About Me

My photo
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, October 01, 2010

Ajita Kamal on the "arrogance" of Richard Dawkins

Over at the Nirmukta site (which you really should bookmark), Ajita Kamal has a nice post about Richard Dawkins' supposed "arrogance". After putting into perspective one incident relating to Dawkins, Kamal observes:

There is a very important role that anger, ridicule and passion play in any social movement. While intellectual understanding is key to a movement that is well-grounded, it is the primary emotions that provide the impetus for social organization. Without this, atheism would simply remain an idea to be discussed in academia and in private settings.

That's exactly right. We are all - whatever social movement we are involved in - quite right to use language that expresses such things as our anger, disrespect, and so on. That doesn't mean it will be justified in every single case. It is possible to have a rational argument about what is expressed in any particular case (as Kamal does with the Dawkins incident) and whether it is justified. But we are not machines. It is natural for us to take stances towards each other and towards whatever we are talking about, and to express emotions and commitments through our choice of language, tone of voice, body language - etc. It is equally natural to discuss just what is being expressed on a particular occasion, slippery as those discussions can be, but it can never be taken for granted that anger, disrespect, mockery, denunciation, etc., are inevitably unjustified. There is a place for all those things. Merely pointing out their existence in a particular case proves nothing; something more needs to be said as to why this exact expression was inappropriate in its particular context.

As Kamal says, passion provides the impetus for social organisation. It is not something to avoid or be ashamed of.

Actually, Kamal's post is full of good stuff ... like this:

As you may well know, one of the most important functions of religion is to provide a common cultural ground to enable a common morality and social code to bring together people and form a functioning and content community. We atheists did not have this- not until a few years ago. It is easy to ignore the freedoms (from the point of view of social acceptance) we have gained towards expressing our beliefs in public and for gathering in the name of reason. It is easy to forget that millions of atheists crave the kind of social contact that religions have traditionally provided. It is even more easy to forget the role that anger, ridicule and passion have played in creating this global community of freethinkers. Without the ‘new atheists’, secular humanism would have remained irrelevant in the public sphere. Today we can meaningfully talk about replacing religion with a secular morality derived from humanistic principles only because of the social impetus that the ‘New Atheists’ like Dawkins have provided humanity with.

Exactly right. We can thank people such as Dawkins for opening up new possibilities. It's one thing to have an ongoing intellectual debate in academic books and journals, and in the publications of relatively small and specialised presses such as Prometheus Books. That is good, and much of the best material continues to appear in those publications. I'm pleased to have opportunities to discuss important issues in academic journals and books. But opening up a more popular debate requires the expression of passion.

And see this ...

It is a false assumption that to convince a believer about the validity of atheism (or rather, the absurdity of religion) one needs to be gentle and defensive. That is complete bull. It may work in a few cases, but it is generally a long term strategy applicable only to a tiny segment of people, the ones who are genuinely interested in exploring the truth regardless of their personal emotional intuitions. The vast majority of religious people are absolutely reticent to question their own beliefs and instead will attack atheism blindly. Most people who have become atheists have done so because at some point they began to question their own beliefs. Contrary to the general assumption, this sort of questioning does not come naturally to everyone. It does not come simply because we present logical arguments defending atheism. It often comes because at some point, someone else questioned their ridiculous religious beliefs. Often because someone ridiculed those beliefs. Throughout history, this is how revolutionary ideas have dispersed through culture. Society does not work on the same principles of science, in that evidence and proof do not determine what the majority will believe. Ideas die in a culture when it becomes embarrassing to hold on to them. Social conformity is achieved not through intellectual discourse as much as through the need to belong. If your ridiculous beliefs are laughed at, you begin to question them. This may not apply to you or me or many in this group, assuming that we are more evidence-based on our thinking, but this certainly applies to the majority of people on earth.

Quite so. We need rigorous intellectual arguments, but in many cases it is also necessary to have recourse to passion, and even mockery, if we are really going to get people to think - to see themselves and their ideas from a different perspective.

Of course, in any particular case we can have interesting discussions about what is actually being conveyed by a particular speech, say, or a particular passage in a book. In some cases, we may be able to show that what is being conveyed is not justified - for example, in a particular case it may be that it's conveyed that a particular belief is absurd, and it might be possible to show, by argument, that it's not absurd. But there is no general reason why beliefs of one kind or another, whether they are political beliefs, moral beliefs, religious beliefs, or any other that make a difference, should not be exposed as absurd, if that's what they are.

No beliefs are beyond mockery or satire or denunciation merely because they fall into some category such as "religious beliefs", or "the beliefs of the common people", or the beliefs of a particular culture. In any particular case, the satire might be unfair (the belief does not, for example, have the absurd feature that the satire targets) but that is a matter for argument in the specific case (conversely, it is legitimate to make that argument).

H/T to Ophelia Benson for discussing this post by Ajita Kamal yesterday; I think it's worth spreading the meme and having some more discussion.


Robert N Stephenson said...

I would say I found this interesting - when ever I coment against atheism it is recieved with blantant abuse and I am told I am emotional - yet in the atheist argument, if they show anger and the expression of such then it if fine as ' we are not machines.'

Fascinating really - ATHEISTS - are no different to any other non religious group of people, whether it be electro alignment of body energy ot the belief in external universal energy. Atheism, has based itself in something called 'Truth and Logic'

Neither aspect here is actually testable or measurable and in fact do have a variable far greater than can be reasonably tolerated by groups of individuals.

Now, in the case of Dawkins, he is only spouting forth streams of inanities to sell books, to anger and get publicity - the publicity the more books he sells the greater his fame or infamy becomes. Whether Dawkins likes it or not he has become part of the engine that drives commercialized and publicized society. Soon his words will be come dust and the impetous he was running with will fade. That is not his fault, nor qwould I think it would be his deliberate doing, but once on that treadmil, like Einstein, it is damn difficult to get off and reevaluate.

For me there is something in the middle of all this too and froing of abussive attacks, attitudes, anger AND DISRESPECT DIGUISED AS DISCUSSION. (OOPS FULL CAPS, SORRY - new keyboard)

Until sides decide the middle is where we start then we will always be poles apart and reaching and touching nothing

stuart said...

hey russell i just read this blog post in the economist, thought you would get a kick out of it:


Jeff Sherry said...

Robert, Dawkins profers inanities? I have to disagree with you. If you are expecting a philosophical argument from a high plane esoteric ideas it isn't going to generally happen on the public forums on the internet. Most supernaturalists (Christians or whatever religious group) are not well grounded in those discussions and seems to be a needle in the haystack nitpicking.

On the other hand I would like to be a little better grounded in what I am disputing.

Mr. Blackford thanks for the link and articles. Jeff Sherry

Ophelia Benson said...

I second the recommendation of Nirmukta.

J. J. Ramsey said...

A few thoughts on this.

First, I don't see Kamal as having really addressed Dawkins' arrogance. I'd rather not get into an extended discussion of why Dawkins comes off as arrogant to many people, but I will say briefly that a guy who refers to a tricky puzzle like the ontological argument as "infantile" isn't exactly humble.

Second, Kamal is wrong to say that atheists haven't had a community until a few years ago. The atheist community, with organizations such as American Atheists, as well as various other student groups, has been around long before the New Atheist books first came out. Furthermore, that community has employed anger and ridicule well before those books came out. That preexisting community has been given a shot in the arm by Dawkins and company, but the mere use of anger and ridicule is hardly a sufficient explanation, nor even a necessary one.

Third, claims about the usefulness of ridicule come in stark contrast to what the literature actually testing ridicule has had to say, for example:

"A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication -- Dominic Infante -- looked into situations where argumentativeness and verbal aggression occurred together, and found that the more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they were deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument[11]. Other studies have found that third party observers of arguments perceive greater levels of aggression and less credibility of parties who engage in even 'light' aggressive tactics[12]. Another study investigating argument progression within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments[13]."

That's not to say that Kamal is entirely wrong to say, "If your ridiculous beliefs are laughed at, you begin to question them." Research has confirmed that if the ridicule comes from one's own in-group, that dynamic often (but not always) holds. Trouble is, that doesn't help if we're in the out-group.

A_Bar_Steward said...

"Now, in the case of Dawkins, he is only spouting forth streams of inanities to sell books, to anger and get publicity - the publicity the more books he sells the greater his fame or infamy becomes."
Typical negative comment when you have no sustainable argument.
"First, I don't see Kamal as having really addressed Dawkins' arrogance."
He's not arrogant - again an attack on Dawkins when someone has no sustainable argument against facts. Richard, calls a spade a spade, its not arrogance except to the the ignorant.
Its the attack of last resort short of calling a fatwa

J. J. Ramsey said...

Ian: "Richard, calls a spade a spade, its not arrogance except to the the ignorant."

Ian, I just showed an example where Dawkins called a spade a spoon.

Frank said...

J.J.: "I just showed an example where Dawkins called a spade a spoon."

No, you made a baseless assertion.

The ontological argument is a baseless assertion as well. I find it absurd that anyone would bother to give it more than a passing, dismissive thought and even more absurd that anyone but a (very desperate) religious apologist would actually take it seriously.

"Infantile" is an adequate adjective for the Ontological Argument.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Frank: "I find it absurd that anyone would bother to give it more than a passing, dismissive thought and even more absurd that anyone but a (very desperate) religious apologist would actually take it seriously."

It gets taken seriously because finding how the argument goes wrong is nontrivial, even if one finds it unconvincing. Bear in mind that a few centuries passed between its initial formulation by Anselm and its decisive refutation by Kant, and it's not exactly as if there hadn't been attempts to crack it before, including attempts by Anselm's contemporaries. That's not the sort of thing that can be said for an infantile argument.