Dawkins the Dogmatist?
People are, quite obviously, driven to all sorts of acts for all sorts of reasons. People kill people for monetary gain, to eliminate competing sources of power, to exact revenge, and even to advance political causes that the killers think are just (this encompasses not just individuals but also governments that wage ‘just wars’ that will inevitably lead to the deaths of many people).
Brown’s review throws up the usual range of questions about the relationship of religion, and atheism, to behaviour, and the causal power of religion (or atheism) to induce people to acts of suicide and murder. Religion isn’t a necessary ingredient for these actions – but does that mean it’s irrelevant? And what about the role of atheism in motivating murderous behaviour? If religion is such a potent force in driving human behaviour, isn’t atheism just the same?
Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it's nothing to do with their atheism. He devotes pages to a discussion of whether Hitler was a Catholic, concluding that "Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn't, but even if he was… the bottom line is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism."Dawkins is suggesting that the motivation for certain ‘evil’ acts (not a word I like, but I think it’s clear that Dawkins means act that most of his readers would consider morally unacceptable) is sometimes religious belief, but that atheism does not have similar effects. Of course, this doesn’t mean that atheists don’t act immorally – presumably, according to Dawkins, when they do act in such a way it is not motivated by their atheistic commitments, nor is carried out in the name, or to advance the cause, of atheism. Brown responds with the line about Stalin killing the priests and the clergy. But what does this fact alone demonstrate? That an atheist committed mass murder – which tells us what? I’m no expert on Stalin’s reign, and so I don’t know what motivated his actions, but is Brown suggesting that his atheism per se was a decisive or contributing factor? It would seem so, when he writes “The claim that Stalin's atheism had nothing to do with his actions may be the most disingenuous in the book”. But what does Brown base the conclusion about the role of atheism in Stalin’s stunning inhumanity on apart from a correlation? If there is evidence that it atheism was a driving force, where is the evidence?
Yet under Stalin almost the entire Orthodox priesthood was exterminated simply for being priests, as were the clergy of other religions and hundreds of thousands of Baptists.
And there seems to be a bit of a double standard here. Brown seems irritated at Dawkins’s suggestion that religion can lead to terrible behaviour, but then tries to counter it with by showing that atheism can lead to bad behaviour. If it’s too simple to blame religion for bad behaviour, as Dawkins supposedly does, it should also be too simple to blame atheism, as Brown implies.
Brown also takes issue with the suggestion that religious fundamentalism is a causal factor in producing terrorist bombers:
[T]he definitive scientific study of suicide bombers, Dying to Win, has just been published by Robert Pape, a Chicago professor who has a database containing every known suicide attack since 1980. This shows, as clearly as evidence can, that religious zealotry is not on its own sufficient to produce suicide bombers; in fact, it's not even necessary: the practice was widely used by Marxist guerrillas in Sri Lanka.Whenever people want to illustrate the lack of efficacy of religion in producing suicide bombers, they always cite the Tamil Tigers, who are inspired by a Marxism rather than an explicit religious agenda (indeed, may Tamils might be atheists). Again, we have to ask what this shows. Imagine that someone wrote a book on the dangers of smoking, and reviewers pointed out that not all smokers get cancer, and that non-smokers also get cancer. Would we say “See, smoking isn’t dangerous after all”. Of course not. The fact that smoking is neither necessary nor sufficient for getting cancer isn’t the point. Smoking can still be an important cause of cancer – even the most important cause of cancer (I’m not saying it is) – even if people get cancer for other reasons. And so when people tried to get smoking banned in public places, or taxes increased to put people off smoking, we wouldn’t be entitled to say “But look, there are some other know causes of cancer, so leave smoking alone!”. It would still be appropriate to single smoking out, critically discuss it, and definitely withdraw government support for it (if there were, say, smoking academies).
As I said at the outset, people are motivated to action by all sorts of things, such as political, social and economic inequalities, and the clash of cultures and values (although this is easy to overplay, and can be become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy). In the absence of any commitments to a supernatural being or, alternatively, fully naturalistic worldview, people will continue to rape, pillage, murder, wage war and carry out genocides. Similarly, if everyone stops smoking, some people will still get cancer. The question is whether religion is a causal factor in organised acts of terrorism and other condemnable actions, such as the killing of abortion doctors (and also whether atheism has similar effects) – which is like asking whether smoking causes cancer, regardless of whether other things do too.
This is not just about whether certain beliefs and actions are present together. I think we have to pay some attention to explicit reasons people give for their actions (though I appreciate this is far from the whole story – we’re often blind to the non-conscious psychological processes that mould our behaviour). When soon-to-be suicide bombers record their farewell messages, they usually cite a complex of factors that have driven them to this point. Often top of the agenda is a sense of social, political and cultural injustice. Their actions are designed to make a point on behalf of a particular group of people (today most usually a religiously defined community: Muslims). But there is also an undeniable religious component to their actions, which is evidenced by the very language in which their justifications are couched. Pro-lifers that kill doctors in abortion clinics are not shy in citing their faith, and the moral commitments it entails, is support of their deeds. Can we really dismiss as a motivating factor what the people whose behaviour we’re trying to understand actually tell us? Why would we want to?
As the Tamil Tigers show, you don’t need religion to be a suicide bomber. The psychology of human coalitions is complex and can clearly be affected by a number of inputs, from favourite football team to familial, ethnic, national or religious affiliation. Ingroup/outgroup hostilities can be bred by all kinds of symbolic badges, behaviours and beliefs. But this simply does not mean that religion should not be discussed as an important cause of strife and conflict. If religion was not such an important causal factor in suicide bombers, why were none of the 9/11 or 7/7 bombers non-religious? Why does religion feature prominently in the video messages the bombers recorded? Why, when a play is put on in Birmingham, do Sikhs in particular, and not the local community generally, stage threatening protests? Why, when the Pope quotes a 14th century writer, do Muslims burn effigies, make calls for capital punishment for those who insult their prophet, and turn up with placards saying “Jesus is a slave to Allah” and “Islam will conquer Rome”? In contrast, why don’t atheists turn up every time there’s a religious speech with banners saying “Behead believers!”? When have you heard of a group of people getting together and killing another group, and then saying “We did this because they believe in a God and we don’t”? If religion isn’t an important factor in motivating suicide bombers, why aren’t atheists, many of whom agree with the political complaints of many of the bomber, equally represented among the bombers?
The capacity for humans to commit the most atrocious acts on the fellow humans is strong enough without the moral support of a religious framework. Of course conflict in the world wouldn’t disappear if religions evaporated. No would cancer if people stopped smoking. But that doesn’t mean religion, or smoking, isn’t harmful. Why is it, then, that people are so eager to try to get religion off the hook, and not criticise its potentially dreadful effects? Even if Brown is right to say that a thorough-going atheism is unnatural to humans, that doesn’t equate to support for maintaining religions, or the funding of religious schools by the government.
Dawkins might oversimplify the link between religion and murder and immorality (I haven’t read the book, so I’ll suspend judgement), but in response his critics tend to go too far in trying exculpate religion for its negative consequences. The reality is more complex than perhaps either suppose.