So peculiar thought to start with- I always used to prefer Hitchens to Dawkins- because as I mentioned yesterday I’m not a fan of militant atheism. So it came as a big surprise to me that I much preferred this to Hitchens’ book.
I did enjoy this much more, if partly because it’s actually scientific, as opposed to just being pure vitriol. I also enjoyed the fact that it dealt with things in a more universal way. Despite the personal start, I thought it dealt very well with major issues. Dawkins worked in a logical manner, starting with the macro and then focusing down on the micro. I enjoyed his attitude to the awe of understanding and the desire to actually engage in back and forth arguments. Furthermore, by doing so, he was able to make far more positive arguments about how it is an option to be an atheist if you so choose. This coupled with his eloquent and at times beautiful writing, made this a rather liberating work.
I also fundamentally agree with his point about being free to have an argument- because that is a central tenet of any free society. Personal opinions are worn like identities now and that is unhelpful no matter who is doing it. So yes- I respect his desire not to don kid gloves!
If only he could have kept up the same level of objectivity when it came to defending atheism! In addressing the critique of militant atheism as dogmatic, Dawkins defends his position as simply “passionate”. Now, while a part of me wants to argue that I am only passionate about things I believe in, I would suggest that there is something more going on. As his arguments devolve into the defence of atheists from perceived discrimination, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that this isn’t simply coming from a place of not believing in god.
Because modern day atheism doesn’t seem to be simply about the personal choice to not believe in god– it often seems to go so much further- painting religion as the cause for all evil and trying to create a group identity around disbelief. Here I see a parallel with the central tenets of Marxism- a political ideology which so often found ways to undermine and oppose anything that was on the more “conservative” side of the political spectrum. The idea, quite simply, is to make the personal political, and tear down anything that opposes a leftist “utopia”. To put it simply: he’s playing atheist identity politics.
For that reason he uses “anyone that’s not with me is against me” arguments. This is especially evident in his view of agnosticism. He seems to be very mistaken about what being an agnostic often means. He states there are two forms: Temporary Agnosticism in Practice and Permanent Agnosticism in Practice. Both of these presume that it is “in practice”– because for a lot of people they don’t want to *practice* atheism or agnosticism. In reality, there are a plethora of different reasons for identifying as an agnostic. To use Dawkins’ own metaphor of “herding cats” as a way of saying atheists think independently- he hasn’t considered the fact that some cats would rather like to mind their own business and let other cats go their own way. In fact, his image of cats trying to make their voices heard rather reminds me of a chorus of cats singing out of tune. Is there no possibility of having a cat who acknowledges that yowling from atop a wall at midnight is annoying? Okay- I may have taken this metaphor too far, but you get the idea- independent thinkers may very well want to keep their independence. The fact that Dawkins wants people to resist the term “agnostic” signifies his desire to overthrow individualism for the sake of his collectivist aims.
This in some respects also explains the fallacious appeal to authority that so many atheists use. I mentioned this in my criticism of Hitchens’ yesterday. Honestly, I am a little sick of the “x number of scientists are atheists” argument. If you’re doing something just cos “all the cool kids are doing it” then it’s not really about independent thought. And of course denying people’s religion really won’t get you anywhere. It is no doubt true that “Even great artists need to earn a living”- but does this really matter? For some historical figures being religious was important (just ask the guy that wrote the bible 😉 ). And (good) critics wouldn’t want to ignore the role of religion in art because it would disrupt their search for truth. Ironically enough, Dawkins proves this point rather well by launching into a defence of religious texts.
Now as you can see I’m starting to repeat my criticisms of Hitchens’ book. Naturally the same “atheist fallacies” find their way into Dawkins’ arguments. But one more area I will address is the fact that neither of these books acknowledge that “the past is a foreign country, they did things differently there”. This is in no way meant as a moral relativist argument (by now, you all know how much I detest that) but as a simple appeal to look at context! One example was in the way Dawkins explores the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara- a Jewish boy abducted by the Catholic Church. Now in his critique he actually condemns the parents for not simply converting to Christianity- which as someone striving for intellectual honesty is a little rich- but more than that it fails spectacularly to acknowledge that in the context he is speaking of, the parent’s conversion was unlikely to undo the damage that was done- Dawkins clearly has no idea how converts from Judaism were treated- still you know, way to *blame the victims*.
I will say Dawkins book felt far more intellectually rigorous than Hitchens’ book- yet on the whole I still have massive problems with the doctrines of militant atheism.
Rating: 3/5 bananas
Now- what do you think? What is your opinion on militant atheist books? Heck- what’s your opinion about militant atheism in general? Let me know in the comments!