Monday, September 16, 2013

Richard Dawkins and a deal not worth taking

What a great time it is to be a vocal critic of prominent atheists! While my attention recently fell on allegations that Sam Harris is guilty of "scientism," sparked by his "Moral Landscape Challenge" (Link to Harris's challenge), there endures a constant undercurrent of trash talk aimed at Richard Dawkins. This time, it is over Dawkins' discussion of being a victim of what he described as "mild pedophilia," since in his new autobiography he asserted that he didn't think the incident caused any "lasting harm," speaking for himself and others. 

It appears that a great deal of the Internet has exploded over this issue, the usual outrage mill and knee-jerk moralizing running faster than the principle of charity can keep up with. Please, take a moment to read Richard Dawkins' response, and consider the sane words of Hemant Mehta on this topic as well, trying to keep your hair from catching on fire for long enough to see the points they are making.

For one example, and to cut to my chase, blogger and author Rachel Held Evans published a blog piece on CNN's Belief Blog about this issue, titled "Hey Atheists, Let's Make a Deal." A friend of mine pointed me to this short essay, noting: "This article is fallacious but I don't know why. Please help." Yes, it is. Here, I want to take it apart to make a few important things clear. Please note that my intention is to deal with Evans' piece, not to say anything particular about Dawkins' statement. I think Hemant Mehta did a fine enough job summarizing that, and Dawkins' response stands well enough on its own.

Evans seems not to have her thinking completely straight on some core matters of her essay. These need to be clarified. Right off the bat, in fact, Evans is falling into a very common misconception that, unfortunately, is getting more and more legs under it (as I will discuss momentarily). Near the top of her essay, she reveals this fact.
Dawkins is known for pushing his provocative rhetorical style too far, providing ample ammunition for his critics, and already I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism. As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it. (emphasis mine)
Well, good for her. The issues here are tucked away in the parts I've emphasized. Atheism is not a thing. This theme apparently cannot be stated enough times. Though it's becoming cliché to say so, atheism is to belief in God what not playing any sports is to being a golfer. There cannot be "evils of atheism," a point Evans fails to note even if she agrees with it, and one she seems tacitly to reject even if she elevates herself above the throng of the thusly confused by refusing--or offering, as it may be--to participate.

This hidden, and still erroneous, rejection is revealed by the phrase "as representative of all atheists." On its own, this wouldn't reveal much, but Evans gives it away by specifically stating the underlying reasoning for her reluctance in applying such a broad brush to "all atheists."
I can’t bring myself to do it because I know just how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim that they are representative of the whole.
Notice: she can't bring herself to call Dawkins' statement an "evil of atheism" that is "representative of all atheists" not because doing so would be nonsense but because she knows how unfair it is when atheists point out Christians with bizarre views as if they are representative of all Christians. In addition to exposing her faulty reasoning on the matter, it misses the bigger point that the "extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity," while not representative of all Christians by any means, are representative of Christianity. There is no comparable status regarding "atheism" here, though, and that's important.

Christianity, a theistic religion, and atheism simply are not on a level. Christianity is a thing. Atheism is an absence of a kind of thing, namely belief in God(s). People are labeled "atheists" only as a sad consequence of the fact that until very recently, belief in God was taken to be essentially expected, making atheists relatively rare and obvious in that they buck a widespread norm. By analogy, I suppose, if we had a culture in which nearly everyone from birth is taught to play golf as a social and cultural imperative, we might have a word for those rare individuals who end up not playing golf. As it stands, we have no such word, and we need no such word.

Such a word may not even be needed. For example, by what term do we call people who do not watch television? Television non-viewers? Atelevisionists? I am one of them, so I know they exist, and I know we're quite rare and bucking a societal norm. The same is true of "atheism," at least in principle.

Now, as an aside, I should illustrate how this misconception is getting legs under it because that's its own problem. I'm noticing more and more that people are misidentifying atheism as a thing, and it is not just those religious believers who seem unable to conceive of a lack of religious belief. Instead, people who self-identify as atheists are frequently confusing this matter for themselves too. This confusion gives arguments like Evans' an undeserved veneer of potency, so I would implore people to try to be more cautious in this regard.

Indeed, I am more and more often hearing people talk about "atheism" as if it is a thing one can join. Furthermore, they talk about it as if it is something that can be done well or poorly! Perhaps, as someone who has played a round of golf only once in his life, this is a bit like how I've very nearly perfected my not-playing-golf game? Maybe it's like how picking up a good book helps improve my television non-viewing?

Worse, I frequently hear rejoinders from people in the growing "atheist community" (a mistake of its own kind) saying things like "I feel like X is helping me get better at my atheism." Pardon me, but what?! What does that even mean? (For what it's worth, in the cases where I've heard this unfortunate turn of phrase, people are getting better at informed skepticism, not "atheism," and informed skepticism is a thing, one for which they seem to want a term.)

Evans, who apparently is well-versed in the so-called blogosphere, is clearly aware of this growing sense of an "atheist community," though, and she makes fine use of it in her essay.
Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go—not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.
That's a hard point to argue, or at least it now is due to the increasing acceptance of the unfortunate notion that atheism, indeed, forms a community. (Instead, I would suggest that there are growing communities of people uniting not around "atheism" itself but rather around the common experiences of not believing in God in cultures that are flooded with it, among other objectives, such as secularism.)

To close this aside, then, here is a warning to people who do not believe in Gods: by identifying "atheism" as a thing that can be joined, can be done, or can be gotten better at, and by founding "atheist communities," those involved are providing credence to the notion that atheism is a thing--a thing rather like Christianity, in fact. Take heed of this.

Putting that aside and getting back to Evans' piece, her titular theme comes out by offering a proposal of a "deal" as a solution. Note, of course, that Evans possesses no authority by which to enforce the terms of such a deal, and media entities capitalizing on this sort of clickable outrage are very unlikely to honor it, rendering it worse than useless (because it would shut down so much appropriate criticism if honored by her intended audience). Evans' deal reads,
So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?
On the face of it, this is pointless. First of all, Christians are hardly the extent of the people mad at Dawkins over this (and any other thing he says, really). It's not Christians throwing it in atheists' faces; it's a growing faction of hyper-moralizing social liberals throwing it at anyone upon whom it might stick. Many of these people are atheists. Second, the same is true for Robertson just by adding all sane people to the collection of hyper-moralizing social liberals.

The spirit of the deal, though, is not so trivial. The spirit of the deal is "we'll stop criticizing Richard Dawkins when you stop associating people like Pat Robertson with Christianity." That has some major problems, and I assume it's what Evans really means with her offered deal since she isn't likely to waste our time with something as pointless and narrow as the actual stated offer.

The wording of this deal implicitly implies yet another major misconception tied to the "atheist community" idea. To elaborate, Pat Robertson is a religious leader in a particular denomination of Christianity. Many atheists correctly criticize him, alongside their Christian friends, in the realization that he epitomizes one way in which religious beliefs can go horribly awry. Few people, if any, would identify Robertson as being representative of the views of most Christians, and none of these needs to be taken seriously.

Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, is not a religious leader of any kind. He is a famous author and scientist. This is emphatically not even analogous to being a religious leader. Richard Dawkins is not an "atheist leader" because there are no atheist leaders because atheism is not a thing that can be led. This utterly foils the analogy between Dawkins and Robertson before even making a note of the key disparity here: Robertson is informed and motivated by his Christian beliefs whereas being an atheist does not--cannot--inform or motivate Richard Dawkins, particularly in his opinions about his state of mental health following an unfortunate incident in his childhood. This is apparently contentious to say, but that's because people seem very bad at understanding that atheism is not a thing.

Worse still, this bit by Evans capitalizes upon the fact that Dawkins is being taken rather out of context, a persistent hobbyhorse in the hyper-moralizing new-Left, especially its outrage-centric media representatives. Evans gladly approves of this ride, evidenced in the very first sentence of her essay. There, she claims that Dawkins has been "rightfully criticized" for the statement in his autobiography.

Though hardly a moral relativist, I'm deeply concerned about who gets to decide what is "rightful" criticism if much of what has been written about Dawkins over this point of contention satisfies the relevant criteria. Again, Hemant Mehta did a fine job with this point, far outstripping Evans' untrue, wanton assertion that Dawkins is a purveyor of "hateful rhetoric."

Evans continues, laying out that we should essentially marginalize any voice that isn't responsible enough.
What if, instead of engaging the ideas of the most extreme and irrational Christians and atheists, we engaged the ideas of the most reasonable, the most charitable, the most respectful and respected?
Again, on its face, this is reasonable, even though it still commits the same error of identifying atheism as a thing like Christianity and slides a little No True Scotsman in on her fellow Christian believers (while shielding Islam from criticism based upon reactionary Islamists, if logically extended). But, choosing to engage only the types of people Evans indicates requires an understanding of what kinds of voices and ideas are acceptable. Granted, many of us seem to have a sense of this, but I'm wary of any claims about what is and isn't acceptable coming from those so quick to moralize that they will, seemingly intentionally, blow commentary out of proportion or take it out of context, especially if to silence dissent.

Indeed, Evans herself presents an opinion that I fear fails her own criterion. Specifically, although the context dictates that it must be what she is doing, I cannot be sure if she's implying in this essay that Richard Dawkins is extreme, irrational, unreasonable, uncharitable, disrespectful, and/or unrespectable. Given that and his stature as a both a writer and scientist, the request she is making here genuinely confuses me, unless she's merely talking about Robertson at this point, which seems unlikely.

Additionally, I'm particularly uncomfortable, given the subject matter of religion, to shy away from demands that we only engage "the most respectful." Those days fell entirely behind us at least twelve years ago. As to the matter of charity, I'm going to pull the tu quoque card out and just leave it laying here on the table.

Evans then writes something that is false, though saying so is exactly the kind of thing that might cause her to call me disrespectful and thus that she may want to silence. 
I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.
I flatly disagree. The best I can say about Christians, and other religious believers, on this point is that they claim to be interested in the truth, but the simple fact of the matter is that they are more interested in maintaining their beliefs. Otherwise their beliefs could not be maintained. 

Now, to be both fair and clear, believers may search for the truth with sincerity, but integrity often gets left behind when confronting information that directly contradicts their beliefs. Pat Robertson and his ilk, I must point out, hardly represent the limit of this issue as it is true of all believers. Sincerity, however respectable, is not the same thing as integrity, particularly in terms of searching for what we might agree to call "the truth."

Ducking away from this point, again wanting to draw a level between Dawkins and Robertson, Evans continues with another superficially valid comparison that needs a bit of elaboration and clarification.
I'm willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.
This is probably true, but it's a particular attitude of social liberalism that causes that groan, not atheism. Atheism isn't a thing, however many people seem to miss the point and attempt to identify communities of people who happen to be atheists in the context of a broader "atheist community." (A parallel to this in Christianity could exist, but it would require rejecting the notion of the Church attributed to Christ himself.) Of course, it is worth noting that a fairly wide majority of atheists are also social liberals (myself included), and many have taken up the torch of rabidly moralizing any attitudes that do not match their vision of an idealized world (myself hopefully not included).

Of course, this is just the kind of thing that Evans presents here, and it perhaps misses one the key points made by famed atheist polemicist, essayist, and author Christopher Hitchens:
Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.
Evans, acting exactly the part Hitchens warns about, finally nosedives into irony by closing her piece with
So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.
Yes, let's. First, in fact, let's remind ourselves that the tenets of the world's religions are not true and that they are not about seeking truth. They are about establishing and maintaining particular supertruths. Second, let us remember that atheism is not a thing, particularly not a thing like Christianity is a thing, and people like Richard Dawkins, famous as they are, are not and could not possibly be atheist leaders. This is talking about the truth, as was invited.

Next, revealing the gaping pit of irony yawning before us with Evans' closing statement, we should remind ourselves that every time Dawkins seeks to talk about the truth, people yell at him for it. It is possible to assert that it is not what Dawkins says but how he says it that is the problem, but not only is this starkly untrue, if it were true the incessant criticism of him for it falls on the wrong side of the charity and graciousness that Evans is calling for. Thus, as to calls for charity and grace, you and yours first. I insist.

To wit, Christianity is not true, and when Richard Dawkins points this out, often less bluntly than he is accused of doing, he's labeled "hateful" and "disrespectful," We can add "ingracious" and "irresponsible," among other things, to the list now, I suppose. Similarly, Islam is also not true, and for saying so, at least to the hyper-moralizing faction of the far Left and those who hope to capitalize on the sentiment, Dawkins is a branded a "racist" and an "Islamophobe." These, really, are words designed to mean the same thing, and they're both meant to do the same thing as well--shame him into shutting up. That might be fine if it were justly done.

So far as I can tell, attempting to find and discuss the truth is pretty much all Dawkins does. As is often necessarily the case with talking about the truth, he does so rather without regard for how it makes people feel. This approach, most likely cooled by years of rigorous training in the sciences, doesn't always meet all people in the best way, but that hardly qualifies the shrieking criticism that poured out over this and other issues as being "rightful." Of course, an important contrast has to be raised here. Seeking the truth is exactly what Christians and other believers have to suspend to maintain their beliefs, and then demanding graciously given respect is what is required to maintain that suspension. 

Thus, pardon me while I dismiss Evans' last point and the underlying spirit of her "deal." The two things on the table are completely incomparable. It is, in short, yet another request that everyone play by the moral outline of a noisy faction of social liberalism, including its appeal to accommodationism for religion and its broad-stroke taboos on various modicums of speech and thought. 

A better deal, by far, would be that we all agree, atheist, Christian, left, right, and center, to try to keep our moralizing to a reasonable minimum and our criticisms legitimate. Ultimately Dawkins is a careful thinker and honest man who happens to say things and word them in ways that are often found offensive. For this, Richard Dawkins surely deserves some criticism, though substantially less than he receives and, by all accounts, far less than Pat Robertson.

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