“Come to atheism!”

Atheism does seem to have taken on a more “evangelistic” tinge in recent years. Books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation are an open pitch to religious believers to cast aside the darkness of superstition and embrace the robust verities of the atheist faith. I’m surprised Dawkins doesn’t issue an altar call at his lectures. Actually, perhaps he does. And maybe his next book could be a condensed version of The God Delusion called, oh, I dunno, Mere Atheism has a certain ring to it.

I’m sure this trend is largely motivated by 9/11, which is read by many non-believers as a sign that “religion”, as such, is inherently dangerous. It can therefore no longer be merely tolerated, and must be vigorously opposed. Hence, for example, church schools (part of the educational landscape for over 150 years) have now been rebranded as the more sinister sounding “faith schools”, an unacceptable source of division and intolerance within our society.

However, I suspect these books are not really aimed at converting religious believers to atheism. If they were, they might make more of an attempt to engage constructively with religious beliefs and believers, rather than treating the former as vacuities unworthy of any serious attention, and the latter as dangerous morons who should be grateful they are only being ridiculed rather than forcibly silenced, as they deserve (Dawkins is on record as saying that religious “indoctrination” of children by their parents should be regarded as child abuse). Really, the books are aimed at making the already-converted feel better about themselves. Of course, the same could be said about a lot of Christian evangelistic literature.

Couldn’t Help Noticing linked to reviews of two of these “athei-vangelistic” books recently: Alvin Plantinga’s review of The God Delusion, and David B. Hart’s review of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I hope to post more on the latter in due course, not because the book itself deserves so much attention, but because the review is such fun (“one of the most devastating book shreddings I have ever read”, as CHN puts it).

Plantinga’s review of Dawkins is similarly scathing. “One shouldn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary”, he observes. Indeed, “the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen, and vitriol” is such that Plantinga finds himself wondering if “[Dawkins’] mother, while carrying him, was frightened by an Anglican clergyman on the rampage”!

As for Dawkins’ forays into philosophy:

You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. This, combined with the arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone of the book, can be annoying.

One helpful point made by Plantinga concerns the argument made by Dawkins that invoking a supernatural creator explains nothing, because it just pushes the problem one stage back (as Dawkins puts it, “To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer”):

[S]uppose we land on an alien planet orbiting a distant star and discover machine-like objects that look and work just like tractors; our leader says “there must be intelligent beings on this planet who built those tractors.” A first-year philosophy student on our expedition objects: “Hey, hold on a minute! You have explained nothing at all! Any intelligent life that designed those tractors would have to be at least as complex as they are.” No doubt we’d tell him that a little learning is a dangerous thing and advise him to take the next rocket ship home and enroll in another philosophy course or two.

The point being that “in invoking God as the original creator of life, we aren’t trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only a particular kind of it, i.e., terrestrial life.” (Though in any event Plantinga disputes Dawkins claim that God would have to be more complex than what he creates.)

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5 Responses to “Come to atheism!”

  1. JS Bangs says:

    Really, the books are aimed at making the already-converted feel better about themselves.

    Actually, I suspect that the books are aimed at making the fence-sitters, the agnostics and non-militant atheists, come over to Dawkins’ brand of atheist jihad.

  2. John H says:

    I suspect that the books are aimed at making the fence-sitters, the agnostics and non-militant atheists, come over to Dawkins’ brand of atheist jihad.

    Perhaps, but even then many people in those categories are as repelled by Dawkins’ fundamentalism as anyone else. What it may do is give some of those people intellectual cover for moving to a harder-line position on other, unacknowledged (and perhaps more emotional) grounds. The emotional satisfaction of atheism – I speak from experience; being an atheist feels great at times – gets an extra lift from the emotional satisfaction of feeling superior to all those benighted superstitious fundies (“Great! I no longer even have to pretend to be open-minded and tolerant!”).

    But the number of times that Dawkins, Dennett and Harris (“the three bears of atheism”, as Plantinga calls them) apostrophise religious believers, real or imagined, does suggest they really do think they can win committed believers over just by saying “problem of suffering!” a few times and quoting some of the racier bits of Judges at them.

  3. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » Miscellaneous

  4. Name Withheld to Protect the Innocent says:

    I have a friend, already religiously left-leaning, who read the Dawkins and Harris books and is now questioning the existence of a personal God. He’s headed for the Unitarian Universalist church. Of course, there are a multitude of other issues that contributed to that move, but Dawkins and Harris were big for him. It’s all very discouraging. And, believe me, I am no apologist so I am quite unprepared to answer his questions. Besides, I’m just burned out.

    That’s more a complaint than a contribution to the discussion, but it does show that their books are having some effect. (Not that anyone is denying that.)

    Sorry about the anonymity, John. You understand, I’m sure.

  5. John H says:

    NWTPTI: thanks for the comment. I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I still wonder though if this was a case of the books finding fertile soil rather than this coming wholly out of left-field.

    I remember shortly after my own return to faith spending an evening with a friend-of-a-friend who had, apparently, been a committed Christian but was now “wavering” in the direction of atheism. We talked over a lot of things: in retrospect I probably still had too much of a bumptious “just got converted by CS Lewis” apologetic overconfidence, but in any event I suspect this guy’s later drift into full-blown atheism would have happened anyway. My recollection is of having a strong impression that while he may have been talking about doubt and uncertainty, a deeper commitment had already been made that he may not have been consciously aware of.

    And this chimes with my personal experience. After posting my last comment I realised who these books are really aimed at: me, almost exactly 20 years ago. In my case it wasn’t Richard Dawkins, but booklets in the local library produced by the British Rationalist Association. To what extent were the arguments persuading me, and to what extent were they confirming positions I already wanted to accept, is difficult to disentangle.

    But then, I think that’s always the case when it comes to being persuaded on such a major issue. The same could probably be said of my conversion back to Christianity, and indeed other changes of commitment/outlook (e.g. Lutheranism) since then.

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