This review was written for Richard Dawkins Foundation
Beyond an Absence of Faith, edited by Jonathan Pearce and Tristan Vick, brings us the stories of 16 people who came to reject the faith of their upbringing. Most of the writers are American and former Christians, though some are former Muslims. They tell us of their journeys from strong religious faith to atheism, and in the process give a vivid account of the state of Christianity in America today.
What is striking is how all-encompassing and cult-like religious faith can be. These are not the stories of luke-warm believers, but of people for whom religion was a central feature of their lives. We read stories of people brought up in a “fundie bubble” to the extent that:
At one point, I counted five of seven nights of the week as church functions. Monday was a discipleship with a church leader and some students. Wednesday was a youth service. Thursday was a large-group discipleship, where we met at someone’s house for prayer and Bible study. Friday was the “Powerhouse,” a sort of hangout for teens with live music and a small service. Saturday was the Hellfighters service, and Sunday was the main service …
This is coupled with indoctrination of children so complete that one writer recalls:
I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out.
The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is a vocal critic of “New Atheism” and of scientism. He has recently written a paper in Midwest Studies in Philosophy analysing “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement”. Parts are interesting and insightful, though unfortunately at times it strays into sneering, rather than disagreeing with and arguing against people. As a proponent of both “new” atheism and scientism I’m writing this response.
Pigliucci states that the defining characteristics of “New Atheism” (a term coined by the media, by the way, not by the “New Atheists” themselves) are, first, popularity (hurrah!), and, second, that: “the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more force-fully on science than on philosophy”. This is perceptive, and indeed some New Atheists have been scornful of philosophy.
Pigliucci remarks on the “scientistic turn” of the atheist movement, and offers:
Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.
The second of these definitions is close to the mark, though I’d phrase it rather that all “human knowledge and understanding” is ultimately empirical, that there are no known demarkation lines where rules of evidence and reason stop applying, and that we can call this evidence- and reason-based exploration of empirical reality “science”. Thus to the extent that philosophy or any other discipline produces well-founded answers it is part of the same seamless ensemble of knowledge called “science”. Continue reading
In his new autobiography and and in interviews Dawkins has been recalling his childhood. He recounts one episode, when aged about 10, of what he described as “mild” sexual abuse by a school teacher, and said that others in the class had suffered the same. Based on his many conversations with his classmates back then, especially after that teacher committed suicide, Dawkins suggested: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. The wording here is tentative, but he has since accepted that he was somewhat presumptuous, and that he can’t fully know the long-term outcome for his class mates. Continue reading
As just about everyone will already know, Richard Dawkins has been causing quite a stir by his tweeting about Islam. The criticism is that Dawkins’s tweeting is “racist”, “xenophobic”, “Islamophobic”, “bigoted”, “dishonest”, “counterproductive”, and that it enables the racism of the likes of the EDL.
Let me admit that I’m ambivalent about Dawkins’s use of Twitter, I think he’d make a far better blogger than tweeter, and he comes off much better given sufficient words to explain himself and show his eloquence. But Dawkins is clearly enjoying himself and gathering an ever-increasing Twitter following. He’s also quite capable of defending himself when necessary.
It seems to me that the criticism of Dawkins stems largely from one of the oldest memes, that it is uncouth to criticise religion. If he were criticising, say, communism or capitalism in similar terms no-one would bat an eye. But when he criticises Islam people try their best to interpret his language as “racist” and thus unacceptable.
One complaint is that Dawkins’s language is “careless” in that his language can be “co-opted into a wider discourse that Islam is in a sort of clash of civilisations with the West”, or as another critic puts it “The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative”.
Well, I disagree. I hold the principle of secularism to be of the highest importance for a decent, functioning and progressive society. Indeed I would argue that a key reason underpinning the West’s current economic dominance is that the West accepts the separation of church and state, even in highly religious nations such as the USA. This principle of being able to speak freely and question everything is vital to the development of ideas that drive progress. Continue reading
Religious literalists and creationists can be annoying, and liberal believers whose theology is entirely apophatic can also be annoying; however anyone who espouses atheism on the internet will soon encounter an even more annoying group: the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostics.
The what? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms?! Sadly not, the Militant Fundamentalist Agnostic, while pretending to complete ignorance of gods, will confidently assert the central dogma of the agnostic faith, and cling to it tenaciously. Their one dogma is the claim that atheists make dogmatic assertions about the non-existence of gods. And hence, by declaring themselves to be free of such unwarranted, beyond-the-evidence assertions, they feel themselves superior, not only to the believers, who have no proof of their deities, but also to the atheists, who have no proof to back up their supposed claims of certain non-existence.
It is pointless trying to argue with the Fundamentalist Agnostics, telling them that, no, atheists usually do not make dogmatic assertions of non-existence. Such a correction undermines the very core of the agnostic identity, and will be rejected with fervour. If an agnostic once accepted that atheism is not about making categorical non-existence assertions, then they’d have no good reason to call themselves agnostics. They might — oh the horror! — have to consider whether they themselves might be (I shudder to write the word) atheists! Continue reading
“Science can answer ‘how’ questions, but religion answers ‘why’ questions” has become a cliche, oft-quoted by those believing in a proper role for religion even in today’s scientific world. Rarely is this claim argued for, rather it is usually stated as though it were obviously true, a knock-down argument that refutes scientism. The claim is that, while science can tell us how the natural world works, only religion can tell us how the universe came to be and why it was created. Too much emphasis on science is seen as leaving the narrow-minded advocate of scientism as lacking any appreciation of the world of values and emotions and desires and everything that makes life worth living.
The advocate of scientism rejects any such suggestion, considering that values and desires are just as much a property of the natural world as anything else, being the products of highly evolved but entirely natural animals, and thus just as much within the proper domain of science as anything else. Continue reading
In the ongoing row over a film clip denigrating Islam the European Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Commission of the African Union have issued a joint statement that includes:
We … want to send a message today of peace and tolerance. We share a profound respect for all religions. We are united in our belief in the fundamental importance of religious freedom and tolerance. […] While fully recognizing freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.
We reiterate our strong commitment to take further measures and to work for an international consensus on tolerance and full respect of religion […] The only answer to the darkness of intolerance and ignorance is the light of mutual respect, tolerance and dialogue.
Notice how the wording repeatedly switches between “respect” and “tolerance” as though they were part of the same package and both equally necessary. Yet, the words are quite different, both in meaning and in their status as something that can be legitimately demanded.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary makes this clear:
“Tolerate”: “(1) allow the existence or occurrence of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference. (2) endure (someone or something unpleasant) with forbearance”.
Contrast this with:
“Respect”: (1) “feeling of deep admiration for someone (or something) elicited by their qualities or achievements.”
Far from “respect” and “tolerance” being part of the same package, one can only genuinely tolerate something that one does not respect. Continue reading
There has been a kerfuffle over a German court ruling that a boy’s right to choose whether he spends his adult life with an intact penis supersedes the religious freedom of the parent, and thus that circumcision amounts to illegal “bodily harm”.
“The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision” said the court. “This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs”. Further, the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents” and “The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised”.
Predictably, religious groups — Muslim, Jewish and Christian — have been in uproar, claiming that that this ruling violates their “religious freedom”, a supposed right to impose their religion on their children. Notably, they make no mention of the religious rights of the child. Likely they consider that the child has no such rights — or at least, has only the “right” to have his parents’ choice of religion imposed on him. After all, in the United Kingdom, children at state schools are legally compelled to worship the Christian god, and have no right to opt out. When opposing the repeal of this compulsory religious worship in a House of Lords debate Baroness Trumpington said that it “did not matter if pupils were bored, did not like going to chapel or were not interested in religious matters”. So much for religious freedom. Continue reading