Ironically enough, for someone who is so obsesses with fundamentalist religion, Dawkins seems completely unaware of significant developments within even this limited sphere of religious experience. For example, the National Association of Evangelicals — the largest and most influential such organization in the United States — right now is being convulsed by arguments and debates over what constitutes the proper scope of their work, with traditionalists insisting on sticking with the narrow political agenda of opposition to abortion and LGBT rights and the like and ‘modernizers’ (as some observers have called them) arguing for an expansion of the agenda to include action to combat global warming. Lest one think that the latter is a ‘fringe’ element within NAE, this new movement-within-a-movement includes figures of the prominence of Richard Cizik, NAE’s vice-president for governmental affairs. Many evangelical Christians are now beginning to ask “What Would Jesus Drive?” and some are ditching their gas-guzzling SUVs in response.
Dawkins’ attempts to explain the apparent appeal of religion shows how little he understands the phenomenon he is attempting to explain — or, to put it more precisely, explain away. Dawkins attributes religion to a “misfiring” of the brain, more specifically, a child’s tendency to believe his/her parents. Worse yet for the coherence of his ‘analysis,’ his explanation for the spread of religion — the ‘misfiring’ of the mind (or many minds, as the case may be) — contradicts his own ‘gullible child’ hypothesis. In the world of positivist science that Dawkins so loves, any theory based on two hypotheses that directly contradict each other would be thrown out, but of course, his own approach to religion is so fundamentally unscientific even by the standards of the positivist science that he loves that it would not pass muster in any process of peer review — which may explain why his book was not published by a university press, which would have insisted on such ‘blind’ review, but by a commercial press, where Dawkins could evade the process of peer review.
The ‘misfiring’ hypothesis, of course, couldn’t possibly explain why someone raised in a religious household would leave the faith or why someone raised an atheist by atheist parents would convert to Christianity or to another religion. If parental influence is so overpowering, how do some escape it? Dawkins simply has no credible response. How really silly the ‘misfiring’ hypothesis is can be shown when one considers the case of the spread of Islam in India, which has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world (larger, in fact, than Pakistan’s), despite being a Hindu-majority country. After Muslim converts of Mongol origin conquered Hindu India in 1526, significant numbers of Hindus began to convert to Islam. Why? Far from a ‘misfiring’ mind, they were very canny minds that saw a way out of the caste system; lower-caste Indians oppressed by that very oppressive system — which of course continued to operate throughout the period of Mughal rule in India — could simply ‘opt out’ of the Hindu social system by converting to Islam. Now, regardless of the merits of Islam or Hinduism, that would seem to make perfect sense to me, and far from a ‘misfiring’ of the mind, it seems to me that a choice to convert in such a context would be an eminently rational decision from the perspective of social mobility and political opportunity (not to dismiss, of course, the possibility of the genuine appeal of Islam as a religion to such converts). The case of the mass conversion of huge numbers of Indians from Hinduism to Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries is actually one of the largest such cases in the history of religion, but it goes entirely ignored by Dawkins; he does not indicate whether that is because he is is simply ignorant of non-Western history (which seems clear from his book) or because he has no credible explanation for it.
Dawkins tries to assign to religion culpability for the worst horrors in human history, such as the Holocaust, conveniently labelling Hitler a ‘Catholic,’ when in fact the Nazi regime suppressed conventional Christianity; Dawkins also ignores the fact that some of the leading opponents of the regime were Christian, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis for his participation in the resistance. And of course, the larger irony is that of Dawkins attempting to blame religion for the Holocaust when the agenda of the Nazis included elimination of one of the world’s great religions (viz., Judaism) as one of its top priorities.
Conversely, Dawkins simply dismisses out-of-hand the rather compelling examples of human rights abuses by avowedly atheist regimes, such as the murder of upwards of 20-30 million people by Stalin’s Soviet Union and the elimination of somewhere between 30-50 million people by Mao’s Communist regime in China, both in the name of ‘scientific socialism.’ Stalin suppressed religious expression in the Soviet Union as Mao did in China, and in fact, untolled thousands of practitioners of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism were tortured and murdered during the Cultural Revolution, but of these, no mention is made in “The God Delusion.” If atheism is a guarantee of the protection of human rights, as Dawkins seems to be arguing, it is clear that he has no experience of life under regimes in which there is no freedom of religion or religious expression — not to mention freedom of speech. Ironically enough, were Dawkins to live in the People’s Republic of China today, his book, if the government allowed its publication, would have to be reviewed by government officials and subject to strict codes of censorship. However, Dawkins would enjoy complete freedom of expression, were he to be living in any of the Nordic countries, all five of which have an established state church (all Lutheran) and all five of which are in the forefront of human rights in the world today.
Dawkins simply dismisses the more benign forms of religious expression and the positive contributions of religion to society. The pacifist Quaker who goes to jail to oppose the war (whether Vietnam or, latterly, Iraq), the Unitarian Universalist who sees multiple paths to (a non-triune and non-gendered) God and who teaches her children to respect atheists and agnostics as well as followers of all religions, the Sufi mystic (such as the poet Rumi) who writes poetry and music to express his love of God, the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey who participate in the music and dance of divine ecstasy, the transgendered Korean shaman who performs the rites and rituals of a woman-centered Altaic spiritual culture, the Buddhist practitioner of the Zen tea ceremony (chan-o-yu), the gay Catholic priest who ministers to people with AIDS in hospice, the Latina lesbian interfaith minister who performs commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, the gay Presbyterian who declares “Jesus is my homeboy” and who works in the soup kitchen serving meals to the homeless, the Radical Faerie who uses contemporary Wicca to create queer community, or indeed any form of spirituality outside of organized religion — none of these people exist for Dawkins; he simply dismisses the possibility of forms of religious and spiritual experience and expression that are not authoritarian and oppressive.
In other words, Dawkins sets up a straw man — or perhaps we should saw, a ‘straw God’ — and knocks him down, which Dawkins seems to find enormously satisfying, but which, of course, says nothing about religion itself. Dawkins’ ‘logic’ (such as it is) runs along these lines: I know a ‘quack’ doctor; therefore, all doctors are frauds & all medicine is fraudulent.
Clearly, when he speaks and writes about religion, Dawkins is simply speaking from ignorance and prejudice.
His ahistorical screed simply cannot be taken seriously, even by thinking atheists. The binary opposition between science and religion that Dawkins posits is simply a false dichotomy borne out of a false scientism. He refuses to admit it, of course, but Dawkins has an irrational prejudice against religion. The truth is that Richard Dawkins is what he seems to most despise — a religious fundamentalist. The only difference between Dawkins and Pat Robertson or Mullah Omar is that Dawkins has replaced Yahweh or Allah with Science as the God he worships. Ironically enough, the very qualities that he attacks religion for — unthinking, irrational, mindless bigotry — are the ones that he himself most clearly exemplifies. If there is such a thing as the ‘misfiring’ of the brain, Dawkins’ book would have to be the ultimate example of that phenomenon.
Pauline, Thanks for your post. There has been an ongoing discussion that you might ind interesting of what the philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci, calls “scientism” and other related issues on Scientia Salon. http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/
Thank you for this excellent analysis of Dawkins. I have always felt that he and his sidekick, Bill Maher, are both radicals no different from those that they purport to hate.
Good show, Pauline Park!