Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Effacing Politics

One thing I've been meaning to write about has been the debate surrounding the publication of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion. Rather, I've been thinking about some issues that have been brought to the fore with the publication of the book and the subsequent debate. People have been talking about this book for a few months now, so I'm a little late in jumping in, but the topic is of particular interest to me.

I am atheistic. I choose that phrasing over "I am an atheist", because it's an aspect of me; it doesn't define who or what I am. In fact, for most of the time, it's not terribly important to me. Except as defined as an absence, not believing in a god has had little bearing on my life. It never really has. It could be said that this absence is crucial, and thus has had bearing. Fair enough. I mean to say only that I have generally not defined myself by my atheism. As a child, I remember attending church and enjoying Sunday School. It was fun to learn things, and there was candy involved. But I never felt any religious faith, or subscribed to any religious belief, two different things in my view. We stopped attending church altogether when I was still quite young, and when my mother found a new church she liked, I did go with her fairly often, but it didn't mean anything to me. Somehow, my general sense of things was that religion was rare, and historical. Naively, I saw it like racism and sexism: each generation would be less racist, less sexist, less religious than the last. Obviously I wasn't paying that much attention. And in this formulation, of course, "religious" is clearly a pejorative. By the time I got to college I was more vocally atheist and was confronted for the first time, really, with friends who believed in God and who didn't believe in evolution.

Returning to Richard Dawkins. I have not read The God Delusion. I don't intend to. (If I had all the time in the world, I'd love to read the book and be able to discuss it in specific detail, but I don't.) So, I won't be discussing the book as such, though I may refer to what some have said about the book, but only because the ensuing arguments are of interest to me. I'd read some anti-religion articles by Dawkins in recent years (like this one, immediately post-9/11), so when I heard that this book was to be published, my reaction was to roll my eyes. In my opinion he has the problem wrong and is not likely to convince anyone.

I have read other Dawkins books. I've said before that he used to be something of an intellectual hero to me. The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable are all excellent popular science books: cogent explanations of how the theory of evolution explains things. I agree with Dawkins that "the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design", as the subtitle to The Blind Watchmaker has it. I take this further to imply that there is no Creator. I took this still further and rather urgently claimed that acceptance of the theory is incompatible with belief in God (and here I was necessarily thinking of the God of the Jewish/Christian/Islamic traditions). For, if there is no design, then what does the Creator do?

The problem here, I think, is that those of us who are atheistic tend to hew to an excessively rationalistic framework of thinking. If you're not thinking rationally, then you're by definition thinking irrationally, and being irrational is intellectually suspect. So the argument goes. (I know I'm going to have to spend some time unpacking what exactly I'm taking issue with here; unfortunately, it won't be in this post.)

We accept the fundamentalists' view of their religions as being the most accurate, because we want to nail down what religions are, and their versions are black and white, we can understand them, even if we understand them only to disagree, even violently so. For me to say, then, that an acceptance of the truth of the theory of evolution by definition conflicts with a consistent belief in God, is not only arrogant, but reduces the vast history of theological debate (about which I am anyway almost completely ignorant) to narrow issues of fundamentals, mere questions of right and wrong. Is it logical or isn't it? It also ignores the fact that people are quite capable of holding apparently contradictory thoughts in their minds, and believing them both, without their heads exploding. And, I think, it conceives of people as choosing their religious beliefs among all possible beliefs, and simply choosing irrationally. If only they could be shown how irrational their chosen beliefs are!

My ultimate purpose here is to say that politics and economics are more important than religion. The apparent increase in religious belief in recent decades is a function of politics and economics. And I think that liberal atheists are too often unwilling to recognize this. We get so worked up over the idiocies of religion, but it seems to me we have little notion of what kind of role religion actually plays in people's lives. In his post-9/11 article linked to above, Dawkins writes that "[r]eligion is . . ., of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East". It is on exactly this point that he's wrong. Attacking religion is attacking a symptom.

I've just gotten started on this theme, but I'm going to stop here today (I'm trying to get used to the obvious blog-idea that I don't need to have every post contain all my thoughts on a topic). My hope is to talk about it more in future posts and to link to various online debates about it. Let me leave off with a quote from the blog post at Voyou Desoeuvre that prompted me to start addressing this topic today. In it, Voyou recounts waking up to the audio of Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? show. Voyou thinks of Marx's The German Ideology and writes:
I heard Dawkins’s report from Jerusalem, which got me thinking about what’s wrong, and kind of pernicious, about his approach.

It’s not just the inaccuracy, although it’s irritating to hear a conflict between secular nationalisms described as if it were a religious conflict. The problem is that by so describing the conflict, Dawkins effaces the political issues: the dispossession of the Palestinians, the colonialist history of Zionism, and the mobilization of fundamentalism as a response to neo-liberalism in Israel and corruption in Palestine. Any consideration of power drops out of the equation for Dawkins, for whom the question is simply one of incorrect beliefs. The same occurs with militant atheism’s positioning of itself as an alternative to Bush simply because of an intellectual disagreement with Bush’s fundamentalist Christian “base.” The criticism of religion substitutes elucidations for political struggle, and thereby serves as an apologia for the political and social conditions that underly religious belief (the whole first section of the German Ideology, which I only looked up due to half-remembering that bit about “phrases,” is really extraordinarily sharp as a criticism of contemporary liberal atheism).

He makes a number of excellent points here, all of which I agree with (except the German Ideology part, but only because I haven't read it yet), and all of which I plan to discuss further.

Ok. That's it for now.

See also:

This interview with Dawkins at Salon.

Terry Eagleton's much talked about review of Dawkins' book in the London Review of Books.

Marilynne Robinson's very interesting review in Harper's.

These two heated threads at The Valve (which address the Eagleton review, among other things), as well as this later thread, which is perhaps more heated, and which specifically references this review at The Times Literary Supplement.

And a fascinating exchange at this earlier Voyou Desoeuvre post (this thread also addresses the Eagleton review, and A.C. Grayling).

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