Tuesday, 19 December 2006

The Trouble with Richard Dawkins

I have to thank Rod Liddle, that darling of the Graunistas for taking the time to appear on my telly last night. In The Trouble With Atheism the Rodster takes a big agnostic stick and gives the godless a good provocative poking. His thesis is that for all contemporary atheism’s courting of reason and logic, it is beginning to resemble the religions it so despises. Atheists are shown to be haughty, dogmatic, dismissive and contemptuous. Atheism is demonstrated to have its own sacred texts and places of worship. And like all religions it has its fundamentalist zealots.

He does have a point. One of Liddle's main protagonists is celebrity scientist and page 7 atheist pin up Richard Dawkins, whose hyped best seller is billed as giving religion both barrels. Now, I haven’t read The God Delusion nor am I likely to after seeing its contents laid bare in forests of book reviews and a 3-part advert/C4 documentary. From what I can gather he argues science is superior to religion because the latter relies on mystery, faith and dogma over investigation, reasoned argument and evidence. Okay, no problems there. He goes on to make the obvious point that religion excuses people to be beastly to one another and justifies all manner of violence toward the unbelievers. Again, an incontrovertible point. But it’s when he extends his argument that he runs into trouble.

It essentially boils down to this. He cannot understand why religious people cannot see through superstition when he, his mates and a smug band of Dawkins groupies can. By way of an explanation he likens religion to viruses. These ‘memes’ gain an echo down the centuries because they offer the promise of a purpose to existence and a life beyond death. This, despite protestations to the contrary, implies atheists are more logical and have greater strength of character than their theist brethren because they can face down oblivion. But the flipside is he holds out the hope that people can be won away from religion by force of debate and reason.

Unfortunately he falls into the familiar trap of unreflective thinking. Despite his atheism and scientific writings on evolution, philosophically his position is simplistically materialist and thoroughly idealist. On the one level Dawkins accepts Wittgenstein’s famous dictum that “the world is all that is the case” but for him this remains a contemplative position. This might be enough to see him through his studies of genetics but an abstract nod to a godless world is unsuited for understanding the sensuous and active world in which we live. We cannot grasp the pull of religious ideas without simultaneously being aware of the real, historical existence of the people who adhere to them. It is not enough to suggest religion speaks to universal human concerns. That cannot begin to explain why, for example, the Palestinian militant is more likely to adopt fundamentalist Islam than the Orthodox Judaism of the Israeli settler. But also mundane everyday life is, for the overwhelming majority, profoundly alienating. Those who sell their labour power for a wage or a salary give themselves over to a power outside themselves for a set period of time, which shoe-horns them into a circumscribed role, directs their pace of work and then denies them access to the full fruits of their labour. When society is subordinated to the demands of a blind alien power, when people are atomised, individuated and powerless, the belief we are but feathers buffeted by a divine wind can make more sense than salvation lying in our own self-activity as beings capable of consciously making history.

But this was the great unsaid in The Trouble With Atheism and Dawkins' assault on religion. Conceding the demise of religion in itself wouldn't necessarily lead to a more peaceful world. Dawkins and Liddle both blame war and destruction on that old canard human nature. Not once do they entertain the possibility that our "nature" is intimately bound up with the characteristics of this society, characteristics that arise from concrete historical processes that at the same time are made by social relationships dependent on and independent of human activity. In fact it's hardly surprising that, given their agreement on this point, when Liddle does venture into pop sociology, the crimes of Stalinism and fascism are laid at atheism's door. The very strong implication is despite its faults and appalling record religion sacralises human life: strip that away and raw human nature sets us on the path to the gulag and gas chamber.

For all Dawkins' reason and logic his atheism alibies capitalism. His 'scientific' standpoint is only materialist in the sense that our immutably destructive human nature is hard wired into our genes. Substitute this explanation for The Fall and in essence you have the same argument. Bourgeois materialism and religious idealism are 2 sides of the same capitalist coin. Both justify the order of things that sustain them and therefore have to deny the possibility of change. But because Marxism fundamentally breaks with these views it sees capitalism for what it is - an antiquated system whose decomposition threatens our survival as a species. Marxism not only affirms our capacity to build a new society, but demands it.


Gregory said...

What is wrong with having a faith, a belief there is something more than living to die and ceasing to exist; essentially no reason to have been born at all?
And why in time of need and in great crisis do people turn to religion?
Religion and socialism go hand in hand since in both you wish to do well for one and other. Of course there are perversions and courses of control, like in Catholicism, but at the heart it teaches just common decency.

Also Phil, on the fourth paragraph you've put mahority instead of majority:
"But also mundane everyday life is, for the overwhelming _mahority_,"

Jim Jay said...

I'm afraid religion does not at heart teach "just common decency" - although there are a great many religious people whose decency is far far greater than that commonly found.

For some people religion is just this but for the majority of human history common decency and religion have been strangers to one another - and I see no reason to say that this was somehow not real or a distortion of real religious feeling

The thing I don't like about Dawkins is he leaves no wiggle room - he has a hard and dogmatic position and one I'd feel uncomfortable with at the dinner table.

However, I also think that it's useful to have a hard core of shock troops for any idea who may take things to extremes but are willing to be uncompromising in the way they advocate their ideas - I just would not like the majority to take such a dogmatic position.

Phil said...

So much for spellchecker!

One point about atheism I didn't touch on is it's what you make of it. For those of a religious persuasion the idea there is no God or afterlife is anathema. There is the assumption that without the otherworldly, existence is stripped of mystery and wonder. With no such thing as objective morality eminating from heaven there is nothing to stop humanity from descending into barbarity. On the otherhand if this is the only life we've got, it is imperative to live the best life we can. The corollary of this is fighting for a society where, to quote Marx, "the development of each is conditioned by the development of all".

It is true you don't have to be an atheist to be a socialist. But Marxism is rigorously materialist. But as hopefully I made clear little is to be gained by polemicising against religion because it arises from real material processes. Kicking away the props of capitalist society and building a society of conscious associated producers means religion will lose its base. There's no guarantee it would simply wither away but it is reasonable to assume its purchase will be nowhere near as wide as it is now.

Gregory said...

"I'm afraid religion does not at heart teach "just common decency" - although there are a great many religious people whose decency is far far greater than that commonly found."
Well that is what I have grown up to believe in the Methodist church, and have no real reference to others, that it isn't as though they would not help someone because they're not a Christian or part of their denomination. When I spoke of a distortion, I meant of those of the Bible which I do believe it teaches common decency and it is the fault rather of churches that will manipulate it in such ways.

"Kicking away the props of capitalist society and building a society of conscious associated producers means religion will lose its base. There's no guarantee it would simply wither away but it is reasonable to assume its purchase will be nowhere near as wide as it is now."
Sorry Phil, would you mind elaberating on this? I don't really understand why the belief in the supernatural would diminish when the oppressive system is taken down. I don't understand how the belief in, say the afterlife which religions focus on, will become null.

Phil said...

You are right in a sense, a socialist society will not necessarily spell the end of religious belief, or belief in an afterlife. However for Marxists the wellspring of belief is rooted in the relationship humans have to the means of their existence. For example in hunter gatherer societies where there are no classes as such their material existence is beyond the control of the tribe. They depend on the vagaries of nature to ensure food supply and the weather stays favourable. With the emergence of class society and the shift from gathering to production, the relationship to our means of subsistence become more and more mediated by society as itself develops. But these same processes that progressively free humanity from natural necessity also disarms the species. Lives once governed by the rhythms of the natural cycle have become, in capitalist society, subordinated to the market.

There is a massive literature on the roots of alienation and Marx's practical materialism. I haven't got the time to go into it here. But the Marxist argument goes that if our relationship to the means of production is consciously regulated by the mass democracy and participation a socialist society demands, then that feeling of powerlessness, that need for an otherworldly explanation for the chaos and anarchy of the modern world objectively disappears.

This is what I mean by religion no longer having the same purchase in a socialist society as it does in capitalism.

Scott said...

"This is what I mean by religion no longer having the same purchase in a socialist society as it does in capitalism."

Thro that doesn't mean it will wither away. In fact there is some evidence to show that (for example) in russia (around 1928ish) the Russian orthodox church was gaining in popularity, people given the time to ponder the universe where comming back to God. (N.B. that why IMHO Starlin started the purge against religion (because how could religion be gaining ground when marx said it would wither?))

Of course no one know what will happen in a socialist country thats allowed to develope without being attacked on all side's. But I for one belive there is a place for religion under socialism, not as a crutch, but as a glowing light, to guide people by (Shit that sounds so crap!).

Jim Jay said...

Well G it may well be that 21st century methodism is as you describe, I'm not well aquainted with it, but I was responding to the idea that *religion* was as described - which is far broader and older than christianity.

But let's look at the bible - how many people does god kill, punish and retribute against? Are heroes like David and Abraham really examples of common decency?

Are good people who don't worship the right statue condemned by a loving god or an unforgiving one?

Don't get me wrong I don't care what religious ideas people believe in, but I don't accept that the Bible is naturally a guidebook of common decency and those who have interpretted it otherwise have misread it.

Phil said...

I'll forgive your rhetorical flourish Scott, but only cos you're one of the chosen who walk with the CWI ;)

The recrudesence of religion in the early soviet republic however wasn't a symptom of health, but rather its degeneration. Despite myths to the contrary Russia was never what you could describe as a healthy workers state. In the 1917-28 phase the country was marked by a brutish and devastating civil war, entailing economic collapse and famine. The state itself was rapidly bureaucratised and the flame of soviet democracy snuffed out by accident and later design. And then from 1921-28 you had a certain liberalising of the economy with the reintroduction of capitalist agriculture. Problem was of course the state became even more authoritarian, to the point where it was strong enough to forcibly reverse these processes and bring the economy back under bureaucratic management, which Stalin did with the first 5 year plan.

This period of history was highly chaotic - the prospect of Russian peasants and workers coming together to build a society of associated producers was at best fleeting. It's hardly surprising then that relgious belief as an attempt to make sense of and provide comfort in the face of their powerlessness came back with a vengeance.

Scott said...

I agree Phil, Russia is hardly ideal for the study of a socialist sociaty, however we have what we have and until we get something better we may as well study it and it's effects for good or ill.

Tom said...

I think the question for socialists and those who hope for a better society is whether religion is stopping it come into existence. To which I would have to argue some of the power structures (hierachial chruch structures mainly) might well be. I can't see a Pope (especialy one dressed in finest cloth and in a church of gold) being much else other than a stumbling block in the path towards socialism for example. However individual belief isn't. Many Christians (and other faiths I suppose though I don't have first hand knowledge/evidence) that I know are socialists who are active in campaigning for a socialist world. There are disagreements about how this can be achieved (as there is on the left as a whole) but I know that of at least five (possibly more) Christians who are members of revolutionary socialist organisations (ok, SPEW!) despite the group in question not having a 'soft' posistion on religion like the SWP do.
The next complaint against religion is that the philosophy gets in the way of Marxism. Again I would reject this. The Christians within SPEW/CWI say they are Christians based on a materialist explanation for their belief. Believing there is a scientific explanation or evidence for a religious viewpoint may be hard to stomach for some Marxists but they believe it to be so. Without getting into a historical debate about Jesus and the validity of the various New Testament documents there is a member who has 'felt' the Holy Spirit and who was convinced of their belief in the Christianity after having various things happen to them. Of course psycological explanations and mass hysteria can be offered up but without having been there themselves most Marxists would have to admit that the evidence does not exist to prove or disprove the claim in the current circumstances. They may believe the evidence points towords the non-existence of God or Holy Spirit, but it is a matter of debate with the comrade who has reliegious belief rather than a fact of absoulute truth or fact that must be adhered to. If a comrade can be both religous/faithful and still agree with the ideas of Marxism and historical materialism, infact explaining their faith through Marxism methods, then I think we may have to end the idea that individual belief stops people becoming Marxists. Yes, it may (and should!) raise questions for those of faith but if they can fit the two together then it's no problem for other Marxists.

Tom said...

Gregory your profile link leads no where. DO you have a blog or more information about your ideas/beliefs? I would be interested in reading more and discussing with you. If not then I will happily send you an email or similar.

Gregory said...

No Tom, I don't have a blogger site but I do have my own: www.grogoreo.co.uk I think I'll just put a link to it from a blogger profile

bluegreenearth said...

All I saw was Liddle setting up paper tigers and knocking them down, with nary a dent in atheism itself - his Stalin argument was rubbish, his Darwin argument laughable, and exactly the kind of thing I expect from those who haven't a clue what 'rational' actually means in science and philosophy (as opposed to the spiritualist nonsense that many allow to be 'philosophy').

Unfortunately the argument that Dawkins is an enemy of Marxism as he is a 'bourgeois materialist' is also rubbish. Materialism is core to capitalism in some ways, ditto Marxism and Atheism. Like Liddle vis atheism, it is a mistake to see materialism as having any specific ethics accruing to it. It is a tool in the rationalist tool-box, and thus, like all tools, has some influence as a shape on the hand that holds it, but not in the rigidly determinist way that Liddle and Phil imply in their different ways, at least not if those using the tools have their eyes open.

My problem with Dawkins is that he pussy's out on the question "are Christians 'bad scientists'?". In many arenas they need not be, certainly not when their role is as engineers or technical support types. But in cutting-edge thought, having an attitude that your faith in a God is implacable, regardless of 'facts', where the God you subscribe to has pushed certain ethical stances as inseparable from belief in 'him' (ie, always), and at the same time engaging in an intellectual activity that requires you change your views if the facts contradict the presumptions you may have had, is contradictory. If a tenet of your science is over-turned you are meant to say 'so be it' and recalibrate, but if a tenet o your faith is questioned the science is wrong, kind of by definition - and, by definition, you become a 'bad scientist'. On an interview with either Jon Snow or Paxman (I forget which) he completely undermined the strength of his (and atheisms) position on science and truth by not explaining this, presumably in an attempt not to piss off the large number of scientists who do feel that they can square their faith with their positions as scientists. But this is only ever true up to a point - and the point at which it is challenged is exactly the point where science has most real value (vis human understanding) and where the god squad cannot be 'good scientists'!

The two documentaries on Channel 4, The Root of All Evil and The Trouble With Atheism were required viewing, but the argument put forth in the former was a real argument (whether one agrees is another matter), the latter empty gesturing that can only convince those that are not paying close attention. Liddle addresses very little that is specifically a problem of atheism. Not that Dawkins is right so far as his title goes... sure, theism is a mainstay of all evil, but not the 'root': money, capitalism, hierarchy, domination... there are traits here that are part of the bad aspects of human community, as much a part of the 'why' of evil as religion, indeed organised religion is often a manifestation of aspects of these other things, not the sole source of evil in itself.

The evils that I think do accrue to religion, inherently, do include the elitism and arrogance of there 'chosen' over those not; the offensive next-life / after-life manipulations that enable and 'justify' bad acts (or inaction) in this life due to pay-offs and forgiveness in the next; the extermination of heretics, where that means of everyone off a narrow spectrum of thought (and here Dawkins too might want to look to the plank in his own eye, sure...).

I have read widely on religions and atheism, over the last four decades, and in the mud fight of argument have found little that sticks against atheism and much that sticks against religion. Liddle does nothing real to help his side (whatever it is), as snide remarks and windmill tilting at the wrong targets will only convince those who know too little - sure, though, that's a fair few folk in itself, but as an intellectual argument? it's bankrupt.

So Darwin's ideas were a vague gesture at a real point, with errors, some since potted and advanced beyond. When did atheism depend on the literal word of Darwin? We aren't in the same mental universe as the 'seven day' brigade, and never will our minds meet - they don't get it, so why waste the breathe? So Stalin was atheist, does that mean that all ethics that atheists may subscribe to (we're a broad body of opinion after all) are tainted by that? I see nothing inherently atheist in Stalin's actions, whereas I DO see something inherent in religious wars. That ignores, of course, whether Stalin's atheism was ever more than the lip service of a superstitious anti-intellectual who in fact made a religion of his own misinterpretations of Marx (who also might be miffed at being depicted as an unevolving ape), or the question (vis Popper) of whether historicism in Marxism is a kind of religion (as dollar worship may be in ascribing value in capitalism)...

Most of the rest of the programme is groovy at a glance, and vacuous on deeper analysis, and if I bet the transcript I'll tear it to shreds for you if you like (but it won't affect the pro- and anti- atheism arguments as they don't appear in the show!).


Unsane said...

You seem to have hit upon very similar ideas in response to Dawkins as I have -- although neither of us can bring ourselves to actualy read Dawkins. I think we get our reactions in large part from his emissaries.