Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dawkins reconsidered, some

Pagan/UU Blogger John Franc of "Under the Ancient Oaks" has a thoughtful review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion up just now. Like him, I am frustrated with the narrow definition of God and Religion that Dawkins and other New Atheists apply in their critique of both. But Franc also points out the many things that Dawkins gets right. And he's getting me to rethink my tendancy to dismiss Dawkins et al as "fundamentalist atheists." Dawkins defends his passion on the grounds that (as Franc quotes him)

It is because the evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my opponent can’t see it – or, more usually, refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book.

Interestingly, though, the most ardent fundamentalists eager to convert the rest of us operate from a similar passion. As my own UU church's minister says, they are absolutely convinced your house is on fire and that your life depends on your escaping that burning house -- regardless of whether you perceive it that way or not.


  1. Richard Dawkins et al can be quite properly defined as "fundamentalist atheists", and even Atheist Supremacists in some instances. . . but that is no reason to "dismiss" them. Au contraire, it is all the more reason to keep a close eye on them and make sure that they do not take their "passion" for atheism *too* far as other "fundamentalist atheists" and Atheist Supremacists have done in the past. Politically I am as wary of the far left as the far right (indeed they look awfully similar), and on the religious front I am as wary of atheist (or indeed anti-theist) fundamentalists as I am of religious fundamentalists.

  2. Where does anybody intellectually honest get by with calling Dawkins a fundamentalist? He is as agnostic as anyone else, but quite vocal and yet he doesn't demand that anyone live their lives according to His Word, but to examine everything.

  3. I think it gives Dawkins a little more credit for tentativeness than he deserves to call him an agnostic. It's one thing for him to so enthusiastically and passionately assert his understanding of science, for which I applaud him. It's his tendentious way of lumping all religious belief into the narrow confines of religious fundamentalism that leads some people to consider him a "fundamentalist" in his atheism.

  4. I had entered a reply,only to discover at the end that there is a a character limitation, and the comment field doesn't tell me how many characters I have entered. I am not sure if that is intentional but I must admit that it is a bit frustrating not to know how much I need to trim.

    I am just going to ask that you review my reply over at my blog, which can be found through my name.

  5. FC: I've read it and I thank you for your comment. Sorry about the character limitation; I wasn't honestly aware of that and later will look at changing that. I'm also interested in engaging your post more thoroughly in the fullness of time, but probably not until this evening.

    All best...


  6. I use the word fundamentalist to describe militant atheists llike Richard dawkins because they behave in a manner that is very similar to how religious fundamentalists behave *and* this behavior actually closely parallels one of the broader dictionary definitions of the word fundamentalism -

    A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

    Richard Dawkins and his fellow "New Atheists" form something of an atheistic anti-religious movement that displays a quite rigid adherence to atheistic/anti-religious "principles" or ideology characterized by intolerance of religious views and opposition to religion more generally. In many ways they are the flip side of the religious fundamentalist coin.

    AFAIAC there is no intellectual dishonesty in my use of the term "fundamentalist" to describe atheists of Dawkins' ilk and I was using it to describe "like-minded" atheists before I had ever heard of Richard Dawkins.

  7. There are two issues here, at least with respect to FC's response, both here and over at his blog.

    1) Is it fair to call Dawkins and his New Atheist fellows "fundamentalists" in their atheism? I've done that in the past; as was the point of this original post, I now am rethinking that label. RE continues to use that label, and offers his justification. FC (over at his blog) takes exception to that label. I'll let the 2 of you sort that out or agree to disagree with each other. That said, FC employs a definition of "Fundamentalist" that is limited to "threatening the soul" of the person with whom he/she disagrees. That strikes me as highly stipulative definition; I think RE's basic definition is a bit more mainstream in this context, whether I still believe it should be applied to Dawkins or not.

    2) Is it accurate to call Dawkins and other New Atheists "agnostic," as FC does? I think FC does a yeoman's job of defending his use of the term in that context, but I remain unpersuaded. Dawkins et al don't merely assert they don't know whether God exists; the use a reductive (albeit widespread) definition of God and religion -- namely that of the most literal adherents and Bible readers -- and use that to pommel all religion and all conceptions of God. I don't believe in the God that Dawkins et al. ridicules either. But because Dawkins really limits his discussion in that way and, on the topic of religion specifically, seems to be so broadly categorical in his scorn, I just don't see him as "agnostic." And so on that, FC, perhaps you and I will have to "agree to disagree" :-) Anyway, belated welcome to the blog. Perhaps there will be other things here to interest you...

  8. Thanks, DSD. My understanding of the term comes from the historical use of it, and my own background in fundamentalist Christianity. To me it means that there are "truths that are unquestionable" such as even mind-body dualism.

    Robin, I expanded my reply at Frank Cornish's blog, and I hope that you will take a look at it and at least appreciate my perspective on it.

  9. Also, and off-topic, I checked my settings and don't see any way to change the character limit for comments that you encountered (nor any warning to be that comments will have such a limit). I will run a test later to see what the limit is and perhaps add a notice of it to my comment announcement....


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