Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

Atheism, Cults and Toxicity

newatheismMy recent exchanges with Jerry Coyne and one of his followers eerily reminded me of previous exchanges I have had with a few biblical scholars: Larry Hurtado, Chris Keith, James McGrath, and others, as well as follows of Acharya S / D.M. Murdock.

Then last night I happened to read the following:

The American Family Foundation says the following attributes are characteristic of a cult:

  • The group members display an excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to an individual.
  • The group members are preoccupied with bringing in new members. Members are expected to devote inordinate amount of time to the group.
  • Members are preoccupied with making money.
  • Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give personal goals and activities that were of interest to the group.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Most of these attributes, as we will see, are characteristic of the cult of New Atheism.

[There are other lists of characteristics. Understandable since “cult” covers a wide range of groups in the common usage of the term. I wonder if some of the less overtly authoritarian types are better described as “tribalism” — but we know what we don’t like when we see it, however we define it, I guess. The above characteristics are closer to what I meant by describing D.M. Murdock /Acharya S’s astrotheology advocates as “cultish”.]

Brown lists a collection of comments that were collected by one of Dawkins’ followers at a book signing. Dawkins tweeted to his followers the list:

“You’ve changed the very way I understand reality. Thank you Professor.”

“You’ve changed my life and my entire world. I cannot thank you enough.” “I owe you life. I am so grateful. Your books have helped me so much. Thank you.”

“I am unbelievably grateful for all you’ve done for me. You helped me out of delusion.”

“Thank you thank you thank you thank you Professor Dawkins. You saved my life.”

“With this kind of incense blown at him, it’s no wonder he is bewildered by criticism,” writes Brown. Like any religious text, Dawkins’ book The God Delusion contains contradictions that are ignored by his followers:

In The God Delusion itself he moves within 15 pages from condemning a pope who had baptized children taken away from Jewish parents to commending Nick Humphrey’s suggestion that the children of creationists be taken away because teaching your children religion is comparable to child abuse. So believers can always find a scripture where he agrees with them, which naturally cancels out the one where he doesn’t.

[Isn’t that what we’ve seen in some of the recent exchanges here over what Coyne and Harris are supposed to have said.] read more »

Dawkins’s Delusion: The Slavish Mind

godDelusionWell I really blew it in the eyes of some readers when I posted on Scott Atran’s response to Sam Harris’s public statements about Islam and its relationship to terrorism. Let’s see if I can learn anything and do better with my presentation of Atran’s response to similar claims by Richard Dawkins.

Maybe if I begin by quoting the following words of Scott Atran I will be off to a better start:

I certainly don’t criticize [Harris and Dawkins] and other scientifically minded new atheists for wanting to rid the world of dogmatically held beliefs that are vapid, barbarous, anachronistic, and wrong. I object to their manner of combat, which is often shrill, scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share. (Talking to the Enemy, p. 427, my bolded emphasis as throughout)

Now I really have liked and gained so much from Richard Dawkins’ writings. Some of his ideas I have had reservations about, and a few I cannot agree with at all given my other studies and experiences on the topics. But I like his efforts to promote rationality in public discourse. And I especially like his educational works on evolution. For all of that, though it is a hard to accept, the cruel fact is that not many of us are perfect in every way.

Sometimes a prominent public figure speaks about a field that is outside his or her area of expertise. Those who pull this off the most successfully are comedians. The light-heartedness of their grasp of issues pays off. No-one studies their jokes in order to educate themselves about the fundamental realities of how the world really works. (I know, many jokes are “funny because they’re true” but we don’t learn what’s true from them.)

But when a public figure whom I admire in many ways says something publicly, as if it were fact, that I know is contradicted by the publicly available research data itself, and that is even dangerous because it can fan a wider ignorance and lend support to mischief and harmful actions, then it hurts. What’s more, because there are a few areas where I do have more knowledge, being more widely read in the relevant areas, I do feel some sense of responsibility to try to speak up in some way when I hear a prominent person influencing others with misinformation. What I would like to achieve if at all possible is that a few others might for themselves explore the works, the information, the research, that belies many of the claims of Dawkins and Harris about the link between Islam and terrorism.

The first of the “new atheist” publications about religion that I read was Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. It was quite different in approach from Harris’s, Hitchens’ and Dawkins’s contributions, so I was interested to see that Atran likewise does not have the same criticism of Dan Dennett as he has of Harris’s and Dawkins’s books:

Dan Dennett treats the science of religion in a serious way. Dan believes that universal education should include instruction in the history of religion and a survey of contemporary religious beliefs. Once out in the open for everyone to examine, science can better beat religion in open competition. My own guess is that it won’t work out that way, any more than logic winning out over passion or perfume in the competition for a mate. (p. 525)

So I hope no-one thinks I’m “Dawkins bashing”. It is possible to have a high regard for someone yet disagree with them profoundly on particular viewpoints and endeavour to appeal to verifiable facts to make one’s point rather than accusing others of dishonesty.

Here is a passage from Dawkins’ The God Delusion that Atran finds problematic — he actually describes it as “fantasy”. So let’s read Dawkins’ words and then calmly and rationally consider Atran’s disagreement with them:

Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools; that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise. And they were taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasahs, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots. read more »

Islamophobia and (some?) New Atheists

Disclaimer: this post expresses my own view entirely. Others who also have posted on this blog may or may not think quite differently.

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Time to get dirty hands and write about something important. Something unhealthy has been happening in the name of criticizing “tenets of religious belief . . . bad ideas and behaviors.” Prominent public intellectuals, in the name criticizing harmful religious beliefs, have become mouthpieces for ignorance and intolerance.

Just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview.Murtaza Hussain

Jerry Coyne, who has written probably one of the best books for generalists arguing the case for evolution, and whose blog I check from time to time for updates in the sciences, also from time to time posts disturbingly ignorant articles about Islam or Palestinians. Richard Dawkins, whom I respect and love as much as anyone does for his publications explaining evolution, was not very long ago interviewed by a Muslim on Al Jazeera and unashamedly threw off all his scientific training by relying entirely on anecdotal and media portrayals of Muslims. I have previously criticized Sam Harris for doing worse. Chris Hitchens, as much as I admire his works on Kissinger and Mother Teresa and his all-round wit, was guilty, too.

Over the last few days Jerry Coyne has been posting his disapproval of anyone suggesting his views on Islam (shared by the other names above) are Islamophobic. See Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon, Playing the Islamophobic Card and New Attacks on New Atheists (and one defense). He accuses such critics of quoting the likes of Harris out of context, of not defining what they mean by Islamophobia, of fallaciously accusing them of guilt by association with neo-fascists, and worst of all, of failing to address any of their actual criticisms of the Muslim religion.

After reading the several articles and related links to which Coyne and Harris have been responding (Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists; Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia) I believe that Coyne’s rebuttals do not stand. Coyne, Harris and Dawkins, for all their intellectual magnificence in other fields, are fanning social attitudes that facilitate bigotry and popular support for war.

Why are their criticisms of the Muslim religion wrong?

I am an atheist. I have experienced some of the best and worst of religion. I wish for a world where humanity has discovered that religion is long past its “use by” date. I believe that the Abrahamic religions in particular are responsible for immeasurable sufferings and torments among societies and individuals. I have no time for their belief systems. The sooner we all outgrow our awe of our holy books the better. (None of this means I believe in attacking individuals for their beliefs. There is a difference between criticizing belief systems and targeting individuals over their personal faith.)

I have compared different varieties of Christianity today with the various drugs on the market. Vapid Anglicanism is a mild aspirin. Happy Pentecostals are the happy marijuanas. I know of a few cults that are the deadly heroins. (They really do reduce addicts to ill health, poverty, anti-social life-styles and death, literally. Suicides, untreated illness, ignorance within and without the cults.)

I would not be surprised if I ever learned that I could do the same with the faiths of Judaism and Islam. read more »

Richard Dawkins’ Al Jazeera Interview on Religion

Professor Richard Dawkins at a book signing fo...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Dawkins is confronted with all the hard questions and criticisms he has raised with his book The God Delusion in an interview on Al Jazeera — with an otherwise very intelligent interviewer who, it turns out, believes Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse!

The questions he faces pull no punches and I personally thought the interviewer had the better of him when it came to citing the evidence for the motivations of suicide bombers. Richard also faces all those other criticisms his book has provoked — is religion a force for good or evil, faith, science, liberal religion, atheism, what is the worst form of child abuse, facing up to the good done in the name of religion, the meaning of life . . . . .

Special Programme — Dawkins on Religion

(Unfortunately I cannot embed this video. If anyone can tell me how, do let me know. . . . )

Tim has since embedded the video in the Comments section below.

Al Jazeera Interview with Richard Dawkins

Atheist writers respond

English: Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane S...
Image via Wikipedia

Professor R Joseph Hoffmann has a reputation for his pompous diatribes against the “New Atheists”, very often written in a style so pretentious they are (probably deliberately) incomprehensible to most readers. The professor has kicked off the new year with another Re-made in America: Remembering the New Atheism (2006-2011) and this time some of his targets have responded.

PZ Myers has posted a Nice List on Pharyngula of the names Hoffmann despises and that is therefore “a rather useful guide . . . to who’s cool in the atheist movement”.

Richard Dawkins is found among the commenters responding to Myers’ list: see comments #47 and #54.

Eric MacDonald has also written a lengthier but more analytical response, Spleen, on his Choice In Dying blog. MacDonald shows how Hoffmann’s piques are so completely off the mark, missing the point and substituting his own straw men, etc. He points out that Hoffmann appears to be most upset over the fact that religion and atheism really are issues that every layperson has a right to discuss for the simple fact that religion really does do an awful lot of damage to lots of people.

The comments on these blog posts are also recommended reading.

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Spleen @ La Maroquineri. Image by LeShamrock on Flickr
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Latest interview with Richard Dawkins

A lovely interview with Richard Dawkins on the Australian ABC TV program Elders was aired this evening — interviewer Andrew Denton. Check out video excerpt and transcript here.

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

I have just completed Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. Loved just about all of it, but a few particular themes have left their mark in my mind more than others.

1. The idea of essentialism. We think of dogs and pigs and fish as having an essential character of dogs and pigs and fish. This is, after all, at the very heart of basic concept building from our earliest years that equips us with the tools we need to get by in the world. (Dawkins traces the notion back to Plato — who was of course the arch essentialist with his theory of Ideas (Essences?) — but I see the idea as having a more immediate necessity for our mental makeup.)

But we are like a mayfly trying to make sense of the world in its short 30 minute to 24 hour lifespan. While we can see changes in dog shapes we cannot expand our faculties far enough to see how what appears to be essentially a dog now was a million years earlier something we would not call a dog at all. Yet in the meantime, the chain from that earlier non-dog to our “essential” dog is smooth and we could never find a spot where one animal was a dog and the preceding one wasn’t. Every animal next in line would be classified as a natural offspring of its parent. The differences from one generation to the next would never be so great as to prove otherwise. It is only when we look back through incomprehenible millions of years that we can see that there have been such dramatic changes. Slightest changes (that would never be so great as to enable us to say a parent gave birth to a different species) accumulated over millions of years really can lead to the appearance of something quite different from what was in the family tree at the beginning.

The corollary of this concept is that change does not occur at the outward level of appearance, but at the embryological level. So a lizard like thing 50 million years ago might have two offspring, and each one of those another offspring, and no-one would have been able to see anything about them that made any of them a different species. But one of those final offspring would be the progenitor of what was to become a new species. But for this to occur there would have to be a geographical separation of some of that offspring’s descendants in order to narrow the range of genetic mix — either by being swept on a log to another land mass, or changes from earthquake etc.

But getting around our presumptions that each species has a certain “essential” character to it that sets it within the boundaries of that species is something that one can understand makes the idea of evolution difficult for anyone not familiar with the evidence.

2. Dating the rocks and fossils. I once was led to believe that evolutionists were so dumb that they failed to acknowledge that their methods of dating were circular. Rocks were dated by the fossils in them and fossils were dated by the rocks that housed them. Dawkins trashes this nonsense completely by discussing lucidly the wide range of dating techniques used by archaeologists and paleontologists, and how they are used for cross checking and correcting each other. For God to have somehow changed so many laws of nature after the flood to make the whole gammut of these different clocks all get out of whack to mislead us to thinking that the earth’s age is in billions of years is a bit much to swallow.

3. I had not fully appreciated the UNimportance of the fossil record for establishing the fact of evolution. Not that there isn’t an abundance of fossil evidence, especially for humans. But even if there were no fossils surviving we would be compelled to believe in evolution nonetheless. By comparing the structures of species around the world, and examining their geographical locations, it is clear that the evidence points to common ancestors of species (and a common ancestor of all life) and non-random natural selection. (Fossils are still important, of course, for understanding the pathways of evolution.)

4. One creationist in the film, Voyage that Shook the World (link is to my earlier blogpost), argued that because some finches on Galapagos Islands changed very rapidly, we ought to see them as evidence for a young earth and recent creation. Yet Dawkins cites several examples of rapid evolution alongside more common glacial changes.