Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dawkins is a second rate atheist and I challenge you to prove otherwise

This picks up with a short discussion I had on Ed Brayton's blog.

An important question among atheists is whether or not Richard Dawkins is good or bad for the atheist cause. Said cause seems to be, at least on paper, the complete normalization of atheism. That is, to make it acceptable at all levels to be an atheist. Atheists, you see, like many other groups (including, sadly, Christians) like to whine that they are the sole remaining group for which it is socially acceptable to discriminate. Like all the other groups (including, sadly, Christians) they find evidence for their claim in the fact that only a microscopic percentage of their membership's portrayals in pop culture is "favorable." This is possibly true: there are so many groups claiming victimhood status (including, sadly, Christians) that each one, by mathematical expectation, would turn out to be the good guy only rarely.

Another proof that atheists are especially disadvantaged is that no atheist has been elected president. Supporting evidence for discrimination is that many Christians claim, when asked, they would never vote for an atheist. There is silence, as far as I can tell, on the question of whether or not an atheist's refusal to vote for an overtly religious Christian would constitute the same level of bigotry. (My guess is that many atheists would honestly think that it is different: they wouldn't vote for a Jesus freak, but it is not because he is religious, but because he must be stupid.) Personally, I see no bigotry here—people voting for someone with whom they generally agree is the way it works.

Back to Dawkins. The question becomes: are his tactics too divisive in that they only serve to strengthen the opposition, or are they just what is needed? Are they, as many have noted, having the beneficial effect of eroding the special treatment afforded the religious? (An ancillary effect of victimhood status is the claim that rival groups get special privilege.)

One manifestation of atheism's martyrdom complex is that they fantasize that the world treats the religious with kid gloves. What planet, you may be tempted to ask, are they living on? On Ed's blog, one commenter (science avenger) tried to convince me. Of the pro-Dawkins camp he explained the anti-Dawkins sentiment this way:

From what I have seen and read of Dawkins (and that is quite a bit), my opinion is that he is interpreted the way he is (irascible and such) simply by discussing religion as we might any other subject around people used to religion being treated with kid gloves, if not given an outright pass entirely from straightforward critical scrutiny.

He then reiterates the victimhood claim:

I'd still wager Dembski's scotch that Dawkins is serving the role most oppressed segments of society have needed in history: a very loud, direct voice, calling bullshit on what has gone on for too long.

And later:

Just watch the evening news and watch how religious topics and people are treated. When was the last time you saw a sportcaster ask a boxer why he thanked the supreme creator of the universe for beating the shit out of his fellow man. Or just watch the movies. How many times have you seen the atheist scientist be the hero? No, it's always the tolerant pious that get that role.

There we have it: the clear implication that atheists are among the most oppressed segments of society, in the same league as blacks in the antebellum south. When I asked them who these people are who are "used to religion being treated with kid gloves" (I've never met them) he wrote:

The average person walking down the street who expect, among other things, that when people perform religious ceremonies, you are supposed to treat them reverently, even if you don't buy any of it.

I, for one, have never expected anyone to treat my religious ceremonies (such as they are, I'm a Baptist) reverently. The most I ask is that you allow me to have them without fear of persecution. And in the US, thankfully, I have no fear of persecution.

Let me get to the point of this post. The pro-Dawkins camp in the in-house atheism debate argues that Dawkins is a trailblazer.

I dispute that. (And yes, I have read The God Delusion.) There is nothing novel at all about Dawkins's message. His argument is not intellectual (more about that anon.) And his writing is not good. He repeatedly gives the impression that he doesn't have complete command over his subject—a writing mortal sin. On top of that he is often boring. Sam Harris, at least, was not boring. I much prefer the irrascible Dawkins to the boring Dawkins.

In the thread on Brayton's blog I contrasted Dawkins to Bertrand Russell. Now Russell was a first class atheist. He criticized Christianity from within. That is, he accepted, for the sake of argument, the basis of Christianity and then tried to show its internal inconsistencies. For example, in Why I am Not A Christian, Russell wrote:

"I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospel narrative…He certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at the time. There are a great many texts that prove…He believed that his coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of his earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of his moral teaching."

This is a serious question that deserved a serious response—and in that sense was threatening to Christianity. If Bertrand Russell, on this point and others, cannot be answered (he can and has) then something is seriously wrong.

Dawkins's argument, on the other hand, boiled down to its essence, is: "You have to be stupid to be a theist." His is not an intellectual argument of substance. He simply preaches to the choir.

Dawkins is to Russell as Maya Angelou is to Shakespeare.

Science Avenger, responding to my claim that Dawkins offers no challenge whatsoever to Christianity, wrote:

And from what I've seen of his arguments, Dawkins has a lot that Christians need worry about, if they ever get around to caring about such things.

Which leads me to my challenge: What new insight has Dawkins provided that would have Christianity thinking: hmm, good point. I need to think about that. I say there is none. Unlike Russell (and others) there is nothing that Dawkins has written that is even a potential problem for Christianity.

What say you?

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