I started reading Richard Dawkins not too long after I lost hearing in my left ear, in the early to mid 1990s. My atheism, quite full-fledged then, continued to become ever more full-fledged. Thanks to Dawkins and a few others, my cup of atheism overflows. One of the reasons is, as intellectually challenged as I am, I still find Dawkins’s arguments so easy to understand.
But, I am surprised that The Guardian columnist Deborah Orr has found it so difficult to understand, as evidenced in her arguments in her column “Richard Dawkins's lack of sympathy for those who cling to religion is a shame,” datelined June 6, 2014 .
I read through the whole article, more than 1,200 words long, and came away feeling no sympathy towards the writer. May be because I am an atheist. Read on.
It has been a while since I have written even fluffy stuff on some heavy matters. I thought I will do that now.
Orr tries to take apart Dawkins’s “militant atheism”. I am not sure Dawkins tags himself a militant atheist but he has been conferred that degree by many, mostly those who do not understand him. No, this is not an apology for Dawkins and his position. Who am I? He is fully capable of doing that and a million times better than I ever can. What I will be trying to show is how Orr’s positions are baseless.
Orr describes Dawkins as a controversialist. She hints that his controversial stances are what sustain people’s interest in him that helps to sell his books. To understand this I need to hang my hat on the peg “Non-controversialist”. Orr helps me. She believes “in the idea that human beings can support each other best by focusing on the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us.” She says this is non-controversial. She also claims not to be an atheist. What is she? An atheistic theist, the diagonally opposite quadrant of Dawkins’s militant atheist? Let me see.
The first task before a religion is to divide people; the Ur us v. them argument was devised by religion. If she is a religionist and says that she focuses on things that unite people, then she is no religionist at all. If that is non-controversial then Dawkins’s atheism, militant or not militant, is also non-controversial, the opposite of what she argued. This must be the standing example for, “Being hung by his own petard!”
She takes a page out of National Rifle Association (NRA) of the US when she takes exception to people saying, “Religions cause wars.” She says, “People cause wars.” Lame defense and controversy laden just as NRA’s claim that guns do not kill but people do. For someone who wants to see people united to take recourse to the slogan of NRA – tut, tut…
She sings paean to science in an offhand way, if that is possible. She says that we are standing on the earth that goes around the sun which goes around the center of the Milkyway and so on and she feels comfort in that. This is surprising because she refuses to acknowledge that it is through science we are now understanding life and how it has evolved. The scenario sketched by science does not include a God, as Dawkins repeatedly asserts.
This somehow causes her discomfort. Or, I may have exaggerated her position, even if only slightly. She speaks for people who refuse to take comfort from the fact that life does not need a God. As per believers, Earth can go round the sun without God but life cannot evolve without Him. Go figure.
She says that there is no societal consensus that there is no God. She says, as though being ensconced in the White House or in 10, Downing Street gives one authority over the debate about God’s existence, neither the US president nor the UK prime minister, not a single one of them, has agreed with Dawkins that, “[B]elief in God is silly and irrational.” What she implies, of course, if any one of them were to say so, she will flip over to Dawkins’s side. I am not sure Dawkins would endorse such a jump!
The lack of societal consensus on this issue can be better traced to lack of scientific temper in society, as many scientists (Richard Feynman being one of them) have argued. It has everything to do with people not being ready to inculcate that temper within themselves as she admits – “People are not ready to hear it [argument about there being no God]”. It is good to remember here that it took all of three hundred years before the Roman Catholic Church could get itself to say that it erred in punishing Galileo. Oh my God!
Then, to breach that fortress, one has to be assertive and that is precisely what Dawkins is trying to do. The least he does is preaching to the converted in which case he can soft pedal all his points. It is to his credit that he does not do so.
Orr says that people who cling to religion and God manifest a need to have “psychological uncertainties”. This is precisely like the child believing in Santa Claus bringing gifts on the night of Christmas. Dawkins asks when we will grow up. Orr’s implied answer is whenever it may be, you cannot try to accelerate it. Do nothing but just cling on to your non-conventional and lame, not to say unctuous, belief of uniting humanity, while letting religion divide it.
Orr says that Dawkins’s soul is not tortured. He would have great laugh over that because at the very least he must not believe in the concept of soul in the first place! She accuses Dawkins – proxy for all atheists who are tired of wishy-washy arguments (Read Antony Flew’s Theology and Falsification) and are thus perceived as militant atheists – “lack of sympathy … no kindness, no compassion”.
I, on the other hand – not speaking for Dawkins but for an atheist like myself – see myself as having sympathy, kindness and compassion in no less measure than an average human being does. It is the fallacy of the anti-atheist types who cannot see all these human qualities except through the lens of religion and God. The prejudgment based on one’s belief in God, the lack of it, is astounding!
This again is a lack of scientific temper, in the sense of coming to a conclusion not supported by facts or evidence.
The only argument that I have read in which Dawkins came very close to saying mea culpa to his way of confronting the other side was in a public conversation with Lawrence Kauss, the brilliant physicist who said that taking the sword to the other side may prove counterproductive. Yes, that might be so, but given the fact of continuous brainwashing by the other side, one has to take an offensive stand at times of extreme distress. This is one such time and Orr does not understand this.
To conclude, not unlike many others, Deborah Orr does not understand Dawkins, and I am surprised.