About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dawkins, religion, and public policy

The February-March issue of Cosmos contains my long-awaited review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, a book that has been the subject of massive international controversy.

(This issue also has Jenny Blackford's excellent article on recent books about the mind, plus other reviews by one or other of us, but I'll put that to one side.)

Actually, my review of The God Delusion is not all that long-awaited: I wrote the review in early November, so the lag between writing and publication was three months. For a bimonthly magazine, Cosmos has published it quickly.

But in the three months between when the review was written and when it appeared in print there has been an extraordinary debate going on about Dawkins' book. I read and reviewed The God Delusion before any of this appeared, so I couldn't take the controversy into account - what you'll see in Cosmos when you pick up your copy is just a straight review of what I think is a very good, but certainly not perfect, book in which Dawkins argues his case that traditional, literal theism is a false and dangerous belief.

One thing that has since astonished me is how many secular or otherwise moderate thinkers appear to resent Dawkins speaking up in criticising religion. I was well aware of the unspoken pact among intellectuals to show a sort of paternalistic solicitude toward religion - something that has developed gradually since my youth back in the 1970s, when anti-religious feeling was more socially acceptable. But I hadn't realised just how strong this pact had become. If you write a book like that of Dawkins, arguing with wit and passion against religious belief, it now seems that most people who are in the position to review your work will question the propriety of what you're doing. It's as if any criticism of religion is seen, these days, as some kind of affront, or threat, to social stability.

As religious leaders and intellectuals have become bolder, in recent years, about attempting to shape public policy on explicitly religious or crypto-religious grounds, it has become important that those grounds be subjected to close sceptical scrutiny. If the exponents of religious and crypto-religious viewpoints wish to have a say in the formulation of public policy, then we need to scrutinise whether or not their arguments are based on any intellectually credible foundation.

Those of us who live in Western societies are no longer in a luxurious position where the proponents of religious and crypto-religious worldviews are prepared to keep out of policy debates, in the expectation that their beliefs, in turn, will be treated gently in the public arena. In particular, the Vatican is aggressive in demanding that public policy reflect its specifically religious morality. In the US, there has been a determined push to challenge the teaching of biological evolution in schools, while the President's Commission on Bioethics is dominated by religious and crypto-religious thinking. All of this is supported by levels of funding that most of us can only dream of gaining access to.

We can't pretend this is not happening around us, and go on blithely assuming that policy will be set on purely secular grounds, with religion agreeing to be sidelined.

I expect to see a lot more public questioning of religion in books and other media. The position has been reached where there will be more poking at the sore point, more intense probing at whether religious worldviews are even tenable - with more and stronger challenges to the role they play in the formulation of public policy. Contrary to so many critics of Dawkins, who obviously feel uncomfortable, I think that that's a necessary and healthy development.


Blake Stacey said...

Right on.

Religions have been criticizing each other for thousands of years now. I fail to see how it can really hurt that much more to have people take on the whole lot.

A while back, I posted a quotation from Alan Sokal, which I think is relevant:

Even most liberals and agnostics take a dim view of blunt talk about religion, except to denounce the excesses of fundamentalism. After all, the battles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between the Church and the secular liberals were largely resolved in favor of the latter; religion in the West has largely abandoned its pretensions as a political influence, except on matters of sexual morality and (in areas of the United States where fundamentalists are strong) education. As a consequence, nonbelievers have reached a modus vivendi with organized religion: you agree to stay out of politics (more or less); we, in return, will refrain from publicly questioning your theology and from attacking the remnants of your temporal privileges (e.g. state subsidies in Europe, tax exemptions in the United States).

In recent years, an upsurge of fundamentalist influence has violated the religious side of the modus vivendi — and, well, turnabout is upon occasion fair play. . . .

Russell Blackford said...

There's also an issue as to whether religion has any particular wisdom about sexual morality. Actually, that it is an area where Islam and Roman Catholicism look especially unlikely to have any wisdom - quite the opposite.

Blake Stacey said...

Also a good (albeit rather scary) point.

While we're talking about the Dawkins kerfluffle, do you know where the term "New Atheism" sprang from? In the current usage, it seems to have been injected into the meme pool by Gary Wolf's article in Wired (November 2006). I wasn't too impressed with Wolf's article last year — it had a bit of smugness to it which I found off-putting — and, to be frank, I haven't found the "New Atheism" meme carrying much insight in the months since.

A little history might give my remarks context. In my senior year of high school, we were all sitting around picking the quotes we wanted to go under our names in the yearbook. Out of the several maxims and aphorisms I squeezed into the character limit, the one which stays in my mind is this: "I am prejudiced against religion because I know the history of religion, and it is the history of human misery and black times."

That's Isaac Asimov, not Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Victor Stenger. (I liked the line because it suggests that all the "misery and black times" might blind us to the social good which religions can do, whatever that might be, while at the same time forcing us to keep that misery firmly in mind.) It comes from the third volume of his autobiography, in which he also says that Hell is the drooling dream of a sadist crudely grafted onto the idea of an all-loving god (or words to that effect). The New York Times called this book "a treasure for would-be biographers and for anyone interested in a mind that roamed freely through the formidable constructs of modern science and returned to tell the tales in lucid and energetic English sentences." I suppose if Asimov had spent more than a couple chapters discussing atheism and humanism, the review would sound more like a blog post about Dawkins.

And that's the thing: I've grown up with statements critical of religion. There's nothing particularly "New" about them. From behind my laptop screen, the defining characteristic of the "New Atheism" — a term which is only a hair's breadth from "Atheism is the new black" — is that people are buying the books.

In hunting for where the term came from, I found a 1994 book by Robert A. Morey, The New Athiesm and the Erosion of Freedom. According to Amazon, the fellow has also written Worship is All of Life (1984), Islamic Invasion (2001) and How to Keep Your Faith in College (2002). Amazon has added some nifty scholarship-enabling features, which tell me that Islamic Invasion is cited in, among other places, Varisco's Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation (2005), which calls Moyer's book "A really pathetic fundamentalist anti-Islamic diatribe" (p. 150). Amazon also directs me to Lawrence's Shattering the Myth, whose endnotes (p. 187) say of Islamic Invasion, "His favorite targets begin with M: Mormons, Masons, and now Muslims. [...] His chief premise is at once simplistic and antagonistic: Islam is but 'a form of cultural imperialism in which the religion and culture of seventh-century Arabia have been raised to the status of divine law' (19). Distortions, half-truths, and innuendos abound, yet the book continues to be adopted as a required text in some college-level religion courses."

On the whole, I'm much more impressed by Amazon's citation-tracking ability than I am by the book I tried to research. Hey, at least it was easy to find out that "New Atheism" is a term already over a decade old.

Russell Blackford said...

I think it's a silly term. There's nothing new about it. Dawkins has been saying similar things for years, after all.

What I suppose is "new" is that a few high-profile books have come out more or less at once challenging the solicitude that was shown to religion by secular intellectuals during the last couple of decades, but really none of this is new in terms of its content.