Friday, January 20, 2006

Poor Richard Dawkins

He's being taken to task this week.

First, Keith Ward in the Tablet. Faith, hype and a lack of clarity.
It seems that he thinks scientists are all reasonable, sceptical, honest people who insist on having evidence for all their beliefs. Religious believers, however, are irrational, and their faith discourages independent thought, is divisive, and dangerous. Faith, Dawkins said, is “a process of non-thinking”, or of “believing because you have been told”, without any evidence at all. Presumably scientists who have religious beliefs are rational during the week, and suddenly become insane on Sundays.
Dawkins may think that the spiritual hypothesis has been demolished by materialism. There are indeed some philosophers who think so. But, as anyone who teaches philosophy knows, there are also reasons for believing in God. Even scientists who are not avowed theists, such as Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, usually accept that there are good reasons for believing in a designing intelligence, even if they think there are stronger reasons for declining that inference. There are reasons for belief in God, however, that can be intelligently believed and discussed, and to deny that is wilful prejudice and intellectual dishonesty.
So why can Professor Dawkins only see the bad in religion? Why is he incapable of making an objective, “scientific”, study of it, in all its diversity? Why is he unable to make distinctions between the many different forms of religious belief? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know this apostle of reason, when confronted with the word “faith”, suddenly becomes irrational, careless of truth, incapable of scholarly analysis. I really think it must be some sort of virus, and I wish my colleague a speedy recovery.

The whole thing really is worth reading! Then we have that bastion of secularism, the Guardian, yesterday [hat-tip to Mike M for the link], ripping through him.
There's an aggrieved frustration that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now. Secularisation was supposed to be an inextricable part of progress. Even more grating, what secularisation there has been is accompanied by the growth of weird irrationalities from crystals to ley lines. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in God is not that they believe nothing, it is that they believe anything.

There's an underlying anxiety that atheist humanism has failed. Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence. Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires. Not knowing how to answer the big questions of life, we shelve them - we certainly don't develop the awe towards and reverence for the natural world that Dawkins would want. So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers.
Maybe next the editors of the Atlantic Monthly will take note. Last month they printed this thought-provoking and intelligent piece (Is God an accident?). In response, this month, there are five letters, four of which (at least at first glance) have the same mixture of condescension and disdain towards religion that is exemplified by Dawkins. It has to be "explained" somehow. The fifth is the only response from a religious person, slightly huffy, but making a valid point. The author is given a chance to respond, and simply ignores the arguments raised by the last letter. Now it could be that no other seriously religious readers responded. I wonder though. Compare this to that neat piece that ran in the same publication, Kicking the Secularist Habit (David Brooks, March 2003).

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