Imagine No Religion

Rav Winston sent in this article in the New York Times detailing a recent science and religion forum held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Reading through the anecdotes, which include great quotes from Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss (“I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong”), one gets the sense of a large group of reasonable people suddenly looking around and realizing that they’re in a great big war with the deluded and they need to figure out what the hell they’re going to do about it. The lines are being drawn over how harshly to condemn religion. According to one: “With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

Dawkins was proclaimed the extremist to mirror the religious camps’ own extremists — that’s not exactly right, since he hasn’t tried to kill anyone yet, but . . . wait, let me edit that. That’s not even close to being right because he hasn’t tried to kill anyone yet. No matter how smarmy he comes across, no matter how mean he is to call religious indoctrination “child abuse,” he has never, ever tried to kill someone because of their religious belief. Sadly, this cannot be said about extreme fundamentalists who strap bombs to themselves or fly planes into buildings.

The point, though, is well-taken. Dawkins is about as outspoken as atheists get these days. I’m sure there are people who don’t bother to really hear what he has to say because they are insulted before they even get the chance to consider the point. But, I also think he is necessary. He is pushing the discussion along and firing up a previously silent group of people. Every collection of humans will have an extreme component. If Dawkins is the most extreme atheist we have, well, I think we could do a lot worse.

There was a very long discussion about Dawkins following an earlier post, which got rather heated. Keep it clean, folks.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Dawkins is probably about as extreme as one can get for an atheist who derives their non-belief from reason, observation and contemplation. People can be nominally atheist — in that they don't believe in the Bearded Sky Father — while still adhering to a pseudoscientific concoction of ethical trappings. Stalinists and rabid Randroids spring to mind as ready examples.

    One can be a-theist without being a-religious. Perhaps a better way to state the matter is that human beings, those endlessly inventive fellows, have discovered ways to invent gods and name them State, Market and Reason. Honest inquiry and open criticism do not treat these gods well.

  2. I think the "moderate atheists" who criticise Dawkins are kind of missing the point. It's all well and good to talk about tolerating other religious views. But that has to come with realisation that the respect and tolerance do not flow both ways. Religion, for historical reasons, holds an unjustified priority of place. Dawkins is important not so much for anything he specifically advocates but for presenting an eloquent and passionate challenge to that priority of place.

    Call him the Malcolm X of the "New Atheists". He's still not as militant as all that, but it's pretty clear that people are steadfast refusing to equate him to an MLKjr for whatever reason. Yet most of the other voices are too accomodationist for that role. Somebody needs to step up, I guess, and tell us of his dream that some day our children will be judged not by the flavour of their dogma but the content of their character.

  3. I think I've fallen into Dawkins camp just because I find it hard to keep my mouth shut.

    And so I get "You need to respect my religion." quite a bit.

    And respond "No. I respect the right fro you to have a religion, I think your religion is nutty and stupid."

    Then everything degenerates and I get my assed kicked… nothing like getting a cross upside yo' head.

  4. Yeah, I'll start respecting Christianity the moment it starts respecting Islam, Judaism (as distinct from Zionism), Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, etc., etc. And conversely for all the others.

  5. You know even then, they still beleive in people living 500 years, in a worldwide flood and in a million other things that fly in the face of reality. I don't go to churches and yell "you're wrong!"

    Though on occasion I do go just in case something has changed… guess its the same reason I'll flip on Coast to Coast and right wing radio… sort of a know your enemy thing.

    But respect given is not enough for respect earned becuase when it comes down to it I'm still burning in hell and they get to be smug about it. So the "at least I'm not him" thought can go both ways.

  6. I support Dawkins, even if I don't agree with his methods all the time. I think they are necessary. Firing shots wide of the mark tells everyone in the area that they have to pay attention to the gun, if you take my meaning, and gets most of them willing to talk about solutions other than the more apparent all-or-nothings.

    Not that I'm implying Dawkins is violent or that his ideas are some kind of actual threat. I'm merely saying that his 'extremism,' if it can even be called such, is a great way to get the ball rolling and get everyone (on BOTH sides) talking about how to recognize and handle the debate.

    The comments on the articles on encompass a wide range of ideas and are often a good place for discussion (not that I'm plugging the site because I post there frequently as "Jared" or anything…)

  7. Personally, I suspect history won't judge Dawkins so much as an extremist as a social revolutionary–assuming we win. If we lose, he'll be the anti-Christ. He only gets a bad rap because of all the undue respect people currently pay to religion. If that standard weren't in place, his behavior wouldn't be abnormal.

  8. You'll never see "them" label anyone the anti-christ with consensous. Especialy if we lose becuase the anti-christ is supposed to rain unholy smack-down.

    Huh, the antichrist must be a wrestler.

    But Infophile (wow that it like a totaly creepy name) is right about that whole undue respect thing…. good thing there are a decent number of outspoken nuttty nuts like Dawkins and smaller only slightly less nutty nuts like myself who have a hard time shutting up… Granted its like tossing ants at the sun hoping to cool it down, but it's something.

  9. See, after reading Daniel Dennett, I rather see religion as something that was natural for our species, but also something that can and should be outgrown and laid aside. I find it very difficult to be as harsh toward religious faith as Dawkins.

    However, after reading Sam Harris and realizing that it really does "enable" the fundamentalist zealots if we wink an indulgent eye at faith, I do have a lot of sympathy for Dawkins' modus operandus.

    For so long, as many here have already said, we have extended a respect for religious faith, or even perhaps a kind of affection (rather like nostalgia for a fondly-remembered bit of one's childhood). And this has gone on for so long, the memetic infection of irrationality has gained far too strong a foothold in our world. The only way to dislodge it may be to be more extreme in our attacks.

    Alas, I'm just a big wuss. :(

  10. Rav Winston wrote as follows:

    See, after reading Daniel Dennett, I rather see religion as something that was natural for our species, but also something that can and should be outgrown and laid aside. I find it very difficult to be as harsh toward religious faith as Dawkins.

    Having read Breaking the Spell (and musing about it here already) I think I can see where you're coming from. However, by the same logic, appendicitis is "natural for our species" in the same sense as religion: should any of Dennett's hypotheses for a natural origin of religion hold up, then we will likely understand religion as a side effect of a neural adaptation which natural selection preserved for some other reason. For an example, see the comment I linked above.

    Diseases like appendicitis would then have a similar origin to religious belief. A vestigial organ which served a purpose when it first evolved but was just hard to get rid of causes us problems later on. IIRC, people have hypothesized that any mutations which reduce the size of the human appendix are actually deleterious to health, since a smaller appendix is more likely to trap foreign matter and become infected. If you can't get rid of the thing entirely, you're stuck with it. Likewise for religion: the nerve circuits responsible for "supernaturalism" may have evolved to give us a tangible health benefit when shamanism and the placebo effect were all the medicine we had. Now those circuits are operating far beyond spec, making the world a crazy place indeed.

  11. The only thing that really gets me is when I hear things like "facts are of the devil" which has no basis in anything just that it proves to them their religion is wrong.

    (and they must understand that is proves this otherwise the reastion would just be a hearty belly laugh followed by "oh that goofy, goofy science, so goofy")

    So thier knee jerk reaction is to say that satan (or other evil diety) is whispering in the ears of science making it seem like science is correct. Sort of the opposite of the diest argument that god created everything to be like it is, instead the devil created everything to look like evolution happened…. ugh my brain wobbles at this.

  12. Seeing how I was part of the cause of the last discussion on Dawkins turning so ugly, I'll refrain from saying too much here.

    What I will say is that people like Dawkins make a great case against fundamentalist religion. The standard moderate religious person's response to any of his refutations is "but that's not what I/we believe".

    Well, fine, great, but then please, pretty please, make sure that those 5% of lunatics on the edge of your religion know that their beliefs are not those of the majority. That all the crazy shit (like legislation, education, or reasons to go to war) they come up with as a result of their wacky beliefs are not something you and 95% of the rest of your religious brethren find particularly important.

    If Dawkins' agressive tactics may do one thing, it's getting the moderates to feel insulted, not by him, but by being associated with the fundies and their crazy antics. Because, yes, that too is what your religion stands for. Don't like it? Then do something about it. If not, well then open wide and swallow the insults, knowing that you're part of the problem.

  13. Exarch,

    I agree with you quite a bit. I just wish that the moderate believers would be more likely to turn on their own extremists than on Dawkins.

    If the reviews and news articles about The God Delusion are any indication, it seems that there is a tendency to just dig at Dawkins and call him "fundamentalist" or say he's too hard on religion. The defensive stance is the first posture they attempt.

    I would, personally, be quite satisfied if more reviews said things along the lines of what you say in your last paragraph. That would be, in my mind, a small victory.

  14. Well, I guess I didn't do too well on my promise at the start of my previous post :o

    But as my tangle with a moderate religious person on the previous discussion about Dawkins showed, it's very easy for the moderates to feel targeted, even when you're sniping at the fundies. The only problem is, they don't realize they're doing it themselves. They don't get offended by being painted with the same brush as the fundies because the fundies are crazy, they get offended because they assume you think they are as crazy as the fundies.

    I'll leave it to them to tell me why they're not crazy, and hope they make the next obvious step, but sometimes that just doesn't work.

    I suppose it's a bit of a lose/lose situation at the moment. Either you make a great case against fundamentalist dogma and 95% of the people don't get what you're so upset about since they're only a minority (Dawkins), or you broaden your target and 95% of the people get upset because you're blaming them for things they didn't really do (Harris).

    And the middle road would be even worse, because then they'll all get upset …

  15. Oh, please, you can't judge by the media's reaction to anything. They're just regurgitating some manufactured common knowledge like they always do. Man bites dog, Dawkins is a fundamentalist atheist. Same old boring, lazy journalism day in and day out.

    If we trusted the media's reaction, we'd all believe that Nancy Pelosi is an utter failure as Speaker of the House and a horrible bully to boot. She hasn't taken office yet.

    If they can get that so wrong, why should we trust them on Dawkins?

  16. Well, I was going to leave this thread alone, since I still haven't managed to read any of Dawkins' work, but I thought I'd better chime in before the thread vanished into history.

    First, let me apologize for any comments made in the last thread that may have offended anyone. It certainly wasn't my intent. To be honest, I thought the thread was reasonably polite on both sides, given how badly these things can go sometimes! I enjoyed the vigorous debate, and I hope others did as well. I bear no hard feelings toward anyone for the discussion that happened there.

    Leaving aside, for the time being, questions as to my sanity for being a believer, I agree with you, Exarch, about the need for those of us with a moderate faith to be an active part of the solution. I am attempting to do my part in this regard by promoting doubt and skepticism within my church community. You might describe me best as an "evangelist of doubt." I don't attack people's basic belief in God, since I share that with them. But I do point out, as often as I find a willing audience, how foolish and irrational many of the "subsidiary" beliefs are: Virgin birth, creation myth, Rapture, etc. If I can instill some doubt in their minds about these things, then I feel like my job is done and progress has been made. In my own way, I am trying to be part of the solution.

    I could go on and on here, but the smell of the turkey in the oven is starting to make me worry about drooling on the keyboard! Once again, I promise to try to read Dawkins before too much longer, so that I can have an opinion based on actual data, not on supposition. In the meantime, I will continue to exist in that uncomfortable middle ground you mentioned. It easy to get offended when you're in the middle, because you get pounced on by BOTH sides of the argument. Being an extremist would be so much easier…

  17. Oh come on, only fundamentalists eat turkey, you can't possibly wish to celebrate the protestants crossing the ocean.

    …. I sure hope that is as funny as I think it is.

  18. OK, N.R., you asked for it!! I'll see your failed joke and raise you one!

    Why are cranberries red?

    They saw the turkey dressing!

    Badump bump! Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. Try the veal.

    (Whadya want? I've got a 9yo and 4yo daughter. This is the height of turkey comedy in MY house!)

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  19. Well Steve, I suppose you personally are not part of the problem. And I think I tried to make that clear in the previous discussion as well as I could.

    Be that as it may, religion, and christianity in particular, has changed a lot in the last 2000 years. even though there are still a few nutjobs who still cling to the original, they are now unmistakably recognized as crazy by most people, while they were considered normal, or were admired by most people for being so religious say … 1000 years ago.

    I think most of this advance of reason over superstition and mystery is a direct result of scientific knowledge. As we find out more about the world, a lot of things that people used to take for granted as being a sign or intervention of god, are now explained as very mundane things. I'm also convinced that this trend will continue until religion ultimately becomes meaningless.

    Sure, we'll still need certain ritual and celebration in our lives, but we'll have moved beyond the urge to attach sloppy thinking and ignorance to those rituals in order to make them seem more meaningful. We know why we, as humans, need marriages, funerals, baptisms, christmas, etc… so why burden these celebrations and social events with non-existant deities? And more to the point, why insist on the existence of those non-existant deities when we can gradually explain pretty much everything people come up with as proof for their existance?

    In the end, belief in supernatural beings will become as pointless as those beings themselves, and it will simply fade. And what we'll be left with are the usefull parts of religion, without the nastyness that currently comes with it, like ignorance, hatred and bigotry.

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