Sunday, October 26, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 8

This chapter explains Dawkins antipathy to religion. He lists many examples of religious fundamentalism and nuttiness, much of it malign. But what of my local vicar? His brand of religion seems very benign. Yet Dawkins sees even the moderate religious person as posing a danger, for they are still, he thinks, promoting unquestioning "faith" as a virtue:

Christianity...teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If someone announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith or another, or none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to 'respect' it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and 'community leaders' (who elected them by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the 'true' faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert? (p. 347)

I imagine many moderate religious people will see this as a caricature of their faith. "Of course we don't expect children to show blind, unquestioning faith. Of course we encourage them to think and question", many will say.

Many will also insist there is an objective justification for their particular set of beliefs. They'll perhaps start with the historicity of Jesus, say, and build out from there, explaining why this interpretation can be shown to be objectively to be more accurate than that, etc. The philosopher Richard Swinburne is an example of a Christian who certainly doesn't make his belief rest on blind, unquestioning faith, but on e.g. philosophical argument (I think Swinburne's belief is wrong, of course.)

I suspect that, whether or not it's true of Richard, it is true of many thoughtful Christians that they do think their belief is fairly reasonable, and that they could, in principle, be persuaded to reject it if shown that it really isn't very reasonable at all. In which case it's not a "faith" position of the sort Dawkins describes.

So it's true, I think, that Dawkins does oversimplify here. But then he is right about a great deal, too. For example, there is a kind of automatic "respect" given to religious beliefs simply because they are religious - a respect that is heavily ingrained in us (I catch myself giving it sometimes) but which really is not warranted (as I argue here).

23 comments:

Paul P. Mealing said...

I do have serious problems with this chapter. I don’t think Dawkins is aware, by implicitly tying extremist religion to moderate religion, that he is, himself, fostering hate, albeit unintentionally. The previous week I had read Ed Husain’s autobiography, ‘The Islamist’, which is an eye-opening and most insightful book that puts the whole question of extremist religion and moderate religion into perspective.

The fact is that fundamentalists, both American Christian and Muslim Islamists, are the ones who court the media and grab the microphone, so that everyone associates mainstream religion with them, whilst a vast number of people, of various religious persuasions, have no need to acquire media attention. Why is this so? Because the extremists’ groups are political and the silent majority are not, and therein lies the major difference. This is exactly the perspective that Husain brings to this volatile and divisive issue of our time, and which Dawkins seems to misread (in my view).

I mentioned in my comments on the previous chapter, that I thought Dawkins’ section on the ‘moral zeitgeist’ was the best section in the book that I’d read so far. In his discussions on abortion, homosexuality and sexism from the perspective of Muslim and Christian fundamentalism (in Chapter 8), he is talking about a dislocation in the moral zeitgeist, but this dislocation doesn’t necessarily fall along religious lines.

A former Prime Minister of Australia was able to make political capital out of the inherent racism in Australia (pre 9/11), and Islamic-phobia in particular, but it was mainstream religious leaders who were amongst the few to challenge him (even the Opposition didn’t challenge him at the time). He also attempted to create a political schism by exploiting homophobia in Australian society, that had nothing to do with religious fundamentalism. In other words, these dislocations in the moral zeitgeist can be politicised without resort to religion, as recently evidenced in this country. Abortion, on the other hand, is one issue in Australia that has been politicised along religious lines.

On the subject of evolution versus creationism, whenever it has raised its head, politically, in this country, it has been relatively shortlived, mainly because mainstream religious leaders have been its most outspoken and vehement critics. By attacking everyone of religious persuasion, Dawkins actually alienates a lot of people who would otherwise support him.

Regards, Paul.

neuroskeptic said...

If Dawkins were right about the dangers of moderate religion, the UK ought to be full of extremists by now. we have an established (moderate) Church and a supposedly divine monarchy. Yet British society is one of the most secular in the world. A famous sociologist (the name escapes me) argued that having an established religion actually protects a society from extremes of religious belief because it deprives the crazies of followers. If everyone is a member of one church there's little space for anyone else. Whereas in a secular state such as the USA, there is fierce competition between religions and the most aggressive tend to win.

I can't remember who proposed this but it's always seemed sensible to me.

Paul Maurice Martin said...

It sounds like Dawkins, like most critics of religion - and most people who view themseves as religious - squarely identifies religion with doctrine.

I think that's a mistake, and from both sides of the fence.

For what its worth said...

I agree that Dawkins generalizes too much. But then, his brand of atheism is a more evangelistic one rather than a purely scientific one.

I do believe that many Christians tend to run away from anything that questions their faith. Some religions even promote this idea (Jehovah's Witnesses come to mind). But I think we have to separate what Christians of various denominations believe from what Scripture teaches.

You quote Dawkins as saying "Christianity...teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue." I am sure that some do, but that is not a scriptural position. Scripture teaches that broad is the path that leads to destruction, narrow is the that leads to heaven. Just because large numbers of Christians promote a philosophy does not make it true.

I wasn't raised a Christian. I was the first in my family to make that commitment. I still think through that process, and I have not seen the evidence that convinces me otherwise yet.

I do believe that the current climate in many areas of the world are more tolerant of religion than it deserves. I don't necessarily see this as a good thing. Making it easy to be "Christian" often makes it lose some of the commitment that ought to be involved in the decision.

As far as religious zealots posing a danger goes, I have no problem with that idea. But then, what brand of zealot generally does not cause a problem. I do believe that for some reason religion tends to get more than its fair share of zealots.

Brian said...

I just found your block Stephen, how I'll have to reread the God Delusion to catch up! :)

Any chance you'll book club other books? Perhaps Stenger's 'God: the failed hypothesis'?

Steven Carr said...

DAWKINS
Christianity...teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe.

CARR
Has anybody heared the song 'Yes, Jesus loves me, The Bible tells me so.'

Why is it a 'caricature' to say that Christians teach children that unquestioned faith is a virtue?

The song continues
Jesus loves me! See His grace!
On the cross He took my place.
There He suffered and He died,
That I might be glorified.

Children are taught that their place is on the cross, to suffer and die.

Teaching children their place is on the cross, to suffer and die, is what is called 'moderate' religion.

anticant said...

Religion [like all human activity] is by its nature political, because religious people - however 'moderate' - sincerely believe that theirs is the 'right' way and wish to sway society more in their direction.

This would not matter if the 'moderates' did not allow the 'crazies' to hog the limelight to the extent they are now doing. Is it really a case of small vociferous tails wagging large inert dogs, or do the dogs feel more affinity even with the most loudmouthed tail than with unbelievers?

The current pathetic state of the Church of England in relation to homosexuality and the ordination of women is a case in point. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is well known to be personally liberal on these issues but, unlike his equally liberal but more robust predecessor Michael Ramsey [whom I had dealings with in the 1960s during the parliamentary battle for homosexual law reform], he is not prepared to stand up to the bigots and tell them to get lost. This does not bode well for liberal Christians, let alone for those of us who think the whole Christian story is just a fairy tale.

Regardless of whether or not one is an atheist, a secular society in which religion is not allowed to claim more than its fair share of influence and respect is the only democratic option. The National Secular Society is doing a splendid job campaigning along these lines, and I urge all sceptics - and 'moderate' Christians too - to support it.

Vic said...

@"for what its worth" - How is it you can be certain of what the "scriptural position" is? Unquestioned faith can certainly be justified from scripture. Some examples:

John 20:29: Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

James 1:6-8: But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

Hebrews 11:1-: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. ..."

Of course there are plenty of scriptures which can argue the counterpoint as well. Perhaps these serve more to illustrate the ability of the bible to justify any position you like.

Ultimately, at its core, Christianity requires its followers to accept its central premise on faith. Once that is established, a culture of credulity logically follows. I think Dawkins is justified in his claim.

Stephen Law said...

Yes I'll do more books in the book club. Not sure what will be next. Might be a Christian book.

Brian said...

A christian book? I tried reading an apologetics book by some guy called Messler. It got me quite angry because he would present the weakest version of a philosophy argument and then proceded to knock it down (strawman).

wombat said...

neuroskeptic

Re: Benefits of established religion.
I think I have also seen this. Possibly in "Breaking the Spell" (Dennett)

A quick look at the list of countries and their state religions or lack of them does not seem to be so convincing. e.g Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia,

I propose an alternate hypothesis - that there are not enough ways within current religions for extremists to find an outlet in a non-violent/non-disruptive way.

i) Most religious denominations have historically had extreme sects or movements within them. However these generally turned in on themselves and subjected members to varying degrees of discipline and so forth. For example the various hard line monastic orders with their mortification of the flesh, the Quakers, Shakers and Sandemanians.
Most of these seem to have been dying out in recent years (some because of refusal on principle to breed it is true!)

ii) Now that the world has been shrunk by modernity there is nowhere to send young firebrand missionaries where they will do no harm to "civilization". OK there never was a time when they would do no harm but we at could at least hope that long sea voyages , malaria, and frontier living would take the edge off them.

(Very dodgey I know but this is a blog after all.)

wombat said...

Stephen

Christian Books?

Tsk Tsk.

Surely "There are no Christian books, only Christian authors."

rob a said...

(Stephen, the link to Secularism - A simple test doesn't work.)

anticant said...

Paul Edwards' book on Reincarnation [which I have mentioned previously] would be more interesting.

For what its worth said...

Hi Vic.

Yes, it is true that you can make the Bible say pretty much anything you want, as long as you are willing to look at chunks independently and not in their context. I really don't think that the verses you chose justify your point (or refute my idea that "unquestioned faith is not Scriptural"), but upon casual observation I can see how you might consider it so.

John 20:29: Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

This verse states that blessed are the ones who have not seen Jesus in the flesh, yet believe. It does not state that belief is an unquestioning or blind choice. It simply states that some who would believe had actually not seen Jesus or His miracles. Such faith is commended here as it is in other places in the Bible (the faith of the Centurion comes to mind, Matthew 8)

James 1:6-8: But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

The writer here is referring to requests made in prayer, and not to faith in God. When one comes to God in prayer, it should be done in faith that God will hear and not as a means of building faith or testing the reality of God as long as we get the answer that we want. That approach is what is unstable, causing our faith to depend on what the answer to our prayer is. Those who do base their faith on God's response will certainly bounce around as to what they believe.

Hebrews 11:1-: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. ..."

The author here gives a definition for faith, saying that it is a belief in something that is unseen. He does not state that it is something to be done blindly.

To the contrary, Jesus told His disciples to count the cost of discipleship. In Acts the Berean Christians were called noble because the searched the Scriptures to see if the apostles teaching was true. Romans encourages us to look at creation as it displays God's invisible qualities. In Acts, Paul reasons with the philosophers of Athens.

John 20:31 states "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Seems to me that this calls for a weighing of the evidence.

neuroskeptic said...

wombat :

That's a good point about Islamic countries, but -

Iran is sort of unique because it experienced an Islamic revolution just 3 decades ago. Most countries with state religions have hundreds of years of history behind them. I bet in 100 years, if Iran is still a religious state, it will be a lot more mellow.

Egypt is in most respects a secular state. I think.

Saudi Arabia is very interesting because as far as I know the Saudi monarchy are unpopular with the really radical Islamists. Obviously they're pretty hardline themselves, but I think a lot of people are worried that if the monarchy lose power Saudi Arabia will be taken over by people who are a lot worse. So maybe the established religion is acting as a buffer in this case!

Eric said...

Why not do a critique of Dawkins's God Delusion next, just to see if the opposition has knocked down his arguments.

I'd suggest "Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God" by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker. They take a rational, philosophic approach (i.e. they don't just quote the Bible), and the book has the great merit of being relatively short: Just 151 pages.

Just a suggestion. It's a Christian book, and it sounds like an interesting way to engage with Dawkins's arguments a bit more deeply, thus preserving the continuity of the current discussion.

Sam Norton said...

On the subject of other books, I'd be very happy if we worked through one of the critiques of Dawkins - I'm reading Keith Ward's one at the moment - but at some point can I recommend that we do 'The Victory of Reason' by Rodney Stark, which is very relevant to the argument of this chapter. I've only picked it up recently and haven't read it yet, but from the back cover, Stark argues "that Christianity and its related institutions are directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific and economic breakthroughs of the last millenium".

I'd agree with the political point that alliances need to be made across the religious/atheist divide, over against the nutters. There seems to be more in common between Christian humanists and secular humanists than between fundamentalist and humanist Christians. Which is why, of course, some atheists see Dawkins as an embarrassment.

wombat said...

neuroskeptic

I had doubts about Egypt as well but the debate on this seems to be ongoing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Egypt

The factor that made me include it was I seem to remember somewhere hearing a reference to a state appointed religious leader - Presumably the Grand Mufti.

Saudi is an oddball. I suppose the rulers share some of the characteristics of the corrupt middle ages Popes.


Sam -

While one might welcome an alliance against "nutters", it seems that the humanist Christians have suffered them in silence for far too long. The emergence of RD is the inevitable consequence of giving succor to the "nutters" or at least ignoring the problems with them.

wombat said...

FWIW -

"Yes, it is true that you can make the Bible say pretty much anything you want, as long as you are willing to look at chunks independently and not in their context."

Well how does one judge context?

Taken as a whole it is full of ambiguities and contradictions.
The modern Bible is an artifact of man and the editors were careful to preserve the ambiguity to suit their own purposes.

For what its worth said...

Wombat

I suppose what you say might be true, but I find it amazing that these authors, spread over thousands of years, were so consistently able to accomplish this.

But perhaps all that you have done is make an argument that cannot be reasoned against, and I thought that was the job of us Christians.

wombat said...

FWIW - re preservation of ambiguity.

Well there are two possible reasons I can think of of hand for this. Firstly there may have been attempts to make unambiguous statements but they have over the years all been discredited either by reason of factual inaccuracy or because they did not find favour with the rulers of the age. Once erased from history its difficult to make a comeback. Look at the various Gospels that were in and out in the early church!


Alternately it may well be simply a built-in tendency of successful political leaders (and one would have to include the church hierarchy). By leaving themselves enough wiggle room they can claim whatever they want whilst still appealing to scriptural authority.


Then of course there are the contradictions. Why were those kept in?
I'd have to say at this point I'd allow for some of the odd ones that stem just from ignorance about nature. Insect having four legs etc. Thats pretty common place - look how long it took to sort out the lifecycle of the barnacle goose! On the other hand God didt seem to care enough about good journalism to set them straight either...

What I am more concerned about is the discord between events in the NT Gospels and the really big disconnects, for example between the God of the OT (mass slayings, plagues, war, flood etc,) and the merciful one in the NT.

anticant said...

Sam - there is an obvious misprint in that blurb! "breakthroughs" should read "breakdowns" :)