Reply to Dairy State Dad

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

4 Responses to “Reply to Dairy State Dad”

  1. January 12, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Thank you for this comment. I’m sorry about the length limit on comments at DSD; I actually didn’t know about that. (Perhaps it was a default setting of the blogger platform, I’m not sure; I’ll look into that later tonight.) And I hope to engage and respond more fully to your post/comment later as well.

    All best,

  2. January 12, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    I use the word fundamentalist to describe militant atheists like Richard Dawkins because they behave in a manner that is very similar to how religious fundamentalists behave *and* this behavior actually closely parallels one of the broader dictionary definitions of the word fundamentalism –

    A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

    Richard Dawkins and his fellow “New Atheists” form something of an atheistic anti-religious movement that displays a quite rigid adherence to atheistic/anti-religious “principles” or ideology characterized by intolerance of religious views and opposition to religion more generally. In many ways they are the flip side of the religious fundamentalist coin.

    AFAIAC there is no intellectual dishonesty in my use of the term “fundamentalist” to describe atheists of Dawkins’ ilk. In fact I was using it to describe “like-minded” dogmatic atheists before I had ever heard of Richard Dawkins. For the record Richard Dawkins is by no means “unfailingly polite” to religious people. I suggest that take a closer look at some of his public statements about believers.

    • January 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm

      Robin, thanks for your perspective. But when has he ever threatened anyone with eternal consequences for not doing thing his way? So, you have a difference of opinion on religion than he does. Has he ever threatened your soul? Has he ever told you how you have to live? Your perspective is preventing you from examining the issues and so you are being fundamentalist yourself in your disdain. Do you see how this works? Dismissal, rather than discussion.

      What I wonder, though, is if you have considered the fact that your predisposition towards faith and religious belief hasn’t affected you in a way that diagonals affect Mike at Quiche Moraine. When you approach the intersection of critical thinking on religion and the New Atheism, are you more interested in protecting your own perspective so much that you don’t realize the road goes NW to SE when you may be seeing it as SW to NE because of your own turn?

      This is where I see a great deal of criticism of the New Atheists coming from and it is from atheists as well as non-atheists that I read it and hear it; there is a great deal of shaming of the New Atheists from people telling them the “right way to be atheist” and from atheists this is especially disturbing because of the number of atheists who have a background in religions that use shaming to modify behavior and would like to be able to at least escape that in intellectual exercise.

      For example, I have seen Bart Ehrman’s scholarly work simply dismissed out of hand without a discussion of manuscripts he has explored merely on the grounds that something must have happened to him to hate Jesus, or that he is hiding some immoral desires and is writing what he writes in order to escape moral judgment. Using the “fundamentalist” label on Dawkins is the same sort of attitude; a very lofty intellectual elitism that doesn’t actually engage.

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