our genetic struggle for evolutionary advantage.”
It’s not mere polemic; there’s an argument (you can read my version of it here). Maybe our sense of morality isn’t simply explained (and what a daftly loaded phrase – who on earth thought this problem would be simply explained? And how sophisticated is, “Because God says so?” as a basis for moral truths?) as a product of our genetic struggle for evolutionary advantage, but science has more to go on than that, as alluded to above.
“More irritatingly, he doesn't apply to religion - the object of his repeated attacks - a fraction of the intellectual rigour or curiosity that he has applied to evolution (to deserved applause).”
Well, Bunting hasn’t addressed Dawkins’s central argument about the nature of faith and scientific investigation, which I think is pretty strong and is so far unscathed by her attack, and Dawkins does a good job of pulling the rug out from under religion. If this can be achieved with little in the way of intellectual rigour or effort as compared with what is required in evolutionary biology and the other sciences, then I think that perhaps says something about the intellectual demands of the respective domains of faith and science. This is incredibly arrogant, but I’m just showing how easy it is to play Bunting’s game of merely insulting the opponent's intellect.
“Where is the grasp of the sociological or anthropological explanations of the centrality of religion? Sadly, there is no evolution of thought in Dawkins's position; he has been saying much the same thing about religion for a long time.”
The sociological and anthropological questions of religion are fascinating – why is it so prevalent, how did it emerge in an evolutionary context, what role does it play in explaining the structure of human social systems and human altruism and group living, how does it evolve with culture and affect further cultural and psychological evolution? But these are not directly related to the epistemological questions about the status of religious claims, and the nature of faith. This is a bit of misdirection that is tempting to fall for.
“There are three areas in his programmes where the lack of rigour is most striking. First, Dawkins is featured in Jerusalem; the point is that religion causes violence and most of the world's conflicts can be traced back to faith. If only they didn't have segregated schooling in Israel and Palestine then peace could emerge. Likewise in Northern Ireland.”
It’s simple nothing like this simple minded. Dawkins is focusing on the religion – you kind of can’t miss it – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think there is a political element to the clashes. In any case, the religious and the political are not so readily separable.
Bunting objects to:
“Dawkins's reference to a ‘process of non-thinking called faith’. For thousands of years, religious belief has been accompanied by thought and intellectual discovery, whether Islamic astronomy or the Renaissance. But his contempt is so profound that he can't be bothered to even find out (in an interview he dismissed Christian theology in exactly these terms). If this isn't the "hidebound certainty" of which he accuses believers, I'm not sure what is.”
I tried to explain what Dawkins means by calling faith a form of non-thinking in a previous post, but briefly Dawkins is highlighting the fact that religion encourages the disregard of reasons and evidence as grounds for accepting claims as true. This deprives you of tools for assessing the merit of the claim, and to rely instead on authority (not of evidence, which is a good thing, but on some unverifiable ancient scribblings) or tradition. This is surely the antithesis of critical thought, and this is why it is with faith, not the rejection of God, that you can believe in anything – so long as the right authority says it is so. However, once you’re on the faith train, you run into all sorts of difficulties with reconciling your religious faith-based convictions with the way the world is, and so much chin scratching and head rubbing ensues, and through a convoluted path od reasoning clarity is restored - what we normally call theology. The theological sub-field of theodicy – explaining evils, including natural disasters, in a God-created world – is a classic example: a philosophical response to explaining a problem created by believing in something on the basis of faith. If you don’t have the faith, then the problem disappears, although evil still requires a different sort of explanation and understanding (again, naturalistic, humanistic philosophy and science are not bad places to start). And it seems strange how you’d get a ticket on the faith train from this position: you see the evidence of evil, which even to the devout is prima facie evidence that there isn’t a God (then they try to cleverly show why this apparent contradiction is in fact not so), but you don’t have the compensating conviction that there is a moral God that makes sense of it all somehow so on balance you conclude that the facts of the world are suggestive that there isn't a God, and there aren't good reasosn for supposing there to be one - so you do not assent to the belief that God exists. And how are you supposed to get this conviction? Through faith - by merely willing it to be, by telling yourself, "Yes, God exists!”. How people convince themselves like this I don’t know. But of course they don’t. They usually imbibe these ideas as part of their cultural inheritance, and once established they’re hard to shift, not least because of familial and social uproar it would cause. It’s easier to go just along, and in fact there’s no prompting (especially from within the religion) to question your beliefs, and plenty of reinforcement not to, so it’s little surprise the traditions role on. And they may even have some benefits (alongside the drawback), such as playing a role in community cohesion. But the religious worldview has to be taken as a package, if it's grounded in faith and religious tradition, and considered on balance. We can take the ethic from the religion, and ground it in a naturalistic account of the world, and jettison the false beliefs, and bad approach to belief, intrinsic to religion.
This is just a sketch reply off the top of my head, so any further thoughts or criticisms are welcome (depending on the interest I may not be able to respond to all – he’s says presumptively!).