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13 January 2007

Cultcha Me Use Brain



The Militant Atheism Delusion

Some brief thoughts on The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins' latest book.

I was initially reluctant to read The God Delusion, on the assumption that it was going to tell me a lot of things I already know, and reinforce views I already have. And I assumed that it was just going to make me cross. Upon reading it, and re-reading it, I do commend this book to other atheists, wavering atheists, and especially to agnostics. And of course open-minded religious people. For me the surprises were:

  • A systematic cataloguing of the dubious moral lessons contained in the bible;
  • A detailed demolition of the idea that science and religion occupy separate "magesteria", where each is entirely independent of the other;
  • Some interesting observations on the extent to which supposedly secular societies can bend over backwards to accommodate religious belief;
  • A fascinating chapter on the possible Darwinian explanations for the origins of religious belief as a near-universal human trait;
  • Popularising the term "American Taliban" to refer to fundamentalist Christians in the US;
  • Meditations on the extent to which our perceptions are drastically limited by our evolutionary legacy.

The latter point culminates in a particularly inspiring passage at the end of the book. Dawkins channels Sagan in looking towards science to inspire us through new perceptions of the world.

Although there is plenty in the book that is contrary to established religion, Dawkins spends considerable time on the power of science to inspire and to "raise consciousness" (as he puts it). So it's not all bashing the bible-bashers. But when doing so he is quite forthright and provocative. The title itself says it all, although I get the feeling he would have preferred "The God Hypothesis" as a title because that phrase occurs far more commonly in the book. Still he devotes some time to explaining his tactics, namely to avoid a confrontative debate with his opponents.

As evidenced by a recent appearance at a Lynchburg, VA university, he is clearly not an aggressive man. He listens thoughtfully and responds succinctly and clearly. This article in the New Humanist discusses Dawkins' tactics further with reference to that incident, and includes a highly telling response to one question: "I hadn't thought of that".

I'm rambling on about tactics because some of the reaction to the book has tried to paint the picture of a rising new force of "militant atheism", lead by Dawkins and others. For example, Richard Bernstein in the IHT, and Tobias Jones in the Guardian. These two use the term "militant atheism" and it is entirely unjustified. Dawkins strikes pre-emptively in the book:

I might retort that such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice towards religion is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement.

So the bar is set quite high for militancy.

Bernstein's article exposes a bit of a blind spot with regards to religious militancy, claiming that unlike Islam, "Christian fundamentalism [engages] in no violence or threats." Which of course makes me wonder if he's even read the book he's talking about. Dawkins writes at length about the threats he has personally received, and about the terrorists who kill doctors in the name of Christianity, and other modern-day examples. And what about George W. Bush's claim that God told him to invade Iraq? Does that not count as Christian fundamentalism also?

Dawkins does not demand any action of his readers, except to help raise consciousness. He explicitly draws his tactics from the feminist movements who encouraged us to think about language and how it reinforces an undesirable mindset. He also makes parallels to the gay pride movement, trying to bring atheists out of the closet. Neither of these can be claimed to be militant by any stretch of the imagination.

So please raise your consciousness, come out of the closet, and read The God Delusion. Or I'll kill you.


Posted by
Andrew Sidwell
2007-01-13 21:45:34 -0600

The link "appearance at a Lynchburg, VA university," does not work. Specifically, it seems as if your blogging platform has converted the two dashes (- -) in the URL into an em dash (&em;), and URL-encoded the result. Not sure if there's anything you can do about that, except report a bug.

Posted by
2007-01-13 21:45:34 -0600

The ABC Science show had an excellent program just before xmas. Transcript and audio available here:

Posted by
2007-01-13 21:45:00 -0600

@Andrew: Nice catch, thanks. Mephisto and Markdown+Smartypants have not been playing nice. I've worked around it for now.

@marxy: Thanks for the link, will listen.

Posted by
Sunny Kalsi
2007-01-13 21:45:00 -0600

An excellent find. When you find someone who can take your thoughts, crystallises and refines them, fact-checks them (I would expect that he'd do this, although I can't be actually sure), and puts them in a thesis that you can easily hand off to someone you can't be bothered having an arguement with, that makes things a lot more convenient to people who'd rather not be bothered with the whole thing.

In any case, despite that you've now got your thoughts in order (almost manifesto-like) as an atheist, how exactly does an atheist propose to convince someone whose main issue is belief itself. Conversations like this do not go down well:

Alice: well, we can agree to disagree. After all, it's all relative, you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe and we can't change each other's minds. Me: Not quite. You see, you're full of shit. Alice: I remain unconvinced. Also, the inverted pentagram on your t-shirt is not helping. Me: Crap.