Friday, September 22, 2006

Dawkins the Dogmatist?

After reading Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion, Andrew Brown asks “who would have thought him capable of writing one this bad?” Are Dawkins’s ideas as daft as Brown suggests?

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?

Brown writes:
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."

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.
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?

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.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

though the fact remains that religion can lead to unacceptable behaviour, the flip side to this is that religion is a binding force, a guiding light for those who have lost their way through the long journey of life. have we not heard of those who, under the harborage of religion, reached the highest levels of self actualization, an example being the renowned saint valmiki. religion was not meant to divide, it was meant to unite people. religion teaches tolerance, not autocracy. it is due to those self proclaimed learned people, who know little but talk more, that religion is now seen as the root of evil. a true atheist is one who does not believe in the existence of a supreme power. apply this meaning and it will be seen that those who claim to be atheists are actually people not willing to conform to any existing religion. in that way, theist or atheist, religious or not, it all comes down to the fact that, if religion did not exist, wars would still be fought.

1:55 pm GMT  
Anonymous Simon said...

Dan,

It is indeed disingenuous to pretend that religion is not used to motivate acts of political violence. So what should one do?
To ban religion as one would ban smoking is a ludicrous idea. Even the Soviets and Chinese communists didn't succeed in enforcing their state atheism on 'the people'.
The hard reality is that the standing point of atheism is doomed, even counterproductive, for several reasons.
A general problem of atheism, is that it cannot even accept a mild form of religion: it cannot promote "moderates" against "radicals", because it would be contradicting itself.
In that sense, Dawkins is consistent: he rejects all forms of faith. However, Dawkins' approach is little more than entertainment: does he honestly think that he can convince a single believer to join is atheist ranks? I'd rather suppose that he tends to annoy the "moderates". However, Don Quichottes do have a certain comical value, and may hope to gain some sympathy for being so faithful to their quirky world-view, even in the face of hard facts (people's inherent impulse to believe in a God, in this case).

No, the solution to religious radicalism simply cannot come from atheism, whatever its incarnation (scientific, political, philosophical, etc.).

7:27 pm GMT  
Anonymous Andrew Brown said...

(briefly) The point about my comment on Stalin, and the subsequent reference in that paragraph to the Spanish Civil war, was that the murder of priests, in both cases, was directly motivated by atheist. Whether the other tens of millions whom Stalin killed were victims of his atheism seems to me a sterile argument. All I was trying to do was to establish that Dawkins had over-reached himself in claiming that when atheists do bad things, this is not because of their atheism. Not only is this in principle unprovable. It is in practice clearly disaproved. Some of the bad things atheists have done have been clearly motivated by hatred of religion.

Again the argument about the Tamil Tigers is not there to prove that religion plays no role in other suicide bombings. Of course it does. It is there to point out that even if you could abolish religious belief, people would still do terrible things. The Dawkins/Harris position is that suicide bombing, fanatical behaviour, would all stop if no one were religious. It's just not true.

I'm not taking a position as to whether "religion" is good or bad. Myself I don't think that it exists as a single entity, but that's another question. I just think that to talk as if it could be abolished is unrealistic, irresponsible, and a betrayal of intellectual seriousness.



The more general form of

8:19 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

I agree, Simon, that banning religion would be ludicrous, and I didn’t mean the smoking analogy to imply that. Even if I disagree with what someone says and, I defend their right to say or believe it. To adapt a religious phrase, there can be no compulsion in atheism. And I agree that atheists can’t really tolerate (intellectually, at least!) religious moderates, because for many atheists ANY sort of religious belief is an error of thought (by which I mean that if a belief is based on faith it’s on dodgy epistemological ground from the get go).

And I also agree that Dawkins will not convert anyone with deeply held religious beliefs. Knowing a bit about how people defend their cherished values and defend them against criticism, I don’t see this a particular fault of Dawkins’s approach. But I don’t think that’s what Dawkins intends, and I don’t think the value of his work criticising religion lies in its power to convert the faithful. It’s more about raising consciousness among agnostics, atheists and perhaps even religious moderates that there are dangers – moral and intellectual – in taking the tenets of religious traditions too seriously (and if you look at what people like Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, and Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, say, you can see that they appreciate some of what Dawkins says – Holloway argues for keeping religious morality out of public life, and Harries is happy to revise his interpretation of the Bible’s views on homosexuality (in essence rejecting them) in light of modern scientific evidence about the biology of homosexuality (though I’m not sure I agree with his interpretation of the evidence or its relevance).

I think what Dawkins wants to do is to make people less deferential towards religious traditions, more critical of their impact on people’s lives (we should also explore their beneficial effects), and more aware of the role of religion in many modern conflicts. It’s more about changing the climate in which we discuss religion than converting members of religious communities into atheists.

8:33 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Great to hear from you Andrew (readers: in case you didn't notice, Andrew wrote the review that prompted my post). I'm not sure, but was the last part of your message cut off? There's a final sentence there in limbo. OK, so we (if not Dawkins) agree that abolishing religion, whatever that would entail and mean, is both unlikely and undesirable. Further, it wouldn’t solve as many of the worlds ills as perhaps Dawkins implies. But we could surely still welcome the gradual demise of religion, like the slow extinction of a species, if we agreed that it feeds into human coalitional psychology in ways that promote inter-group conflict. Even if we don’t go that far, we could still justifiably promote a greater awareness of the potentially divisive effects of religious faith when religious communities clash, and recognise that religiously motivated anger and threats of violence — as expressed recently by Sikhs in response to a play, Christians in response to an opera, and Muslims in response to practically any criticism at all of Islam — should not automatically command our respect and attention.

If we read Dawkins as saying that religion, and only religion, is the driving force of evil in the world, and that if the planet was suddenly populated by atheists then everything would be OK, we indeed have a pretty weak argument, and a dangerous one at that. But if the take-home message of Dawkins’s book is read as saying “Look: religion is much less benign than is popularly supposed, and as endorsed by our leaders” (Blair is on record as saying that the conflicts in Northern Ireland, and the 7/7 bombings, have nothing to do with religion – and I’m not arguing the converse, that there are solely the product of religious belief), then it’s a different story. It’s a potentially important eye-opener for people that are otherwise unbothered by the entrenchment and influence of religious belief around the globe.

8:49 pm GMT  
Anonymous Simon said...

I agree, Dan, with your point about the utility of exercising reason as a safeguard against religious fanaticism. Pope Benedict made that very point last week, thereby inadvertently provoking a powerful illustrative display of lack of reason and measure by some... However, in the context you were refering to in your post - people killing each other - the atheist is powerless at best, and arguably counterproductive. Notwithstanding, militant atheists such as Dawkins use religious extremism to make their point, or berate the bases of those fundamentalists' faith. Do you see the inanity of the exercise?

Now, as you say, a more realistic target audience for Dawkins would be agnostics, and even religious moderates. Well, I think agnostics actually don't car much for such discussions unless they are genuinly trying to make their mind up about religion, so to speak. And 'moderates' will usually consider the gesticulations of athesit zealots in much the same light as those of religious zealots.

By focussing on religion, I'm afraid Dawkins is simply missing the point.

9:54 pm GMT  
Blogger Richard said...

"‘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)"

Really? You think that in describing an act as 'evil', Dawkins is really just making a psychological claim about his readers? How very odd... :-P

(Just imagine if an editor informed him of a poll suggesting that the majority of his readers no longer disapprove of genocide. Dawkins must respond, "Oh, my mistake, it turns out Hitler wasn't evil after all!")

[/nitpicking]

7:33 am GMT  
Anonymous Andrew Brown said...

But we could surely still welcome the gradual demise of religion, like the slow extinction of a species, if we agreed that it feeds into human coalitional psychology in ways that promote inter-group conflict. Even if we don’t go that far, we could still justifiably promote a greater awareness of the potentially divisive effects of religious faith when religious communities clash, and recognise that religiously motivated anger and threats of violence — as expressed recently by Sikhs in response to a play, Christians in response to an opera, and Muslims in response to practically any criticism at all of Islam — should not automatically command our respect and attention.

Oh, sure. But I think that human coalitional psychology predates language, so that if people weren't identifying themselves as religious and arguing over theology, they would be -- to take a wildly implausible example -- murdering each other for supporting the wrong football teams, or arguing about computer languages ans operating systems.

And the "respect" commanded -- that is surely just a political thing. I don't think we ought to respect the opinions of any mob. I don't think that they should be given in to. But that has nothing to do with the opinions or identies they use to justify their behaviour.

You know, all the stuff about the dangers and divisive effects of religious faith I first came across in John Bowker's book "Licensed Insanities", in about 1990. (Bowker was at the time the Dean of Trinity). He has always argued that religion is important and hugely dangerous. He takes gene-culture co-evolution very seriously. And his conclusion, which I have reluctantly come to share, is that successful religions do not respond well to threats.

1:33 pm GMT  
Anonymous Simon said...

Hi Dan,
Just a quick note after watching an interview of Pr. Dawkins about this book (http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/5372458.stm).
I will pass rapidly on the fact that his knowledge of the Bible seems pretty shaky. When asked what the Bible is he goes on to define what the Torah or the Old Testament is… and when asked specifically about what the NT is, he answers by saying that Christianity is the invention of St Paul, oblivious to the parts that come from Judaeo-Chritianity and its offshoots (c.f. St James). Oh well.
What really jumped out was this sentence, on which he manifestly bases all his ideas about religion: “The universe would be a very different place with [God] than without such a being”. As a scientist you would assume that he realises that his sample size is n=1. There is only one universe, so there is no way to even hypothesise what the universe would be in the alternative situation. Even Bayesian inference can’t save him on that one… His atheism actually seems to be based on bad science and flawed logic!
He, as many, also fails to realise that for a theist, if God created the Universe (Creator by definition), then everything than one can know about the universe, be it scientifically, is knowledge of the works of God. (Granted, his dear creationists make the same mistake) as him. It is a common blunder to assume that God’s intervention in this world would necessarily be “supernatural” or “miraculous” or “unexplainable”. For many theists, there is nothing outside of God’s ‘framework’. Mechanistic explanations for things don’t negate the presence of God. On the contrary, because they may help dispel superstitious claims, they reinforce God, so to speak, by fighting ignorance. Dawkins himself spent his entire scientific career advancing the cause of God - but please, no-one tell him. The Roman Catholic Church was forced to realise this many years ago, by the way… possibly a counter-example to Andrew's last sentence, above.

11:40 pm GMT  
Blogger andybiochem said...

Oh, please. I find it hard to imagine how Andrew Brown managed to provide such an extensive dissection of a book he obviously hasn't read.

Some points....


Andrew Brown:
"the important truth added in the 20th century: that religious belief persists in the face of these facts and arguments.

This persistence is what any scientific attack on religion must explain—and this one doesn't."


I don't have RD's book to hand to directly quote from it, but, from memory, the reason why religion persists is explained IN FULL in The God Delusion.

RD describes religion as a by-product of childhood gulliability which enhances the ability to survive. That gulliability allows us to believe in gods etc in despite of overwhelming credible evidence. That's why religion has survived. It's quite an excellent crane in my opinion......yes 'cranes' are ALSO explained in the book.

Secondly, he also states (and provides evidence for the fact) that atheism is linked to high IQ. Since, by definition, there are many more people with an average IQ, it follows that there should also be many more religious folk than non.

This is the problem that atheism must overcome....but since it is an innate aspect of human life that we are open to belief systems as a by-product of our own survival tactics, the best one could hope for is general symbiosis and effective policing of ethical laws (punishment and deterrents of bombings etc).

In a best case scenario, we could hope for a Richard Dawkins to find himself in a governmental role and be able to change education from grass roots.....rather than attemt to change well-rooted views.

For what it's worth, I found The God Delusion to be one of the best books Dawkins has produced, and is well argued, and backed up with evidence.

10:21 pm GMT  
Blogger Potentilla said...

Andrew But I think that human coalitional psychology predates language, so that if people weren't identifying themselves as religious and arguing over theology, they would be -- to take a wildly implausible example -- murdering each other for supporting the wrong football teams, or arguing about computer languages ans operating systems.

I agree that hcp means that people would still be getting into fights. But religion (to a greater or lesser extent depending on brand), unlike football or computers, actually tells people that they are morally right compared with the "other", which seems to me an extremely powerful disincentive to restrain violent impulses. Furthermore, you sound slightly as though you are arguing that there is some sort of "natural" level of us-and-them violence for any population, which would remain stable no matter what its ostensible cause.

Don't you think that if there were less religion, it is plausible that there might be less - just a bit less - in-group/out-group violence? Dawkins doesn't, as I read him (yes I just finished the book) think that banning religion is either possible or desirable. He just wants the downsides and implausibility of religion to be more in the forefront of people's minds, and in particular, that children should not be indoctrinated. I must say, I thought before I read the book, and also did some wider internet research, that he was over-emphasising this last point. Now I am not so sure.

And the "respect" commanded -- that is surely just a political thing. I don't think we ought to respect the opinions of any mob. I don't think that they should be given in to. But that has nothing to do with the opinions or identies they use to justify their behaviour.

As part of his conscious-raising aims, he wants us to stop treating religious belief in a category of its own as deserving of "respect". He wants us to be able to argue against someone's religious beliefs as we would argue against their political ones - politely, reasonably, but without being subject to an accusation of "disrespect". I must say I can't think of any reason why this is unreasonable.

8:07 pm GMT  

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