Richard Dawkins, God’s Secret Agent

Richard Dawkins’ atheist fundamentalism drives some people to become religious

Matthew Norman, tongue-only-partly-in-cheek, advances a conspiracy theory: Uber-atheist Richard Dawkins is actually working for “Big Religa”:

I write as one who became a devout atheist at the age of nine, and has encountered nothing since — with the two exceptions of the globe artichoke and the mango — that hints at the work of an intelligent super-being. And yet whenever I hear Dawkins on the car radio, spluttering lividly at the stupidity of those who cannot see the truth as clearly as he does, the instinct is to do a handbrake turn and drive like a maniac to the nearest church, synagogue, temple or mosque. He preaches so conceitedly, and with such poisonously illiberal scorn for those who follow the great faiths, that I want to worship alongside every one of them…Dawkins is more repressively dogmatic than the Ayatollahs.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

74 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins, God’s Secret Agent”

  1. Atheism is a faith. It is the devout belief that there is no god. How anybody can get passionate about that is beyond me.

    1. Or, it is a position. When asked if I believe in God, I tell people no. Therefore I’m an atheist.

      Anyway, I agree about the passion part though. What’s interesting to me is how one goes about living life without religion.

      1. Atheists aren’t passionate about the nonexistence of any gods. We’re passionate about preventing all the dumb things that happen because people believe there is one.

      2. Well, I think you can easily find the answer for yourself. Have you, for instance, robbed, raped or murdered anyone lately? If not, why not? .

    2. Correction: Atheism is a faith IF one has a devout belief that there is no god. Most atheists do not have that belief. Rather, they believe that, because there is no evidence of the existence of god, they do not believe in god. It is no different from their lack of belief in unicorns. Atheists simply apply the same standard of evidence that theists apply to everything but god.

      1. You are conflating two different things here, namely “atheism” and “agnosticism”. Contrary to what is generally presented, the latter isn’t really a statement about the existence of God one way or the other. “Atheist” is a statement about theology. “Agnostic” is a statement about epistemology.

        I’m an agnostic, which doesn’t mean that I don’t know whether or not God exists. It means that I don;t think that it’s possible to know whether or not there is a supreme being even if it were shown that the Bible is 100% factual.

        I’m perpetually irritated by atheists who want to cloak themselves in a veil of skepticism without really appreciating what it means.

        1. There is no settled meaning for the term “atheism” or “agnosticism,” but your definition of the latter is idiosyncratic. Most people who call themselves agnostics mean that they don’t know whether God exists. Whether it is possible to know is a separate question.

          To me, an agnostic is someone for whom the question of God’s existence poses a serious dilemma.

          There are two types of atheists. A minority make a leap of faith and assert that God does not exist. Most atheists, however, recognize that one cannot prove that something does not exist. Therefore, they acknowledge that God might exist, as may unicorns, Santa Claus, and flying pigs. But, based on the absence of evidence for any of these things, they do not believe that any of them exist. Unlike agnostics, they don’t take the question seriously.

          1. If there were large, well funded and politically powerful organizations teaching that flying pigs exist, and that these pigs have powers over us, and tell us to oppose stemcell research and hate gay people, perhaps you would take the question of the existence of flying pigs more seriously.

          2. Bloix, I do not take seriously the question whether God exists. Like you, I take seriously the harm that some religious groups do. (There was no “reply” option under your comment, so I replied to my own, and I don’t know where it will appear on the screen.)

          3. I don’t think I’m using “agnosticism” in a particularly idiosyncratic way; I’m using it both in its original meaning and what the word plainly says based upon its Greek components. It stands opposed to the concept of gnosis, which refers to knowledge or enlightenment but not specifically to theism.

        2. If you would encounter a man who complained that his socks were unavoidably mismatched because pixies had stolen the matching ones from his laundry and he had no underpants because the underpants gnomes had stolen them, would you consider this fellow to be a sensible chap with slightly different beliefs or a superstitious fool? Are you genuinely agnostic about whether there are fairies living at the end of your driveway or simply playing it safe?

    3. Oh, I dunno. I can get pretty worked up about the propagation of nonsense, especially as a tool to exploit and to abuse (thus: the tooth fairy doesn’t bother me, and homeopaths or anti-vaxxers can get me practically frothing at the mouth). So I can admire, respect, and desire not to offend people of faith whose (to me irrational) beliefs ease their lives and even make them better people, while still being furious about an institution that has given us Jimmy Swaggart and Savita Halappanavar – not to mention the more Godwinnian names such as Junipero Serra, Torquemada, or Bin Laden.

      In other words, while as a rational person I suppose I have to be technically an agnostic as regard a poorly understood concept of God, I can be virulently opposed to many existing religions, perhaps to all specific beliefs about what “God” might be. I can absolutely say that if there is an omniscient, omnipotent divine being, they can be judge by any workable ethical standard to be contemptible, and should be shunned; we should literally pretend they don’t exist. There is far too much cruelty and suffering in this world to excuse the failure of such a being to intervene. This is an obvious objection, which religions have often excused through concocting untestable claims about the afterlife: Heaven/Hell, or Karma, or the like. This works superficially (fifty years of torture versus an eternity of bliss), but try offering people a similar bargain in your daily life (scaled down to your lack of omnipotence, and your lack of eternity), and you’ll rightly get arrested, and called a monster. Maybe this life is a meaningless test to sort us into eternity – but if so, the deity that created this meaningless test is a cruel so-and-so.

      As a practical matter, I have to tone down my antipathy to organized religions for me to be a decent person. I know wonderful people who believe; why insult them? I know of virtuous, even saintly people who claim their deeds are inspired by faith; who am I to second-guess the mechanism that led them to great acts of charity and courage? But, on the whole, I am opposed to ignorance, and especially to its imposition, which renders me unfriendly to religion. I am especially ill-disposed to evangelism, which seeks not only to spread and to impose a particular brand of nonsense but also to destroy whatever existed before it spread.

      1. And yet, Ken T (just to use a handy example) obviously doesn’t feel a similar obligation as a member of society. Religious people, on the whole, seem to have no qualms about imposing on others and feel no obligation whatsoever to respect their beliefs. Your post exemplifies the problem—I have very similar feeling about religion and wish that religious people would stop screwing up the world but it has always been very difficult for me to rubbish something that obviously provides a lot of comfort for believers. But religious people have always taken advantage of those decent feelings on the part of nonbelievers. I think people like Dawkins have simply been pushed to the point where they feel that it is justified to insult them (by accurately describing the absurdity of their beliefs)if that’s what it take to have a society where religion’s influence is limited.

        If it bothers religious people to hear him talk about how the the God of the Book is just “an invisible man in the sky” or about how intolerant Islam has become, well, it seems to me that they’ve only themselves and their own lack of restraint to blame. Besides, this isn’t 1789 and Dawkins isn’t proposing to rename all the months and drown all the priests and other religious hucksters in the nearest river. Not yet, anyway.

        1. “Religious people, on the whole, seem to have no qualms about imposing on others and feel no obligation whatsoever to respect their beliefs.”

          Isn’t that true about most ideologues? Our government (and those who support it) seems to have no qualms about imposing on others and feels no obligation whatsoever to respect their beliefs. That’s true about most governments. It is also true about many social organizations that call for their standards to be written into law.

          There are ideologues who don’t do this, and there are religious people who don’t do it – in general, religion is not a reliable predictor of whether somebody is inclined to impose on others.

        2. Religious people, on the whole, seem to have no qualms about imposing on others and feel no obligation whatsoever to respect their beliefs.

          In a word, bullshit. Some religious people, actually a pretty small set of them, want to do this and they are the ones that stand out in your mind. And there are plenty of non-religious people that do the same, so this isn’t anything that makes religion stand out.

  2. If Dawkins and the other of his ilk were honest, they would list their occupation as “Professional Strawman”. They exist, and get paid, for the sole purpose of agitating the religious right. I am one of the “nones” (I refuse to use the term “atheist”, precisely because of the association of that term with Dawkins & Co.), and I know of absolutely no one who ascribes to the positions they take. Whether they actually “work for” any religious institution as agents provocateur, or just see themselves as “fleecing the rubes”, is irrelevant. They serve only to prevent actual dialog from taking place.

  3. Is Dawkins’ appeal (as atheist apope, not as scientist) to adults who do not believe there is a god, or is to teenagers who want approval from peers and rebellion from family?

    1. Some adults never get over those teenage needs. They pay their mortgage, look at their 401k account, mow the lawn in front of their suburban house and then go on line to write the stinging comment that will shock the complacent bourgeoisie.

      1. Characterizing a mass movement by its silliest members is dirty pool, Humphreys.

        I’ve seen it called “nut-picking” on the Inter-Net.

        1. ???”a mass movement” — where did you get that?

          If you don’t believe my observation about “some adults” then you must not have spent much time on line!

        2. But what does he say that’s so silly or that makes him silly? I think he is only express in a forceful way, many timeless arguments which have raised about the existence of God. It is true that he seems to take an unseemly pleasure in rubbishing people’s religion but how does that deny the validity of what he says? He argues against the existence of supernatural forces and, also very specifically, that it is irrational and without foundation for believers to distinguish between different types of supernatural beings. Yet this is commonly done by religious people. Thus, he asks why is it reasonable to have faith in God but not in pixies? Why is it that one who believes that there are fairies in the garden or leprechauns making shoes by the side of the road is ridiculed while another man who believes in God is lauded as a man of faith? Even a man as brilliant as Aquinas could only offer faith instead of reason and hard evidence.

          It seems to have been taken for granted by many people in this thread that Dawkins is a nut (I appreciate that you call him “silly” only in the context of his otherwise brilliant academic carrier but the substance of what he says and the way he says it is far from silly). He is well within the historical boundaries of legitimate theological and philosophical debate about religion and the existence of God. So, I would like to hear some attacks on the substance of what he says or a reasoned critique of why he should refrain from rubbishing people’s genuinely and deeply held beliefs (from which they often draw great comfort in difficult times) given the current situation in which believers are aggressively seeking to control others lives or even murder them. Is there anyone prepared to do that?

          1. “But what does he say that’s so silly or that makes him silly?”

            Have you read his book? It is full of claims about religion that are simply not true, or not relevant to his thesis. That’s easy to dismiss as somebody motivated more by ignorance and hostility than fact. What I found particularly disappointing, though, was his intellectual dishonesty regarding scientific analysis of the whole idea of religion. For example, he noted that insects flight towards light because for most of their evolution, doing so was beneficial, and that it is only the relatively recent creation of artificial lighting that turned it often into a futile exercise. He then set his sights on applying the same principle to religion – but instead of looking to see if religion was beneficial to societies over history, he assumes inherently that it is not and explains it as caused by some need for authority (which absolutely does not explain how it differs from simply following a secular politician or popular author).

            In short, his hostility completes overrides his scholarship. And given that he is, as far as I can tell, a top-notch evolutionary biologist, I had hoped for better.

      2. This is not to say that Dawkins isn’t completely brilliant. If you listen to his extended lectures or read his books rather than railing against mere soundbites, you’ll soon be convinced that he earned his spot as an Oxford don. This is not a clown; much nearer the opposite.

      3. Perhaps, but it seems to me that those who want respect for their own beliefs and tender feelings, should respect those of others. This is an aspect of the problem of politeness raised by Warren Terra’s post above. Yes, Dawkins is being rude and is doing something that makes me feel personally uncomfortable but he isn’t acting like a teenager and he isn’t writing just to shock the “complacent bourgeoisie” (as an aside, I think you’re mixing metaphors. Dawkins is an atheist but not a Communist). In any case, I think he is deserving of being engaged on a respectful, intellectual basis. You are an intellectual, why can’t you offer a serious critique of what a fellow intellectual has argued?

        Did not the new pope, Pope Francis, just remind his followers that it was Jesus who, “with all the simplicity” said: “Do not speak ill of one another. Do not denigrate one another. Do not belittle one another.” As one who is not of his faith, I must say that this new pope has thus far represented his faith well and (very important for our current discussion), he has done so without trying to push it on others or control their lives.

        This excellent sermon of Pope Francis is a reminder that, regardless of whether Jesus was indeed a supernatural being, he was surely one of history’s preeminent moral philosophers. And he never continually hectored anyone to hear a lecture about “salvation ” accepting his as “lord” or bullied the weak or superstitious with threat of damnation. Neither did Jesus torture others to renounce their religion or to force them to join his. He did not kill “blasphemers” nor throw acid in their faces. I wonder what the religious people of today would make of Jesus if he would appear before them today? Would he qualify as a “good Christian”?

        As a liberal in the fine tradition of Jewish atheism, I would urge everyone to read the words of Pope Francis and reflect upon them. We will all be better for having done so.

        Text from page
        of the Vatican Radio website

        1. Just where on earth do you get your sources for what Jesus said? If it is the bible, then you have to confront all his alleged words and not just the ones that make you feel good. Unfortunately for those advocating that Jesus is a great moral philosopher, his greatest moral teachings echo what was said by other teachers. But worst of all, Jesus is quoted as promising eternal torture for those who don’t believe in him. That is horrible and unworthy of praise. I cannot believe in any divine aspects of Jesus because there is absolutely no evidence to do so (ancient hearsay does not remotely count). That Jesus says I should burn in hell for freakin ever reveals him to be not a prince of peace, but an immoral, contemptable zealot. Or you can continue cherry -picking the gospels to paint the Jesus of your choice (which is what most Christians do).

  4. Tina Beattie has a nice little book titled The New Atheists, in which she designates the Dawkins/Hitchens/Dennett et al approach as an ideology, which, like all ideologies, involves considerable distortions of history as nuances are elided and religious believers are treated as objects of study rather than a fellow human beings. In a media-driven culture, she says, public debate is driven by celebrities rather than by scholars; the impressionistic opinions of famous people carry more weight than the analyses of people who have spent studying a subject in depth and know its complexities and ambiguities.

    Ms. Beattie reminds us of the nineteenth century debates of science and religion as a power struggle between men of science and men of God, most of them socially conservative members of the British ruling classes. She makes some fine observations about what she calls “this perennial stag-fight between men of Big Ideas” in criticizing the testosterone-charged debates of our own time between would-be defenders of God and the militant atheists who are driving the polemics from the anti-God side. This is a well-written little book which deserves an audience.

    There is great irony when men like Dawkins group together vastly diverse human beliefs and behaviors under the single term “religion.” Variation is the life blood of biology, and of evolutionary biology in particular. When a supposedly educated scientist forgets everything he learned about variation in living systems when it comes to one topic that irritates him, we can conjecture that he is using his gut and not his brain to “think” about what is going on.

    1. There is great irony when men like Dawkins group together vastly diverse human beliefs and behaviors under the single term “religion.”

      No more irony than there is when biologists group together mice, lions, and whales under the single term “mammal”.

      Look, Ed: if you don’t think it’s worth distinguishing religious “beliefs and behaviors” from other kinds of “beliefs and behaviors”, you probably have a hard time telling the difference between a Holy Communion and a wine-tasting; between fasting and dieting; between making the sign of the cross and signalling for a hit-and-run play.

      Sure, there is great variation among “religions”. Some are merely pesky, some are dangerous, some are enormous. But let’s not pretend they have nothing in common. One thing they surely have in common is this: feeling offended when some “atheist” disparages “religion”. Baptists and Shia, Mormons and Copts, Scientologists and Hindus — each may consider all the others misguided at best. But let a Dawkins point out that they’re all correct on that score, and suddenly there’s Hell to pay. “Who does he think he is, lumping us all together like that,” I hear them cry in unison.

      But a Dawkins can commit an even greater offense against “religion” by NOT lumping all religions together: by noticing, as religions themselves do (or else why bother distinguishing themselves one from the other), that the “beliefs” of the Amish and the Sunnis are different in form, and can inspire different “behaviors”. “My religion forbids ME to [use electricity]” and “My religion forbids YOU to [make images of Mohammed]” are both religious beliefs, significantly different in form and only trivially different in substance. For an atheist to notice the FORMAL difference between religious “beliefs” is apparently even more offensive than to ignore them.

      And BTW, when one Baptist says “My religion forbids ME to [have an abortion]” and another Baptist says “My religion forbids YOU to [have an abortion]”, is it incumbent on the atheist to figure out which of them is the one true Baptist? Or should he just shut up until they sort it out between themselves? Or what?


      1. Different religions pose very different threats to our liberty, and some religions must be denied access to political power by all humane and legal means available. This is the reason to think it ironic that a supposedly knowledgeable scientist like Dawkins does not take care to distinguish their varieties.

        Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is an intermittent public health threat in the American Southwest and elsewhere. Deer mice are an important disease reservoir and controlling their numbers is a well-reasoned public health measure based on knowledge of the presence of the virus in their excreta. When rainfall results in large harvests of pinion nuts, as happened on the Navajo reservation in the early 1990s, increased mouse populations can lead to an increased incidence of this very deadly disease in human populations.

        If an epidemiologist were to announce that “mammals” were the reservoir of hantavirus and that it was important to control their numbers, and if he fancied that lions and whales as well as bears and horses and coyotes must be controlled as a public health measure, I would seriously question his competence and most people would question his sanity. We expect our pubic health officials to know their stuff sufficiently to be able to pinpoint the sources of danger more precisely; vague impressionistic notions about “mammals” would simply not do.

        The “new atheists” are onto something when they discern the presence of a threat to human values and human liberty from religions in the US and elsewhere which share certain characteristics. To contain this threat, it is important to focus on certain determinants of “religion” which predict these undesirable potential outcomes, for example, the degree to which they seek state power, their presence in electoral politics, and the rigidity with which they see “others” as tools of the dark powers.

        No, TP, to the extent that they go around talking about the dangers of “religion,” these guys are just plain sloppy, and Dawkins’ credentials as an evolutionary biologist are a strike against him, not a mitigating circumstance as would apply to a scientific ignoramus like Hitchens.

    2. She makes some fine observations about what she calls “this perennial stag-fight between men of Big Ideas” in criticizing the testosterone-charged debates of our own time between would-be defenders of God and the militant atheists who are driving the polemics from the anti-God side.

      There’ve always been cranky old men in the skeptic community, but over the last couple of years, there’s been significant feminist pushback, the result being that some of those cranky old men are turning out to be a little worse than cranky. I think Dawkins is, at worst, insensitive to women’s issues, but a few other prominent members of the community are facing serious allegations of abuse. What’s especially interesting is that techniques of skepticism are now being turned inward. This comment on PZ Myers blog (on an entry which contains one of the more explosive allegations) is a fine example.

      It’s an ugly mess, which is to say, progress.

  5. Organized religion has done an enormous amount of harm over the centuries, and continues to do harm. One of the harms it has done is the obstruction of the acceptance of scientific knowledge, and in our day, one of the key areas of knowledge that it obstructs is the acceptance of evolutionary biology.

    Dawkins is one of the greatest evolutionary biologists who has ever lived, and he finds that the acceptance of the knowledge he has devoted his considerable powers to is obstructed by fools and knaves who teach nonsense stories about supernatural beings who live in the sky. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he is passionate about opposing the grifters and charlatans who, very successfully in much of the United States, have taught people to believe fairy tales in place of the truth.

    1. The mere fact that you denigrate religion as, “stories about supernatural beings who live in the sky,” means that you have decided to refute caricatures of religious beliefs rather than those that are actually practiced. As such, there is zero reason to take you seriously.

      1. Really? Look at the holly books for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Isn’t their very essence the worship of unseen, supernatural beings? No matter which of his thousand names rings your bell, he is still unseen and taken entirely on faith.

        1. I’d argue the relationship of Jews with their deity is rather more ambiguous. Unlike the god of the Christians or of Islam, the Jewish god is supposed to be imposed on us (we were chosen – we didn’t pick our god) and occasionally fouls things up rather impressively. Sure, there’s no small measure of nice things said about him, but he’s not suppose to be a nice guy, nor necessarily fair, nor even necessarily correct (there’s this great bit in the Talmud about how god doesn’t get to win a debate just because he’s god).

          Mind you, I’m an atheist Jew; a believing Jew might feel obligated to like the almighty being they after all believe in. But I have always rather enjoyed the more skeptical, relativist Jewish attitude towards their god (a product I assume of the long exile; the priests in the temple were probably more like the Jimmy Swaggarts or even Atatollahs of today), compared to the unblinking, unthinking adoration the proselytizing faiths demand.

  6. “…Dawkins is more repressively dogmatic than the Ayatollahs.”

    Well, if one wants to treat things like physics, chemistry, and mathematics as being governed by whatever someone says about them, rather than being established by facts, that might be worrisome. Personally, I’d rather believe in the inevitability of gravity when the apple falls out of the tree on my head than the idea that some angry god hurled at me.

    As for atheism being an ideology, perhaps so in the way it is being packaged by Dawkins, et al. In that, they’re definitely a statistical outlier among people of science. For the promoters of religion, it’s par for the course.

    1. Well, if one wants to treat things like physics, chemistry, and mathematics as being governed by whatever someone says about them, rather than being established by facts. . . “

      And thus you demonstrate that you don’t understand science at all. The underpinnings of physics and chemistry, while they depend upon mathematics, are very different than those that underlie math. And, in fact, science depends utterly upon the idea that NOTHING is definitively proven.

      1. True, doesn’t mean there aren’t facts and that science tends to depend on them until they’re proven in error. Drop that apple and it goes down on this planet. It might go up somewhere else, but that’s rather immaterial unless one wants to discuss the arcane, rather than just trying to avoid getting hit by the bus.

        I do think some people’s obsession with the purity of “truth” makes them cringe from such sloppy use of language, but I’m just not the nit-picky kind when it comes to reality so long as I keep an eye on the bus and it misses me when I’m trying to get across the road. So, if you’re arguing I should establish the existence and threat of a speeding bus beyond what is clear enough to see, well I’ll just go with see and avoid. If you’re arguing that my moral purity and belief in a higher power means I shouldn’t care if the bus hits me or not, I’ll just let you test that theory.

  7. Although I’ve followed much of the debate, I’ve never actually read anything by the so-called New Atheists. Excerpts, reviews, and critiques have been enough to convince me that if I were to spend the time reading them I wouldn’t learn, after all that effort, anything I don’t already know. Nothing “New” about it, though their presentations may be where many people first learned this old material. Neither the New Atheists nor their critics have advanced the argument, and I have real trouble believing that the personalities involved will have any lasting influence.

  8. At least atheists only make one claim they cannot prove or defend… followers of the major religions would have to make tens or hundreds of thousands to meet any basic standard of orthodoxy. As for the Ayatollahs bit, ask yourself this: Who would you rather have for a neighbor, a Wahhabi cleric who held religious meetings at his home or Dawkins?

        1. Neither. But then again, I’ve had a few Salafis for co-workers and they were perfectly nice people in roughly the same proportion as everyone else. For the most part we just politely agreed to disagree about matters theological.

  9. Of course, vast numbers of thoughtful people consciously choose to opt out of this debate rather thoroughly, and pay scant and bemused attention to both sides — much as, say, non-fans of baseball much choose to take no position whatever on the designated hitter rule. Myself, I don’t care for the designated hitter, and could summarize my religious beliefs in a few seconds (not particularly congenial to either side) if anyone cared; but I have to go, the game is on. (Somehow, it seems relevant here that Our Founder is an atheist scripture afficianado.)

    1. Studying scripture isn’t necessarily anomalous behavior for an atheist. A large chunk of human history is heavily influenced by scripture, if not directly caused by scripture. Understanding those policy decisions cannot but be enhanced by understanding scripture.

      1. Very true, Dennis. It is a scandal that currently you can get your ticket punched as a member of the highly educated elite without ever having read a book of the Bible.

        We are in danger of raising a generation of religious illiterates. This will not do.

        Why, when they grow up, they are not even able to blaspheme properly.

        Somewhere or other G.K. Chesterton wrote about pale Chinese tea being to pale Chinese agnosticism as good French wine was to good French blasphemy.

        Any time I read Chris Hitchens or Richard Dawkins (on any subject other than evolutionary biology) it makes me want to return to Friedrich Nietzsche for a good long draft of great atheism.

        Why settle for a third rate Lucretius like Dawkins or Hitchens when you can get the real thing in good recent translations by competent poets? (The Frank Copley translation reads smoothly and enjoyably.)

          1. Oh, I don’t know, Chris. Both of them put out some pretty good prose; I would be happy to be able to write equally well. That is why I said “third rate” Lucretius; I did not want to insult him by calling them “second rate.”

  10. >> Dawkins is more repressively dogmatic than the Ayatollahs.

    yeah, look at him, hanging gay people, putting raped women to the lash, and diddling young boys! Just look at him!

    And we’re not even starting with Gen. Boykin and all those other godbotherers.

    I remember when I realized I was an atheist. I was telling a friend I was an agnostic, and he asked me if I were agnostic about the existence of pink flying elephants.

    ’nuff said.

  11. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you get back to me when the militant atheists start putting believers under the inquisition to force them to recant their faith, or throw acid in the faces of women wearing clothing that conforms to their religion’s requirements, or burn religious people at the stake and consider apostasy from the unbending orthodoxy of atheism a crime punishable by death. Until then, why not have some sense of perspective and stop whining that there’s somebody being rude to the people who are trying to run all of our lives?

    1. Technically, people claiming to be Atheists have committed acts of the sort you denounce, in the name of Communism. Of course, to rationally and skeptically inquire into the credos of Communism was similarly punished in such societies, as were many other “offenses” of birth or mischance. This is why the enemy of right-thinking people is not organized religion (though many are terrible) but dogmatism more broadly. Rather than aspire to be militant Atheists, perhaps the point is to be adamant Skeptics – and to leave people who like a particular religion or like (insert musical genre here) to their fallacies so long as they don’t seek to impose it on others.

      1. I would make the same response to you about Communists as about atheists. I worry about their excesses when and if that should ever become necessary. Right now, there aren’t any militant atheists running around murdering apostates or blasphemers. Richard Dawkins isn’t throwing acid in girls faces because offend his strict sense of militant atheism. He isn’t flogging women for the crime of having been raped. Basically, he isn’t acting at all like an ayatollah or any other sort of religious person. Richard Dawkins isn’t the problem.

        1. People claiming affinity with Dawkins are banning public displays of faith in France, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe. Needless to say, in effect these bans affect headscarves and not crucifixes, turbans and not clerical collars. And civil penalties and discomfort aren’t burning at the stake. Still, there’s no reason to condone intolerance, even if it’s practiced against displays of an irrational religious belief that’s often seen as excusing and even mandating atrocities.

          1. That isn’t correct. French law does not absolutely ban all public displays of faith, it does not permit the display of symbols of faith by other religions while criminalizing similar displays by Muslims and it does not impinge upon freedom of religion. The various bans apply (under certain different conditions) only to conspicuous signs of religious belonging (including Jewish skullcaps and large crosses). The 2004 law that I think you are discussing is even more limited in many important respects. It says that in public elementary, middle and high schools, the wearing of signs or clothing which conspicuously manifests students’ religious affiliations is prohibited. Moreover, there is much about the principles of the French version of secularism that must be considered in the unique context of French history and particularly the antagonism between the church and the people that was one of the causes of the Revolution.

            France is a république laïque. The laic principle is foundational for the French republic. To oversimplify somewhat, Laïcité came about in France as the result of a long historical evolution which revolved, in no small part, around the question of whether the Catholic church (the first estate) had too much power. So I would urge you not to see Laïcité through the prism of the American 1st amendment or in the context of today’s arguments over the voilée but rather as one part of the long historical conflict between the various estates of France and, in particular, between the Church, with its iron grip on every aspect of French life, and the new progressive ideals of republicanism being advanced by the people.

            Laïcité, as expressed in the 1905 law and the 1958 Constitution, was intended to reduce the power of the church while preserving both the neutrality of the public space and the freedom of religion for believers of all faiths. The French scholar Jean Rivero said: “[T]here is a refusal, by the State, to endorse one faith, to give to it an official seal of approval by making a religious judgment, or to give it any material aid in whatever form. Religious choice is a private matter; the State presents itself to all, stripped of all metaphysical symbols, distant from any trace of the spiritual. My domain is the earth, it says to all of its citizens. Manager of the temporal world, it refuses to envisage what is beyond this management.” I want to stress yet again that Laïcité applies equally to all faiths and supporters of the laic ideal (at least those of the left) fully embrace the principle of “une et indivisible” meaning that the same justice must be given to all.

            What I am trying to say it that laïcité is at the very heart of French democracy. The laic ideal represents a careful balance between church and state; it rests upon the twin pillars of freedom of conscience and the necessary submission of all individuals to the law of the republic. The purpose of bans on the display of religious symbols is to preserve the neutrality of the state and the neutrality of public places. Yes, the 2004 law which I think you are referencing is very controversial and was supported (I believe in bad faith) by the FN and the saucisson-vin rouge crowd but I believe it nonetheless correctly expresses the values of the Republic and protects the freedom of the individual by insuring that no religious faction may seek to dominate in public places and most particularly in schools, where young people may be easily intimidated.

            This framework of separation of the religious and public spheres is essential to the freedom of the individual to think and believe as he or she chooses. The laic ideal is what makes it possible for peoples of different faiths to share a common space. Without the carefully separated, purposefully neutral spaces in public life afforded by the application of strict laïcité, conflict between different faiths and between church (probably the Catholic church) and state is inevitable.

            I would be happy to suggest further references giving various positions, including those I disagree with (except that I will not link to websites of the FN or of the saucisson-vin rouge/Droite populaire idiots) for anyone wishing to know more about what is the essential debate for the future of French and perhaps European society. Although I disagree with him about many things related to this debate, I would particularly recommend the excellent article “Why the French laïcité is liberal” by the leading scholar Patrick Weil and published in the Cardozo Law Review which is where the quotes are from.

          2. France is the exception, not the rule. Ireland and Poland are Catholic, through and through, to the point of the Irish constitution being informed by Catholic teachings. England (where Dawkins lives) and several other European countries do have actual state churches. Switzerland’s minaret ban has nothing to with atheism. In Germany, Bavaria bans headscarves in public schools but allows nuns to wear their habits while teaching and mandates a crucifix in every classroom; Germany, in general, aims to be a neutral, not laicist; in Germany, the state commonly cooperates with churches in various areas.

            And while I don’t particularly like the French laws, Catholicism in Ireland has a lot more to answer for in terms of the harm it has caused.

      2. Most of the Soviet’s victims were not sent to the gulag or murdered because they rationally and skeptically inquired into the credos of Communism. Rather, the Soviets believed that maintaining a climate of fear would help them to stay in power. It might have also made them feel powerful. Stalin viewed the leaders of the revolution whom he murdered after show trials as potential threats to his power, and his millions of other victims were largely selected at random.

        1. Mostly, yes. But the persecution of non-Bolshevik Marxists (Left SRs) and later Trotskyists looks very much like a heresy hunt.

  12. @ FuzzyFace,

    I cannot agree that Dawkins failed to address the question of whether “religion was beneficial to societies over history”. Dawkins argues at great length that religion foments wars, hatred, bigotry and child abuse, among other things. The entire second half of the book is one gigantic screed detailing the roots of religion and the long litany evils done in God’s name practically since the dawn of time.

    In short, Dawkins spends a great deal of the book addressing the precise issue you raise by arguing that religion was indeed very harmful to societies over history. He also addressed why evil religious leaders are uniquely dangerous in ways that secular leaders, no matter how evil, can never be.

    You may not like what Dawkins says. You may disagree with his conclusion about the contributions of religion to the human condition, but Dawkins has unquestionably laid out his case that religion has been, on balance, harmful to humanity. You may disagree on the merits but you are simply wrong to say that he failed to address whether religion was good for humanity over its history. He obviously thinks it wasn’t, so let’s go on from there.

    1. Anonymous,

      And yet you miss the point completely. There was no honest examination of data. He picked and chose what supported his screed. He did not, for example, attempt to compare societies which might have been similar to one another, other than religious beliefs. He did not look for correlations. He didn’t even examine how societies that have explicitly rejected religion have fared. He simply picked out all evidence that he could find which appears to support his thesis and ignored anything that undermined it. That is flat out intellectual dishonesty.

      Shall we point to the Soviet Union and its mass murder of the Ukrainian peasants, plus the Chinese cultural revolution, which between them killed many more people than any religious wars ever did and thereby declare that we have proven that atheism is uniquely evil? I’m sure you would object to that – and yet that is essentially what Dawkins has done. It is very easy to support any claim if you only show the data that you like.

  13. I don’t understand what you’re proposing as a method of comparison. How would you compare different societies to one another or the same society before and after a huge social upheaval? Surely, changes in religious beliefs are very likely to be correlated with equally significant changes in political or social structures? As an example, Rome went from a pagan system of religion to Christianity. Pagan Rome was a relatively more progressive, more just and more stable society than was Christian Rome. But really, the changes in religions wasn’t the most important change in Roman social and political structures so a before and after comparison seems pointless. I don’t understand the mechanics of the system you’re suggesting Dawkins should have used and, as far as I can tell, such comparisons are probably impossible and pointless. In any case, if you think the comparisons he makes are biased, then make your own to show the correct method and demonstrate a different, better result. Same with his use of examples.

    Moreover, there’s obviously going to be a hugely subjective element to any such historical analysis. I don’t really understand what it is that you want Dawkins to do in order to avoid such subjectivity and I’m not sure you do either. He has expressed his feelings about whether religion and whether it’s been, on balance, a force for good. He obviously believes that religion has not been a positive force overall and he has given specific examples to support his analysis I cannot think that more would reasonably be expected of any professional historian defending his doctoral dissertation.

    What’s more, I don’t see how your argument relates to anything more than picking a small nit. Dawkins is clear about why he thinks God does not exist and why he thinks the burden of proof is on those who accept the existence of God. This is his thesis but you do not address it at all. Here is my question to you: What is your argument for the existence of God? Do you say that it is a question capable of being proved or do you agree that the existence of God must rest entirely upon faith? There are the central questions Dawkins has raised. Will you address them?

    (Also, for the record, Anonymous at 8:47 pm was me)

    1. Mitch Guthman says, “Here is my question to you: What is your argument for the existence of God? Do you say that it is a question capable of being proved or do you agree that the existence of God must rest entirely upon faith? There are the central questions Dawkins has raised. Will you address them?”

      I do believe that the existence of G-d must rest entirely upon faith – and that it is actually important that it cannot be proven (at least from a particular religious philsophical approach). But then, a good deal of human behavior rests entirely on faith, including the largest part of political theory, and what the two US parties keep claiming in every campaign (where is the proof that the “war on poverty” is having an effect on eradicating poverty or that the “war on drugs” is eliminating drug use, for example?). But in the final analysis, when asking the question, “is religion good for humanity?” whether He actually exists or can be proven, is much less important than how such a belief affects human behavior.

      Of course, Dawkins’ first error is to assume that religions are the same on this score, or even comparable. AFAIK, only two religions (Christianity and Islam) even claim to be “world religions” – that is, religions that all mankind is obligated to follow and should be coerced to obey, so the whole idea that Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists are running around coercing their neighbors who don’t share their faith, is itself a claim that lacks evidence. And we could go further along those lines, noting that Muslim Sufis and Muslim Salafis are very different in their approach to outsiders.

      I will absolute concede that you cannot treat most socialogical questions with the precision of the hard sciences – but that does not excuse Dawkins. He provides no evidence that religion is uniquely likely to foment wars, increase the likelihood of child abuse, and so on. All he does is pick incidents and claim that they are somehow representative, and that they are caused by religion. This is much like seeing that a number of African American men have been caught rioting and concluding that rioting is a racial trait. In short, it is nothing but bigotry.

      And, of course, there is a social science of sociology, which means that there are standard ways of analzing societies, even if they are not as repeatable as a laboratory science would be. For example, Professor Rodney Stark at the University of Washington, argues in his book, “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery” that monotheistic religions have had an enormous, and primarily positive impact on human society. The idea that religion led to science is going to be very hard for the anti-religious bigots to swallow, but the argument is at least laid out with evidence. If Dawkins wants to argue that the overall impact has been negative, he needs to do a lot more than just select the worst he can find about behavior by religious folk.

  14. Here is an antidote to the notion that Prof. Dawkins’s contempt is unjustified:

    “This is a religious country. Part of claiming your citizenship is claiming a belief in God, even if you are not Christian.. We’ve got the Creator in our Declaration of Independence. We’ve got “In God We Trust” on our coins. We’ve got “one nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance. And we say prayers in the Senate and the House of Representatives to God. An atheist could never get elected dog catcher, much less president.”

    — Sally Quinn, Washington Post, October 4, 2012.

    1. Y’know, unless something extraordinary is going on, in any fight I tend to end up on the side of the worker against the boss, the oppressed against the oppressor, the poor against the rich, yadda yadda. In religious terms, I’m on the side of the heathens and the rebel angels against the pontiffs and inquisitors. Tell me something is “Satanic,” and I’ll check it out – I like well-crafted anti-theistic art and literature.

      But in a fight between the asshole you cite, and the asshole who thinks he’s WINNING when he writes snide stuff like this:
      “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”
      Or this:
      “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur’an. You don’t have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism.”
      Or the “Dear Muslima” letter preserved here: ?

      I say BOTH those assholes deserve all the boos and hisses we can throw at them. Fuck that noise. Dawkins is no friend of mine.

  15. Dawkins is confusing correlation and causation on the most basic levels. His historical thesis is closely translated to: religion was everywhere and bad things were everywhere, therefore religion causes bad things. (Unexamined is bad things cause religion.).

    One of his key problems is that religion doesn’t seem to be peculiarly linked to the bad things he hates. There are lots of people in the world who like to exercise power over other people. The particularly nasty examples of such people use whatever tool is available to do so. They commit great crimes. They inspire followers with ideas and use those ideas to exercise control. Religious ideas have often been used. But atheistic ideas have also been used, and to VERY nasty effect in the past hundred or so years. The recent history of China, Russia, and Cambodia all attest to the murderous potential of atheism in the same mode as religion. Atheistic ideas haven’t even gotten much chance, in the scope of human history, to be linked with nasty things and their record is already poor.

    1. Correlation versus causation is another excellent point with respect to the “new atheism.” It requires much hard work to establish causation, but correlation is easy. The desire for power over others, if it is primary, could “cause” the establishment of coercive institutios, both religious and secular; these institutions would be secondary.

  16. The problem with Dawkins (one of them, anyway) is that he claims that science supports his atheism. He thinks that the existence of God is a scientific question and that science proves that God does not exist. His stance is the mirror image of some of those in the intelligent design camp that he disdains: whereas the ID folks claim that science shows that there is a Designer, Dawkins claims that science shows that there is none. In fact, science does not and cannot say anything one way or the other. Dawkins as well as his ID antagonists are promoters of pseudoscience.

    1. Science cannot show that there is no Designer, but it can show that there is no evidence of one. That’s close enough.

      I was going to say that science can also offer explanations for phenomena other than a Designer, but that would be beside the point. Even if we have no explanation for a particular phenomenon, that would provide no justification for attributing the phenomenon to a Designer. If we did, then the Designer would be nothing but a placeholder for “Unknown.”

      1. When I said that science can show that there is no evidence of a Designer, I don’t mean that it can prove a negative. I mean that it can show that we presently have no evidence, and it can refute claims of evidence.

        1. It seems to me that it is safer to say “showing that many phenomena are better explained by ancestry than by design” than “refute claims of evidence.”

          In addition to the recurrent laryngeal nerve and the Fallopian tubes, there is of course the one that OB/GYN docs deal with every day: the placement of the birth canal through a narrow pelvis rather than through a more commodious pathway that a designer would come up with from a blueprint crafted for optimum function. Our quadruped ancestors had a wider pelvis which made for easier labor and delivery, but they could not walk upright. Walking on two limbs rather than four required that the pelvis be narrowed; the birth canal was not moved to a more convenient place but remained where ancestry had placed it.

          Of course, it may be that Eve originally did have a better-designed gynecologic anatomy, which was abruptly redesigned when she ate the forbidden fruit, modeled on the quadruped design in order to make her bring forth children in pain. Can’t rule out that possibility altogether.

          1. Ed, I was thinking more broadly than human (or any) biology. Suppose someone claimed that the existence of rainbows is evidence of God’s existence. Science can offer an alternative explanation. And, as I said, even if could not, that would not constitute evidence of God’s existence, as God would constitute no more than a placeholder for “unknown.”

    2. Evolution explains the structures of living things using descent with modification as its explanatory principle. Ancestry provides a better explanation than design for many phenomena.

      For example, our voice boxes receive nervous system input from the recurrent laryngeal nerves, which are branches of the vagus nerve. They follow a rather lengthy pathway to the larynx, passing under the aortic arch on the left and under the subclavian artery on the right, then ascending back up to the larynx. This circuitous path makes them more vulnerable to injury than they would be if they followed a direct path such as an engineer would design. They follow this pathway because they develop from the sixth branchial arch in embryology, and these structure can be traced back to the pharyngeal arches in fishes. The pattern was set hundreds of millions of years ago, and even though modified many times by later variations, the basic template remains as it was.

      Similarly, fishes and reptiles have ovaries which shed their eggs directly to the outside. Evolution has modified this pattern and in humans, the eggs are shed from the ovary to the Fallopian tube, where (usually), they descend to the uterus for safe gestation. When this goes wrong, an ectopic pregnancy results, with some considerable mortality in the days prior to modern obstetrics. No first year engineering student would contrive such a system; it would be much safer and more efficient to have a closed system in which the egg had no chance of going ectopic. But ancestry, not design, explains the somewhat inefficient and risky anatomical structure that humans inherit.

      So basically, there is good evidence against ID from countless structures observed in nature; one could still say that it hath pleased the Creator to design things that way, but it hath apparently pleased the Creator to design them according to the pattern of earlier life forms. Ancestry provides a more convincing explanation. We are this way because our remote ancestors were that way.

      When it comes to evolutionary biology, Dawkins has his act together. But it appears that he feels some kind of existential threat from “religion” which, as perceived existential threats tend to do, has clouded his powers of reason, much as has befallen the head of the NRA in the US with respect to any kind of gun legislation.

  17. For some reason I read this whole thread, even though I knew exactly what would be in it. Stupid me.

    Yes, Dawkins is obnoxious, and yes, he’s absolutely correct if you bother to pay attention to what he actually says.

    I’ll spare you all most of my miscellaneous reactions, except this one: please lose the silly hairsplitting between atheism and agnosticism. What’s at issue is the rejection, or not, of Yahweh(1) as Creator and Lord of the universe, overseer of its operations, and lawgiver for mankind. Questions about East Indian pantheisms and whether Buddhism is a “religion” or not serve only to obscure the point, which is that no person who has a decent understanding of what the universe is actually like can give any credence to the existence of Yahweh as He has traditionally been conceived. When I look at the universe as it is understood by the scientific (by which I mean naturalistic) view, and hear someone marvel at the wonders of God’s creation, my reaction is like that of a concert-goer listening to a Brahms symphony overhearing someone praising it a great Led Zepplin tune.

    It is equally impossible to mistake Brahms for Led Zepplin as it is to mistake the actual universe for the one that would have been created by Yahweh, if He existed. Hence my insistence on this point. The only possible way to be honestly agnostic is to admit the possibility of a God of the Philosophers, in whom no one believes (or at any rate whose believers are so few and culturally insignificant that they can be ignored). And if you claim to be such a believer, and not insignificant, I invoke Occam’s Razor, call your God an unnecessary multiplication of entities and indistinguishable from no God at all.

    (1) Old form of name used to denote all variants, particularly including the Arabic one.

    1. Well, maybe Dawkins needs to chill and find Robert Anton Wilson’s “Religion for the hell of it” online. Bob Wilson was a real character and is sorely missed.

      This thread is about to disappear off the bottom of the page, so I hope that a few people can enjoy the Wilson take on things before it is too late.

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