Dawkin’s atheism misnamed ‘anti-religion’

The problem with the critics of Richard Dawkins is that they rarely read his books — or if they do, they misunderstand or misrepresent him in a way which is hard not to regard as deliberate. This happens on the air, in major news networks as much as in book reviews and blogs. Most recently, one such critique was written by Gabriel Michael on these pages of the News, and I felt compelled to dispel some misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Dawkins’ position.

Mainly, Michael criticizes the position that science is necessarily antithetical to religion, citing it as Dawkins’ position. According to Michael, Dawkins deals with philosophy while pretending to deal with science, suggesting that Dawkins claims that his justification for atheism is entirely scientific.

This is a straw man if there ever was one. Dawkins’ The God Delusion includes an entire section on religious apologetics, going over many of the principal philosophical arguments for the existence of God. In other sections, he offers, among other things, philosophical arguments against the existence of God. He is plainly not scientific throughout most of the book, as even a cursory glance at the table of contents would show. Dawkins is certainly not alone in his expressly philosophical approach; Daniel Dennett, one of the “new atheists,” is a philosopher by trade.

Dawkins has a clear response to the idea of non-overlapping magisterial, or NOMA, which Michael brings up. According to NOMA, science and religion deal with completely different realms of knowledge, so that it in unreasonable for science to bear upon the question of whether God exists at all. But religion and science are not so completely separate. The Bible (among other religious texts) explicitly deals with natural phenomena like the origin of life and the world, and too many consider this account to be authoritative.

Conversely, there are plenty of matters of religion that are well within the reach of science — in fact, no religious matter should be exempt from scientific inquiry in principle. The question of whether laws of physics can be broken on certain occasions (miracles) is absolutely measurable, as is the alleged power of prayer, or the existence of the soul (as its effects on the brain should be quantifiable).

NOMA is ultimately a political cop-out, and taking it to its logical conclusions leads to vacuous assertions such as the following by Stanley Fish in his NY Times blog: “A God whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a God.” So if you ask the question, “What would the world look like if there were no God?” The answer, according to Fish, is “Just the same as if there were a God.” Such an absent God is immaterial in more than one sense.

Michael then refers to Dawkins et al as “evangelists,” because “if their true goal were the propagation of the acceptance of science, they simply wouldn’t focus so much on non-scientific implications.” Perhaps during his careful reading Michael missed passage in The God Delusion that states: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Books like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation all have very similar purposes, as a brief search on Wikipedia will evince.

So they are evangelists only in the sense that they are trying to propagate their point of view. But referring to carefully conceived and written works with painstaking arguments drawing from many different fields as “gospels” is an error as ridiculous as it is calculating. A well-reasoned treatise is not religious dogma, and neither is strong argument indoctrination.

And there are good reasons for them to do so, even at risk of polarizing the debate. First, to defend one’s point of view with reasoned argument is a dignified enterprise. Second, preaching to the choir helps people better understand their own position. Third, it might sway the undecided. Fourth, it emboldens those who are afraid to declare their atheism publicly. Fifth, it introduces the idea to people who never considered it as a possibility. Sixth, it brings the issue front and center in the public discourse.

There is plenty of intelligent criticism to be raised against Dawkins et al, and much has been raised already, although none by Michael. If there is one thing all the good critics have in common, it is that they all read the books that they criticize with enough care to understand their contents. All I ask is that Gabriel Michael does the same.


  • Anonymous

    First, let me compliment you on a well-written column, and thank you for taking the time to reply to me.

    I have no qualms admitting that I have not read The God Delusion - after all I was not critiquing Dawkins' book, but his (and others') views as a whole, which I have gathered from various sources, some produced by Dawkins, some not.

    In fact, Dawkins seems in as little a hurry as I am to read his opponents' books. In a scathing review of The God Delusion published in the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton criticizes Dawkins for his apparent total lack of exposure to any sort of theology. Dawkins admits as much, and rebuts with a childish analogy to "learned books of fairyology," apparently ignoring the monumental role that religion plays in human life, as opposed to fairyology.

    The point of my column was not to argue that Dawkins and others like him only use scientific arguments to promote atheism. This is clearly not the case. The point was that in popular understanding, the scientific and philosophical arguments become conflated, leading people to associate specific philosophical positions with scientific facts, such as evolution.

    As for NOMA, clearly many religions do make claims about origins and processes that are now within the domain of science. I would support scientific inquiry into any religious matter that can be scientifically investigated. However, that does not encompass the whole of religion, in the same way that you can't necessarily scientifically test all aspects of a philosophical system.

    You seem to have a problem with my use of the words "evangelist" and "gospel." But I choose my words carefully, and I will refer you to one of the OED's definitions of "evangelism": "Zealous advocacy of a cause or doctrine, proselytizing zeal." The same goes for "gospel": "Something that serves as a guide to human action; something that men swear by. A doctrine ‘preached’ with fervour as a means of political or social ‘salvation’." You may call my word choice a calculating error, but I call it metaphor.

    Once again, I stress that my column was not a book review. The crux rests on a seeming resurgence of positivist thinking. I merely wish evangelists for atheism to clearly separate their science from their philosophy. The inordinate amount of time they spend engaging in debates with intelligent design proponents is clear evidence that their arguments are not entirely philosophical.

  • Y07

    To Gabriel:
    Maybe the reason why atheists spend so much time arguing with ID proponents is that the latter insist on injecting religious doctrine into science education. It seems they are the ones who should separate their personal philosophy from everyone else's science.

  • Robin Edgar

    I have to second Michael Gabriel's e-motion above. I was going to make the same basic point which is that one does not need to read the books of Richard Dawkins to criticize Richard Dawkins himself. One only needs to read Richard Dawkins' books if one wants to criticize the books. Of course it certainly would help in criticizing Richard Dawkins if one did read his books as this would no doubt provide more grist for mill. . . There are plenty of quotes from Richard Dawkins available on the internet and other media. There are interviews of Richard Dawkins available in print, audio or video form. Based upon these readily available sources of Richard Dawkins' recorded words it is perfectly reasonable for critics to describe Richard Dawkins' atheism as "anti-religious" if not "anti-religion". Richard Dawkins' obvious anti-religious attitude makes him a poor spokesman for both atheism and atheists in my view. He is about as good a spokesman for atheism as any third-rate televangelist is for Christianity. Indeed he seems to be suffering from a case of foot-in-mouth disease.