Regarding Dawkins and Fundamentalist Atheism
In response to this post, I have started a comment exchange at Dairy State Dad’s blog. (DSD is a Unitarian.) His comment field is limited to 4096 characters, and I didn’t know how much I needed to trim so I brought it over here. This comment is unedited, but left raw as I had typed it there, so I beg pardon for anything unusually worse than my normal copy.
One of the things that is important to understand is that all atheists, some of whom have to be cornered into admitting it, is that we are all agnostic. The labels “atheist” and “agnostic” are most often placed within the same scalar of belief, but they are actually functions of different belief concepts. Atheism is a function of how one responds and chooses to live and act on our lack of belief or faith that there is/are supernatural actors/creators, and is ultimately a recognition that the likelihood of such is so low as to be negligible and we use philosophies such as humanism to guide us where religion is lacking.
Agnosticism is a recognition that we can be wrong, because ultimately no one can “know” by the very definition of supernaturalism. So, atheists can be both atheists and agnostics. If you re-read even the introduction to “The God Delusion,” one thing that Dawkins spells out is the reason that he approaches the book in the way that he does, to approach largely the fundamentalist aspects of religion, is that this is what most people are familiar with in our western society; the insistence that the Supernatural Actor has an influence and interest in the natural. This can’t be demonstrated using any method of objective investigation, of course.
Were Dawkins to have fully covered all of the religious experiences and forms of expression (including liberal and moderate forms,) the book would have been twice as long.
This book was aimed at atheists, and a large segment of the religious who are intended to read it and learn about where we get our ideas and concepts rather than as a definitive scholarly work. It was intended as a popular work, to counter the prevalence of such weighty religious tomes as those published by Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and those writers who take the existence of God as “givens” not even to be seriously examined. It was not intended to be the definitive scholarly work, nor was it intended to be a daily guide for atheists. It was written to show people how to approach the ideas and discuss and engage in them at a popular level and not intended to replace the heavier works of philosophy.
Further, it is also intended to help secularists who are fighting the urge of government to give automatic deference in the forming of laws to the religious when it comes to ethical questions. I am sure that it alarms you as much as it does me that there are Bishops and ministers who are working very hard to intimidate our legislators into preventing any financial support in the health bills for the poor and working class who need access to birth control and abortions based on some misguided concepts as “dignity of life” (which is not extended to the collateral damage of children in the countries the U.S. is currently engaged militarily.)
People, even those of you who are religious yet accept your faith and its subjective experience, should be willing to challenge the source of that faith to see if in fact it is a product of societal teaching, a product of the manner in which our brains process information or even if it is a genuine experience of commune with the Supernatural Actor, without fear of approaching it.
If Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Stenger write books for the popular public, it is not to demand that society abandon religion; and that is why it is not fundamentalist. The hope is there that people will examine why faith is so pervasive, why it is not congruent with science and even to look into the current research into the role of myelin in the experience of mind and self. If there is a dualistic nature to man and spirituality, then can it be demonstrated or is there the possibility that we create it as a self-serving delusion aided by the inherent religious approach in our society that teaches children from a young age that duality is a “given?” It shouldn’t be seen as a given, and that is what these four are trying to say.
Hitchens is a different sort of writer, of course, examining the dangers inherent in clinging to religious belief and he may be the one who can most closely be described as a fundamentalist in his distaste for the effects of religion on society.
But Dawkins is accused of many personality traits he simply doesn’t have. I won’t say that we are close personal friends, but he knows me well enough that he is willing to let me introduce him to my own friends and colleagues. I have never seen him to be rude nor dismissive of anyone unless he is faced again with countering a misimpression of what he is trying to say and from a person who is attacking him personally for his own approach. He is unfailingly polite, even to the religious.
He is not fundamentalist in the sense that he says that only atheism can save us, but he is often accused of that by people who are not willing to reflect on the possible sources of their beliefs and that is a trait of religious people from all spectra. Perhaps the label fundamentalist is useful against such atheism because it deflects responsibility for self-examination